The Point
Last updated: 15 November 2017.

...red sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Red Star Rising: Overthrow, Art, Culture and Betrayal in the Russian Revolution

Regular contributor, writer of the Viridis Lumens Blog, and Green Left activist Adrian Cruden gives a free thinking perspective on the October Revolution of 1917


The Dream of Leon Trotsky...

"Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming - so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians - such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbour, sympathy, will be mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry.... All the arts - literature, drama, painting, music and architecture - will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge, new peaks will rise." (from "Literature and Revolution")

The aspirations of this key architect of the October revolution were not only ambitious but, to a modern western reader they likely seem surprising, especially the references to physical changes in a post-revolutionary Homo Sovieticus. Yet their very antithesis to the realities of the early 20th century for the mass of Russian serve to illustrate just how barbaric Czarist society was.

For Russia in early 1917 was uniquely different to all the other major European powers that had been at war over the previous two and a half years. Unlike Imperial Germany, it had only a small industrial base - largely owned by either the Czarist state or by foreign investors - amidst an ocean of great rural estates and tens of millions of peasants. Unlike France, it had only a statistically insignificant bourgeoisie class which was completely incapable of demanding or consolidating even a mildly representative government.

And unlike Britain, although he was Queen Victoria's grandson, there was no constitutional limitation at all on the authority of the Czar. Nicholas Romanov ruled by the Divine Will and was answerable only to God; any claim otherwise was a sin against the Creator - the Orthodox Church said so. Indeed, the title Czar was derived via the medieval Christian Byzantine Empire from the Caesars of the Roman Empire and Moscow was deemed to be the Third Rome (after the New Rome of Constantinople, which had succeeded the eponymous one on the River Tiber).

Western propaganda has often sugar-coated the Russian Empire and its ruling class, epitomised by sickly sentimental cinema outings like Nicholas and Alexandria and the BBC 1970s TV drama Fall of Eagles. How awful, we are told, were the fates of the Imperial family and so many of the nobles and fellow-travellers, dispossessed of their lands and at best forced into exile or shot by firing squads or, even worse, forced to work for a living alongside everyone else in the new Soviet state.

But, in truth, Russia was a dreadfully under-developed society. As well as a political system that subordinated everyone to the Emperor's Will and crushed all dissident political expression, it remained mired in medieval feudalism right up to 1881 when the peasantry was finally released from the bondage of serfdom. This meant that the predominant economic form was agrarian and indeed when Napoleon had invaded in 1812, he found a land with only three cities of any note existing - Kiev in the Ukraine, Moscow in the Slav heartlands and St Petersburg, the sole modern city, deliberately founded by Peter the Great in the extreme west of his domains to occidentalise the Russian elite.

From Peter onwards, the Imperial Government often tried to modernise Russia from the top and so developed state-owned heavy industry from the 1880s onwards, drawing several million peasants off the land and into giant factory complexes and the grinding poverty and disease of 19th century urban life. To link these, railways were built across the Empire, often using prison labour, with the Trans-Siberian line being one of the greatest, and bloodiest, achievements of its time, stretching from Moscow in the centre of European Russia all the way to distant Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.

There was no Empire-wide education system and illiteracy was rife. There were middle class professionals like doctors, lawyers and technical specialists, but they were few in number. There was a larger group of notaries employed around the Empire to run the Imperial bureaucracy, but given their position they were dependent on the state and so posed no challenge. Universities in the cities and larger towns did produce some open-minded students and teachers, but they were met with suspicion and surveillance by the authorities.

Okhrana secret police 1905

Nervous of any challenge at all, the Czarist government created a secret police bureau - the Okhrana - which employed a huge range of methods to neutralise the opposition. This included setting up police-run trade unions to undermine the labour movement, routinely intercepting mail, torturing suspects and deploying agents provocateurs to infiltrate everything from revolutionary cadres to famine relief charities. Sometimes this reached ludicrous depths - one possibly apocryphal account from the town of Kazan claimed that the local Social Revolutionary Party committee disbanded after its 12 members gradually realised that they were all secret policemen.

This repression extended to imprisoning hundreds of thousands of real and imagined opponents in distant penal colonies in Sibera where a huge proportion perished in appalling conditions. Closer to the heart of the Empire, strikes were routinely crushed by the clubs of the police, and Jewish communities, already largely confined to the south of Ukraine, were singled out for bloody pogroms by the Czar's paramilitary organisation of Christian stormtroopers, the chillingly named Black Hundreds. Indeed, it was the Okhrana agent Matvei Golvinstei who is credited with creating the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, subsequently employed by Adolf Hitler to demonise the Jews and justify the Holocaust.

Jewish pogrom victims in Odessa, 1905

So at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was a repressive, under-developed police state ruled by a despot who reneged on the limited political reforms of his grandfather and whose governance was a mix of arrogance, incompetence and sheer sloth. It was the epitome of imperialism, a Prison of the fifty-odd nations its borders encompassed, and its only impetus to modernise stemmed from its desire to match the military strength of its more developed rivals. It well deserved the name given to it by Daniel Beers' book on the Czarist penal system, The House of the Dead.

But...

The End of St. Petersburg, film 1926

In this House of the Dead, people still dreamed and schemed of better times. Das Kapital was passed by the Czarist censors who clearly failed to grasp its significance, and it became required reading among opponents of the Czarist system. Anarchism and Marxism became the main strands of thinking among revolutionaries – the absence of any parliamentary outlet or a significant bourgeoisie class meant that liberalism was eclipsed from the outset by more radical beliefs.

Unsurprisingly, it was in cultural activities that revolutionary feeling was first expressed – sometimes the censors caught it in time, other times not. And in the 19th century, it was in novels that socialist writers began to bring their hopes of new societies to wider audiences than the small study groups of professional activists.

Russian literature was beset for a long time by turgid novels praising the Slavic nation, wrapping up vaguely mystical concepts of race with Orthodox religion. It was relentlessly conservative in its values - even if some like Tolstoi challenges the corruption of the moneyed classes, he looked backwards to an imagined community than forward. This changed in 1863 when the writer Nikolai Cheneyshevsky published "What Is To Be Done?" – a novel that inspired Lenin to political activism and famously gave him the title for his own polemic in 1903 when he outlined his view of the Bolsheviks' strategy. Chernyshevsky was himself in prison when he wrote it but was given permission to send it to his former newspaper employer to publish it.

Cherneyshevsky's central character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes a traditional family and marriage to make her own way in the world. As she makes her way, he introduces her to co-operative societies based on the traditional peasant commune, gender equality and above all the duty of the wealthy intellectual to work for the revolution. This latter theme of an intellectual vanguard bringing enlightenment and liberation to the poor was to feature from then on all the way up to and through the 1917 revolutions and its influence on Lenin's own thinking was to have a crucial impact on the fate of the revolution.

What Is To Be Done? introduced the concept of the dedicated revolutionary in the form of a character called Rakhmetov. To him, the end justified the means and he was prepared to both inflict and endure great suffering in the cause. He comes from a noble family but lives a life of poverty in order to spread revolutionary thinking to the masses, working as a boatman on the Volga and sleeping on a bed of nails just to prove to himself the extent of his devotion.

Chernyshevsky wrote a number of other political tracts about ideal societies and he even developed thinking on the architecture of self-contained communes that influenced a lot of Soviet planning in the 20th century. But it was the character of Rakhmetov that had the greatest immediate impact – it led to the founding of the Land and Freedom society.

This was an organisation of younger middle and upper class revolutionaries who in the 1870s went out among the peasantry to educate them in revolutionary thinking. It was very paternalistic and failed fairly quickly to engage the masses, but unlike previous groups, it was the first to use violence to pursue its aims and an offshoot of it, Narodnaya Volya, the Peoples Will, went on to assassinate the mildly liberal Czar Alexander in 1881. It was also bound by a tight comradeship and centralism. Among its members was Alexander Ulyanov, brother of Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, later Lenin, who was executed after a failed plot to assassinate the next Czar. Lenin himself praised both the organisation and Chernyshevsky's book, and he read it many times during his younger days.

Unsurprisingly, just as revolutionary thinking was not monolithic, nor were revolutionary organisations. Very broadly, they divided between the Social Revolutionaries, who advocated a Russian agrarian socialism developed on from Marxism by the exiled noble Alexander Herzen and founded very much on the peasantry. It was like the Peoples Will and Land and Freedom still run by middle class activists – but unlike the Social Democrats, they tended to be people whose work took them among the poorer communities – so doctors, nurses and teachers were often in local SR leaderships, whereas the Marxist Social Democrats founded by the wealthy industrialist Plekhanov and joined by Lenin drew more heavily from lawyers, university lecturers, journalists.

So, very broadly, by the time of the 1905 revolution, the Social Revolutionaries were well established among the rural peasantry, while the Social Democrats were organised among the smaller but economically vital urban working classes. They had ideological differences over the status of peasant smallholders and whether to communalise or collectivize the land; they disagreed as well on tactics – the SDs confined their use of violence to sending Stalin, or Koba as he was known then, out on bank jobs to raise funds; the SRs on the other hand loved nothing more than a good assassination and they even set up the SR Combat Organisation to lead this – and the party's Maximalist wing rejected the idea of two stage revolutions between bourgeois democratic and proletarian socialist phases, calling instead for immediate revolution.

The failure of the 1905 revolution was a blow to all revolutionaries even though nearly all their leaders from the outset were both surprised by its sudden emergence and sceptical about its success. Lenin and many others were in exile in western Europe at the time and the only prominent returnee was Trotsky, who chaired the St Petersburg Soviet and ended up in prison after a show trial staged by the Czarist state but directed by Trotsky – he even arranged for the defendants to have a group photo taken relaxing in the courtroom. Had TV existed then, who knows how it might have then played out. However, it didn't and he was sent to jail and then Siberia, before escaping for a second time.

Trotsky and other Soviet members at their 1906 trial

The Social Democrats had themselves ruptured at their 1903 Congress held in Brussels and London between the Bolshevik faction – which means the majority although they were in fact the minority – led by Lenin and the Mensheviks under Martov, which means the minority although they were at first the majority. The nub of the dispute was over Lenin's proposal for a small, tightly controlled party of full-time revolutionaries and Martov's vision of a mass party engaged in street demonstrations and strikes.

Among the Bolsheviks, Aleksander Bogdanov had been in Russia throughout the 1905 events and was a rival for the leadership until he was expelled in 1909. His background was in psychiatry and science, and he was attracted to the logic of Marxist systems and he is now himself seen as an originator of systems theory. Like Chernyshevsky, he used literature to advance his political ideas to a wider audience and in 1907 he used the new medium of science fiction to produce the book Red Star, now largely forgotten but which became one of the best selling novels of pre-first world war Europe.

