7 February 2017

Brexit: a sense of foreboding

Britain voted for Brexit in June 2016: eight months later we are still in the phoney war.

As a kid my grandmother and I often took the 113 bus home. I loved travelling on the upper deck of the red London bus. As we turned into Edgwarebury Lane, Granny and I had to prepare to get off, but she warned, “Don’t stand up before we’ve turned the corner. You’ll fall.” Doubting the wisdom of Granny’s words, I stood up without holding on saying, “See, I didn’t fall.” “Yes,” said Granny, “but we haven’t turned the corner yet.”

Something like that is very much how I feel today about Brexit, the almost mindless amputation of the UK from the EU and the EFTA single market. Britain is going to a very lonely place, and while it is true that very little has happened in the phoney war so far - except for a rise in fear and a drop in the value of sterling - the gathering dark clouds are ominous.

Business will gravitate out of the UK to EU countries simply because it makes more sense to have easy access to hundreds of millions of workers and consumers than to sixty-five millions. The UK will respond by becoming an economic dependent on the US and accelerating towards a low-regulation, low-wage economy.

Who loses? Higher unemployment, lower pay, worse working conditions and poorer social provision will affect all working people. But non-British EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in other EU countries will face the brunt. At worst it means expulsion, creating the worst ethnic cleansing in Europe, Yugoslavia aside, since World War Two. At best four million people will experience discrimination and insecurity in their adopted homelands.

If the future beholds a toxic mix of ascendant xenophobic nationalism and economic dislocation, we have much to fear. Reassuring White Papers and statements by Tory ministers tell us what government wants and what they hope will happen. They might tell us, “Get over it,” but it hasn’t happened yet, and the pain is likely to be bigger and more long-lasting than we think.

1 February 2017

Charlie Kunz: a personal reflection

Charlie Kunz (1896-1958) was the greatest popular piano medley player of all time.

A taste for Charlie Kunz was one of the few things that my father (born 1908) and my maternal grandmother (born 1904) shared. And though as a child I professed to prefer pop music, I always hung around on the stairs to listen to Charlie’s medleys when they were played on the gramophone in the sitting-room.

Before the Second World War Kunz featured in several ball-room bands, but it was in the more egalitarian atmosphere of post-war Britain that Kunz rose to superstar status, apparently, being the first music performer to need police protection to keep him unmolested from his fans.

Anyone interested in hearing Kunz today only has to go to You Tube to get the flavour, but I will describe how his music seems to me. His piano playing has a light up-beat bounce and flow which is entirely distinctive to him; attempts to reproduce it have failed miserably.

Piano and light music, taken mostly from popular songs, musicals and operetta, acquired status for me in my childhood, precisely because such music was held up to be something meaningful by my parents and grandmother. In their view (or at least for my mother and grandmother), the music of Charlie Kunz represented the “old world” - an indeterminate past which ran from the the 1930s through war-time Britain before collapsing at the end of the 1950s. That world was held up in contrast to the “nowadays” of the 1970s when loud disrespectful drugged-up pop stars held sway.

Though I became attached to some 1970s pop music in my teenage years, and then became a follower of the pop charts, I never rejected the senior members of my family’s predilection for Kunz and his medleys. Too much of his influence was embedded in my life.

In the 1970s an odd feature of our family was that we did not have a television set. However, once a month there was a showing of old silent films in a scout hut at the other end of the town. My father, mother, sister and I walked there on winter evenings to meet up with the other ten to fifteen regulars to see the old films projected onto a screen. There was a small charge but money was also raised by a sales table and a raffle, which inevitably the same people always won.

The late middle-aged bachelor, Laurie, who organised the event with his spinster sister, also had an interest in Kunz, so invariably we would watch the old reels of film with a tape-recorder playing his medleys. Though Laurie possessed several cassettes, we tended to hear the same Kunz medleys over and over again. I began to anticipate the tunes.

