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In the Era of Wars and Revolutions. American socialist cartoons of the mid-twentieth century.

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http://lawcha.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/02-April-1945-Labor-Action-Carlo.jpg

 In the era of Wars and Revolutions. American Socialist Cartoons of the mid-twentieth century. Edited by Sean Matgamma. 

“Although in some places, notably in the Untied States, Trotskyism is able to attract a fairly large number of adherents, and develop into an organised movement with a petty Fuehrer of its own, its inspiration is essentially negative. The Trotskyist is against Stalin just as the Communist is for him, and, like the majority of Communists, he wants not so much to alter the external world as to feel that the battle for prestige is gaining in his own favour.”

George Orwell. Notes on Nationalism. 1945. ( Orwell and Politics. Page 355. Penguin 2001.)

In the Era of War and Revolutions publishes American left-wing cartoons for the most part long unavailable (even on the Web). They are largely from the papers of what became the Trotskyist American Socialist Workers’ Party, and their publications, such as Labor Action, the Militant, Socialist Appeal and New Militant, although there are some from the Communist Party (US), Daily Worker.

It is immediately striking that capitalists wear top-hats, and are corpulent. while workers are muscle-bound titans. No punches are pulled. Stalinism is a horror, American capitalism is embodied in Jim Crow and Lynching, As Sean Matgamma says in the Introduction, this is “clear and stark class-struggle politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.”.

Orwell was simply wrong to say that Trotskyists were single-minded opponents of Stalin and Orthodox Communism. There  is an equal focus on capitalism, the 1930s struggles of the US labour movement, Fascism, and, as World War 2 approached, and was fought, imperialism.

It would have been useful to have outlined the political evolution of the SWP (US) and the publications in which the cartoons appeared.

Its opposition to American participation in the World War – the subject, or sub-text,  of many of the designs -  takes some explaining.

The SWP’s own supporters claim that (2008),

The Socialist Workers Party…… maintained the Marxist view that in the modern epoch there is no progressive wing of the capitalist class. The major industrialized capitalist rivals, dominated by finance capital—what Marxists term imperialism—are constantly driven to wars of conquest in which they try to redivide the world’s territories. The working-class vanguard, the party held, needs to explain the imperialist character of the war and why workers and farmers must oppose it, fighting instead for their own class interests worldwide.

Vanguard workers in the United States came under increasing attack as Washington sought to drum up a patriotic campaign in support of its war drive. The Smith “Gag” Act was passed in 1940, prohibiting the advocacy of “overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States.” Under this thought-control law, 18 leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Teamsters Local 544 in Minneapolis were railroaded to prison for their class-struggle course in the labor movement, including opposition to the imperialist war. They spent between 12 and 16 months behind bars.

Not everybody, one suspects, will have much sympathy with that stand. Apart from the wider problems it raises it stood uncomfortably close to the US ‘isolationists’ of the period.

Yet Stalinism, for all Orwell’s cavils, is something that was rightly a major issue for the American Trotskyists. In the Era reminds us that there were people on the left prepared to speak their opposition, and dramatically illustrate it in their publications. That some of the SWP became so obsessed with the Soviet Union that they became what would be later be called ‘neoconservatives’ perhaps shows the difficulty of maintaining a Thrid Camp position.

The SWP itself still exists, a small group of property developers who continue to publish Trotksy and use their other resources to back Cuba.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are to be congratulated for publishing this material. It deserves a place on every socialists’ bookshelf. For this Blogger, who has only a passing familarity with the American left, it is a useful reminder of its rich past.

In an era of wars and revolutions, by Carlo and others, edited by Sean Matgamna. 312 pages, £8.99. To order by post, pay £8.99 plus £1.60 postage here.

More information from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

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Note on some of the cartoonists -  Laura Gray (Slobe),

 From Labor Action.

Labor Action regularly published cartoons and caricatures penned by Jesse Cohen, who worked under the name Carlo, while the Militant ran graphics by Laura Slobe, whose party name was Laura Gray. Despite the new wave of public and scholarly interest in the history of comics and cartoons, neither Carlo nor Laura Gray has attracted much attention from historians of the graphic arts. Readers of this magazine might recognize Carlo’s work from the short profile we published in issue 37 (Summer 2004); now it’s Laura Gray’s turn.

