Photography that is about us. A Review of Strange and Familiar: Britain revealed by International Photographers By Sean Vernell

Raymond Depardon Glasgow 1980-7917
Raymond Depardon Glasgow 1980.

There are two interesting photographic exhibitions in London at the moment. The 100th anniversary of British Vogue and Strange and Familiar: Britain revealed by International Photographers. The first is an interesting history of the fashion magazine Vogue featuring portraits of the rich, famous and glamorous. The second stands in stark contrast.

Strange and Familiar at the Barbican Centre curated by Martin Parr is an inspiring and fascinating investigation into the social, political and cultural lives of working class people in Britain from the 1930’s to the present. 250 photographs are on display taken by twenty three different international photographers. From Henri Cartier-Bression and Robert Frank to Akihiko Okamura and Garry Winograde. What they share is that none are British.

These photographers came to Britain to capture the lives of the ‘ordinary’. As outsiders they brought a new and fresh perspective on the everyday life of working people. Most come from leftwing backgrounds and saw the camera as a tool which allows the photographer to get beneath the surface of life to expose injustice and poverty. Sergio Larrain, the Chilean born photographer, explains that, ‘the conventional world is a screen. You have to get out from behind it when you take photographs’. And as Edith Tudor-Hart, the Vienna born photographer put it,

‘In the hands of the person who uses it with feeling and imagination the camera becomes very much more than the means of earning a living, it becomes a vital factor in recording and influencing the life of the people and in promoting human understanding.’

Edith Tudor-Hart Gee Street Finsbury, London 1936-7911

Edith Tudor-Hart: Gee St Finsbury London 1936

There is always the danger when photographing working class people going about their everyday business that the photographer trivialises their lives and shows contempt for them.

Parr, the renowned British photographer and exhibition curator, himself has been accused of this by Bression in a well documented spat between Parr and Bression. Bression attempted to block Parr’s membership of Magnum, the photographic agency founded in 1947 by Bression and Robert Capa.

But in this exhibition the photographs avoid portraying working class people in this light. The collection demonstrates the many different approaches to photography. From the objective Social Realist method of the Bauhaus school to images that are full of emotion that invite the viewer to identify with the subject.

The collection demonstrates a range of different photographic genres; street photography, documentary, landscape and architecture and sometimes a combination of all four. Bruce Davidson’s colour images of a mining community capture brilliantly the austere conditions of working class life in the Welsh valleys. Whilst Robert Frank’s visit to Caerau, a mining community in South Wales in the early 1950s, poetically portray the lives of miners and their families. Images of dust-streaked weary faces placed against the dark landscape of the valleys and children playing on slag heaps are powerful images.
Bruce Davidson Miners Wales 1965-7914

Bruce Davidson: Wales 1965

The French photo journalist, Raymond Depardou’s collection of photographs from Glasgow in the 1980’s show some incredible images of gritty working class life against the backdrop of a decaying wasteland. The Glasgow of Victorian tenements, defunct industries, lead-heavy skies and children playing are also powerful pictures that create a sense of rage from the viewer.

Akihilo Okamura, the Japanese photographer shaped by the Vietnam war and the bombing of his hometown during the second world war spent his life attempting to record the impact of war on working class lives. His photographs focus on conflict born out of occupation and the struggle for independence.

Okamura moved to Dublin in 1968 as the war in Northern Ireland began to escalate. The images he captures of the days before and after the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ are particularly potent.
Pictures of a decorative front door being carried by a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force as a protective shield, women carrying tea for the troops or children wearing colourful dresses placing flowers at a makeshift memorial convey a sense of normality within the context of war but without underplaying the horror and brutality of a city under occupation.

Some of the more surreal and abstract images on show at the Strange and Familiar exhibition are equally as effective at peering beneath the ‘conventional screen’ of British life. Sergio Larrain’s picture of a misty out of focus Trafalgar Square with pigeons flying and a silhouetted young girl conjures up an eerie moment of 1950s London. Paul Stand’s collection from the island of South Uist in the Hebrides suggests a romantic socialist vision. They portray a community trying to survive the ever encroaching tentacles of capitalism. The brooding abstract images of the Hebridean landscape get to the very essence of the island.
Robert Frank London 1952-3-7909

Robert Frank: London 1952

As you arrive at the end of the exhibition you come across Bruce Gilden’s giant close up portraits of the outcast and marginalised. None of the people on display would appear on the front cover of Vogue magazine but these portraits hold their own beauty and insights. Huge close ups stare out at the viewer which include an elderly woman in a beauty parlour, a woman from Essex with thick eyelashes and red lipstick and men with pitted faces and burst blood vessels. They make uncomfortable viewing but that is the point. Gidden’s makes visible that which is usually hidden.

This photographs in this exhibition document perceptively, with great beauty, imagination and skill, the changing conditions of British working class life and their struggles. It is an exhibition that puts ‘ordinary’ people at its centre. If you are interested in photography or even if you are not it is definitely worth a visit. I have only scratched the service of this exhibition. If you live in London don’t miss it and if you don’t take a visit to the city to see this remarkable collection of photographs.

Classic texts 4: The Communist Manifesto

The striking thing about re-reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto is how each time you return to it it seems more not less relevant than the last time. Chillingly, it seems to be describing the globalised, war-torn, crisis-ridden world of the 21st century.

In many ways this is because it is a document ahead of its time whist being firmly rooted in it. Its predictive power and vision are central to its resonance.

Economic Crisis

Written at a time of economic crisis, the “hungry forties”-as the decade of its publication became known-where in the larger cities of Western and Central Europe poverty and industrialisation were immiserating millions, there was clearly a real fear of revolution. Inside the ruling classes and the absolutist monarchies that by and large held sway, there was a recognition that the masses would not put up with their lot for much longer.There was a real fear “a spectre haunting Europe”, as the opening line of the Manifesto famously puts it, that the ruling class could not go on in the same way as before and that the masses would not put up any longer with the old order. Those in charge were right to be afraid.

After being commissioned to write the document on behalf of the League of Communists, uprisings and revolts erupted across Western and Central Europe in a manner not seen since. De Tocqueville, the French deputy,  warned that, “the wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon”. (1) He was right. In the few weeks after the Manifesto was published in February 1848, uprisings and rebellions had flared up from France to south west Germany, from Hungary and by March, Northern Italy.(2)

Bourgeois and Proletarians

The first section of the Manifesto, Bourgeois and Proletarians, is clearly talking about a recognisable modern world. It is a world in which the motor of history is identified as the class struggle. The chapter then breathlessly surveys the different forms classes have taken in different societies over time. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian,lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to each other.” The battles between different classes drive change. Capitalism emerges from the interstices of feudal society but begins to come up against barriers to its development. These barriers are economic, legal and political and struggles on all these fronts prepare the ground for revolution. In England this led to the civil war of 1642-9 where the monarch, Charles 1, was overthrown in revolution and England’s first republic was established.

Praising Capitalism

Marx next waxes lyrical about the productive power and expansion of capitalism and how a world market has been established. This new international division of labour is facilitated by the great technological innovations of the railway and the electric telegraph. This constant “revolutionising [of] the instruments of production” leads to changes in the relations of production destabilising everything. Relations of production, institutions, even ideas, that had appeared to be fixed are shown to be mutable. As he poetically puts it, “All that is solid melts into air”.

The need to constantly expand the market for its products, induced by competitive accumulation, leads capitalism to spread “over the whole surface of the globe”. This in turn affects not just production but consumption. A walk down any town or city street in the world today will reveal products made in one location from materials sourced from different parts of the world, transported by companies based in yet other countries.

One effect of all this is the great gains in communication systems that make the world feel smaller and places in it closer: what one Marxist has called the experience of time-space compression.(3)

A further effect of the process that Marx describes is the ever increasing centralisation of property and political control.(4) Disparate states, as in Germany and later Italy, for instance, are united. Laws and tariffs are harmonised.