In this, Bogdanov's narrator is taken off to Mars in a spaceship by an interplanetary socialist called Menni who introduces him to an egalitarian world where individualism has been largely extinguished, there is no hierarchy, gender is fluid and love is free. The plot centres around an environmental crisis faced by the Martian Soviet and it is a good, if different, read.

Alexander Bogdanov's Red Star


Lenin was not at all impressed but the influence of the novel in exploring how a new world might work and what life could be like for its inhabitants had a deep resonance in contemporary Russia, where the Czar was quickly unravelling the limited concessions given to stem the revolutionary tide of 1905 and 1906.

Still, all these cultural initiatives to challenge the status quo remained the preserve of professional revolutionaries. Many were in exile and those that were still inside Russia did not develop extensive links with trade unions nor did they bring large numbers of workers and peasants into the party. Indeed, in January 1917, Bolshevik membership was a mere 24,000 people.

The Vanguard?

Lenin himself saw nothing contradictory in this and he was far from alone in his vanguardism. Yet his language was far from comradely towards the workers. In his own What is to be done? he wrote:

"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively of its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness - i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and compel the government to pass necessary legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the properties classes, by intellectuals."

Like all elitism, this was very out of step with the reality. In late January 1917, Lenin in Zurich exile told some young revolutionaries that he doubted he would live to see revolution in Russia. Yet when it came about just days later, the Russian Revolution was to be a world away in its form from that he had anticipated.

For a start, it was begun not by the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or SRs who had been banging on about it for years. Nor was it begun by a bourgeois vanguard. Instead, it was women factory workers, ignoring the demands of the local Bolshevik committee that they stay and work, who marched out on International Women's Day from the Vyborg district and proceeded into the city centre calling for bread and peace and for the overthrow of the Czar. When troops blocked their way across the bridges on the river Neva, they bravely clambered down to the riverside and walked across the ice. Within three days, joined by huge crowds of workers and soldiers, they swept away the Czar's regime with barely a shot fired and just a handful of deaths.

The hated professional police literally disappeared, changing out of uniform to run down the street, while peasant conscript troops confined their officers to barracks and released political prisoners from the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Centuries of autocracy just melted away. All the levers of power, the Court, the judiciary, the secret agents and all the humiliating subservience they demanded vanished in just four or five days.

And this moment unleashed a dramatic change in Russian society, one that felt itself across all classes and all walks of life - for a time, almost like the transformation predicted by Trotsky. The author of Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, later recounted his own feelings via his lead character when he ruminated that:
"Revolution erupted forcibly like a breath held too long. Everyone revived, became transformed, transfigured, changed. Everyone seemed to experience two such upheavals - his own personal revolution and second one, common to all."

This liberation was expressed in many ways from February onwards.

Politically, it led to the creation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies within hours of the resignation of the last of the Czars Ministers. This council was a recreation of the Soviets that revolutionaries had spontaneously created during the 1905 revolution and while the revolutionary parties all participated, it was joined by people from far outside their orbit. And this model soon expressed itself across much of the Empire.

Parallel to this, former members of the Duma, which the Czar had suspended in 1915, emerged to create a Provisional Government which was populated by liberal and conservative Ministers under Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. Only one social revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, took part as Minister of War and without the formal support of his party. This was as much as the old regime could muster in defence of some form of continuity and from the outset it was in competition with the soviets as it attempted to defend private property, continue the war and repeatedly asked the country to wait for a Constituent Assembly to be elected to draft a new constitution.

So the deference of the Empire was gone and this reflected itself in thousands of individual and collective acts against the old ways of things – palaces were requisitioned by crowds of homeless and hungry people. Workers and soldiers began to walk among the bourgeoisie and nobles promenading down Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd, something they would never have previously dared to do. And when the Provisional Government continued with the war, even mounting a new offensive in the spring which collapsed almost before it began, the response was more and more strikes and large demonstrations in the cities demanding peace, land and bread.

The Tide

In July, this rising tide led to a Bolshevik demonstration for a transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviets almost running away with itself, much against the wishes of Lenin and Trotsky, and the party was subsequently outlawed and Lenin fled to Finland shaved by Stalin and disguised in a wig.

Briefly, it seemed like a fatal reversal, but at this point the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks made on their part a huge error – rather than join the Bolshevik demands for a transfer of power, they backed and joined the Provisional Govt and supported its policies on the basis of waiting for the Constituent Assembly, even though elections for it had been repeatedly delayed. Kerensky now took office as Prime Minister and heartily embraced his personal delusion by installing a bust of Napoleon in his office in the Winter Palace in Petrograd.

But Lenin caught the mood of the masses far far more effectively with his pamphlet The State and Revolution, which outlined a programme for change involving peasant control of the land and workers control of the factories, and peace. Especially after an abortive coup against the Provisional Government by its own military appointee General Kornilov during August, the Bolsheviks, who had rallied the workers against the militarists, saw their representation on local Soviets rise dramatically, gaining outright majorities over the SRs and Mensheviks in Petrograd and Moscow and in many other cities.

So by the time we reach October, or early November under the new calendar, while the storming of the Winter Palace by Bolsheviks under the direction of the party's Military Revolutionary Committee can be exaggerated in terms of its drama, there can be little doubt that the mood of the majority of the population was firmly in favour of ending the Provisional Government and transferring all power to the Soviets.

Freeing the mind

In less than eight full months, we see the politics of the Empire transformed into the nascent Soviet Union. But it is far, far more than a change in form of government – it is a change in how society works and how people think about themselves and others. And this is a question for socialists down the ages – how to challenge successfully the deeply embedded mindsets in anyone who has been born and raised in a culture of deference and repression towards the self-autonomy and collectivism of a socialist or communist form of society. It goes far beyond constitutions or even forms of ownership – the Russian State already owned a far larger proportion of industry than most capitalist states – but about how people express themselves, work with each other and think.

This question brought into sharp relief two different strands within the Bolsheviks: those around Lenin who saw the revolution first and foremost as focussing on politics and economics; and those around Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, who believed it needed to challenge much more deeply held social and cultural norms and values.

Lenin's view of literature and culture were originally expressed in "Party Organisation and Party Literature" in 1903 and although at that time it was referring to party literature, once a one-party state was established, it was in effect extended to wider society:

"It is not simply that, for the socialist proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups; it cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog and a screw of one single, great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the politically conscious vanguard of the entire working class."

In contrast, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became the Commissar for the education and culture ministry Nakompros from 1917 to 1929, held to a much more libertarian approach and one focussed on enabling the self-expression of the working class. They had collaborated on this in exile and Bogdanov now returned to public life to organise the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisations – Proletkult, which was an independent federation of leftwing communists which Lunacharsky granted one third of the national adult education budget – over 9 million roubles to begin with. It grew by 1920 to 85,000 members with 300 multi-media studios operating across the state.

Proletkult conference 1918

Lunacharsky emphasised this independence:

"The people themselves, consciously or unconsciously, must evolve their own culture...The independent action of workers', soldiers' and peasants' cultural-educational organisations must achieve full autonomy, both in relation to the central government and the municipal centres."

Proletkult had its own internal tendencies and contradictions. Many bourgeois artists tried to climb onto easy funding to push their own patronising agenda on the working classes, and taking ballet and orchestras to factories and farms had a mixed reception from the workers, who Trotsky openly declared "usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture in regards to tidiness, instruction, punctuality, etc."

But many in Proletkult took a different view – the absence of a working class culture of music, books and art was because it had been repressed and downtrodden. Proletkult to them offered a means to liberate the inherent potential of the workers. Some took this to the extreme of wanting to burn down libraries and smash up the artifacts in museums to represent a complete break with the past, but Lunacharsky intervened to preserve these.

Proletkult itself and the whole atmosphere that surrounded it unleashed a huge range of creativity.

Art was developed that was the forerunner of agit-prop, with artists such as Alexander Apsit developing revolutionary poster art – this was particularly effective in a society where illiteracy meant that pictures were the most powerful means of bringing ideas to many people.

So you find developed new art styles expressing political slogans like this:

A WORKER SWEEPING CRIMINALS OUT OF SOVIET LAND

DID YOU VOLUNTEER?

The state developed a series of Agit-trains which trundled around the Soviet rail network with these on their side as mobile posters, stopping to show films and plays to workers and peasants who had never seen the like before. There was also the brilliantly named Agitational Ship Red Star, which sailed up and down the Volga. During summer 1919, these methods took the revolutionary message to nearly 3 million people and were crucial in winning over the volunteers who later that year began to turn the tide in the civil war with the White, Black and Green armies.

Much of the cultural activities of both Proletkult and Nakompros were on mass participation: on the anniversary of the revolution from 1919 onwards, huge tableaus involving thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers drew on traditions from the French revolution to bring genuinely popular participation into the events.

In music, instruments like the thermin were deliberately adopted to break with the past and the Soviet Union can rightly lay claim to be the birthplace of electronic music. One of the more avant garde efforts was Arsenij Avraamov's Symphony of Sirens, which involved thousands of people in the Caspian port of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for the Fifth Anniversary of the Soviet Republic on 7 November 1922. This used a huge cast of choirs, the foghorns of the entire Soviet Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. Conductors were posted on specially built towers with coloured flags and pistol shots. A central "steam-whistle machine" pounded out "The Internationale" and "La Marseillaise" as noisy vehicles raced across Baku for a gigantic sound finale in the festival square. It was later repeated in Moscow and can be heard in full on Youtube.

Schematic for Symphony of Sirens

Writers also responded to the revolution with new styles of writing. Maxim Gorky had been a massively popular dissident writer under the Empire with his works like Mother and his reputation enabled him to establish the House of Arts as an independent force in literature. This was also sponsored by the Bolshevik Government through Nakompros and for three years it gave lodgings and food to writers to protect them from the privations of the civil war while they developed new revolutionary ways of writing.

Translations of socialist writers such as H G Wells and Jack London were published by it, while Russian authors like Yvgenny Zemyatin, returned from exile in Newcastle, wrote plays that were intended to shed the verbose sentimentality of traditional Russian literature. By developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as Zemyatin put it.

Similarly, in theatre, although Nakrompos protected traditional performances of Shakespeare, Proletkult Theatre brought avant-garde plays to the stage as well as adaptations of plays and prose by progressive western writers. Platon Kerzhentsev, a playwrite and ally of Bogdanov, headed this section of the movement and encouraged among others the later film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to direct and stage satirical pieces.

 

First Workers' theatre

But the fostering of independent thinking and experimentation didn't last.

