Saturday, 2 July 2022

Book Review: CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams is published by Constable (£20)

According to Madoc Cairns, C.L.R. James was a "genius, a seducer, a self-destructive wreck, firebrand author, historian, critic and was a complex, fragile human being". Cairns somewhat absent-mindedly leaves out the fact that James was once a Trotskyist.

While Williams is not quite as forgetful, he is loathed to go into more detail about James's radical past than is necessary. There is a degree of political laziness in this attitude, and Williams seems to be more content in studying James's sex life than in his political history.

CLR James died on a May morning in 1989, but in terms of Marxist politics, he had been dead since the late 1940s when he broke with orthodox Trotskyism advocating a form of State Capitalism during the debate over the Fourth Internationals position on the Korean war[1]

Like many young men and women of his generation, James was attracted to Trotskyism through the writings of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky's Russian Revolution History was particularly important to the young James. According to Williams, "it made an immediate and profound impression".

Williams works through James' life in chronological order. Williams explains that James was a child prodigy and was given a much sought-after scholarship to a British university. Also detected at an early age was James's ability to not only speak to an audience but would be able to explain complex matters in a way that his audience would understand without diluting the content. He was said to have "a style so austere and at the same time so colourful that his pupils listened to him in thrall.". James' empathy with the downtrodding is clear in his first novel  Minty Alley (1936). Not his best work but worth a read.

James's next book, The Black Jacobins (1938),[2] was researched in the early 1930s in Paris, France. Although the book takes on many aspects of the "history from below"genre, it is also heavily influenced by Trotsky's historical materialist approach. James believed that the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, "did not make the revolution, it was the revolution that made Toussaint."

In many ways, the revolutionary decade of the 1930s made James. He quickly became an important figure in the American Socialist Workers Party(SWP). James wrote some of his most important work while under the influence of the then-leader of the party James P Cannon and, more importantly, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, who held some ground-breaking talks with James over the" Negro Question," was not too impressed with James's political manoeuvring and concluded his assessment of James in a private letter written in 1940, writing

"I received a letter from Lebrun on the IEC. A peculiar people! They believe that now in the period of the death agony of capitalism, under the conditions of war and coming illegality, Bolshevik centralism should be abandoned in favour of unlimited democracy. Everything is topsy-turvy! But their democracy has a purely individual meaning: Let me do as I please. Lebrun and Johnson (C.L.R.James) were elected to the IEC based on certain principles and as representatives of certain organisations. Both abandoned the principles and ignored their organisations completely. These "democrats" acted completely as Bohemian freelancers. Should we have the possibility of convoking an international congress, they would surely be dismissed with the severest blame. They do not doubt it. At the same time, they consider themselves as unremovable senators – in the name of democracy!".[3]

Trotsky's characterisation of James turned out to be accurate. James was to develop many oppositional tendencies to orthodox Marxism. One was his opposition to building a Leninist-type party like the Russian Bolshevik Party. Although this did not lead to his break from Marxist politics, his evaluation of the class nature of the Soviet state under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was a deal-breaker.

The first open appearance of James's position was at the founding conference of the Fourth International. James went to the conference in opposition to the orthodox position on the "Russian Question". In an interview given later in his life, he recounts 

"I can remember that conference for one reason. We were against the Trotskyist position on the defence of the USSR. In the United States in particular, when the Moscow Trials took place, there was a movement against the Fourth International, but the Russian question was the reason. I was in the United States, that was my last trip, and I told them, "I have joined you, but I have not joined because I agree with you on the Russian position". They said, "You cannot have an international which is all united with Trotsky, but opposed to Trotsky on the Russian question. It means you are opposed to Trotskyism". Freddie Forest and I set out like Christopher Colombus. We had another boy with us who had some money, and he supported us with some finance. We had not a position, but she said, and we agreed, we were going to find out why it is that the Trotskyist position seemed to be wrong on the Russian question in general. After a year or two, we came out with a full position in which we attacked Trotskyism from beginning to end. We started looking for the answer in Capital Volume I and the Communist Manifesto. That pamphlet we published (7). After, we started to study the question to find out why in the Trotskyist movement, we were against on the Russian question but in agreement on other issues. Trotsky died in 1940. I am positive if he had been alive he would have seen what we were talking about. No one mentioned it but they weren't able to argue against it".[4]

Up until his death, Trotsky opposed the conception that the USSR was "State Capitalist. In his seminal book, The Revolution Betrayed, he writes, "We often seek salvation from unfamiliar phenomena in familiar terms. An attempt has been made to conceal the enigma of the Soviet regime by calling it "state capitalism." This term has the advantage that nobody knows exactly what it means. The term "state capitalism" originally arose to designate all the phenomena that arise when a bourgeois state takes direct charge of the means of transport or industrial enterprises. The necessity of such measures is one of the signs that the productive forces have outgrown capitalism and are bringing it to a partial self-negation in practice. But the outworn system, along with its elements of self-negation, continues to exist as a capitalist system.