The Destructive power of Capitalism and its Overthrow

However, after the praise, the warning. The productive forces that are being developed eventually clash with the existing set up. Crises of over-production, where markets are unable to absorb commodities, not because they are not needed but because no one has enough money for them or wants them. Lack of planning to meet needs leads to chaos. And this, Marx argues, is when society can “burst asunder”. The ground for social revolution is actually prepared by capitalism itself.

Of course, the ruling class is not always aware of this development. It is crucial, Marx argues,that like previous ruling classes, it hides its own transitory nature. Just as slave owners and feudal landlords thought their way of doing things would always be around, the current ruling classes’ way of appropriating the surplus of production, the basis on which class society arises, is historical in character.(5)

Now some argue that Marx then falls into historical determinism by arguing that capitalism will inevitably collapse. And it is true Marx does also talk about the inevitability of the revolution. Partly, the phraseology is a product,I would suggest, of the exciting times the young activists were living in, a calling to arms to those about to enter on to the stage of history, encouraging and offering hope.

Nonetheless, read carefully, it is clear that the Manifesto is about alternatives. In fact Marx makes the point that many previous societies have collapsed because of the failure to revolutionise the productive relations leading to “the  common ruin of the contending classes”.  He is clear that society is historical. Also his famous image which identifies the working class as the “gravediggers” of capitalism is an image of agency not fatalism.(6)

The second half of the text makes the need for action clear. It is a call to arms in the struggle to over throw absolutism and establish democracy. The originality,however, is in the identification of the working class as the agent of change. Even though Marx recognised that the rising bourgeoisie had a vested interest in ridding itself of the vestiges of feudalism to allow the pursuit of their interests untrammelled, the fear of what power might be unleashed and what might happen next makes the bourgeoisie untrustworthy allies. Marx realises that as capitalism has laid the foundations for the creation of the proletariat that the fight for socialist revolution would follow on immediately the democratic revolutions had been won.

Alternative Views

In the third section of the text, Socialist and Communist Literature, others who were critical of some of the effects of capitalism on workers are the subject of withering criticism by Marx. In many ways this today, is the most challenging section of the book as it is a polemic against different strands of thought specific to the time. Engels himself in 1872 recognised that it might be unintelligible to new readers.

Nevertheless, there are some general points that are still useful. Firstly, Marx is scathing of those who look back nostalgically to a supposed better past and want society’s clock turned back, a sort of 19th century Faragism.

The next variant-Marx calls it “Petty-Bourgeois socialism”-is a cry from small business, squeezed between capital’s power and the working class, terrified that any moment they too might be “hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition.”

This analysis, of what he titles Reactionary Socialism, is then followed by a more familiar brand of socialism that is often expressed by the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. These people want to redress some of the unpleasant side effects of capitalist development not realising that the supposed ‘good’ features are a result of the unpleasant ones. In short the 1% prosper because the 99% don’t. Today, these types can often be found writing for the Guardian newspaper.

Finally, he comes to the utopian socialists. These were people like Robert Owen in Britain and Fourier in France who saw the working class as only a “suffering class” not a fighting one. These thinkers view the working class as passive and they planned social experiments, colonies of socialism planted on the land of capitalism.

Marx was more sympathetic towards them as they had interesting and relevant things to say about the abolition of the division “between town and country, of the family” and the wage system. Nevertheless, they were against political action and ultimately positioned themselves against the most advanced elements of the rising working class such as the Chartists in England.

Political Organisation

The reason then, that Marx places the working class as the active subject of this process was not based on a sentimental view that as the most suffering class it had the most to gain. The fact that capitalism organises the proletariat into collective units forced to co-operate to effectively produce surplus value, means that real power lies in the workplace. The position of the working class in the relations of production meant that it was able to take on the role of leading all oppressed classes as when it overthrows its own exploitation the whole way of extracting a surplus out of all other oppressed classes is halted as production can be socialised and planned.

This leads Marx on to defining the role of the Communist party. Much has been written about the word ‘party’ and it is clear that at the time of publication, the types pf political parties we know today did not exist. They were more loose networks than the organised membership organisations we know today. It is only with the expansion of the franchise during the 19th and 20th century, and the need to manage and massage electoral victories, that mass membership parties become a feature.

The meaning of the word ‘party’ shifts in Marx’s work but in the Manifesto it takes on the meaning of tendency.(7) We can see this when he writes that the Communists do not set themselves apart from other parties. This does not mean that in the struggle alongside other working class parties, he refers to the Chartists for instance, that Communists should keep their disagreements on questions of strategy and tactics hidden. Not at all.Implicit here is an approach which today we would call an example of the united front: simultaneously working with and challenging other working class organisations in activity.(8)

Thus,the strength of the Manifesto is that following on from its clear vision of the trajectory of capitalist development and the endemic crises integral to it, Marx develops a non-propagandist, non-sectarian approach to building an anti-capitalist movement.

Workers Ideas Change in Struggle

At the heart of this approach is internationalism. As the well known last line proclaims, “Working men of all countries unite!” Radical positions on nationality and religion were also combined with progressive views on women’s oppression.

Marx realises the effect of private property on marriage and the family. The outrage expressed by those who feared the Communists’ call for the abolition of the family was hypocritical he argues, as the working class family had in reality been destroyed by the work demands of industrialisation with children and women working long hours down mines and in factories. His critique is aimed at the fact that marriage was based on property and inheritance.(9)

Here the Manifesto shows that the dominant ideas in society are an expression of a particular economic set up working to defend those who controlled production.Ideas are seen by Marx as changing when the system of production changes. Of course, there are ideas that challenged the system to varying degrees but as the ruling class owned or controlled the means of mental production-the schools, media, church- the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class.

Here the question is raised again about agency and determination. If the ideas of the ruling class serve to reproduce the status quo and justify the prejudices of society, then how can workers develop a consciousness to overthrow it when they have not got control of the ideological apparatuses in society? This is a question that socialists even today have to confront from those critical of the possibility of radical change.

The Manifesto makes it clear that communists fight for the immediate interests of the working class whilst linking that to the need to overthrow the whole of society, supporting every revolutionary movement against the social order. Marx was to argue earlier in his Theses on Feuerbach that in this struggle, what starts off as a fight for reform, better pay, conditions, pensions, can be generalised and in changing the circumstances in which they find themselves, workers change themselves, throwing off the ideological baggage handed down the chains of ideological command, discovering the old ideas to be wanting, ineffective in securing success.The racist worker who strikes against his boss learns quickly that on the picket line s/he has to link arms with workers of other nationalities or religions or divided s/he will not win. Workers ideas change en masse in struggle.(10)

The Communist Manifesto then is still relevant today and perhaps more so. Marx notes the destructive power of capitalism comparing it to a sorcerer who is no “longer able to control the powers of the underworld he has called up”. After two world wars, genocide,hunger and famine, a refugees crisis-the like of which we have not seen since the Second World War- nuclear proliferation and environmental damage, the destructive power of capitalism is clearer today. There is a real choice, the Manifesto argues: socialism or barbarism. Neither are inevitable.

References
The Age of Capital 1845-1875, Hobsbawm, E.J. Abacus,1977, p21.
Ibid, p 22.
The Condition of Post-Modernity, Harvey, David. Blackwell 1989, pp 260-263.
‘Reflections on The Communist Manifesto’ ,German, L, in International Socialism Journal 79,p16-17.
Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol1. Draper, H. Modern Review Press 1977, p16.
How to Change the World, Hobsbawm, E.J. Little Brown, 2011, p119.
Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J. Bookmarks, 1986 p 17.
Ibid. P 17.
See L. German op cit, p23.
‘Theses on Feuerbach’ in Early Writings, Marx, K, Penguin, 1975 p 442.