In 1975 in the latter weeks of August my parents booked a week in a guest house in Bognor Regis, a seaside town on the southern English coast. My mother’s intention was that the whole family should spend the day together, almost irrespective of the weather, huddled up on the beach near a wave-breaker. As a thirteen-year-old boy I was keen to wander off and explore. One port of call in the later afternoon was the park where an organ player gave a rendition of Gershwin and other popular songs - not Kunz, but very much the same thing.

At university and in early adult life Charlie Kunz disappeared from my life. I never went out myself to purchase Kunz, but I did once in the 1980s pick up a second-hand cassette, which is still with me today. Then, with the advent of the net, I was able to re-discover him with a few clicks and could bring back the music of my childhood.

The ready availability of music on You Tube and elsewhere on the net has enabled me not just to re-acquaint myself with Kunz, but to hear him against the background of his contemporaries in Britain, the US and Germany. Though I am largely ignorant of music, the ability to follow links on You Tube has enriched my understanding and enjoyment of Kunz.

In 2009 my younger sister, aged forty-three, died of breast cancer. Some months before her death, I put together some scanned old photos of our family and set it to the music of Charlie Kunz. She could cope with the pictures and enjoyed them, but the Kunz’s music was too overwhelming for her. I switched it off.

I do not think Kunz is outdated in the way that Winifred Atwell’s or Mrs Mills’ honky-tonk knees-up piano certainly is; those popular pianists are firmly tied to an era of post-war Britain. Kunz’ music, by contrast, has a certain timeless gentle sophistication which will keep it going.

Historio de la Esperanto-Movado by Nikola Aleksiev

A Bulgarian Esperantist, Nikola Aleksiev, then in his eighties, expressed his ambitious hopes for the language.

This is a remarkable little book written man an elderly man (born 1909) in a distant corner of Europe. Aleksiev was Bulgaria’s leading Esperantist during the socialist years, and before that a left-wing activist in inter-war Bulgaria. After the change in regime in 1989 his mind remained sharp, and his ability to grasp the realities of US domination in his country is clearly illustrated.

The book begins with a historical overview of the Esperanto movement first internationally, and then in his home country of Bulgaria. The book concludes with two essays; first an analysis of language imperialism (particularly English) in Bulgaria, and second a critique of Mark Fettes essay ‘The future of the European Babylon.’ Aleksiev takes issue with Fettes claim that a generation would be required to introduce Esperanto as a lingua franca in Europe, arguing instead that, if the political will were there, teaching Esperanto in schools across Europe could be accomplished within a few years.

Throughout the book is written in clear, easy-to-understand Esperanto, and demonstrates the potential power of the international language.

ALEKSIEV,Nikola Historio de la Esperanto Movoado Pres-Esperanto, Sofia 1992

Pri Nikola Aleksiev el Vikipedio: Nikola Aleksiev, naskiĝis la 29-an de junio 1909; mortis la 19-an de julio 2002, estis bulgara esperantisto kaj honora membro de UEA kaj MEM. Li estis la unua eksterlandano, kiu ricevis honoran membrecon de ĈEA.

Li estis filo de malriĉa ŝuista familio, li estis kunfondinto kaj sekretario Bulgara Laborista Esperanto-Asocio (fondita en 1930).

Kiel ĵurnalisto kunorganizanta strikojn li pasigis 7 jarojn en karceroj de la faŝisma Bulgario. Post la dua mondmilito li ĉefredaktoris la centran organon de bulgaraj sindikatoj Trud (1946-1952) kaj estis membro de Tutmonda Packonsilantaro.

Li apartenis al plej aktivaj esperantistoj en Bulgario. Li estis la prezidanto de la Loka Kongresa Komitato de la 48-a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto en 1963. De 1964 ĝis 1976 Nikola Aleksiev estis prezidanto de Bulgara Esperanto-Asocio. Li dediĉis multajn fortojn al la komunisma Mondpaca Esperantista Movado (MEM), kies prezidanto li estis. Lingvan majstrecon li pruvis en siaj tradukoj (ekz. Apostolo de Libereco pri bulgara nacia heroo Vasil Levski, Mia vivo de Trifon Ĥristovski k.a.)

