Thursday, 30 September 2010

Looking at our own history

After the reminiscing of the previous post - we had a Socialist Party branch meeting the other day. A new comrade who had just joined turned up for the first time - he told us he was born in 1983 which (depressingly) is the same year that I joined the then Militant. The discussion was on the anti-cuts movement and inevitably it veered towards the lessons of previous struggles - in particular Liverpool Council and the anti-poll tax movement. 

It's apparent that there is a need to re-visit our own history for a new generation of activists. And there's inspiration to be drawn from  the Poll Tax and Liverpool struggles as probably the two most significant victories for the Left in the Thatcher years. But there's also a danger in over-emphasising the parallels between them and the present situation with the ConDems.

The stance of Liverpool Council - the strategy of  a deficit / needs budget - not only defended public jobs and services under threat but actually secured additional funding from central government for the last significant council-housing programme this country has seen. Even suggesting such a tactic nowadays in council circles would seem to place you on the lunatic fringe - and yet back in the day Labour Councils were openly discussing the respective merits of a deficit budget versus a no-budget strategy. Amazingly to those that know him as a draconian Home Secretary, David Blunkett - at the time leader of Sheffield Council - was one of the leaders of this debate. With the arguably honourable exception of Ted Knight and Lambeth Council, this talk rapidly evaporated when it came to other councils having the balls to take a stand and the 47 Liverpool Councillors were left to face the penalty of an illegal stance. Nowadays, outside of a handful of SP and independent socialists in local councils,  there isn't even the talk of such a stance  must less evidence of it being taken. The lessons of Lansbury and 'Poplarism', once very much in the respectable mainstream of the Labour Party, has no place in New Labour. 
On the other hand, the victory of the Anti Poll Tax Movement, occurring after the New Labour rot had already started,  was that of a community based campaign of mass civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale. There are plenty of lessons in how these community-based organisations came together, but not so much in what they actually did: I can't see how a strategy of 'can't pay / won't pay' can translate to the recipients of public services. This time around there is no escaping the fact that the onus is going to be upon the providers of public services taking action against the cuts -  and that means the public sector unions. But incredibly, and only after pressure from the Left, the TUC are trying to put off their anti-cuts demonstration until March next year  - when it's fair to say that  there will probably be less public sector workers left to take any action at all.  

As an alternative, and looking to what's going on in Europe, maybe we should be delving a little further back and dusting off the history of the 1926 General Strike.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Alan Davies' & Teenage Revolution

I've been watching Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution - his autobiographical TV journey through 80's Lefty-hood, from minor public schoolboy to lovable Mockney everyman.

Apart from his truly appalling Jonathon Creek Sunday evening drama-thing, it's hard to really dislike Alan Davies as his heart seems to be more or less in the right place. The ground he covers in revisiting 80's activism is very close to home for me - Maggie Thatch, CND, the Miners' Strike, Wapping, the Poll Tax, Billy Bragg etc ....

But apart from his rather selfish view that the defeat of the Left  wasn't a complete disaster because at least we got alternative comedy, there was something else that really grated on me: The nauseating way he fawned on Kinnock and presented his notorious '85 Labour Conference speech  not as the day when the door was opened to New Labour but as the day Labour rid itself of the stranglehold of the  Left. 

Of course it's a well established point of view, and one that many on the 'Soft Left' did, and still do,hold. But what was truly sickening - and bemusing - was the ease with which Davies switched from fawning over Kinnock to fawning over (ardent SWP member at the time) Mark Steel.  

Anyone who was around in the 80s will recall how passionately the Swoppies disowned the Labour Party at a time when it actually did have a powerful Left-ward magnetic pull. Militant Supporters inside it were dismissed, at best, as confused 'centrists' with illusions in Labour reform-ism. But even at the time bizarrely enough, SWP-ers and non-Marxist Labour Lefts seemed to get along perfectly well on a social basis despite their diametrically opposed ideologies. On the other hand us Militants were generally treated as pariahs by both groups - and the most unlikely of bed-fellows would unite is spitting venom at us. Of course it's  very different now and the SWP's  old accusation that the Labour Party is no place for socialists is actually true - in the same way that even a broken watch will tell the right time twice a day. 

Even so - certainly in our local anti-cuts campaign - the chumminess between SWP-ers and the few remaining Labour Lefts is very noticeable. And this isn't just social - the SWP seem to make a political distinction between the ConDem's cuts programme and its reluctant implementation by   Labour Councils. Most importantly they don't seem to want to antagonise possibly sympathetic  Labour members by calling for councillors to either vote for an 'illegal' needs budget - the only really  viable position against  devastating imposed cuts - or to stand down to make way for representatives who are. I'm genuinely puzzled by this SWP / Labour Left axis -  just as I was in the 80's.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Bon anniversaire

Today is the anniversary of the adoption of the French Revolutionary calendar in 1792 - 1er Vendemiaire. Sweeping away the hodge-podge of old Roman emperor's names and pagan gods the revolutionaries kept to twelve months - each of thirty days - and a decimal ten day week. The names of the months and days were  innocuously based on nature and agriculture to mark the changing seasons. Nowadays only three seem to be remembered: 

Thermidor by foodies because it's a lobster dish
Germinal by literary types because it's a novel by Zola
Brumaire by Marxists - because of Marx's classic study of Louis-Napoleon's seizure of power in 1852.

