X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past, well-written and clever films, have ignited in me an interest in the earlier X-Men films. The interest these films hold for us is based partly on the cool powers the characters have and the spectacular fight scenes this leads to. But as The Fantastic Four proves, CGI isn’t enough to make a film entertaining. It must have a beating heart and an active brain. The X-Men series is exceptional because of the way it treats the plight of the mutants like the real-life historic experience of racism and homophobia.

They’re not the only superhero movies with a political message. Christopher Nolan’s (thudda-dada-thudda-dada-thudda-dada) Batman films advance a deeply conservative and paranoid world-view: we have to suspend freedom and privacy to fight “terror”; movements against inequality end in chaos and bloodshed. They’re gripping but they leave you feeling negative. The X-Men films, though lighter, leave you with a more refreshing sense: equality and mutual respect are good, positive things; we don’t have to be afraid of each other.

The films are at their strongest when dealing with the prejudice and oppression mutants face: the most memorable image in Last Stand is of a young boy in a locked bathroom sawing and chopping his angelic wings down to stumps just to keep his mutation a secret from his bigoted father, who’s banging on the door.

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The weaknesses and limits of the films are the weaknesses and limits of the timid, liberal outlook of the film’s authors and their negative portrayal of the “radical” side of movements for equality and freedom. I’m saying this as someone who always had more sympathy for the villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) than for the noble philosopher-king Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

At the climax of each film comes a moment when the good, liberal mutants, led by Xavier, have to prevent a gang of bad, militant mutants (usually led by Magneto) from attacking the US government, or non-mutants generally. The bad mutants in First Class want to trigger a nuclear holocaust. Magneto in Days of Future Past wants to kill Richard Nixon on live TV. In X2 he (quite implausibly) wants to kill all humans.

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The plot by the bad mutants usually involves a conspiratorial act of individual terrorism or mass murder which will spark off repression against all mutants and thereby backfire.

But the other side of it is a bit sinister. The films seem to say: It is the duty of all “good mutants” to defend the establishment and the authorities from the crazy and stupid radical mutants. What is the real-life equivalent for all these mad militant-mutant conspiracies which the liberal mutants must foil?

We have recently seen in movie form the real-life story of how the most radical and assertive LGBT rights activists in Britain organised an inspiring solidarity campaign with the miners during their great strike of 1984-5. If X-Men was really comparable to real life, or if Pride was anything like an X-Men film, Mark Ashton and co would have hatched a plot to kill all the miners, only to be foiled at the last second by a group of closet gays who are strictly monogamous, never sleep around, never go to gay bars and never dress in unusual clothes in case they “offend” straight people.

Or are Marvel trying to compare Magneto and co to, say, the Black Panthers, the most “extreme” wing of the black liberation movement in the United States? If so the comparison doesn’t hold up for a second. The Panthers didn’t target civilians. They engaged in community self-defence, not individual terror. They organised school meals for poor children (black and white alike).

Magneto, even though he is superbly acted by McKellen and Fassbender, often doesn’t ring true as a character. It seems that whenever he sits down to cook up some scheme, this highly intelligent man only cares about two requirements: 1 – is it visually spectacular? and 2 – will it almost definitely provoke repression against the mutant community? The films force us to sympathise with the liberals rather than the radicals by having the radicals always cook up some completely ridiculous, evil and counter-productive plot. The authors are cheating!

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The outstanding exception to this is The Last Stand. In this movie, the liberalism of Xavier and co and of the writers is grating and obtrusive. In this case, I am with Magneto 100%. He bases himself this time not on a small circle of conspirators but on a mass army of mutants. His target is Alcatraz, where a weaponised “cure” for the mutant condition has been developed. It is damn clear that this “cure” has been designed to exterminate mutants, to forcibly suppress their powers. Even if he keeps saying sinister things like “the pawns go first”, Magneto is doing the right thing, the right way.

There might also be a weird "fear of unbridled female sexuality" vibe about this film, but that's for another day.

There might also be a weird “fear of unbridled female sexuality” vibe about this film, but that’s another matter.

The only thing stopping Magneto and the other mutants from destroying the cure/weapon is a posse of “good liberal” mutants. What incredible confusion must reign in Wolverine’s head! How did he conceive of the idea that they should risk their lives and kill loads of mutants just to defend the people who are trying to exterminate them?

"Quickly, guys! If we're too late, Magneto will save us from extermination!"

“Quickly, guys! If we’re too late, Magneto will save us from extermination!”

Of course, there are and have been in reality plenty of movements with legitimate goals but bad, counter-productive methods. But if the X-Men films are a portrait of a struggle for equality (and I’m not saying they are, necessarily, just that’s what I get out of them), they are a false picture. On the one hand we have Xavier and co, who defend the oppressor in an attempt to maintain their comfortable position and gain “acceptance”. On the other hand we have Magneto and friends, who fight for mutant rights but “go too far” and employ counter-productive methods. Where is the force of mutants that fights the oppressor, while employing effective and positive methods, in solidarity with other non-mutant oppressed groups? Nowhere to be seen. The films come closest to this in X2, when the two sides briefly work together against a Pentagon nut who wants to kill them all.

The gobsmacking myth with which every X-Men film ends is as follows: if the oppressed try their very hardest to show the oppressor that they are “reasonable” and “responsible” then they will gain acceptance from society. Let’s illustrate the wrongness of this liberal fantasy by posing two questions relating to a real-life fight against oppression: Was it the obedient slaughter of Vietnamese people by African-American conscripts that beat Jim Crow? Or was it mass protest, organisation, civil disobedience and self-defence?

I’m open to the idea that I’m taking a light superhero movie too seriously. But popular movies do reflect ideas that are prevalent in society – and they do reinforce those ideas. When we look at some struggle for freedom, at home or abroad, and start talking about “moderates” and “extremists”, we’re making a huge mistake based on a false conception. It’s this idea, expressed in the X-Men films, that I’m criticising here.

I’m going to hell

Posted: October 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Last summer I remember when the new pope, Francis, made his comments on homosexuality, a lot of people were saying that he was speaking out in support of LGBT people. This was a big change from Ratzinger/Benedict and his belief (stated pre-Pope-ification) that homosexual acts are “evil” and “against the natural order”.

Papal selfie

Papal selfie

But what Francis actually said was that gay acts should be forgiven, not that they were not sinful. He still believes (and every Catholic is required to believe) that for a man to have sex with another man is a sin, that every time it happens it somehow decreases the general wellbeing of the human race.

He did say that “sinful” gay sex should be “forgiven”. But in Catholicism there is absolutely no sin that cannot be forgiven if the “sinner” repents. Ratzinger/Benedict would completely agree with Francis that this “sin” should be “forgiven”.

The change in rhetoric, the respectful tone Francis adopted – these have no doubt made life a little bit easier for gay people living in a Catholic environment. This does mark a serious change, and attempts by the church to catch up with people’s experiences and ideas.

But think about what he said, and try to square it with your own beliefs on homosexuality. This is entirely safe for me to say because there is at least a 90% chance your beliefs are far to the left of considering gay sex “sinful.”

If their officially-stated ideas are so divorced from the opinions of most people, then why is the Catholic Church so powerful in Ireland? Who are these people who think gay sex is a sin? Why do they deserve a fancy building in every parish, a say in the running of almost every school, a shout-out in the constitution, the ear of politicians and the allegiance of huge numbers of people? Why did RTE make a huge payoff to homophobes for calling them homophobes, and why did the Broadcasting Authority rule that if we have a gay person on TV talking about gay marriage, we have to have a homophobe on as well to make the counter-argument?

Another question, while I’m on a roll with all these questions: according to Catholic teaching, am I going to hell?

Maybe in the future kids will learn about Christianity in classes on ancient literature, philosophy or anthropology, and choose for themselves whether to believe it. I learned my “facts” in mass every Sunday for the better part of two decades and at primary and secondary school. Then I gave religious beliefs far more of a benefit of the doubt than they deserved, partly because I was (and still am) repulsed by Dawkins-style elitist, formalistic atheism, which was the only kind of atheism that was presented to me. The result of all this was that even at the age of twenty was still clinging to some kind of 18th-century-style “theist” radical social, William Blake-style Christianity.

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Touche, Richard Dawkins. Of course this brilliant little bon mot rests on the premise that the foundational text for a massive, diverse religion, written in the 7th century, is comparable to the scrawlings of an early-20th-century ultra-nationalist crank; and a faith that has dominated huge parts of the world for fifteen centuries, running the gamut of human experience in a way nobody can encapsulate in a tweet, is comparable to the regime of industrial-scale persecution, conquest and genocide that ruled Germany for 12 years.

I am open to correction, but as far as I know about Catholic teaching (and I have read the required texts), the answer is Yes. Yes, if Christianity is true, then I am going to go to hell.

The places where dead people go break down as follows:

Purgatory is the triage area where you go immediately after death, to do penance and for the cosmic powers to decide, on the basis of this, where to send you: Heaven, Hell or Limbo. Heaven is for those who are sorry for their sins and have done penance for them. Hell is for the unrepentant. Limbo is for “good pagans” and unbaptised babies.

No, Family Guy. This is not what Purgatory is.

No, Family Guy. This is not what Purgatory is.

Limbo is Heaven without God. It’s for those who never had a chance to hear the “good news” but who behaved themselves reasonably well in life. Limbo actually sounds OK. So despite the fact that I’m not a Christian, will I go there if I’m good to other people?

No. Maybe if I was living in an isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest. But I had a chance to hear the word of God. I had thousands of chances. I have heard the good news droned in a hundred echoing, vaulted, stained-glass buildings and taught as fact in dozens of classrooms. At this stage, most of humanity must have been at the receiving end of the word of god, whether on TV, radio, online, Gideon bibles, ads at bus stops, strange people in the street, or through school or parents.

At first, of course, I accepted it. As dogma, I would never have swallowed religion – there was too much reactionary rubbish and superstition. But in its vague liberal form (“that’s just a metaphor”, “the church has changed its position on that”) I absorbed Christianity, partly because I liked how its central figure was a radical who was tortured to death by the state but mainly because my brain had been trained from a very young age to regard these improbable stories and classical-age philosophical musings as fact. Gradually between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one it dawned on me that I was giving too much credit to a series of books written in the Iron Age. In any case by the mid-teens my “religious beliefs” had become so woolly and vague and whatever-I-wanted-them-to-be that I was already, in effect, an atheist. Dramatic as it sounds, it’s a fact: I had renounced God! And so too do most people.

It is now completely alien to me to believe that the Bible is holy and contains immortal truths. I might as well bow down before the Baghavad-Gita or, to pick up the book on my desk, The City and the City by China Mieville. It happened to be the Bible that I was in thrall to, not because of the value of that book, but because in the first millenium AD, when people didn’t know any better, the Catholic Church spread all over Europe; and because in Medieval times the Church was an essential and powerful part of the social order; and because in modern times it has persisted in a weakened form; and, finally, because in Ireland the capitalist system developed late and weak, and the rich and powerful in this country have had to lean, medieval-style, on the church.

...with terrible consequences.

…with terrible consequences.

So I heard the word of God, and I have renounced Him. The only thing that will make me reconsider is if, following death, my consciousness awakens in some strange place that looks like Purgatory, and if, after I’ve had a good look around and talked to a lot of people, I have convinced myself that it is in fact Purgatory. The folks there will ask me to repent my sins. I will not repent having sex outside marriage. I will not repent campaigning for a woman’s right to choose. I will not truthfully say sorry for renouncing belief in God. So I will be sent to hell.

Do I deserve hell for these “sins”?

First off, it’s easy to develop a cartoonish, comical kind of vision of hell from images in South Park, The Simpsons, etc.

South_Park_-_Bigger,_Longer_&_Uncut-HellThis helps us to forget what a sick, horrible and cruel blackmail the idea of hell really is. As James Joyce recalls being told as a child: In hell, “by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.”

Do I deserve to be tortured cruelly for eternity? Do the vast majority of the human race deserve to be tortured horribly for an inconceivable length of time? Is this just?

Back to Joyce:

“Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! [...] Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; [...] and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended.”

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Those who still cling to religious beliefs must confront this question. Christianity teaches us that all but the tiniest portion of the experience of a soul (those periods spent on Earth and in Purgatory) is spent in one of three places: Heaven, Limbo or Hell. Because they have committed “sins” that they will never be able to truly admit were bad, and because they have ignored “the word of God”, the vast majority of humans in existence in the world today will end up in Hell. For eternity.

Some more general musings…

The argument, “If there is a god and he’s good, why do horrible things happen on Earth?” pales in significance next to this question: If there’s a god and he’s good, why do horrible things happen disproportionately to people who are poor, non-white, gay, or female? If god allows bad things to happen to test us, why does he subject rich people to much easier tests?

But both pale in significance next to this one: If there is a god and he’s good, why does Hell exist? If religious beliefs are positive and a force for good in the world, why have great minds spent precious brain cells imagining this terrible place?

Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is to say, it’s very, very difficult, practically impossible. But if any such kingdom exists, it is actually impossible for me to enter it. That’s because it’s impossible for me to accept that it’s a sin for a man to have sex with a man, or that it is a sin for a person to doubt the historic and scientific validity of Iron-Age manuscripts once they have been presented to him or her.

And if churches change their teachings and say that being gay isn’t a sin anymore, or announces that on closer inspection hell does not exist, then where are the “eternal truths”, and what is the use of religion? In any case that just reeks of improvisation and wishful thinking. If it’s a thing so woolly that you can twist it to mean anything, isn’t it just a mind-game?

I write this because I know kind, intelligent and sympathetic people who have Christian beliefs. I have known priests and nuns who showed me great kindness and who have done wonderful and positive things for the human race. Now if I was Richard Dawkins, I would just say those people are stupid, and I’d say they’re evil and stupid if they happened to be Muslim. But I’m not Dawkins. With an understanding of the history of churches as powerful institutions and religions as powerful sets of ideas operating in a class society, I think it’s more effective to pose rational arguments. In the Christian cosmic order, acts of love between two women are a sin, for which these two women will be condemned to eternal torture if they don’t truthfully say and believe that they’re sorry they ever did it. I don’t think any religious person I know, outside of a dogmatic fringe considered lunatic by everyone else, can really stand over that.

I just watched a great cover of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Elvis Costello and Mumford & Sons, which they mashed up in the middle with Woody Guthrie’s “Do(ugh) Re Mi”.

Costello says early on that the combination is appropriate because both songs are about the Great Depression in the US, the dust bowl, the 1930s and ‘40s. But this is actually a mistake, one that others have made as well.

Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is not really about the ‘30s and ‘40s: lines such as “highway patrol chopper comin up over the ridge” and “welcome to the new world order” place it in today’s world, or the 1990s at least.

Homeless

As I read it, Tom Joad vanished at the end of The Grapes of Wrath and now, 40 or 50 years later, the singer is sitting under a bridge with the homeless and hungry, tasting the “blood and hatred in the air”, and “waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad”. By the last verse, he is no longer “waiting,” he is “with the ghost of old Tom Joad.”

The song echoes what Tom promised Ma Joad at the end of the movie: “Wherever somebody’s strugglin to be free/ Look in their eyes Ma, you’ll see me.”

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And sure enough, by the end of the song Tom Joad has appeared. Preacher Casey shows up as well. The ghost of Tom Joad is there, as he promised, with the migrants and the refugees, with all those who are poor and hungry and exploited. Their struggle for survival, and in the longer run their fight for a better world, is the same as the struggle that the Joad family went through in The Grapes of Wrath.

Maybe this is or maybe this isn’t what Springsteen and, later, Tom Morello and Pete Seeger saw in this great song. It’s what I read into it, and I think if you overlook these ideas, it’s like listening with one earphone and hearing only the treble, you miss out on the best part of the song.

To a casual observer of the news in western Europe or North America, it must seem as if a portal to some unspeakable alien dimension has been ripped open in Northern Iraq. A complete anachronism that seems to have no place anywhere in history, least of all in the 21st century, is on the rampage. Since the fall of Mosul in June, one atrocity story has followed another. One carefully-crafted atrocity video has followed another.

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The unspeakable and the incomprehensible are unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria. A group called Islamic State (IS), only several thousand strong at the time of their sudden conquests in the summer, seems to be grabbing us by the throat and staring with blood-lust into our eyes. Usually atrocity stories are spread by the enemies of those really or allegedly doing the killing; IS enthusiastically spreads its own pictures and videos of bullets in the head, crucifixion and throat-slitting as a means of spreading terror. A “shock and awe” tactic, you might say.

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This image of Islamic State has ruled the airwaves so much so that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in a speech in which he defended sending troops and planes to Iraq, used an interesting new phrase to describe IS. “This death cult is uniquely evil in that it does not simply do evil, it exults in evil,” Abbott pontificated, in a line that wouldn’t make it into the cheesiest b-movie, but was snapped up by the world’s media.

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That phrase, “death cult”, sums up everything that’s wrong with how the media and politicians treat IS. It is the usual custom of the rich and powerful to treat every horror in the world as if it fell from the sky, or emerged naturally from human nature. IS has been written off as a “death cult” not just by Abbott but, in effect, by every media outlet that gives top billing to execution videos and zero-to-no historical context or explanation.

For racists, IS explains itself. It emerges naturally from the “muslimness” of its adherents. It is further evidence, in the racist imagination, of all the lurid Islamophobic and Arab-phobic paranoia we’ve ever been subjected to. The “death cult”-obsessed sections of the media and political cliques silently give the nod of approval to this explanation. The “death cult” explanation lets them off the hook.

Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge remind us that, when you bomb a country back to the dark ages, dark-age atrocities are going to take place. That is to say, dark-age levels of barbarity, with modern levels of technology and organisation.

