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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.

Horror of North Korean Prisons.

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UN Investigation into North Korean Human Rights Abuses.

This has not received the attention it merits on the left.

 

North Korean prison camp survivors tell U.N. investigators of rights abuses

Washington Post,

,

SEOUL — One by one they came, taking seats next to a United Nations flag and stating their names for the record. Some kept calm. Some wept. One, as he spoke, used his left hand to clamp his trembling right hand to the table.They told stories about North Korea’s brutal network of criminal detention and political prison camps, and their evidence was physical: burns on their backs, scars on their heads, bodies ravaged by torture for acts that amount to crimes only in the North. They described forced abortions, public executions, constant hunger and ghoulish mind games played by prison guards, whose permission was needed even to catch and eat the camps’ many rats and mice.

 Reuters. Public executions and torture are daily occurrences in North Korea’s prisons, according to dramatic testimony from former inmates at a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that opened in South Korea’s capital on Tuesday.

This is the first time that the North’s human rights record has been examined by an expert panel, although the North, now ruled by a third generation of the founding Kim family, denies that it abuses human rights. It refuses to recognize the commission and has denied access to investigators.

Harrowing accounts from defectors now living in South Korea related how guards chopped off a man’s finger, forced inmates to eat frogs and a mother to kill her own baby.

“I had no idea at all … I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off,” said Shin Dong-hyuk, punished for dropping a sewing machine.

Born in a prison called Camp 14 and forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother whom he turned in for his own survival, Shin is North Korea’s best-known defector and camp survivor. He said he believed the U.N. panel was the only way to improve human rights in the isolated and impoverished state.

“Because the North Korean people cannot stand up with guns like Libya and Syria … I personally think this is the first and last hope left,” Shin said. “There is a lot for them to cover up, even though they don’t admit to anything.”

There are a 150,000-200,000 people in North Korean prison camps, according to independent estimates, and defectors say many inmates are malnourished or worked to death.

After more than a year and a half ruling North Korea, Kim Jong Un, 30, has shown few signs of changing the rigid rule of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung. Neither have there been signs of a thaw or loss of control inside the tightly controlled state.

Jee Heon-a, 34, told the Commission that from the first day of her incarceration in 1999, she discovered that salted frogs were one of the few things to eat.

“Everyone’s eyes were sunken. They all looked like animals. Frogs were hung from the buttons of their clothes, put in a plastic bag and their skins peeled off,” she said. “They ate salted frogs and so did I.”

Speaking softly, she took a deep breath when describing in detail how a mother was forced to kill her own baby.

“It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water,” she said.

“The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died. A grandmother who had delivered the baby quietly took it out.”

“TOUGH NUT”

Few experts expect the commission to have an immediate impact on the rights situation, although it will serve to publicize a campaign that has little visibility globally.

“The U.N. has tried various ways to pressure North Korea over the years in the field of human rights, and this is a way to raise the pressure a bit,” said Bill Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in Britain.

“But it’s obvious that North Korea is a tough nut to crack and the U.N.’s means are limited. There would need to be profound political changes in North Korea to make headway in the field of human rights.”

But there appeared to be little interest in the issue in Seoul. Only a few dozen people, including journalists, attended the public hearing at a city center university.

Defectors are largely shunned or ignored in South Korea and eke out an existence in menial jobs, if they have them at all, according to official data.

Kim Jong Un stepped up the nuclear weapons and rocket programs launched by his father with a third nuclear test and two rocket launches and emphasizes the military in his speeches.

This year, he threatened the United States, South Korea and Japan with nuclear attack and although the country’s bellicose moves were dismissed as empty rhetoric, Kim succeeded in driving tension on the divided Korean peninsula sharply higher.

The hope of many activists would be for the Kim dynasty to fall and for leaders in Pyongyang to be put on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, although the U.N. commission says this is not possible for the moment.

On its website, the Commission said it was “not appropriate” to comment on any ICC jurisdiction over potential crimes against humanity as North Korea had not signed the statutes that would enable the court to prosecute.