Classic texts 3: Rosal Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions.

Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass strike, Political Party and the Trade Unions, clearly builds on Marx’s belief that the emancipation of the working class is an act of self-liberation. No one can being socialism to the people. Her pamphlet is a powerful celebration of socialism from below. Marx’s opposition to sectarianism is also central to Luxemburg’s conception of the unifying qualities of the mass strike.(1)It is original too as it identifies what she considered to be the strategic concept of the revolution: the mass strike.

If Marx in The Communist Manifesto had explained that the working class was a product of capitalist relations of production and had the potential power to become the gravedigger of capitalism, it was Luxembourg who realised that the overthrew of the state and the economic powers the state was protecting would need more than street battles and a fight on the barricades to get rid of them. Waves of strikes involving the mass of unionised and non-unionised workers would be necessary.

Her argument was that in the process of participation in strikes workers would shed all their ideological ties to the dominant ideas of society and develop a capacity to organise society themselves in the interests of the vast majority. In short, she believed that although some workers could be won to socialist ideas by meetings and propaganda, the vast majority would be won to socialism in struggle. In short the mass strike had an educational outcome. (2)

This was new and Luxemburg knew that it would be controversial.

Her starting point was the wave of mass strikes that culminated in the great dress rehearsal for 1917, the 1905 revolution in Russia. Starting with an analysis of the numbers involved and the demands raised, she polemicises against those that believe there should be a separation between economic and political demands. This was the view of the majority of the leadership of German Social Democracy: the trade unions taking care of the everyday bread and butter issues whilst the SDP leaders, particularly in parliament, putting forward political demands for a shorter working day and more social reforms.

The mass strike she argued was important because it challenged both the economic and political power of the ruling class. So, for instance, there were huge mass strikes in the wake of the sacking of two men (3) in the mighty Putilov engineering factory in Petersburg.The workers turned to a police union, the Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop workers, to get support.Worried that they might lose credibility if they refused, the union leadership called mass meetings across the city. This boosted confidence and new demands were added to the one of reinstatement of the dismissed men, including an increase in the dally wage and an eight hour day. Economics and politics became fused.

The strikers turned to the Czar for support and a huge demonstration led by a police agent, Father Gapon, was called. In the agitation leading up to the demonstration socialists had successfully argued at mass meeting across the city that more political demands should be incorporated into the petition of grievances to be presented to the Czar,including the end to the Russo-Japanese war.

The strikes began on the 3 January 1905 and fed into a demonstration of over 200,000 on Sunday 9 January. Troops guarding the Winter palace turned of the protestors and killed over a 1000.

Luxemburg recognises that no one could have ordered this mass strike into existence but, importantly, identifies the effect of the struggle on the confidence, combatively and consciousness of workers. She explains that to overthrow absolutism workers need a high degree of political education which no amount of “pamphlets and leaflets” could achieve. Mass political consciousness can only be developed “in the fight and by the fight”(p34). This is one of the key themes of the text: that self activity is the key to self change. She goes on to argue that the most important element of the mass strike is that it nurtures the “intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat” (p38). Workers’ ideas change in struggle and their position in relation to the boss is turned around. The manager’s so called “right to manage” is challenged on the shop floor. Petty fines or disciplinary measures are knocked back. Respect for those in power and forelock tugging go out of the window. Power lies in the workplace, hence why the mass strike is of such strategic importance to Luxemburg.

Embryonic to Luxemburg’s thought then,albeit in an undeveloped form, is the idea of dual power.(4) It is true that she doesn’t take up the issue of the organisation of that power in the form of the soviets, workers’ councils, that began to vie with the Czarist state power at the height of the 1905 revolution. Nevertheless, in using the experience of the so called “backward” Russian workers’ movement to teach the so called most “advanced” workers’ movement in the world, the limitations of SPD strategy are being challenged. She is sketching a different kind of power, not only to those like Bernstein who did not want to see a revolution but also to those like Kautsky who were vague.

In many ways her idea of the mass strike, one in which the economic and the political are woven together, points forward to the Communist International’s idea of transitional demands: demands which are rooted in the present but which the struggle to achieve them leads to a confrontation with the whole capitalist order: ideological, political and economic.(5)

The mass strike is then the “method of motion” of the class struggle and as such has the potential to undermine all the divisions created by capitalism and its supporters in the media. Divisions between country and city, skilled and unskilled, unionised and non-unionised workers are broken down by participation in the action. Old prejudices such as sexism, racism and elitism, are torn apart as those who have been formerly passive are propelled into action, realising that success in the prosecution of the struggle necessitates a new world view and a dumping of all the rubbish believed in the past.

This goes hand in hand,she argues, with astonishing levels of self sacrifice, the like of which most of us think impossible. Thoughts of mortgages, job security, where the next meal might come from, no longer have the debilitating effect of holding back the struggle and vast reserves of strength and determination are found to carry forward the battle as a new found power infuses workers with confidence that those in control can and must be beaten. Luxembourg writes that once workers enter into a period of mass strikes the “ocean” of troubles and privations that would normally shackle the desire to fight, all such “costing operations”, are forgotten.

She is, of course, clear that there is no such thing as the mass strike in the abstract. For her, the truth is always concrete. She sees what she calls “demonstrative strikes”, often time limited actions called by the trade union leaders, as less important as they are controlled from above. Of course, even these strikes can over run the control of those who call them. She argues that these centrally co-ordinated strikes often occur at the beginning of a mass movement when confidence is still uneven.Nevertheless, her contrasting of the mass strike with demonstrative strikes is a part of her critique of the false separation of economics and politics which reformism is built upon.It is the dialogue the she is having. Her foil is the camp of “revisionists” who want merely to fight for the minimum, partial demands of the SPD and not use the struggles to move onto realising the maximum programme.

In fact the whole concept of minimum and maximum demands, so favoured by the reformist parties of the Second International, is blown apart by the concept of the mass strike as it not only breaks down the separation between reform and revolution, economic and political demands, defensive and offensive tactics, but releases a dynamic which sees “cause and effect… continually change place”.

There are some that still see her as the messiah of the “spontaneous” but in many ways this is to misunderstand the targets of her polemic. She has even been subject to sexist stereotypes. Others have argued that she understood spontaneity because she was a woman or she believed in a metaphysic of labour, a spiritual, irrational joy for unplanned action. The opposite is the case.

Luxembourg is arguing that mass strikes can’t be sucked out of a trade union or socialist leader’s thumb. The objective conditions are the soil in which the struggles are nourished. However, what she also recognises is that when an idea is taken up by millions of workers it can take on a material force and transform that objective reality: cause and effect are again turned on their heads. The Mass Strike is therefore a profoundly dialectical text.

The final chapter on the need for united action makes explicit what has been a thread throughout: piecemeal reform to improve conditions will not lead to the building of a new society but merely a renegotiation of the terms of exploitation that can be over turned once those in power have regrouped. Luxemburg therefore poses a completely different orientation to the Social Democratic and trade union leaderships of the time.(6) Taking the pamphlet out of its polemical context misses the point; one not lost on Trotsky who clearly saw that her conception of the mass strike put her in opposition to the leadership of the SPD. She even makes the first steps in the pamphlet to sketch the economic roots of this reformism.