The US bombed Iraq half-way to oblivion in 1990-91, then put the country under crippling sanctions that tore the country apart, leading to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, for the next 12 years. Then it was subjected to the cataclysmic 2003 invasion and to the worst atrocity of the 21st century so far, the years-long occupation that led to an even greater death toll. During this occupation the US, with no popular support in Iraq, used a sectarian “divide-and-rule” strategy, arming and training Shiite death squads to terrorize the Sunni people into submission.shock-and-awe-picture

A horrible civil war resulted, which at its worst saw bodies piling up in the streets every night, and which only wound down around 2010. 2011 and the Arab Spring gave a glimpse of an alternative, when Sunni and Shiite communities protested against the ruling puppet government and the occupation, demanding better living standards.

Iraqi medics place dead Iraqis outside t

But 2011 also saw the start of the Syrian Civil War. What began as a genuine uprising against the Assad regime was, over the course of the first year, brutally hijacked. US imperialism and whack-job pseudo-Islamic fundamentalism took over the opposition, outgunning all other forces and turning a social and political war into a sectarian and racial war, and an imperialist proxy war. The war was dragged out beyond its natural lifespan, with infinite brutality, a foretaste of what was to come, and in the midst of the artificial chaos, the forces of IS grew.

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Islamic State is a bastard child of US imperialism. Back in the 1980s, it was US imperialism that helped to create modern-day Islamic fundamentalism, by funding Afghan “freedom fighters”. In the 1990s, it was US imperialism that starved and bombed Iraq. In the 2000s, it was US imperialism that deliberately and directly trained Shiite bigots to murder and torture Sunnis, and created a puppet state dominated by Shiites. In this decade, it was US imperialism that tortured Syria and tore the country apart.

Islamic State has found enthusiastic foster parents in the form of international finance. It publishes glossy business reports for its “investors”, detailing successful attacks and supplies of weapons. Between the control of Iraqi oil, the looting of archaeological treasures and the pillaging of cities, IS are a very good investment opportunity. With a net wealth in the eight-digit region, they have a lot to boast of to millionaires from the Gulf and beyond.

This apparent contradiction, of barbarity that would make a medieval knight turn pale and start shaking, married to the most up-to-date and professional business sense, has a simple explanation. Sunni men, tortured by history and enraged by a very real humiliation and oppression, are taking up arms and doing a lot of incredibly horrible and stupid things. Wealthy investors, seeing an opportunity to make a buck, are putting up the cash and making it happen.

IS are less a HP Lovecraft “death cult” and more a very professional outfit, thriving in a ripped-apart Iraq and Syria like infection in an open wound. These are wounds torn open by the business interests represented by US imperialism, and an infection funded by any investor that wants a return.

A system that tortures and tears apart nations, and sets a gangrenous poison in the raw flesh, can be just as aptly described as a “death cult”. Those like Tony Abbott and Barack Obama, who brainlessly tub-thump, feeding into another endless war that breeds more endless wars, are its high priests. The idea that the many searing historical traumas that led to the growth of IS can be fixed, rather than made worse, by guns and bombs is its most sacred doctrine. Its commandments are “Thou shalt safeguard the profits of the rich”, “Thou shalt protect the prestige of powerful governments”, and “Thou shalt kill.”

Travel back in time to the musical wasteland of the early 21st century!

Download the latest in our series of compilation albums revisiting the history of popular music. Take a twisted tour through the byzantine maze of the millennial male’s sexual hang-ups!

The original names of these great songs were lost forever in the Great Internet Collapse of ’34. But, painstakingly collected from nameless music files, they have been renamed after careful study by music experts and cultural historians.

[Note: Experts say that many of these songs might still exist in some form as folk tunes in isolated rural communities. If so, it is possible that their original names are preserved in the memories of the elderly. The Historical Records Co-operative would appreciate any suggestions as to what the original names of these songs might have been.]

1. Rich white boy ponders failed relationship

2. Rich white boy ponders failing relationship

3. Rich white boy with banjo ponders failed relationship

4. Please increase the volume of the music, because it is currently the wrong volume

5. Dancing on a dance floor is enjoyable

6. Woman approves of abusive partner

7. Woman professes to enjoy violence during sex

8. Domestic violence (Happens because I love you too much)

9. Hearty celebration of my wealth and power in contrast to my humble origins

10. Hearty celebration of my wealth and power in contrast to the humble circumstances of others

11. Hearty celebration of hedonistic lifestyle #1

12. Hearty celebration of hedonistic lifestyle #2

13. Hearty celebration of hedonistic lifestyle #3 (In which the singer names the seven days of the week according to the pre-revolutionary calendar)

14. Hearty celebration of hedonistic lifestyle #4 (In which the singer mentions the mysterious custom of using drinks with high alcohol content for purposes of oral hygiene)

15. Rape apologist anthem

(Note: This final track is a compilation of what seem to be quotes from creepy, horny, drunk men, sung in falsetto and set to minimalistic music. While debate still continues, most experts agree that it was probably compiled for documentary purposes, and due to its offensive content and lack of musical merit, could never have been regarded as a real song.)

George Orwell’s Greatest Book

Posted: August 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

A while ago I came across a horrible facebook page called “Nationalists of the World Unite”. Just to give you an idea of what it is, it called for the “smashing” of “cultural marxists”, tries to prove that humanity did not in fact originate in Africa, and complains about “Zionist Jewish propaganda and multi cultural madness”. It’s an anti-migrant, nationalist page – arguing against the evidence of all human history that nations are like pigeon-holes and things just get hopelessly muddled if we mix things around. 

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To this day, it still has as its profile picture the dust jacket for George Orwell’s Animal Farm. When I first came across it I saw, laughing, that the moderators had also posted a huge status praising George Orwell for exposing the “globalist” agenda with his 1945 novel. I saw with satisfaction that there were a whole load of posts from people with brains in their heads, along the lines of “Orwell was a socialist you idiots! He went to Spain during the Civil War and put his life on the line to fight and kill the likes of you. He was totally opposed to racism, nationalism and fascism.” (Not an actual quote.)

The Contradictions of Orwell

This idiotic social media page, and the reaction to it, get to the heart of Orwell’s contradictions as a writer and the contradictions in his politics. The man who was shot in the neck by fascists while on the frontlines as a member of the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification is today chiefly remembered for Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. These books are read and spoken of as if they prove once and for all that socialism is evil and that anyone who speaks of equality or freedom is a Stalin-in-waiting or a useful idiot.

The frontlines of the Spanish Civil War, on which Orwell fought in 1937.

The frontlines of the Spanish Civil War, on which Orwell fought in 1937.

In fact these novels were written not as a critique of socialism but of Stalinism, of the oppressive political regime that developed in the Soviet Union, which we have written about several times before. But even though his two most well-known works are so often misunderstood, this contradiction makes Orwell an attractive writer for many: he was a committed socialist who was critical, without mercy, towards the Soviet Union, proving to a generation with zero illusions in Stalinism that Socialism was not tied to that regime and therefore that its time did not pass when the wall came down.

What made me write this blog post is the fact that I have just finished reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his memoirs of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I can say without a doubt that it is the best book Orwell ever wrote. It bridges this contradiction. Nobody can possibly mistake this book for a right-wing anti-communist scare story. It is at the same time searingly critical of Stalinism. 

homage-to-catalonia

Orwell on the Spanish Civil War

Orwell arrived in Barcelona six months after a working-class revolution thwarted Franco and his “stuffy clerico-military reaction.” He writes: “Men and women armed only with sticks of dynamite rushed across open squares and stormed stone buildings held by trained soldiers with machine-guns.” In Barcelona, when Orwell arrived, the working class was “in the saddle”, or appeared to be. There was no more cringing, boot-licking, snobbery or waste.

CNT was the Anarchist-influenced trade union, FAI the Spanish Anarchist organisation

CNT was the Anarchist-influenced trade union, FAI the Spanish Anarchist organisation

While the introduction by Julian Symons repeats time and time again that Orwell was a “romantic”, Orwell never romanticises the revolution. He describes events without any filter for gruesome, absurd and horrible details. But he is utterly inspired by his experiences in spite of the horrors of war, an inspiration that does not wear off but comes out far stronger after months on the front-lines:

“For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of classless society. In that community where no-one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like… The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.”

A column of the POUM militia in which Orwell served

A column of the POUM militia in which Orwell served

Cynicism refuted by experience

An idea floats around and comes to the surface quite often, the idea that cynicism and hopelessness are the result of experience of the “real world” and of “human nature.” Homage to Catalonia refutes that in the development it chronicles within the brain of its author. Orwell, cynical by long habit, is made un-cynical in many ways by going through “beastly” experiences in Barcelona and at the front line. He becomes much more political, not less. 

Coming across the array of parties and initials – CNT, FAI, POUM, PSUC, UGT, etc – Orwell was initially “puzzled”:

“…my attitude always was, ‘can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’ This of course was the correct ‘anti-Fascist’ attitude which had been carefully disseminated by the English newspapers… But in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it was an attitude that no-one could keep up indefinitely. Everyone, no matter how unwillingly, took sides sooner or later.For even if one cared nothing for the political parties and their conflicting ‘lines’, it was too obvious that one’s own destiny was involved. As a militiaman one was a soldier against Franco, but one was also a pawn an enormous struggle that was being fought out between two political theories.”

A war within a war

This struggle is laid out very clearly in Homage to Catalonia and is worth outlining here. The war began in July 1936 with a working-class uprising against Franco’s coup. Orwell makes it clear that these workers, like him, were fighting not simply for “democracy” but for improvements in their everyday lives, for control over the land and the factories, for a socialist society. Within the anti-Franco camp there was a struggle, at first hidden, then suddenly open. On one side were the liberals, the Stalinist Communist Party and the social democrat/labour party equivalents, who wanted to prevent any revolution taking place and defeat Franco in the name of “democracy”. On the other side there were the Anarchists and the POUM, and with them huge sections of the working class, who saw the revolution and the winning of the war as one and the same task.

Orwell at first inclines toward the Stalinist-liberal side. But as time goes on and he sees the struggle explode into open fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May 1937, he comes around very strongly to the other side. First, by making the war a war for socialism rather than an abstract “war for democracy” (abstract because the Republican side had instituted a military dictatorship against all forces to the left of the Stalinists), the anti-Franco forces might mobilise the support of workers in other European countries, much as the Bolsheviks did during the Russian revolution.

Barricades in Barcelona, May 1937. Fighting erupted behind Republican lines when the  "liberal" government, with Stalinist support, moved against the anarchists

Barricades in Barcelona, May 1937. Fighting erupted behind Republican lines when the “liberal” government, with Stalinist support, moved against the anarchists

 

Secondly, by declaring Moroccan independence, the Republic could open up a whole new front in Franco’s rear – but it did not do this for fear of threatening the investments of European millionaires in Morocco. “The best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the hopes of placating French and British capitalism,” writes Orwell. 

Thirdly, the attempts to suppress the Anarchists and left-wing socialists were harming the war effort, not helping it; Orwell describes police patrolling in Barcelona with supplies the militias on the front are bitterly starved of and completely denied. “I suspect it is the same in all wars – always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line.”

Immaculately-dressed, well-armed Spanish "Assault Guards" kept order behind the lines while militiamen suffered on the frontlines with poor weapons and low ammunition.

Immaculately-dressed, well-armed Spanish “Assault Guards” kept order behind the lines while militiamen suffered on the frontlines with poor weapons and low ammunition.

When this conflict came to a head, it took the form of a “reign of terror” against the Anarchists and left-socialists. Orwell tells tales of betrayal, imprisonment, disappearance, paranoia, lies and murder that give 1984 a run for its money, and are completely true. 

The last note on the political lessons of the book: the Spanish Stalinist leadership, the Spanish liberal capitalist class and the USSR collaborated in this reign of terror. This much is made damn clear. These crimes did not happen because of “human nature” and Orwell leaves no room for the assumption that they happened because the Stalinists were “too extreme” or “too left-wing”. The best arm of the anti-Franco forces was broken without mercy and by the most disgusting methods, the ground was laid for a fascist victory, and this was all done in defence of “liberal democracy”.

Another contradiction

Orwell’s insight and honesty did not win him friends in the literary world. Gollancz refused to publish Homage to Catalonia because of its criticism of the Stalinists. When it was published, by Secker & Warburg, only 1500 copies were printed. By the time Homage to Catalonia was reprinted in 1951, not all of this tiny number of copies had been sold. 

Of course, by 1951, the late George Orwell had won worldwide fame as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. It is doubtful that this second printing would have been made if these two novels had not drummed up a market for everything with Orwell’s name on it. So, while I’m here arguing that Homage to Catalonia is by far his best book, I’m well aware that without those two other books, which I have serious reservations about, I most likely never would have read a word of it. Another glorious contradiction.

1984

Weaknesses of 1984

Another little bit of explanation is necessary. I hear some of ye ask, who am I to question the brilliance of 1984 and Animal Farm, in favour of some obscure recollections of Spain that would have never survived without those two great works, among the greatest of the whole twentieth century? Besides, ye may well say, they aren’t even anti-socialist at all, they are anti-Stalinist: didn’t Orwell explicitly write “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism”?

Sure, sure. But I will cast the first shadow of doubt over the 1945-1949 period in which he wrote those books by relating the fact that, in amid those years, Orwell provided a list of people he suspected of being communist sympathisers to British intelligence. I don’t know too much about the details, but whatever they might be, this act of proto-McCarthyism by someone who calls himself a revolutionary socialist would come out looking pretty disgusting. Another way of looking at it is that this apparent champion of individual liberty collaborated with a paranoid surveillance state. It makes us at the very least wonder what his state of mind was like in these years, what kind of political roads he was travelling down, and in what ways he might have changed since the 1930s. I will leave that to the experts and simply say that it makes you wonder. 

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A clue to the next point of criticism is that those works have been so consistently misunderstood by so many millions of people as an attack on socialist ideas. Let’s face it: they were wide open to misunderstanding. Look at 1984. The oppression of the USSR is magnified tenfold and stretched over the whole wide world. There is no explanation of how this came to pass. The “book within a book” by Goldstein doesn’t really provide any explanation beyond a kind of fatalism. I have argued elsewhere on this blog that the poverty, backwardness and isolation of Russia, along with its nine years of total war, laid the basis for Stalinism. How else can we explain how things fell apart so badly?

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Orwell gives us no real explanation of why the whole world came to be covered in totalitarian darkness. Why must a boot stamp on a human face for eternity? 1984  is a brutally exaggerated portrayal of the spineless lying, toadying and arse-kissing that went with Stalinism, of which Homage to Catalonia gives a real-life example. It is not a prediction of the future. It is rather a portrayal of some horrible aspects of modern, 20th-century life, a life in which the individual lives under the ominous shadow of huge apparatuses of state and capital. I remember reading a bit of Anthony Burgess’ 1984 Revisited. Burgess, a total right-winger, puts forward a very insightful argument. This is that 1984  is basically about Britain during World War Two. All the elements of the story were part of everyday life during the war, though in a less acute form. 

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1984 has given us all the vocabulary we need to denounce today’s NSA surveillance, and any kind of oppression, bullshit or hack-ism. In that sense it’s very valuable. I agree that it’s brilliant and deserves its reputation as a classic. Same with Animal Farm. The two are satires on authoritarianism in general and Stalinism in particular. But there are several important things that they are not.

They are not a serious analyses of Stalinism – of why it arose, what it constituted, why it collapsed, and how we prevent it happening again.

They are not a refutation of socialism. Their author was a socialist, and even if he wasn’t, they wouldn’t stand as such.

They are not true stories. I know it seems absurd to point this out. The thing is, I have often found when researching the actual means of oppression used by real-life Stalinist regimes that a preconceived schema derived from Orwell has hindered my understanding. 

They were not intended to be any of the above by Orwell himself. 

last of all, they are not Orwell’s best work. That award belongs to Homage to Catalonia, which finds Orwell in the thick of revolutionary events, fired up by them, able to observe the greatest heroism and the worst treachery with his own eyes and portray  them in his uniquely evocative way. Scenes, characters and atmospheres are recreated brilliantly. The author makes a journey from a facile black-and-white impression of the war to a profound political insight and understanding of the interplay of factions and revolutionary dynamics. At the end of the heart-rending tragedy of Spain, he emerges stronger. “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.” As a historical document, as a literary work and as a political argument, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s finest work. 

The Decline of the Villain

Posted: July 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

I’ve just watched the first two seasons of the BBC’s very enjoyable modern take on Sherlock Holmes. Moriarty, the villain (Andrew Scott), was admirably written and acted, with his posh Irish accent, his “absolute psycho” character (writer Stephen Moffat) and his insatiable mania.

But there was a problem. This was a problem with the whole conception of the character and the mysteries he sits at the centre of. I first recognised this problem when Moriarty did something that has become compulsory for every 21st-century villain: the Joker in The Dark Knight, Bane in its sequel, Loki in Avengers, the baddie Silva in Skyfall

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He deliberately got himself captured so as to engineer a fiendishly complex, far-fetched escape, all for some negligible purpose that was clearly not worth the risk or the trouble.

Then I started to think about this a little more. The 19th-century Professor Moriarty went after Sherlock Holmes because the great detective was threatening to uncover his secret criminal organisation. The 21st-century Moriarty went after Sherlock Holmes for his own amusement.

Pd_Moriarty_by_Sidney_Paget

It’s effective and scary, once in a while, to see a villain who is motivated only by some inner sadistic drive, who is a psychopath, whose powers of planning and organisation are almost supernatural. Now, I’m not a massive watcher of films and TV shows, but I think I can discern a trend towards this kind of villain becoming the rule, not the exception.

It’s a shame, because Scott, Moffat and Gatiss’ Moriarty is so brilliantly acted and written. But his underlying motivation and nature is becoming a cliché. His prototype, to my mind, is Heath ledger’s equally brilliant performance as the Joker. The only explanation of his desires and motives is that he is like a “dog chasing cars”. He does it all for fun. He’s evil because he’s evil. Holmes and Moriarty have more or less the same conversation as the Joker and Batman: “You complete me.” says the Joker. “Without me, you’re nothing,” says Moriarty.

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This is interesting the first time, but boring when it becomes a rule. Rather than being real characters, formed by and a part of the world around them, the villain becomes an essential, cosmic, metaphysical force of evil. Instead of applying a Sherlock-Holmes-like brain to the problem of understanding this villain, we are asked to bow down before a profane mystery that is beyond the grasp of our feeble human minds.