29 January 2017

Brexit: victory for the British far right

Brexit and right-wing xenophobic nationalism are symbiotically related. Each is the result and cause of the other.

The decision by the May government to plough on with its preparations for a hard Brexit is certainly injurious to business, but it is even more harmful to the interests of ordinary working people. Let’s list the damage:
  • Economic pain: sterling down, lower investment and the prospect of tariffs
  • Workers rights: a bonfire of EU-created employment rights can be expected..
  • Mass insecurity: for millions of EU residents in the UK and reciprocally for UK citizens in other EU states;
  • Locked in: British citizens will have no right to live and work in mainland Europe.
  • Scotland: to be taken out of the EU against its will.
  • Northern Ireland: the re-imposition of a ‘hard’ border will threaten the peace process;
  • Racism and xenophobia: stimulated and legitimised in Britain.
  • European Identity: undermined and fractured.
  • Pan-European socialism: a united fightback across the continent undermined.
The May government has now become the willing vehicle of Ukip inspired right-wing populism, the poisonous ideology which has brought about the Brexit nightmare. But while the formal raison d'etre of Ukip has always been the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, that goal alone could never have motivated millions of ordinary people to back Brexit with such appalling enthusiasm. “Taking back control”, the defining slogan of the Brexit campaign, was never mainly about transferring to London full control over food labelling, or other such intricacies of EU law. No, taking back control was shorthand for cleansing Britain of “foreignness,” and junking tolerance and liberal values. Brexitmania was and is a movement primarily within the white “indigenous” English (and to some extent Welsh) to affirm their dominant status within “their” community and in “their” country, against outsiders, who were taking “their” jobs and making demands on “their” housing and “their” social services.

In the first instance Brexit propaganda targeted East European EU citizens in the UK, but behind that veneer lay racist antipathy to anyone not white British. Thus the defining moment in Ukip's campaign was Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing long queues of Syrian refugees in Slovenia - an issue nothing to do with Britain’s EU membership. But that did not matter a jot to Farage; the poster was promoting racist fear of ‘the other’, and the message hit home in its intended constituency.

The causes of the current explosion of right-wing populism are various, but one idea needs to be knocked on the head. It is false to claim the existence of high numbers of non-British EU citizens in a locality caused a high Leave vote. It did not. Those areas with the highest number of non-British EU citizens, such as London, Manchester or Bristol, voted Remain. Ukip propaganda was most successful wherever multicultural communities were lacking, not where they existed.

Right-wing populism is the diametric opposite of everything socialists stand for. The Labour Party is not properly the party of British working people; it is the party of workers in Britain, irrespective of race, ethnic background or nationality. Socialists support multicultural and cosmopolitan communities across the UK, and defend the free movement of EU citizens as a basic acquired right. There is no such thing as a Left-wing Brexit because the political reality is that Brexit is a tool of the right to restrict individual freedoms and social solidarity in favour of authoritarian nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism.

Labour has responded badly to the referendum result. While the result does give Prime Minister May a mandate to pursue Brexit, it does not bind the Labour Party to anything. If a majority in a referendum had voted for capital punishment, would Labour then support it? Of course not. Labour policy is made by its members, not by national referenda.

Sadly, Labour has backed the triggering Article 50, mostly in a misguided attempt of stave off Ukip’s advance in northern seats. Yet, the more right-wing populism is accommodated, the more acceptable and stronger it becomes. The more Labour capitulates to Ukip’s agenda, the more it betrays the young, and the multicultural and progressive communities in the metropolitan centres across England.