The Mass Strike recognises that the economic boom in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century allowed for the development of paid officials in the movement who could specialise in “professional activity” and who thus had developed a lack of audacity, a “restricted horizon”, and a “narrowness of outlook”. This leads them to the “over-valuation of the organisation” and fear of the “disorder” created by mass strikes. Clearly, this is not a criticism of the need for socialist organisation but of bureaucracy. So, while some have criticised her undeveloped account of the development of the trade union and political bureaucracy, it is certain she understood the barriers that would be put in the way of those trying to orientate towards a mass strike movement by those who led both the trade unions and the SPD in Germany at this time.(7)

Of course, it is not a fully worked out account of why and how this process occurs. Greater clarity might have led to an earlier break from the SPD or at least the building of an organised tendency within the SPD that could have challenged the direction of the leadership. Certainly, when the SDP voted for war credits in 1914, she had few to turn to to organise resistance to the capitulation. She had not built a cadre around her that could offer a political alternative.

When the German revolution did kick off at the end of 1918, mass strikes played exactly the role Luxembourg had identified in Russia, galvanising wide layers of workers and disintegrating bourgeois power.

At the beginning of December 1918, in an article entitled Acheron has Begun to Flow, Luxemburg analysed the effect of these mass strikes which began as economic ones but then led to the exposure of the political bankruptcy of the establishment of the republic of November 1918. On December 8 well-known bosses were arrested by the workers’ and soldiers’ council. The army began to collapse and a gulf opened up between the General Staff and the government on the one hand, and the mass of soldiers and sailors on the other.(8)

The revolution was turning upside down the second most powerful capitalist country in the world and the mass strike was at the heart of the process. Luxembourg had been vindicated. Sadly, a few weeks later she was murdered by those under the control of who she had been criticising in her pamphlet.
Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J, Bookmarks,1978, p116
A Revolutionary For Our Times:Rosa Luxemburg, Bronner,S. Pluto, 1981,p62.
The Mass Strike, Luxembourg,R, Bookmarks, 1986,P31. Tony Cliff puts the number at four in Lenin: Building the Party, Bookmarks, 1986, p 151.
A point made in The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Geras,N.Verso, 1976, p 127.
The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Geras, N. Verso, 1976, p127.
Rosa Luxemburg, Cliff,T. Bookmarks, 1986,p26
Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J, Bookmarks,1978, p107.
The German Revolution 1917-1923, Broue,P. Haymarket Books, 2006,p 228.

Rebel Rebel: RIP David Jones 1947 – 2016 Bowie and Me by Sean Vernell

hBowie bw-029

 

As a lifelong Bowie fan his death came as a great shock to me, as it has for millions of his fans across the world.

My infatuation with Bowie started when I was nine. The moment was the same as for so many of us who became obsessed – Bowie’s 1971 appearance on Top of the Pops singing Starman. I was lying on my living room floor watching him put his arm around Mick Ronson, looking directly into the camera and pointing at the audience (me) whilst singing, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you -oo-oo’. My parents were sitting watching Bowie’s performance. I could sense my father getting annoyed. It wasn’t long before he was shouting at the TV denouncing Bowie as a ‘poof’ and a ‘pervert’.

I lay there and said nothing. I remember thinking – how can our worlds be so far apart? What I saw was a beautiful man wearing make-up with bright red hair singing about aliens visiting our world to save us from boredom. I had never felt so excited and energised.

I realised from that moment being a Bowie fan was not going to be straightforward. It was my first tentative recognition that there was a clash between my parents’ generation, for whom Perry Como and Johnny Mathias was the height of popular culture, and my own.

They were a part of the ‘white flight’ generation who had left Essex to run a pub in a small North Devon village, a village which was ideologically, morally and politically stuck in the 1950s. I was living in a suffocating world which made me feel like an outsider – and it was my fault.

What Bowie did for me was legitimise being an outsider. It wasn’t me that was strange – it was ‘them’. Although I could not always make sense of his beautiful lyrics, despite sitting in my bedroom reading them over and over again, his songs made me feel important and free.

Sean dancing at house party 1980-
me dancing at house party to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’

Songs like Changes and All the Young Dudes put young people at their centre. Others, like Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, explored dystopian worlds and, importantly to me at the time, painted pictures of the city. Places that were filled with interesting and exciting people where anything could happen and where anything went.

Bowie wrote many insightful songs which made social comments on the world in which he lived. London Boys was one of the songs, written in 1965, that had an impact on me. Bowie, still a teenager himself, working in New Bond Street for a design company, frequented the bars and clubs around Soho. The song is about teenage life, much like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, which went behind the curtains of ‘swinging’ London to show a different life – one of poverty and homelessness. The song reveals the alienation of a seventeen year old boy, the loneliness of living in the city and the lure of drugs and prostitution.

A gateway to ideas and new worlds, Bowie sucked up contemporary culture like no other artist. Recently he has been dubbed the Picasso of the music world. He was a cultural sponge. Bowie grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War where social democratic ideas were dominant and was brought up in Bromley, South London. Mass housing clearance schemes were taking place. Slums were knocked down to be replaced by Modernist tower blocks. People were told that they would be like ‘villages in the sky’. They weren’t. With the failure of the late 60s revolutionary movement to bring about a more just and peaceful world, songwriters started to explore the self and the individual as opposed to the grander narratives about social change for the masses.

In was in this context that Bowie’s most famous alter ego emerged. Ziggy Stardust, the otherworldly being that came to earth to save it, but instead found rock & roll, reflected Bowie’s eclectic approach to music and art.

 

Bowie got the idea for Ziggy from a British born singer who lived in the US called Vince Taylor. He was a rockabilly act based on Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley who burnt himself out after too many drug fuelled parties which led to him having religious hallucinations whilst on stage. Bowie also drew on Japanese culture to help produce Ziggy’s personae. Ziggy was a mix of Samurai warrior and Kabuki Onnagata- the male actor who played female roles in Japanese theatre.

Bowie was well read and explored a wide range of ideas to help create his music and his different characters. He was an autodidact. Bowie never went to university or college. He taught himself to study and to learn how to use ideas.

In the 70s, Bowie’s TV interviews were castigated as being pretentious and were seen as the ramblings of a coke-fuelled primadonna. But for us, Bowie opened our minds to many different cultural and artistic worlds, from the German expressionism of Erich Hecke, on the cover of Heroes, to the songs of Brecht. He introduced us to the gritty songs of Jacque Brel and to the works of psychologist RD Laing, which made us question issues like mental health, which are reoccurring themes throughout Bowie’s catalogue.

As someone who left school at sixteen with one O level (a grade C in RE – I haven’t used it yet but who knows…) Bowie made it acceptable for people like me to be interested in ideas – just for the sake of it.

One of the most important impacts Bowie had on my generation was the way he allowed us to question our sexuality. When Bowie came out as bisexual in the early 1970s it was a tremendously exciting moment for Bowie fans. It was weird and exhilarating to witness working class boys and girls at Bowie concerts screaming at a rock star who had an androgynous sexuality. For us it was a breath of fresh air that someone so well known could challenge sexual norms in this way. It gave us confidence to talk about our sexuality – gay or not.

Sean and Dean at Studio 21 2-7147
Me and Dean at Studio 21

‘Bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street…

I arrived in London in 1979 when I was sixteen working as a chef in a gentleman’s club off Bond Street in the West End and lived in a bedsit at the club. I attended Crawley Technical College, being trained as a chef on a day release basis. It was on this course that I gave my first ever talk as part of the ‘Liberal Studies’ class that we all had to attend. We had to present a topic in front of the class, and I chose to do it on ‘Gay Life’, after a Chanel Four programme with the same title. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember I gave a simple liberal defence of being gay.

There was a guy on the course who was a rockabilly. He had jet black hair with a huge quiff with loads of tattoos of Elvis and Eddy Cochran. He was not at all impressed with my defence of gay people and even more horrified with my obsession with Bowie. We used to have quite heated discussions about both issues. The course finished and we went our separate ways.