Like Jesse Cohen, Laura Slobe attended high school in the 1920s, came of political age during the 1930s, and remained active on the far left after World War II. She was born in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Chicago, where she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before working for the Works Progress Administration Art Project. As a young, avant-garde artist she concentrated her efforts on painting and sculpture, which remained her lifelong passions. She joined the SWP in 1942, and her first cartoon appeared in the Militant two years later. The labor journalist Art Preis later remembered that, “From the first, her work added such a fresh, bright, satirical note to the paper that it was enthusiastically hailed by our readers everywhere.” According to another SWP writer, “The cartoon’s subject matter was on the agenda of the Militant’s staff meetings. After the staff discussed and decided what the topic would be, Gray would go home and start to draw.” In addition to serving on the staff of the Militant, Gray “worked at a series of jobs to support herself, including painting store mannequins and creating window displays for some of New York’s big department stores.” She remained the SWP’s in-house artist from 1944 until her death in 1958. Tragically, she had contracted tuberculosis in her early twenties, and had a lung removed in 1947. She died after a brief bout with pneumonia.

Stalin 5

Written by Andrew Coates

April 9, 2014 at 11:35 am

Trotsky and his Critics. A Review.

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TROTSKY AND HIS CRITICS

Trotsky and his Critics. Revolutionary History Volume 11. Number 1. 2013.

For the revolutionary Marxist the struggle against reformism now changes itself almost completely into struggle against centrism. ….

Before taking seriously the fine words of the centrists concerning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is necessary to exact from them a serious defence against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, the systematic upbuilding of a workers’ militia, its training in a will to fight, the creation of inter-party defence centres, of anti-fascist centres, the expulsion from their ranks of parliamentarians, trade-unionists, and other traitors, of bourgeois lackeys, careerists, etc. … It is precisely on this plane that one must now deliver the principle blows at centrism

Trotsky. Two Articles on Centrism. 1934.

Trotsky, the Editors of Revolutionary History note, was no “stranger to the cut and thrust of vigorous debate.” The leader of the Red Army and the Fourth International, “never hesitated, sharply to criticise the view of his rivals and to offer fraternal criticisms of those of his comrades and to reply to his critics with considerable energy.” (Page 5) However while his own polemics are widely available, “little of the material to which he was replying or which presented a critique of his views has been published.”(Ibid)

Others have been less generous about Trotsky’s “fraternal criticisms” and his energy-filled character. “Even Trotsky’s son Lev Lyovuich Sedov noted his “lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy, have increased. It is not ‘personal’ it is a method and hardly good in organisation of work.”(a never-sent letter to his mother Natalia Sedova 16th April 1936). (1)

A recent, hostile, biographer has observed, “Neither in private nor in public, though, did he suffer fools gladly; indeed he did not suffer them at all. He did nothing to correct the impression of being an arrogant know-all.” One could perhaps further illuminate Trotsky’s particular “polemical demeanour” with the observation that Trotsky saw “individuals as servants to an aim, and an idea rather than personalities in their own right.”(3)

Most of the articles in Trotsky and His Critics come from those on the sharp end of Trotsky’s polemics. They testify to the frustration of those attempting to debate about ideology and real political choices with somebody whom Pierre Broué called, “a giant dominating in his thought and his experience of a quarter of a century of revolutionary struggles” – a view, shared by the Bolshevik leader, that he was at few pains to conceal. (4)

The present volume of Revolutionary History presents newly translated contributions from a variety of sources. A common thread is that the majority come from those Trotsky described as “centrist”. That is, those democratic Marxists who rejected both Stalin and the ‘Third International’, then, Comintern, leadership, and the traditional social democratic ‘Second International’ of such bodies as the German SPD, France’s SFIO, and the Labour Party.

Nobody has written a satisfactory history of these organisations. They included the Independent Labour Party, ILP, (disaffiliated from Labour in 1932), the PSOP (Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (founded after their explusion from the French Socialist Party in 1938), the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), formed in 1935, with many smaller groups in Germany (represented here by the IVKO, Internationale Vereinigung der Komministischen Opposition) Holland (the party best known for its leader, Henk Sneevliet, and elsewhere.There was an centrist International, The London Bureau, or  International Revolutionary Marxist Centre (1932 – 1940) which liased between these organisations.

‘Centrists’ while expressing respect for many of Trotsky’s ideas (above all his opposition to Stalinism), failed to live up to his expectations. They did not restrict their democratic demands to inner party freedom. The majority opposed Leninist “democratic centralism”. They remained wedded to Parliamentary elections. Centrists were known to be hostile to the use of terror, and recoiled from violence. They stood for what is now known as human rights. As a result Trotsky called the ILP a “miserable pacifist clique” (5) Not surprisingly the leader of the French PSOP said that the Trotskyists would only be welcome in his party if they abandoned their vicious factionalism and denigration of ‘centrists” (6)

Yet Trotsky was also the head of the Opposition. If anybody needs to be reminded of what he was opposed to and the measure in which his fight against Stalinism was justified then some of the texts, notably by John Lewis, which defend the 1936 Moscow Trials, are there to remind us of what was at stake during the “historical events” that shaped these exchanges.