Written by Andrew Coates

August 23, 2013 at 11:46 am

Iron Curtain. Anne Applebaum. Review and a Note on Totalitarianism.

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Die Partei, die Partei, die hat immer Recht!
Und, Genossen, es bleibe dabei;
Denn wer kämpft für das Recht,
Der hat immer recht.
Gegen Lüge und Ausbeuterei.
Wer das Leben beleidigt,
Ist dumm oder schlecht.
Wer die Menschheit verteidigt,
Hat immer recht.
So, aus Leninschem Geist,
Wächst, von Stalin geschweißt,
Die Partei – die Partei – die Partei.

Oh The Party, The Party is always right

And comrade, may it ever be so;

For who fights for the right

He is always right

Against lies and exploitation

[women] Whoever insults life

is stupid or bad

Whoever defends humanity

Is always right

Grown from the spirit of Lenin

Welded by Stalin

The party – the party – the party.

Das Lied der Partei.

Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe. 1944 – 1956. Anne Applebaum. Allen Lane 2012.

A Note on Totalitarianism.

Iron Curtain is an important and deeply researched study of Eastern European Communist states. It begins with their blood-stained birth, illustrates their brightest hopes, and deepest fears, it travels from the sweated labour that built Socialist Cities, to the spying and the stridency of everyday life. Anne Applebaum’s book is equally an investigation into regimes that aspired  to “total control” and how they used their power to achieve this.

Anne Applebaum is, as Duncan Bowie observes (Chartist March/April 2013) highly “partisan”. She is married to the centre-right Polish foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski. She  is, nobody will be surprised to hear,  far from  neutral about assessing the damage done in the name of Communism.

It would be derisory, and irrelevant,  to make her parti pris stand against the mass of historical detail, mastery of several of the countries’ languages, and weighed judgements that Iron Curtain offers.

Why? The answer comes in the opening pages. The first chapters of Iron Curtain Applebaum overwhelm the reader with the terror brought in the wake of the Second World War. Axis atrocities are laid out in full and the Shoah is never far away from the narrative. Readers of Timothy Synders’ Bloodlands will be acquainted with the terrible reality of destruction on the Eastern Frontiers. But it is other events that stay in the mind the undoubted heroism of the Red Army in fighting its way to Berlin and defeating Nazism, was accompanied by its own brutality against civilians and, in particular, mass rape. The Red Army re-opened camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald almost as soon as they closed them, to house their own undesirables.

The cruelty, oppression, and ethnic cleansing (notably of those of German origin, or even, in Hungary’s case, of those with Teutonic names of other ethnicities) that followed  in the first years after the war, principally, East Germany, Poland and Hungary are memorably described. Whole populations of Poles, Rutheniums, Hungarians, were summarily ‘re-allocated’ to new territories.

During the late 1940s Communists consolidated their rule. At the pivot of the system – even before the countries were openly Communist-led – were the security services. Moscow trained local functionaries under the ultimate command of the Soviet NKVD quickly consolidated these. From the Interior Ministries they directed wholesale purges of real and suspected opponents. Executions, consigning people to local camps, even sending them to the Soviet Gulag, followed. The take-over of each state proceeded remorselessly, “first (by) the elimination of right-wing; or anti-communist parties, then the destruction of the non-communist left, then the elimination of opposition within the communist party itself.”(xxxiv)

True Believers.

Yet at the same time the Communist parties were led by true believers. Their Central Committees initially allowed (relatively) free elections because they thought they could win. They thought their doctrine was true. They “really did think that sooner of later the working-class majority would acquire class consciousness, understand its historical destiny and vote for a communist regime.”(P xxxiv)

Harsh policies were a reaction to defeat in elections, notably by the Small Holders’ Party in Hungary, and (if electoral fraud had not obscured this) by the Social Democrats and others in East Germany, ‘patriotic’ parties in Poland, and elsewhere Even in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, barely covered in Iron Curtain) where the local Communist parties did have deeper bases (something Applebaum plays down) they were unable to reach a majority on their own.

