UK electors hang their parliament 2017!

The sun was shining this morning. I woke earlier than usual, made a cup of tea and switched on the TV, expecting to be bored by the election results. After all, I fell out with the Labour Party in 1966 and (short of alternatives) have tended to vote Labour holding my nose ever since. Never more so than during the Blair-Brown years from 1997. In fact, I came close to joining the ranks of the non-voters. I know that anarchists say we shouldn’t vote because it only encourages them – which is amusing but not much help. I do much more understand when people condemned to zero-hour contracts, frozen or non-existent social welfare, threadbare pensions feel neglected by the political class (THEY ARE) and don’t vote. But I vote on class lines, always have, because that is the foundation of my life.

But, I wasn’t bored – well, only by the talking head journalists who couldn’t believe that their own prejudices had been utterly confounded. The wooden PM, Theresa May, had been expected to get at least an increased majority, if not a landslide. In the end, we got a hung parliament – she hasn’t got a majority at all. How does that feel when you were promising ‘strong and stable leadership’ entering negotiations with the European Union to be the first ever country to leave? Whoops! Several Tory ministers will now have to defend wafer thin majorities next time round.

Better still was seeing the pundits confounded by the performance of the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn and his re-vitalised Labour Party, re-focused as not for decades on its core messages. He had barnstormed joyously around the country in a somewhat more restrained but bouncy version of Bernie Sanders, attracting huge crowds wherever he turned up. The big thing was that, finally, the younger voters got out to put their crosses on the ballot papers and made their voices heard. Not loud enough, but getting there. Let us hope they are in it for the long haul and don’t immediately return to walking aimlessly along the street with their heads down, earphones in, checking their Twitter feeds and crashing into lamp posts.

Given my politics, I am not going to get overly excited. I wouldn’t have done that even if Labour had won. But I am chuffed that our very personable local Labour MP massively increased his majority – a nice extra wedding present for him. He is a pretty decent guy, and so is Jeremy Corbyn. I am glad they have been vindicated in sticking as close as they possibly could to their personal convictions. It is at least good to feel some passion is back in British politics, and not in the nasty, xenophobic shape that dominated the Brexit referendum. Yes, there is hope back, little though it may be just yet. There is also some sense of relief that things were perhaps not quite as bad as previously thought.

Sadly, it won’t make much difference to the people on the Meadowell estate in North Tyneside. But they are a resilient lot. Having no other means, they have learned to fend for themselves, collectively, through their own organisation in the community, through decent, neighbourly solidarity. Now that really is worth celebrating. That, in the end, is what will change the world for the better and it has to come from the grassroots, not from the political class. Stop moaning, ORGANISE!

Why I am/am not an anarchist

I first encountered anarchism as a political philosophy in 1966-67 at University, courtesy of a lovely guy, a Jewish pacifist with whom I became friends for a while. On a summer job processing peas one year, I met a guy who was in the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation – between us we even organised a go-slow action at the factory. I picked up a couple of publications on an Easter CND Demo in 1967 and witnessed my first ‘anarchist action’ – if that is what you could call it. On the last part of the march, a bunch of people led by a guy in a black beret and waving red and black flags, moved out of the main body of the march and ran shouting up the outside. I have no idea what they were doing or what happened afterwards; they disappeared without trace. It was funny, but nothing more.

I didn’t really bother with anarchist ideas until I had been through the Stalinist-Trotskyist mill and become thoroughly disillusioned. I picked up again some of those early publications and began to make contact again to explore papers like Freedom and groups and journals around Solidarity. In time, I worked out some sort of muddled philosophy based around a mixture of anarchist and syndicalist ideas, modified by my reading of Cornelius Castoriadis (aka Paul Cardan). At the time, the best outlet for this seemed to be the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, which published a paper called Black and Red Outlook. While I was, for a short time, its General Secretary (not as grand as the title sounds) and tried to use this base to reach out to other broadly libertarian socialist groups, this was personally not a good time and I suffered one of my periodic burn-outs. I gave up on everything to do with politics for many years and even disposed of my collection of socialist and anarchist literature.

I have never really returned to anarchism since those days in the early 1970s, though I kept sporadic contact with Solidarity until it eventually disbanded and still have a collection of pamphlets and books from that stable, as well as other broadly ‘councilist’ theorists. I have even bought again some of the books I threw away: principally Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker. I guess I would more happily, then and now, describe myself as a libertarian socialist in a fairly general sense. I tried for a couple of years to work inside the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 1980s on that basis: doomed to failure against the demands to respect democratic centralism, toe the party line and not argue too violently with visiting regional officers.

