Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm

How can a story so vast, so full of triumph and tragedy, as the twentieth century, be told in one sitting? Can any single volume do justice to the sheer scale of the events that were set in motion after the lamps out all over Europe in 1914; events which culminated in the collapse of a civilisation in the early 1990s?

Born to Viennese and British parents during the dying moments of the Austro Hungarian Empire, in the year of the Russian revolution, Hobsbawm’s own life witnessed the rise and fall of nations – not least the Soviet Union, to which he remained dedicated as long as he lived. It is from this lofty perspective that The Age of Extremes surveys its subject.

Hobsbawm takes a measured, dispassionate tone throughout. Possibly too measured at times, anticipating those that might accuse a lifelong Communist Party member of being unfit to write any form of “true” history. The reader is assumed to have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the major events and key players of the twentieth century. It would be quite possible to describe these ad nauseam across a hundred volumes – and still not scratch the surface – so instead the book provides a synthesis. It weaves together the many chaotic threads of the era into a tapestry in which the interconnectivity and causality of events are revealed.

Although he dispenses with crass ideological rhetoric, Hobsbawm’s marxism is clear in his analytical approach. Social forces are described in great detail, while leaders and “great men” fall by the wayside more often as not. The changing shape of the global economy and the evolving forms of social conflict are our constant frame of reference. In keeping with the “history from below” technique which Hobsbawm himself pioneered, moments of great import are contrasted against how life must have felt for the ordinary worker in their own corner of the world.

Though macroscopic in scale, this immense social history isn’t without pathos. Here and there the author shines through the text, even appearing as an occasional protagonist. Hobsbawm paints a vivid picture of the day of Hitler’s ascent to power, as witnessed by a young man reading the newspaper boards in dismay on a cold winter afternoon in Vienna. He appears later in Cambridge at the back end of the 1930s, drinking next to Crick and Watson, ignorant of the titanic breakthrough they were just about to make, and then again listening raptly to the endless hours of speeches by Fidel Castro the 1960s. His presence as an older, wiser and sadder version of himself is especially apparent towards the end of book, as he appraises the wreckage of both the golden age of capitalism (which he identifies as being between 1950 and 1973) and communism in its European form.

This post-mortem of Soviet socialism is high up among the achievements of this comprehensive history. Delicately avoiding the rabid sectarianism that all-too-often characterises works of this nature, he deftly unpicks the structural weaknesses and systematic failures of the Soviet system, simultaneously explaining to the reader why certain decisions were made in the first place and how, for a time, they appeared to be vindicated.

In his own words, he explains how:

The cause to which I devoted a good deal of my life hasn’t worked out. I hope it has made me a better historian, because the best history is written by the people who have lost out. It sharpens your analytical capacity. The winners think that history came out right because they were right, while the losers ask why everything was different, and that is a more profitable question.


Despite his extraordinary insight and the great care taken over the subject (indeed, the Soviet Union can be interpreted as the real protagonist of the narrative), Hobsbawm has none-the-less come under fire from both the left and right on his handling of the subject. Accused of “omissions and misrepresentations whereby communists have always converted history to their cause” by conservative historian David Pryce Jones
on the one hand and being “one long apologia to explain why it was OK to be a Stalinist in the 1950s… and finally a democrat in the 1990s” by ultra-left journal “LibCom” on the other, it just goes to show: if you’re spoiling for a fight, you’ll find one. Hobsbawm himself makes no bones about the fact that as well as writing a history he is also constructing an argument, which is both graceful and compelling, leaving such sectarian attacks on his politics looking childish and empty.

If there is one weakness here, it is in his obvious lack of interest in many of the intellectual developments since his orthodox marxist heyday. Issues pertaining to gender are rarely far away from words like “fashionable” and after waxing lyrical on the cultural significance of his favourite classical and jazz artists, he ludicrously suggests that it will be “down to future historians” to decide if anyone really ever liked The Rolling Stones. Considering this book was written late in the 7th decade of his life, we may perhaps forgive such moments. The only point where this attitude verges on problematic is in his suggestion that Alan Turing’s heroic status within the gay liberation movement is overstated, slightly implying that he brought his fate upon himself due to his sheltered upper class life (Turing called the police after having his flat robbed by a male lover, effectively handing himself in). This smacks of an outdated view of homosexuality as an aristocratic deviancy.