Boris Souvarine.

The Letter to Leon Trotsky (1929) by Boris Souvarine is probably the most significant text in Trotsky and His Critics. Souvarine flashed like lightening on the Communist left during the 1920s. His early political career was bound up with the foundation of the French Communist Party (PCF), time on the Comintern Executive Committee and his decision to defend Trotsky. Souvarine was fiercely independent.

At the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917 Souvarine expressed the fear that Lenin’s party would establish a dictatorship over the proletariat. (7) Perhaps one should bear this in mind, In Stalin (1935) he was already far from Trotskyism. A famous postscript added in 1939 concluded,

The force of things and the behaviour of men have contradicted all Lenin’s optimistic forecasts, his hopes in a superior democracy as much as his semi-libertarian ideas expressed in the State and Revolution and other writings of the same period, at the dawn of the revolution. Nothing in the individual theses of Trotsky has stood the test any better, in particular his wordy and abstract theory of the “permanent revolution.” Lenin died too soon to write the epilogue to the miscarriage of Bolshevism. Trotsky has not availed himself of the leisure afforded by exile to make a true and conscientious examination; even his memoirs do not make the contribution to history, which one has the right to expect from such a protagonist; his articles and pamphlets vainly paraphrase a hackneyed argument without throwing light on a single problem. The miscarriage of Bolshevism in Russia is coupled with the irremediable failure of the International, and the lessons of experience go far beyond the sphere of civil war. Democratic socialism in its various forms, in the name of legitimate defence against fascism, is almost everywhere allowing itself to be led, circumvented and compromised by dictatorial communism. 

The Letter teams with thoughts, not always well organised. Leninism was “Marxism simplified”. Russia was not communist but dominated by “peasant mysticism”. Souvarine struck more directly at Trotsky by remarking that, “The opposition itself did not oppose the “divinisation of Lenin and the canonisation of his work, or even to propose burning the entombed corpse along with its mausoleum.”(Page 16) he compared Trotsky’s ‘clarity’ with a “gramophone record”: a repetitive strain of invective. “His analysis classes people as Marxist, centrist and opportunist. He shows that this schema has little historical use, “centrism serves for you to avoid appraisals.”(Page 28)

On a number of important issues Souvarine illustrates the harmful way of classifying politics in this way. Trotsky ranged communists on their line on a range of issues, political ones in Britain, economy ones in Russia and tactical ones in China. If he fails that, “you class him on that side of ‘the barricade’ where according to you are to be found the bourgeoisie, the social democracy and the ‘centre-Right Bloc’.”(Page 29)

Souvarine takes Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? (1925) as an example. This book is essentially a lengthy polemic. It asserts, “We have shown above that the present British Parliament represent a monstrous distortion of the principles of bourgeois democracy, and that without the application of revolutionary force it will hardly be possible to archive even an honest distribution of the electoral regions in Britain, the abrogation of the monarchy and the House of Lords.”(8)

While awaiting this development Trotsky produced an account of how industrial conflicts, might end in the “strengthening of the revolutionary tendencies in the masses” and of the central role of trade unions as the “main lever of the economic transformation of country” A confident prediction that the Communist Party will take the place of the Independent Labour Party in relation to the Labour Party is marked by a complaint (with which we are already familiar) that the ILP itself is a “resurrection of centrism within the social-imperialist party” – of Labour.

The Letter observes that all this relies on “far too strict transposition of continental revolutionary processes into the British setting…”(Page 31) With the Stalinists you “both believed that the British industrial crisis was opening up revolutionary period.”(Page 31) Both were wrong. “You know as well as I do that communists do not exist in Great Britain.”(Page 32) Showing probably a greater unfamiliarly with British socialism Souvarine asserted that the British trade union left remains “disciples of Mill and Spencer.”(Page 34) There was a deeper fault. Working class reformism “is deeply rooted in the economy of capitalism, and its ideology is fed from abundant and diverse streams which you will no way uncover by crying betrayal, or choke them off by indiscriminately condemning all who contradict you by using one and the same sentence”(Page 37) The problems in Trotsky’s stand on Britain are repeated in your “position as regards the non-communist working class of every land….”(Page 35)

In short, Trotsky’s belief that he could dictate “day to day” tactics” for the left in other countries was already one of his characteristics before his expulsion from the Soviet Union gave him free-rein to do so. It can be traced to a wider tendency. In the famous debate on China, and the relations between the country’s Communists and the Kuomintang we already saw efforts, by both the Stalin-led (in fact still partially collegiate) leadership and Trotsky to “impose a Russian leadership upon a Chinese movement.”(Page 43)

One would like to have known more about the exact nature of Souvraine’s  later anti-Communism. If it bore a Cold War stamp the impression of complex, passionate and stimulating thought remains.