During that period, the anarchist movement tended to succumb to various trends that came and went. There was the Punk Rock scene, which featured a lot of overpaid stars using anarchist symbols and rhetoric, peppered with expletives, in order to fill their pockets and delude disaffected youths. There was the ‘animal liberation’ movement’s adoption of what they called ‘direct action’. Later, there was the emergence of the ‘black bloc’ at anti-globalisation protests also using what they called ‘direct action’. None of this was remotely connected to the principled and well-organised use of direct action by syndicalist unions in the past, nor by non-violent dissident groups like the Committee of 100: both of these were part of wider movements and grounded in well thought out ideas, rather than the life-style behaviour of nihilists and anti-humanists who simply came and went.

Sadly, the ‘black bloc’ style of action is still around, generally parasitic on activities organised by trade unions and other movements. It is a pathetic, brain-dead form of protest, generally bringing discredit on the movements with which it is associated, probably heavily infiltrated by police agents and having more in common with the worst forms of jihadism and fascist street thuggery than with the movements they purport to represent. The only effect is usually to bring heavy police action against those who are engaged in peaceful activity, while the perpetrators of the window-smashing and throwing of Molotov cocktails hightail behind their black balaclava face masks like the cowards they really are.

I remain influenced by the ideas of some anarchist thinkers where these are based on class. But, given the idiots out there who profess to be the live movement, excuse me if I don’t call myself an anarchist.

Democracy – is it’s day done?

It may be a dangerous thing to put on line and attract the wrong sort of attention, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that parliamentary democracy is past its sell-by-date. It has historically been part of the development of burgeoning capitalist societies since the late eighteenth century. On the one hand, it is seen as a healthy means of keeping the lower orders in their place by giving them the illusion of ‘control’ over politics – though it has always been grudgingly conceded and is nowadays heavily managed. On the other hand, it is seen as part of a general dialogue connected with liberty, human rights and other conceptual ideals and therefore ‘a good thing’ in itself. However, this seems to be increasingly no longer true.

Particularly during the twentieth century and today, as capitalism has become more and more centralised on a diminishing number of powerful individuals supported by heavily bureaucratised political unions and state institutions, the emphasis on rights and liberties has tended to take second place to the need for unfettered exercise of centralised power, dependent on a façade provided by heavily managed elections. Numerous supposed democracies, whether in post-Soviet nations, the so-called ‘Communist’ nations (really, state capitalist), or in the supposed economic miracle countries of the global south (or their equivalent basket cases), find issues of even the most basic rights and liberties under constant attack. Most recently has emerged the subtle (or not so subtle) management of democracies using electronic media as tools for the manipulation of elections through a wide range of techniques: hacking, leaking, stealing and manipulating data, using algorithms to target individuals, etc. These might be softer than the use of riot police, closing down news outlets, arresting dissidents and so on, but no less effective and potentially chilling.

Against these distortions of democracy, the individual certainly has no power and that is even true of quite large political organisations and campaigns. The periodic pushing of a button or drawing of an illiterate’s mark on a ballot paper is more often than not becoming futile. However, the issue of freedom has not gone away. The disenchanted have a way of sometimes confounding expectations at the voting booth, even if this is often a response to some crude sloganizing by maverick political innovators.

The socialist movement needs to rediscover and reinvent its foundation in the principles of democracy, liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of organisation. It needs to foreground the issue of ‘power to the people’ by grounding it in the locality and the workplace, by making it a face to face phenomenon. It was there in the 1950s and 1960s at the heart of movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but we seem to have lost sight of how important that culture was. Healthy debate gave way to a proliferation of centralised organisations often justified by some kind of theoretical underpinning, but based on no more than the personal fiefdom of a self-appointed theorist. If the movement as a whole was dependent on such groups and individuals, socialism would now be dead in the water. But it keeps being rediscovered and reinvented. The incipient desire for freedom never goes away.

So, parliamentary democracy may have had its day and we should not be afraid to condemn it to death, but in its place we should be shouting loudly for a new democracy to replace what is in effect a disguised plutocracy – the rule by the rich for the rich, paid for by the rest of us and supported by passivity.