On Labour’s right-wing, politicians have been quick to accommodate themselves to the xenophobic upsurge. Rachel Reeves among others has sung the praise of immigration controls on EU citizens. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for mayor of Manchester, has chided Labour for prioritising access to the internal market over ending free movement. But the left, too, has not disentangled itself entirely from the right-wing populist offensive. John MacDonald has foolishly spoken of Brexit as an “enormous opportunity.” Well it is, but only for the enemies of the left. Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, while courageously defending free movement, has sometimes given the impression that Brexit is a low priority issue.

Labour should echo the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP in opposing Brexit. Insofar as Brexit is unstoppable, we should strive to remain in the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway solution), and with that retain free movement. And, if Britain does in the end leave the EU, which seems likely, we should work with the left across Europe for Britain to rejoin.

27 January 2017

Does socialist consciousness originate in the working class?

The claim that socialist consciousness has and will emerge in the working class is a dogma without evidence behind it.

If by socialist consciousness one means a relatively well worked out theory of how society is and how it should be, then socialist consciousness has seldom originated, nor even even flourish, as a major force among working people.

Socialist ideas have historically originated in the minds of intellectuals (e.g. Marx, Methodist reformers). In the case of Karl Marx his discovery of historical materialism was based on borrowings from haut-bourgeois intellectuals, especially Hegel (history as an all-embracing totality) and Feuerbach (being determines thinking and not vice versa). Of course, while intellectuals discovered and articulated historical materialism, the socio-material conditions had to be right for their emergence, and for them to have relevance. That proves the rule that the generation of ideas, even Marxist ones, must be grounded in social-material reality.

Once in the world, socialist ideas were then adopted by the leaders of political parties, either because they believed them to be correct and helpful, or for more opportunistic reasons. In the last century, large numbers of workers and others voted for these parties in many developed countries because ordinary people felt left-wing parties better represented their practical interests than did non-socialist ones.

Only a tiny fraction of people in manual jobs ever concerned themselves with the theoretical and ideological issues connected with socialism, probably fewer people than were involved in religious sects. Remember George Orwell entering Catholic workers houses in the 1930s: the communist newspaper Daily Worker on the table and a crucifix on the wall.

One such exception in the twentieth century was an interest in socialist theory among a minority of skilled workers, particularly those working alone. We could mention the watchmakers of Jena, but also the role of cobblers, tailors and more recently left-wing train drivers in the ASLEF trade union in Britain.

Socialists were also likely to be found among upwardly mobile families whose members had left the manual working class. The connection between socialist belief, education and upward social mobility was well established in the twentieth century. This linkage is now largely something of the past.

Nevertheless the bulk of those interested in socialist and Marxist ideas are – and historically have always been – found among the intelligentsia. It is here among teachers and other professionals that discussions of what socialism is and how it can be realised have always been a fascinating topic for a minority.

Whether and how a socialist consciousness could emerge today, and whether and how socialist consciousness could embed itself among ordinary working people are difficult issues.

24 January 2017

Chesterfield Socialist Conference 1987

The Chesterfield Socialist Conference of 1987 attempted to revitalise the left in Britain. Instead it marked its demise.

The year 1987 was an important year, not just because I failed my driving test the day after Mrs Thatcher won her third term in office, but because – although I did not know it at the time – events that year would signal a speeding up in the collapse of the left in Britain.

In October 1987, the first Socialist Conference was held in Chesterfield, the mining constituency which Tony Been famously won in a byelection in 1984. Ralph Miliband described the conference, which brought together the Labour left with several outside groups and parties, as the biggest meeting of socialists since the Leeds Convention in 1918. Benn, Miliband and Eric Heffer all gave powerful orations in the hope of heralding in a rebirth of the radical left in British politics.

Yet, it was not to be. Kinnock (with Hattersley, Smith, Kaufmann and the then youngsters Blair and Brown in tow) announced a policy review, misnamed ‘Labour Listens’ which meant that the leadership listened to everybody except socialists. The remaining socialist policies were either dropped or sidelined. Inside the party de-democratisation took hold and the socialist left was marginalised or expelled. In this stifling atmosphere of party discipline, Kinnock stumbled on until losing to the Tories yet again in 1992.