Late 1920 into early 1921 saw the end of the civil war as the last of the Whites were expelled from Crimea and Vladivistock fell to the Red Army. The Soviet Union was exhausted and, although the fighting was largely over, the challenges it faced were potentially overwhelming.

Trotsky, initially opposed by Lenin, argued that rather than demobilising the Red Army, the state itself should be militarised to repair the economy and infrastructure: the "war communism" adopted in 1918 primarily to ensure the Red Army was supplied would continue – so the ban on all parties but the Bolsheviks remained in place, strikes were prohibited, workers strictly disciplined, rationing continued, and any food surplus would be requisitioned from peasants by the central govt. Taylorism, the man-machine management philosophy of Henry Ford, was experimented with at Lenin's instruction and Alexei Gastev, Head of the Institute of Soviet Labour proposed re-imagining workers as "proletarian units" with designation codes replacing their names.

It was in this environment that within the party, groups like the Left Communists and the Workers Opposition agitated for a return to grassroots democracy, while in the military fortress of Kronstadt soldiers and sailors mutinied and demanded that the Bolsheviks restore free elections to the soviets.
The response within the party was to ban all factions, while infamously Red Army units crossed the ice to retake Kronstadt and suppress the mutiny with over 3,000 mutineers killed in the fighting or executed afterwards.

In the midst of this crackdown, Lenin condemned Proletkult as dominated by petty-bourgeois intellectuals imposing decadent artistic schemes on the working class and in a notice in the party paper Pravda announced that from December 1920 it was to be subsumed into Nakompros. His wife, Nedezda Krupskaya, who was Lunacharsky's deputy in charge of adult education had always opposed the Proletkult and she was heavily involved in developing cultural and education policy after its effective dissolution.

The change could be seen soon after.

Zemyatin tried to publish his science fiction novel WE in 1921. It is a satire on totalitarianism and Aldous Huxley admitted that it inspired him to write Brave New World. George Orwell denied ever reading it, but if you read We, it is quite obvious that he did.

In any case, WE became the first novel to be officially banned in the Soviet Union by Glavlit, the government body for literary policy. It was not published in the USSR until 1989 and Zemyatin had to get a single copy smuggled to Prague to get it published in his own lifetime. He was subsequently arrested several times but was allowed to go into exile in France after Gorky interceded on his behalf with Stalin.

The Commission for Newspaper Supervision was set up in 1922 as was the Commission to Monitor the Private Book Market. The head of AgitProp, Bubnov, every article and book published by non-party publishers was checked for subversion and authors were categories as revolutionary, Menshevist or Kadetist. Their fate was typified by the arrest of 61 non-party authors in September 1921. Although Gorky secured Lenin's agreement for their release, the Cheka, the new state security organisation, shot all of them without trial.

And so, as time went by, the authoritarian nucleus at the heart of Bolshevism gradually suppressed much of the freedom of expression that was unleashed in 1917. Lenin's own cultural tastes were very conservative – he admired Pushkin and classical music, and was baffled by much of the new forms in art and literature. Stalin was to continue this theme of falling back from the mass democracy of February 1917 through the leadership of the vanguard of October to the Red Tsar of the 1930s.

In cultural form, this was parallelled by the progression from the mass collective cast of the film The End of St Petersburg through the mix of leaders and people in Eisenstein's 1927 celebration of the Bolshevik takeover October to the single prince-hero of his 1937 Alexander Nevsky. It was a trend that culminated under Stalin, but the gradual closing down of all but a single strand of party orthodoxy in politics and in culture began earlier, and to return to Lenin's original quote on the powerlessness of the working class in the absence of bourgeois leadership, it is a trend that it is fair to say was inherent in bolshevism from its inception.

Eisenstein's heroic noble Alexander Nevsky

But while we might lament the failure of true socialism in the Soviet Union, it would be wrong to suggest as some do that it was a complete failure or that there was some viable alternative in October 1917. Russian society was as a whole under-educated and under-developed at the time. The other socialist revolutionary parties were hopelessly compromised by their collaboration with the war parties and it was they, not the Bolsheviks, who excluded themselves from the revolutionary government in November 1917. There were real threats from foreign powers and internal rightwing forces who would have shown no mercy at all if they had triumphed. Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the other commissars of Sovnarkom faced existential crises for more years than they did not.

So in the end, that they created a society that dragged what had been the backward Empire up to superpower status in barely 20 years, eradicated illiteracy, developed the sciences to the point it was Soviets who were first in space, and hugely improved the living conditions of the average Soviet citizen at work, in health and in housing, was an achievement unparallelled in history. It is one which, albeit with many qualifications, we should have some cause to celebrate - and to remember the spirit that rose in 1917 and which we can only hope will soon rise again.

"Proletarian creation guarantees the world commune!"

 

Bibliography
"No Less Than Mystic" - John Medhurst, Repeater Books, 2017
"Trotsky", Edited by Irving H Smith, Spectrum Books, 1973
"Russian Writers and Soviet Society" - Ronald Hingley, Methuen, 1981

N.b. - the core of this piece was orginally one of several contributions to a Wakefield Socialist History Group meeting on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.

FUADAICH NAN GAIDHEAL – THE EXPULSION OF THE GAEL: THE HIGHLAND CLEARANCES, THEN AND NOW

by Rob Dewar

 

The notorious Highland Clearances ingrained poverty in the Highlands, a poverty that lasts to this day, with a sizable percentage of the working age population dependent on badly paid seasonal work in the horribly named “hospitality industry”, and in other work largely dependent on the seasonal tourist trade. For the remainder of the year (and topping up their wages during the holiday season to a bare living standard), they rely on social security payments, benefits which have been progressively reduced and fenced around with ever more limitations by the southern Tory government, which is today engaged upon an even more brutal “clearance”, in this case, a systematic culling of the poor, the sick and the halt, via want, deprivation, and (were it not for the charities that run food kitchens) outright starvation.

The numbers of Highlanders who suffered eviction, so that the land they worked could be turned over to sheep, ran into the tens of thousands. In many cases, the evictions were sudden and violent, affording their victims not even the opportunity of gathering together their belongings.

In some cases, victims of brutal landowners were bound as they stood, and delivered to emigrant ships there and then. In 1851 the infamous Colonel Gordon of Cluny cleared the Hebridean island of Barra. The Colonel’s tenants were summoned to a meeting, supposedly to discuss rents. There, more than 1 500 tenants were overpowered and loaded immediately onto ships for America

The English were not directly responsible for the Clearances. In the main, those responsible for subjecting the Scottish Highlands to what would become many generations of poverty, were themselves Scotsmen, members of the landed class, including many clan chiefs.

For the Clearances were, above all, a manifestation of grossly inequitable distribution of the land.

True, the transformation of clan chiefs into landowners and landlords was a direct consequence of the Anglicisation of the Scottish gentry, particularly after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

Following the horror of Culloden, the Hanoverians, urged on by English - and Lowland Scottish - advisors, initiated a tranche of legislation, the consequence of which was the collapse of the clan system, the conversion of clan chiefs and their agents into a landed gentry (or in some cases, aristocracy), and the downgrading of clansmen and women – in many cases claiming descent from the same name-father as the clan chief - into mere tenants and sub-tenants on their own land. (A process the Irish were already well acquainted with).

In most cases, clan chiefs were eager to seize upon the new cash economy that resulted. Many took to living far from their clan kin, in Edinburgh or London, with a consequent need to boost their incomes. And this was also the age of Malthusian “land improvements”, of adopting a “scientific” approach to squeezing the last penny from your estates. Enter the sheep.

Sir John Lockhart-Ross of Balnagowan is usually considered to be the first landowner to bring sheep into his estates, in 1762. Along with the sheep, he imported Lowland shepherds. He raised his tenants’ rents, and fenced the land. However, MacLeod of MacLeod (The Chief of the MacLeods) had already begun experiments with “improving” his estates in Sky as early as the 1730s. In 1732 and 1739, Macleod of Dunvegan and MacDonald of Sleat set a useful precedent for the future in selling selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolinas.

This first phase of the Clearances culminated in “the Year of the Sheep”, 1792, when so many estates were given over to sheep runs, so many clansmen and their families uprooted and cleared from the lands they had occupied for generations, that a great wave of emigration occurred. Nova Scotia , Canada, and the Carolinas were the most frequent  destinations for Highland emigrants.

However, the clearances increased in both scale and brutality during the 19th century, and continued in some cases into the 1880s. That infamous couple, Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, and her husband Lord Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland), ordered massive clearances from their Highland estates between 1811 – 1820, with as many as 2000 families evicted within a single day. Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengary, a MacDonald chieftain, was another infamous exponent of industrial-scale clearances of his tenantry. 

The picturesque Highland vistas much admired by visitors to the Highlands today, are the consequence of giving the land over to sheep, to forestry, and to sporting estates (primarily deer shooting). The landscape is denuded of folk. Dotted across the Highland landscape are ruined settlements: sometimes their walls are still evident, at other times there can be seen just a jumble of stones.

The Clearances helped disseminate Highland genes across the world, with most Highland emigrants heading for the Americas, and after that, Australia , New Zealand , and elsewhere in the Empire. The British (that is to say, the English), found an almost inexhaustible source of recruits for their armies, in the form of Highlanders who joined the British army. Sometimes they would do so under the leadership of local Highland gentry, at other times, they joined up individually, rather than starve. The many wars fought by Britain to establish her empire could not have been successfully concluded without these Highland recruits.

(An historical aside: during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the be-kilted Highland soldiers were even more feared by the Indian freedom-fighters than were the Nepalese Ghurkas, who up to that time were considered the exemplars of bellicose fierceness).

The history of the Highland Clearances is a dreadful indictment of a socio-economic system that viewed the rural working class, or clansmen at large, as dispensable: a system that encouraged a landed Highland ruling class towards acts of callous, brutal indifference to the welfare of their tenants, sub-tenants and dependents. It could only have taken place in a socio-economic environment that prized ownership of land above common humanity; it took place, moreover, in an economic environment whereby a very few people owned almost all the land – and were thus able to exercise feudal suzereinty over the common folk who lived on, and worked, the land.

How much has changed today?

Bear in mind that England , Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are the only European countries that have not undergone major land reform during their modern histories.

Fewer than 500 individuals own more than half of Scotland ’s private land – both in the Highlands and the Lowlands . Such a figure can only be arrived at through dedicated private research, for remarkably, there is no definitive register showing who owns what in Scotland . Nor are owners of land obliged to reveal their identity. Nor are they subjected to any scrutiny before acquiring vast chunks of Scottish (invariably Highland ) real estate. Scotland ’s Highland estates are much sought-after internationally, traded like commodities; available to anyone who has the means of buying a sizable piece of Scotland .

Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, is Scotland ’s biggest individual landowner, with 241 887 acres, most of it in the Lowlands and Borders.

After him (though preceded by the National Trust of Scotland) comes Danish retail magnate Anders Povlsen, who owns more than 170 000 acres in the Scottish Highlands. He owns vast swathes of Perthshire, Inverness-shire, and Sutherland – indeed, much the same regions in which the notorious 19th century Countess of Sutherland owned so much land, and from which she cleared so many thousands of people.

In Anders Povlsen’s native Denmark , individuals may buy only a maximum of 620 acres of rural land, and if they wish to buy a rural holiday home, they must live in the rural countryside.

In Norway , which is seven times larger than Scotland , there are only 23 estates larger than 10 000 hectares. In Scotland , there are 144.

A host of private companies and corporations, many of them global, own many 100s of 1000s of acres of land in the Highlands. The Far Eastern conglomerate, GFG Group, through its subsidiaries, Liberty House and SIMEC (having concluded a deal with the previous corporate owners, Rio Tinto Alcan in November 2016), owns more than 100 000 acres of Highland land in Lochaber: a swathe of land stretching from Fort William right across the Mamores range to Kinlochleven, and including much of Glen Nevis and the foothills of Ben Nevis. (The nearest boundaries of this vast chunk of land are located a mere couple of hundred yards from the writer’s village home, and to reach their furthest limits would take the writer over an hour’s driving by car).

But to return to large private foreign owned landholdings in the Highlands : The Van Vlissingen family owns 87 000 acres in Letterewe, and other locations.

“Mr. Saleh”, said to be a Malaysian businessman, owns 71 383 acres in Glen Avon and other locations in the Highlands .

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen owns 69 845 acres at Strathconon and elsewhere.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum owns 61 961 acres at Killilan and Inverinate estates.

Yuri Shefler, a Russian businessman, owns the 21 000 acres comprising the Tulchan estate.

The Scottish (SNP-led) government voted through a Land Reform Bill in March 2016. Although it brought in new protections for tenant farmers, and an end to tax relief for sporting estates, and has set up a Scottish Land Fund with funding of £10 million to assist with community buy-outs, amendments that would have restricted the amount of land that just one individual can own, and which would have prevented land ownership via offshore tax havens, were not passed.

We may regard the Highland Clearances as mere History now. Yet the fundamental issues of land ownership, where just a few individuals, many of them based abroad (and including foreign corporations also) are able to affect the lives of thousands of Scottish people living on the land, have barely been addressed.

We need a far more radical land bill passed, with far more social ambition, than the Scottish government land bill passed earlier this year.

We need the large estates broken up and taken into community, and public, ownership.

We need the issue of “community ownership” as it is currently understood, itself re-examined. If a “community” takes over ownership of, say, several thousands of acres of land, is that land any the more equably distributed in real terms than it was when in single private ownership?

We need the ownership of sizable tracts of land by foreign-based owners – be they private individuals or corporations – banned outright.

We need an upper limit on the amount of land any single individual or corporation can own in Scotland, set at a figure far below 1000 acres. (The precise figure(s) can be debated: it may be that a much lower upper limit for land ownership should be applied in the fertile, arable lowlands, than would be applied in the rock-girt highlands).

We need the identities of land owners, great and small, to be placed on a national register.

We need would-be land owners to be scrutinized, before land can be transferred.

And such a land bill should also seek, at the same time, to address the desperate shortage of homes in Scotland for those of us who are the humble folk of Scotland: for those of us who do not dream of owning some vast tract of Highland real estate, but merely seek a secure, safe, home in which to live and raise our families.

I have explored Scottish housing issues earlier in The Point. Essentially, I advocate above all a massive building program of social housing units. I advocate a very low limit on the number of residential units a single individual or corporation may own. I advocate a prohibition on second home ownership against non full-time Scottish residents.

I advocate legislation aimed at driving the rentier and rack-renter class into absolute, outright extinction.

 www.rabbiedeoir.com  

The Ghost of Michael Foot: How the Left were Proved Right, 34 Years On

Derek Stewart Macpherson takes heart from the outcome of General Election 2017, and delivers an emphatic lesson from history.

 

Spin Cycle - The Wash Up

What if they held an election, and nobody won? That's the question everyone's asking as the horse trading continues. We can all try to read the entrails, but the truth is a number of things could still happen and nobody really knows yet how it will pan out. We could go back to what we said, and wrote, before the election and try to avoid saying 'I told you so,' and there may indeed have to be a little of that in due course. The part of the wash up from this election that I want to look at is indeed an 'I told you so' but it's a very old one indeed.

Laying the Ghost of Michael Foot

Yes, this is an 'I told you so' from 34 years ago. Some readers may not remember that far back, but don't worry, I'll explain. A long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, there was a time before neoliberalism. It snuck in the back way, in the form of the IMF, in the Callaghan years, but in 1979 it kicked in the front door, in the form of Margaret Thatcher. She quickly acquired a nickname amongst her cabinet colleagues - she acquired many nicknames of course, this one is not so well known, but very revealing - TINA. It's an acronym. It stands for 'There Is No Alternative.'

It became her mantra, and that of all the neoliberals. What they were doing was radical (the opposite of conservative), revolutionary even. They were overthrowing the post-war economic settlement. There was a lot of resistance. So it was in their interests to keep repeating 'there is no alternative' because if you repeat something long enough, and loudly enough, and with the megaphone of the mainstream media repeating it too, people forget there ever was another way. A way that had produced the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the recorded history of capitalism. And since then a generation and a half have grown up never knowing anything else. This is the only way. There is no alternative.

There was a lot of resistance at first though. Thatcher and her policies were deeply unpopular. Labour's initial response was to move to the left. They elected a leader who was to the left of his predecessor, and they produced a fairly progressive manifesto, which Geoffrey Howe characterised as 'the longest suicide note in history.' So what happened? Well, conventional wisdom says that Howe was right, that Labour lost the subsequent 1983 election by being too left wing, and that left wing ideas (which were then redefined to include anything that wasn't neoliberalism) were unsellable, and left wing leaders unelectable. I've never bought that argument, and I've been saying so for 34 years. So what really happened?

In the early part of 1983 I found myself in the Maclellan Galleries for Michael Foot's main campaign rally in Glasgow. He had quite the reputation as an orator and I was looking forward to hearing him speak. From the start, however, it seemed to me that something was not quite right with him. He rambled, went off on tangents, and at one point launched into a lengthy dissertation on the evils of competition and the virtues of co-operation (much of which I agreed with philosophically, but it's not exactly what you want to hear from a leader who is about to represent you in the biggest competition of them all). Furthermore the rhythm of his speech was odd. He kept putting his emphasis in all THE... wrong places. I came away with an impression of someone suffering dementia, at the stage it's just starting to become obvious. Subsequent events lent substance to this impression.

So Labour had a wounded leader, further handicapped by the insistence of some on the right of the party that he root out certain elements of the left and expel them, causing a great deal of internal division and angst.


                      Remember 'the witch-hunt'?

And he didn't have the 'right look.' This part of the campaign against him was conducted, as always, by the media, and should be immediately familiar to anyone who has watched their treatment of Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader. Foot just didn't conform to the stereotype of what they think a leader is supposed to look like, from his windswept, unruly hair, to his unfashionable Deidre Langton glasses, to his duffel coat (sometimes done up incorrectly), he was just all wrong.

Despite all of these problems, in my opinion, he might still have won had it not been for one more factor. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what is the last refuge of a scoundrelly (yes, it is a word, I looked it up) Prime Minister? A patriotic war! And in 1982, just as Thatcher's unpopularity eclipsed that of any Prime Minister's since records began, we got one. And it was all a little bit too convenient. It started innocuously enough, with some Argentinian civilians landing somewhere remote on the islands, in a sort of passive challenge to UK sovereignty. David Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and by then defector, having been one of those who set up the SDP on my 16th birthday in 1981, said that this had happened several times during his tenure, and that Foreign Office officials had told him they did it regularly, and that the usual response was to send a frigate on patrol there, which he did. Each time that was it, it came to nothing. It's hard to conceive that those same officials didn't give the same advice to Thatcher's Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, yet her government conspicuously failed to act on it.

It always seemed a bit of a devil's bargain to me. Two deeply unpopular governments at opposite corners of the Atlantic. As things stand they are both going down within a year or two. But if they have this war, one of them will survive. Some people think it was a foregone conclusion, but it wasn't. Yes, British forces had a technological edge, but supply lines were stretched 8,000 miles. It was a close run thing. A gamble. They had to conscript a number of civilian ships, one of which they lost along with its cargo of Harrier jets, and bring a bunch of 1950s long range bombers out of retirement. And the way it started, the first shot of the actual conflict, is still considered by many to have been a war crime.

There was once a ship the Americans referred to affectionately as the 'luckiest ship in the navy.' Her name was the USS Phoenix. She was the only capital ship at Pearl Harbour that was not significantly damaged during the Japanese attack in 1941. She went on to have a long and distinguished career with the US navy before being sold to the Argentinian navy where, as the General Belgrano, her luck ran out on the 2nd of May 1982 when she was sunk by the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror (the only ship ever to have been sunk in combat by a nuclear sub). The order to sink her was given by Thatcher personally. The Argentinians, possibly emboldened by the lack of response to their previous landing, decided to test the 200 mile exclusion zone she had declared around the islands. They did so by sending the ship on a zig zag course which intersected with the zone a number of times. Having completed this manoeuvre, she was on a direct heading for her home port when she was sunk with the loss of 323 lives.

Anyway, it's all history now. The war was won with a good old fashioned 'yomp' over wind and rain-swept hillsides and some conspicuous acts of individual bravery. There was a big parade and a 'thanksgiving' service at Westminster Abbey. The what? The wounded veterans? Oh, they were there too, just tucked away up at the back, where the cameras couldn't see them. And when the election was held the following year, a year earlier than it needed to be (wouldn't want the afterglow of victory to wear off), Thatcher duly delivered the largest of her election wins and Labour, their vote further cannibalised by the SDP, was reduced to a miserable 28%, still their lowest vote since their emergence as a major party. And the myth-making began. Labour lost by being too left wing. Not because of the media ridicule of Foot, not because of the SDP split, not even because of the war. No, it was all because of that left wing manifesto.

And then a strange thing happened. Instead of seeing the truth and waiting for the voters' natural distaste for extreme right policies to deliver government back to them at the next election, people in the Labour Party started to believe the myth. The party was torn apart in an orgy of self-recrimination, ensuring they were out of power for a generation. By the time they did eventually win government again, neoliberalism had become so entrenched that even they themselves had embraced it. That was 20 years ago. The neoliberal orthodoxy was not questioned to any great extent until the aftermath of the crash of 2008. The orthodoxy that left wing policies were inherently unpopular and an electoral liability was not seriously questioned even then. Until last week.