Received at the time by liberal triumphalists as the well crafted but ultimately bitter rant of a defeated ideologue , Hobsbawm’s final predictions for the future grant him, if not the last laugh, than at least the final word. The text ends with some extraordinarily prophetic passages on the potential for crisis within the new liberal world order. These include climate change, the ageing population in the developed nations, religious fundamentalism in the third world, terrorism, unwinnable wars waged indefinitely by undefeatable nations, the disempowerment of the state in the economy and the rise of a universally disliked class of technocratic politicians. In this titanic work, Eric Hobsbawm not only helps us understand what happened, from the perspective of those it happened to, but shows us how we might ourselves step back from the world and comprehend the times we ourselves will live through.

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Politics

Hack The Music Industry To Death

By Adam Berlin

The Threatin debacle exposed a fraud, but the real exposé was of Facebook and a music industry which just experienced the equivalent of a Russian hack.

I’m in a band. Whenever I daydream about winning the lottery I think, I will plough some funds into the band, then we’ll “make it”. We’ll tour the world, run a big PR campaign and receive pages and pages of copy. Why do I think this. Because in too-late-capitalism, money = success.

As soon as Facebook became the only game in town, the idea of handing out a flyer for your next show became unthinkable. From 2008 to 2013 you could friend request thousands of people and invite those “friends” to your gigs. A utopian world of direct unmediated interaction between artist and fan or the medium and the masses beckoned.

But [Adam Curtis voice], this was a fallacy.

With the aggressive monitisation of the platform in the last five years. Facebook has made all forms of communication, purely transactional. While the top 1% of bands and artists can afford to negate such exchange, that percentile exists soley to convince the 99% that they are able to engage in free and unmediated interaction.

Enter Mr Threatin, who stands accused of not being an awful preening rocker douche, but rather being wealthy enough to game the system. Perhaps Mr Threatin was inspired by the Russian spy agency, the GRU’s successful disruption of international elections, with social media fraud and disinformation. He has of course only taken Facebook’s raisin d’etre at face value; if you pay they will come.

What has Mr Threatin done other than use the available tools and techniques used by music labels? How does a label lay the groundwork for a new artist who haven’t done the ground work of say a toilet tour, or isn’t the latest survivor of a bottom-up success story? With the postings of sycophantic paid-up hacks, influencers and stooges of course.

Would we have heard about Threatin if they were legitimised by a label? I doubt it. They would have been just another US export trying to break Europe. Like Steve Bannon, or chlorine washed chicken.

Recently it’s impossible to ignore Facebook’s modus operandi is at odds with our creative endeavours. The continuing reports of data violations and how such information is used by groups we actively condone is alarming. We have spent as much money on Facebook advertising as we had recording our third album. I’m sure our fans would prefer a fourth album instead of more adverts.

Like all major infrastructure networks since the industrial revolution, digital platforms tend towards monopoly, extracting increasingly punitive rent once their dominant market position is ensured.

Maybe the bright new digital economy isn’t so different from the bad old heavy economy after all.

And yet… There is no alternative. Let me know if you find one.

Adam is the guitarist from London doom-disco combo Cold In Berlin.

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Politics

Corbynism and the National Question

To most Europeans, nationalism is inextricably linked with violence, despotism and racism. The horrors of the long 20th century have shown it for what it is, the precursor ideology to fascism and a threat not only to minorities of every stripe, but to humanity at large.

Socialists too find themselves in direct ideological confrontation with the principles of nationalism. “Workers of all countries, unite!” proclaimed Marx. The worker has no country. Nationalism deceives the workers into believing they have more in common with the landlords and capitalists of their own nation than with the working class of all nations.

And still, despite every dire warning from history, the feeling of nationalism persists – just there under the surface. More often quietly ignored than actively resisted.

In Britain today we find ourselves with a problem. The revolutionary forces of capitalist globalisation have suddenly been thrown into reverse by the working classes, but everywhere we see nationalism, nationalism, nationalism. How do we respond? What paths lay open to us beyond repeating marxist maxims, irrelevant at the sidelines?

To get a grip on the question I propose we take a look at those other nationalisms that, throughout history, progressive forces have been able to occasionally wield to less barbaric ends.

In one of history’s little jokes, modern nationalism began life as a force for liberalism and progress in 19th century Prussia; a German state that would be literally wiped off the map a century later as punishment for its violent excess. Ruled over by an absolute monarch supported by a brutal military aristocracy (the “Junkers”), the idea that there existed any power other than God higher than the monarchy was unacceptable.

The Prussian nationalists emerged with a liberal challenge to the absolutism of the monarchy – that the will of the German people as manifested in the nation was indeed a higher power, justifying the creation of Prussia’s first democratic institutions, including a parliament. The inscription on the entrance of the Reichstag – Dem Deutschen Volke (to the German people) – stood not as mark of xenophobia or chauvinism, but of progress. The very idea of a German people was, at the time, a deeply progressive suggestion, superseding as it did the minor despots that wielded actual executive power in the various states and regions.