It’s pre-enlightenment stuff. Good versus Evil. Eternal battle between irreducible forces. Fair enough in The Lord of the Rings, which you know is set in a fantasy world. Not fair enough in a “gritty, realistic, modern” reboot of Batman or of James Bond. It fits in even worse in Sherlock Holmes, which is supposed to be all about the application of scientific thought to apparently baffling crimes. “I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by nature,” says Sherlock Holmes in “The Last Problem”, “Rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible.”

And don’t get me started on the crimes themselves. Villains these days have thinly-disguised supernatural powers. The Joker can manufacture huge numbers of bombs secretly, then go on a rampage setting them off in all manner of bizarre places he could not possibly have planted them. He even times his one-liners precisely to the moment before the explosion. He times his bank robberies perfectly to coincide with the line of yellow school buses.the-dark-knight-2008-movie-10

The absurd far-fetchedness of Silva’s plan in Skyfall is perfectly summed up half-way through this video and in this older post. It’s just stupid and impossible. The precision and logistical effort required would strain the most powerful intelligence agencies on the planet, and the rewards are so trifling for this huge effort.

Of course, if the villain’s motivations need not be explained, then why should we think we have a right to understand his logistics? Cosmic forces of evil go hand-in-hand with supernatural powers.

Batman Begins impressed me because there was an internal consistency to it all, everything was explained within the rules of the game, no logistical leaps were made, and everyone’s motivations were made clear. Not bad for a superhero movie. Bane was a much better villain than the Joker as well, but again at the start of the film we were subjected to effectively supernatural powers and a pointless get-captured-and-escape stunt.

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When the villain can do anything, there is no awe, surprise or dramatic tension. Internal consistency breaks down, and nothing is beyond possibility. When the villain can do anything, what stops him killing the hero? Screenwriters have solved this problem in a very unsatisfying way: often, the hero is cornered and defeated and the villain could kill them, but chooses not to, just to play some complicated and far-fetched game for their own satisfaction. The characters’ motivations can be twisted any way that suits the writers. A real conflict does not take place. Anything goes.

Is this all down to laziness? Like when Charles Dickens had a character die due to “spontaneous combustion” in Bleak House? I think it’s partly down to laziness. But only partly.

There’s no simple explanation but if you forced me to advance a theory, I’d say that villains with supernatural powers and/or no motivation beyond a desire to do evil reflect the stories we are told in the media.

George W Bush at one point stood up and said of Al-Quaida, “They hate freedom. They love terror.” The dead, bloodied face of Gaddafi was on every front page, as was Bin Laden’s. Remember the capture of Saddam Hussein and his dental exam? It has now become acceptable to be horrifically racist against people from North Korea, just because of the crimes of their government, crimes which some government allied to the US would get away with. Mass shootings in the US are written off as being due to insanity and evil, when actually there’s a lot more going on.

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More shockingly, the 2011 riots in the UK were publicly blamed by the Prime Minister himself on “gang culture”. Idealistic explanations are preferred to material ones: young men not rooted firmly in the holy and sacred institution of the traditional family listened to too much hip-hop and got ideas. People who move country to flee violence or to find a job are presented as scroungers, or worse, as an invading army. Tube workers, air traffic controllers and waste collectors apparently go on strike because they’re greedy.

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In the media, “enemies” of every kind have become cruder caricatures than the crudest Hollywood villains. It’s no surprise that even accomplished screenwriters have taken the liberty of making their villains cruder still.

We are dealing with a middle-class culture and media that has lost its patience with the demands of science. Sociological explanation is out of fashion. Attempts at linking outrages to the society that produced them are shouted down with utmost impatience as so much naive whingeing and dodging of personal responsibility.

But making these kinds of dumb, individual explanations for terrible events is dodging the responsibility of using your brain. The purpose of the decline of the villain in fiction is to shield writers and viewers from a world that is difficult to understand without asking questions that are considered radical, and to explain the problems of that world by reference to embodiments of absolute evil. It’s unsatisfying as entertainment, unless the satisfaction you’re looking for is nothing more than a confirmation of lazy prejudices, and freedom from the responsibility of using your brain.

A blogger got a lot of hits recently for calling any Irish person who complains about Ireland a “whiny bitch.” It argued that since Ireland is a better place to live than many others, and that now is a better time to live than many others, nobody should complain about inequality, austerity, backwardness, misogyny, injustice, corruption or the fact that homelessness has hit record levels. Actually all those things are just what I’m assuming the author means, because he never specifies exactly who the “bitches” are and what they are “whining” about (beyond some gobsmacking reference to the economy being “out of the woods”). Probably because any real engagement with the issues Irish people are angry about would have made mincemeat of his central argument that things are basically OK.

On June 19th Dublin recorded its highest ever number of people sleeping rough. But by all means write a blog post about how everything is fine.

Ahh, Ireland. Green fields, lovely music, happy people. Stop whining. 

 

Coming only a weeks after the most anger-filled elections in many decades, which saw historic upheaval, to come out with an article saying that the majority are wrong to be angry and should just “STOP” <SMACK> strikes me as an act of someone totally disconnected from reality who doesn’t know or care about the conditions most people are living in. The massive anger of people is written off as some bizarre feature of Irish people that we’re always “begrudging” and complaining, etc etc. Check out some of the Youtube comments on this video and you’ll get another prime example of this genre of anti-complaint complaining.

 

Martin Luther King, and other assorted "whiny bitches"

Martin Luther King, and other assorted “whiny bitches”

Imagine if said blogger had written his piece in the 1900s or in the 1950s. The “whiny bitches” of those times, to whom every criticism made in the blogger’s “open letter” apply 100%, would include Jim Larkin, the suffragette movement and Martin Luther King. Those complacent fools ranting about the “whiny bitches” and telling them to shut up and count their blessings, conceding at most that sure, maybe 50 years ago you had something to complain about, are not remembered, or only remembered as idiots. Most importantly, if we look at it this way we can see how stupid their complacent world-outlook is.

 

The whiniest bitch of all, Jim Larkin, is given a gentle reminder by the cops that for all the squalor and exploitation, at least he is not living in the ancient Aztec Empire having his heart ripped out as a sacrifice to the sun god

The whiniest bitch of all, Jim Larkin, is given a gentle reminder by the cops that for all the squalor and exploitation of contemporary Dublin, at least he is not living in the ancient Aztec Empire having his heart ripped out as a sacrifice to the sun god

I don’t want to focus on this ignorant blog post in particular but on the general world-view it expresses. It’s a complacent attitude that says that most things in the world are fine, most problems are resolved. It is not quite “the end of history” (even the author of that phrase, Fukuyama, has backtracked on it), but we are, according to this world-view, at the very least in the mopping-up phase of history.

 

The point of my article is to give some snapshots to prove the point that massive changes are afoot and even greater changes will take place in the lifetime of a young person today. Everything we take for granted will be tested and a lot will be found wanting, and a hell of a lot is going to change, for better or for worse. The seven facts I highlight are not necessarily the most significant topics in the world. Some are minor. I could have gone on to 10, 20, or 30 facts but I decided to keep it short. They are selected because they’re graphic indicators of the shape of the present. My writing will be short on analysis. The idea is to provoke thought.

 

My purpose is not to show that things are shit, thereby disproving the idea that things are good. That would be easy, but boring and depressing and ultimately meaningless. Some of them are very bad things. Some are very good things. Some have good and bad aspects. A disproportionate amount are about Ireland, to prove that there’s no magical wall around us, but the main perspective is global. Their purpose is to excite us, to broaden our perspectives on the future, to get across the idea that titanic events are unfolding, that history is all to play for, that the stakes are high, and that you have an obligation to play a role. Do not fear radical change, because radical change is already taking place, and has to take place; do not fear catastrophe if we try to change the world, because catastrophe is a defining feature of today’s world and catastrophe is what the capitalist system has in store for us increasingly if we leave it in place. Do not listen to those who spread apathy and complacency.

 

If, despite my best efforts, the shape of the present depresses you, don’t mistake it for the future. Put the horrors of the world firmly in their place with the words of a revolutionary when he contemplated this very question a hundred years ago:

“– Surrender, you pathetic dreamer. Here I am, your long awaited twentieth century, your ‘future.’

– No, replies the unhumbled optimist: You, you are only the present.”

 

 1. Revolution and mass struggle on a historic scale

 

The years 2010 to 2014 have so far seen a wave of mass movements, protests and revolutions that has spread over oceans and continents on a scale wider than the 1989-91 uprisings against Stalinism. The map below shows in red the countries that have seen full-scale revolutions and civil wars, like Egypt, while yellow denotes a country where significant upheaval and mass movements have happened. An example is the UK, from the sacking of Millbank Tower in 2010 to the riots in summer 2011.

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The incredible thing is, there are probably a good few more countries where massive events unfolded, which I’m just not aware of. I’ll take any corrections and suggestions in comment boxes. What I put as yellow, what I put as red and what I left out are up for debate. What’s undeniable is the spread and depth of events that would have been totally unbelievable just a few years ago. Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was “The Protester”. And the Protester has not vanished. 2013 saw a renewal of struggle in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil. In the US, the struggle unleashed by the Occupy movement is visibly rising again on a higher level. All this points to the fact that conditions today are intolerable for vast numbers of people, and that people have the power to change them.

 

 2. Back to the 1930s: Nazism

Golden Dawn in Greece are not a kinda-far-right party. They’re don’t say “I’m not racist but…” They are Nazis of the Third Reich variety. And they’re one of the most popular parties in Greece. They beat up and kill migrants, LGBT people and left-wingers, over half of the riot police voted for them, they’re arming and training militarily and, though they’ve suffered from a crackdown, they’re still there.

Hungary’s Jobbik, an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Roma party with a brutal military wing, is in government. The protests and battles in Ukraine fell in many cases under the leadership of far-right and neo-nazi groups, many of them now holding positions in government.

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These are not isolated or short-lived developments. They’re rooted in the economic, social and cultural crisis of the capitalist system. They are widespread and deep-rooted.

 

They’re growing because liberals and conservatives alike have no answer for them. Only a socialist force with a mass base, uniting people along working class lines rather than bogus national lines, can cut across them and beat them. That’s happening too.

 3. The rise of socialists and the workers’ movement

 

In November last year a Socialist, Kshama Sawant, was elected to Seattle City Council with nearly 100,000 votes. She’s the first socialist in over 100 years to sit in that chamber. No sooner was she elected than, thanks to mass pressure from the streets which she based herself on, built and assisted in every way, big business in Seattle was forced to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage law.

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This isn’t an isolated incident either. Since the Madison, Wisconsin protests and the Occupy movement, the US has been in a grassroots political ferment. Strikes for $15, protests against racism, socialist and labour electoral challenges, all unimaginable just a few years ago, are challenging the status quo in the US.

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It’s not confined to the US. The European parliament elections in May 2014 saw a massive rise for the GUE/NGL group, which represents mostly strong, genuine socialist organisations, unlike the thoroughly establishment, big business “Socialists and Democrats” group. Amid all the fear of Golden Dawn in Greece, it’s often forgotten that the highest-polling party in Greece is the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which was on 4% a few years ago and might form a government within a few short years.

 

 4. Ireland: The withering of the three gombeen parties

 

Speaking of the May elections, upheavals in Ireland are reflected in a distorted but undeniable way in election results.

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In 1981 the three main parties who have swapped power between each other since 1927 got over 91% of first-preference votes.

 

By 2007 things had changed, but not by much. They got 79% between them.

 

In 2011 there was a violent shift. At the same time that presidents-for-life Mubarak and Ben Ali were being ousted in Egypt and Tunisia, February 2011 saw the party that ruled Ireland for most of the century, Fianna Fáil, trampled under the feet of voters. But the main beneficiaries were the other two main parties. So the three got 72% between them.

 

In May 2014 the three parties considered a “safe pair of hands” by the establishment got a mere 56.5 between them.

 

This is easily the biggest electoral upheaval since the 1920s. I’m not one of these people who’s obsessed with elections, but they do very definitely reflect trends in society. To return for a second to the blogger, Unshaved Mouse. Did people turn against the three main parties because of a sudden epidemic of “whiny-bitchitis”? Do such upheavals happen in contented, happy countries?

 5. Sci-fi dystopia levels of inequality

 

"Based on a true story"

Based on a true story

Imagine a double-decker bus with 85 people on it.

 

Now try (and fail) to imagine 3.5 billion people, half the population of the world, a fair proportion of all the humanity that has ever existed.

 

Now imagine that the un-visualisable mass of people have as much money between them as the total population of that double-decker bus.

 

That’s the world we’re living in. If it was in a science fiction movie or a dystopian teen novel, you’d say “ridiculous.” It’s so horrifically unconscionable, such a waste of resources and a denial of human potential, that even the rich are uncomfortable about it, and some fear the rest of us coming after them with pitchforks.

 

And just in case you think this only applies to the difference between “developed” and “developing” countries, inequality within the advanced capitalist countries is just as striking.

 

 6. Nation-states collapsing and redefining

 

We can’t take anything for granted, even the lines on the map. The emergence of South Sudan is a small matter next to the other border changes that are on the cards. The world is right now going through the biggest shift in borders since 1989-91.

 

It now looks like the vote on Scottish independence in September is likely to be defeated, though who knows what can happen in the intervening months. What’s certain is that the existence of the UK in its present form is up in the air. If the vote is defeated, Scotland will still get maximum devolution, and the demand for independence may reassert itself more strongly in the future, especially if the Tories win in 2015 or the UK leaves the EU. The referendum is likely to register that at least 40% of the people of Scotland want independence. The knock-on effects on other countries are hard to predict.

 

Nearly half of Scots want independence - even though the UK has such a fair and balanced media

Nearly half of Scots want independence – even though the UK has such a fair and balanced media

But this is small fry next to the dramatic changes in other parts of the world. This year Crimea was annexed by Russia. Eastern Ukraine is under the rule of a Russian-aligned government that is hostile to the Ukrainian state. Towns lie in ruins. Many have died.

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Last month an Islamist army of a few thousand swept across northern Iraq, conquering it from the Shia-dominated government. The Iraqi and Syrian states are collapsing. The Kurds have now to all intents and purposes independent. If there’s something to the boasts of ISIS, their reach may even extend eventually to Palestine itself.

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 7. Chinese workers demanding their due

 

China is an enormous country, and you can easily imagine how even the biggest protests are put in perspective by the geographical size, economic power, huge population and powerful state. The state has a definition, “mass incidents,” that encompasses protests, strikes and civil disobedience. Even taking into account how big the country is, the sheer number of “mass incidents”, mounting year-on-year, is staggering:

1993: 8,700

2005: over 87,000

2010: 180,000

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50,000 recently went on strike at one of those enormous factories where all our shoes come from – illustrating how closely connected China is to production and consumption the world over, and how large-scale events there would have deep effects all over the world. Commentators have been buzzing for years with overblown predictions of the emergence of a Chinese middle class to solve the world economy’s problems with demand – but they should be more interested in the emergence of an organized, active, militant Chinese working class. The last time this class raised its fist politically was 1989 when it shook the Chinese state and raised the idea of a political revolution to secure both democratic rights and a socialist economy. Since then, massive changes in the Chinese and world economy have made this class potentially the most powerful social force in the world.

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A party that used to be left-wing and represent working people, the Irish Labour Party has catapulted to the right in the last 30 years or so, like all of the old social-democratic parties. Today they make occasional noises about “protecting the most vulnerable in our society” but to all real, practical intents and purposes they are practically the same as the right-wing parties. After a roasting from voters in the local elections, they’re going into a tailspin, flailing around for a new leader.

Commentators are talking about a “left-right divide” opening up for the first time in Irish politics. Labour is on the wrong side of this. If it stays on the right, it will continue to wither because if you want a right-wing party, why bother with a crap, double-speaking one? Meanwhile, if it tries to struggle onto the left side of the divide, it will only fall into the chasm between the two.

Its luminaries don’t seem to understand any of this. Some really think that Joan Burton can save the party by “explaining” to people what Labour is doing in government. The problem is, people know damn well what they’re doing: providing a feast for the rich and powerful while trying (and mostly failing) to grab a few crumbs for everyone else.

Others talk about trying to make the people “feel” the recovery. There’s a reason why the recovery has been, and I predict might be more so in the future, more radicalising than the crisis. When people were suffering from cuts and unemployment and new taxes, they could at least say to themselves, “Well, this is a crisis, it’ll be over soon.” But Labour think the recovery has a long way to run. Well, substantially, this is the recovery. As the fella asks in the movie, has it ever occurred to them that this is as good as it gets? Most working-class people are not feeling the recovery because, well, there is no substantial recovery for working-class people. The whole strategy for the last 6 years has been directed at producing a recovery for the rich. You can’t get the working class to “feel” the recovery without the aid of a hypnotist.

The “jobs recovery” has been based on emigration, low pay and free-labour “internships”. The fiscal “recovery” has been based on giving everything to the banks and bondholders, and taking everything from the people.

To finish this brief look at the Labour Party crisis, I want to relate that Labour TD Dominic Hannigan had this to contribute to the debate:

“This is about brand recovery… If we want to survive, we have to re-engage with our customer base.”

(Sunday Business Post, June 29th)

And that is precisely why they are unlikely to survive.

This morning news broke that the French air traffic controllers’ strike had been called off. Here is possibly one of the only places outside the Union’s website you’ll see someone arguing in print that they were dead right to be on strike.

1. Because the media are not telling us why they were on strike. The first warning sign was the fact that the media were ignoring what is obviously the most important question: why did the strike happen? The  radio coverage was the usual rubbish about how many people had been delayed or disrupted, without a word about why the workers had gone on strike in the first place.

The Irish Times managed to talk about how many flights were cancelled and how many people were delayed, what the “mood” was like at Dublin airport, what Ryanair’s checkout desks looked like at this moment and what they had looked like earlier…

This went on and on for a whopping 400 words before we got a terse little sentence about why they were on strike. Then the Irish Times immediately buried this sentence under two paragraphs quoting Ryanair bosses arguing that air traffic controllers should not be allowed to strike at all.

