Sunday, 22 October 2017

From the Fatherland With Love - Ryu Murakami

From the Fatherland is a bit like the Japanese response to that weird pop cultural trend in America about North Korea suddenly becoming a dominant military power and somehow occupying them. That Red Dawn remake, the Homefront series of games etc. Its a lot more coherent, believable and smart than those though.

For a start North Korea has no interest in conquering Japan, they just plan to occupy Fukuoka city, and they want to do that to knock Japan and the world off balance and weaken a regional rival. Japan hasn't been doing too well at this point, its looking quite a bit like Weimar Germany. The economy is stagnant, unemployment is extreme, the government is weak and only still functioning thanks to a coalition government of moderates from the main parties. Both the political right and left are polarising society and looks like re-armament and militarisation might be a possibility. The JDF has been guying a lot of equipment, most of which doesn't really make sense unless they go on a war footing.

Meanwhile in North Korea things are (relatively) on the up. Tensions with the US have declined (wouldn't that be nice) and their economy is staggering back onto its feet. So now's the best time to strike. The plan is simple, smuggle some Special Operations Forces (SOF) into the country and start taking hostages. For their plans to work they're relying on the fact the Japanese state has no experience with situations of this sort and will probably be paralysed. Then wait for reinforcements to move into secure the territory as an exclave.

There's a ton of research that's been put into the novel and the work shows. There's an explanation for every question, how they get the first teams in, how they cover for this internationally (a fake rebellion) and how they're going to pay for the massive costs of occupation, how so few soldiers can have such tight control of so large a population etc. It wouldn't work in reality but for a novel it grounds everything really well.

But despite the premise this isn't a military pulp novel, there are some shoot outs and skirmishing but the focus is mainly on culture clash. It does this in two ways, the first is contemporary Japanese culture and North Korean military culture. Its quite funny, most of the Koreans have to drink unsweetened tea at first because they couldn't find any sugar jars, they didn't know about the little packets of sugar. Another time a sergeant discovers a porno mag and can't understand what the captions under the pictures mean. He can read Japanese fairly well its just the slang talk in the magazine about Double D's and ballistics confuses him.

The other case is with a group of delinquent youths who live in a sort of runaway commune of outcasts on the outskirts of the city. They don't fit into either world, and soon come into conflict with the commandos. By delinquents I don't mean anime nerds, these boys are so distant from other people several have assaulted or killed people already, and they weird and dangerous obsessions. One collects venomous insects, another has a sort of sawblade boomerang, another knows so much about buildings they've collected explosives and cutting torches etc.

Its a very interesting conflict, and one that's kinda depressing in its conclusions. Japanese society, its governance and values don't come out of it unscathed, and its hard to call the outcast boys heroic.  



Friday, 13 October 2017

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo





The brief June insurrection in Paris 1832 was basically a footnote in the history of revolutions. It lasted two days and was crushed fairly conclusively. And yet thanks to Victor Hugo its prominence dwarves nearly every other example with the exceptions of the Russian Revolution in October 1917, the American Revolution and the Great French Revolution (that's the first one that started in 1789). Its cultural footprint is extreme. Though many are more familiar with its film and musical adaptations, unless you're Japanese in which case the 52 episode anime Shoujo Cossette would be what you think of.

Indeed the mainstream romanticism of the story has become so great, that there's been a bit of a backlash against amongst serious revolutionary types. Which I think is a shame in addition to a very engrossing-if incredibly bleak- story packed with memorable characters, it also still contains much value for those favouring a drier more practical work on revolt and repression.




Let's get this out of the way, Les Miserables is public domain so can be bought cheap or gotten for free online. Its also very easy to read, the text hasn't dated much and favours plain speaking. It is however very long, about Five full Volumes, but those volumes are broken down into separate books (48 in total) and those are broken up into chapters. So while's it quite lengthy it is very easy to break up the reading, with a bookmark. I read it over a period of three weeks, Monday to Friday while at work. If your not certain just try reading the first chapter, about the life of the Bishop, Jean Val Jean doesn't appear until later. You'll get a feel for the prose and the length is mostly equivalent.

If you do stick with it you'll be in for a treat. The musicals are in broadstrokes faithful they just cut a lot out and combine characters, but the core cast Jean Val Jean, Fantine Cossette, Javert, Marius, the Thénardiers etc make an appearance and are usually faithful. Well except in the 1990's film version where Jean Val Jean is very violent and Marius has all the character traits of the Revolutionaries dumped into him.

But the stuff that's cut out is done so for time and pace, much of what gets ripped out is some of the best parts of the story. Unfortunately the part of the story that gets mangled the most is the revolt itself. In most retellings its a tragedy about the dangers of romantic idealistic students biting off more then they can chew. They're aren't wrong in their ends, just in their means. That isn't really how it plays out in the novel. They still lose of course, but Hugo goes to great pains to establish that they republicans were a lot more serious minded about it, and the insurrection had more potential than is usually shown.



The Friends of the ABC, while they are idealistic and have romantic notions about the coming fight, are a bit more grounded.They've been preparing for months, stock piling weapons, agitating and networking. Interestingly most of their links and contacts are with secret societies of workers, mostly artisans, like stonemasons. When the revolt kicks off at General Lamarque's funeral its much more widespread, with several working class districts rising up and building barricades. The Friends of the ABC built one of the more formidable ones, they're one of the last to be breached. And many of the fighters are local workers. It still comes across as rather naïve, hoping the rest of Paris would rise once the fighting was underway, though Hugo does describe a number of incidents of spontaneous clashes with the troops occupying Paris.

The Society of the Friends of the A B C affiliated to the Mutualists of Angers, and to the Cougourde of Aix, met, as we have seen, in the Café Musain. These same young men assembled also, as we have stated already, in a restaurant wine-shop of the Rue Mondétour which was called Corinthe. These meetings were secret. Others were as public as possible, and the reader can judge of their boldness from these fragments of an interrogatory undergone in one of the ulterior prosecutions: “Where was this meeting held?” “In the Rue de la Paix.” “At whose house?” “In the street.” “What sections were there?” “Only one.” “Which?” “The Manuel section.” “Who was its leader?” “I.” “You are too young to have decided alone upon the bold course of attacking the government. Where did your instructions come from?” “From the central committee.”

That's how they fought, lets tackle why they thought. The main thrust of the uprising was to topple the Orleans Monarchy and replace it with a Republic. A republic inspired by the Republic established in 1792. However it was also strongly motivated by desires to improve the lot of the working class. If you've seen the musical or film you'll know that Post Napoleon France wasn't a great place to be poor, employed or not. Pay was low, laws very strict, both bosses, local government and police could control their fates. The prisons were cruel, (I mean even more so than now) the courts corrupt, that trial Jean Val Jean exposes himself at, wasn't an exaggeration. This is why most of the fighting was in the working class areas.

They weren't completely homogenous though, Hugo mentions Socialists, of varying types, and Mutualists. It even contains a passage about Communism. Though he's critical of it and Land reformers, he does so in a unique way. He believed their plans would kill production, and that's really the crux of the disagreement.
Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.
Even the Friends of the ABC aren't uniform. One is obsessed with the occupation of Poland, (it was a 19th century Palestine ) they're uniformly republicans, with the exception of Marius who isn't really a member just a friend, and Grantaire whose a drunk pessimist who hangs around because he likes Enjolras the groups leader.
I suppose its time to cover the authors politics. Victor Hugo's political ideas changed quite a bit over time, though generally of the Left. At the time of publishing Les Miserables, he could be broadly placed as a liberal Republican with Social Democratic ideals. He believed in a politically equal Republic, but one that also helped the poor while not molesting the rich so long as they were honest. He also despite being a Catholic (he would lose his faith later) believed in a secular society and bitterly attacked the church for its hypocrisy and destructive role in French society. One entire book is dedicated to listing the crimes of the Monastic orders and the Nunneries, and argues for their abolishment.