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The German flag began life as a revolutionary banner, inspired by the tricolour of the French Republic. It was never used by the Prussian monarchs and was reintroduced by the Weimar Republic, only to be replaced by the Nazi Party flag during the period of fascist ascendance.

The story of the Prussian “Iron Chancellor” Otto Von Bismarck is well known. In conjunction with the Kaiser and his Junkers he managed to bend the fledging Prussian democracy to his will, and through military conquests forged a new Germany in blood and iron – directly setting in motion the clash of civilisations that would lead to World War I.

Out of the smouldering ruins and fragmenting empires left in the wake of The Great War arose many new states, particularly in central and eastern Europe. Formed around national groups ravenous for their first real chance at self determination, this era was initially hailed as great new chance for democracy. Waves of revolution rocked a continent with a staggering new power in town – the Soviet Union.

The 1920s would see a great experiment in socialist internationalism unfold, in which communist parties throughout Europe co-ordinated their political activity via a body called The Comintern (or the Communist International), to which they each sent delegates and from which they received policy instructions. The Comintern attempted to direct the activity of individual national parties in conjunction with what it interpreted as the will of the international working class, against the nationalist ruling classes.

In opposition to these forces grew a new kind of popular nationalism, more vicious than any yet witnessed. Communist parties included – and were often led by – Jewish intellectuals and workers, and as such were framed as an invading foreign political force, with age old tropes of anti-semitism invoked against them. Anti-semitism had been widespread as a sort of “scientific racism” among the ruling classes of Europe for generations, but its adoption by nationalists as a specific tool for driving a wedge between communists and the working classes cannot be overstated.

As the world plunged into economic crisis in the 1930s, the reactionary nationalist forces throughout Europe adopted this and other forms of racial hatred not simply as a protest against the “Judeo-Bolshevik” fifth column, but as a wholesale explanation for the economic problems the working classes were facing.

 

These 1920s posters (Polish and German respectively) use explicit anti-semitism to propagandise against communism.

As well as the major axis powers, there arose smaller but no less repulsive nationalist parties throughout central and eastern Europe – forces which have often been carefully sanitised and rehabilitated as the basis of the post-communist national identities of our new EU allies. While modern liberal voices continue to heap condemnation on the fallen communist regimes, the Polish legislate against any mention of their own complicity in the holocaust while the Croatian football team wear the emblem of the fascist Ustaši on their national kit.

However, it was at this point that the progressive movement took a swerve in the direction of a kind of nationalism too. The “class on class” period of the Communist International had been an abject disaster, poisoning moderate social democratic workers against what they saw as a belligerent foreign conspiracy against their own national identities. Partly in response to this, and partly in response to the fascist uprising threatening the new Spanish Republic, the Comintern swerved towards a policy of forming “Popular Fronts” with all progressive and democratic national forces. An appeal of national unity against the fascist menace was made to the workers, who often responded with outstanding bravery.

In this darkest chapter of European history, one of the greatest moments of international solidarity ever took place, as workers defied their carefully neutral (or actively fascist) governments to flood into Spain to defend the beleaguered Republic. Although the effort ended in defeat and tragedy, the heroism of the Republican Spanish and their internationalist allies stands as a shining light of hope in an historical epoch choked in darkness.

 

Spanish Republican poster calling for victory to the popular front and cover image from “Der Hammer” a Yiddish communist paper based in New York, calling for international solidarity.

The political aftermath of World War II posed new and troubling questions for internationalists, especially in those countries liberated by the Soviet Union. While the western powers would frame this group of nations as under foreign occupation from 1945 until the eventual collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, the communists were faced with the opposite situation. They couldn’t realistically keep half a continent under genuine military occupation, so the communist parties of the liberated countries had to be “nationalised”, in order to establish legitimacy within those populations who’s own nationalism had only been strengthened by the experience of Nazi occupation.

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Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka depicted with triumphantly waving Polish flags. Initially popular, Gomułka would in later years begin to encourage anti-semitic attitudes in Poland in response to the worsening economic situation –  to the absolute dismay of those Polish Jews who had returned to take part in the rebuilding of the country.

Where the allied forces often tacitly rehabilitated large chunks of the fascist administration of the areas under their own occupation, in order to quickly rebuild the national economies and begin to fight the cold war, the Soviets employed a different strategy. Having borne the brunt of Nazi criminality they engaged in total denazification of the areas under their oversight, installing the surviving remnants of the national communist parties in as governments.