Anyone who’s ever been forced to go on strike because of a threat to their rights and interests knows that this is the way the news almost always presents strike action, and will see this warning sign.

2. Because the air traffic controllers were on strike for all the right reasons. Although from reading the media coverage you’d think the air traffic controllers were only on strike for fun, they were actually on strike in protest over cutbacks that would prevent them from doing their job properly. If they can’t do their extremely stressful and difficult job properly, then your flight is more dangerous.

3. Because workers’ rights are more important than my holiday plans. If my holiday is delayed, that’s bad. But my holiday is not as  important as what will be decided in a strike: the pay you receive or the conditions you endure for years to come.

If you want to fly somewhere, you can’t get there at all without the labour of every worker in the airport and on the plane. If you want to fly, then the rights and interests of the people who make this happen are the first, not the last, thing you should think about.

Flights do not happen without workers. If they want to withold their services to get a better deal, then you’d better be on their side. Because who cares if you’re delayed, because without those workers you couldn’t go anywhere at all.

Today the media announced the breaking of two records. The number of refugees in the world has topped 50 million, the highest number since the end of World War Two. The number of people sleeping rough in Dublin last night hit 154, the highest number ever recorded.

We are living in the middle of a terrible human tragedy. From the street outside your door to the fences and seas that surround “Fortress Europe”, the system is failing humanity on a horrifying scale.

Thousands die trying to make it to countries where life is less unbearable. There is a list of 17,306 people who have died trying to travel to Europe from desperately poor and unstable countries. This didn’t happen just because of evil people smugglers who pack them onto boats. It happens because “democratic” Europe has been turned into a fortress with border controls and a militarised border police that exist to persecute poor people trying to migrate. This has led to horrible situations like the mass drowning allegedly committed by the Greek Coast Guard last year. More broadly, it’s because most of the world is difficult to exist in, entirely because of political and economic forces beyond the control of most people.

154 sleep on the streets of Dublin while landlords rake it in through cripplingly high rents and the state creates millionaires through Rent Supplement. This gives the complete lie to the Irish Independent’s stupid line of argument that Dublin city is benefiting more from the recovery than the rest of Ireland:

“In Dublin’s fashionable business districts the bars and restaurants bustle on a Friday night as well-dressed young workers pour out from their hi-tech workstations in search of tapas and craft beers.”

The recovery is one-sided, but it’s not a geographical division, it’s a class division. And it’s not just that they’re powering ahead and we’re struggling. The truth is, our misery is their gain. “Surging property prices” is not a good thing for the vast majority of people. Their “divided nation” feature mostly interviewed business people, and RTE never seems to take its cameras very far from the Grand Canal Docks.

I argue for radical economic and social change – for the economy to be owned, run and managed democratically by working people, for an end to classes. Some people respond that massive changes can result in disasters and upheaval. But look at Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, CAR, Sudan, Somalia. Look at your small town’s dead and depressed main street, or the pair of runners sticking out from under a blanket in some side-street in Dublin city. Upheaval and disaster are not a risk, they are a reality. A great human tragedy and catastrophe is unfolding all around us, and it compels us to take action.

In recent years I’ve gotten more of my news online so I have managed to avoid Murdoch’s Sunday Times. Today (June 15th 2014) I read through the Culture and News Review sections while sipping my way through a cup of coffee. An article on India had a small box about Gandhi (the person, not the film), along with a helpful picture of Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi in the film, Gandhi. Let’s take a quick look at some of the other delights they had in store for me.

The “Culture” Section

One book review glowed with praise. It was a book on economics by a former banker and current advisor to Boris Johnson’s, a book that argues in the face of all evidence from everyday life that things are fine and we should carry on as we’re going. Another review of a book on the history of Baghdad criticised it for “not emphasising enough” how great British rule was, in comparison to a succession of bloodthirsty and lazy Arabs, Ottomans and Muslims. The last eleven years are skated over in a sentence.

“The Crescent and the Classroom”

The News Review section began with a long article on the shocking abuse of power and religious intolerance and usurpation that took place in a Birmingham school. What was more shocking than the horrible religious dogma being shoved down children’s throats at school was the way the Sunday Times treated the issue. There was no criticism of the academy system. There was no criticism of the Christian and Jewish faith schools which basically do what they like and indoctrinate children in a similar way. There was no acknowledgement that Muslims in the UK are a poor and marginalised minority – if misrepresented, this scandal could lead to witch-hunts of Muslims in education and further EDL-type paranoia.

Instead, there was a clear pandering to far-right, racist paranoia with the totally uncritical use of the phrase “Trojan Horse” that has been all over the media for days now. “Trojan Horse” suggests a siege and a conscious ploy and infiltration. In reality, the UK is not “under siege” by Muslims (UK troops have occupied Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years,  not the other way round). The area the school is located in has a large Muslim population, so how can it be characterised as infiltration or a conscious ploy? The article uncritically defended the sensationalist, anonymous “Operation Trojan Horse” document, which claims that there is a conscious Muslim plot to infiltrate schools.

The article gave the impression that “radicalisation” is a terrible thing but rather than dealing with the issue of secular vs faith-based education, it presents the issue in a way designed to inflame community and religious tensions (the piece is entitled “The Crescent and the Classroom”). It shamelessly “radicalises” people against Muslims, rather than actually dealing with the issues.

The Undeserving Poor

All this was just a tasters’ menu for a truly horrible article by Eleanor Mills entitled “Africa needs you, Oxfam. Labour doesn’t.” The issue was that Oxfam had an ad campaign about poverty in Britain intended to “lift the lid on austerity.” It included the ad below.

Oxfam's Perfect Storm poster

 

Fair enough, right? These things contribute to poverty and make the lives of the majority of people much more difficult. There are 13 million people under the poverty line in the UK today. If you’re a charity opposed to poverty, it makes sense to talk about these things, right?

Apparently not. Various regulatory bodies got Oxfam into hot water over this, and they may be effectively fined. The issue? Well, they say, and Eleanor Mills says, that the problem is that it sounds too much like the kind of thing Ed Balls and the Labour Party are saying these days, and that means that Oxfam is engaging in party-political campaigning.

Of course, the UK Labour Party is very right-wing, has implemented austerity and will, in government, implement more austerity. This ad campaign does not particularly sound like the Labour Party. But let’s get what they’re saying straight: if several serious and pressing issues are raised by a political party, it is wrong for a charity to raise these same issues. Apparently.

The “party-political” cover

All this is a paper-thin cover, of course. Mills makes it clear why she’s actually upset. She explains that while she’s perfectly happy giving money to starving “Africans”, (the deserving poor, she might add), she is not happy giving money to help or to advance the interests of people in Britain who are struggling to survive (she might as well have said, the undeserving poor). She demands of Oxfam that if they want to talk about the causes of poverty in Britain, they should talk about “debt, addiction and chaotically poor lifestyle decisions.”

Is Mills trying to suggest that the vast rise in poverty in the UK in the last few years is due to an epidemic of bad “lifestyle decisions”? Did people suddenly get stupid and start reeling all over the place due to some zombie apocalypse-like contagion of idiocy? And would she argue that debt and addiction fall from the sky? Or worse, that they are simply the result of “poor decisions” on the part of the debt-ridden and the addicted?

No, the rich caused an economic crisis, which the poorest were forced to pay for. Bosses are raking in money at the expense of working-class people. You’re much more likely to fall into debt or addiction if you are poor to begin with.

But in place of these realities, which force you to think about the nature of society itself, a smug moral lesson is implied. If only everyone was as good at making lifestyle decisions as Eleanor Mills, there might be drastically less poverty in the UK.

Censorship

The thing that angered me the most was not that Mills was coming out with old-as-the-hills Victorian lines of argument justifying class divisions and exploitation by criticising the vices of poor people. It was that Oxfam had been censored for daring to talk about the causes of poverty. They had been censored for highlighting poverty at home rather than poverty in distant countries. They had been censored for calling for political change rather than, what, more generosity on the part of the rich.

Fear

I know, I know – newsflash! The media are right-wing. I walk into shops and I see all the newspapers on the shelves, headlines telling people to be scared of migrants, scared of poor people, scared of people with a different sexuality, scared of foreign countries, scared of showing any human sympathy  in case they’re taken advantage of. The Daily Express’ constant front-page warnings about a new ice age hitting Britain next week, about biblical floods and storms, expose what’s really going on. They’re not interested in telling us the news. They’re interested in making us scared, scared of everything – from our next-door neighbours to the four winds of the earth. Scared of everything except hunkering down and getting on with our lives and never sticking our heads up or our necks out. And we buy it because a part of us wants to be scared, because if we convince ourselves to be scared then it absolves us of all responsibility to act to change the world, to act on our natural feelings of human sympathy.

The part of us that wants to have a quiet life with friends, family, career and consumerism receives constant encouragement from these bits of paper which appear every day in every shop and supermarket, from these voices and images that come from every TV and computer and phone. Every day our sense of hope and humanity comes under brutal assault from a thousand directions.

Being scared of humanity goes hand-in-hand with a bovine subjection to forces and symbols beyond our control and understanding – the nation, religion, royals, celebrities, and above all, the free market and big business. That’s why Kate Middleton seems to be on the cover of the Telegraph every single day. That’s why the book reviewed so glowingly in the Sunday Times “Culture” supplement calls for economic decision-making to be handed over to unelected “experts” so that the “populist” demands of mere mortals for a decent standard of living are not allowed to intrude on the serene and correct “management” of the economy.

A parallel from history

But all this is nothing new. In Europe in past times, the theory of the “Divine Right of Kings” held that God had chosen the monarch and had appointed the superiority of the nobles and clergy who owned all wealth and power. All usurpation of power by “commoners” was predicted to lead to disaster. It was a time of subjection to mysteries and idols and superstitions. But it was in the material interests of the people not to believe this rubbish, and they had democratic revolutions. They started a new order which has brought huge benefits to the world. Compared to our ancestors three hundred years ago, most of us live much more comfortable and fulfilling lives under capitalism than we did under feudalism.

But capitalism has long since hit a brick wall. It has nothing to offer humanity, is dragging down living standards and wrecking the environment. Like our ancestors, we can cast aside the mysteries, superstitions, dogmas and fears that divide us from one another and keep us under the thumb of the owners of wealth. I hope that one day science, rationality, democracy and co-operation will rule over the economy, rather than greed, gambling, hoarding and exploitation. This is a position rooted in a belief, justified by history and experience, that the people can run and manage the economy and society themselves – the working class, those who create the products and provide the services, organised democratically. I mean people like you and me, not people to bow down before, not people chosen by gods or ordained by the market.

 

The latest Iraq Crisis

Posted: June 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

Today an armed Islamist force of “no more than 7,000 men” has swept across huge chunks of Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army, built up over years by the most powerful military force on Earth, the USA, has crumbled before it despite numbering in the tens of thousands.

It looks partly like a re-run of the Syria crisis of last Autumn, when the US ruling class agonized between its desire to step up action in Syria, its own lack of self-confidence, and the complete opposition of the majority of people in the US. Obama has firmly ruled out “boots on the ground” but wants some kind of military intervention. Will it be drone strikes, missiles or bombs, or will the US ruling class confine itself to its usual dirty trick of quietly arming and training some gang of murderers?

Inside of a twelve-month period, very similar “to intervene or not to intervene” crises have engulfed world politics – first Syria, then Ukraine, now Iraq. The agony of the masses – exploited or unemployed, oppressed by brutal states, nationalities denied self-government – and the complete inability of the capitalist class to solve these problems, because as a class they can’t look beyond lining their own pockets, has led to a horrible situation of national and religious warfare.

The Arab Spring opened a crack through which we could see a future beyond religious war and imperialism. But it has reached a point characterised by obstacles and colossal problems. Why? In Tunisia, which has a strong trade-union movement, things have remained more on-track than in Egypt or Syria. This is because the idea and the reality of working-class unity can cut across religious and national division, and keep the struggle focused on the real enemy. The idea of a socialist alternative, in which the main sources of wealth are democratically owned and controlled by working-class people, offers a way out to the masses. The Communist Party and trade union leadership in Syria disgracefully tail-ended the Assad government rather than offering any kind of independent working-class pole of attraction to people.

By contrast, the idea of subjecting a country to some anachronistic vision of Islam can only mobilise a minority because it’s not a very convincing or concrete solution to the pressing problems people have. This minority can make gains in conditions where the majority are depressed and despondent, and where the establishment and the powers-that-be have nothing to offer but poverty and oppression. This is clearly what’s going on in Iraq right now.

But there’s a little more going on in Iraq that’s worth noting. This could be the partition of Iraq which has been talked about now for eight years, or it could at least be a harbinger of it. These arbitrarily-drawn borders in the Middle East are coming under intense strain. In a few years or decades, the name “Iraq” could hit our ears as some quaint old-fashioned name that older people still use sometimes by mistake, like Zaire or Yugoslavia or East/West Germany. Iranian intervention in the Shiite areas of Iraq is extremely interesting.

The mainstream media, while there is a strain of criticism for the Iraqi government of Al-Maliki (that its has persecuted Sunnis and been useless in the face of the present crisis) ignores what is possibly the most important point here. Obama can stand up before the world and shamelessly say: “We have enormous interests [in Iraq], and obviously our troops and the American people and the American taxpayers made huge investments and sacrifices in order to give the Iraqis the opportunity to chart a better course, a better destiny.”

Let’s talk about one of those “investments.” In 2004, with rebellion shaking every corner of Iraq, the US occupation brought in some of the mass-murderers who trained the far-right death squads in Latin America in the 1980s. Their mission: to train up Shiites in anti-Sunni death squads. Sectarian warfare and divide-and-rule imperialism was the “better course,” the “better destiny” that Obama is referring to.

Imperialism, authoritarian strongmen like Assad, and religious division offer no way out to the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. What is needed urgently are revolutionary socialist organisations willing and able to act independently of and against these forces, and a strong working-class movement organised in communities and workplaces. This is the next step forward for the process begun in 2010-11 with the Arab Spring. It has been widely forgotten what role Iraq itself played in the Arab Spring, with inspiring demonstrations and the prospect of a class rather than sectarian politics.

Back just over a year ago I wrote an article arguing why it’s necessary for socialists to build a revolutionary party.

http://ranksavagespit.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/what-were-up-against/

I stand over the main line of argument in this article although some of the assertions, such as “The only forces to survive the onslaught of capitalist triumphalism in the ‘90s and ‘00s were the revolutionary parties” – are a bit one-sided. Also, the article fails to deal with some arguments that I have come up against since writing it.

As an appendix, I want to add a note on what anarchists have to say on the matter.

The points I made in the original article were basically as follows: the capitalist system is a destructive blind alley and we have to overthrow it and replace it with socialism. To do this, every socialist has two tasks: one, contribute to movements against oppression whether by workers or other oppressed groups, building people’s confidence and organisation. Two: build an organised and effective revolutionary party that comprises the most left-wing and politically conscious and dedicated section of the working class along with its allies. The purpose of this party is to intervene in struggles against oppression and at key moments give a lead to the working class to make a big historical impact.

It goes without saying that no individual, acting alone, can do either of these things in any substantial way that will change things for the better or effect historic events.

It is more enjoyable and easy to be part of a loose network than a centralised party. Light political activity, when you feel like it, is much more easy and enjoyable than serious, consistent political activity, that in a big way cuts across other things you would like to do.

But such loose networks of people on revolutionary “light duty” are of limited use. An organisation of people who do not agree with each other on key questions, who are not experienced, serious and organised, who improvise at the last moment rather than operating through a weathered and robust organisation, cannot play a concerted role in intervening in campaigns or movements.

I can imagine, in a situation of a revolution or mass movement or a huge campaign, thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions using loose and informal kinds of methods to organise. But that’s last-minute stuff. Structures, leaders, experience and resources (buildings, papers, vehicles, money) are all smooth channels that make all activity far more effective and purposeful.

Three facile criticisms by an anarchist

This brings us to the anarchists, who use a variety of organisational methods, generally loose, informal, and formally “leaderless”. Their critique of “Leninist”, “Vanguardist” parties is interesting in that it shows up their own preoccupations pretty starkly. We will examine the relevant section in the Anarchist FAQ as an example. Throughout the article the points I dispute are those raised in this section.

http://www.infoshop.org/AnarchistFAQSectionH5#sech510

This “answer” in the Anarchist FAQ shows a complete lack of interest in how revolutionaries should interact with the working class and struggle against the system and against oppression. Instead it shows us the various ways in which an overly-sensitive individualist, politically active in a period of low class struggle, might be offended by the demands of being a member of any organisation of any kind. For example, the very idea of electing a leadership is portrayed as bad because “it is assumed that the leadership has a special insight into social problems above and beyond that of anyone else”, with the result that people are less likely to criticise the leadership.

What follows from their criticism is that the anarchists would prefer if we maintained the fiction that every person is equally capable, insightful, intelligent, dedicated and able. Unfortunately this is not the case. In any organisation there are those who come naturally to the fore. Some have fewer commitments, some have better abilities, some are more dedicated. This is what is called “leadership”.

Since leadership naturally arises, should we not formalise it so that it is less likely to be abused? Of course we should, because if we have an informal leadership, we have all of the problems of leadership and none of the benefits. A usurpation of power and a division or labour takes place, a clique forms, but the clique is not accountable to the membership. And on the other hand, if this informal leadership wants to get anything done, it enjoys no authority and cannot lift a finger. The wheel must be reinvented with every twitch of a muscle.

And since we cannot have a national conference every day, is it not necessary to elect a leadership to carry out decisions in the meantime? Otherwise, how is it remotely possible to keep up with events or maintain a consistent level of activity?