About a year later I was at a Bowie night when a guy tapped me on the shoulder. As I turned he gave me a huge hug. I stood back to look at who was squeezing the life out of me and to my amazement it was my rockabilly friend, still with quiff but in a Jean Genie style, with make up to match and a bright yellow scarf tied tightly around his neck at an angle. He proceeded to introduce me to his new boy friend. We stayed out to the early hours of the morning dancing to wall to wall Bowie. Great night.

Sean dancing at Studio 21 1980-7150
Me dancing at Studio 21

Flirtation with fascism

One of the low points of Bowie’s career came in 1976 when he gave what was seen as a Nazi salute leaving Victoria station. In an interview Bowie also stated that Britain needed a strong leader like Hitler. Eric Clapton made more overt racist comments at the time too. This spurred the launching of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

No doubt that the pressure of the musician’s union and RAR made Bowie retract his comments quite quickly, unlike Clapton. Bowie put his comments down to his state of mind at the time. It was when his cocaine addiction was at its height. He had just finished recording Station to Station, which he says he has no memory of whatsoever! He got involved in the occult and became obsessed with the writings of occultist Alaister Crowley.

Clearly Bowie was not in a good place. It was the fears for his addiction and mental health that led him, with Iggy Pop, to move to Berlin.

Throughout his musical career he worked with black jazz and funk musicians like, George Murray, Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and Nile Rogers. He championed Black singers on records like Young Americans. In a 1983 interview, Bowie aggressively questions the head of MTV about the lack of black artists being broadcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZGiVzIr8Qg

Bowie repeatedly disavowed his comments on fascism. He was an anti-racist. He never made overtly party political statements. He remained politically elusive for the rest of his life.

Berlin

Bowie’s Berlin period took me on a different journey. The Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger was a break from the past. At first I found them difficult and Heroes, in particular, I found not easily accessible. The first and only time I saw Bowie live was in 1978 on his Stage tour. This was the tour on which he played tracks from Low and Heroes. I went with my best friend at the time – Martyn. We were still both at school in Devon and came up to Earls Court in London to see Bowie and stayed at my aunt’s house in Wanstead.

When we arrived at Earls Court we spent the time watching all the amazing Bowie look-a-likes who obviously had spent hours preparing themselves for the big event. For some reason I just assumed that Bowie would start with some of his more well known songs – but he didn’t. The first track was Warzawa from Low. The bass notes went right through me. He then spent the next hour doing all the tracks from Heroes. It was only towards the end of the evening that Bowie did tracks from his early albums.The experience was fantastic but I was disappointed with the tracks he played that night.

It wasn’t until I moved to London that I really began to appreciate the albums Bowie made whilst living in Berlin. With Brian Eno, Bowie created beautiful musical landscapes that captured brilliantly the cold, dark and desperate world that we were living in. By 1979 Thatcher had been elected and seemed invincible. The club world for a while was a place of refuge from the rise of unemployment to the 3 million mark and the increasingly intolerant world that she ushered in.

Sean's portrait at Studio 21-

Me at Studio 21

Moving on

My brother bought me Dick Hebdige’s Subculture – the meaning of style around this time. It provided a frame in which I could understand the world I lived in. It helped to give some theoretical underpinnings to my rebelliousness. The book examined youth subcultures in relation to class, gender and race. I read the book cover to cover, making notes in the margins and excitedly talking to my friends about what I had read and what it might mean for us.

I finished buying Bowie albums in 1980 (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) and did not buy another until the excellent Next Day album in 2013. Although Bowie recorded another ten albums before the Next Day, I felt that most did not provide the insights into the world, both musically and lyrically, that his earlier albums had.

In the intervening thirty three years being a political activist has dominated my life and still does. The first step to becoming a revolutionary socialist is seeing yourself in relation to the world in which you live. For me, Bowie legitimised being a rebel. His music and songwriting provided a space where I could develop my own understanding of the world.

Sean, Dean and Steve on the way to Devon 1980-7156
Steve, Me and Dean having a drink. We jumped into Deans’s MG after leaving a night club in Soho in the early hours of the morning and dove down to Devon.

It is from this first step that a rebellious instinct can be transformed into a more coherent view of the world and how it can be changed. A world where everyone is given time and encouragement to explore their own creativity as part of their everyday life, where being artistic is not divorced from the human being but instead becomes a central part of what it is to be human.

Bowie gave me a glimpse of what that creativity could be. He opened a door on to a colourful world of characters and places which allowed me to access new and stimulating ideas. He has left us with a body of work which I will continue to listen to for the rest of my life.

Thank you Mr Jones.

Ziggy lives!

Classic texts 2: a summary of “Left-Wing” Communism-an infantile disorder

Texts can be formative in many ways. Reading Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism-an infantile disorder in the early 80’s, not only shaped my politics, but encouraged me to think about how to read closely.

For instance,it is obvious that texts are products of history but what does that mean exactly?.

There are two rocks that need to be navigated. The first one is the disappearance of the text into the context. The text becomes a site on which to tell a story about the past.

The second danger is the context becomes mere illustrative background: a few facts are thrown in to show how the writer was influenced.

The commonality in both approaches is that they ignore how the context is already ‘in’ the text. That is to say, writers deal with, and respond to, issues raised in the culture and politics of the time. In the process she/he is involved in a dialogue, and sets in motion, a range of possible positions that may or may not be taken up by readers then and now. This shapes, not just what they write, but how they write it.

Let’s then take a closer look at Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism-an Infantile Disorder.

Written in April 1920, with an important appendix added a month later, Lenin is trying to grapple with three types of relationship. Firstly, the text establishes the relationship between the Russian Communist Party and its experience up to and immediately after the October revolution, and the new or emerging Communist Parties of Europe. Secondly, Lenin wants to change the relationship between these fledgling organisations and those parties and organisations in their own countries with whom they were competing for influence, namely the social democrats. And finally,he indicates the new potential relationship between the new Communist parties and the working class if the right lessons are learnt from the Russian experience.

He situates the pamphlet then, firmly in the context of the successful Russian revolution and shows that, from 1905 onwards, the Bolsheviks, the precursors of the Russian Communit Party, were constantly making compromises: uniting with, and then splitting with their political opponents the Mensheviks; taking part in parliaments far more undemocratic than western ones-the Russian Duma had a biased voting system balanced in favour of the wealthier classes; joining and helping build trade unions and social welfare networks run or sometimes even set up by the police or state agents.

So, in order to set the record straight about the significance of the Russian revolution, the role of the RCP, and the applicability of this experience to others, the first four sections of the pamphlet start by illustrating the compromises the Bolsheviks made throughout their history. And Lenin has a tough message to the leaders of these new parties. He says,if you think it’s hard making compromises before a revolution, it gets even harder after one. He points out that the Soviet state was extremely isolated after 1917 and was forced to agree, for instance, to a peace deal with the German imperial power by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This was a compromise. Nonetheless it had to be done to ensure the safety of the world’s first workers’ state.

Lenin then pulls out the difference between a compromise that defends the interests of the working class as opposed to one that only benefits the 1%. He shows that the temporary breathing space given the Russian workers’ state set the imperialist powers against each other, as Russia’s wartime allies felt undermined in continuing the prosecution of the war. The Russian opponents of the compromise, Mensheviks, shouted “traitors” at the Bolsheviks but Lenin points out by doing this they ended up defending “their own predatory bourgeoisie”.

Many other examples of compromises are identified from the history of the Bolsheviks from 1903 to 1919.

Lenin’s opening gambit then is to bring out what is of general significance for those outside Russia. He argues that the revolution, and the Bolsheviks’ tactics of compromise, alliances, and “manoeuvres”, were all central in helping the Bolsheviks to break the dominance of the ruling classes’ ideological hold on the workers’ movement.