Last week all of that went out of the window, and I, and all those who believed as I did for the last 34 years, were spectacularly vindicated. A Labour party with an old leftie leader who didn't look quite right (not to suggest he had any intellectual impairment as I did with Foot), internal divisions, a left wing manifesto promising to undo some of the worst excesses of Thatcherism, and coming from a poll deficit in excess of twenty points when the election was called, pulled off an astounding campaign win. No, they didn't win the election, but they smashed it in the campaign, pulling back 20 points and causing the Tories' leading strategists to resign - to an old campaign strategist like me, that's absolutely a win. And they proved those policies could be extremely popular and energise a lot of previously disengaged young people.

It's just a pity (here's the more recent 'I told you so' bit) that more young and left wing voters in Scotland didn't see, weren't aware of, or didn't respond to calls by me, by The Point and, to be fair, most of the non-aligned left, to vote tactically for the SNP in Scotland. If they had, Jeremy Corbyn would be in No.10 today.

The Tories have of course tried to claim Scotland as a victory, but really their apparent rise had very little to do with them at all. The Corbyn effect was undoubtedly the reason Labour recovered some seats, however in seats where Labour were running third their votes effectively pushed Libdem and Tory candidates over the line. Just enough of them to enable Theresa May to cling to power as it turned out. That's a pity. It calls for another attempt at creating a Left/Yes Alliance, and it calls for the SNP to embrace the new politics and work with the rest of the pro-indy movement towards our common goals. These things will unfold over the months ahead and we will return to them again many times, I'm sure.

In amongst all of that however, let's not lose sight of the momentous nature of what has happened here, for the left in these islands and in the wider world. Left wing policies do sell. This will be seen in the future as an important nail in the coffin of the neoliberal project.

Last week we finally exorcised the demons of 1983 and laid the ghost of Michael Foot to rest!

 

The British Empire: Was It All Bad?

The Point is a socialist online platform that opens itself up to a wide and broad - even 'heretical' - range of viewpoints from all those who would describe themselves as progressive lefts. It's in that spirit we offer this argument from Rob Dewar.

THE BRITISH EMPIRE; ITS GETTING AND ITS OUTCOME: GOOD ARISING FROM BAD?

The getting of the British Empire, a process riven through by greed, treachery, inhumanity and violence, (whose earliest roots lay deep within the institution of slavery), and its ultimate historical legacy, are two very different things.

It may be argued that the genuine legacy of British colonialism is a largely positive one (although, for such an argument to stand, there must exist a willingness to explore the negative consequences of Empire also), having gifted many now independent countries in the world with much to be proud of: in many cases, their existence as single, national sovereign states, for one (I think in particular of India, and of many African countries); and after that, of having bequeathed to them the rule of law; an end to the local, indigenous, slave trades; the pacification of once warlike regions; one or another form at least of democratic government; the opportunity for peoples to engage safely in peaceful pursuits, and thus, via more secure trade, for many to improve their material lot; along with the spread of basic healthcare, and of improved methods of agriculture, and often, of basic education for all who wished it.

All this is possible, because the colonial legacy usually included an infrastructure sustaining these advantages, an infrastructure which almost certainly would not have developed in many parts of the ex-colonial world, had the British not brought their rule to these regions.   

Then there's the popular contemporary view of the British colonial legacy, in which it was all bad: no exceptions, no debate. 

In this viewpoint, regions such as India (a collection of, quite literally, hundreds of princely states before the sub-continent came gradually under British rule; many at war with one-another almost all the time; all ruled by more or less despotic rulers; many districts prey to bandits and robbers), would have been far happier doing without such advantages as the rule of law, an end to the internal slave trade, the pacification of warlike regions, the institution of the semblance of democracy, and the opportunity, through more secure and wider-reaching trade and commerce, for people to work to improve their lot.

Just as the popular contemporary view of the British Imperial legacy would have it that how much happier, before the British arrived, were the peoples of Africa and India, when they were still subject to cruel, despotic rulers; frequent victims of the famine and destruction that accompanied endemic warfare; at risk (should their homelands be overrun by foreign conquerors) of becoming enslaved and sold to cruel masters far from home; prey to bandits and robber-gangs; and free to wallow in the blissful ignorance that accompanies a total lack of wider educational opportunities.

But then, this is how history so often works: invariably, it is a vicious, cruel process in which conquest is visited by a greater power upon weaker entities, by peoples whose arrogance and presumption of inborn superiority to the conquered peoples is, today, repellent, and this, without any advantages accruing to the conquered peoples: only a transfer of the absolute power over them, by one or more indigenous regimes, to an alien regime greater and crueller and more violent than all the rest.

If the British Empire of such contemporary ill repute was different to all the great empires that preceded it, it is not so much in its getting, and often, not in its keeping, either (I think of the brave defence of their religious freedom against an ever more aggressive and officially sanctioned Christianisation process, by the people of northern India – Hindustan, which gave rise to the Indian Rebellion of 1857; I think too of the MauMau rebellion in Kenya, which was put down with even more brutality than that of its progress): no, where the British Empire was arguably different to the rest was (1) that it officiated over its own demise as a matter of imperial policy; and (2) in its tangible, material legacy to the ex-colonial peoples.  

As to (1), it was this controlled demise, which of course was the consequence of a more or less rationally applied policy agreed upon at the highest levels of British Imperial government, of the granting of freedom to ex-colonial subject peoples, which differentiated the British Empire from, say, that of France (think of the agonizingly drawn out battle by Metropolitan France to hang onto Algeria: the tens of thousands of deaths: the legacy, a shattered Algeria, a country that was to lurch into a long-drawn out civil war between more or less moderate forces of government and the forces of Islamist extremism); or Portugal’s African empire (in particular, Mozambique and Angola), which was abandoned almost literally overnight, in such haste, and in a condition of such disarray, that almost immediate civil wars, that were to last the next 2 decades, broke out, with hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths their consequence.   

As to (2), that is, the tangible, material legacy of the British Empire to the ex-colonial peoples; a legacy which was beneficial in so many ways for so many (though not all) of the peoples within the Empire: perhaps the most obvious of these benefits, was the bequeathing to newly independent sovereign states, of well-embedded institutions of government that promised at last the possibility of serving all the peoples of these countries, and not just their elites. Along with well-trained, well-functioning civil services, the British Empire bequeathed a form of democracy, at least, to its ex-colonial possessions: that is, theWestminsterparliamentary system, which is still honoured (though more in abeyance than in operation) in even such ill-ruled and ill-managed countries as Zimbabwe.

Where this democratic legacy has taken root most successfully, is of course, in India, where it supported even the development (for several decades) of a democratic socialist state (Even today, despite the siren-songs of super-capitalism and of corporatism, elements of the democratic socialist tradition are still embedded within Indian institutional life: the Indian railways, for example, are still state-owned; the cost of rail travel is still heavily subsidized).

Then too, the Westminster parliamentary system has taken root successfully in most of the once-British Caribbean island nations, and after them, more or less successfully, in certain ex-colonial possessions in Africa, such as Kenya and Botswana.

However, the British Empire bequeathed more than civil services and a form of democratic government to its ex-colonial possessions: in many instances, it bequeathed a solid foundation of infrastructural development – of manufacturing, processing, and the institutions that encourage and regulate peaceful national and regional trade and commerce. Operating within perhaps that greatest of all imperial legacies – the rule of law – the pursuit of trade and commerce by the peoples of the ex-colonial possessions held a promise (and in many cases did indeed fulfill that promise) of improving the material lot of many more citizens than would ever have been possible within the traditional, pre-colonial cultures.

One might mention also, as part of this tangible, material legacy of British colonialism, the creation of nation-wide basic health services (more or less developed, region by region), and the opportunity of acquiring an education along European lines that would equip some at least of these independent countries’ people with the skills and patterns of thinking necessary to grow their country’s wealth through participation in a global economy.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I remember as a child seeing my first Maasai moran (young Maasai cattle-herder), when my family visited Maasai Mara in 1959/60, and he stood as proud and straight, a pair of spears in one hand (for there were lions, then, in that land, to guard against), as a true lord of the land, not (as today, with his shades and his cellphone, and his ill-thought out items of Western garb) like a neglected child of global European cultural and social influences.

There is a beguiling allure, to at least some of us, of a world in which Europe had never intruded, and in which that world’s peoples had been permitted the freedom, over time, to evolve and apply their own answers to the ages-old human problems of achieving justice, equality, and brotherhood.

www.rabbiedoeir

 

 

The Eternal Dark Heart of Empire

Adrian Cruden reviews Adam Hothschild's searing indictment of Belgian colonialism in the Congo

"Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Cameroon have been beaten, tortured and forced off their ancestral lands to clear vast tracts of forest for a trophy-hunting company owned by the banker Benjamin de Rothschild, activsts claimed yesterday. At least three forest camps have been burnt to the ground by guards, according to survivors, while Baka pygmies caught hunting bush animals to eat said they were tortured by police guarding the forest on behalf of game hunters." (The Times, 3/11/16)

It must be noted that the Rothschild’s strenuously deny any involvement in the incidents and insist they have good relations with the Baka; but according to Survival International there seems evidence that they happened, whoever was responsible.

For much of Africa, such occurrences are nothing new and indeed the happenings in Cameroon pale in comparison with the imperialist destruction of the Continent that has been airbrushed from western histories, which increasingly recast the Age of Empires as a time of progress and glory as opposed to the squalid exploitation that, in the end, is common to all empires of whatever origin.

Joseph Conrad's best known novel is the comparatively short "Heart of Darkness", published in 1902 and originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine. Telling the tale of a steamboat captain, Charles Marlow, sailing upriver in an unnamed European colony, whose purpose is to reach a trading station run by a  well-regarded Company Agent by the name of Kurtz, it documents in chilling and graphic narrative the appalling conditions of the indigenous people: chained together as they carry great loads, reduced to bipedal beasts of burden, left to die under trees and by track sides. And, when the clearly psychopathic Kurtz is finally encountered, his hut is decorated by the decapitated skulls of Africans mounted on stakes. Filmed most powerfully as "Apocalypse Now" and transposed to the Vietnamese conflict, what many don't realise is that it is, in fact, founded on the truth.



Conrad, born in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent several months as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1889 and Marlow is in fact the author himself. What he encountered was enough for him to quit his job and return to his adopted England to write and campaign against the growing horrors of imperialism throughout the colonial world, but especially in the Congo. In this, he worked closely with the great Irish campaigner Roger Casement and the largely forgotten but perhaps most effective human rights campaigner in history, Edmund Morel. Like Conrad, Morel had originally worked on Congo trade, but left his job when he realised that serious abuses were taking place and it was to campaigning against them that he was to devote much of his life.