Iron Curtain’s principal thesis is that Communist rule under the period of High Stalinism (that is, from the late 1940s to 1956) saw an effort to eliminate any independent life for civil society. “The nascent totalitarian states could not tolerate any competition whatsoever for their citizens’ passion, talents and free time.”(Page 185) They took over youth groups, women’s leagues, churches, trade unions, independent educational movements, and, above all, the mass media, beginning with the Radio. In doing so, “They managed, undermined and sometimes eliminated churches, newspapers, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, banks, sports clubs and universities.”(Page 496) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

April 27, 2013 at 1:55 pm

60th Anniversary of Stalin’s Death and the Great Terror in le Monde.

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Yesterday in Le Monde on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death (5th March 1953) there was a supplement on the Great Terror.

Carte situant les camps du goulag et les zones administrées par la police politique de Staline, ainsi que les emplacements des principales fosses communes connues de la Grande Terreur (1937-1938).

See Géographie de la terreur stalinienne

The Supplement includes Identity photos of the victims. Unlike the well-known figures whose memory was effaced from the public record, many images remain of ordinary people. 

Vassili Lvovitch Vassiliev, exécuté le 3 mars 1939 par le NKVD, la police politique de Staline.

More details are in: La Grande Terreur en URSS, 1937-1938, de Tomasz Kizny, Nicolas Werth, Arseni Roguinski, Christian Caujolle. Avant-propos de Sylvie Kauffmann. Editions Noir sur blanc, 412 p., 40 €.

Vestiges invisibles de la Grande Terreur

Photos of the sites of mass executions and common graves, including these.

Fosse d'exécution à Boutovo, près de Moscou, où étaient tuées les personnes condamnées à mort dans la capitale et ses environs.

Boutovo, near Moscow, where people condemned to death were shot.

Le ravin Kachtak, près de l'ancienne prison du NKVD, à Tomsk. On estime à près de 10 000 le nombre de corps dans ce charnier.

Tomsk, in the centre of Russia. It is estimated that there are 10,00 corpses in this ravine.

Forêt près de la route entre Medvejiegorsk et Povenets, en République de Carélie. Au moins 6786 personnes identifiées ont été exécutées et ensevelies ici.

Medvejiegorsk and Povenets, near the border with Finland. At least  6 786 bodies have been identified of those who were killed and buried here.
 

Written by Andrew Coates

March 7, 2013 at 11:45 am

Ryszard Kapuściński. A Life. Artur Domosławski. A Review

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Ryszard Kapuściński. A Life. Artur Domosławski. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Verso).

In 1953, an acquaintance of Kapuściński, Teresa Lechowska, was sent to prison. A Warsaw she got two and a half years for making political quips. One was about Soviet (Lysenko) genetics. “Why is a good idea to cross an apple tree with a dog? Because it waters itself, and if anyone tries to steal the apples, it barks?” At the time that this real-life Milan Kundera’s “joke” took place, Kapuściński was a committed Communist and member of the party’s youth-wing (ZMP). He wrote a poem with the lines, “We, – stronger by a billion hands, mightier, by force of Stalin’s mind” (page 60) He was a member of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) until the declaration of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski in 1981.

Domosławski’s biography is not just the story of somebody caught up in Polish Stalinism. It is a critical, deeply researched, “warts and all” account of one of the 20th century’s leading field journalists. Kapuściński’s reportage, his books, The Emperor (1978), on Haile Selassie, the Shah of Shas (1982), are not only exceptional, they form part of the mental furniture of millions of readers. Domosławski’s unravelling of the factual basis of much of these books has created the most visible controversy. But it is perhaps Kapuściński’s political engagements, including the Stalinism just cited, that make for the most troubling discussion.

Magical Journalism.

Turning the pages, again, of The Shadow of the Sun (2001) is to be reminded of just how fine a writer Kapuściński was. In this collection of African reports his Lecture on the Rwandan genocide ends with the Tutsis’ return and the flight of Hutus implicated in the mass killings. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

November 24, 2012 at 12:12 pm