Theoretically, to be sure, it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself a stock company that, by means of its state, administers the whole national economy. The economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries. A single capitalist, as is well known, receives in the form of profit, not that part of the surplus value which is directly created by the workers of his enterprise, but a share of the combined surplus value created throughout the country proportionate to the amount of his capital. Under an integral "state capitalism", this law of the equal rate of profit would be realised, not by devious routes – that is, competition among different capitals – but immediately and directly through state bookkeeping. Such a regime never existed, however, and, because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, never will exist – the more so since, in its quality of universal repository of capitalist property, the state would be too tempting an object for social revolution.[5]

James disagreed with Trotsky's definition of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers' state and its bureaucracy as a caste, not a social class. During his time in the SWP, James, alongside Raya Dunayevskay the formed Johnson-Forrest tendency that put forward that the Soviet Union represented a new form of "state capitalism" with imperialist tendencies. James exclaimed in his complete and open break with the Fourth International's perspectives: "Orthodox Trotskyism can find no objective necessity for an imperialist war between Stalinist Russia and American imperialism. It is the only political tendency in the world which cannot recognise that the conflict is a struggle between two powers for world mastery." [State Capitalism and World Revolution, 1950]. James would desert the SWP over its correct position in the Korean War. Moreover, the outbreak of the Korean War was the major postwar event which put the state capitalists to the test and decisively exposed them as apologists for imperialism within the workers' movement.

James's State Capitalist position was echoed by Max Shachtman and the leader of the British Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff. As the document, The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (US) relates, "The Korean conflict demonstrated the reactionary implications of the theories that the Soviet Union had become a new form of class society, either "bureaucratic collectivist" or "state capitalist." The theoretician of "bureaucratic collectivism," Max Shachtman, had broken with the Fourth International ten years earlier, promising to maintain an independent "third camp" position. But in 1950, he went over to the camp of American imperialism. Leaflets prepared by Shachtman's organisation, called the Workers Party, were airdropped to Chinese and North Korean soldiers, giving them "socialist" arguments for surrendering to the American invaders. The leading proponent of the "state capitalist" view, Tony Cliff, broke with the Revolutionary Communist Party, then the British section of the Fourth International, which adhered to Cannon's uncompromising opposition to the imperialist war. Cliff adopted a position of strict neutrality instead, condemning what he called "Russian imperialism" equally with that of the United States".[6]

While much of the material of James' life inside the Trotskyist movement is on the internet and in archives on both sides of the Atlantic, one is at a loss to understand why so little is in the book. This is puzzling because James's future life was so much influenced by his time in the Trotskyist movement. Also, Williams makes light of the fact that James was at the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. Given that just by turning up, many of the people at the founding conference were later murdered by the Stalinists, Williams skates over this fact. It does not take a dialectical materialist to figure out that James's life was in danger just by turning up. The murder of Rudolf Clement merits only a footnote. Again there is a wealth of material on this murder and others on the internet, so why does Williams give it so little attention.[7]

I cannot say that  I recommend this book. Leaving so much out is akin to writing a book on the bible and leaving Jesus out. James was a complex figure worthy of another biography from an organisation that would defend the Fourth International's history instead of leaving much of it out as Williams does. Despite James's break from Marxism, he is a person worth reading. His writings on the Negro Question are worth looking at, and his essay on the English Revolution is well worth a look. His book on cricket and other things Beyond a Boundary has never been out of print. The book had admirers, including John Arlott, the great cricket commentator. Former cricketers David Gower and Ian Botham were regular visitors to James's Brixton flat. As regards Marxism, James was finished after the 1950s, and he ended his days a supporter of the deeply reactionary pan-Africanism.

 



[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Jacobins

[3]Three Letters to Farrell Dobbs-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/29-dobbs2.htm

[4] Interview is given by CLR JAMES-to Al Richardson, Clarence Chrysostom & Anna Grimshaw-on Sunday 8th June & 16th November 1986 in South London. https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1986/11/revhis-interview.htm

[5] Chapter 9-Social Relations in the Soviet Union- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch09.htm

[6] https://www.wsws.org/en/special/library/foundations-us/00.html

[7] I have received a letter from Rudolf Klement's aunt, who lives in one of the countries of Latin America, asking whether I know anything about her missing nephew. She states that Rudolfs mother, who lives in Germany, is in a state of utter despair, torn by the lack of any word about his fate. In the heart of the unhappy mother the hope arose that Rudolf might have succeeded in escaping danger and that he was perhaps hiding at my home. Alas, nothing remains to me but to destroy her last hopes.The letter of Rudolfs aunt is a further proof of the GPU's crime. If Rudolf had in fact voluntarily abandoned Paris, as the GPU with the help of its agents of various kinds would like us to believe, he would not of course have left his mother in ignorance and the latter would not have had any reason to appeal to me through her sister in Latin America. Rudolf Klement was murdered by the agents of Stalin. Leon Trotsky: On the Murder of Rudolf Klement-December 1, 1938-[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 137]

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Postal Workers Need A New Leadership.

In the next few days, Postal workers should be receiving their ballots for strike action over a pay dispute with Royal Mail Group from the Communication Workers Union(CWU).

Postal workers are arguably the most militant section of the British workforce and have on numerous occasions delivered substantial votes for strike action. Given the huge anger at the way they have been treated by Royal Mail over the issue of Pay,(the privatised postal company has acted unilaterally in foisting what amounts to a massive pay cut on its workforce with inflation currently standing at 11.7 per cent) it is a shoo-in that there will be a huge yes vote for strike action.