Spain and the POUM.

Souvarine remarked to Trotsky “anyone who contradicts it is more or less a traitor or a counter-revolutionary.”(Page 35) Few would be astonished to find themselves quickly anathematised. More unpleasant is the lingering stench from Trotsky’s efforts to tell the Spanish left what to do during the Popular Front and Civil War. He baldly declared in 1939 that, “is it not now clear that the POUM’s fear of the petty bourgeois public opinion of the Second and Third Internationals and above all of the anarchists was one of the principal causes of the collapse of the Spanish revolution?” (9) This Leyenda Negra of the cruel stupidity of the POUM   has been repeated many times since.

Wikebaldo Solano, in a more recent retrospective, tries to find excuses for Trotsky. Andreu Nin was a great friend of the leading figure of the Russian Revolution. But there were faults. Trotsky wrongly compared the French and Spanish Popular Fronts. The latter was not an “organic coalition” but an “electoral front”. Trotsky showed “total incomprehension” (Page 152) Trotsky initially greeted the 1936 victory. His latter judgements- that is his efforts to run a minuscule faction that would attack the PSOE was perhaps misjudged. But Trotsky had few real possibilities of being “informed about the Spanish revolution…”“Trotsky’s information was very deficient and always late in arriving.”(Page 155)

Ignacio Iglesias is less forgiving. Trotsky’s “illusions were basically wanting to see everywhere a repeat of the Russian October Revolution. “(Page 158) His analysis boiled down to pinning the defeat of the Republic on the lack of a Bolshevik-Leninist party in the Spanish revolution. Not even speaking Spanish he attempted to dictate policy. Above all, “Trotsky, just like Stalin, and just like Lenin before them suffered from a very serious fault, a real perversion of the spirit, in that his intolerance would turn political difference into heresy or even apostasy.”(Page 159)

Centrism’s Legacy.

There is much further interesting material, by the (later Stalinist) Mark Schmidt, on Spain. The articles by the German Opposition, and Jay Lovestone (who became a Cold Warrior) with a critical view of  Soviet Policy and World Revolution, are of interest. It would perhaps have been useful to introduce some of the debates on the ‘centrist’ that is independent anti-Stalinist left, to which we have already alluded to. Marceau Pivert is relatively unknown to an Anglophone audience, though the group he participated in, the Gauche Révolutionnaire  and subsequently the PSOP, were influential.

Pivert had a very different take on another Popular Front, the French Front Populaire, to the myths spun by Trotsky regarding the “betrayal” imminent revolution there. If his writings no longer hold many people’s attention, Pivert and his party, the PSOP, have had an enduring influence, both within the Parti Socialiste (he rejoined, post-war, its forerunner, the SFIO), and within the Front de gauche (FdG). Indeed it is hard to understand the importance of social republicanism and secularism in French left politics without him.

Stalinism.

In case we need reminding of how right Trotsky was on some issues the editors have included a text by a certain John Lewis.

Lewis was a Unitarian Minister in Ipswich during the 1930s. Extensive research (asking around) has shown that he was controversial – prone to argue with the congregation from the pulpit, and apparently a ‘Ladies Man’. Edged out, or simply moving on, Lewis went on to work for the Left Book Club, and became a leading figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain, where he edited its Modern Quarterly. An advocate of “socialist humanism” and Christian Marxist dialogue, paralleling efforts by the former French hard-line Stalinist, Roger Garaudy. Louis Althusser famously attacked him for these ideas.

Lewis’s ‘humanism’ had a distinct cast in the Stalin era. Cited by E.P.Thompson this was expressed by praise of the Soviet achievement. In 1946 he noted, that the “most cautious investigators” reveal “a respect for personality, an achievement of freedom from want an insecurity, an equality of opportunity, that has filled the Soviet people with boundless confidence and hope.”(10)

Perfectionists and the Moscow Trials. (1937) is included in Trotsky and His Critics . It is, the editors state, from “textual analysis” probably by John Lewis.