Their real-life stories and those of many others, not least the previously silent African voices of the Congo basin, are powerfully assembled and recounted in Adam Hochschild's powerful history,"King Leopold's Ghost", originally published in 1998 after years of painstaking and often blocked research. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the dynamics of imperialism, especially that of a commercial type - for, unlike every other European colony, the Congo was not held in the name of a country, but the personal property of Leopold, King of Belgium, who acquired his private fiefdom nearly eighty times the size of his native country via subterfuge, deceit, propaganda and immense, bloody violence.

Hochschild traces the rise of the ironically titled "Congo Free State" from its pre-colonial days when the verdant rainforest basin was home to millions of Africans organised into several states, some of them highly sophisticated with advanced systems of justice, semi-democratic consultative assemblies and an advanced level of material culture. Their way of life was much attuned to respecting and living within the environmental capacity of what, along with the Amazon basin, has been described as one of the lungs of the world. The only things the indigenous societies lacked were the guile and powerful weaponry of the Europeans.

As France, Britain, Portugal and latterly newly-unified Germany began the imperialist "Scramble for Africa" in the 1870s and 1880s, Hochschild examines how the vain and arrogant Leopold felt Belgium was far too small for a man of his ambition. Under cover of Christian philanthropy, he hired the narcissistic explorer Henry Morton Stanley to open up the one area of Africa at that point unclaimed by any colonial powers: the great basin of the Congo river, which cuts across central Africa from its mouth on the Atlantic coast through to just south of the headwaters of the Nile.

Supposedly carrying the "white man's burden" of improving the lot of the primitive native races and freeing them from the tyranny of Arab slave traders from the eastern coast, Stanley tore a path through the rainforest, his expedition consisting of African porters and several hundred well-armed mercenary troops. He slaughtered thousands who got in their way or did not hand over their food stocks on demand, torched scores of villages and forced African kings and chiefs to acknowledge Leopold's pseudo-charity, the International Association of the Congo, as their overlord. Stanley travelled through the area several times and is remembered in the region today as a white-hatted harbinger of death. But back in London, where he published several tomes on his liberation of the lesser races, even today he is celebrated as the man who found fellow colonialist entrepreneur Dr David Livingstone. He was knighted in 1899 as a member of the Order of the Bath (if he ever took one, the water must have run deep red) and served as a Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North before dying in 1904.

 

Victims of Leopold's "civilising mission".

After Stanley established Leopold's presence in the area, the King, who never travelled to the territory himself, used mercenaries and free booting "entrepreneurs" to open up the area, first to slaughter hundreds of thousands of elephants for ivory and later tap forest trees for rubber. Local men were impressed into brutal service, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the kidnapping of their wives and children, often by both means. Failure to meet quotas often led to the rape and mutilation, or worse, of the hostages. The colonial police, the Force Publique, was renowned for its brutality and its liberal use of a whip called the chicotte claimed the lives of many of their victims, men, women and children. Leopold even established state orphanages run by Catholic clergy for the children of his victims - the boys were raised to be soldiers in the FP; the girls to be servants and in a handful of cases to join the nuns.

The casual nature of the brutality was endemic: Conrad's Kurtz character was based potentially on several officials of the Free State, the most likely being Leon Rom, who edged his lawn with the severed heads of Africans. Paradoxically, Rom also busied himself sending home his landscape paintings of the rainforest, collecting butterflies and publishing a book on African customs. Another inspiration for Kurtz may have been Guillaume Van Kerckoven, who paid the equivalent of half a shilling for each African head brought to him during a military operation.

As well as body-breaking forced labour on ivory and rubber collection and on constructing dams and railways, Africans were indentured simply to serve the bloated white colonials who arrived in the area. Hothschild recovered one Free State official's diary of a journey where African porters hauled his luggage over inhospitable territory: "A file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes... There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful of the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds... No matter! They were all up for the job."

 

Nsala of Wala with the remains of his butchered 5 year old daughter, her hand and foot.

To portay this as a great civilising mission, Leopold permitted various Christian missions to be established. Most were content to go along with the "necessary" violence and validate the propaganda of the chicotte being necessary to rouse "lazy" natives to work. Initially at any rate, his efforts paid off with humanitarian awards showered on Leopold. Even Mark Twain was moved to write in defence of the King's great works.

But some opened their eyes and began to challenge. Notably, the first two incomers to do so were African Americans. First, George Washington Williams, a remarkable man who fought in the civil war, studied law, served in the Ohio state legislature and became an author, all before the age of thirty. In his historical work, he became one of the first to use the oral history and memories of ordinary people to find the truth of the past, and it was with this mindset that he travelled to the Congo. There, Willaims soon realised that the Free State was far from the philanthropic paradise portrayed by Leopold and his associates and began to write on the abuses to a disbelieving public back in the USA and Europe.

He was followed by a fellow African American, the Rev William Sheppard, who was sponsored by the Presbyterian church to work in the Congo. He similarly, began to expose the brutality of the regime, leading to Leopold having him arrested and put on trial - though he was ultimately acquitted. Other dissidents, like Hezekiah Andrew Shamu, were less fortunate - executed, murdered or hounded to death by the Free State.

 

Edmund Morel

But of course, however powerful their testimony, black voices were little heard in 19th century Europe or America and it was not until the British activist Edmund Morel came along that the campaign against the Congo became the truecause celebreof the liberals and socialists of Europe.  After realising that the ships he was auditing carried troops and weapons to the Congo but returned empty, Morel quit his job for a shipping firm, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an international campaign to highlight and end the abuse. At great loss and some risk to himself and his family, he almost single-handedly built a coalition that in 1908 forced Leopold to surrender his private state to the Belgian Government, which was at least slightly more accountable for its actions. The King was of course handsomely compensated for his losses. By this time, however, as many as ten million Congolese Africans had died from the brutality of the free state or the starvation and diseases that followed in its wake - around half of the entire population; a genocide unsurpassed even in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Hochschild however highlights the inconsistency of many of those liberals who campaigned vigorously again the horrors of Leopold's Congo but turned a blind eye to similar, if less blatant, abuses by other colonial powers (Stanley's violence was neither the worst nor an isolated example of contemporary practice). He challenges the narrative of "improvement" that imperial powers allegedly brought to the so-called Dark Continent - the narrative not of truth, but of the victors. This, as he explores, is at least in part because few African voices from the time have been recorded. He was himself able to recover a few second hand, but the thousands of records he unearthed for this erudite and well-written piece of work are nearly exclusively those of white imperialists ornpaternalistic if sometimes sympathetic missionaries and visitors.

This is a striking contrast to what could be almost be a companion volume - Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", an account of the final destruction of the Native Americans which does draw on scores of first hand accounts set down by survivors at the turn of the 20th century. It too portrays richly diverse cultures deceived and violently destroyed by descendants of European settlers whose concept of the white man's burden was couched in the equally arrogant and racist notion of their god-given "Manifest Destiny" to overcome indigenous peoples. A combination of imperialist historians and Hollywood populism subsequently crafted a very similar narrative to the Victorian tale of philanthropic imperialism kindly bringing civilisation to ingrates. (Notably, in his lengthy genocidal career, Stanley, as well as serving on both sides in the American Civil War, briefly worked as a journalist in frontier country to assist the US Cavalry with its anti-Native American propaganda.

And it is in this spirit, as much of the rich world reinvents its history to look back ever more nostalgically at empire, that "King Leopold's Ghost" should be read as a warning of the here and now as much as an account of the past. The overt imperialism of European powers ruling African and other states is of course long gone. But, in our globalised, neoliberal world, the truth is that private corporations are buying up huge swathes of poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries. Perhaps even more thoroughly than the Victorians' great Scramble, the Rothschild hunting estates in Cameroon are far from an isolated example: in a new African land grab, European, American and Chinese "investors" now own massive estates with the blessing and naked power of the political elites of the host states. Local people are excluded, alienated from their lands and rights removed and force used to ensure it stays that way. As resource scarcity gathers pace, including food and water supplies, this neocolonial pattern is set to spread ever further and its pathology is ultimately unlikely to deviate fundamentally from the template of exploitation set by Leopold and his contemporaries.

The phrase "those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it" may be well overused, but is often true nevertheless. First of all, however, history has to be written and set straight. In this remarkable dissection of privatised imperialism, Adam Hochschild does a great service not only to the past and the millions slaughtered in the forgotten holocaust in Leopold's sadistic state; he reminds us too that no imperialism, of whatever type or origin, is ever benign.

Adrian Cruden us a member of the Green party in England and publishes the blog 'Viridis Lumen'.

Strike a Light - Story of the Matchgirls Strike of 1888

One of the most significant and important industrial actions in UK history took place in 1888 in East London. Not only did it represent one of the first successful strike actions by organised Labour, it was significant because it was mainly carried and out and organised by teenage girls.

The practice of using White Phosphorous in the Bryant and May factory in Bow, led to suffering for the workers from a degenerative disease known as 'phossy jaw'. Despite their public reputation as philanthropists and Quakers, the factory owners Francis May and William Bryant subjected their workers to awful conditions.

Sparked by a newspaper article by women's rights activist Annie Besant, Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a statement denying Besant's claims. The workers refused, leading to the dismissal of one of them and that sparked the strike, with 1400 workers walking out by the end of the first day.

It's a famous story that has inspired activists and socialists since and became the natural setting for this collaboration between playwright Fatima Uygun and poet Colin Poole. A conversation between the two about their shared love of music hall songs developed into the play, to be premiered at Govanhill Bath's Steamie next month as part of the Southside Fringe.

Poole is a well known poet originally from London who has, through his work that can be found in his book "Verse Versus the Bourgeoisie", often tries to highlight the radical past of London's East End rather than the popular imagery of Pearly Kings and subservience:
"We wanted to create a show that combined the rich history of Music Hall with a political message. Fatima and I were big fans of Harry Champion and other working class song-writers of the time, a chat in a pub about a potential show found it's focus when she brought up the Bryant and May strike, and the idea for the show was born."
Poole and Uygun brought in musician and composer Gavin Livingstone, who had collaborated on several music projects with Uygun's late husband Alistair Hullet, and work began to build what has turned into a traditional music hall musical.

Uygun, who's award-winning play "Three Women" toured working class venues across Scotland last year, explains:
"People love the songs they have come to know through the years associated with music hall and London's East End. We adapted characters and songs from well known shows. We have Burlington Bertie from Bow, songs from My Fair Lady, alongside new music and songs. The story of the matchgirls strike is still one of the most important events in trade union history, but it's important to place that it an entertaining frame. We wanted to create a show that people would enjoy first and foremost, something that wasn't didactic or preachy."