A No State Solution

Looking way beyond the current international furore about Herr Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Middle Eastern countries, 2017 is the centenary of the source of the whole problem: the Balfour Declaration. Dated 2 November 1917, it was written by AJ Balfour, British Foreign Secretary to Lord Rothschild and read:

“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”

This was not purely Balfour’s doing, it was a statement by the British Imperial State regarding territory over which they had absolutely no rights, other than what was being achieved by force of arms as part of the war against the Ottoman Empire. It followed an agreement reached between the French and British the previous year (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) which divided up the Middle East into spheres of influence and occupation among the WW1 Allies, also regarding territory over which neither Empire had any rights. So, the whole problem stems from an imperial arrogance rooted in nineteenth century attitudes.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, not least of which has been the Holocaust. The industrial murder of millions of Jews and others, on racial and political and eugenic grounds, by Nazi Germany with the active support of anti-Semitic governments and peoples throughout Europe, created what would inevitably be an unstoppable migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine. That in turn led to the creation of the State of Israel at the behest of the United Nations and a series of wars resulting in the present-day impasse.

The plan in 1947 had been to create a two-State solution to the problem of how this massive influx of Jews seeking security and a homeland could live alongside their Palestinian Arab neighbours, while to some degree not prejudicing ‘the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities’ (which included Christian, Muslim and secular Arabs). The situation 100 years after the 1917 Declaration is that a two-State solution has become an impossibility. Similarly, a one-State solution in which Jews and Arabs lived side by side in equality has become a political impossibility. More likely is a one-State solution in which Israel is essentially an apartheid State incorporating Palestinians as second-class citizens, alongside other Palestinians in a local version of what in apartheid South Africa were nicknamed ‘Bantustans’.

In the spirit of 1968, let us therefore ‘be realistic and demand the impossible’ – neither Zionism nor anti-Zionism. The only solution lies in a movement among both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews to create a No-State Solution in which all peoples in this disputed territory live together in harmony as co-operative neighbours, owning the land and the means of production in common without any form of threat to each other. In 2017, we must embrace the impossible as the only realistic course. The alternative is the continued cancer of barbarism, growing and spreading and infecting every society around the world. It is only one of many ‘impossibilities’ we must embrace.



Spectres of Revolt

Spectres of Revolt

Just finished reading this book by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Illinois. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to make sense of what is happening in the world today on a global scale, both the revolts and the reactions, and looking for a way through to a better world. There is one caveat – he doesn’t provide and answer and doesn’t pretend to. You will not find any formula, but he will encourage you to take notice of what is going on in a different way and help you orientate yourself more critically and skilfully, especially if you are more than a little disturbed by the shape that many of the revolts take.

What I have found most refreshing in the book is that he gives an unusually full and broad survey of radical thought from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, through post-modernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida (Spectres of Marx), providing a whole gamut of sources from which you can go further to make your own critical excursions. He draws attention to often neglected thinkers, from Anton Pannekoek, through Raya Dunayevskaya and Cornelius Castoriadis to Julia Kristeva and George Katsiaficas. The first three were known to me and have each had their influences on me at different times; Kristeva I knew about but had not come across her work on revolt, to which I will now pay attention; Katsiaficas is completely new to me.

As a taster, I include below a ten-point examination of why seemingly pointless revolt speaks clearly, expressing its own philosophy from below. I have abbreviated it, but hopefully not rendered it incomprehensible in the process, but retained its essence. The original comes from pages 245-247. My apologies to the author if I have misrepresented him in any way.

The Logic of Revolt

  1. Revolt is communicative action by means other than words, by means other than text. Revolt articulates questions, criticisms, visions and expresses disaffections.
  2. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the existing state of affairs.
  3. Revolt calls for some other state of affairs that can be imagined. Revolt imagines a state of affairs that does not exist, yet seems both possible and desirable to insurgents.
  4. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against conventional politics and established channels of reform. Revolt emerges in the face of frustrated and failed reform. Or, revolt addresses reformist failure.
  5. Revolt speaks for positions that are marginal or invisible without it. Revolt seeks to eliminate the invisibility and oblivion of its own reasonable context.
  6. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the boredom and acceptance of everyday life by way of their opposites, excitement and rejection. Revolt is an ecstatic refutation of acceptance.
  7. Revolt calls for and enacts the direct experience of autonomy and spontaneity (this acknowledges the prefigurative aspects of the rupture with everyday life.
  8. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the separation of theory from praxis… revolt rejects the notion that what makes sense in theory is impractical.
  9. Revolt calls for resolutions of anguish and hope. Revolt is not, in-and-of-itself, a solution to a problem, and yet it conceives of and presents itself as part of resolutions.
  10. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks more desperately and dangerously than in conventional communicative formats, such as textual writing and political speech. Even where revolt wants to be non-violent, it self-consciously risks various forms of violence, and in confronting a quotidian violence, is incapable of promising the absence of violence.