Although much is made of these “puppet” governments installed by Moscow, its often overlooked that they included returned exiles, partisans and camp survivors (including many Jews) who’s task it was to create a new national identity that could overcome the terrifying forces of racism evoked by the previous fascist incumbents. This stands in sharp contrast to the path of least resistance taken by the West in their own efforts in state building.

In places were communist partisans had led the anti-Nazi resistance and liberated themselves, as in Albania and Yugoslavia, they were able to adopt the mantle of national saviours to legitimise their new administrations. Just as WWI had triggered the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, WWII triggered the decline of British and French hegemony around the globe. Legitimacy-through-national-liberation would be replicated by new socialist and nationalist governments emerging throughout the newly independent states of the Third World.

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“That flag, that sky, that land. We will defend them at any cost”

Here again, the question of nationalism as a progressive force raises its head. In the Arab world powerful nationalistic forces were invoked to hold at bay western imperialism on one side, pan-Islamism on the other and aspiring communist insurgents internally. Often through careful inclusion of some or all of these forces under the banner of national unity. Considering the overtly Islamist conservatism which overtook certain parts of the Middle East (most especially Saudi Arabia) its hard to view the secular, welfare states – built by Arab Nationalists like Gamal Adbel Nasser in Egypt – as anything other than distinctly progressive in comparison.

This argument is still made today by supporters of Israeli nationalism, who contend that Israel acts as a bastion for democracy and civil liberties in an otherwise deeply conservative Middle East. Questions of Jewish national self determination and progressive nationalism are deeply interlinked.

Although much bloodshed and anger has been spent defending or contesting the progressive character of Zionism, we might ask ourselves whether the question would have been quite so acute had the Soviet Union not made every effort to suppress the demands for Jewish national autonomy within its own borders. The Jewish Labour Bund – the trans-continental political union of the Jewish working class – had been a key participant in the Russian Revolution, but after a brief flowering of cultural freedom, found their demands for national recognition rejected and their membership given a harsh choice between assimilation or persecution.

 

Tito, Nasser and Nehru: Left nationalists who viewed as global figureheads for the anti-imperialist and non-aligned movements.

Perhaps the last great attempt at progressive nationalism in the 20th century came in the form of Black liberation movements. The politics of Malcolm X in the USA were formed within the black nationalist movement “Nation of Islam”. NoI were engaged in a project of creating a new black American nation based on a “recovered” African identity centred around Islam.

This nationalist demand based around cultural autonomy as opposed to a territorial claim has strong echoes of the demands made by the Jewish Labour Bund decades previously, and would give rise to the secular Black Panther Party. Through the creation of parallel political and social institutions, the Panthers attempted to create a black nation in the same place but separate to the white supremacist state. In a somewhat ironic tragedy, this project ran into the very same problems predicted by the Marxists of the 1920s: the black working classes found themselves tied to black elites who in reality now had more shared interests with their white counterparts among the ruling class – and found themselves divided from the white working classes who in turn shared their own interests completely.

We must now return to the current situation in the world today. We recoil in horror at the return of ethno-nationalism all too reminiscent of the dark days of the early 1930s. I think that at this crucial juncture the socialist movement must keep its head and draw a more subtle lesson from the past. We must absolutely and unconditionally resist what may well be the thin end of a new fascist wedge, and violently resist any and all attempts to scapegoat some internal minority or external threat.  Keeping in mind the memory of Spain and drawing on the countless other examples of socialist internationalism, we must maintain strong links with progressive forces throughout the globe and resist any temptation to shrink into navel gazing isolationism.

However, we must take great care not to confuse a pernicious and aggressive capitalist globalisation for “internationalism”, making ourselves the useful idiots of capital as we defend its great institutions in the confused belief that we are fighting xenophobia.

We must avoid the mistakes of socialists before us, and maintain a cautious respect for the incredible power of nationalism over whole populations. We would do well to remember those occasions where progressive demands have merged with national demands and become unstoppable.

We must remind ourselves that an attitude of sneering superiority or preachy moralism is to be avoided at all costs. Running with and playing our part in shaping the national mood is a surer path to victory than setting ourselves up for a head on collision with the popular will.

These, to me, are the answers Corbyn and other progressives can draw from the national questions of the last 100 years.

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Politics

The Definition of Insanity

By Toby Peacock

In the summer of 2016 the only progressive credential needed was voting remain. The racists of UKIP and the old Tory bigots were lining up to vote leave so the only option must be to accept the EU, despite its flaws, and vote to stay in. After all, perhaps after a narrow remain vote Britain will be able to forge a campaign to reform the EU from within?