Lewis talks of social perfectionism, which means that people strive for the perfection of God. In reality Christians must have “to share in the responsibility for blunder suffering and crime.”(Page 126) He then helpfully announces, “there was neither blunder nor crime in the ruthless judgements in the Moscow trials (they) were a protective reaction against the most reckless political conspiracy that was ever directed ageist the lives and existence of a whole people; that at no previous stage in history could the treasonous acts of idealists have struck as deadly a blow to a vast population…”(Page 126)

This is the “Trotskyite idealist who is prepared to destroy Socialist reality for the sake of his perfectionist fantasies.”(Page 128) The Trotskyists could not admit that Stalin’s position was “anything but the ruin of the revolution.”(Page 127) They thus act as “if they had been right” and had “resolved to remove Stalin and his supporters from power in order to change the policy of Russia, stop industrialisation and collective farms, reverse the development towards democracy in Russia both internally and externally.”(Page 127)

As they could not win the masses to this policy of” self-destruction”, the masses had to be manoeuvred into doing so. The “apparently fortuities destruction of industrial plant was bound to undermine confidence in the government”(Ibid) These “wrecking activities of the Trotskyist ran parallel to the endeavours of the German and Japanese secret agents.”(Page 127) “Leon Trotsky…had got in touch with the German and Japanese authorities in view of an eventual war,”(Page 127)

And so it goes…

Trotsky and his Role.

Pierre Broué’s loyal biography of Trotsky dismisses those, like Isaac Deutscher, who would have preferred that after being forced out of the Soviet Union his subject had not founded the Fourth International, or to have tried to intervene in the day-to-day politics of the left in countries about which he was, at best, imperfectly informed. (11) Even had he withdrawn to a Watchtower, many of us would have been wary of such a political analyst or prophet, given Trotsky’s less than democratic record in the early years of the Soviet Union. The present texts, well-presented and explained, largely confirm this judgement.

Yet this article of John Lewis brings something to the fore: it shows what Trotsky was up against.

  1. Page 236. Victor Serge. The Course is Set on Hope. Susan Weissman. Verso 2001.
  2. Page 337 Trotsky: A Biography. Robert Service. Macmillan. 2009.
  3. Page 80. Stalin’s Nemesis. The Exile, Murder of Leon Trotsky. Bertrand M. Patenaude. Faber & Faber. 2009.
  4. Pierre Broué. Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution Fourth International, Vol. 4 no 1 April 1967.
  5. Leon Trotsky. Where is the PSOP Going? A Correspondence Between Marceau Pivert, Daniel Geurin and Leon Trotsky. 22 December 1938 March 1939.
  6. Le PSOP et le trotskysme. Marceau Pivert. Juin 36. 9th of June. 1939. “s’il abandonne les méthodes fractionnelles, le noyautage commandé de l’extérieur, les moyens de pression et de corruption ou de dénigrement systématique destiné à isoler ou à développer tel ou tel militant qualifié pour la circonstance de « centriste » en vue d’une opération analogue à la préparation d’une « citronnade », alors comme courant politique, le trotskysme peut et doit trouver place au sein du PSOP. »
  7. Les Vies de Boris Souvarine. Critique Sociale. 14 October 2008.
  8. Page 72, Where is Britain Going? Leon Trotsky Socialist Labour League. 1960.
  1. Where is the PSOP Going? Op cit.
  1. Page 318. The Poverty of Theory. E.P.Thompson. Merlin Press. 1978.
  1. Trotsky. Pierre Broué.1988

The Missing Picture: The Khmer Rouge.

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The Khmer Rouge carried out one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

From 1975 to 1979 from  1.4 million and 2.2 million people died, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

The Missing Picture, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2013, is a heart-rending account of the personal and political tragedies caused by their rule.

Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh uses clay figures and newsreels to evoke the 4 year-long holocaust.

Panh dramatises his 1970s childhood through these painted clay figurines. A happy time, a Cambodia where people enjoy the normal pleasures of food, family parties, dancing and films, is brought to an end by the arrival of the black suited Khmer Rouge.  As part of the middle class (teachers) his parents, with their children, are sent to be the countryside to be “re-educated” in the new ideology.

They are reduced to the level of beasts of burden, scraping what food they can.

All except Panh die, amidst great suffering and the hectoring slogans of their masters. The author himself ends up in the hardest labour camps, for questioning the inequality of rations in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

In the film Panh looks for the “missing picture”, that is of Pol Pot, and his murders, and the genocide.

There is archive material of slaves labouring on pharaonic irrigation projects, of the Khmer Rouge leaders addressing their followers, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Lenin and Stalin behind the podium.

The film makes clear that resistance was impossible but that individuals and  families, by their simple dignity, refused to go along with the ideological terror.