I'm not sure whether the idea of changing the calendar to mark a new order is  just bonkers or admirable.

It's easy to ridicule the Jacobin's cult of reason and their turning of old churches into 'temples of the supreme being'. But the significance of the break with every whiff  of the old regime went on to inspire later revolutionaries  when the republican calendar was re-adopted by the Communards of 1871. It's a whimsical idea nowadays - and probably has too many dodgy associations with the Khymer Rouge and their own 'year zero'  to ever be taken up seriously again. 

But in an age when medieval religions of various varieties  pose such  a threat to the world, the thought of a little bit less superstition and a little more enlightenment is still an attractive one.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The next generation of reaction

Buried away in the news last week there was a founding conference to set up some sort of UK equivalent to the Tea Party movement.  Drawing on home grown right-wing organizations such as the  sinister and contradictorily named Freedom Association and the Taxpayers' Alliance,  a  US think-tank called 'Freedom Works' is trying to export their brand  of reactionary populism.

So far it looks like they have mainly manged  to attract the young headbangers who are the un-reconstructed Thathcher-ite  heirs to the Federation of Conservative Students' tradition of obnoxious  posturing in '80s.

On the plus side, the very existence of these people gives the lie to Dave-bloody-good-bloke-Cam's 'we're all in it together' new version of  Tory one-nation-ism. Best of all though -  all is right with the world when the bright young things of your enemy look like this ...

Friday, 17 September 2010


When is a fascination for skin diseases, books bound in human skin, mummified tattoos, icky medical procedures and anatomical illustrations not puerile and voyeuristic ? Apparently when it's a 'multi-disciplinary, multi-media' exhibition for the chattering classes.

I'd been hooked by the posters of the tattoo man and knowing that the exhibition runs out in a week, I thought I should get myself down to the Wellcome Collection's 'Skin' exhibition.

Just looking at body-art alone - its aesthetics, history and anthropology  - would have done it for me, but there are plenty of other stories to tell about skin:  the development of medicine, changing concepts of beauty, ideas of race, attitudes to disability ... The exhibition hinted at some of these  - but didn't actually do any of them justice. Instead we got wax-molded anatomical figures showing disfigurements, pictures of pustules  and  wounds, and old medical teaching videos. All annotated with captions of pseud's corner pretentiousness.

As a fan of the slasher-genre and all things generally tacky and violent I'm not squeamish  or judgmental about this - let's just be honest about it: This is  the stuff of the freak-show at the end of the pier but the chattering classes  and hiptsers wouldn't feel comfortable with that - they prefer an art installation for their kicks.

Roll on the more honest pleasures of the London Tattoo Convention next week...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Pope not welcome

I was still at (Catholic) school when the previous Pope came here in 1982. By that age I was already a convinced atheist and managed to avoid the hysteria whipped up around me. Although at the time I found all that adulation heaped on one man extremely weird and ... well you could say, down-right idolatrous ... at least the whole event was a private Catholic affair. That's to say it was a 'pastoral' visit  - paid for largely by the church and Catholic community in this country. The Pope didn't even meet prime minister Thatcher because of sensitivities over the Falklands War.*

It's very different this time around though  - this is a state visit. 

The pretext of this is the existence of the mickey-mouse Vatican State - an entity of just over 100 acres and just under 1,000 people. It only exists at all because the Pope at the time did a deal in 1929 with the Fascist government of Italy to stay out of each others' affairs. The Holy See - which by some sophistry is not quite the same thing as the Vatican State - is a 'government' without any actual citizens at all,  but whose 'authority' over millions of followers globally supposedly trumps that of democratic nation states.

Because this time it is a state visit the government, the great and the good, will all be queuing up to fawn over the pontiff and press the flesh.  It also means that the £12million bill for the visit is being picked up by me and you. 

Most importantly though the fact that it is a state visit sends out a signal of endorsement by this government  - in our name.

Which is why this time we tax-paying atheist citizens don't have to sit back and let the Catholics get on with their fun. We are fully entitled  to say the Pope is not welcome. And fully entitled to have the 'bad manners' to  mention his opposition to condoms in Aids-stricken Africa; his denial of womens' right to control their own fertility, to his homophobia; his concealment of child abuse in his own organisation; or even his rehabilitation of the reactionary and Nazi-appeasing predecessor Pius XII.

(Not because the Pope saw the Falkland War as a cynical attempt to prop up an unpopular government on a wave of jingo-ism but because the latin-speaking world was largely behind the Argentinians and even Popes know better than to piss on their own doorsteps.)

Monday, 13 September 2010

Winstanley & The World Turned Upside Down

I was going to write something on the anniversary of Gerrard Winstanley's death in 1676 but I see that Dorian Cope has got in first on her excellent blog.