But maintaining a consistent level of activity is also a problem for anarchists. Members of these terrible revolutionary parties are kept so busy, apparently, that they become uncritical swallowers of party propaganda. “[A]lternative sources of information and such thinking [what kind of “thinking” is never specified] is regularly dismissed as being contaminated by bourgeois influences”. What alternative sources of information are they referring to? This is not specified either. I know that revolutionaries regularly criticise the mainstream corporate-owned or state-owned media. Maybe this is what the anarchists are referring to. Do they think it’s unfair to characterise these sources as “contaminated by bourgeois influences”? They are owned, produced, distributed and strictly controlled by the bourgeoisie! In any case, revolutionaries very regularly make extensive use of these “sources of information”. I read books, newspapers, magazines and websites and listen to podcasts from a huge variety of sources.

Sensationalism and paranoia

Electing a leadership! Expecting revolutionaries to consistently active in politics! Criticising the corporate-owned media! What horrors will we be subjected to next? All these terrible “authoritarian” crimes lead to a terrible situation:

“This often goes so far as to label those who question any aspect of the party’s analysis revisionists or deviationists, bending to the “pressures of capitalism,” and are usually driven from the ranks as heretics… The evidence from numerous vanguard parties suggest that their leaderships usually view any dissent as [...] disruption and demand that dissidents cease their action or face expulsion from the party.”

The anarchists have here made three idiotic political points, and followed them up with a fictional assertion. All this stuff about heretics and expulsions is completely ridiculous. They are not borne out by my experience in the slightest. Even if we look at the British SWP, exposed to all the world as a deeply unhealthy and undemocratic organisation last year in a stomach-turning way, these points fall flat on their face at the slightest nudge of truth.

If social media changed anything, they'd make it illegal. If bookfairs changed anything, they'd make them illegal. You can slot in any word into this sentence, and it reveals the emptiness of this slogan.

If social media changed anything, they’d make it illegal. If bookfairs changed anything, they’d make them illegal. You can slot in any word into this sentence, and it reveals the emptiness of this slogan.

“Evidence”

In the search for examples to prove their claims, the anarchists have to reach back very far. They give us one example from 1920 and two examples from 1921, and all three are from Soviet Russia! Along with this there is one paragraph quoted from some “Scottish libertarians”, presumably from recently enough. The paragraph is not particularly interesting or insightful and the only reason it has been included is because it makes an unsubstantiated claim that Leninists “have a tendency” to refuse some “inalienable right” or other relating to people who are in a minority of one arguing for their point of view.

So just to summarise their argument: they begin by making a number of political points which are polluted with exaggerations and sinister language as camouflage for their distinct lack of content or seriousness. Then they make up a paranoid, sensationalist, red-gothic claim. Then they travel a long way through time to find some far-fetched evidence, and supply another weak unsubstantiated claim that flies wide of the mark.

It is legitimate to ask the question: Why? Why has such an article come into being?

Part of the problem is that the anarchists throw into one bucket every party that claims to stand in the tradition of the Bolsheviks. Unsurprisingly there is a wide variation here which they do not acknowledge. There is no difference here acknowledged between the old Stalinist tradition and the Sparts. There is no difference here between the horrendous Healyite organisation and the Militant.

Rather than looking at the specific features of the parties they’re criticising (apart from a cursory look at the British SWP which is supposed to stand in for this vast array of different traditions and organisations), the anarchists talk in a very basic way about “democratic” and “bureaucratic” centralism.

Then they try to head off anyone pointing out the stupidity of this oversight by concluding gleefully with a claim that every revolutionary socialist will claim that “their organisation is the exception to the rule!”

A tension exists in every revolutionary party, manifesting itself in the twin dangers of sectarian irrelevance and opportunist sell-out. This tension cannot be separated from the historical context, and it is intimately connected to the question of leadership and the party regime. Rather than looking at this interesting question in any serious way, they have a single, one-size-fits-all explanation for every problem that has ever existed in a revolutionary party, for every poor leadership, unhealthy regime or failure.

An anarchist diagnosis

It is of course everyone’s prerogative to present their position in as favourable a way as possible for their purposes. The anarchists do this in spades. Their explanation hides behind words like “Leninism” and “Vanguard” and “bureaucratic centralism”. Talk of Leninist “crackpots” and “control freaks”, conflations with Stalinism, appealing to and encouraging the mood of suspicion and reluctance of political involvement that characterises the current period, all these things serve to cover up the pathetic reality of what they concretely and positively stand for. It is as follows: They are against leadership. All these problems in all these widely varied parties happened because of… leadership. The same thing will happen to you if you dare to have leadership. We should have, instead of leadership… Not leadership.

I think it was in My Life that Trotsky that remarked that anarchism is very strong on negations, but sorely lacking in positive content. My experience and reading has borne out this claim. Structure is “rigidity”. Leadership is “hierarchy”. Organisation is “bureaucracy” or “authoritarianism.” I respond that loose networks of activists are a hive of headaches and ineffectual faffing about. I don’t need to go far in time or space to back this up with examples.

My local anarchist group recently held their annual book fair. Outside my apartment, the wind blew one of their posters half-way off its corriboard so that I could see under the 2014 poster. Under it was the last poster that the anarchists had hung up. It was for the Anarchist Book fair 2013. This brought it home to me that they had held no meetings and promoted no demonstrations, in the intervening year. In the same time I have gone through acres of corriboard, and thus reached thousands upon thousands more people with my politics. The difference is stark, and it is a clear result of a difference of ideas.

In 2012 these same anarchists played a positive role in a mass working-class campaign. However, a defeat for that campaign plus their anti-election dogma led to them becoming unbearable campaign bedfellows. Their departure was a relief, which is sad to say because they had proved themselves to be capable enough earlier on. Since then, barring some pro-choice activity, they have not visibly done anything. There came, following the British SWP crisis, a toxic social media campaign (informal and undeclared, of course) against the idea of a revolutionary party. This is just about now running out of steam.

Their sensational fear of leadership has led them to a position where they are really little more than an annual bookfair-organising committee. This is a worthy pursuit, books are great, but their activity is not going to effect the course of history for better or worse.

Apparently I am something called an “insurrectionary socialist”. I’ve never called myself this and until now nobody has ever called me this. Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, who I take it are involved in the Left Forum in Ireland, used this newly-invented term casually and repeatedly in an article they wrote called “The Strategy of Attrition”.[1]

http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11746

The article is an argument for the idea that socialism should be achieved without breaking any capitalist laws, by winning a majority in parliament and using the state to reform capitalism out of existence gradually.

An argument for reformism, in other words. But they won’t admit this.

A recent Left Forum debate had the title “Revolution, Reform, and everything in between”. The reformists present, of course, saw themselves in the “in between” bracket. At this debate O’Brien described himself as a “revolutionary reformist”! Today’s reformists, with the shameful failures of reformism in the 20th century still hanging over them, don’t want to call themselves by that soiled name. It has become a dirty word on the left (and it deserves to be). To gain some credibility today’s reformists have to spend a lot of time blurring the boundaries between reform and revolution.

So every time the authors write “insurrectionary”, they mean the following: “revolutionary – but we don’t want to use that term because it’s an admission that we are not revolutionary.”[2]

This need to invent a new term to cover their own asses leads the reformists to say some very silly things, like:

“As the experience of the last century has shown the far left, it is not so easy to organise insurrection against a democratically elected government, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.”

What do they expect us to say? “Yes, you’re damn right, I’m sick of taking part in failed insurrections. I’m blue in the face taking up arms and manning the barricades on Henry Street only to be shot down by the FCA time and time again. The lads in Les Mis thought they had it bad! Insurrections in 21st-century Dublin are really, really difficult to organise!”

To use their own language, calling revolutionary socialists “insurrectionaries” is “entirely unhelpful” and “vacuous”.

The State – Don’t mess with it, you never know what could happen!

“A large bureaucracy is a very complex machine and complex machines are far easier to break than to improve… changes which haven’t been carefully thought through in advance can quickly lead to severe social crisis.” This is just Edmund Burke rephrased.[3]

By contrast, the existing state institutions, to quote what the authors say on laws, “Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

Existing is actually a very trivial accomplishment. What is decisive in making me value something is not whether it exists, but whether it is useful, and whether it has a future. The phrase “actually existing” made me laugh out loud. It made me think of Stalinist parties, which pledged allegiance to “actually existing socialism” in the USSR. Bad enough that it wasn’t socialism, a time came when it ceased to be “actually existing”.

Dialectical thinking is about discerning the outlines of what might arise in the future, and seeing everything “actually existing” as mutable and dependent on historical conditions. The dinner I plan to eat tomorrow does not have the virtue of actually existing. Disparate existing elements (rice, peppers, sauce) need to be brought together from diverse sources, and placed in extreme heat, in various conditions, which will cause them to change form. Still I plan to eat it. Capitalism has “the virtue of actually existing”. So did feudalism before it. Big deal. It’s going to take more than existence to impress me.

But as the quotes above show, the Reformists are scared of the consequences of change even though it’s a condition of this existence which is such an achievement. They think terrible things might happen if we try to change the state too much. If that is their view, then how can they justify even believing in socialism, which, whatever bizarre way they want to implement it, would mean radical changes on every level?

That terrible things might happen if we leave the state substantially as it is doesn’t cross their minds; that constant change is a condition of existence doesn’t seem to occur to them. Revolutionary change happens not when we feel like it but when it is a necessity and a possibility for all of society – and when that moment comes, you’d better not muck about. In any conceivable scenario where capitalism is overthrown, there’s already a “severe social crisis” going on. A new order is necessary to fix this crisis. That’s the whole point! How did they miss it?

 The State Machinery

To be fair, our Reformists do believe that the state machinery has a future and is useful. The state machinery for them is neutral. It is not essentially capitalist – it just operates in a capitalist context! The whole lot, parliament, elections every five years, the army, the guards, could run a socialist society without much change. In fact, almost every change will be enacted by the state!

To use their own image, they imagine that a tool designed to “bash heads and extract the surplus” can be used not only to govern a socialist society, but to decree from on high the transition to socialism. This head-bashing and surplus-extracting tool, it doesn’t take a genius to see, would not be ideally suited to creating and running a planned socialist economy. It’d be like trying to tighten screws with a hammer, or drive in nails with the butt of a screwdriver.

It is a surprise to me that they can imagine that there could be another mode of production, when they can’t even imagine that there could be another type of state.

They imagine a socialist government which has broken none of the laws (that were, by the way, designed to preserve capitalism), trying to enact a “revolution”, from above, with a parliamentary majority, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, saying please and thank you all the way. It’s like Stalinism in a drawing-room.

One Eventuality in which the Reformists will allow physical struggle

“Of course, should the democratic process itself come under attack, either through a frontal coup d’état or through a prolonged form of technocratic government installed by the IMF or the ECB, then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

What is this “democratic process”? Bourgeois democracy, which was pretty impressive in the 18th century. Today it means vote every five years for which group will kowtow to the markets and lie to you. It means a range of freedoms to organise, assemble, publish (subject to how much money you have) which are narrowing, not expanding, which are increasingly coming under attack in the advanced capitalist countries.

Why, even for a moment, would anyone hold on to the idea that there would be no decisive physical confrontation before capitalism is overthrown? It is a remote and bizarre possibility. What kind of political idea rests on a remote and bizarre possibility?

And what’s “old-fashioned” about a “street revolution”? Has everything since 2011 flown over their heads?

And what’s all this about not doing anything physical until the bourgeoisie “fires first” by attacking their own “democratic process”? What’s all this about refusing to allow the working class to fight meaningfully until the capitalists have violated their own mythical democracy?

It’s wrong to attempt any kind of revolutionary mass action when the mood of the working class is not favourable, when the workers are not convinced of the necessity. Many factors influence this mood, make the class bolder or make it more timid. One of these factors might be, and in most historical situations has been, that the state has committed some atrocity. Depending on the conditions, it might shock the class into action, or terrorize it into submission. Who has ignored this factor, this one factor among other factors? Not the revolutionary socialists, or even, if you like, the “insurrectionary” ones.

But the Reformists have elevated this factor to the level of a box that must be ticked. Why this factor and not others, such as how organised the masses are, how confident they are, how weak the ruling class is? Because they are very impressed with bourgeois democracy. They think it’s the bee’s knees. They use phrases like “a legitimate government sanctioned by a democracy.” When they use phrases like this I get the feeling that they are not really of our movement at all.

Effectively they seem to say, “We will approve of physical confrontation only after a violation of democracy by an embattled ruling class, something which is practically inevitable, happens. Until that happens we should base our entire perspective on the idea that this inevitable event won’t happen.” They’re gas, these reformists.

And the most obvious point of all: If you let the enemy fire first, you risk ending up dead. An atrocity by the government may provoke outrage and a response… Or it could be a brilliant coup that disarms and scares the masses, that sets off an unstoppable reactionary momentum, that exposes not the state, which is already exposed, but the leadership of the masses. The masses decide they do not want to risk life, limb and freedom for these “leaders” who have stood by and let the enemy savage them.

 

When two cowboys face each other, feet apart, arms tense by their sides, waiting for the darting hands and the pistol shot that will leave one of them dead, what’s going to happen to the cowboy who’s determined not to fire first? And why is he determined not to fire first? Is it because his head is full of the thoughts, ideas and instincts of his enemy?

Bourgeois Democracy

The reformists have elevated bourgeois democracy to a celestial level and bathed it in golden light. They even think it’s wrong to use the term “bourgeois democracy”. For them, it seems, its is the only possible form of democracy.

Apparently, the elections we have in Ireland are “broadly considered free and fair”. In reality only an eccentric minority think they’re “free and fair”. In society at large, now more than ever before, there is a huge frustration and cynicism with the political establishment and system. It’s a long, long way from Robert Mugabe but it’s not “broadly considered to be free and fair.” I don’t know where the Reformists got that one from.

Proletarian democracy, another, far superior form of democracy, involves councils directly elected from workplaces and communities, with every rep subject to recall and on the average workers’ wage. Organised on local, regional, national and international levels, on workplace and industry levels, this mass participatory democracy is the only form of state that can carry through a revolution and provide the mass input necessary to democratically plan a whole economy.

The Reformists’ trump card that they play against this argument is one word: Russia. So they use bizarre and ignorant phrases like “Lenin’s break with the Marxist Centre through his gigantic gamble on the soviet horse”. Elsewhere in the article they are very concerned with how massively capitalism and the state have changed since the early 20th century. But when it comes to the Russian Revolution, all concerns for context and historical change go out the window.

For all the attention they pay to the context, from the way they crudely graft its lessons onto today’s world, (“A temporary dictatorship will be necessary to bridge the gap between the collapse of capitalist political power and the institution of a new mode of production, a gap that may well last some decades”) it seems that for them the Russian Revolution might as well have happened in any advanced capitalist country in the last 20 years.

The USSR was not just a workers’ state in the abstract. It was a workers’ state in a backward, largely feudal country with a working-class that was a small minority of the population, that had lost 2 million people and been thrown into chaos by three years of total war, that faced isolation, siege, invasion and a vicious civil war on its advent. This brutalizing, deforming context is actually more important than the form of government that was instituted. But I have found that reformists generally, when they discuss the Soviet Union, show little understanding of this context, or even much interest. For O’Brien, it is sufficient to say that when power passed to the soviets, chaos ensued. Was there not chaos before power passed to the soviets? Was the year 1917 one of supreme and placid order? Chaos from what source? And what brought this chaos under control? This doesn’t interest these formalists.

http://dublinmarxist.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/left-forum-meeting-revolution-reform-and-everything-in-between/

The belief that things would be better if the working class democratically ran society, the economy and politics is not some freak eccentricity of us Trotskyists. It did not constitute “Lenin’s break with the Marxist centre.” It’s the essence of Marxism. If the Reformists can’t recognise that they should stop calling themselves Marxists.

What Practical Steps do They Propose?

I see socialism coming about through revolution. Revolutions happen in moments of extreme crisis, when it is intolerable for the mass of the people to continue living under the old conditions, and are organised and confident enough to go on the offensive. Revolutions are a fact of history. Ireland saw two revolutionary situations in the past century, one in 1917-1923 and another in the North in the late 1960s. Several revolutions have shaken the world since the beginning of the Tunisian revolution in 2011. An economic and political crisis and a continuing radicalisation characterise the global situation.

Despite all this, these Reformists seem to think that believing in revolution is like believing in Santa Claus. They say that basing your perspective on revolution is like waiting for the rapture. It clearly isn’t. It’s absurd that I have to point out that the rapture has never happened, anywhere. Revolutions have happened in the vast majority of countries. The rapture is not likely to happen because there is no evidence that it will. Revolutions are happening right now, and are likely to happen in the future because capitalism is not sustainable and is becoming less and less tolerable.

But the dumbest thing they say is that we “insurrectionaries” don’t actually have anything to do when there’s no revolutionary situation. I wonder are they the same people who, in the next breath, will accuse us of “frenetic activity”.

In fact revolutionaries have two main tasks. First: build a revolutionary party, to act as a decisive political force in a revolutionary situation. Second: build, strengthen, empower and embolden the working class in every way possible, through trade unions, community struggles and the building of a mass party of the working class. Which to place emphasis on, and how to approach them, are extremely flexible questions and depend on the situation.

By contrast, what kind of activity do these Reformists propose? Organise co-ops and build a mass party. Good luck with the co-ops, where’s your capital? The mass party idea is one I wholeheartedly support. But they don’t seem to have much of a clue on this question.

They talk about the SPD, the huge pre-WW1 social-democratic party in Germany. It had all kinds of groups attached to it, from smoking clubs to sports clubs to this, that and the other. But the SDP was the political expression of an advancing working class. Everyone wants to attach themselves to a movement that’s marching forward.

Is the Irish working class on the advance right now? No. It’s beaten back. It may go on the advance soon and there will be a prospect of a new mass party. But right now it’s not happening. So you’re not going to succeed in building a mass party at this moment, and copying some of the symptoms of the SPD’s success is not going to help your case, it’s going to add to your workload.

How Will Socialism Enter the World?

The Reformists repeatedly show a massive aversion to disruption, hassle and risk:

“The resulting break in the chain of production will see a severe decline in living standards and an immediate, perhaps irrevocable, plummeting of political support for seeing the transition out.”