[Abbreviated from, and with apologies to: Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy from Below, Repeater Books, London 2016, paperback edition]



Red Ellen Wilkinson

Just finished reading ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’, by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Whatever your specific political persuasion, I urge you to read it and to persevere with its 450 pages of extensive detail. This year will be the centenary of her death from an accidental overdose of pills on 6 February 1947, at which time she was the Minister for Education in the Attlee Government and one of the architects of the experiment in social engineering from 1945. She helped create the foundations of the world in which I grew up.

Ellen was born in Manchester on 8 October 1891, not far from the area described by Engels in his ‘Condition of the Working Classes in England’, though in a slightly more upmarket neighbourhood. She became one of a generation of working-class intellectuals imbued with the ideals of socialism, feminism and internationalism. She campaigned for votes for women from an early age, was a dedicated trade union organiser all her life, helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), became a long-serving Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and Jarrow, organised the Jarrow Crusade, campaigned against fascism in the 1930s and on behalf of Republican Spain and helped in the foundation of the UN and UNESCO. She worked tirelessly and this book shows in great detail just how hard that was and how, in the end, it broke her physically. She gave her life for the working classes. If there is to be a statue to her, as has been suggested, it is long overdue and may it replace one of those bronze men on horseback.

I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Ellen stood for, but I salute her intentions and her bravery and the way she fought. Most of us mortals fall well short. What this book illustrates, step by step, and decision by decision, is the way in which the desire for ‘something better now’ can distort the longer aims and divert the most militant among us. Time and time again, Ellen allowed her principles to be set aside in order to get some small measure of vital improvement for working class lives in the immediate present. Her story is an object lesson and an archetype of how staunch and genuine socialists in the Labour Party in the UK gradually triangulate their way to becoming divorced from the working class while purporting to be representing their best interests. For every reform she won, large or small, there was an equal and opposite compromise where she turned against her own principles and blocked the tide.

This is the road that has led via Blair to Brexit, via Clinton and Obama to Trump, via the integration of neo-liberal principles in EU institutions to the rise of a new fascist menace in Europe. It is matched by similar tendencies across the globe. It is to be hoped that this process quickly produces its opposite and superior reaction: a world-wide movement for the liberation of working people from the fetters of globalised Capital. This time: let the working class be its own force for liberation.

Saying that, let me take nothing away from ‘Red Ellen’ – she did what she believed was right in the circumstances of her times. Would that the present-day Labour Party had more MPs and members like her, whatever the limitations of that organisation.



Lessons from the Past

Watching the unfolding of the so-called ‘alt-right’ tendency across the globe during the decade since the 2008 Crash, can seem scary. First, let us call a spade a bloody shovel, as those of us from England’s north-east would do: this tendency is a form of fascism re-designed and adapted in an opportunistic manner for the present day. Second, let us look back at periods where this sort of re-invention has happened before.

Sixty years ago, the USA was gripped by just such an anti-democratic movement, feeding off anti-communism and led by Senator Joe McCarthy. Go watch the movie, Good Night and Good Luck for a message of hope. Remember as well those individuals who had the courage to face down McCarthy – people like Arthur Miller, Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman (who died just recently) and the Weavers and all those other brave people who struggled through blacklisting and worse.

Remember also what followed just a few short years later. The Civil Rights Movement kicked off in the South, quickly followed by the emergence of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Add in the campaigns against the Vietnam War and the creation of Students for a Democratic Society, along with the whole mass movement on campus and in the streets. It led in time to the emergence of Black Power and radical feminism. Wasn’t that a time?

Times of stress are times for organising. There are already signs that this what is happening. It needs to be more substantive than what has developed so far, less ephemeral, more determined to stay the course and bring about the change in ways of thinking, ways of dealing with each other, ways of developing the solidarity at grassroots level into practical networks.

Organisation is the way to freedom. Don’t mourn, Organize! as Joe Hill said. But think as well.