Fast forward two years, the racists and the bigots won. Our country has gone to the dogs. The gleaming light of the EU is getting further from us as we hurtle deeper into the darkness. The campaign though is not yet over, there is still a valiant group willing to fight for the EU and to stop Brexit in its tracks and take Britain back to those days before the referendum when things weren’t ruined and we all lived in harmony. Right?

Well, not quite, because although those now supporting a “people’s vote” may like to pretend Britain collapsed in the early hours of the 24th June 2016, for many people in Britain their communities had collapsed already. Either in the 1980s under Thatcher or more recently following the 2008 recession. The opportunity to vote leave was the chance to create some meaningful change and to shift our country in a new direction.

Despite your opinions on the referendum campaign, or how you voted, now that Brexit is quite obviously happening it is worth taking some time to look at the playing field and all of the players. The working-class vote in Britain was to leave, “62 per cent of those with income of less than £20,000” voted that way. Whereas, quelle surprise, it was the well-to-do middle classes who emphatically supported the EU, for those earning over £60,000 just 35 per cent supported Britain withdrawing. So, when you see discussions of voters being fooled, not understanding or that we should ignore the first referendum result, remember that this is being put forward predominantly by a financially well-off group who – although purporting to be progressive – show all the signs of sneering indignation towards the decision made by their intellectual, cultural and financial inferiors.

The faux-progressive liberal ‘left’ is politically homeless, but only through fault of their own. Now fully wedded to the European project through their total disdain for Brexit, they’re unable to properly argue for anything other than the status-quo. However, it is evident across Europe that the general public is not content with the status-quo any longer.

Hardcore anti-brexit sentiment, summed up by campaigns like #FBPE on twitter, has tied itself too closely to the EU, ignoring that many on the left voted remain while holding their noses. They were not enamoured by the EU’s treatment of the Greeks, or the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, nor the endless freedoms for big business.

These ‘New Europeans’ now blame Brexit for anything and everything while they let capitalism and the Conservative government off the hook. They accept the slogan of neoliberalism ‘There Is No Alternative’ when a company shuts down and jobs are lost, they say Brexit is the cause, ignoring the possibility that the government could intervene in any way to protect jobs from the whims of the continental single market. But the real kicker for the anti-brexit campaign is that they’re incapable of addressing any of the issues that actually led to people voting leave.

The anti-brexit liberal intelligentsia has few answers for the communities destroyed by de-industrialisation, whose high-streets are now rammed with bookies, charity shops and big brand coffee places – but little else. This is the economics of liberalism: the small, local-run shop is crushed by the multi-national conglomerate because your local green grocer cannot buy and sell on the same scale that Tesco can. Of course, even this simple (and I admit simple) example is overlooked by the anti-brexit brigade in quest of cheap flights to the south of France and the ease of access to European Au Pairs. That is because neoliberalism suits the well off, and the EU referendum has made them realise that for all their progressive pretensions, the economic arguments bite.

We can see that deep down it all comes to economic ideology and not a pursuit of genuine progressive values. #FBPE and the People’s Vote campaigns are awash with attacks on Corbyn and his socialist Labour Party yet we see next to nothing aimed at May and her Conservative Government, who are actually carrying out Brexit. Much support has also been given to the ‘compassionate conservatives’ Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, who, despite allowing the Conservative government to continue unhindered by not resigning the whip, are somehow true heroes, fighting to prevent the country destroying itself. But because they are anti-brexit we must ignore the work they have been doing to destroy the country when voting through other tory policies.

These liberal progressives see the EU as something it is not. Their view is that the European Union is there to protect us from the great evils of this world, that it is a beacon of hope in a world of Trump, Tories and the far-right. This image is not accurate. The EU does nothing to protect us from the populist far-right sweeping to power, and if we look to the continent we actually see a situation far worse than ours here in Britain as we wait to leave. The EU’s lack of democracy and watering down of individual national cultures by weakening the nation state has empowered the far-right, who now have a strong political presence in almost every EU member state. As well as this rise, the centre-left social democrats are collapsing. Voters are moving away from liberal social-democracy judging it as failed, yet the anti-brexit movement in Britain strives for this liberal social-democracy, which in Europe is dying. They are destined for failure. The EU is the hill the faux-progressive liberal left has chosen to die on and, by the looks of it, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

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“Toby Peacock is a Young Labour activist, originally from Hull, about to graduate from Goldsmiths University in Political Science, with a focus on the impacts of immigration.”