The leprosy of monasticism has gnawed nearly to a skeleton two wonderful nations, Italy and Spain; the one the light, the other the splendor of Europe for centuries; and, at the present day, these two illustrious peoples are but just beginning to convalesce, thanks to the healthy and vigorous hygiene of 1789 alone.

 And when Jean Val Jean and Cossette escape to a Nunnery, its depicted as a torturous place for the young girls in their isolated care.

Hugo is also highly contemptuous of the prison and police system. Javert is the main antagonist, and he's tormenting Jean Val Jean. the spirit of human redemption (literally) because Val Jean was on the wrong side of the law. His crime was stealing one loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children. When he went to prison for the crime they starved to death without his meagre earnings. That's the tip of the iceberg, the use of convict labour, torture and the death penalty are all bitterly condemned at length. As is the corruption of the law. Through Fantine we see that the law is weighted in favour of the well to do. Javert interferes in a street fight between Fantine and an idle rich man, he sides with the latter on the basis that they are a good law abiding citizen and Fantine is a street prostitute. She ends up dying as a result of her attack from pneumonia.

The treatment of women was very surprising considering the date of publication. Its very positive and hostile to prevailing social customs at the time of the setting and publication. Fantine's life is destroyed figuratively and then physically, because she doesn't live up to the expectations put on women. Her crime was falling in love with a young man, said young man leaves her for another, but now she's pregnant. The shame attached to this forces her far from home, she has to put her daughter Cossette in the care of strangers, and work in another town, keeping it a secret. In the musical and the latest film they make a small but important and in my view flawed change to the scene where she's discovered. In the musical/film her overseer is male and quite clearly fancies her and keeps harassing her. When he discovers she's had a child and another lover he reacts with disgust and fires her.

As an indictment of scummy bosses and the powerlessness line workers can be its a good example, but that wasn't what the passage was about originally. In the novel her overseer is also a woman, and she is not sexually harassing Fantine. She does however still fire Fantine in disgust when she learns of the out of wedlock child. Destitute Fantine has to keep sending money to her poor child, Fantine is desperate. First she sells her hair and teeth, and only then sells herself sexually. All the while wasting away and freezing to death. Her ex-boss saw her in this state and instead of remorse she feels proud and vindicated. Fantine has proven herself morally suspect so in the eyes of her ex employer she did the right and moral thing firing her. Its an accusation against the social roles for women at the time.

It was with this full power, and the conviction that she was doing right, that the superintendent had instituted the suit, judged, condemned, and executed Fantine.

 Madame Victurnien sometimes saw her passing, from her window, noticed the distress of “that creature” who, “thanks to her,” had been “put back in her proper place,” and congratulated herself. The happiness of the evil-minded is black.

In addition the story manages to cram in a lot of information about the Great French Revolution, the Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848 and street fighting in 1831 and 1839. Its packed with historical information.

I could go on forever singing the novels praises but I'll stop now.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher- Anthony Cartwright


I'll admit it, the title alone sold me.


How I Killed Margaret Thatcher is the history of Neoliberalism in Britain seen through the eyes of a working class child. Set mostly during the 80's in Dudley in the West Midlands, its a grim story of how economic restructuring can lead to the drawn out collapse of communities and the breakdown of previously happy families.

Its also eerily close to my own childhood in a northern town on the East Coast in the 90's. The policies brought in after 1979 took a long time to complete, the pain was staggered and drawn out so even ten years on much of what it depicts was still doing its work. I can remember my parents arguing in the kitchen over money and where the next jobs coming from, the town centre crumbled before my eyes, closed down shops boarded up houses etc. The only real difference is the slang used in Dudley. I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce soft with an r before.

Sean Bull also grew up in this and the effects on his family are heartbreaking. Neoliberal policies destroyed their community strained their relationships and even managed to get a few people killed trying to make ends meet. Unsurprisingly Sean finds comfort in the stories of assassins who kill or tried to kill political tyrants. In particular the attempted assassins of Queen Victoria (quite a long list). Its not hard to see why, an ordinary person sometimes just a boy filled with righteousness and a gun slays the source of the rot.

But of course killing old Queen Vic wouldn't have slowed down the Empire or any of its atrocities and killing Thatcher wouldn't have stopped the Neoliberal project. Assassination only works when there's a movement ready to take advantage of the disruption caused by the hit. Of course Sean doesn't know that he's only a schoolboy, and its a dream that keeps him sane. Yeah, life under in "Thatcher's Britain" could be so bleak and cold that even a fantasy about shooting someone in the head could be aspirational and uplifting. They don't like to bring that up much when discussing "her legacy" in documentaries.

Usually the official telling of this period never goes beyond a few comments on divisiveness and snickering at the Tories pledging to end unemployment in their 79 election manifesto. Indeed the book covers a lot of really important things left out or barely namechecked in the narratives. There is some handwringing about the increased use of police violence, but the increase in homelessness and collapse of communities in the industrial and manufacturing sectors don't get much of a mention. On the contrary housing is the one area where Thatcher is universally praised for breaking the back of council housing.

I've never understood this, my family bought a house in 1990, and the mortgage repayments nearly made us homeless, because the council housing in the area had shrunk to less than 10% of what it once was, so if we lost the house we would of been completely screwed. We survived, but curiously enough many houses in my area are now owned by a social housing company. So basically we went from a society with a large housing sector under municipal control and limited homelessness, to a society with a large housing sector under corporate control and very high and increasing homelessness. And this is the policy that everyone applauds the government of 1979-1990 on.

The book does a good job of exposing the hollow rhetoric of the period by contrasting it with how it occurred on the ground. Economic reorganisation to increase British competiveness, leads to mass lay offs with no replacement industry to take in even some of the now jobless. Law and Order, crime rates are increasing and the only noticeable difference is an increase in police power and violence.

Character wise they all come across as real people with flaws and quirks. The Granddad is well meaning with his heart in the right place, but he has some outdated views, the uncle a lefty activist whose extremely shy and awkward, is very familiar, I've encountered him several times in my life. The dad whose a work horse and willing to bend the rules to provide for his family and thinks it'll all come out good in the end if he can keep grafting* is also very familiar to me. The mum who tries her best to care for everyone but occasionally oversteps the mark into overbearing and projects her fears onto others also rings true.

Also refreshingly the author resisted the temptation to have a central baddie. Thatcher dominates the story, but she does so from a television and through speeches, all of which is taken from transcripts. Its all cold, systemic and impersonal. And thankfully there's no local stand in for her. The pain and dangers are all systematic and imposed from without and part of the threat is the lose of personality these policies force on people. Its also the main act of resistance, trying to keep grounded and authentic and true to yourself in the face of unrelenting market forces.




*I'm told grafting is a euphemism for corruption in the USA. In the UK it means hard working, my step dad used to joke that `grafter` was a bad word in the States because they must all be lazy.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Kaiser Goes- The Generals Remain

The Kaiser Goes is one of my favourite novels of all time. A user on libcom (http://libcom.org/history/kaiser-goes-generals-remain-theodor-plivier-1932) scanned a copy of it and added an interesting write up on the life of its author Theodor Plivier. Theodor seems to have been a little of everything, from mutinous sailor, to sandals wearing hippy, to a commissar in the Soviet Union, and then finally a staunch anti-communist in West Germany.

The Kaiser Goes is a novel about the end of the First World War and the start of the German revolution in 1918. Its based largely on his own experiences, he was one of the mutinying sailors that started the collapse of the Kaiserreich. As such its very authentic, the events happened largely as they do in the novel and what liberties are taken is mainly in characterisation or clandestine meetings that were never recorded for obvious reasons.