I grew up not that far away from the Digger settlements at Cobham and St George's Hill. In fact as a kid I did a bit of weekend caddying at the St George's Hill golf course. Sadly the site of Winstanley's most famous communal experiment is now a gated private estate and  the golf club is the playground of  reactionary and snobbish arseholes .

The history of the Diggers and their contribution to the English socialist tradition are well documented  - and for the moment I won't add anything more  - but Billy Bragg singing 'The World Turned Upside Down' should tell you enough for now ...

Friday, 10 September 2010

Book burning

In a country where apparently 18% of the people believe erroneously that their president is a Muslim, they would probably be better advised to  concentrate on  reading rather than  burning books.

In principle I much prefer the US's  First Amendment in contrast to our own archaic blasphemy laws in the UK - I see no reason at all why religion should be singled out for exception from ridicule or abuse.  

The notion of  a text being the product of some kind of divine dictation is ludicrous.  In fact  even the most hard-line headbanging fundamentalists of any persuasion at some point have to contextualize their  holy books on linguistic or historical grounds. And  as soon as they do so, they logically open the door to the subversive idea that their religion might just be 'man-made'.

But the problem with burning the Koran - or any other kind of book - is not so much fear that it offends its followers as the fact that it tends to identify the burners as ignorant fuck-wits who lack the ability to tackle it intellectually. Or just xenophobic bigots. Although I suspect though that it was not this that has now inhibited the Pastor Terry Jones from holding a Koran-burning at his Florida church to marked the 9/11 anniversary.

Personally I tend to think there is something in general sacred  about any book- which is why our house is groaning under the weight of a lifetime of never throwing any away. I certainly wouldn't burn anything - not even Mein Kampf .... or a Jeffrey Archer.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

70th anniverasry of the London blitz

Looking at Docklands today, with its monstrous corporate buildings and yuppie residences it's hard to imagine it as a teaming industrial and commercial area with dense working class communities - and a battleground where 60,000 were killed.

Like many elderly people my parents are increasingly prone to reminiscing vividly about their childhood. We saw them this weekend - and my daughters' gripes about going back to school for the new term brought on some memories of them being at school during the blitz - and occasionally having  lessons in air raid shelters. 

It's often in the trivia - and humour -  of these reminiscences that the full and shocking gravity of the daily situation that so many  ordinary Londoners faced:

Living at that time in Brockley in South London, the family were right in the bombers' flight path to the  docks. Mum remembers how they found their Anderson shelter damp and claustrophobic so they tended to stay in their house during the raids. But as a river-policeman my granddad had observed that in bombed-out houses the stairs were often left standing -  so my mum was made to sleep in the relative security of the cupboard under the stairs. 

His job meant that, like my firefighter uncle, he would often be on duty in the docks and out in the middle of the bombing - during one raid he would jokingly tell how he  found himself, along with a couple of other burly coppers  taking  instinctive but purely psychological cover when he dived under a flimsy table-tennis table at an aid post.  

Strangely though on the other hand  no family stories have been passed down of the horrors they must have witnessed on a nightly basis...this was the stiff-upper lip generation.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Meat is murder but racism is worse.

I've always been of the view that Morrissey was a tosser.

Frankly the nauseating spectacle of a grown man ridden with adolescent - I'm so sensitive the world doesn't understand me - angst, is enough to earn my distaste. 

But his continuing flirtation with racism takes him beyond merely irritating to positively odious. Already on the record as a Little England-er, his latest outburst described 'the Chinese' as a 'sub-species'  -on the basis of a lack of animal human rights legislation, and  culinary tastes that are less squeamish than in the West when it comes to discriminating between different  animal products.

Let's face it  - there's no shortage of horrors  to hold against the Chinese regime  - but  frankly lack of animal rights would be a long way down the  list - certainly behind  the record on human rights, democracy, capital punishment, or environmental damage (just for starters).

I'm not prejudiced - some of my best friends are vegetarians - but my antenae twitches when I hear animal libbers spouting right wing bollocks.  Just as super-sensitive Morrissey  apparently once cancelled a gig because he could smell meat cooking yet has no trouble describing the largest ethnic group on the planet as sub-human, so Hitler would lecture dinner guests on the disgusting nature of meat-eating whilst planning the holocaust over coffee.

If there is a circle of hell reserved for Morrissey and his like  surely it should involve being chained for eternity to Tony Bourdain.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Troubled Tory boy

It's probably an indication of how un-'liberal' and unreconstructed the Con-Dem coalition really is that William Hague's reaction to being possibly outed was to retort that he is happily married and that his wife has suffered a number of mis-carriages.  It seems that he feels the need to defend the fact that, unlike  that lovely David and Samantha couple, his is not the head of a nuclear-family as prescribed by Tory Central Office. 

Hague has quite possibly had a whole number of  suppressed personal troubles over the years and I wouldn't want to belittle them or play into the hands of the bigoted mob-press... 

... but remembering the nauseating and precocious Thacherite 16 year old, the original Tory Boy with a picture of Maggie on his bedroom wall (by his own admission), I'd say that if anyone deserved to be relentlessly bullied at school it was Hague.