 

 

 

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Politics, Reviews

Review: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

Understanding how two centuries of revolution and violence have somehow culminated in the realisation of Germany’s long standing ambition to be Europe’s leading power can be a tall order. In light of current events, this book has the potential to be a timely and relevant contribution to public enlightenment.

Sadly it is nothing of the sort.

The book begins with some excellent exposition on the Roman origins of the German idea. It enjoyably and concisely goes on a little romp through the rise, fall and rebirth of Rome from the perspective of an increasingly Romanised Germanic barbarian. We get a good sense of how the memory of Rome formed a mythical centre of gravity for the emerging mediaeval central Europe. In fact, everything up to the pre-modern age is fairly enjoyable.

As in genuine history,  signs of the trouble to come start to appear around the industrial revolution. Hawes introduces us the great Prussian philosopher, GW Hegel. He explains how, in order to avoid brutal censorship, Hegel and other thinkers of his age veiled their ideas in an attempt to throw the authorities off the scent of their radicalism.

Sadly, Hawes acts more like a thick headed Prussian censor than an educated reader of philosophy. Hegel couched many of his radical ideas for a new social order in gushing admiration for the totalitarian Prussian state. He loudly exclaimed that if a perfect state was ever going to exist, Prussia was well on the way to being it. Like Thomas Moore before him, Hegel is playing to the ego of authority in order to express dangerously radical ideas with relative impunity. Unfortunately Hawes simply takes Hegel at his word on this, and then proceeds to hamfistedly blame him for “all state loving extremists ever since, both of the left and right” – a theme which Hawes determinedly sticks to through the rest of the book.

At first its hard to tell whether all this is deliberate dishonesty or simply the kind of astounding stupidity enthusiastically performed by the apparently well educated (what a surprise that Nick Cohen has given this book his resounding endorsement!).

As the book goes on it becomes clear that the reader is being subjected to a poorly constructed barrage of lies-by-omission, error and ideological nonsense.

The author’s almost obscene hatred of Prussia should probably disqualify him from writing a genuinely useful history of Germany full stop. I won’t go much into this, as other reviewers with better knowledge of Prussian history have already throughly trounced this aspect of the writing (amazing that such a short book can be so a-historical in so many different ways!).

His handling of Marx is fairly typical of sneering liberalism: “a clever writer who was wrong about everything”. A view which totally fails to appreciate that Marxism took off in a big way after World War I because he was, in fact, right about so many things. I was more or less prepared for this particular bit of nonsense, as his view of Marx was heavily insinuated in his earlier discussion of Hegel.

However, it wasn’t until his handling of the 1919 working class uprising that I began to develop a genuine sense of revulsion towards the text.

Rather than address the painful schism that ripped through the German working class after WWI, which resulted in the Social Democratic government hiring mercenaries to violently suppress their own people, he simply shrugs his shoulders and ignores it, blaming incitement by communists for the whole debacle. The only mention of the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is in a picture caption – her ideas are ignored and her brutal murder is entirely omitted.

So ready is Hawes to blame communists for everything, including their own murders (which he implicitly endorses), one wonders how many other victims of terror he’d happily blame for their own fates.

The stench of his fascist semi-apologism becomes almost too much to bear as the book continues, and I was tempted to simply give up several times, despite it being a short and very basic text.

His clear and constant implications about the inferiority of Eastern European society,  his abject hatred of communists and his occasional flirtation with anti-semitism lead me to suspect that, had he been living in West Germany in the 1930s, he’d have been more sympathetic to the rising forces of fascism than he’d like to admit.

His old nemesis Prussia comes to the rescue here, as he’s able to frame Nazism as uniquely driven by those East Elbian barbarians, which his enlightened, civilised, Roman West Germany was unwillingly dragged along with. How like modern Polish far right revisionism this sounds. His awesome liberal chauvinism disallows Hawes from taking a nuanced or self critical view of Germany’s troubled history.

As I mentioned above, the writing at times borders on almost anti-semitic. The clearest example being when he dismisses the post-war East German government as a prefabricated puppet government installed by Moscow. Although there is some truth to this allegation,  neglecting to mention that it was composed of many Jewish anti-Nazi German refugees, some of whom hadn’t been living in Moscow during the war, but living in camps, is unforgivable. Who cares about the truth when it doesn’t fit into a homogenous narrative of good vs evil?

Maybe those East Germans who heroically purged their society of slav and jew hatred were the wrong kind of jews? Communists are always the wrong kind of jews, aren’t they?