Alliances and fusions

The pamphlet then moves on to dealing with the “Left-wing communism” of the “left” inside the German Communist Party (KPD) who were scathing of their leadership who believed,correctly in Lenin’s view, that the growth of the USPD, the centrist party in Germany, was an opportunity. The leadership of the KPD wanted a coalition with them, including electoral deals. The lefts thought this was treachery.

Lenin recognised that, even before the failure of the attempt by the far-right wing in Germany to overthrow democracy, in what is known as the Kapp putsch of March 1920, mass centrist organisations were emerging. Parties that were organisationally independent and to the left of the reformist social democratic parties, but were politically unstable and wavering, were pulling hundreds of thousands to the left. The German USPD,for example,had 800,000 members.

The challenge for the leaders of the KPD,who were clear that the leaderships of these centrist parties could not be trusted, was how to engage with this development before it disappeared and demoralised workers. Action had to be swift because of what was perceived as the instability of mass centrist parties. They are a temporary phenomenon. And here is one reason that the tone of the text can  be a bit disconcerting when first encountered. Lenin seems to be shouting and denouncing those on the “left” for being “childish”-he uses the word more than once. He employs irony and mocks those he is trying to persuade because he recognises timing is crucial in politics.His tone is a reflection of what he clearly understood as a temporary opportunity.

The German”lefts” were not on their own.Many of the new Communist Parties refused to take part and engage with what they considered to be “reactionary” institutions. These included the trade unions, parliament and parties like the Labour party in Britain. The positions that Lenin is dealing with are in fact a form of political disengagement he argues.The question for Lenin was: do you stand on the side lines, or engage in joint activity, including electoral activity, in order to break the hold of those who were fudging the issue of reform and revolution?

Lenin was clear. Maintain your political independence but look for ways to unite.

Trade unions

Reactionary trade unions?
Reactionary trade unions?

Trade unions were another area of concern for Lenin. The question is well put. Should new, pure, Workers’ or Red unions be established?

The “Lefts” argued that as the unions were run by untrustworthy people, they could not be used as a tool for organising the class in the run up to the overthrow of capitalism. Noting that the growth of trade unions was a “tremendous step forward” which helped unify the class in the face of employers, Lenin agues that it is precisely because the unions are led by “opportunist” leaders that communists must “work wherever the masses are”.To do so offers the CP members in the unions access to a much wider layer of militants, not only for joint work, but also opportunities to challenge the political influence of those very same leaders by arguing for different courses of action where necessary and making action more effective when called.

If the “lefts fence themselves off” he says,they can not possibly break the hegemony of those who would compromise with capitalism. His challenge is to get in the room and argue or stand outside the house where no one can hear your principles,thus leaving the union members under the influence of those leaders who want to compromise. These he says are the choices.

Parliament

Next, he takes issue with those who were arguing that as a workers’ state was up and running in soviet Russia,the old forms of democracy, parliamentary systems, are now out of date. He poses the challenge very clearly. How on earth can anyone say that parliamentary democracy is dead, when millions are still participating in…parliamentary democracy. He is clear, that revolutionaries should stand for election and if elected use parliament as a base from which to harass the representatives of the ruling class and encourage the struggle outside on the streets and in the workplaces thereby helping to create the political conditions for the “smashing” of the state.

Crucially, what Lenin is doing here, is outlining what the minority of revolutionaries do to engage and draw into activity those who don’t,or only partially, agree with them.This side of the revolution, Lenin is saying, the revolutionaries are a minority even if, at times, a significant one. Therefore only by working alongside those who do not agree with you on every issue, can you hope to become a majority convincing them of the relevance of your strategy and tactics in the course of the struggle.

Compromises

Lenin always grasped that there is one huge paradox about revolutionary theory.For all its radicalism, Marxism,a theory of revolution, was based on a clear sighted understanding of the necessity of… compromise.

Marx, himself, spelt it out on several occasions.

In the German Ideology he pointed out that the ideas that most people hold, most of the time are the ideas of those who control the media, education systems and religious networks. People are subject to the ideas of those in power. However, he also argued, in the provisional rules of the First International, that only workers themselves can free themselves and in the process develop ideas in opposition to the ruling ideas in society. But how can we liberate ourselves and change society if, crudely put, we are subject to ideas that constantly tell us the world can’t be changed?

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx put it most poetically. He writes in the opening page that: “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”.There is no straight line from the present to the future. Manoeuvres, compromises, alliances and deals, even retreat, will be necessary in the fight for a better world. The effective left wing leader, Lenin argues, has to be able to grasp this and act quickly with “flair”, not repeat worn out slogans.

The Labour Party

However, of all the sections of the pamphlet, it was the section on the Labour Party and how the emerging British Communist Party should relate to it, that most engaged me. I read it near the end of the rise of Bennism and the near wholesale entry of large sections of ex-revolutionaries moving to the right in order to change it.

The British CP was formed from a selection of small sects in July 1920. In section IX, Lenin is trying to influence the tactical decisions that the party will take. Importantly, he recognises the difference in context between Russia, which had had its reformist equivalent-the Mensheviks-in office, and the Labour party which had not yet formed a majority government.

Recognising the more important role of “the political experience of the masses” compared to propaganda alone, Lenin explains that the unusual affiliative structure of the Labour Party, should be tested, and application should be made to join on the basis of a freedom to criticise the leadership for any sell outs.The emerging British CP are encouraged to help get the Labour Party elected in order to show to those who do not fully support revolutionary ideas at the moment, the real purpose and function of reformism.

Of course, Lenin argues, the leadership of the LP might refuse affiliation. Fine. If that happens we can clearly say that the LP, which has not yet formed a majority government, is more inclined to work with the Liberals than work alongside others who want to unite working class opposition to capitalism. We can benefit from this too.

Interestingly,and relevant today,is the fact that the CP did apply the tactic and when refused affiliation did not meekly accept the refusal of the LP leadership but instead initiated a year long debate with LP and trade union branches up and down the country seeking to challenge the decision. They had mixed results but during the process became an interventionist party not a sectarian propaganda group.

For Lenin, this approach is what is at the heart of being an effective leader: principled but with great, tactical flexibility.

It is worth adding one more point, finally, about Lenin’s advice to the British CP. And that is how starkly relevant it is today. He explains that the “immediate cause” -(his italics)-of a political upsurge can not be predicted. A “parliamentary crisis”, “imperialist contradictions” or any “unexpected” event can lead to tens of thousands of people, who have been “dormant”, suddenly springing into political action and engagement! Today’s crisis in the Labour Party just shows how stunningly relevant and prescient “Left-Wing” Communism is.

I said at the beginning that context is ‘in’ a text.It shapes both style and structure. The sense of urgency that cries out from the pamphlet, the repeated mocking of the “childishness” of “left wing communism”, even here the ironic use of inverted commas, is a result of the set of relationships that the text is trying to mediate and set in motion. The text glances sideways at the ultra-lefts gesturing to them to see the possibilities of the future open to them only if they are willing to reconfigure their political positions in the present.

With the masses.
With the masses.

Lenin’s purpose is to force the pace of change in the practice of those in Germany,Italy, Holland, France and Britain, so that they may reap the political benefits of the moment. The text, then, reflects the mood of the period when revolution flared across Europe and large sections of people were moving left but initially towards reformist or centrist organisations. The expectation was that further radicalisation was on the agenda. Duncan Hallas, a leading member of the International Socialist Tendency, in his preface to a 1993 edition wrote that it was a “work to be read, re-read and read again”. How right he was.

Classic texts: a summary of Lenin’s State and Revolution

One of the most formative of the books I read after leaving University in my early twenties was Lenin’s State and Revolution.

I can’t say it hit me as in the same way as say, reading Nabokov or Joyce, but it did hit me.

Lenin wrote it just before the October revolution. It is an unfinished piece. He says in a postscript that the revolution has interrupted the process of completion and that doing revolution is more enjoyable than writing about it.