However much anger and militancy postal workers have, it will not be enough to defeat the plans of Royal Mail or eliminate a union leadership that spends more time hob nobbing with Royal Mail than it does defending worker's jobs and conditions. Time and time again, postal workers have stood up and been counted, only to be betrayed by their leadership. It is clear that even to the most casual observer, the CWU does not act in the interest of postal workers but has become an arm of corporate management.

It is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, but the current CWU deputy general secretary Terry Pullinger said, "Our members are lions, and if you prod the lion, it will attack". Then it begs the question, who are the donkeys ?.

Even before the ballot papers hit the floor, the CWU leadership prepared to dissipate and defeat any strike action. The earliest strike action will take place in August and gives the CWU plenty of time to sell out the strike before it has even begun, which is exactly what they did with the last massive strike vote.

Before the ballot papers were issued, the CWU had sent out numerous leaflets outlining its position. The union has openly bragged that it forced postal workers to work during the pandemic and that its collaboration with management had led to a "billion-pound turnaround, record profits and restored the reputation of Royal Mail".[1] It has already confirmed that Royal Mail's "charter for sweatshop labour" can be negotiated as long as a decent pay rise is guaranteed

The CWU has openly boasted that it had delivered unprecedented increases in productivity and revisions through the Pathway to Change. It also boasted of its close relationship with Royal Mail. So much so now that it invites Royal Mail Group to observe its union meetings.

At a recent National Briefing meeting In Liverpool, current CWU deputy general secretary Terry Pullinger explained that there were RMG observers in the meeting, saying, "We must remember that we cannot allow them to set the agenda. The deal we want is a pay-only no-strings deal. This is what you and the members need to remember when management speaks to you in the workplace. Even today, the 2% deal with no strings is a derisive offer and nowhere near enough to what we want and you deserve. It may be a step from the 3.5% with all the strings, but the deal is still unacceptable. The Pathway to Change Agreement is there to deal with the strings they want to discuss in the pay deal, and that is where they will stay".

There you have it. The Pathway To Change has led to unprecedented change, increased productivity, cut in hours and duties, led to redundancies and forced workers to work through a pandemic that has cost many lives, left some postmen with long-term sickness due to long Covid and has led to massive disruptions in delivery offices up and down the country.

As one worker relates, "Since I've been at my current depot, the company has been pushing more and more work onto us. They've reduced the number of individual walks, which means those walks get reallocated into other people's workload. We even see some people coming in early, before their official start time, to prep their walks — or, at the other end, people sprinting round to get their walks done as there's simply so much to cover. Now management is talking about restructuring our hours so we wouldn't be in work on Monday and Tuesday, when the workload tends to be lighter, and having us work Wednesday to Sunday instead. That would obviously wreck work/life balance for many people".

The union has done nothing to protect the health of its membership and deliberately put workers in harm's way to increase the productivity and profits of Royal Mail. As CWU rep David Robertson stated, "we attended work during the height of the pandemic. We delivered as best we could under the strain of tremendous volume and high sick absences. We put the customer before our health concerns and that of our families".

The pièce de resistance has been the union's agreement, and implementation of the "Above & Beyond bonus scheme", a one-off payment in case any worker wants to work themselves to death for a one-off payment. Any worker who wants to find out the inspiration for this piece of stupidity should delve into the history books. Joseph Stalin introduced the Stakhanovite movement, which became synonymous with workers being worked to death for a pittance.[2]

The CWU openly boasts that it has delivered a massive profit of £758 and a huge dividend to shareholders through the sweat of postal workers. It has carried out over 1200 Delivery Office revisions. These revisions have not only seen cuts in hours but heavier workloads and loss of overtime. In many delivery offices, this has caused utter chaos, with some deliveries not being made for days if not weeks.

Also it should be made clear that the CWU is not opposed to Sunday working but must be implemented under its control. The union has said, "We are willing to discuss innovative duties and duty patterns". This must be done, it says, with the collaboration of Royal Mail boasting that in 2021 it had agreed to 48 Joint Statements and in 2022 had issued a further 37.

Even if the CWU act upon what will be a huge vote for strike action, postal workers will still be saddled with a leadership that is hell-bent on collaborating further with its corporate partner. In order to defend jobs and pay, postal workers need a new perspective and leadership. The first step on this road is to take the struggle out of the hands of the CWU and form rank and file committees. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said, "The modern proletarian class doesn't carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers' struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight".[3]



[1] Royal Mail Group Pay Dispute 2022 Leaflet

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stakhanovite_movement.

[3] "The Politics of Mass Strikes and Unions"; Collected Works 2

Monday, 27 June 2022

On C.L.James

I am working on a review of C.L.R James' A Life Beyond The Boundaries by John. .L. Williams. James was an extraordinary individual whose books and essays are well worth reading. Present at the founding of the Fourth International and met with Leon Trotsky and formulated some interesting work on the Negro question. From a political standpoint, James was finished as a Trotskyist in the early 1940s when he agreed with the Shachtmanite opposition repudiation of Leon Trotsky's definition of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers' state and of its bureaucracy as a caste and not a social class.

C.L.R James(Johnson) went to form (Johnson-Forrest tendency) alongside Raya Dunayevskaya (Forrest). This tendency put the Soviet Union as a new form of "state capitalism" with imperialist tendencies.