He goes on to wax lyrical about the West’s pragmatic decision to reinstate the Nazi civil service and allow them to enact the (Nazi) plan to transfer the entire wealth of the nation (including both war industries and citizen’s personal savings) into the hands of Western facing businesses, while also changing to a new Western backed currency in order to divide the country – first economically and then formally – along the borders of  Western occupation.

Hawes more or less skips the GDR and the cold war as an irrelevant aberration. Strange, as this book is so much a product of the cold war that it could have been written by the CIA. Whether this is because he knows next to nothing about East German society, or because he actively wants to wipe it out of the history books is unclear.

Perhaps the only thing I agreed with in this whole sorry segment is that process by which reunification was undertaken was borderline criminal. However, while I see the economic terrorism and cultural purges of East German civil society as being the issue at hand (including the totally unnecessary dismantling of its world class health system), Hawes objects to his beloved West Germany being saddled with an inferior society to subsidise.

The book concludes by asserting that the modern EU, as led by West Germany, is the natural successor to both Rome and Charlemagne. A fantastically unhelpful lesson to take from modern Germany’s fascinating history and an uncomfortable parallel with the traditional fascistic desire to create ultra-modern states modelled on a glorious mythic past.

Frustrating and disturbing in equal measure.

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Iconic image of the Freikorps mercenaries executing a defiant young communist in 1919. Guess who James Hawes thinks are the good guys in this scene?

 

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Politics

Against Anti-Semitism: In the words of British Communist MP William Gallacher

The intelligent worker will realise one thing stands out crystal clear throughout the centuries. Where there has been peace, prosperity and progress, the Jews have been able to live unmolested. Only where there has been a breakdown in society through war or economic collapse have we begun to hear of the “Jewish Danger”.

Though many similar stories may be told of the fate of other minorities, no minority has suffered so much and for so long as the Jewish minority.

 

As socialists we do not represent an inalienable moral code, we see ourselves as part of the forward motion of history. We build on the foundations laid by great men and women, long gone, and we plan meticulously for the prosperity of some future day, which we ourselves may never see.

One of the great crimes committed repeatedly against ordinary people is the theft of their history. The class that profits most in the present day populates the past with foreboding shadows and triumphant images of themselves, such that they may lay claims of ownership upon the future, uncontested.

When confusion and disorientation run amok, we can and should look to the body of experience laid down by those that came before. Presented below are excerpts from a publication from 1944 on anti-semitism; by wartime MP and Communist, William Gallacher. What strikes me is how fresh and true these words ring today, reminding us that we must never loose sight of these principles.

This pamphlet is not some boring proclamation of dogma – it is a concise, gripping address to the ordinary man and woman. To be a socialist it is not enough to simply wrestle with the finer points of Marxist doctrine. The purpose of being a socialist is to engage in a continuous and ongoing dialogue with the world around you. It is with respect to this tradition that I’m paraphrasing William Gallacher’s words on anti-semtism here for you to read, and to disprove the lie that the totality of socialist thought is nothing but scripture enforced by propaganda and coercion.

He begins by highlighting the outrageous contradiction which is the hallmark of anti-semitism.

 

“But the Jews are all Communists!” Ah, I wish it were so. Only a small minority have so far made their way into the Communist Party. We would like more of them, all we can get, as of Scots, Welsh, English and all the rest.

No sooner has this wild yelling died down than it starts up again, this time on an entirely different tune. “All Jews are capitalists!”. So they get it both ways. Such childish nonsense wouldn’t be listened to in relation to any other people. The natural outcome of class relationships affect Jew and Gentile alike.

“But look at the money they spend, their blatant extravagance!” and then again “See how mean and miserly they are!”. Always the anti-semites have it both ways and upside down.

Gallacher goes on to dissect these arguments in greater detail, with reference to the prevailing issues of the day – particularly around war profiteering, black markets and representation in the armed forces. He reminds us that instead of looking for an imagined cabal of Jews hiding behind the curtains of power, you might be better off considering how fantastically over represented Jews have always been within the forces of anti-fascism. Of the 2500 men that went to fight fascism in Spain, roughly 300 were Jewish, and a staggering 12% of Britain’s Jewish population took up arms to fight Hitler.

THE CLASS ANALYSIS

Jews, like all people, are subject to the forces of class. But just it would be laughable to hold the existence of a corrupt Scottish banker against the Scots, so it is madness to see the position of one Jewish person or another as emblematic of anything other than the general organisation of society. He reminds us that when Jews are conspicuous by their difference it is always, repeat always, because of the methods of survival they have had to adopt against exclusion and persecution. 