The Missing Picture is a deeply affecting film.

Amongst the many images that haunt the audience is a calm statement: what were those in Paris and eleswherewho  endorsed the Khmer Rouge slogans thinking?

One might well ask.

The reality of life in ‘Democratic Kampuchea was soon known to the world, and the French in particular after the publication in 1977  of François Ponchaud’s Cambodge année zéro.

News rapidly got round about the genocide.

Not, apparently, though to Alain Badiou. He waxed ‘enthusiastic’ about the Khmer Rouge . He defended them tooth and nail against the Vietnamese  invaders who put a stop to their rule.

It was not until 2012 that the fêted philosopher and frequent contributor to New Left Review, expressed any “regrets” about this stand (Here).

People should see The Missing Picture and weep.

Including anybody tempted to admire Badiou.

Written by Andrew Coates

January 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix and George Galloway.

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@georgegalloway follow @MotherAgnesMari A brave Christian holy woman struggling for peace,reconciliation in Syria”

Just when most of us thought that Mother Agnes (Mère Agnès-Mariam de la Croix( had disappeared from the political scene, George Galloway appears determined to resurrect her.

George Galloway interviews Mother Agnes

Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross and George Galloway.
From Galloway’s Twitter line, Posted on December 2, 2013 by fatherdave

It is wonderful to see two dear and respected friends join forces for the sake of justice and peace.

This interview is part of George’s innovative new program, screening through “Russia Today” – “SPUTNIK… Orbiting the World with George Galloway”.

You can see the full episode (no.3) here.

Or indeed here, with the bonus of seeing John Wight, of the Socialist Unity Blog of Andrew Newman (Labour Party PPC),

 

 

In defending Mother Agnes, John Wight and Galloway thus join the ’9/11′ denial site Voltaire Net, and its founder, Thierry Meyssan – who currently lives in Damscus, Syria. 

We have already Blogged on Mother Agnes and those interested can find here why we find this massacre-denying supporter of the Syrian regime beyond the pale.

Written by Andrew Coates

December 3, 2013 at 1:28 pm

With Breast Expanded. Brian Behan. A Contemporary Review.

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With Breast Expanded. Brian Behan. MacGibbon 1964.

“For my own part. I had always contested the right of any party to control my actions and to force me to carry out decisions with which I did not agree. I believed then as I do now that a man must finally be true to his own conscience and follow the dictates of his own experience. The greatest of saints and humanists can founder and do terrible harm once they relinquish this right. My whole life has been a search for an organisation that would bring happiness to humanity, only to find that all organisations become an end in themselves, thriving on, and perpetuating, human misery and backwardness. As far I’m concerned, any organisation of more than one person (except one man and one woman) is suspect.” Brian Behan. With Breast Expanded. Page 42.

“Brendan and Brian did not share the same views, especially when the question of politics or nationalism arose. Brendan on his deathbed (presumably in jest) asked Cathal Goulding (Behan’s half-brother following a relationship between Stephen Behan and Goulding’s mother), then the Chief of Staff of the IRA, to ‘have that bastard Brian shot—we’ve had all sorts in our family, but never a traitor!’” Brendan Behan Wikipedia.

One of the best books ever written about the left is With Breast Expanded. It is a memoir, not a political tract. But many of the things we talk about today, about parties, about ‘democratic centralism’ and – above all – authority – come up in what was an extraordinary life.

The author, Brian Behan (1926 – 2002) was the brother of Brendan, who has an entry in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and whose play, the Quaere Fellow remains seared in many people’s minds. Their family, raised in the Dublin slums and, then, council estates, of the 1930s and 40s, was left-wing, republican, and trade unionist. They were closely linked to the, pre- and post independence, IRA. His mother was a friend of Micheal Collins. The brothers (there was another, the songwriter, Dominic) were part of a circle of exceptionally talented working class and bohemian radicals. There was also a sister, Carmen.

Brendan was actively involved in the IRA from the age of 16. For his self-appointed attempt to blow up Liverpool Docks in 1939 Brendan served time in the Suffolk youth penal institution,  Hollesley Bay. He wrote about this sentence in Borstal Boy.

Brian recalls in With Breast Expanded, “It still warms my heart to remember the long letters Brendan wrote me from Bostral when I was in Malin. (Page 202) Malin, the Artane Industrial School, was where petty thieving led Brian to spend his teens. Run by the Christian Brothers, “where the rule of the boot and the fist still predominates”, it was a physically and sexually abusive institution. Its control methods “would have put Stalin to shame.” (Page 27)

After Malin there was the Army Construction Corps, labouring, a job creation scheme (the ‘Turf camps’), Brian developed as a left-wing and trade union activist. Some accounts put him already as an anarcho-syndicalist. But With Breast Expanded he says that he was a Communist and met up with left-wing IRA men, influenced by Marxism. This “put me in violent opposition to nine-nine-point-nine per cent of my fellow men. Since a child I had known that the bosses were our enemy. And to me, my enemy’s enemy must be my friends. It never entered my head they might just be peas in a pod.”(Page 37)

Exported to to England.