This and many other such passages reveal the authors’ inability to visualise a socialist transformation of society. To any revolutionary, a level of disruption, even chaos, is justified if it could potentially lead to socialism. In any conceivable revolutionary situation, the working class will understand this damn well. But the reformists don’t think socialism is worthwhile if, to get to it, we have to go through serious disruption or suffering. They think the working class will bail out at the first sign of discomfort.

They don’t understand that it wouldn’t be a couple of bods at the top forcing changes on a foot-dragging, grumbling working class who will jump ship the moment things get tough. The class would make the revolution, not impatiently put up with it.

Socialism will not come into the world bowing and scraping, apologising for its own existence. It will not dispossess the most powerful people in the world using a state designed to dispossess the least powerful. It will not win power through an election where both sides worship some made-up thing called the “democratic process”. It will have to fight for every inch the capitalist world yields to it. Its only engine can be the enthusiasm of millions.

 

 


[1] I have heard of a trend in anarchism that calls itself “Insurrectionary”. As far as I can tell they are very anti-Marxist and do the whole black-block thing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurrectionary_anarchism. As far as I know this is the only tendency on the left that calls itself, or that anyone else calls, “insurrectionary”. The reformists have displayed some cheek in inventing a new meaning for this word and applying it to us because they couldn’t think of a word for themselves that wasn’t “reformist”.

[2] Revolution is the process of one class physically defeating and replacing a ruling class. Eg, the dates of the French Revolution are usually given as 1789-95 or 1789-1799 or even 1789-1815. This encompasses a whole revolutionary process – multiple insurrections, battles, wars and shake-ups of various kinds. Insurrection is a more specific term, referring to a specific uprising, eg Easter Week 1916 in Ireland or the Bolsheviks’ uprising in October/November 1917. A revolution without any insurrections would be a very strange-looking revolution; that’s why it’s wrong to pose the terms “revolutionary” and “insurrectionary” as if you could be one without being the other.

[3] Edmund Burke, a Westminster politician, wrote a tract against the French Revolution, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, in which he argued that a bunch of uppity lawyers shouldn’t tinker with feudalism because terrible things were bound to happen if commoners attempted change. Kings and queens were awesome and knew what they were doing through long habit (this was literally his argument). Incidentally, in his only reference to the mass of the people he used the words “the swinish multitude”.

A New Year’s note from the author: It’s been a great year for the blog, with views up more than three-fold on 2012. Thanks a lot to everyone who’s read, liked and commented.

This post has been a very long time coming. I haven’t posted in months, but the blog isn’t abandoned, have no fear. For one thing, the posts I’ve made over the past two years are still making me friends and enemies online.

For another thing I’ve had a mad busy few months since when I last posted in August. The holidays gave me a break and let me finally get this post done. Things will be slow but hopefully steady for the next six months, then back on track after that. 

 

From 1917 to 1923 the Irish working class went on the offensive like never before or since. Every year saw an average of 200 strikes and lockouts. Landless labourers and small farmers followed the lead of the working class; at the time some said that the struggle against landlords in those years surpassed the land war. This history has had a curtain of republicanism drawn around it. It has been hidden behind a colourful story of ambushes and assassinations. But Costick in his excellent book on this subject Revolution in Ireland reminds us:

kostick…without the willingness of hundreds of thousands of workers to boycott, strike, demonstrate and protest, the military activity of the 3000 or so IRA members who had managed to obtain guns would have proved insufficient.[1]

 

It was not the IRA guerrilla war on its own that ended British rule in Ireland, though that’s the idea that’s drummed into us in school.[2] It was the masses in southern Ireland, in particular the working class, that made the revolution.

 

This all came to the fore when the Irish dockers and railway workers refused to handle weapons for the British army. This turned the military situation against British imperialism very significantly. What’s not generally known is that the workers who started this strike were inspired by the British workers who were refusing to handle weapons destined for the hands of the counter-revolutionaries in Russia.

This single fact places the IRA in the context of working-class struggle without which they never would have won. It also places that working-class struggle in the context of the world revolution. This is how we should think about this period.

 

Huge upsurge in struggle

 

Like practically every European country, Ireland saw a rise in trade union membership and the number of industrial struggles in ITGWU1the years leading up to 1914. Following the outbreak of the First World War, membership plunged and strikes disappeared. In the late-war and post-war years the curve rose again. We can look at the statistics for country after country, and we see that towards the end of the war it hits the 1914 high point; in 1919 or 1920 it rises to entirely new heights.[3] The Irish TUC grew from 110,000 to 250,000 members from 1916 to 1920. Most of this growth was down to the ITGWU, Jim Larkin’s union, whose membership grew from 5,000 to over 100,000 in the same period.[4]

 

The first issue of the ITGWU’s paper Voice of Labour claimed in December 1917 that the year had been more significant for the labour movement than the lockout year of 1913. 1917 ended with 25,000 ITGWU members compared to 5,000 in 1916.[5] This was before the great general strikes, before the soviets; the best was yet to come.

 

Yet today it is 1913, not 1917-1923, which is remembered as Labour’s great “moment” in Irish history. The Irish working class as a political force is relegated to 1913 in mainstream memory, a date safely sealed away from 1916 and 1919-21. In reality, 1917-23 overshadows 1913 by a very long shot in terms of working-class struggle and socialist ideas.

 

The Russian Revolution

 

Along with this great working-class offensive came a new international vocabulary: Soviets, Bolsheviks, red guards, red flags. This represents something very deep. Much deeper than, as some argue, simply an attempt to lend some second-hand glamour to otherwise boring strikes for a few percent more here and there.[6] In fact “There was a growing working-class culture [...] which openly identified with the Red Flag and drew inspiration from the Russian Revolution.”[7]

 

These strikes and struggles were so numerous and so intense because a new idea had entered world politics in a spectacular fashion in 1917: the idea that the working class could and should run society, that every struggle was an episode in the fight for the socialist future of humanity.

 

Churchtown, Co Cork saw repeated factory occupations and protests with red flags prominent, including the classic slogan of Karl Marx, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Farm labourers’ struggles in Waterford began with the “Battle of Femor”, a hand-to-hand street battle that took place under the red flag, and escalated to a two-week strike in 1923 in which the (Irish Free State) army imposed martial law and suffered from ambushes and gunshots. Farmer “White Guards” and labourer “Red Guards” abducted, beat up and killed each other in a low-level civil war.

 

brureeAghada, Co.Cork, was patrolled by “Red Guards” for six days in 1919. Cork port saw a workers’ occupation in September 1921 in which the ITGWU organiser in the leadership of the struggle addressed strikers as “Friends, comrades and Bolsheviks.”[8] Even in Galway, a town viewed as conservative next to Limerick, a demonstration “of imposing dimensions” for May Day 1919 ended with (in the words of an angry local journalist) the singing of ‘The Red Flag’, “the rallying-song of anti-Catholic Socialism.”[9] The Soviets of Bruree, Knocklong, and hundreds of other places showed in an embryonic way how workers can run their own workplaces democratically, without capitalists or the profit motive.

 

These are just a few examples of the kind of incidents that were taking place in hundreds of places. The greatest, of course, was the Limerick Soviet, when for two weeks the local trades council ran a town of tens of thousands of people. And the use of the word “Soviet” in that struggle is clear evidence of the link with the Russian Revolution and the struggle all over Europe.

 

The Voice of Labour

 

This identification did not come from the mainstream press. The Irish Independent in particular disgraced itself in reporting nonsense about the Russian Revolution. Reports of Lenin’s death came at regular intervals; the Red Army, using the “methods of Atilla”, was “chiefly” made up of “Letts and Chinese”.[10]

 

The upsurge of 1917 allowed the ITGWU to purchase a newspaper, Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour. In March 1918 it sold around 10,000 copies a week.[11] ITGWU branches sold the paper and each issue was read aloud to groups of people, so we can imagine that as the union grew and grew, so must the circulation of this paper.

 

Early issues of the Voice seemed wary of mentioning the revolution. As the weeks went on this caution went out the window. The Bolsheviks were given their due in January 1918 as champions of national self-determination and open diplomacy. Soon the paper was quoting Lenin: “The Soviet… represents a higher form of political development than the Constituent Assembly. The Soviets, the organs of the exploited masses, become dictators, removing the exploiting elements of the community, absorbing them into the fabric of the new social system.”[12]

 

The paper described with great excitement the meeting between the Soviet envoy in London and the leaders of Irish labour. Connolly’s Labour in Irish History had been read with eager interest by Lenin, who had said that Connolly must be a remarkable man.

 

Thomas Johnson, secretary of the Labour Party, wrote a very interesting article published on February 23rd 1918. Entitled “If the Bolsheviks Came to Ireland”, it argued that “While Ireland has had but one Connolly, Russia has produced hundreds” in the form of the Bolshevik Party. He went on to call for the socialisation of land and industry, for food, clothes, housing and education to be provided for all. Most interestingly, he looked for Irish equivalents to the Soviets in three areas: local trades councils, agricultural co-operative societies and “dare we say it”, local IRA groups. Johnson stressed that these were only potential embryos of Soviet power; his point about Russia’s hundreds of Connollys was that the Irish labour movement was not yet politically or organisationally prepared for revolution.[13]

 

“Hundreds of Connollys”

 

Johnson made a very important point: that in Ireland, no strong, organised, respected revolutionary party existed, and this made the prospect of carrying out a revolution more difficult. As an illustration of what is meant by a “revolutionary party”, you could do a lot worse than the image of “hundreds of Connollys.” Connolly, unlike Johnson, was a true socialist revolutionary but the great tragedy of his life is that he did not build a party. Connolly as a person could be shot dead by the British government; Connolly’s ideas and spirit, in the form of a revolutionary socialist party, could have lived on through the difficult years of the war, and increasingly taken the lead in the struggle from 1917 onwards.

 

Instead the leadership of the labour movement passed to the likes of Johnson, who could “talk socialist” to please the workers, but really hadn’t a notion of leading a revolution. Or O’Brien, who openly campaigned and canvassed for Sinn Féin. There were hints of this contradiction in the pages of the Voice. The paper was incredibly reluctant to print anything critical of Catholicism or Irish Republicanism. The effort of being as “Bolshevik” as possible without offending a medieval institution (the church) and a bourgeois ideology (Irish Republicanism) was not as obvious at first but it became serious later on.

 

For now, the Voice was red. In the springtime it apologised that paper rationing meant a halving of pages, later apologising again russian-civil-war-posters-3that there was a vast amount of material which could not be included. Despite this, articles on such topics as “the Great Russian” Trotsky, the Russian Civil War and the Bolsheviks continued to flourish.[14] After the death of Tsar Nicholas II the Voice declared that “No criminal in history has better earned his fate,” but lamented that “Nicholas dies and [William Martin] Murphy lives.”[15] This gives an idea of the demand that existed among the Voice’s readers for socialist politics.

 

The Voice is a very interesting paper to look back over, with ads for pamphlets by Lenin and Zinoviev beside ads for the Republican leader Harry Boland’s shop in Dublin. Available in the Dublin City Library archives on Pearse Street, you get an exciting sense while reading it that you are getting a glimpse of the great, tragically untold story of the Irish working class.

 

The World Revolution and the Limerick Soviet

 

hungarianmap[1]The Voice issue for November 16th hailed the revolutions in Germany and Austria. The issue of January 11th included a full-page article on the idea of a General Strike and of Soviet power. The Belfast engineering strike, the Dublin tailors’ “Soviet” and the Monaghan asylum “Soviet” were all given great attention alongside the German Revolution, the Munich räterepublik and “The Red Hungarian Republic.”

 

Amid all this excitement, when it seemed that revolution was sweeping across Europe in an unstoppable wave, an article was published in the April 12th 1919 issue entitled “The Dictatorship of the Irish Proletariat.” This unsigned article addressed the military repression proposed by the British politician Ian McPherson. It continued:

 

Today the Soviet idea is sweeping westward over Europe [...] Before long the whole tribe of which McPherson is but a specimen will be swallowed up by the great ocean which is flooding the continent [...]

Again we say that Ireland’s best and most effective answer is the immediate establishment of Soviets, the instruments which will bring about the dictatorship of the Irish proletariat.

That must be the outcome of all the travail of these five years [since the 1913 lockout]. We have had enough of the old isolation. We have been cut off long enough from the mainstream of European life and thought.[16]

These words did not fall into a void. The next issue led with an article entitled “The Limerick Strike: Down Tools Against Tyranny.” The Limerick Soviet had been declared.

Limerick had three thousand ITGWU members, so the Voice must have seen a high circulation there.[17] On May Day 1918 7,000 workers from 42 different unions marched through the city. 15,000 then attended a demonstration at which speakers especially endorsed the Voice. With red flags waving, it was resolved

that we, the workers of Limerick and district, in mass meeting assembled, extend fraternal greetings to the workers of all countries, paying particular tribute to our Russian comrades who have waged such a magnificent struggle for their social and political emancipation.[18]

Liam Cahill's excellent book on the Limerick Soviet

Liam Cahill’s excellent book on the Limerick Soviet

The links between Limerick, the Russian Revolution and the Voice are clear to see. The Limerick Soviet was no accident or anomaly; it was a natural manifestation of the growing working-class militancy, confidence and identification with Bolshevism.

The leadership miss the “occasion” for rebellion

The Irish Trade Union Congress leadership lied to members that national action was planned in order to de-escalate the strike. The later “Soviet” movement of distinctly Bolshevik workplace occupations took place on the initiative of local organisers, including one who had been prominent in Limerick during the Soviet, and owed little to the national leadership. At the Labour conference in August 1919, despite some dissenting voices, delegates agreed that it was right to cut the legs out from under the Limerick Soviet because it was “not the occasion” for “insurrection”.[19]

Many leadership figures falsely claimed that the only alternative to the betrayal of the Limerick Soviet which they engineered was a full-scale insurrection. Their own poverty of ideas stood out very clearly with their ridiculous proposal to evacuate the entire city as a form of protest – they sought any alternative, however desperate, to escalating the struggle and taking on imperialism.

Among those who spoke against the “insurrection” was Walter Carpenter, who had fought in Easter Week 1916. The tragedy is that while insurrection was indeed premature in 1916, when Carpenter did take up arms, it was what the situation demanded in 1919-20, when Carpenter’s feet were much colder. The only question was who was to lead the struggle.

The Labour leadership, despite their fighting words in their paper, ran a mile and left a clear field for the middle-class and capitalist elements in the form of Sinn Féin. These bourgeois nationalists seized the leadership in the struggle against imperialism

A scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, showing the insurrection that was beginning even as the leaders of Irish labour insisted that it was "not the occasion"

A scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, showing the insurrection that was beginning even as the leaders of Irish labour insisted that it was “not the occasion”

but only because the labour leadership would not take what was being handed to them. By late 1919 a guerrilla war was under way. In 1920 and 1921 it grew in scale and intensity. And in summer 1919 the Labour leadership had said it was “not the occasion” for revolution. In fact it was the most ripe “occasion” in Ireland in the whole twentieth century.

An Alternative Struggle for Independence

A labour-led struggle for independence would have embraced every street and every village and made every site of oppression and exploitation a centre of resistance. What were “soviets” in name – in reality militant, politicized strikes – would have become soviets in fact: organs of working-class power capable of running society. This struggle would not have been confined to removing British rule – it would have settled with Irish exploiters like William Martin Murphy, the villain of 1913, as well. It would not have been confined to Irish Catholics. On the basis of workers’ solidarity the southern Irish working class could have linked up with militant workers in Belfast, on the Clyde, and given a new impulse to the struggle for socialism on a European scale.

We should take a moment to imagine an alternative War of Independence, fought with different weapons, by the majority of the people, splitting the republican movement on class lines and exposing the hostility of the church to the demands of ordinary people. Such a movement would have had the potential to win the support of both sections of the Northern Irish working class on the basis of the socialist politics.

Saying the working class could have taken the lead in the struggle is not speculation. It had led the anti-conscription campaign of

remembering1918 and left Sinn Féin in the shade. A magnificent general strike beat the conscription bill and radicalised the country, all while the Republican leaders were still in prison with their organisations in disarray.

How could things have turned out differently?

Of course many Irish workers, including many of the most militant, had nationalist and republican ideas. A meeting of railway workers in 1918 voiced opposition to Labour running in elections at a time when the leadership was for it. It was this section which the leadership leaned on and encouraged.

But a real working-class leadership would have put forward an independent position clearly. An example comes in the form of Jim Larkin, who though confined to the United States, wrote with fury about the sell-out of Labour to Sinn Féin. A far-from-perfect figure, Larkin was nonetheless a proletarian leader who was head, shoulders and chest above those the workers’ movement was saddled with at the time, and he saw clearly what was happening.

We can imagine that a revolutionary party that kept an independent line and was critical of republicanism and the church would have lost some support early on and come under attack from all quarters. But once the class went through the experience of betrayal – the general election sell-out, the Limerick Soviet, the increasingly anti-working class position of the Dáil – they would win back this support tenfold. Such a situation would be clearly analogous to what the Bolsheviks did between February and October 1917.

Revolutionary socialism is based on a belief in the working class. When the time is ripe the best elements of the class can come to the fore, small wheels turning big wheels, the leadership winning over the class, the class realising its own power and making history. All this is conditional on the most advanced sections of the working class being organised ahead of time in a revolutionary party.

Perhaps Johnson and others were genuinely enthused and temporarily radicalised by the Russian Revolution.[20] Cathal limerick sovietO’Shannon, editor of the Voice, the most left-wing of the leadership, rationalised and justified his colleagues’ behaviour in ridiculously over-optimistic terms: “the triumph of the Irish working class was bound up with the triumph that was coming, yea, had to come to the Bolsheviks in Russia.”[21] No need to escalate the Limerick Soviet – the European proletariat would do the job without an Irish worker having to lift a finger! Another explanation is that in a period of unprecedented, unexpected militancy they postured in order to please their membership.[22] A combination of the above factors is probable, and in the context of the European labour movement, normal enough.