Stylistically, it is a challenge too. Not that it is not clear. But the purpose of the pamphlet is to review what Marx and Engels had to say about the state and revolution. Lenin has to do this to challenge the distortions of other Marxists, who in a style typical of the left,even sometimes today,he frequently denounces. Like all great texts it is of its time as well as also stunningly modern.

State and Revolution
State and Revolution

So, one of the stylistic features that could put off some readers is the use of very long quotations from Marx and Engels. However, there is a good reason for this.

Challenging those like a Kautsky, the theoretician of German social democracy, the name used for left wing parties at the time, is done by trying to show, beyond dispute, what Marx and Engels had said about the state in order to prove that Kautsky was fudging the big question: can the state be taken over because it is a neutral space or does it have to be overthrown and “smashed”?

What is the state?

Lenin begins by establishing quickly that the state is a body that arises out of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. (His italics).It is set of institutions that monitors, controls and enforces the rule of one class over another so that it can ensure order all the better to continue exploiting us.

He points out that,ultimately, the state is about soldiers, the police, prisons and courts, Anyone watching the ferocious counter- revolution going on in Egypt at the moment can see that Lenin is not making this stuff up.

However, Lenin’s argument goes further. These special armed bodies are crucial he says but the state is more than these. Following Marx in The Communist Manifesto, Lenin argues that the state is a committee for sorting out the affairs of the whole ruling class. Whole is the key word here. Lenin pulls out the subtlety of Marx’s analysis by pointing out that the ruing elites in society are seldom at one on which direction to go. Debates about Europe now are a good example of this with the ruling class split over staying in. These arguments between those in power can turn nasty. The state therefore has to try and hold, sometimes warring factions and groupings, together. To fail to do so would be disastrous for those in power as their squabbles might go too far because their economic and political interests often diverge. Ruing class splits frequently open up space for insurgency from below. This is something that the state wants to avoid and therefore mediates between factions within the ruling class.

So, the state is like a huge house with different rooms of varying importance. The crucial room, lets call it the cellar, is where the special bodies of armed me and women are housed-the obviously repressive state functions.

Another important room is what might be called the front room-parliament. This is where the rules and regulations of society are made. This is the show room; the place the ruing class wants us to see as we can all come here if we get elected. It is held up as a place of democracy. Okay, sometimes the guests over do it, taking bribes and living the life of Riley on expenses at our expense! But nevertheless, it is the democratic fig-leaf that hides the really important bits of the state out of sight.

Another, more important room however, is what is often referred to as the executive. Lenin argues that “the real business of state” is carried out here behind people’s backs, and which the old comedy series Yes Minister knowingly represented. This is the space where the top civil servants, advisors and lawyers hang out. It is an area shrouded in mystery. Even the way they communicate is difficult to understand as one of their top jobs is to conceal from us what really is going on.

Some call this the ‘state bureaucracy’ as it is completely unaccountable. These are the people who, in Chris Mullins’ novel A Very British Coup, foil the election of a leftwing prime minster, Harry Perkins, and lead a coup against him. We can see the relevance then of Lenin’s ideas here. They are a reminder that if we elect the ‘wrong’ person, one who might want to challenge the pro-austerity policies of what has become known as neo-liberalism, the executive can step in to get what the ruling class wants.

Of course, even the slippery ways of the executive do not always work. And that is where the doors of the cellar are opened and the repressive forces of the state are let out onto the street.

Lenin makes clear that for most of the time the system does not need to rely big time on the heavy handed use of force. It is dangerous for them. One effect of doing so is to rip the democratic mask from the face of the ruling class and its institutions. The seemingly benign control of Shakespeare’s Prospero is revealed to be premised on the grotesque violence of a Caliban.

In fact the American Marxist, Hal Draper, presses the allusion further. He goes as far as to say that Prospero is a useful metaphor for the ruling class who are too busy ruling and exploiting us economically to interfere with the day to day ‘admin’ of the state so they leave that to Caliban who provides, food, firewood and carries out all the unpleasant tasks. Sometimes Caliban does not do as he is told but can be brought to heel if needs must.And talk of The Tempest leads me to the issue of territory.

A point not always brought out by those summarising State and Revolution is that the state, unlike in pre-class societies, defines a physical space which has been carved out of conflict. The state not only protects the ruling class from internal threats, but external ones too. Drawing on Engels, Lenin points out that as capitalism is a system of geo-political rivalry, the armed forces can be used to defend, expand, or destroy territory and those living in it. During the 19th century military expenditure expanded massively. Today spending on the military is so great it could feed the world many times over.This helps the state to appear as though it stands above society ensuring order in all aspects of life at home and abroad and can therefore seem neutral in class terms. This leads some who should know better, argues Lenin, to claim that the existing state can be used to usher in socialism.

What is the alternative?

Much of Lenin’s pamphlet reminds readers of Marx’s celebration of a new type of state that had emerged, albeit briefly, in 1871: the Paris Commune.

In Paris the communards had destroyed the state by replacing it with one that had a very different organisation and structure.

Firstly, the traditional separation of the making of rules and the carrying them out was now done by the same people. Subversion by an unaccountable bureaucracy could be prevented at a stroke.

The election of the Commune’s representatives, men, was done on the basis that they could be de-selected at any time if the electorate thought that they were not doing what they were voted in to do. Whilst the salary of an MP today is more than twice the average salary, the communards and state officials were only allowed a typical workman’s wages.Finally, the abolition of the selected armed bodies were replaced by the armed people.

This point is worth elaborating on as it seems so distant from experience. The idea here is that we should oversee ourselves. And of course, as Lenin argues, day one after a successful revolution it is not very realistic to believe that those who run society will turn round and say, ‘Okay guys, you’ve won. Over to you”. All kinds of subterfuge could attend a successful redirection of resources to meet the needs of the 99%.

But, the key element is that in the transition from a class society, the old state has been replaced, or in Lenin’s words, “smashed”.

Of course, there would still be classes in existence and the new state reflects this. And here the language Lenin uses often shocks people.It did me as a young activist. He calls the new state, like Marx before him, a “dictatorship” of the working class. Images of gulags and death chambers, from Stalin to Hitler, immediately float before some people’s eyes.

But words change their meaning. If we really want to find out if Lenin was the psychopathic loon of popular myth maybe we should look at what happens to words over time. Take the word, saucy. The current dictionary definition says that it means sexually suggestive in a light-hearted and humorous way as the predominant meaning; lively and spirited in the secondary meaning.

In Shakespeare’s day it meant something different. When, in Othello, Roderigo uses the word “saucy” talking to Brabantio, he means insolent. Yes, there is a connection with the secondary meaning but they are not identical.Language changes like everything else. And that is why knowing what an 1850 reader of The Communist Manifesto might have understood by ‘dictatorship’ is necessary.

The received meaning of the word ‘dictatorship’ in Marx’s time was rooted in its use to describe the Roman republics. The word’s meaning was linked to references to the dictatura. This was the constitutional right of the legally formed republic, in times of emergency, to delegate some decision making to a one-man ruler. Secondly, then, the meaning is tied to the idea of the delegation of power which was temporary-6 months maximum- and was limited to military decisions and suspension of laws but not the creation of new ones.(Hal Draper-Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution VOLUME 3)

The key for Marx, and therefore Lenin then, in State and Revolution, is that the new state form is being described as transitory in nature.Lenin uses the term as synonymous with workers’ state. Now this is important for Lenin’s next move where he has a dig at anarchists who want to get rid of all states straight after the revolution.

Lenin argues that the workers’ state, or “dictatorship” is a transitional one which emerges from the struggle of people to change society AND to prevent its overthrow by external or internal ruling class violence. The state form is temporary, and having completed its work, withers away. Why Lenin asks? Because the state is the product of irreconcilable class antagonism; the class basis for the state has disappeared.