“But the Jews control finance, and through the control of finance do this, that and the other!”. If every Jew disappeared from this country tomorrow, it wouldn’t make one difference to the relationship between financiers, industrialists and the great masses of the workers. 


Many who would fight gladly against the attacks of big business fall for anti-semitism, and thereby open the gates to their enemies. Anti-semitism is the trick by which people are persuaded to tie the rope around their own necks, to willingly sell themselves into slavery.


It is not a coincidence that Hitler and his ilk used the persecution of Jews as a smokescreen for a much wider attack on the organised working class. While the spectacle of jew-hatred was blinding the eyes of Europe, into the camps he swept Communists, the entire leadership of the Social Democratic Party and many thousands of rank and file Trade Union organisers and shop stewards – leaving the rest of Germany’s workforce vulnerable to open slavery by the Nazi Party and the industrialists who supported them.

Gallacher then proposes that the antidote to anti-semitism is education. Not education in how to “check your privilege” – as the dreary liberals of today so love to foist on you  – but education in the principles of economics, from which lessons in unity can be drawn.

 

Many people cannot understand the mysterious workings of our economic system. Those people who are not socialists find their explanation not in the evils of capitalism, but in the imaginary evils of the Jews. Our world is indeed a difficult world to understand.

On the one hand, mankind has very largely solved the problem of producing food and commodities in sufficient abundance for everybody; and yet, on the other hand, our world is one in which both the working class and the middle class experience more insecurity than mankind has experienced for centuries. There seems to be something mysteriously wrong.

Why have we got poverty and hunger, crime and immorality? To all these questions the fascists have one simple answer – the Jews. It isn’t the private ownership of land. The Jews become the scapegoats of the capitalist system.


We can easily see that this is applicable to all kinds of anti-minority prejudice. Gallacher also often references the parallels between Jew-hatred and the persecution directed at Scots and Irish Catholics in Britain in his era. We too can also use our understanding of anti-semitism to spot other forms of bigotry. However, just as Gallacher doesn’t directly conflate the two examples, and discusses in great detail the specific characteristics of anti-semitism, we too should be careful not to conflate various forms of hatred, and make special effort to give them each their own unique appraisal.

STAMP IT OUT!

Gallacher finishes with an appeal to us all to play our part in stamping out anti-semitism as we find it. Just because the horror of total war is long behind us, there’s no reason not to remind ourselves that this duty remains bestowed upon us to this very day. I’ll leave you with his words:

 

Every worker must make it his serious individual responsibility to see to it that no anti-Jewish statement is allowed to pass without challenge, and when such a statement is made in innocence, a careful explanation is given of the danger it carries.

By seeing that this foul disease of anti-semitism is stamped out, we can clear a way for the advance of a new chapter in the forward march of Jews and Gentiles to a higher and better life.

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Politics

Some Personal Thoughts on Anti-Semitism and The Left.

To my mind, there’s no link between serious left wing thinking and anti semitism. Resisting anti-semitism is a key plank of all socialist politics. The socialist movement in Europe rests disproportionately on the shoulders of the Jewish working class and their struggle for freedom.

However, there is a clear link between the fringe of radical movements and crank politics, which grew up to unacceptable proportions in the “wilderness years” of the past three decades – in which many of the best minds on the left where numbed by constant defeat and took themselves elsewhere.

It is in the nature of cranks to go on wild, conspiratorial intellectual goose chases – and most of the wild conspiracies out there are filled with anti-semitic tropes, and therefore act as a back entrance into genuine anti semitism.

Throw into the mix the contradiction between the natural socialist urge to support third world liberation struggles (such as the rights of the Palestinian people) and the fact that sometimes oppressed people can be associated with reactionary movements in their own right (such as the jew hatred of some in the arab world) and we have a political minefield. The line between “fair criticism” and “another kind of bigotry” gets badly blurred. As if pointing out that the Israel/Palestine conflict was a political minefield was at all necessary.

I am not Jewish, but my life is enriched by the friendship and love of many who are. The Labour movement will emerge stronger than ever if we all turn to our history books, as well as to the experiences of our loved ones, and learn from them.

Many of the attacks on the Labour Leadership are politically motivated, but if they become an exercise in political education for the membership and community outreach for the party, they will ultimately strengthen, not weaken the movement.

Now is an excellent opportunity to purge the Labour Party of the kind of cranks who’s tactics of failure have deliberately sabotaged British socialism for generations, and educate ourselves to be better socialists going forward into the future.

¡No Pasarán!

¡Venceremos!

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