The novels structure handles the growing escalation of tensions and fighting very well, the narrative moves between several groups of actors, Sailors in Kiel, small groups of dissident socialists in Berlin, including Liebknecht, and the Berlin workers. It also spends time with the SPD leadership especially Ebert and Noske, and the German officer corps detailing their plots and backstabbing. And of course the Kaiser's divering and desperate attempts to remain relevant when even the Aristocratic Generals have written him off.

Its a little disjointed but it serves well to show just how spontaneous the revolt was. For example the government has taken steps to limit the spread of the revolt by garrisoning the rail lines that go through ports, this works at the start. Sailors keep getting arrested, but this just means the sailors talk to their guards and convince them to arrest their officers and dismantle the prisons. So now the rail lines are back in the sailors hands and now parts of the army are joining in.

They reach Celle without misadventure. But there a large body of troops is drawn up on the platform. As the train enters the station the soldiers board the train and search the compartments. The parties of sailors scattered throughout the length of the train are immediately surrounded. “Show passes.” “Where have you come from?” “Kiel.” “We’re going to Berlin.” “Get out – you must come along with us.” “Shake a leg – To the OC station.” “That’s no good to us – we’re not getting out.” “We are not taking orders from you. We take our orders from the Soldiers’ Council at Kiel and from nobody else.” The infantryman looks surprised: “Soldiers’ Council, eh? Don’t you let our S.M. hear you mention that – he’d go stark staring mad.” The platform is bristling with rifles. An officer runs down the train. “Step along, there! Step along!” growls an NCO. “Hurry up!”
The wooden enclosure is now too small to contain them. The first plank is loosed, and the rest is easy – the wooden walls simply fall asunder. The soldiers permit themselves to be disarmed. The Sergeant Major, who comes storming up at the sound of the tumult, is placed under arrest; and the officer in charge of the railway station also, a first-lieutenant, who just sits at his table in amazement. The station is now in the hands of the sailors. A little fellow, a boatswain, quick and nimble as a cat, is issuing orders and organizing the revolutionary guard over the station. A machine-gun is mounted. The telephone rings in the guard-room. “GOC Hanover speaking,” growls a voice. “Soldiers’ Council, Celle, speaking,” replies the boatswain. There is a sharp click in the receiver. GOC Hanover has replaced the receiver. The sailors lose no time. They have rifles once more, and a machine-gun, and abundance of ammunition. They form up in column of squads and march off through Celle in close formation, singing as they go out toward the prison beyond the tower. Bonczyk’s only regret is that they have lined up according to size, so that he cannot march at the head of the column with Raumschuh. “It’s just as well we did leave Hamburg, after all,” says he to the fellow beside him. “There is something to do here anyway.”
 

In another section and one of my favourite passages, the government has decided to let the outer working class districts of Berlin fall to the revolting workers for now. And they're just going to build a defensive line around the centre with loyal Jaeger units. But someone thinks its a good idea to have the SPD explain the situation to the Jaeger troops. Unfortunately the deal between the Generals and the SPD only involves the main leaders, so the speakers selected aren't in on the plot. One of them believes that this was the party was waiting for and so gives them a speech that attacks the Kaiser, the Generals and the war and urges the Jaegers to join the rebellion. It's such a good speech it works and that leads to a domino effect when all the supposedly loyal units defect, because they refused to shoot on their fellow comrades.

He speaks again as he used to speak; he still believes that it is not for a handful of politicians, but for the people in revolt to make the final decision. He tells of the mutiny of the sailors, of the workers in Hamburg, Hanover, Munich, who have already joined the revolution... And none of the soldiers doubts but that this “Revolution” and Social Democracy are one and the same thing. In swift sentences Wels presses to a conclusion: “...under no circumstances then can the present system continue. The revolution is not to betrayed. It is our duty at all costs to prevent civil war. It does not matter to me to which party you belong if you are resolved to see that in the future the people shall decide its own destiny, then put yourselves at the disposal of the Social Democratic Party! “Show your consent by giving three cheers for Peace!” The soldiers, accustomed to respond only to the word of command, still stand rigidly at attention. But others, strangers to the barracks, who have been standing at the gate during the speech, now advance across the square and in scattered groups swarm among the ranks. “Peace!” shouts Wels again; “Peace!” comes back the cry. “Three cheers for Government by the People!” “Hurrah!” join in the Jäger. Wels has won. The soldiers break ranks, surge around the waggon and lift Wels down. The officers, who have listened to it all in silence, retire. A committee of the soldiers announces that the Battalion places itself at the disposal of the Social Democratic Party.

Another interesting part of the novel is the ongoing tension between the SDP and its Trade Union leadership against their own members and supporters. The general strike that brings down Berlin was opposed by both, the SPD leaders elected to the new councils like Noske do everything they can to convince the revolutionaries to back down and compromise. The German Revolution was fundamentally a mass revolt of the German workers, soldiers and sailors. The party of the working class the SDP is fracturing with its main group actively trying to stop the revolution, and the small socialist splinters while enthusiastic are two small to have any real effect, and some of them attempted to replace the SPD or engaging in premature street fighting.

Its a beautiful book full of enthusiasm for building a better world, a world without war, without repression or exploitation, and the defeat of the revolt in life as in the book is a great tragedy.



Saturday, 16 September 2017

APPENDICES


APPENDIX 1: TEXT OF PARAGRAPH 175



Text of Paragraph 175, with amendments as issued on June 28, 1935.

175:

  1. A male who indulges in criminally indecent activities with another male or who allows himself to participate in such activities will be punished with jail.
  2. If oneof the participants is under the age of twenty-one, and if the crime has not been grave, the court may dispense with the jail sentence.



175(a): A jail sentence of up to ten years or, if mitigating circumstances can be established, a jail sentence of no less than three years will be imposed on

  1. Any male who by force or by threat of violence and danger to life and limb compels another man to indulge in criminally indecent activities, or allows himself to participate in such activities;
  2. Any male who forces another male to indulge with him in criminally indecent activities by using the subordinate position of the other man, whether it be at work or elsewhere, or who allows himself to participate in such activities;
  3. Any male who indulges professionally and for profit in criminally indecent activities with other males, or allows himself to be used for such activities or who offers himself for same.



175(b): Criminally indecent activities by males with animals are to be punished by jail; in addition, the court may deprive the subject of his civil rights.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Netflix and Chile- Allende



Film Chat

Allende is a 90 minute biopic of the last day of Salvador Allende's Presidency and life. Its a depiction of the military coup of September Eleventh 1973 that overthrew him from his point of view, besieged inside the Presidential Palace increasingly abandoned and vulnerable.

Its pretty interesting, its more like a play that's been filmed on a closed set then a "proper" film. Its not quite a one man performance but the only really developed character is Daniel Muñoz as Allende, the rest of the cast are minor parts in his orbit. Though to their credit they do a lot with what little the script gives and Muñoz carries the film very well. 

It handles the building sense of loneliness and dread as more and more of Allende's supposed allies desert and the rebelling troops get closer to the palace. Its hard not sympathise with Allende, he's like a kindhearted left wing granddad being punished for his belief the inherent goodness of his rebellious children. The film also splices in audio recordings from the time, including Allende's last speech broadcast just before the final assault on the palace.

"Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!"

And an intercepted recording of several mutinying obvious bragging about how they plan to murder Allende and his family by sabotaging his plane if he agreed to surrender. So it does its job well, the only complaint I had was that I started to find the hero worship of Allende by the other characters. Though it does make narrative sense, by this point everyone apart from a handful of loyal followers and his own family have written him off as a dead man and made their escape.

I recommend watching Allende, its emotional and informative, and the anniversary is coming up. I mean its either this or live coverage of the Norwegian elections. Tough competition I know.