James completed his break with Trotskyism by stating, "Orthodox Trotskyism can find no objective necessity for an imperialist war between Stalinist Russia and American imperialism. It is the only political tendency in the world which cannot recognize that the conflict is a struggle between two powers for world mastery." [1]

Although C.L.R. James (Johnson) broke with the Shachtmanites to join the SWP, both James and Dunayevskaya left the SWP over its position on the Korean War. The war exposed the bankruptcy of James's position and that of other State Capitalists, which exposed them as apologists for imperialism within the workers' movement. While my review concentrates on this period, James's break from Marxism should not put off readers from looking at some of his other work. Books like the Black Jacobin and Beyond the Boundary are well worth reading, and his work on the English Revolution published today is well worth a look.



[1] [State Capitalism and World Revolution, 1950]





Saturday, 25 June 2022

Breasts and Eggs-by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd-Europa, 430 pp., $27.00; $16.95 (paper)

 

"I guess she was one of those people you see a lot these days who looked young from behind, but the second that she turned around…. Her fake teeth were noticeably yellow, and the metal made her gums look black. Her faded perm had thinned so much that you could see the perspiration on her scalp. She was wearing way too much foundation. It made her face look washed out and more wrinkly than it was. When she laughed, the sinews of her neck popped out. Her sunken eyes called attention to their sockets."

Breasts and Eggs

'Women are no longer content to shut up'

Mieko Kawakami

"the dominant view today is that women have always been to some degree oppressed—the usual term is "dominated"—by men because men are stronger, they are responsible for fighting, and it is in their nature to be more aggressive. Common among those who discuss sex roles are blunt judgments, empirically phrased, that casually relegate to the wastebasket of history".

F Engels

Reading Mieko Kawakami's novel Breasts and Eggs, one concludes that it is not easy being a working-class woman in any country at the moment. Described as a Feminist, Kawakami seems more interested in describing the human condition rather than being saddled with this unsatisfactory label.

Her opposition to being called a Feminist writer has not stopped numerous people from labelling her so and a fighter against male domination. While God forbid that she stops writing the way she does, it would improve her writing if she imbued her characters with a little historical perspective. After all, men's relationship with women has been around for a long time and is a complex issue. While she would be met with hails of derision from her Feminist readers, she could do no worse than consult Friedrich Engel's extraordinary book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels writes eloquently, "the dominant view today is that women have always been to some degree oppressed—the usual term is "dominated"—by men, because men are stronger, they are responsible for fighting, and it is in their nature to be more aggressive. Common among those who discuss sex roles are blunt judgments, empirically phrased, that casually relegate to the wastebasket of history the profound questions about women's status that were raised by nineteenth-century writers. "It is common sociological truth that in all societies authority is held by men, not women," writes Beidelman; "At both primitive and advanced levels, men regularly tend to dominate women," states Goldschmidt; "Men have always been politically and economically dominant over women," reports Harris. Some women join in. Women's work is always "private," while "roles within the public sphere are the province of men," writes Hammond and Jablow. Therefore "women can exert influence outside the family only indirectly through their influence on their kinsmen".

The first problem with such statements is their lack of historical perspective. To generalise from cross-cultural data gathered almost wholly in the twentieth century is to ignore changes that have been taking place for anywhere up to five hundred years as a result of involvement, first with European mercantilism, then with full-scale colonialism and imperialism. Indeed, there is almost a kind of racism involved, an assumption that the cultures of Third World peoples have virtually stood still until destroyed by the recent mushrooming of urban industrialism. Certainly, one of the most consistent and widely documented changes during the colonial period was a decline in the status of women relative to men. The causes were partly indirect, as the introduction of wage labour for men, and the trade of basic commodities, speeded up processes whereby tribal collectives were breaking up into individual family units, in which women and children were becoming economically dependent on single men. The process was aided by the formal allocation to men of whatever public authority and legal right of ownership was allowed in colonial situations, by missionary teachings, and by the persistence of Europeans in dealing with men as the holders of all formal authority. The second problem with statements like the above is largely a theoretical one. The common use of some polar dimension to assess woman's position and to find that everywhere men are "dominant" and hold authority over women not only ignores the World's history but transmutes the totality of tribal decision-making structures (as we try to reconstruct them) into the power terms of our society.[1]

Mieko Kawakami
Breasts and Eggs is Kawakami's first full-length novel for English-language readers. This novel takes its characters and setting from a short novella published in 2008 and was awarded Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Prize. This book, it must be said, is not an easy read. The novelist and politician Shintaro Ishihara described Breasts and Eggs as "unpleasant and intolerable". This statement, however, can be taken in many ways.

While it is perhaps unusual for two people to translate a book, it is beautifully done by Sam Bett and David Boyd. However, they have faced criticism for moving away from the essence of Kawakami's use of the Osaka dialect, Which reinforces the working class nature of her characters. The dispute over their translation is above my pay grade, so I will leave it to others to argue the merit.