Facing long-term unemployment and continuous trouble with the Irish authorities Brian left for England. “For hundreds of years prime cattle and mature men have been Ireland’s chief export to England.”(Page 95) The meat of With Breast Expanded is the account of his experiences on building sites, and as rank and file trade union activist. Hard manual labour, hard digs, and hard men, surrounded him. But Brian found the time, and the energy, to become politically active in the Communist Party of Great Britain. During a landmark strike on the Festival of Britain site, they were selling 180 Daily Workers a day and “defended every last action of Joe Stalin’s.”(Page 134)

During a campaign against the post-war ban on May Day marches Brain found himself sentenced to two months in Brixton Prison. Discharged the CP were waiting for him to take bring him to a public meeting on Korea, “At that precise moment I would sooner have shown my arse, or anything else for that matter, but a public meeting was not my idea of the best way to spend my first day of freedom.”(Page 124) held out in the open the defence of North Korea only attracted the “anger of the toilers”.

Brian’s account of the CPGB remains instructive. He felt real anger (which leaps from the page into your gut) about life in the Soviet bloc. The Soviet Embassy in London lavished food and free fags on the ‘labour movement’ guests at their regular beanos and did they same to those who visited their lands. In Moscow the city centre was like Hyde Park. But in the outskirts, “were slums, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Dublin. Worse still, I found building workers toiling away under the threat of armed guards. I was told the guards were there to prevent sabotage. But it also seemed also a magnificently handy way to discourage agitation.”(Page 128) A trip as part of delegation to China showed the same divisions, “”in one you ate old paptoa leaves, in the other you wined and dined till your guts ached.”(Ibid)

Behan, as a rank-and-file building workers’ leader, ended up elected to National Executive Committee of the Communist Party, “selected by the top, and blessed by the sheep down below, would be a better description.”(Page 131)

The Communist Party was stuck in the doldrums. The contrast, well known to everybody on the (British) left, between influence in the trade unions and irrelevance in the ballot box clearly rankled with Behan, who described the former as the result of the reward of dedicated “fanatics”. The theory that the latter dismal results – he had got around 181 votes in an election – show the “mathematical average of loonies in each area of Britain” is appealing. (Page 146) If this is true the number of the mentally challenged has a much greater variety of electoral choices today, from UKIP further onwards, and has grown in size.

Hungary and After.

Deeper issues were at stake. Behan instinctively revolted at the lack of workers’ rights in Russia, and at accusations that Communists fiddled votes in the E.T.U. Discontent came to a boil over the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He stood up for Edith Bone – a Hungarian born British Communist. The rebels released her. Nobody had heard of her for seven years. As Francis Beckett puts it, she was “tortured, half-starved, tormented by arthritis, her guts ravaged by the prison food, ragged and barefoot.” (1) An attempt to publicly condemn Bone’s imprisonment was lost – 31 to 1 on the National Executive. This was not the end of it. “..the Hungarian Revolution turned me upside down.”(Page 151) He wavered from supporting the revolution, but finally was driven to leave the Party. “It may have made little or no difference, but I would be a much happier person today it I’d fought harder for people who were resisting the guns and tanks of state capitalism.”(Page 151)

Behan did not desert the building sites, and battled – with further time in gaol – in the great South Bank strike of 1959. Left politics still loomed large in his life. Outside prison and outside the CP, he resolved to join one of the “fanatical little groups who waited to net the stranded fish. They were latter-day Communists hoping and praying for a return of a Trotskyite Russia. They rattled his old bones with all the fervour of black with-doctors. Each little sect claimed that it was the inheritor of the revealed truth.”(Page 169)

Healy and After.

To be exact he joined the group that later became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, at the time known as the Club before it became known as the Socialist Labour League. (2) With Breast Expanded describes its leader, Gerry Healy, as follows, “He as a small man, made revolutionary by his failure to make a fortune selling floor-polish door to door.” (Page 169) A dispute, which Behan puts down to his proposal to put the Party’s printing press under workers’ control and others link to his hostility to Healy’s proposal to ‘enter’ (merge into) the Labour Party, soon erupted. (3) It was not long before Behan, and his friends, were expelled.