Political Commentary

Anyway I'd like to seamlessly segue into some thoughts on the films accuracy and the political legacy of Allende. Allende is an interesting curiosity, by winning an election and increasing his majority Allende is used as propaganda to show that Socialism can be popular. As a man committed to a peaceful revolution and social democratic policy reforms mean he's also used as a warning that nothing less than hardline militaristic authoritarianism can bring about a social revolution. Then there's his friendship with Castro and his mentorship by Italian immigrant and Anarchist shoe maker Juan de Marchi and the composition of his ruling Popular Unity coalition, an alliance of several parties Communist, Socialist, Social Democratic, Radical, Christian Left etc, Allendes on comments either downplaying or playing up=depending on the audience- the politically radical nature of his polices and you have even more reason to embrace or reject the man depending on your personal persuasion.

For example of the muddled legacy of Allende I think this 1971 essay by the then Trotskyist (specifically Socialist Workers Party USA, SWP) Peter Camejo is a good example. https://www.marxists.org/archive/camejo/1971/19711201.htm

Its not hard to see where Camejo stands on Allende's first months and his predictions turned out to be pretty accurate but he does also demonstrate reasons why others were more enthusiastic. And the article by the Situationist publication Point Blank, The Strange Defeat of the Chilean Revolution
(https://reddebreksbowl.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/strange-defeat-chilean-revolution-1973.html)

To the film's credit it doesn't let its positive attitude to Allende blind it to some of the criticisms. Indeed quite a bit of the conversations and growing tensions are acknowledged as the result of some of his conciliation policies. For example the whole coup process, Allende wasn't as some of his detractors have claimed naïve, he did anticipate the possibility that even limited reforms would provoke a violent reaction from the local right wing and the United States, so he and his supporters did come up with some countermeasures.

Unfortunately most of those plans relied on some variation on using loyal military units to defeat and disarm rebellious military units. This plan did work in June 1973 when a Tank brigade besieged the Presidential palace in a coup attempt backed by the Fascistic Patria y Libertad  (Fatherland and Liberty) paramilitary. However that seems to have been a revolt confined to the Second Armoured Battalion with the support of the fringe extremist Patria y Libertad. It was the actions of right wing adventurers not a general reaction.

General Pinochet's quick actions in defence of the government impressed Allende, as such he came to be in charge of Allende's defence plans. During the September coup he had become Commander in Chief of the army shortly before in August. This meant that the leader of the Junta knew all of Allende's plans and how strong his movement was. In the film Allende's only practical options as the revolt spreads from Valparaíso to Santiago is to keep trying to get a hold of Generals (Grady, Pinochet, Baeza etc.) he assumes are loyal and to prepare a speech for a broadcast. By the time he learns the full extent of the betrayal he's left clutching at the hope that the workers of Chile will rise up to resist this coup. Which brings us to the next problem.

As far back as the sixties the Chilean political left and the workers and peasants had been arming themselves and engaging in violent confrontations with the right, the police, the army, the landlords, the corporations and so on. Indeed one of the main criticisms of Allende's presidency was that his government lagged conspicuously behind the political radicalisation of ordinary Chilean workers. His land reforms were a reaction to the waves of occupations by the landless peasants, and his government had to keep intervening in strikes because they feared strike waves would collapse the economy.

The struggle was very violent, weapons were stockpiled and defence units and terrorist cells were established and it looked like a civil war might develop. Stuck in the middle Allende had decided the best way to prevent this was to win the support of the armed forces and use his governments influence to disarm and disband these militia like organisations. We all know how that turned out in the end, but at the time this meant that even the workers did think Allende's government of the Constitution of Chile was worth fighting for, they didn't have any means of doing so. Not only did they not have weapons they had no organisations or plans, they were completely vulnerable.

At the end of the day the only militarised opposition left was Allende's bodyguard unit in the palace and the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). MIR were one of the leftwing terrorist groups founded in the sixties and they had pulled off some impressive raids, they even had the capability to build their own mortars. By 1973 they were estimated to be 10,000 strong and were working for Allende, they helped form his bodyguard unit.  Ten thousand committed and armed fighters aren't to be dismissed but they simply couldn't putdown a revolt of the armed forces. And since most of the plans for the defence of Allende relied on the armed forces, they weren't mobilised until after the coup had succeeded. They were active in the anti-Junta underground but of course that didn't really help Allende.

This is brought up in the film, when Allende starts to put his faith in a sort of popular uprising against the Coup he's reminded that he disarmed the workers and did his best to get them to trust and support the military and police, who are now on the streets and pointing their guns at the Presidential palace. I think this is the root of the tragedy of Allende, he did everything in his power to make an accommodation with the capitalists, and in the end they still get rid of you if your in the way, and at the end of the day it isn't a good idea to disarm your own side if you want socialism.

Also national governments will have to act against working class organisation even if a bunch of ultralefts are in the cabinet since that is the only way a nation state and continue to function.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

They Live We Sleep: Movies as Metaphor for Militancy



1988's They Live, directed by John Carpenter was a modest success when it was released, though nowadays if your familiar with it all its probably as a meme. Either the famous `kick ass and chew bubble gum` one liner or an edit of screencaps of the scene Roddy Piper first puts on those magic sunglasses and sees hidden messages.

Its a shame really, well ok a few of them are pretty funny. What is definitely ashame though is outside of the occasional joke and reference in other programs is that a depressingly large chunk of this films fanbase is incredibly anti-Semitic. So much so that John Carpenter has had to publicly denounce the forced associations with his film.


The film is a bit creaky as 80's action films go the action doesn't really standout and the plot relies on more than a bit of convenience to work. But it does set up its world very well, its ideas are clever consistent and incredibly subversive. Also while Roddy Piper isn't very convincing as an action hero, he does very well in the first half of the film, he is convincing as a naïve drifter who believes in a lucky break, and he does come across as genuinely baffled when first trying out the sunglasses.

Personally I think They Live's real strength aside from an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes is in how weirdly accurate the film is in depicting the development of leftist discourse and the evolution of a militant personality. Especially since this is mostly by accident. Like Carpenter says the film is quite explicitly anti Reagans America with its corporate power and consumer excess but it goes far beyond that.

It starts with a pretty bleak though accurate depiction of late 80's USA, John Nada (Roddy Piper) has just hitched his way to the West Coast after work dried up elsewhere. Decline of industry is in full swing, the Steel mills are laying off their workforce or have already closed `We gave the Steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises`. Its gotten so bad that even the banks in industrial towns are closing down. The welfare office is over crowded and can't cope, Nada gets a job on a construction site by essentially begging and another worker shows him a shanty town where a community of sorts has been established. They seem pretty well organised the dwellings while improvised look permanent, they have power and a food kitchen and the residents all pitch in. While Nada is getting settled in he notices a strange broadcast from interrupting the tv channel. Something that happened a few times in the 80's, a bearded fellow keeps talking about signals, distractions, growing poverty and some group that's to blame. Its pretty incoherent and the tacky ads soon drown it out.

This peaks Nada's interest, as does strange comings and goings at the church next door, he goes snooping, but shortly after the police move in, they raid the church and smash the shanty town. In a manner eerily close to photographs of the police force's attempts to evict the shanty town in Tompkins Square park New York, that same year, just a few months before They Live was released. That incident was infamous for widespread use of excessive force. Nada manages to escape the storm troopers, but when he returns to the ransacked church he finds a pair of sunglasses and that's when he starts seeing the world as it really is.

Tompkins Square 1988
They Live 1988
It was at this point that the film as metaphor for the development of class consciousness appeared to me. Its commentary on the media in propping up capitalist relations and society is fairly obvious, but less obvious is its counterpart. The broadcast jamming done by the small group of revolutionaries is a depiction of the scale and effects of radical propaganda by small groups on the wider society. Activity which does include pirate broadcasting. The group despite its cleverness and commitment is simply out resourced, the best they can do is spurt out snippets of their cause to an audience that's confused and vaguely hostile, and they are quickly drowned out by mainstream programming. The best they can do is get a few people like Nada vaguely curious in a `want to know, what its all about sense`. Its really the heavy handed police response that pushes Nada into an attempt to make sense of everything, and crackdowns on dissent have been known to be agents of radicalisation. For example the growth of Black Lives Matter after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri 2014.