Madeleine Thien writes in her review, "the real Osaka dialect is not even about communicating. It is a contest. How can I put it? It's an art" – translators Bett and Boyd do not render it. In 2012, an excerpt of Breasts and Eggs was published by another translator, Louise Heal Kawai, who offers Makiko's "I've been thinking about getting breast implants" as "Natsuko, I am thinking of getting me boobs done". Kawai compares the Osaka dialect to Mancunian: rough, friendly, outspoken. In Bett and Boyd's translation, Kawakami's feminism is vivid, but the language occasionally feels placid; meanwhile, in Kawai's translation, feminism and language collide in a way that feels deliciously irreverent. Here is Brett and Boyd, translating Midoriko's response to her mother's desire for surgery: "It's gross, I really don't understand. It's so, so, so, so, so, so gross … She's being an idiot, the biggest idiot." Here is Kawai: "I don't get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! … She's off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks."[2]

To what extent this is an autobiographical piece will be known only to some extent by the author. Maybe women will have a closer bond with the characters in the book, but as a man, the plight of the women in the book also forces the male reader to confront their past and how they fit into the modern-day World.

The book's narrator represents a new generation of Japanese women who, while rejecting much of Japanese cultural, social and political norms, have yet to strike out in a new direction. Sarah Chihaya writes, "The idea that a woman, or anyone for that matter, might be able to articulate and lay claim to exactly what they want is laughably unsuited to these uncertain times. So what kinds of novels can be written about women who may not want anything from a world that may not have anything to offer them?".[3]

The book is divided into two parts, Breasts and Eggs. I am not inclined to separate the book into parts. The book deals with many problems of everyday life. Kawakami's first chapter is titled "Are You Poor?". It must be said that Kawakami is one of the few writers addressing the problems faced by working-class women in society. Her work cuts across the money-grabbing women of the #MeToo movement

The main character in the book is largely unconcerned with desirability, romance, or sexual pleasure but has yet to find a replacement for these basic social mores. She is not content with putting up with how she has been treated in the past but has yet to formulate a social or political way forward. One feels this novel is closer to the author's life than she may let on. The intensity of this study of Japanese working-class women forces both male and female readers to re-examine their own lives.

Kawakami is a precise and razor-sharp writer who discusses complex and sensitive subjects honestly and sensitively. She is a keen observer of the problems faced by working-class women. As this brutally honest depiction of one of the characters in the book shows, "Natsu sees everything and everyone she encounters, including herself; its dryness saps the poignancy from statements like "She reminded me of Mom." It is not that Natsu is devoid of emotion—her sadness at the earlier loss of her beloved grandmother is apparent throughout the novel. Yet that sadness, and her loneliness and estrangement, do not lead to yearning or desire. Mothers and grandmothers haunt all of the women in this novel, not just Natsu and Maki, but their ghosts do not emit the glow of family romance. Rather, the spectral presences are reminders of the accumulating malaise of the female body as it participates, willingly or unwillingly, in the mingled economies of labour and sexual desire—as one of Natsu's not-quite-friends unforgettably declares, their mothers and their mothers before them were just "free labour with a pussy." While a powerful bond of love joins these successive generations, it is a luxury that contemporary women's schedules cannot often afford".

One can see why the novel was harshly criticised in some conservative quarters because it exposes the horrendous plight of working-class women in Japanese society that treats them as second-class citizens.

As Vrinda Nabar writes, "It is easy to understand the outrage caused by Breasts and Eggs among a section of readers in Japan. Published in a newly expanded form in English translation in April this year, the novel's titillating title belies its upfront focus on themes that have less to do with female anatomy and more with the ways many women have quietly subverted gender roles. The discursive style allows its narrator Natsuko Natsume (a blogger nobody reads), to touch on several aspects of a single woman's life in Tokyo".[4]

Like all good writers, Kawakami draws heavily on her own experiences as a woman in modern Japan. However, there is nothing parochial about her work as she discusses universal themes of loneliness and sexuality in capitalist society. Her novels have struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of her readers. I highly recommend this book and cannot wait to read and review her new book. [5]

 

 



[1] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5128-engels-and-the-history-of-women-s-oppression

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/11/breasts-and-eggs-by-mieko-kawakami-review-an-interrogation-of-the-female-condition

[3] https://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-new-york-review-of-books/20210429/281573768498656

[4] https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/review-breasts-and-eggs-a-novel-by-mieko-kawakami/story-gu4VLuf12Xofl726VXpTgM.html

[5] All The Lovers in the Night-Picador 2022

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

George Orwell-(1903-1950) At Notting Hill

One of my favourite walks is from my home through the Portobello market up to Notting Hill Gate. Once you fight past the tourists, it is a pleasant stroll. A few years ago, I spotted a blue plaque on the side of a house. To my amazement, it was where the novelist George Orwell lived in 1927. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 lived at number 22 Portobello Road.

To my disappointment, the great man never wrote anything worthwhile staying at the house except for a few articles. But it did inspire him to write some important stuff in the early 1930s. According to Gordon Bowker, “In late 1927, his friend Ruth Pitter, the poet, found him an unheated attic at 22 Portobello Road, a short walk from his old home at Notting Hill Gate. The room was so cold that he had to warm his hands over a candle-flame before he could start writing in the morning.