By contrast, many Limerick workers, particularly ITGWU members, felt betrayed by the calling-off of the strike. They organised a meeting and a blockade of Thomondgate Bridge on the day the partial return to work was declared.[23] This is not surprising; the context of the Limerick Soviet, as seen in the Voice and on May Day 1918, reveals that many Limerick workers saw the use of the term “Soviet” not just as a gimmick but as a link to the seemingly all-conquering international revolutionary movement. Again, if a strong revolutionary organisation had existed, with an ability to spread its own material and its own ideas, it could have won a lot of support from these workers and explained the betrayal for what it really was.

Instead what happened was that Ireland’s most militant workers fell into inactivity and demoralisation or support for the republicans, who were actually fighting British imperialism. An example presents itself in the form of one man. In 1919 Peadar O’Donnell was an outstanding ITGWU organiser but by 1922 he was in the IRA.

The ILP & TUC and ITGWU despite their praise for Bolshevism stood with the “centrist” trend in the Second International, which was to the right of the Bolsheviks and to the left of the pro-war parties. This grouping came together in February 1919 with the Berne “two-and-a-half” International which O’Shannon and Johnson attended.[24]

The Irish labour leadership was therefore not remarkable in its conservatism; it was in fact on the left wing at the Berne congress, championing the Bolsheviks and the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to parliamentary democracy.[25] For a time they even tried to join the revolutionary Third International.

O’Brien, Johnson, O’Shannon – the leading figures in Irish labour during this period – were not as horrifically treacherous as the likes of the SPD in Germany. They did not gun workers down in the streets. They did not disgrace themselves with anti-Bolshevik red-baiting. What they did, they did well. But revolutionary action, which the situation demanded, was beyond them. To occupy an independent class position, across national and sectarian lines, to frustrate Republicanism and defy the Catholic Church, was a task for revolutionaries.

Fundamentally their outlook was parliamentarian and industrial, a vision of a class struggle at the kind of slow, plodding, gentle pace which real-life history has never allowed. They were a non-revolutionary leadership thrust into a revolutionary situation. Often revolutionary in words, but capable of outrageous conservatism in deeds, 1917-1923 must have been in their memory an exciting interlude, or an incomprehensible hiccup, before Labour’s long back-seat in the 20th century’s “independent” Ireland. Maybe this pace of events was more comfortable for them.

It is said that when the never-implemented “Democratic Programme” (at the time the words “democracy” and “socialism” were often interchangeable) was adopted by the first Dáil as a sop to the labour movement and to pay back the Labour Party for not running in the 1918 election, tears came to the eyes of Thomas Johnson. His tears of joy were, just to recap, over a document with no binding content read aloud in a bourgeois parliament as a thank-you for the working class laying down its weapons.

By contrast, the class they led made a great contribution to history, and acted out what should have been just the first chapter in a greater story. The Irish general strikes of this period were the awe of Europe’s labour movement. The Irish Soviets deserve a place of honour alongside the other “Western Soviets” of the Scotland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Throughout all these struggles the red flag flew, “The Internationale” and “The Red Flag” echoed, and words never-before heard in Ireland like “Bolshevik” and “Soviet” took on a great importance. The Irish proletariat played an outstanding role in the World Revolution.


[1] Conor Costick, Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1913-1923 (Cork University Press, 218)

[2] Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, (Anvil Books, 1949) and Ernie O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (Dublin & London, Rich & Cowan, 1936) are the classic accounts of the period from the point of view of IRA leaders. These are very readable and useful accounts, especially O’Malley’s, but their focus is quite narrow.

[3] See for example Tökés, 227

[4] Cork Workers’ Club, Irish Labour and its International Relations in the era of the Second International and the Bolshevik Revolution, 38

[5] Sondhaus, 291

[6] As argued, for instance, by David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 210

[7] Dan Bradley, Farm Labourers: Irish Struggle 1900-1976 (Athol Books 1988), 55

[8] Bradley, 60-66

[9] Connacht Tribune, May 10th, 1919

[10] Eg, Irish Independent, May 5th, 1919

[11] Voice of Labour, March 2nd, 1918

[12] Voice of Labour, January 20th, 1918

[13] Ibid., February 23rd, 1918

45 Voice of Labour, April 20 1918

[15] Voice of Labour, August 24th 1918

[16] Voice of Labour, April 12th 1919

[17] Liam Cahill, Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919, O’Brien, 1990, p 21; Voice of Labour, March 2 1918

[18] Voice of Labour, May 11th, 1918

[19] Ibid, 132-135

[20] “…excited by the energy and influence of their movement, some began to dream of social revolution.” Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 209

[21] Costick, p 88

[22] See O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland 1917-1923, Cork University Press (1988)

[23] Cahill, 141

[24] Voice of Labour, February 9th 1918

[25] Cork Workers’ Club, International Relations¸ 49

In late 2010 a revolt of the poor and unemployed  broke out in Tunisia. Within a few short months the rebellion had spread, with earth-shattering effects,  to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Oman, Iraq and other countries. This inspired the movement of square occupations in Spain and Greece, and even spread to the USA with the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin and later the Occupy movement.

Something similar, but on a much bigger scale, took place after the First World War. In February 1917 hordes of Russian soldiers joined the workers of the cities in revolt and overthrew the Tsar. The Soviets, councils of directly-elected workers, peasants and soldiers, grew in strengthA-tank-is-dismantled-in-B-006. In November the world’s first successful socialist revolution was consummated as the soviets, led by the Bolshevik Party, seized power from the short-lived bourgeois government. The effect was electric: within months a million German, Austrian and Hungarian workers were on strike against the war. This initial revolutionary wave battered against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but was beaten back.

In October and November 1918 the assault began again with renewed force. German sailors refused to go out on a suicide mission, and 1918NovMutinyKiel$Fragen300pxwinstead seized control of the ships from their officers. The sailors marched with the red flag into coastal cities and revolution spread uncontrollably throughout Germany. Soviets controlled Berlin and most major cities. The war ended and the Kaiser fled to Holland. The Austro-Hungarian and German Empires followed the Russian Empire into oblivion.

Civil war was raging in Russia. Britain, France, the USA, Japan and other countries intervened with thousands of troops and staggering amounts of money to prop up the White Armies who fought to restore the old regime. But British workers refused to carry weapons destined for use against Russian workers. French sailors in the Black Sea, sent there as muscle for the Whites, took over their ships, raised the red flag, shelled the Greek troops that tried to stop them, and set sail for home.

In 1919 and 1920 civil war conditions in parts of Europe mirrored on a smaller, more dispersed scale the civil war in Russia. Bavaria and Hungary became socialist Soviet republics and had to fight with bullets for every month of their short lives. Germany saw years of battles, uprisings and coups.

In Italy the “Biennio Rosso” saw revolutionary land seizures in the south and factory occupations in the north. In Spain general strikes, struggles on the farms and bombings and shootings defined the “Bolshevik Triennium” of 1918-1920. A radical peasant government came to power in Bulgaria, shoving aside the old military-aristocratic rulers.

South Africa, Australia, Argentina and Peru saw strikes and social conflicts on a huge scale. The United States saw the Seattle general strike,

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

the Boston Police strike and the colossal steel strike in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In Canada syndicalist workers took over Winnipeg.

The May Fourth movement in China saw mass protests of young people and gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party. Communist revolutionaries took power in Mongolia.

In England massive strikes took place alongside mass army mutinies. One mutiny saw British soldiers establish a “soviet” in a French coastal town. Strikes in Glasgow reached such intensity that crowds of workers battled police in George Square – and won. Union leader Willie Gallacher downed a police chief with a perfect punch to the jaw. Against the soldiers’ soviet and against Glasgow the British government had no alternative but to send in tanks and troops.

The British Empire stood on the edge of an abyss. Faced with revolution in Egypt, it resorted to killing thousands of people. In India, a general strike led a British officer to massacre hundreds of peaceful protestors in Amritsar.

Ireland

Amazingly, many of those who write about Europe in this period leave Ireland out of this story or else deny that there was much connection. On the other hand most Irish historians entirely ignore the international context to Irish events. But Ireland is in fact a very good case study in this global revolutionary wave, having all the key elements: local and national general strikes, massive industrial and agrarian unrest, syndicalist militancy, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, factory occupations, imperialist and anti-imperialist violence, a movement for self-determination and a civil war.

The Leaders of the Labour Movement

In the 19th century the capitalist class transformed the world. In Europe and North America industrialisation created massive cities, concentrated working classes and a new abundance of wealth. As the century went on free enterprise gave way inevitably to gigantic monopolies. Capital chased new markets and resources, and the flag and the gun followed, subjecting all the world to the rule of the few advanced capitalist countries.

The working class internationally was becoming more and more organised and militant. Their industrial and political rise brought to prominence a privileged layer of leaders, bureaucrats and politicians who were more interested in compromise than struggle, who believed (conveniently for them and their cosy positions) that progress toward socialism and working-class emancipation must be slow, gradual and within the framework of the bosses’ laws and in the political arena dominated by the rich.

In the years before the outbreak of the First World War trade union membership and power grew impressively, driven by the “New Unionism” of militant tactics and socialist politics, in defiance of the growing bureaucratic stagnation. In England this found its expression in the “Great Unrest”; in Ireland it appeared in the form of 1907 Belfast strike and in the 1913 Dublin lockout.

Then came the war. Bloody fighting raged on the frontlines, consuming millions of human lives, but in the hungry cities and villages an oppressive peace reigned between the worker and the boss.

The labour movement split in two with the declaration of war. The majority of the leaders of the socialist, labour and social-democratic parties all over Europe sided with their own governments in the war.

In 1917 Paul Lensch, a German social-democratic parliamentarian, wrote of “World-Revolution” – but not with the meaning you might expect. For him the World War was not the prelude to world revolution – it was the world revolution! It represented “the overthrow of the English world domination by the Germans”. He compared this to the overthrow of the Roman Empire by “the Germans” 1500 years before. The idea of the right of peoples to independence was just “individualistic international anarchy”. Germany would triumph, “and then will dawn a new epoch for humanity.” And after all, Lensch makes clear, the more Germany wins in the war, the more spoils there will be to divide between labour and capital.[1]

Lensch stated the case more nakedly and blatantly than others dared. However this was the basic attitude of most of the labour leaders of all the combatant countries. Exceptions included the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire and the far weaker labour movement in Ireland. But the British Labour Party, the French Parti Socialiste and the vast majority of the leaders of the German SPD betrayed the pledges they had made to resist war through general strike action. Their country was exceptional and had great things to offer the world – by conquering it. Victory (which they all saw as inevitable for their side) would bring the spoils of the war home to the working class.

Leadership in Revolution

The extent of enthusiasm for the war has been greatly exaggerated. In any case the apparent pro-war consensus was shattered in the closing years of the war, especially from 1917 onward. As we have described, the working class rose up repeatedly with tremendous energy and organisation. But they were saddled with an utterly bankrupt leadership, the same that had led them into the war.

In November 1918, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Berlin and soviets ruled many cities. From one balcony the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht was declaring a soviet socialist republic; from another balcony nearby the social-democrat Ebert was

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

anxious to steal a march on Liebknecht, and declared a republic. The masses still trusted their old leaders, and thought they offered the surest path toward socialism; in reality, social-democrats like Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske were making deals behind the scenes with bosses and proto-fascist militias to stave off revolution even at the cost of thousands of lives. In this way the advocates of “gradual” reforms toward socialism handed over the initiative to the far right and prepared the way for the triumph of fascism in Germany.

In Italy likewise the Socialist Party failed to take the initiative when, in 1920, workers ruled thousands of factories. Again, the initiative passed to the right. Mentally unstable and sadistic individuals formed death squads and spent their nights high on coke beating up and killing socialists and workers’ leaders. Funded by industrialists, with a vanguard of special forces veterans, these “combat groups” used brute force to beat the life out of the Italian revolution. Their leader, an ex-socialist crank named Mussolini, became the fascist dictator of Italy, the first in the world, in 1922.

Austrian Social-Democratic leader Otto Bauer described the great demonstrations that rocked Vienna day after day in 1919: “Every newspaper brought news of the struggle of the Spartacists in Germany, every speech gave information of the glorious Russian Revolution, which by one stroke had put an end to all exploitation. The masses who had recently witnessed the downfall of a strong empire had no suspicion of the strength of the Capitalist Entente. They imagined that revolution would spread like wildfire through the victorious countries. ‘A dictatorship of the proletariat!’–‘ All power to the Soviets!’–nothing else was heard in the streets [...] Peasants had also returned home from the trenches full of hatred for war and militarism, for the bureaucracy and for the plutocracy [... ] Together with the proletariat they imagined that the political revolution must needs bring with it a revolution with respect to property ownership.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

CLR James points out that the same Otto Bauer who describes so vividly this revolutionary situation did everything he could to dampen and defuse it. The Social-Democrats, brought into a new government, refused guns to the Hungarian Soviet Republic, arrested the Austrian Communist leaders and shot down workers who protested demanding their release. Absurdly conservative, the Austrian social-democratic leaders refused to be so bold as to call for freedom for the oppressed nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after that Empire had collapsed, and self-determination was an established fact!

In James’ words, the post-war years saw “the new Socialist order striving to be born all over Europe, and a thin scum of bureaucrats with the ear of the masses holding up the historical process and throwing humanity a generation back.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

History doesn’t move at a pace set by comfortable labour bureaucrats. When revolutionary situations arise, you can’t wish them out of

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

existence and go back to the slow accumulation of inoffensive reforms. A year of defeats can undo a half-century of slow methodical organisation. A year of decisive, strong, revolutionary leadership, as demonstrated in 1917 in Russia, can end with the working class in power. On the other hand, given half a chance, the bosses play their trump card, fascism, which uses ultra-nationalism, male action-hero attitudes and violence to crush the power and organisation of the working class.

The Verdict on the World Revolution

This was the dark, tragic side of the World Revolution. Its successes are obvious: they include establishing the world’s first workers’ state and planned economy in the USSR, ridding the world of four rotten monarchies, self-determination and universal suffrage in many countries, and ending the war. But its failures, which are the responsibility of the social-democratic leaders of the day, led to the triumph of counter-revolution. In Germany, Italy and Spain this took the form of fascism.

Within a hungry, backward, isolated Russia the reaction took shape as Stalinism. This represented a privileged layer of managers and bureaucrats who maintained their power by slaughtering and starving peasants, national minority groups and all those who stood for the real tradition of the Russian Revolution. They forever stained the name of Marxism, socialism and communism by covering their crimes with a paper-thin layer of justification in the language of the revolution.

Historical phenomena aren’t 90-minute feature films. They don’t end neatly with an unambiguous triumph for a clearly-defined set of sympathetic characters. Fanciful historians always counterpose to the hardship and suffering of revolution some imaginary form of government called “liberal democracy”. The countries they refer to, France

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

and Britain, were viciously class-divided societies which ruled over vast empires whose subjects enjoyed few democratic rights and suffered famines comparable to those that happened under Stalin.

In any case an advanced capitalist society is not an appropriate “control” from which to judge the success of a revolution in a vast semi-feudal empire. We have no such “control” in the colossal experiment that is revolution.

Ireland

Pivotal moments in Irish history tend to mirror global events. The 1798 rebellion was fought under the slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity. The 1948 Republic of Ireland Act came, not by accident, during the period of a great international strike wave, the establishment of the welfare state, independence for India and the Chinese revolution. The 1968 Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland took its inspiration from the struggles of African-Americans.

Similarly, in the revolution of 1917-1923 strange words like “Bolshevik” and “Soviet” acquired immense significance. In the chapters to follow we will show how the Irish Revolution mirrored the World Revolution in its successes and its failures, in the wasted potential for the socialist transformation of society, and in the role of leadership.

In Ireland, too, a “thin scum” of labour leaders held back history through subordinating the working class to nationalism. Thus the Irish Revolution on the one hand shows the enormous power and potential of the masses led by the working class. On the other hand it shows how when a revolutionary situation arises, it’s not good enough for the working class to be led by alarmed, conservative bureaucrats and naive, well-meaning improvisers. Those who want to see a socialist world must organise themselves before time into a conscious revolutionary organisation, win the trust of the working class through being the most determined and skilful fighters, and grow through uncompromising political debate and discussion.

In a revolutionary crisis such a party would be posed as an alternative leadership, capable of leading the masses to a historic breakthrough. The Arab Spring, events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil during the summer, and the developing crisis and struggle on the peripheries of Europe and in the USA, show that talking about revolutions is not just a matter for history buffs. A revolutionary party of the working class is the key missing ingredient in all these situations.  The reader can take what lesson they want from the chapters that follow, but for the author the lack of organised revolutionary leadership is as obvious in Ireland in 1919 as in Greece in 2013.


[1] Paul Lensch, Three Years of World-Revolution, Constable, London, 1918

This is part one of a planned five- or six-part series of short essays examining the role Ireland played in the worldwide revolutionary upheaval that followed World War One and the Russian Revolution, and in turn the role this global context played in shaping Irish history in these crucial years. 

In 1887 the socialist writer Friedrich Engels predicted that within a few decades there would break out

 a world war of never before seen intensity [...] eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce [...]crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…

In 1914 the great empires of Europe went to war and fulfilled this prophecy down to the letter. The First World War of 1914-1918 plunged humanity into horror, but it was followed by a World Revolution that promised a better future for all. The war was confined mostly to Europe and parts of Africa, but the revolution swept across every continent. “Crowns rolled in the gutter” and republics were declared, empires crumbled, new states fought for independence, women won the right to vote in many countries, and workers’ organisation and militancy rose to awesome heights.

The two partitioned Irish states of today were two of the many children of this post-war World Revolution. The winning of freedom from British rule is an example of the achievements of the revolution; the fact that the island is partitioned is an example of its limits.

In peacetime the workers of Europe had toiled to make a few bankers and bosses richer at their expense. Now in wartime working-class men made up the bulk of those who rotted in muddy, louse-infested trenches, died under explosive shells, sank to their deaths trapped in the metal hulls of battleships and marched defenceless into machine-gun fire – all for the benefit of the same peacetime bosses, who were fighting for resources, markets and political power. By 1917 many millions had been killed and many more wounded or mentally scarred by trench warfare. The demands of the war took bread from the mouths of those left at home.