And when he finally gets the famous sun glasses its effects and Nada's reactions are pretty accurate (well ok its exaggerated) depiction of how people react once they've started learning about the class system and capitalism. Suddenly the normal is different and sinister, but in a way that quickly starts making sense, though it takes awhile to fully comprehend (and some never make it that far) the implications. He also starts seeing the rulers of mankind for what they really are, a sort of bugged skull faced alien thing.

One of the things that distinguishes Communism from a conspiracy theory is that ultimately the bad guys are a class of human beings who do harmful things because its in their best interest to do so. Now given that the bad guys in They Live are weird aliens you can be forgiven for thinking They Live is a conspiracy theorist film (the non anti-Semitic ones certainly like it too) but its meant to be figurative not literal. John Carpenter didn't make the film to warn the public that aliens were among us. And to be honest without those glasses, the aliens look perfectly normal, they act perfectly normal, their power is revealed to be systemic rather than personal. And without class consciousness the capitalist class in reality appear like ordinary people just with more money and a few personality quirks. When mainstream society does vilify a capitalist its for being to brazen at capitalism like Mr Shrkeli who jacked up the prices of life saving medicines. His right to charge for those medicines was never questioned, does the scale of his profits and the manner in which he acquired them.




Moving on a bit, shortly after coming to terms with this revelation but still knowing very little about what's going on, Nada arms himself and engages in a brief campaign of individualistic terror. He guns down several of the aliens. He feels pretty good about it, but he soon has to flee and in the grand scheme of things he hadn't accomplished much. The aliens aren't really thwarted by a few deaths and if anything they're using his stunt to consolidate power by sowing fear of a mad gunman. This is a fairly nuanced and accurate depiction of Propaganda of the Deed. A campaign of political assassination and bombings, it was fairly successful in terms of targets killed, including United States President McKinley by Anarchist Leon Czolgosz, but in terms of effective resistance it wasn't very effective at all. Political leaders and industrialists were replaced and the systems persisted.

After escaping Nada tries to recruit his sort of friend and fellow worker Frank Armitage. Frank had expressed resentment at the system previously, back when Nada still `believed in America` but now he's hesitant. Nada being wanted for murder doesn't help matters. This is where the famous five minute back alley fight scene takes place. Its a good fight, but more importantly looks just as frustrating as attempting to raise the consciousness of a friend or co-worker who seemed receptive can be. Replace `put on the glasses` with `just read the book` or `watch this lecture` or `just listen to me and think it over!` and you have an accurate depiction of how many attempts at consciousness raising end up.

Also quite close to home is the argument they have afterwards in the hotel room about what should they do, and why doesn't the other one have a master plan ready to go? In my experience that has been a very big stumbling block, people are receptive and interested but often they really do want to know a step by step blueprint to changing the world.

After finally literally beating Frank into submission he two sees the world for what it really is. They then stumble back into the resistance. At the meeting is where the film is cemented as a critique of capitalism that uses Sci Fi elements and not a Sci Fi film that uses capitalist criticism to give it relevance. Its confirmed that while the aliens occupy key positions of power including in the police and media most of the people working in this industries and the government are humans, some have consciously sold out for the chance of personal enrichment, basically a form of class treason. This human elite is essentially the supervisors and senior management the real power remains concentrated with the aliens.

Frank and Nada also receive upgrades, they trade in there sunglasses for contact lenses, they see clearer with less interference. If the shades represent an introduction to class consciousness the contacts represent a refinement. Both Nada and Frank know more about what they're facing and have confidence in their struggle. Also at the meeting a ring leader of sorts is complaining that they're aren't recruiting enough, that should sound familiar to anyone whose attended a branch meeting. He also says that the authorities think the group and groups like them are all Communists, this explains the heavy handed policing. Even human cops ignorant of the conspiracy are motivated by false ideology to despise dissenters.

The last act begins when the meeting is raided by armed police. The storm troopers mow down the resistance, I'd say this is a depiction of the setbacks endemic to movements, but my heart tells me this was about the needed for action packed climax. Anyway Nada and Frank survive and they wind up in the Aliens headquarters. The plot is at times contrived but to be fair not nearly as much as I'm making it seem here. To its credit the film does establish most of the ending fairly well.

The ending is pretty interesting. We get collaborator explain that the whole world is under the control of the system. Nations don't really exist anymore its all artifice and everyone sells out every day. This is pretty sophisticated stuff, there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, and national differences are just maintained by the system for its own advantage.

At the very end of the film Nada destroys the main transmitter for the aliens interference signal, what's interesting is what happens next. Instead of an immediate uprising the immediate effect is that the aliens are exposed for what they really are, this causes general confusion but it strips them of their power. The system has been exposed, and at present that'll have to do for now.

Coda:

Some dialogue that I think sets the mood quite nicely.

Frank: I have a wife and kids in Detroit. I haven't seen them in 6 months. Steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. They close one more factory we should take a sledgehammer to one of their fancy fuckin foreign cars.
Nada: You know. You ought to have a little more patience with life.
Frank: Yeah, well I'm all out!
Frank: The whole deal is like some kind of crazy game. They put you at the starting line. And the name of the game is make it through life. Only, everyone's out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. OK, man here we are. You do what you can, but remember, I'm going to do my best to blow your ass away. So how are you going to make it?
Nada: I deliver a hard day's work for my money I just want the chance. It'll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody's got their own hard times these days.

Bearded Man: They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery.

Frank: What do these things want?
Gilbert: They're free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.

Drifter: What's wrong with having it good for a change? Now they're gonna let us have it good if we just help 'em. They're gonna leave us alone, let us make some money. You can have a little taste of that good life too. Now, I know you want it. Hell, everybody does.
Frank: You'd do it to your own kind.
Drifter: What's the threat? We all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team.

Television Host: The feeling is definitely there. It's a new morning in America... fresh, vital. The old cynicism is gone. We have faith in our leaders. We're optimistic as to what becomes of it all. It really boils down to our ability to accept. We don't need pessimism. There are no limits.
Street Preacher: Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They're all about you! All around you!


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Mosley's BUF and the Narrative of Victimisation



A recent discussion about ANTIFA and its viability brought an interesting article from History Today, to my attention. User Jondwhite shared it as they believed it supported their overall point that physical resistance isn't effective. The article does give that tone though I'm not really sure that was what the author was going for. However I do think its worth reading and I especially think certain sections of it are really important even the author doesn't seem to have been fully aware of the implications.

The argument goes that contrary to common belief the defeat of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) on the 4th of October 1936 marked a terminal decline for the movement the publicity generated from that defeat helped them resurge. There is evidence that the BUF membership increased after the events of Cable Street and that anti-Semitic attacks increased in the following years. For example this passage seems fairly conclusive and damming

In its monthly report on extremist political activity Special Branch observed in October ‘abundant evidence that the Fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground in many parts of east London’. Its sources suggested an influx of over 2,000 new recruits in the capital, a considerable boost given that party membership in London had stood at less than 3,000 earlier in the year.In the week after Cable Street the BUF ‘conducted the most successful series of meetings since the beginning of the movement’, attracting crowds of thousands and little opposition. Mosley made an ‘enthusiastically received’ address to an audience of 12,000 at Victoria Park Square, which was followed by a peaceful march to nearby Limehouse. By contrast the Communists’ efforts to consolidate their victory had ‘met with a very poor response’. ‘A definite pro-Fascist feeling has manifested itself’, the Special Branch report concluded: ‘The alleged Fascist defeat is in reality a Fascist advance.’


However that isn't the full picture and the part that's overlooked in this narrative I think is the really important dimension in the argument of whether victimisation is real and what role it actually plays in our responses to Fascism.