From this icy cell, he set out in old clothes to mingle with the tramps and down-and-outs who slept along the Embankment, in common lodging-houses and ‘spikes’, the casual wards of workhouses. Most of these spikes and lodging-houses (or ‘kips’) have long gone, though a few old workhouse buildings survive, often as NHS hospitals. It was from a kip in Lambeth that he tramped down to Kent to go hop-picking among the East Enders and gipsy families who migrated there every year for a working holiday. This experience was recaptured in his first article for the New Statesman in October 1931 and lay at the heart of his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter.[1]

As I said, Notting Hill is a great attraction for tourists looking for a door that does not exist and a bookshop that does not exist except in the film. As I walked by Orwell’s house last week, two young women, whom I assumed were tourists, took a photo outside the house. I guessed they had not spotted the blue plaque, and I was correct. They were even more surprised when I told them who had lived there. I asked one girl if she had read him, and she replied only 1984. I asked her where she was from, and she said Spain. I did not have the energy to tell her that Orwell had fought Fascism in her country. Or that, in my opinion, Homage To Catalonia is his greatest book.



[1] https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/articles/gordon-bowker-orwells-london/

Friday, 3 June 2022

The Ghetto Fights: Warsaw 1941-43-By Marek Edelman - £7.99- January 1st 2020-Published By Bookmarks Publications

 

"The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth."[1]

"I am not acquainted with the young author of this booklet, one of the leaders of the Jewish Uprising. He brought me a typewritten copy, and I read it all at once, unable to interrupt my reading for a single moment. ... "I am not a writer, " he said. "This has no literary value. "However, this non-literary narrative achieves that which not all masterpieces can achieve. For it gives in serious, purposeful, reticent words a record, simple and unostentatious, of a common martyrdom, of its entire involved course. It is also an authentic document about perseverance and moral strength kept intact during the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind."

Zofia Nalkowska, LODZ, November 1945

 This book is the second reprint by Bookmarks (the publishing arm of the British  Socialist Workers Party) of Marek Edelmann's extraordinarily harrowing and inspiring account of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising 1941-43 against the Nazis. The book contains an introduction by SWP member John Rose of which more will be said later in this review.

Edelman was a member of the Bund, an organisation of Jewish socialists, who, along with other groups, including radical left-wing Zionist organisations, militarily attacked the Nazis after they began to deport Jews from the Ghetto to the various Nazi concentration camps.

Despite several warnings from outside that Jews were being systematically murdered on an industrial scale, few inside the Ghetto believed it was happening. Edelman writes that "The Warsaw ghetto did not believe these reports. People who clung to their lives with superhuman determination could not believe that they could be killed in such a manner. Only our organised [youth] groups, carefully noting the steadily increasing signs of German terror, accepted the Chelmno story as probable and decided upon extensive propaganda activities to inform the population of the imminent danger. A meeting of the Zukunft cadres took place in mid-February 1941, with Abrasha Blum and Abramek Bortensztein as speakers. All of us agreed to offer resistance before being led to death. We were ashamed of the Chelmno Jews' submissiveness, of their failure to rise in their defence. We did not want the Warsaw ghetto ever to act in a similar way. "We shall not die on our knees," said Abramek, "Not they will be an example for us, but men like our comrade Alter Bas." While Chelmno victims were dying passively and humbly, he, after having been caught as a political leader with illegal papers in his pocket, and tortured in every manner known to the Germans, resisted the barbarous torment through superhuman efforts when but a few words would have saved his life".[2]

The book is light on analysis and is narrative-driven. Edelmann's description of everyday life in the Ghetto is harrowing and, at times, hard to comprehend. He writes, "The sick, adults and children, previously brought here from the hospital lie deserted in the cold halls. They relieve themselves right where they lie and remain in the stinking slime of excrement and urine. Nurses search the crowd for their fathers and mothers and, having found them, inject longed for deathly morphine into their veins, their own eyes gleaming wildly. One doctor compassionately pours a cyanide solution into the feverish mouths of strange, sick children. Offering one's cyanide to somebody else is now the most precious, irreplaceable thing. It brings a quiet, peaceful death. It saves from the horror of the cars".[3]

The Nazis used the Ghetto as a holding area to process people to the concentration camps, and they were able to do this with a minimum of fuss because of the pernicious role played by the Jewish Council, who collaborated with the Fascists in the industrial-scale murder of Polish Jews.

After the final decision was made to liquidate the Ghetto, many different political organisations came together to fight the Nazis. Despite having few weapons, the various fighting units killed many Nazis.

Marek Edelman wrote this book just after the war finished and was published in Warsaw in 1945, then in English in 1946. The book raises several important issues, such as the collaboration of the Jewish Council in facilitating the Nazi's mass death programme. It also highlights the difference between the lives of working-class people who lived and died in abject squalor and sections of middle-class Jews who could live a relatively comfortable life for a short time. As Jim O'Connell writes, "During the early days of the Ghetto and indeed to different degrees even, later on, many aspects of normal social life continued to exist relatively unaffected by the enforced confinement and growing instances of deportations and physical abuse. Some of the wealthier members of society carried on a relatively privileged existence while their fellow residents died of hunger on the streets. Commerce continued along with black-market dealings for profit. In such an environment, it might be that even those people with the most access to information (by paying for it) refused to believe that the same fate that was visited on the lower classes could be inflicted on themselves".[4] The book counters the myth that there was no opposition amongst the Jews to the Nazi Genocide. It is clear from the bravery of the Ghetto Fighters that some Jews fought back.[5]