Thus,even the workers’ state is merely a moment on the journey to a proto-political authority when the new human being with her/his codes of interaction emerges in the process of shaping the world to a new set of priorities focused on need not competitive accumulation.

Nonetheless, after a revolution, decisive action needs to be taken. Lenin makes this point. But what modern commentators do is suggest that this is unlike anything that has ever happened before in the UK. However, the British ruling classes’ approach in the second world war looks very much like the actions of a Roman republic.Temporarily, banning strikes, taking over ownership of private companies to put at the service of the state, suspending elections and throwing people in prison whose views or actions were seen as threat to the war effort, were deemed justified by Churchill’s government and are all classic examples of the 19th century definition of dictatorship, albeit a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie!

So should we ignore parliament?

Later in 1921, in another, for me, formative text- Leftwing Communism:an infantile disorder-Lenin had a thing about catchy titles-he argues decisively NO, especially in the context of an important debate with some British ultra-lefts who wanted to boycott the Labour Party and elections. It is another text which was formative of my experience. But its summary will have to wait for another time.

Social Media in 2k15 – An Instrument of Social Justice

Interesting. I think the use of social media to support the struggle for justice really took off in Eygpt in 2011.

In 2015, social media becomes a tool for social justice, to fight against police brutality, institutionalized racism, and media bias. Social media as a news source spreads different versions of the story (as opposed to official statements); as an open forum, social media both fuels awareness and outrage. In fact, the spontaneous, anti-racism campaign on Twitter is becoming a new civil rights movement.

The system can be changed through the political power of social media.

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Improwriting…riffs,risks and recklessness

Blogging as a form is not unique in its potentially liberating or anxiety-inducing-take your pick- openendedness and fluidity. There are echoes certainly of the stucture of conversation.Writing is a process never fully finished. You write, you edit and these days,re-edit as many times as you like. This can be in response to others’ comments or the self-critic in the head. The destination of all language is someone else and this is built into its structure. 

And just as in effective conversation you have to listen and build on what has been said, the direction you take as an improwriter is equally related to the past; past reading and writing experience, practice and ideas. 

If I want to take you to task on the folly of austerity economics, knowing something about the debt crisis is essential. But if I want to persuade you of my argument, hard facts alone are not enough. A willingness to listen to find common ground as well as indicate points of difference,just as in effective conversation,is a prerequisite in the process of creating an engaged reader who then might act differently than before by, say, joining an anti austerity protest.

The improwriter therefore,reacts and responds  to participants and  events unfolding in space and time. Yes, they might draw on theory, use examples to support their argument and even riff on common themes: the city, the crowd or culture but their aim is a creative  ‘defamiliarisation’. Getting others to see the world differently one might say. And this necessitates a space to cohabit.But if space is important, so is time. And here the link with musical improvisation helps.

Jazz improvisers do not have sheet music in front of them. Their ability to change direction and respond to the melody and  rhythm of the other players is always situated in the present which draws on what has gone before and therefore shapes the future direction of the music. To riff on an aphorism of the Marxist James Connolly:  the only prophets are those who play in the now. Therefore,importantly, every skill is connected and dependent upon the other musicians- or in improwriting- the other readers and other writers-for effective communication.

But what is crucially different about improwriting is acceptance of risk. Risk is alway present in improvisation: bum notes, misconceptions or misdirections. It is just that the improwriter,like the improviser,doesn’t worry over duly about how exactly it all comes together. It just, well, feels right. If the improwriter wants to combine a bit of psychoanalysis and Marxism in reading The Who’s Quadrophenia  and this seems a bit reckless and eclectic, so what. If that starts a discussion with others, which in turn allows further critical reflection on,say, anxiety, authenticity and the commodification of culture in ipost-war Britain then great.

And that bringss me finally to the situating of improwriting style. Terry Eagleton,in The Function of Criticism,draws attention to the role of a particular kind of style which offers some interesting possibilities. 

Eagleton points out that Steele’s Tatler and Addison’s Spectator emerged in the eighteenth century in the struggle against the absolutist state. They dealt with topics as varied as from morals and manners to books and banking. The intellectual ‘compartmentalisation’ characteristic of our times was unheard of and only emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. 

The tone of the Tatler is conversational and consensual. It seeks out discussion. Its readers were encouraged to write for it. The 3000 odd London coffee houses,where largely men from a variety of occupations would discuss ideas, was reflected in the Tatler as well as being enabled by it. The coffee houses were centres for the formation of public opinion. The periodical was the medium through which the reading community were enlisted and supported.

And that brings me back to improwriting. Today, perhaps, the coffe house’s function as a centre for debate and dissension, has been replicated in some ways by sections of social media: a virtual sphere where ideas are debated and agendas set. Maybe a kind of Habermassian public sphere has emerged, albeit owned by corporate power, which might allow us, like the articles and essays of the Tatler and the Spectator to use the blog form in similar ways. 

And I  want to suggest improwriting, in it risk-taking refusal of boundaries or what I earlier called compartmentalisation, can also contstuct a similar discursive community searching to establish social justice today.

Communication in the City

For me, the city is a collection of places through which all kinds of information flows via a complex of arteries:digital,social and economic, amongst others, which criss-cross class and collide. In fact, distorting urban feedback can be as much a problem as clarity in the representation of ideas. The struggle is to be understood, to be heard. The fact that I want to say something but you might not hear, produces anxiety, fear and anger.

In 1977, The Jam seemed to sum it up in a song that at once recalls The Who‘s My Generation and its contempt for both parental and societal authority, but at the same time is more angry at not being understood, and less resigned to dying before getting old! What determines this difference? Context.

And how was the context different?

By the mid seventies Callaghan’s Labour government was implementing cuts and oversaw the doubling of youth unemployment at the behest of the IMF. The birth pangs, of what we today call neo-liberliasm, had begun.

The first casualty was the welfare stare. It had to be denigrated to be cut.

City comps became the byword, for the emerging new right, as dumps of intellectual squalor. Of course, then, most of us outside the Establishment, were unaware that some of those hanging out with the new right and their Black papers, which sought to rollback progressive comprehensive education, were also hanging out at places like Dolphin Square and were wallowing in a very different kind of squalor.

It is utterly terrifying and sickening to think that all those old educational reactionaries -Sir Rhodes Boyson (former public school headteacher) and Sir Keith ‘mad monk’ Joseph, have now been named in relation to the rape and assault  of young, largely dispossessed children. Even the previous Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, we’ve recently been told in the press,was being investigated. But the police, in an ironic twist of custom, were knobbled.

And let us not forget who the shadow PM was at this time of cuts, rising youth unemployment and debauchery? Yes, you got it. None other than the former EDUCATION minister, Margaret Thatcher, who in 1979 really began to wield her bag at the post war consensus on welfare.

So, what has this got to do with The Jam and In the City?

The track begins with an angry guitar chopping aggressively. Foxton’s thumping bass lines join in. The very edginess and excitement of the city is evoked immediately. Weller’s song begins with communicative frustration. We are told that “there are a thousand things I want to say to you”. There are a “thousand ideas” his/my generation wanted to talk about. But the famous “you”, won’t listen, doesn’t understand. The “thousand men in uniforms” lurk on the streets as a threat. Power attempting to control ideas.

But unlike The Who’s My Generation,the enemy is not parents who don’t understand their kids’ behaviour, their taking of “blues”, but those who won’t respond to the “shinning bright faces” that craved, and crave today, representation. Those who want to be heard, listened to.

In the city today, the thousands of young people flocking to hear and be heard in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, know that society, the communicative networks that are at the heart of their cities, are throbbing to a brand new beat.

And it is about time too, that all of us listened to the sounds of the city.