That is as may be, but this rings true. Healy shouting at a meeting, “I want all you comrades to appreciate that M.I.5 have now developed a new device which they simply point towards a window and pick up the sound vibrations that bounces off it.” “I ask all comrades to speak with their backs to the window, and if possible direct your sound waves to the floor.” “..as one man, lecturers, trade unionists and working women turned their chairs away from the window and commenced looking to the ground. One man, a psychoanalyst in a big London hospital, was bent double, his waves smashing into the wood blocks.””(Pages 170 – 171)

Behan briefly worked with London based anarchists and syndicalists, including some of the historic Spanish exiles. He had only a brief encounter with the latter. Of the former, and thinking of the Wobblies he describes them (and himself) as “the leavings of the great movement that rolled across the American prairie organising lumberjacks, wheat men and cotton pickers. Any resemblance between us and them was purely coincidental.”(Page 183) Behan noted the self-regard of one “conceited wretch” who brought a tape recorder to keep intact his meeting speech – and his alone – for posterity. Yet these were not the anarchists in fashion in the late 50s and early 60s, as CND and the Committee of 100 rose. He was spared the high-minded, but even more narcissistic, pacifist anarchists recently brought to the screen in the recent Ginger and Rosa (2012).

It is not the intention to write a précis of With Breast Expanded, though the memoir is so good that a horde of further anecdotes and incisive words come to mind. Behan, if not always likable, is lovable. He is all the better for this final citation, about his brother Brendan – amongst many, less complementary thoughts, “When, in my ignorance, I sneered at homosexuals, he turned on me like a tiger and told me to keep my dirty ignorant thoughts to myself.”(Page 201) We could equally note that he, despite admiration for his formidable mother Kathleen, never exactly caught the importance of feminism,. His wife, Celia, appears on in a side-role. The book’s epigraph is not designed to win friends in that quarter. Brian’s further career (he died in 2002 at 75 years old) as a lecturer, writer and a playwright, was impressive. He never did find the organisation that would take decisions he never disagreed with, or indeed, any party at all. Perhaps we are all better off for that.

Thanks to JM for information on the Dublin Left.

(1) Page 134. The Enemy Within, The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party, Francis Beckett. 1995. Beckett offers an excellent account of the effect of the Hungarian Revolution on the British Communist Party.

(2) “Then, in 1958, Brian Behan obtained work as a labourer on McAlpines South Bank site. Whoever took him on very quickly learned their mistake, a very costly mistake. Behan was fired and, despite the fact that there were a number of inexperienced and unorganised workers on the site, the shop stewards committee – which was led by Hugh Cassidy and was both experienced and resolute – called a strike. The whole organisational weight of the Club was thrown behind the dispute. Special issues of The Newsletter were produced and strike bulletins and leaflets rolled off the press. For the first time since the general strike of 1926, middle class revolutionaries joined the workers on the picket line. Brian Behan’s brother Brendan (the playwright) appeared dispensing ten bob notes and not a few pints of Guinness. The police were much in evidence, arrests were made and, after one fracas, Brian Behan was arrested and given three months in Shepton Mallet prison.” Jim Higgins. 1956 and All That (1993)

(3) “Politically, Behan could offer no serious alternative to Healy’s opportunism, his call for the proclamation of a revolutionary party by a few hundred militants being foolishly ultra-leftist. But, contrary to Healyite mythology, Behan was not so sectarian that he denied the need for fraction work in the Labour Party. Nor was he incapable of making some correct criticisms of Healy’s unprincipled political manoeuvring. ‘The zig-zags of policy from “right” to “left” and back again’, Behan wrote, ‘result from the opportunist considerations of a small clique …. Those who opposed the turn to open work a year ago were denounced as reformists and capitulators to the right wing, but now the leadership are fighting to return to the old form of work in the Labour Party.”

“It was on the organisational question – the concentration of power in Healy’s hands – that Behan’s attack really hit home. Not only did Healy hold the posts of SLL general secretary, IC secretary and, in practice, League treasurer and print shop manager, Behan pointed out, but he hired and fired full-timers and purchased expensive equipment, all without prior consultation with the League’s elected bodies. Behan also opposed as grossly undemocratic Healy’s control of the organisation’s assets, the SLL’s press being jointly owned by Healy, the Banda brothers and Bob Shaw. Behan described it as ‘farcical that even if the whole conference should decide on a change of policy, four people could frustrate the will of the conference by simply splitting and walking away with the assets’. He proposed to place all the League’s property under the control of the membership.” Bob Pitt. The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy. Chapter 5.