There are several issues that Edelmann does not touch upon it in the book. The fact that the Ghetto fighters fought alone and had few weapons was primarily down to the role of Stalinism. Their brutal stance was best summed up by Stalin's general, Rokossovsky, "We are responsible for the conduct of the war in Poland, we are the force that will liberate the whole of Poland… [The Home Army] have butted in like the clown in the circus."[6] The Red Army might have helped deliver the knock-out blow against Hitler in the end, but the 1944 Polish uprising was defeated because Stalin ordered them to halt outside Warsaw. Most importantly, the Kremlin's suppression of independent political action by the working class of Europe had a devastating impact on the ability of the Jewish working class to fight the Nazis.

Edelmann is slightly critical of some of the political parties' lack of support for the Uprising, writing, "the fact that none of the other active political parties took part in this action is significant as an example of the utter misconception of existing conditions common to Jewish groups at the time. All other groups even opposed our action. It was, however, our determined stand that momentarily checked the Germans' activities and went on record as the first Jewish act of resistance". Other than a few paragraphs, Edelmann has no substantial political analysis of the leadership inside the Ghetto.

While it is commendable of the SWP to publish this account of the Warsaw Ghetto, a couple of issues arise from John Rose's introduction. Rose's friendship and use of the work of Professor Anthony Polonsky is questionable. Polonsky's defence of Adam Czerniakow(who committed suicide rather than collaborate with the deportations of the Jews to the concentration camp) is contentious.

The most important thing I take issue with is Rose's uncritical attitude towards Edelmann's participation in the Solidarity movement. As Dorota Niemitz points out "the vast majority of the petty-bourgeois and academic advisers of the Solidarity trade union aspired to integrate Poland into the world and European capitalist economy and supported "shock therapy", austerity measures and Poland's accession to NATO and the EU. This, and not the defence of the working class, was the content of their call for "freedom" and "democracy."[7]

This is an important book as it gives an account of the bravery of sections of the Jewish people in their fight against Fascism and nails a myth that the Jews went quietly into the good night. It is not a political account of the struggle against Fascism, so I have included some further reading.

 

Further Reading.

1.   https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/jewish.htm

2.   The Myth of "Ordinary Germans": A Review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners-David North- www.wsws.org/en/special/library/russian-revolution-unfinished-twentieth-century/15.html

3.   Wolfgang Weber-Poland 1980-1981: The Solidarity Movement and the Perspective of Political Revolution-Mehring Books.

4.   Abram Leon (1918–1944)-The Jewish Question-A Marxist Interpretation- https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/

 



[1] Abram Leon-The Jewish Question-https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/ch8.htm

[2]   The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by Marek Edelman-https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/warsaw-uprising.html

[3] The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by Marek Edelman-https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/warsaw-uprising.html

[4] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/irishmr/vol03/no09/oconnell.pdf

[5] http://irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/116

[6] https://socialistworker.co.uk/features/anti-nazi-fighters-who-were-left-to-fight-alone/

[7] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/03/wale-m03.html

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK-Simon Kuper-Profile, 240pp, £16.99

 "Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste",

Simon Kuper

"To understand the man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20."

Napoleon Bonaparte

Chums is a useful but limited look at a group of Oxford Tories who now run the country on behalf of a section of the English bourgeoisie. As Kuper adeptly explains, this group is hardly a set of intellectual giants.

One of the group's cheerleaders and media friend Toby Young was forced to admit that "It has become a commonplace of Islington dinner parties that the reason Britain is in such a mess is because of its wretched class system which has condemned us to be ruled by a bunch of incompetent Tory toffs. Not only are they lazy and amoral, believing the rules don't apply to them, but for the most part, they are innumerate and scientifically illiterate, thanks to the humanities bias at Britain's elite public schools and Oxford University. Little wonder they have made such a hash of governing the country, culminating in the disastrous decision to leave the European Union".[1]

The leader of this group is Boris Johnson, who learnt at a very early age that he was never going to win a sustained intellectual argument with anyone. So, according to Kuper, to defeat opponents whose arguments were better, he ignored them and offered "carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes".

During his time at Oxford, Johnson was at the heart of a somewhat incestuous network of friends that now hold political power in Britain. This clique, according to Kuper, was "born to power". More importantly, it was this clique that organised Brexit. According to a statement by the Socialist Equality Party, "the Remain and Leave wings of the British bourgeoisie had opposing strategies to respond to the inexorable drift towards trade war between the major powers. Both factions are equally reactionary. The Remain faction wanted to preserve Britain's global position within the EU trading bloc and its massive single market. The Leave forces viewed the EU as an impediment to the UK's pursuing a global trade and investment policy as a deregulated base for financial speculation, centred on a strengthened alliance with the US and directed against Germany and France.

Brexit is, therefore, a product of global economic and social contradictions produced by capitalism. This was underscored within months of the referendum vote by the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, standing on his nationalist "America First" agenda. Trump embraced Brexit as a weapon to encourage the breakup of an EU he denounced as a "competitor," not an ally, and as a "cartel" run in the interests of Germany.[2]

The book details this group, including Michael Gove, Patrick Robertson, Dan Hannan and Dominic Cumming and others who, under the influence of the right-wing historian Norman Stone hatched the idea of a break away from Europe. As Jacob Rees-Mogg put it so bluntly, "We on this side know each other." It is not difficult to see why a section of the English bourgeoisie choose this group of vacuous individuals or, as Kuper puts it, a "chumocracy" to do its dirty work for it.