In February of that year the workers and peasants of Russia overthrew their Emperor. But the Russian people soon realized that the new government was no better able to deal with their basic needs – it was a “liberal democracy” just like those “liberal democracies” of Western Europe and America, warmongering empires run by and for the wealthy. The workers, peasants and soldiers trusted instead to their own truly democratic organisations, councils elected straight from the workplace, village or regiment. These were called Soviets.

In October the Bolsheviks, a party of revolutionary socialists, led the people in a new revolution. They called for industry to be run democratically by the workers themselves, without any boss creaming off the profits; for land to be owned by the peasants who worked on it, not by useless obsolete aristocrats; for an end to the war; for all oppressed ethnic and national groups to be free to decide their own fate.

For the Bolsheviks, the most important aim of the Russian Revolution was to spark off revolutions in the more industrialised and advanced countries of Europe. These countries could then help Russia to develop socialism. They predicted that without this outside help the Russian Revolution could not be completed.

The Irish socialist James Connolly had gone to his death in 1916 with the same hope: that by taking part in the Easter Rising the workers of Dublin might inspire the peoples of Europe to rise up and end the slaughter. But the Easter insurrection was tragically premature. Thousands of armed rebels took over major buildings in Dublin, but the people as a whole didn’t join or actively support them. Over a week of bloody fighting, the British Army shot and bombarded the rebels into surrender.

Just a year later, the “grave-like stillness” in Europe was shattered by the Russian Revolution. Then the world revolution was in the balance. In Ireland, Connolly’s dream of freedom from British imperialism and from Irish bosses was in sight.

When most Irish history books today tell the story of Ireland’s Revolution – the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War – there is almost never any acknowledgment that the Irish Revolution was just one episode in the World Revolution that followed the World War. The global context is lost, and with it, an understanding of the real dynamic and meaning of events.

The southern Irish state since its foundation has been beset by massive problems – partition, poverty, emigration, the enormous power of the Catholic Church, and a dysfunctional economy. The only period of prosperity we have ever enjoyed, the Celtic Tiger of the late 1990s and 2000s, was based on a fake property bubble. Now mountains of debt sit on the shoulders of working people in Ireland and there is no end in sight to cutbacks, new taxes and attacks on wages and conditions.

Almost a century ago southern Ireland won freedom from British rule; in a hundred years the Irish capitalist class has had more than a fair chance to prove its worth and to develop the economy and society. But this class has only proved its incompetence and depravity. The greatest symbol of this depravity is how it leaned on the Catholic Church as a prop for its power and ignored the sexual abuse of children and the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries. Unable to develop the economy and with an affinity for cons and shysterism, the Irish ruling class jumped more enthusiastically than any other on the bandwagon of the financial bubble economy of the ‘90s and ‘00s.

Knowing only two tricks in international relations – rolling over and begging – the Irish ruling class happily made their country take on over 40% of the cost of Europe’s bailout when the crisis hit. The politicians owned and funded by the Irish boss class fawn and drool over the visits of US presidents and celebrate like victorious kings whenever a scrap of investment from the table of the multinational corporations lands in Ireland. They seem to think that asking super-rich corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook to pay more than a pittance in tax would be the height of arrogance.

If James Connolly could see Ireland today, he would have an explanation at hand for our historic problems. Our revolution was never completed; soundly beating the British Empire, the Irish people stopped short at the throats of the Irish capitalist class, who have done us no favours in return.

Leaning on a medieval institution, unable to develop the economy except by cons, occupying a position in world politics comparable to the little pointy-eared creature that sits cackling and screeching in the shadow of Jabba the Hutt, the Irish capitalist class has even less to offer the people of Ireland than the parasite boss classes of more developed countries. Oppressed not only by capitalist exploitation but by imperialist domination, sectarian division and a historically weak capitalist class, the Irish people face multiple challenges as we begin the 21st century. It is vital that we understand these challenges.

Ireland is in a decade of hundred-year milestones. The years 1913, 1916, 1921 and others will be endlessly debated and written about. But if we really want to understand these momentous events that defined the world we live in today the standard nationalist, unionist and liberal narratives will give us at best a partial insight and at worst a complete distortion.

This document is intended to tell the story of the Irish Revolution as an episode in the World Revolution that began in Russia in 1917. We will revisit events that have been tragically forgotten. Few now appreciate that for a short but momentous time Belfast and Limerick stood alongside Petrograd, Berlin, Glasgow, Seattle and others as cities ruled by the power of organised workers. Few know that the future leaders of “holy Catholic” Ireland once stood on the brink of forming an alternative “League of Nations” with the “godless” Soviet Union. Members of the SIPTU trade union today should know that in the few short years that their predecessor the ITGWU grew from 5,000 to over 100,000 members, it was a boldly pro-Bolshevik, militant, socialist organisation.

These facts and many more like them weigh heavily against the Neil Jordan school of history, which imagines the fight against British imperialism as a conspiracy by guerrillas and assassins and wise and less wise statesmen. This kind of “history” is not confined to films, however, but saturates what is taught in schools and seeps heavily through most mainstream historical writing.

We will fundamentally change this story by re-inserting three major characters that have been left out by most: the global context, which people living at the time were unable to ignore; the ideas of revolutionary socialism, which were spreading unstoppably throughout the world, not least through Ireland; and lastly the great majority of the participants in the revolution, who did so not as riflemen in the hills but as trade union militants.

We will examine firstly the connections between Ireland and the World Revolution visible in the trade union movements, north and south. Then we will look at the attempts to build dedicated socialist revolutionary parties in Ireland in these years. Last of all we will look at the strong connections that existed between the republican revolutionary movement and the Russian Revolution.

The following post began life as a comment on the following article: http://www.chekov.org/blog/what-left

It grew too long for a comment, so I continued until it was long enough for a blog post, and instead of leaving a great big tower of text at the bottom of the article I left one polite little link. 

left-model_0

This is an interesting model presenting several aspects of “the left” as a phenomenon or culture. The use of a Marxist-to-eclectic continuum is valuable and the various groups well-defined. It makes some true and astute observations, such as that in the present period Trotskyists and Anarchists are closer together than either are to Stalinists.

However you acknowledge that the object of the model is limited enough, to serve as an introduction etc. So forgive me if my disagreements are partly a critique and partly a recce beyond the limitations you yourself acknowledge.

In Ireland, either one of the Socialist Party or the SWP are bigger and have more connection with the working class than the CPI and the WP put together. And the orange planet, social democracy, has in most countries not only faded in colour but changed to a light shade of blue.

You say this model only applies to the post-1917 world. But it applies more than anything to the pre-1989 world – a strong social democracy and Stalinism whose weakness and/or absence are defining features of the neo-liberal period. The ground on which social democrats used to stand is very small at the moment. When the markets will punish any vaguely progressive measure, how can anyone be meaningfully “moderate” and “constitutional” and also be on the left?

The general problem with the model is that it doesn’t allow for change over time, for history.

One group that’s predominantly young, intellectual, confrontational and male and another that’s also all four of those things might have very different outlooks, methods, activities and ideas. One might be able to connect with and politicise the masses, another might die out in a few years.

Remember that every organisation from the “Team USSR” and “Social Democracy” planets started out as just a few “Far Left” types before they were raised up by great events. At certain times in history, some groups from planet “Far Left” grew very large indeed without shedding their politics. How do we explain this?

You say that confrontation and radical politics are “unappealing to many beyond this core demographic” while “social liberalism, gradualism, constitutionalism” are more popular. In what country, in what historical period, in what context is this true?

These assertions do not hold true for most of Europe in the context of the crisis when increasing numbers are drawn toward confrontation.

No pinpoint in history is an eternal default setting. No population maintains the same mood forever any more than does any individual. Other factors play into the relative strength of political forces: social democrats are funded by trade union bureaucracies; Team USSR parties were generally helped along with money from the motherland.

Right now across Europe, a serious factor holding back struggle and radicalisation is not an eternal preference for constitutional mainstream parties, which are in fact increasingly hated and distrusted, but frustration over the lack of leadership and alternatives being put forward by the official “leadership” of traditional parties and trade unions.

This lack of leadership implies a vacuum to be filled. In the next period the organisations you characterise as a fringe of angry young men will have to be tested to the utmost, and some will defy your characterisation and rise to the challenge. When this happens the weaknesses and limitations of this planetary model will become more clear.

What Changes Has the Working Class Undergone?

Like goods and services ideas don’t tend to fall from the sky. Why are some people deceived into thinking that “we are all middle class now”?

The working class has undergone immense changes in the last 30 years. These changes have not transformed the working class into something else – its essence, working for labour, has not changed. But historical trends that we will detail below have changed the working class in important ways.

Neo-liberalism

After the Great Depression and World War Two capitalism went through a “golden age”: rising living standards and productivity smoothed out the sharp conflicts between rich and poor that defined the 1930s.

In the 1970s there arose a conflict – between democracy and workers’ rights on the one hand, and profitability for big business on the other. This came to a head in most advanced capitalist countries. Victory for big business in this conflict (through Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK, for example) defined the world we live in today.

International Division of Labour

The massive deindustrialisation of Europe and America and the industrialisation to a spectacular level of China and other countries has led to an international division of labour, with the dirtier, poorer-paid jobs going to countries where people have no democratic or workers’ rights.

So on the one hand, trade unions and social-democratic parties won huge gains for working people in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America in the middle decades of the 20th century. On the other hand, these gains have not been enough. Businesses don’t like democracy or workers’ rights, and if left to their own devices they’ll pack up and leave for somewhere more repressive and backward. This race-to-the bottom is the reason why China and other heavy-handed states with poor populations have boomed industrially.

For a sketch of the world economy today we should look at the two most crucial economies, those of the US and of China, in comparison. China, on the basis of the Communist Party’s planned economy through which it overcame warlordism, foreign domination and economic backwardness, is a colossus of industrial production.

To list just a few examples:

  • Cement production: 2,000 million tonnes to the USA’s 68.4. Since 2005, China’s output has doubled, while the USA’s has nearly halved.
  • Car production: 18.5 million to the USA’s 8.6
  • Steel production: in 2011, 683 to the USA’s 86.2. In 2007 this stood at 98.1 for the USA and 495 for China.

Meanwhile in indicators of consumption, the US outstrips China spectacularly. In 2008 every 2.25 watts used in China was overmatched by over 11 used in the USA.

The interrelations of the world economy are defined by this nexus of production and consumption. The US sustains China through being a market for its goods; China sustains the US by buying up its currency massively. Other countries to a greater or lesser extent fit into this picture as either producers or consumers.

The implications of this for our observations on the working class are clear: it is bigger and more powerful and more concentrated than ever. It is more like the “traditional” view of class than ever. You would not think it if you took a superficial look around Dublin or London. But if you look a little deeper the signature of today’s working class is everywhere. Who made the clothes I am wearing? Some of the two million garment workers in Bangladesh. Who made the cars that line the roads? Workers on the eastern seaboard of China.

Again we remind ourselves that goods do not fall from the sky. They are built by the labour of working-class people and, for the sake of profit not of rationality, transported absurd distances.

Shopping centres are generally boring places for me. But they become interesting when I really think about the commodities around me. I imagine the exotic places these mountains of mundane objects came from, and the incredible people whose hands made them – an unspeakably great mass of humanity who will someday stand organised, will demand their desires and interests, and shake the world to its foundations.

Financialisation

Back in Europe and the US, since the 1980s the banks and financial institutions have exploded in size and influence. This led directly to the great financial crash of 2007-8. The essence of this age of the domination of finance was the attempt to smooth out, by means of illusions won by gambling, the essential conflict between the capitalists and the working class, revealed by the crisis of profitability of the 1970s.

It was only by financial trickery that decent living standards could be maintained in an economy based on “services”, stripped of manufacturing, whose essential role in the world economy was to be a market. But if you’re a boss, how do you turn a working class into a buying class without paying them higher wages than you can afford? Capitalism “solved” this problem as it usually “solves” problems: by storing up a greater crisis for the future through creating enormous bubbles of imaginary wealth.

Since the predictable crisis hit, the role of governments has been to turn national and regional economies into creaking props for this failed system. The more wealth they pump into the banks, the more the bankers gamble or hoard.

Imagine a dam is built above a city. It is poorly-built using shoddy materials. The dam begins to give way, and the city council steadily dismantle the city brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank in an effort to build up material to fortify the slowly-collapsing dam. This farcical and terrifying situation is what we’re living in. The substantial – jobs and public services – are being sacrificed to save an insubstantial and fake world of fictional wealth whose time has passed and which has nothing to offer humanity.

Alongside the financialisation of the world economy came the collapse of Stalinism. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe fell in a great revolutionary wave. While these were planned economies which, especially in the Soviet Union, achieved economic miracles impossible under capitalism, they were ruled over by bureaucratic tyranny. As well as denying the people basic freedoms, this led to the economies stagnating and collapsing. The result was the restoration of capitalism, which was a social, economic, cultural and even a demographic disaster.

Effects on the working class

The historical stages that passed in the last 40 years or so, which I have just briefly outlined, made fools of the two dominant trends in the workers’ movement of the 20th century, in strangely similar ways.

Social Democratic and Labour parties rested cosily on the achievements of the post-war boom, and on that basis became so bureaucratised and conservative that when the 1970s came and all the gains of that boom were under attack from big business they could not make an effective fight. Thatcher claimed that her greatest achievement was New Labour – the transformation of Britain’s Labour Party into a sad imitation of a bosses’ party, which is mirrored all over the world.

Stalinism was equally complacent and conservative. It was no more prepared for historic change, for the accumulation of contradictions which can tear down empires. Without the Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, their sister parties in the West were utterly discredited and left without an anchor in the world.

It is this context which has shaped and defined the working class as it exists today.

Both of these trends in the working-class movement, formerly all-powerful, deserved their fate because the historic period which had sustained them passed. But in dying, following on from defeats such as the miners’ strike and the PATCO dispute, they dragged the working class down with them. The 1980s and 1990s were demoralising experiences which struck the international working class with one blow after another.

Moreover the social-democratic and labour parties retain a zombie-like existence, retaining a prestige among workers based on their past, and making the odd radical noise. This fools people into supporting them as the “lesser evil”. Supporting them and being betrayed by them can further depress working people – making them pessimistic and cynical instead of radicalising them.

A similar bureaucratic obstacle exists in the leadership of the trade union movement. This problem is particularly sharp in Ireland. A time of relative prosperity in the late 1990s and 2000s, a brief historic episode, allowed for a system known as social partnership, whereby scraps are thrown to the working class in exchange for the trade unions becoming tame and timid organisations.

This experience weighs on the working class of today. The memory of Stalinism and social democracy are obstacles on the road of the people toward socialist ideas and mass action. When the crisis hit in 2007-8 and working people were suddenly under attack from all angles, they did not begin from scratch. The working class started with memories of past betrayals and defeats still weighing them down, and with a legacy of disorganisation and complacency inherited from the boom. Every minute of the 1990s and 2000s the workers’ movement grew weaker, and every minute the stranglehold of the bankers and bosses grew stronger. This explains the slowness of the turn toward radicalisation and struggle in most countries.

To briefly summarize the changes we have just outlined:

  • The working classes in the Advanced Capitalist Countries work less in manufacturing, and more in services. This is in an economy that is unsustainable in and of itself, but has been artificially sustained pre-2007 by financial trickery and post-2007 by a massive transfer of wealth from society to the super-rich.
  • The failures of Stalinism and of social democracy and the triumph of neo-liberalism have left a heavy burden of defeatism and demoralisation on the shoulders of the working class globally. It is further weakened by a general disorganisation, retreat, complacency and death of fighting spirit that took place in the last few decades. These factors are holding the working class back from struggle today.
  • The working class is bigger, more developed and more powerful than ever. This fact can be obscured by the international division of labour and by the fact that the working class has low morale and consciousness at the moment. But like the heights of the Celtic Tiger, this apparently all-conquering and eternal reality is merely an episode, an aberration.

So these are the changes: international division of labour, demoralisation and massive potential strength. What basis is there really to claim that there is no working class? As many British people work in call centres today as at one point worked in mines.

What basis is there to think that the colossal working class of today will fail to make its mark on the 21st century? Greater potential for class struggle and revolution exists today than existed 100 years ago, at a time when a far smaller part of the world was industrialised and capitalist, and the working class was a fraction of the size it is today. Revolutionary events greater than those of the 20th century will unfold in the 21st. The further development capitalism has undergone in the meantime promises a greater chance of victory for socialism: wider and deeper foundations now lie ready in most of the world’s countries.

Computational scientist Stephen Emmott has written a book in which he predicts disaster and possible extinction due to population growth and humanity’s unsustainable relationship with nature. On the one hand these predictions are hard-headed and convey the seriousness of the situation as regards the environment and the organisation of human society. On the other hand amid all his “realism” he leaves out of consideration most of humanity.

Achieving a democratic socialist society with a planned economy is the only way we could even begin to address the challenges he outlines through a changeover to green energy and enforcing conservation and efficiency as opposed to the profit-driven chaos of capitalism. Yet he doesn’t even approach such an idea. Instead he concludes, and these are his exact words, “We’re fucked.”

I don’t believe we’re fucked. I know from history that constant radical change is the rule, not the exception. I know the massive progressive power that is unleashed in those moments, revolutions, when the masses intervene actively and consciously in historic events. Once the working class collectively and democratically controls all means of production, distribution and exchange, our species will not only save the environment from complete destruction, but begin to raise civilisation to a higher level.

It would be strange to imagine a future in which for some reason today’s working class fails to leave a decisive stamp on world history. There are obstacles – dictatorship, reactionary ideas, sectarianism, the bitter memory of past defeats. But human beings will look out for their interests; this great mass of human beings, the global working class, has a common interest against the bosses of this world, and is potentially the most powerful force that has ever existed. If even limited sections of this class become conscious, organised and militant, this will be enough to change the course of history. These simple facts trample over all relative obstacles.