The result is a music hall extravaganza full of surprises. The basic story is of Kathleen and Mary, two matchgirls who get involved in the strike but all of the classic music hall characters turn up. The aforementioned Burlington Bertie, a strongman, sand-dancers and puppets join a cast of 12 on stage.

It's a political story of women's empowerment, of trade union organisation but essentially it's a musical designed, like all musicals, to tug at the heart strings. Colin Poole sums it up:
"We want people to know the story of the matchgirls strike, to celebrate that history but, mostly, we want people to enjoy the show, sing the songs, to laugh and to cry."

Strike a Light is a Pitheid Production written by Fatima Uygun, Colin Poole & Jim Monaghan, original music by Gavin Livingstone and Colin Poole.

May 19th – May 23rd at The Steamie, Govanhill Baths tickets from www.brownpapertickets.com

Further details of Southside Fringe can be found at www.southsidefringe.org.uk and the venue at www.govanhillbaths.com

Anita Berber - Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano

Weimar Berlin, 1919 until 1933, was an extraordinary era; a time when sexual, political and artistic freedom came together like never before or, arguably, since. Art forms that had been growing and developing in Germany, and Europe, from the end of the 19th century exploded as revolutionary ideas from Russia and 'Americanism' from the United States penetrated German culture. Dancers, artists, playwrights and poets struggled to understand and express through their art the horrors of the Great War and the chaos of the Weimar Republic. The Wilhelmian morality of the day, instituted by the kaiser, came up against the modern world and a Verwilderung der Sitten (degeneration of morals) swept across Weimar Germany, most notably in Berlin.

Anita Berber, who died on the 10th November 1928 aged only twenty nine, was the epitome of Weimar Berlin. Painted by Charlotte Berend and Otto Dix, she was an actress, a dancer and a poet who ended her life in a pauper's grave in Berlin. She scandalised and challenged middle class German morality in equal measure. An Expressionist artist who frequently danced naked Anita interpreted music with every atom of her being. She inhabited her body in a way that was sensual and erotic. She moved in a way that disturbed the audience. Even those who flocked to see her and who spoke approvingly of her dancing still found themselves somewhat disconcerted by the emotions and sensations she awoke in them. This was the effect that Anita intended but that intention was completely natural and without artifice. However much Anita used her body as a work of art and carefully cultivated her image it was completely truthful. This was not an artist who put away the costume at the end of the performance; Anita's whole life was a performance.

This was a woman who seduced married women away from their husbands; punched a German boxing champion in the face and almost got punched back; insulted the king of Yugoslavia and got called a 'Serbian Pompadour' and got banned by the International Artists Union but kept on dancing anyway. She was the great Berlin wild child who was called 'totally perverted' and who managed to be arrested or deported from practically every country in central Europe. Anita danced naked, gambled wildly and partied like no-one before, or arguably, since with a concoction of drugs that defies belief.

But Anita was also a vulnerable woman. She personified the German obsession with death. Abandoned by first her father and then, temporarily, by her mother in early childhood Anita grew up psychologically damaged. She searched all her life for her father's approval and never received it. Like a child desperate for attention she threw tantrums and made bad choices. She was a flawed genius with a self-destructive nature who expressed that vulnerability and pain publicly. Her vulnerability and pain was there for all to see in her slim waif-like naked body. This was a woman who was unafraid to express her sexuality, unafraid to say she took drugs, unafraid to say she drank to excess. But this open expression of her life was a mask that hid the deep wounds. She lived life to excess as many did in Weimar Berlin. But with Anita it was more than that, it was always more. Her sexuality was frequently of a masochistic nature; her drug taking was equally to escape reality as to enjoy life. Her behaviour was destructive and nihilistic. But underneath that there was a vulnerability that touched the audiences – even if they were unable to say so consciously unable to consciously articulate why she had that vulnerability. And that gave her that spark of sympathy that gave even her wildest behaviour and performances the mark of human tragedy that followed her all her life as it spiralled into chaos mirrored by the society in which she lived.

The Weimar Republic came into being in confusion and fear. It was born of a war that had killed and maimed millions and wrought destruction across a large part of Germany and the rest of Europe and elsewhere. The Republic brought with it the remnants of the Wilhelmian era, the shame and anger of the dictated peace and the shattered hopes and dreams of the German people on the right and left of the political spectrum. The trauma of the war and its abrupt and unexpected end threw all of Germany into confusion. The German people had to contend with an unexpected military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser which raised questions over the reason for the war. Although fighting had stopped on the Western Front on the 11th November it continued and indeed intensified on the streets of many German cities most notably Berlin. In October 1918 the sailors at the Kiel Naval base mutinied and anger and frustration gathered like storm clouds across the country. Homecoming soldiers returned to a confused public led by brawling politicians. On November 8th Kurt Eisner, an independent socialist, proclaimed a republic in Bavaria. On November 9th Philipp Scheidemann of the Social Democrats proclaimed a republic in Weimar. The Weimar Republic survived; the Bavarian did not. Within days of the proclamation of the new Republic left and right wing factions were on the streets fighting. On the 26th November Eisner called on the workers' and soldiers' council of Berlin to overthrow the interim government. It was not an auspicious start.

The interim government had to run a country that was recovering from war, both psychologically and economically, negotiate peace terms with the Allies, while faced with attacks from left and right. The government was viewed with wary suspicion by the Allies and with angry resentment by the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would receive no international help in rebuilding the shattered country. Too revolutionary for the conservatives and not radical enough for the communists the government was under immense pressure. Dealing with practical issues such as that of returning soldiers and the economy were hampered by both left and right seeking their own interests over other considerations. By December 1918 parades for returning soldiers were interspersed with demonstrations by Spartacists. Government troops fought the communists using heavy machine guns.

This difficult birth presaged the subsequent development of the Republic. The politicians on both sides and the centre rarely had time, or indeed gave themselves or their opponents time, to resolve any of the underlying issues in the country before another crisis hit. The reparations demanded by the Allies put an immense strain on the country's economy as did the French occupation of the Ruhr and the blockade of German ports. Returning soldiers faced unemployment and financial hardship. Right and left argued over blame and disagreed about solutions while ordinary Germans starved. This level of extraordinary pressure led to extremes on both sides as successive governments attempted to steer a middle course but with a definite and growing rightwing bias. By the early twenties things had somewhat settled. The government was led by the conservatives but with a greater level of control. Political violence lessened although it did not disappear. The French evacuated from the Ruhr allowing German industry to get moving and the economy strengthened. The Treaty of Locarno was signed with Great Britain, France, Italy and Belgium and Germany was no longer a pariah state. However, these economic and social improvements, although very welcome, did not mean prosperity for all. Germany had, after all, to recover from extreme conditions. More importantly, nothing had been down to deal with the underlying problems in Germany which, when the world economy crashed in 1929, caused the extreme political elements to come to the fore.

These underlying problems had been developing since the beginning of the century. The 20th century heralded the modern era of the machine. But German society still hankered after the time of heroes. Romanticism and the love of Germanic legend still held true. Germans felt themselves to be under threat from the machine that separated them from the land and from their inner soul. And this was underpinned by the German obsession with death. The fixation on mortality was understandable given the losses in the Great War; Germany had lost around 2 million soldiers with a further ¾ million civilians dying from disease and malnutrition. But the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and his assertion that modern man had killed God also contributed and created an ethos where death, its meaning and its purpose became all pervasive. Discussions were held in cafes and bars as the population watched injured soldiers return to a heroes' welcome. Life was becoming unreal. Parades in Berlin treated the returning soldiers as if they had won the war. The Dolchstoβlegende (stab-in-the-back) legend was born blaming Jews, communists and women for the disgraceful end to the war. The politicians argued over how to organise the economy while war wounded were on the streets begging for food. The German had lost his way; the machine had fragmented his life and left him with a shattered soul and the only reality that was true was death.

This ethos did not exist in a vacuum and built on the cultural changes that had been happening in Germany since the turn of the century. Feelings of restlessness had led many to welcome Germany's military build-up and the start of the war when it came. The world was changing and new ideas in science, philosophy and the arts flourished. Germany embraced and was the instigator of many of these new ideas but was still ruled by an elite that saw no need for societal change. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the universities, the military were held in high esteem and German Kultur was praised for its purity and lack of contamination by western values. This tension between the values of the conservative bourgeoisie and the rest of society could not last forever and it was the Weimar Republic that inherited the cultural riches that resulted from the release of that pressure.

Artists, such as Anita, watched the political machinations of left and right and treated much of it as irrelevant to what was really happening to the German soul. The longing for unity and desire for an understanding of death in its most primitive form moved artists and political activists alike but moved them differently and ultimately antagonistically to each other. The politicians squabbled over how to make Germany whole again but did so using the nineteenth century model of the political form. Even the Spartacists, who thought of themselves as the new revolutionaries of the age, based their ideology firmly in the class divisions determined by Marx in 1848. As a result there was a deep and almost instinctive distrust of the politics of the Republic from many artists. For the artistic community wholeness could only come about through modernity. Expressionism was the first major artistic movement after the war which gave artists the means by which to explore and interpret that modernity. Expressionism, by its very nature, did not create or follow a single message other than a desire to seek the wholeness of the German soul. Expressionism explored the emotional experience of life and death; politics merely attempted to control them without caring to understand them. It was this world that Anita inhabited.

 

In many ways Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin mirrored one another. Both had traumatic childhoods which included rejection and abandonment. The young woman and her adopted city were full of contradictions and frequently stumbled from one mistake to another without ever getting a chance to stop and think before the next crisis hit. They both had an exciting, glorious, flowering of possibility which was all too brief. And both were cut short; dying from poor choices, outside pressure and lack of support. But for all the faults and mistakes, Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin left a legacy that has never been rivalled.

Anita Berber: dancing on the edge of a volcano (Edinburgh: Pecco Ltd, 2015)

Available on Amazon – http://tinyurl.com/q8ox8nt

Available on iBooks – http://tinyurl.com/khh7bqk

About the author: Mary W Craig is a Scottish historian and writer. She is a former Carnegie scholar and a graduate of the University of Glasgow. She is known for her work on community access to history and research and writing on central European history. Mary is passionate about local communities being able to access their own history outwith academia but with an equal observance of intellectual rigour. She currently works as a community archivist. Mary's other area of interest is central Europe from the middle ages to the modern era. She has written extensively about various aspects of the history of central Europe; most notably how political changes affects people lives and how individuals and communities react to those changes.