The article explains the growth as such (emphasis mine)


In this context Cable Street simply thrust the BUF back into the limelight after two years of relative national obscurity and provided it with a stage on which to play out its claims of victimhood. This, Mosley argued, had been a perfectly lawful procession, sanctioned by the authorities. The East End housed the core of his supporters. They had every right peacefully to express their political beliefs, yet had been forcibly prevented from doing so by a disorderly mob. This portrayal of events clearly struck a chord with many locals. In an internal document the Fascists observed that the ‘strong sense of local patriotism’ in the East End had been ‘gravely offended by the rioting of Jews and Communists last October ... [which] was felt as a disgrace to the good name of east London’.



The bit in bold is I think the key here, they experienced growth not out of a sense of general sympathy and love of freedom of speech, but anti-Semitism. The East End was the part of the UK with the largest Jewish community and the area with most racial and anti-Semitic tensions. This is why Moseley chose the route of the march in October to go straight through predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods, the party had embraced a platform of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and it wanted to win support from the hostile local "native" British population.

Mosley’s adoption of antisemitism in 1934 was from the outset portrayed not as a choice but as a move forced upon him by Jews themselves. ‘Small’ Jews had attacked the Blackshirts in the street and invaded their meetings, while ‘big’ Jews financed the anti-fascist  movement and used their wealth and influence to turn the media and government against the BUF. It had also become clear, Mosley alleged, that Jews were the power behind Fascism’s two chief adversaries: international finance and Communism.

Even the article supports the assertion that this post Cable Street growth was tied heavily to exploitation of anti-Semitism by the BUF.

Cable Street – the most substantial manifestation of Jewish anti-fascism to date – fitted the BUF’s narrative perfectly. The internal publication mentioned above noted with satisfaction that ‘the impudent use of violence ... to deny east Londoners the right to walk through their own part of London ... [had] sent a wave of anti-Jewish resentment’ through the area. Speakers were advised that propaganda should take advantage of this fact.
The demonstration was immediately branded by the BUF as ‘Jewry’s biggest blunder’, while the police were accused of ‘openly surrender[ing] to alien mobs’. It was claimed that ‘financial democracy’ and ‘Soviet-inspired Communists’ had colluded to inhibit legitimate activity by ‘British patriots’ in the East End. As a result, the district had in effect been ‘handed over ... as the Jews’ own territory’. It was time, the BUF declared, for the true British people to reclaim their land. Such appeals were well received. Special Branch recorded that among the cohort of new Fascist recruits were a ‘large number of gentiles with grievances against the Jews’.
However the case is more substantial, the post Cable street growth of the BUF was almost exclusively limited to the East End of London. Its branches outside of it seem to have continued to stagnate or collapse. The article quotes an Exeter BUF member remarking about Cable street "now we have active opposition in Exeter I think we shall make great progress there" but that doesn't seem to have been the case at all. The BUF didn't see much of a revival in Devon, its peak in the area was a 1,000 strong branch in Plymouth which collapsed in 1934, Exeter never exceeded this, the most high profile event they managed in this period seems to have been a speech by Mosley in 1937 which had an attendance of around 1,500. But despite his speech viciously attacking Jews and happening in the aftermath of Cable street and the local BUF having to resort to police protection from anti fascists it doesn't seem to have led to much of a revival of BUF fortunes.

An excerpt of that speech
http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_events/british-union-fascists.php
“We say that Jews may not stay in this country organising as a State within the State, setting the interest of their own race above the interest of the nation as a whole. Therefore such Jews will have to leave Great Britain, and I do not disguise the opinion that the only final solution for the Jewish problem of the world is for the Jews should go together to another land in one of the many unpopulated ares of the world and become themselves a nation.”

In Liverpool the BUF remained so small and weak that in 1937 it couldn't even hold a public demonstration without it being completely disrupted and overwhelmed.

 So if the violent confrontations in Cable street were so disastrous for anti-fascism because they gave the BUF its victimisation validation, why the drastically different fortunes in different parts of the UK? The fighting on Cable street were filmed, photographed and recorded and became national news, that's partly how its become so iconic, so we should've seen a general trend of revitalisation but at best we see a localised surge and continued stagnation elsewhere. The only real difference is the fertile soil the BUF's anti-Semitic platform could find in the East End but it wasn't as attractive a message elsewhere. If violent confrontation and victim framing were the key then the BUF would have been far stronger as national organisation it faced direct opposition in nearly all localities that it had a presence in, but in many areas the pressure and defeats seem to have proven the Exeter Black shirt wrong, they didn't make great progress at all.



On Olympia

There is another plank in this argument though, the events two years early at the Olympia Hall meeting. A group of anti-fascist protestors including Vera Brittain, Richard Sheppard and Aldous Huxley managed to get into the meeting and started heckling Moseley. In response Black shirt stewards physically assaulted many of them and ejected them. Several of them were severely injured, it was what we now call a PR disaster for the BUF. A lot of their respectable supporters like the Daily Telegraph which had been rather kind in its coverage previously

Margaret Storm Jameson pointed out in The Daily Telegraph: "A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue... Why train decent young men to indulge in such peculiarly nasty brutality?"

But not all of them though, the Daily Mail stuck by them

George Ward Price
"If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley's huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it. They got what they deserved. Olympia has been the scene of many assemblies and many great fights, but never had it offered the spectacle of so many fights mixed up with a meeting."

The numbers declined quite badly, but curiously the BUF did experience a bump in new memberships 

After the Olympia meeting, for example, although respectable supporters abandoned the BUF in droves, there was also a short-term influx of new recruits angry at attempts to silence Mosley.
What we have here with Olympia is another example of an event affecting different sections of the population differently. People who agreed with the BUF's then largely economic platform but weren't ok with the BUF's increasing violence or growing anti-Semitism left the party, but in exchange it attracted people who were on-board with this political realignment. The same thing happened after Cable street, a large mobilisation against the Jewish community and a demonstration of the power of that community attracted thousands of anti-Semites to the BUF. This is the crux of the victimisation narrative, its not that a far right movement is losing a fight that attracts some people to the far right. Its that in getting into a fight and losing to a minority group or radical leftist current they are appealing to and alarming that segment of the population that largely agreed with them anyway.

Local Anti-Semites rallied to the BUF in the aftermath of Cable street because they saw it as a champion of their interests and their community. If you see a group of violent reactionaries getting driven off and you feel sympathetic for them and not the community they were terrorising then you're probably a fellow traveller yourself.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Guilt by Association: Weak Arguments Then and Now

"Never had a Revolution more surprised the revolutionaries" Benoit Malon






A few days ago twitter user Jehu provided a crystal clear example of a really poor arguing style that is sadly very common in political debate and squabbling. That is a form of guilt by association, here we have Jehu blaming Bakunin for the Paris Commune and its subsequent defeat. The evidence is that Bakunin called for a workers insurrection and in March of 1871 the Parisian working class districts rose up, ousted their government and proclaimed a city wide Commune.

The problem here is that its merely an allegation, there's no substantive proof to any of it. This was the start of a 250+ tweet thread and in not one of them does Jehu provide by explanation or a link any proof that Bakunin led the workers of Paris to anything. There's two very serious flaws here, the first is that this is a complete misrepresentation of Paris in 1870-71 and the events that led to the founding of the Commune, and its not even an accurate summary of Bakunin's advocacy of insurrection. I'll deal with the second first quickly.

Bakunin didn't urge the workers of Paris to rise up against their government, he urged all workers to rise up against all governments. For example in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war he denounced the German Social Democrats for trying to build a national coalition of German workers and its plans for building a German state precisely because this would hinder the ability of German workers to fight a class war in alliance with the workers of other nations.