If Johnson and his friend's behaviour during their reign has taught us anything, this psychopathic social class has lost any right to rule. During their reign, Johnson and his allies launched a one-sided class war. It is clear to anyone that Johnson's reputation is now in tatters, but according to Chris Marsden, "the more fundamental issue at stake is whether he is too damaged to navigate the treacherous waters British imperialism has now entered. Most importantly, can Johnson lead Britain's war drive against Russia and China, in alliance with the United States, while carrying out the brutal offensive against the working class needed to pay for it?"[3]

While it is politically important that Kuper has identified the class and social base of the Tories, it is hoped that Kuper's next book would do the same for the Labour Leadership. It also contains a significant number of privately educated individuals, and therefore Labour is no less a party of the super-rich than the Conservatives.

Kuper has done a good job is raising the question of class in Britain. The crap espoused by Labour and Tories alike that Britain is a classless society has been badly exposed as a lie. However, under conditions of mass death and massive levels of social inequality, it is a dangerous act to raise the issue of class in Britain because Britain's ruling elite sees it as "tantamount to an invitation to working people to join a class war that has—to date—been raging in an almost entirely one-sided fashion".

 

 

 



[1] https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/a-onesided-selective-narrative-toby-young-reviews-chums

[2] Britain leaves the European Union: Against nationalism, For the United Socialist States of Europe!- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/01/31/pers-j31.html

[3] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/04/23/john-a23.html

Monday, 16 May 2022

Royal Mail Profits Surge But Offer A Pay Rise With More Strings Than An Orchestra

Royal Mail is expected to reveal record full-year profits of around £720million, up from £664million the previous year. Given Royal Mail's previous promise to shareholders to cut staff and escalate further attacks on postal workers, it is no surprise that it has offered a paltry pay rise of 2% with massive changes in working conditions.

Royal Mail wants compulsory Sunday working; an additional 1.5% pay rise will be directly linked to increased productivity. Royal Mail wants a reduction in sick pay, scrapping several allowances, later start times, annualised hours and significantly different pay for all new members, creating a two-tier workforce.

The only people surprised by Royal Mail's actions are the Communication Workers Union(CWU), who have bent over backwards to present the new Royal Mail management as a friend of postal workers and someone they can work with.

Over the last two years, the union has collaborated with Royal Mail in imposing draconian new changes in working conditions. When postal workers sought to oppose these attacks, the union called off a strike ballot and began phoney negotiations. These negotiations resulted in many dead and sick postal workers who were forced to work during a lethal pandemic, with the union calling postal workers the "fifth emergency service".

The new national agreement (Pathway to Change) agreed between Royal Mail and the CWU has led to a massive increase in productivity with huge amounts of packets delivered, which meant a massive increase in profits, and at the end of last year, £400 million was given to shareholders.

The CWU has reportedly overseen record-breaking revisions, leading to hours cut, longer walks, and utter chaos in numerous offices. According to one worker," Our office has just started its new duties after a revision where deliveries are too big, the way walks have been laid out is absurd, mail not being delivered for days and overall morale varying from discontent to hilarity at the fiasco developing. Customer service is non-existent, and turning this around seems impossible. Posties are so fed up that mail is taken for a ride and then returned to be rethrown off for the next day when the pantomime is repeated. Bigger walks, less time to do them, photographing packets daily van checks before you go out, HCTs that are not fit for purpose and a union that seems oblivious".[1] Several Royal Mail delivery offices took unofficial industrial action in opposition to the 'Pathway to Change' national agreement. One such strike at the Invergordon delivery office was taken to defend a temporary member whose contract was ended.

Amesbury and Frinton delivery offices took strike action over the massive increase in parcel delivery with cuts in staff leading to unrealistic delivery times. Workloads have now reached breaking point at a large number of offices. At Wakefield Delivery Office, West Yorkshire, the agreement rollout of a structural revision resulted in 94% of the workforce voting it down after producing unachievable workloads. Unofficial actions by postal workers have been left isolated by the CWU leadership. Regarding the current pay dispute, the union has, instead of calling an immediate strike ballot, will continue four-week negotiations behind the backs of postal workers.

As part of the CWU's supposed battle on pay, its London organisation has released a leaflet entitled  London Calling-Royal Mail's Pay Betrayal To The Workforce. The leaflet insults the intelligence of postal workers, as no postal worker believes Royal Mail has betrayed them. If anything, large sections of postal workers conclude that it is their union that has betrayed them and collaborates so much with Royal Mail that it is becoming difficult to tell them apart.

This treachery is not just confined to British unions. Trade unions all over the world are carrying out similar policies? Embracing labour-management collaboration and handing back to the employer's gains won by previous generations of the working class.

To defend their pay and conditions, Postal workers must break from the CWU and establish a network of rank-and-file committees.

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] https://www.royalmailchat.co.uk/community/viewtopic.php?f=69&t=104536&p=973472