The Peoples Army - The 1915 Rent Strike

As the anniversary of the Rent Strike passed last month, Chris Bambery  writes for The Point on the strike that has became known as an iconic moment in the history of the Scottish working class. Chris is the author of "A Peoples History of Scotland"

 

Whenever Red Clydeside, that extraordinary period of working class insurgency which lasted from 1915 to 1919, is discussed attention generally centres on male shop stewards in Glasgow's giant engineering plants and on leaders like John Maclean and Willie Gallacher. Yet the greatest victory chalked up by the working folk of Glasgow came early, and central to its success were some remarkable working class women, that was the 1915 rent strike. Long before the outbreak of the First World war the city's housing conditions were a time bomb waiting to explode. War lit that fuse.

At the turn of the last century Glasgow's housing conditions were the worst of any British city. The rapid expansion of the city and the availability of cheap labour from rural Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and from Ireland meant employers were under little pressure to provide decent housing, property developers threw up poorly built tenements with one or two room apartments and landlords could charge high rents and ignore any repairs that were needed.

The first real census to record details, in 1861, found 34 percent of the population lived in a single room, 37 percent in just two rooms. Two thirds of the population lived in a single end or a "but-and-ben." A two roomed cottagei In 1881 a quarter of Glasgow's citizens still lived in such cramped conditions, and 50 percent in a room and kitchen.

By 1911 half of all Scots still lived in one or two bedroom homes. In England and Wales the figure was seven percent.

In 1908 the Glasgow socialist, John Wheatley, published an index of infant mortality across the city and argued: "You may see at a glance that the infant death-rate in working-class wards is three, four and almost five times higher than in Kelvinside [in the affluent west End]."

Yet Glasgow boasted it was the "Second City of the Empire." The contrast between rich and poor was shocking:
"Between the middle class residential area of Pollockshields and Blackfriars, the most congested slum in Europe, the distance was two miles. But the health figures were life-miles apart. The respective figures per thousand were: death rate, 10.3 and 29.2; TB [Tuberculosis] 1.4 and 3.9; infant mortality, 27 and 28."
Those figures come from 1881. In the first year of World War One not much had changed:
"The general death rate that year was 16.6 per thousand. In the elegant West End district of Kelvinside it was only 8.7, while in Broomielaw, part of Glasgow's dockland, it was 24.3! For the infant population, Broomielaw and Blackfriars, were an express journey to Paradise."

The outbreak of war in August 1914 brought a further influx of workers into the city to meet the demand of its engineering works and shipyards, all with full orders from the military and the navy.. Rents were higher than elsewhere in the UK and with accommodation in demand landlords raised rents. Existing tenants, who could not afford the extra, faced eviction, even the families of those away fighting in the trenches.
The government found in October 1915 that at least 33.9% of rents had increased by 5%, while in "Govan and Fairfield, the centre of the storm, all the houses...suffered rent increases ranging from 11.67% to 23.08%."

Across Glasgow and the west of Scotland a network of Independent Labour Party branches, tenants groups, Co-operative Society branches, the Govan and Glasgow Trades Councils, trade union activists and socialists were able organize a rising groundswell of discontent.

The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported the 1915 May Day rally in Glasgow thus:
"Over 165 labour and socialist organisations took part... and Glasgow Green was crowded with thousands of spectators. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were those of the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School and Women Trade Unionists."

Women would take the lead in winning the single greatest victory notched up on Red Clydeside. One of the organizers of the Rent Strike, Helen Crawfurd, had been a radical suffragette who had been jailed three times before the war for actions which included smashing the windows of the Ministry of Education in London and the army recruitment office in Glasgow. Seán Damer notes: "The Glasgow suffragettes had a tradition of militancy which includes blowing up all the telegraph and telephone cables, cutting the wires around the city."

Mary Barbour arrived in Govan in 1896, a newly married engineer's wife, and became active in the Independent Labour Party. She began organizing over rents by holding meetings, large and small, in kitchens, in closes, and in backcourts attracting her audience with a football rattle.."

In April 1915 the family of a soldier serving in France was evicted in Govan which was met with angry protests as Willie Gallacher, a leader of the shops stewards movement on the Clyde describes: "In Govan, Mrs. Barbour, a typical working class housewife, became the leader of a movement such has never been seen before, or since for that matter, street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out and organize them for struggle. Notices were printed by the thousand and put up in the windows: wherever you went you could see them. In street after street, scarcely a window without one: WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT."

One landlord had applied for an eviction order against a mother and family for non-payment of rent at a time when the man of the house was fighting in France and a son was recovering from war wounds. The Court supplied the necessary authorisation despite an offer from the local miners' union to repay the rent debt within a week. However, the attempt at eviction was successfully resisted by a large crowd which had to be restrained from physically attacking the landlord."

Similar scenes were repeated across the city, for instance in Partick:
"... a 70 year old pensioner living alone was due to be evicted on a warrant issued by Sheriff Thomson for refusing to pay a rent increase. The old man barricaded himself in his tiny tenement flat and a large crowd gathered outside in his support, making his 'castle' impregnable. Again no official showed face."

Gallacher records that "the factors [agents for the property owners] could not collect the rents."xv When a factor turned up in Partick in late October, the "Glasgow Herald" reported "he was pelted with bags of peasemeal and chased from one of the streets by a number of women, who upbraided him vociferously."

The Landlords then applied for an eviction warrant from a judge and the task of carrying that out fell to the city's Sheriff who asked the police to carry out the task:"But Mrs. Barbour had a team of women who were wonderful. They could smell a sheriff's officer a mile away. At their summons women left their cooking, washing or whatever they were doing. Before they were anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety."

In every window of every house there were 1/d notices which read: 'We are not removing.' Within weeks thousands of notices were displayed in street after street. Soon all of Glasgow was involved: from Parkhead to Govan, Pollokshaws to Calton.

The turn out on the May Day march and rally that year reflected the mood and confidence of the Clydeside working class. The "Partick and Maryhill Press" reported:
"[It] was organized on a larger scale than on any previous occasion. Over 165 Labour and Socialist organizations took part. There were 12 platforms. Among those represented were the Socialist and Labour Party, Internationalism, Glasgow Housing Committee, the Anarchist Group, Socialist Children's School, and Women Trade Unionists."

Throughout 1915 John MacLean, the leading revolutionary on Clydeside, spoke at meeting after meeting outside the shipyards and other workplaces demanding action on rents. On Sunday nights he addressed huge open air meetings in Bath Street while his Marxist night class had an average attendance of 493, mainly shop stewards. In October he was brought to court under the Defence of the Realm Act for opposing the war and was bound over on agreement he would not speak publicly on the war, though he made it clear he would still speak out over rents. Because of this conviction MacLean faced the sack from his teaching position.

By October 1915 15,000 were refusing to pay rent increases, and a month later it was 20,000. That month a factor took 18 tenants to court, providing a focus for the movement, as Mrs. Barbour's women marched on the City chambers. Tom Bell would write that on route:
"The women marched in a body to the shipyard and got the men to leave work and join them in a demonstration to the Court." "Forward" estimated the crowd outside the city chambers as being 4,000 strong.  John MacLean was among those who spoke, denouncing the evils of capitalism. His arrival was unusual:
"On their way from Govan one contingent marched to the school where John Maclean, already under notice of dismissal from Govan School Board, was teaching. He was taken out and carried shoulder high through the streets to the court."

Helen Crawfurd would remember: "I will never forget the sight and sound of those marching men [from the shipyards]. Thousands of them marched through the principal streets to the Sheriff Court and the surrounding streets were packed. John MacLean MA... was one of the speakers, who from barrels and up-turned boxes, addressed the crowds."

The government in London was worried by the scale of the protests and that the eviction of rent strikers might be the spark for a walk out in the Clyde yards. It responded quickly, hurrying through the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, which returned rents to pre-war levels. This was a major victory for working class people of Britain, won by the working women and men of Glasgow.

The rent strike coincided with the creation of the Clyde Workers Committee, an unofficial group of shop stewards from across the city's engineering plant committed to defending conditions, under constant attack from employers with full order books, and wages, being eroded by war time price rises. Their union leaders had signed up to Britain's war effort and had agreed to a ban on strikes.

It is another magnificent chapter in working class history, but one which has often overshadowed the achievements of the rent strikes organisers.

In this centenary year there has been a demand for a statue to be raised to Mary Barbour. I agree, but I'd like her to be beside Helen Crawfurd too. But in many ways the person who needs to be honoured are those unknown women in Partick who chased the factor out of their street, covering them with peasemeal. Across the city women like that stood up to rack renting landlords and made a wee but significant piece of working class history.

 

 

Adapted from "A Peoples History of Scotland (Verso)" Chapter on Red Clydeside

Thomas Muir of Huntershill

As plans get under way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of often overlooked republican and democratic revolutionary Thomas Muir - who some have labeled 'the father of Scottish Democracy,  The Point republishes an updated version of Graeme McIver's look at the incredible life of Thomas Muir of Huntershill.

This is a story that reads like a cross between a political thriller, a courtroom drama and a boys own adventure. Were it to be presented to a group of Hollywood script writers it would likely be rejected as being unbelievable. Yet the incredible tale of this giant of the Scottish reform movement, a revolutionary hero in America, appointed Minister of The Scottish Republic by the French Revolutionary Government, inspirer of Robert Burns, friend of Thomas Paine and the leading figure of the Scottish Political Martyrs is known to fewer than a relative handful of people in his native land.


My name is Thomas Muir as a lawyer I was trained
But you’ve branded me an outlaw, for sedition I’m arraigned
But I never preached sedition in any shape or form
And against the constitution I have never raised a storm
It’s the scoundrels who’ve corrupted it that I want to reform
Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill

(Words Dick Gaughan)

 

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Dead Whales...and the Myth of Darien

 

 

 

Kirkcaldy Bay, where 31 whales beached themselves as the Act of Union was signed

 

 

The Whales of Kirkcaldy

Or

The tragic deception of Darien, a rumination on the Acts of Union

 

                             

“After the Darien disaster, Scotland was bankrupt. We had to go into union with England because we couldn’t survive on our own.”

 

These gloomy words were blurted out by a “No” supporter in the audience of Question Time a few weeks ago. It is a familiar refrain, buried deep in the Scottish psyche, even among many who are only vaguely acquainted with Darien and its apparent consequences. In my own school days, I well recall our history teacher repeating the mantra that Scotland’s ludicrously vain attempt to establish a colony in a swampy jungle left our misguidedly over-ambitious country bankrupt and with no choice but to unite with the far more competent and powerful England.

I don’t blame my teacher – she was repeating the received wisdom of hundreds of historians.

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External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books