If, in case of conflict between two states, the workers would act in accordance with Article 1 of the social-democratic program, they would, against their better inclinations, be joining their own bourgeoisie against their fellow workers in a foreign country. They would thereby sacrifice the international solidarity of the workers to the national patriotism of the State. This is exactly what the German workers are now doing in the Franco-Prussian War. As long as the German workers seek to set up a national state – even the freest People’s State – they will inevitably and utterly sacrifice the freedom of the people to the glory of the State, socialism to politics, justice and international brotherhood to patriotism. It is impossible to go in two different directions at the same time. Socialism and social revolution involve the destruction of the State: – consequently, those who want a state must sacrifice the economic emancipation of the masses to the political monopoly of a privileged party.
Now the example here is particular, the workers of the German states, but its still linked to the need for an international workers revolt. He was consistent on the need for working class internationalism even when speaking about individual sections of it.

 So even on the superficial man said something, then thing like that happened level this is an incorrect argument. Now onto the heart of the matter.

There is absolutely no evidence that Bakunin was a major influence on the workers of Paris in 1870-71. There was an Anarchist and an insurrectionist current active at that time in Paris that did have influence and support amongst some of the population but the Anarchists were supporters of Proudhon's Mutualism, (in most historical texts they're referred to as Proudhonists), and the Insurrectionists were supporters of the Communist Auguste Blanqui. Bakunin's supporters were part of the French section of the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA) and at that time they sat and organised with the other tendencies within it including the supporters of Marx. Officially the view of Marx held the most weight within the group and they as an organisation urged the workers of Paris to be restrained and patient.

Though a few like Eugene Varlin did take part in anti government demonstrations.



Blanqui on the other hand was an enthusiastic supporter of  insurrection, and quite an influence on the Commune. He was declared in absentia because he was in prison the President of the Commune, his supporters were elected to it, and the Commune was willing to trade all of its hostages for Blanqui, the government of Theirs declined.

His believe in the power of insurrection by a small revolutionary elite was so great that he tried to engineer an insurrection on the 14th of August 1870. It failed very quickly, because it had no support, Balnqui and his members were literally expecting the army and the workers of the district of Belleville to join his armed demonstration. It didn't work. The uprising against the Bonaparte regime three weeks later (September fourth 1870) doesn't seem to have had any instigation from the Blanqui current, though he did become notable in the insurrection of October 31st as one of a group of revolutionaries who briefly toppled the government before troops loyal to General Trochu restored power to the "Government of National Defence". His constant pushing for armed insurrection was considered dangerous enough to get on the most wanted list, and he was arrested on the 17th of March a whole day before the insurrection that lead to the creation of the Paris Commune.

So we know that Blanqui was a tireless advocate of insurrection and was present at several abortive attempts before March 18th 1871. And yet there is no evidence that Blanqui had much of an impact on that day either. Blanqui was quite curious for a Communist, he believed the working classes couldn't achieve revolution on their own and had to be lead by a small elite of the enlightened middle class. And I do mean small, I've seen one figure put the party membership as high as 800 in 1868 with a few fellow travellers, and that was all in Paris. That's the reason why the insurrection in August was a failure Blanqui and his comrades had just assumed the workers of Paris would rally to them once they started the insurrection, they didn't actually know that the workers would support them. It may seem contradictory given how prominent the Blanquists were once the Commune got going but its easy to explain. Blanqui had spent most of his life denouncing a series of governments that were seen as corrupt and brutal, and championing the poor. He had also tried multiple times to topple these governments and took part in these attempts at uprising taking on great risks and suffered many punishments, spending over half his life in various prisons.

To quote from one of his many court appearances:

I am accused of having said to 30 million French people, Proletarians like myself, that they have the right to live... Yes, there is a war between the rich and the poor, but the rich have brought it on themselves because they are the aggressors... These privileged people live in luxury from the sweat of the Proletariat.
As such Blanqui the man was well known to political circles and had a lot of respect, but his methods and the groups paternalistic ideology doomed it to futility. Its no accident that Blanqui and his party did better in the October insurrection and the Paris Commune, these were general revolts with the support of other groups and individuals, while solo attempts at action like in August fizzled out very quickly.

So if Blanqui and Bakunin didn't lead the working class to slaughter, who did? The answer is simply no one. The Paris Commune is one of those events that's been celebrated by so many (Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Trotsky, CLR James, Gluckstein, etc) that it's easy to forget how it actually happened.



How it Actually Happened
 Image result for paris commune montmartre

On the 18th of March 1871 the people of Paris awoke to find a hostile army had seized the heights of Montmartre, they captured and killed several guardsmen and were busy trying to seize the cannons on the heights and thus disarm the defences of the city. The army was lead by a General who was known to have carried out massacres in French cities under his control. Of course this wasn't the triumphant Prussians, they were the French army lead by General  Clément-Thomas and the massacres he was infamous for happened in Paris in 1848.

Alarmed the workers of the Montmartre district -many of whom were women and children not exactly typical acolytes of radical political insurrectionist cells- rose up with what weapons they could muster and attacked this threat. Fortunately the rank and file of this army refused the orders to fire and the opposition collapsed. The Generals Clément-Thomas and Lacomte who had ordered his troops to fire on the workers of Montmartre were executed instead.

The revolt spread from Montmarte, the National Guard threw its support behind it and the standing army left in Paris either fled or surrendered, soon a demonstrators and guardsmen had occupied the abandoned government buildings and the Commune was declared. While its possible that Bakunin and Blanqui and Marx and Proudhon et al may have inspired some Parisian workers before hand there is no escaping the simple fact that the insurrection was an act of defence against an already hostile and murderous regime. No one lead the workers of Montmartre on the 18th of March they discovered a threat and defended themselves, and in the process toppled what was left of the government. The only conspiracy was the secret plans by the French General Staff to reinforce their hold on Paris. It caught everyone by surprise. The quote at the top comes from the socialist Benoit Malon, who was in Paris at the time and would serve on the Commune Council.

The IWMA the organisation that included Marx and Bakunin and their supporters in Paris, was caught so unaware by the events that the first official comments by the organisation were made on the 23rd five days later.

Funnily enough what the user Jehu, is doing is just what the reactionary press did to Marx in the aftermath of the Commune. He was repeatedly accused of planning an insurrection and of being responsible for the damage and bloodshed that followed. He responded to these allegations in an interview with a reporter from the New York World.

I: And the last uprising in Paris?
Dr. Marx: First of all I would ask you to prove that there was any kind of a conspiracy and that everything which occurred was not simply the inevitable result of the existing circumstances. And even if we assume that there was a conspiracy, I would still ask you to prove to me that the International Association took part in it.

I: The presence of so many members of the Association in the Commune.

Dr. Marx: Then it could just as easily have been a conspiracy of Freemasons, for their individual part in it was not small by any means. I really would not be surprised if the Pope did try to push the whole uprising onto their account. But let us try to find another explanation. The uprising in Paris was carried out by the Parisian workers. The most capable workers must therefore have been the ones who led it and carried it out; yet the most capable workers are also members of the International Association. But nevertheless, the Association need not be responsible for their actions in any way.

I: The world will look at it through different eyes. People are talking about secret instructions from London and even about financial assistance.Can it be maintained that the allegedly open activity of the Association rules out any secret communications?

Dr. Marx: Has there ever been an association which carried out its work without having confidential as well as open communications? But to speak of secret instructions from London as if it were a question of decrees in questions of belief and morals, emanating from some centre of papal rule and intrigue, would be to completely misunderstand the nature of the International. This would presuppose a centralised form of government in the International; in reality, however, the organizational form of the International gives the greatest scope to the working class; it is more of a union or an association than a centre of command.
The allegation of a conspiracy regardless of alleged mastermind is just a form of red baiting, by blaming internal dissent on outside agitators. So we should be very wary of those who use this tactic especially when corroborating evidence is not forthcoming.

Conclusion

Does this matter outside of this narrow subject? I would say yes, what the press of the 1870's and Jehu are doing is a form of guilt by association to discredit a view or tendency they don't like. You may think its a bit silly comparing an international press to one user on twitter and I agree, but like I said at the beginning this is just one example of very common practice in discourse. Its not really the size of the influence or even the subject at hand, I just picked this one because I know a lot about the Paris Commune so its easy for me to show the problems with it here.

This practice when used actively strangles debate and education. It actively spreads disinformation and makes it harder to learn lessons from the past. This doesn't help anyone at all. Even if you hate Marx or Bakunin or just disapprove of insurrection in general this tactic doesn't help you, you don't learn anything much about either you just get some emotional reassurance.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

1948 French Coal Miners Strike







There are a lot of important events in Labour history that get overlooked. The Coal Miners strike in 1948 in France is one of them. I have tried for days to find information on this event and so far all I've found is a short interview on Radio Fours History Hour, some archival footage from Pathe with no commentary just a few minutes of film reel recording random events during the strike and one article by a French Trotskyist organisation written at the time and translated into English at a later date. I'm assuming there's more information in French, but even with my limited French I wasn't get many results and couldn't read what I found.

The Trotskyist article is interesting but unfortunately the authors were motivated by a desire to discredit the French Communist Party (PCF) and cast themselves as its replacement, rather than recount the events of the strike accurately for the benefit of all. And since its the only source I've found I can't tell how accurate the information it does provide is. Indeed it seems to contradict the miner being interviewed, in the BBC documentary. I have found two other sources, however one is hidden behind a pay wall and the other has only translated a brief abstract, the rest of the article is in French, so no help there.

 In frustration and a desire to make things a little easier for other searchers I've made a video by splicing some of the Pathe footage together with the part of the History hour on the strike.


ADDENDUM:

A French user shared this(http://www.cinearchives.org/Catalogue_d_exploitation_GRANDE_LUTTE_DES_MINEURS__LA_-494-149-0-2.html?ref=f67ef3b524e29b901703fa543c97d706) an eleven minute account of the strike including more footage and commentary, worth watching if you understand French.



Saturday, 22 July 2017

Stitched Up


I owe my mother a lot, she's taught me many things and the debt keeps growing. For example recently she's given me a perfect example of the inherent conflict between employee's and their bosses. A lot of modern left wing discourse tends to miss the point of class dynamics to a degree, the focus is mainly on sweatshops or massive corporation so small time businesses and "ethical" capitalists tend to get a pass. This was one of the problems with the Occupy movement and its 1% vs 99% it kinda blurred the lines a lot with its populist framing.

My mother recently got a job with a small textile business that makes ships sails and boat covers. She really liked, she got on with her two co-workers and she even got along with the boss, lets call him Dave. The money while small was enough to live on and she does enjoy sewing and has experience with industrial sewing machines. And yet just after three months the relationship has soured, and its simply because of the capitalist/worker dynamic.

Dave is unusual as far as bosses go like many smallish businessmen he does do some productive work mainly arranging sales (as in purchasing) and machine maintenance. He's also a hippy type, my mother told me how laidback he is and he's only interested in providing for his family and he was more than accommodating for his employees personal issues. So a nice guy, there were a few warning signs I could of picked up on but why spoil some much needed good news for my mother? What productive would be achieved? So instead I just made vague noncommittal agreements.

Now the use of past tense is giving it away, now Dave the hippy has turned around and said he wants my mother to give up her permanent position in favour of an as and when piece work basis when its busy. He's said the reason for this is because there aren't enough orders but the number of orders have increased since my mother started not declined. Its seems more likely that he's overspent, for a Hippie he isn't lacking in luxuries, and so instead of tightening his belt he's trying to reduce the payroll and holiday pay of his business while keeping personal expenses.

This is obvious because he hired my mother not on a temporary basis when business was unusually good, it was a permanent placement complete with paid holidays, holidays which my mother just so happens to be taking next month when this new employment terms would take effect. So its clearly an excuse, perhaps though this nice Dave is making an excuse because he wasn't happy with my mothers work and hoped to let her down gently? Well he has a funny way of showing his displeasure if so, every piece my Mother has made including the ones on her trial shift have either been sold, or placed for sale within the general stock, she's even been trusted with making some special orders.

The workshop mainly makes general sails and covers differentiated by size and colour but does do special orders for say special patterns or the name of a vessel stitched in, etc. She is by her own admission slower than the other seamstresses but that is part of the process for a textile worker. Usually how it works is you learn the stages needed for creating the article, whether it be a sack, a shirt a blanket etc, and once you've shown you know how to use the machine and handle the materials you then focus on eliminating what's often described by management as excess or wasted time. Muscle memory in a word, to maximise efficiency in textile production a worker has to get to the point where every step is an automatic response. I remember as a child being taken to the textile factory my mum worked in in the 90's after school waiting for her to finish her shift. A lot of them weren't even looking at their work they were just doing it.  They were working constantly and the ratter tatter of the sewing machines never stopped but all of the steps were just subconscious movements, no mistakes no slow downs.

And that was what my mother was doing these past two and a bit months, she went from an average of 3 sails to 4 and occasionally 5. All of which were sold or put up for sale. The other full timers could average a standard sail at 45 minutes give or take. Covers and special orders are too different to standardise.

But moving beyond my mother for a minute her workplace relations provide a perfect example of the inherent exploitation of capitalism. One of the warning signs from the very beginning for me was how much my mother was being paid. She and her co-workers are on minimum wage (£7.50), that seemed rather meagre for a workshop catering mainly to the luxury market. Standard hours are three eight hour days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) with extra days to cover for time off or when orders have increased quite a bit. So I asked her how much a standard sail sells for, on average they go for £500. Now that doesn't include covers or special orders but the bulk of sales are standard sails, so 7.50 times by 24 (average hours) and multiplied by three (number of staff) is £540 so one sail by one staff member covers most of the wage bill, if all three employee's turn up and fulfil one sail, Dave has made nearly a thousand pounds of profit. As it stands my mother with her four sails clears the wage bill and makes him nearly fifteen hundred pounds of profit per day. And remember she's below average at the workshop.

But of course wages aren't the only outgoing for a business, there's rent on workspace, though he owns the workshop outright so doesn't pay rent, the cost of building or buying the business, though Dave inherited it from his father so that doesn't apply, the machines, industrial sewing machines aren't cheap its true. But the ones he uses he got from his dad and have been in use for over ten years, haven't broken down and show no signs of breaking down or any noticeable decline in performance and probably won't for years, so we can scratch that off the list too.

Ah but what about materials! Well its true that materials for sails can be quite expensive (but then that is covered in the sale price) and the workshop uses several. But the main material they use is a form Polytarp, now as material Polytarp, its a bit like the material for water proof overalls, and its incredibly cheap in its raw form and can be bought in bulk easily. So while materials do add to the outgoings unless Dave is being ripped off it doesn't add that much.

 So business issues aren't really the issue here, what is the root of this conflict is power dynamics. Dave owns the business so he calls the shots, and while it is incredibly unfair of him to shift the burden for his own spending sprees (this isn't the first time he's done something like this after a big splash on something) onto his own employees, but legally speaking he's in the right his workshop his rules, and the power relationship means there isn't much to be done within the system. Either he changes his mind and learns to take his own problems on the chin or workplace resistance convinces him to back down.

No matter how friendly and nice an employer is, they are incapable of being your friend. Its not because they're bad people Dave does seem genuinely nice and kind and I'm sure he thinks he's being magnanimous by pushing my mother onto a piecework rate instead of firing her outright, though the fact he's singling out the employee whose been employed for the shortest period and thus has fewer legal protections and obligations is kinda telling. Its the power relationship and the mutually conflicting interests of capital and labour. He has the power to transfer his problems onto others and can do so in a way that maintains his livelihood, and so he is taking it.

Its not personal its just business, and that is the root of the problem.

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