John Smith’s leadership 1992-94 promised a Labour Party consolidation on the basis of some kind of mild social democracy – and, but for his death, he would have taken Labour to victory in 1997.

But that was not to be, either. In 1994 (the last contested Labour leadership election until 2010), desperate for success, Labour elected Tony Blair, whose drift to the right in the next decade and half would have been unimaginable in the early nineties. So New Labour was born and the Left and socialism ceased to be.

20 January 2017

Are the British UKIP and the American Trump fascists?

The fascistic aspects of UKIP and Trump are not enough to label them fascists

Talk on the left often compares the anti-liberal xenophobic nationalism behind Brexit and Trump with the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Is the comparison valid?

Some similarities clearly exist: the attack on liberal values, on rational expertise and cosmopolitanism, through a promotion of ethnic chauvinism, authoritarian nationalism and economic protectionism; and all of this tied up with a vision of a utopian future created out of an imagined past. These ideas do contain elements of fascism, so the label ‘fascistic” could be legitimately applied to the thinking and also to those who promote it.

Yet outside eastern Europe, the populist right has worked within, rather than threatened, democratic structures – and the mainstream populist right have so far not engaged in a cult of organised violence against their domestic opponents. Thus attaching terms like fascist, let alone Nazi, to UKIP and similar parties would be inaccurate.

But, of course, the world today is different from that of the 1930s. Then the workers’ movement was a powerful contender for power; now it is not. Business, today, much of it multinational, does not need nationalist extremists to protect its interests against a weak and largely unorganised working class. So the far right’s main opponent is bourgeois liberalism, not socialism or communism; and therefore its configuration and tactics are different.

But the lesson of the Nazi assumption of power should teach us one thing. Weimar democracy was far from perfect, but Germany until 1933 was a civilised country. In a relatively short time the Nazi regime was able create a chamber of horrors with the complicity of the existing state apparatus. The vulnerability of liberal democracy should never be underestimated. Who would have thought a year ago that EU citizens in the UK, many who have been resident for years, would be be reduced to bargaining chips in the May government’s Brexit negotiations?

16 January 2017

Trump promises UK a trade deal

Britain will become a US economic satellite.

Britain is inexorably hurtling towards a ‘hard’ Brexit. This is not only a disaster for the millions of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in other EU countries, but exiting the European internal market will throw Britain into the clutches of the Trump’s America, economically and politically.

In the EU British capitalism was a major player, but under US tutelage, Washington will have the whip hand. Trade agreement there may be, but it will be on US terms.

How will British capitalism operate as a US economic satellite? We know: freed of EU social legislation it will slash social spending, worker protections and wages. The working class Leave voters will rue that day in June 2016 when they backed Brexit.

1 January 2017

George Monbiot: no reference to Marxist classics

George Monbiot must rank among Britain’s top left-wing popular intellectual writing today

A few years ago when I first read Monbiot’s book, Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain I delved into the index to look up references to Marx. There was no such reference in the whole book.

At first sight that appears strange. The book is an excellent empirical study of corporate power within the neo-Marxist tradition, but it seems that Monbiot wants to present information within that intellectual interpretative framework, but without references to the corpus of Marxist classics. Maybe he is right to do so.

Much Marxist writing in the last three decades, if not before, has been couched in a cloud of jargon and impenetrable theory, written by university academics for other university academics. The result is that the whole corpus has become inaccessible, even for most of the university educated.

Monbiot, a trained journalist, is thus right to pen his articles and books in what amounts to a Marxian interpretive framework but without exploring its philosophical underpinnings. Those who have studied academic Marxism may be attracted by theory, but I doubt whether many of his readers think the same.

It’s far better for people first coming to left-wing ideas to get a grasp of how society works with practical example – and then later, if they are interested, to delve into the theory. Monbiot gets it right on that score.

13 December 2016

One Time Secret: a useful service

It may not be NSA resistant, but One-Time Secret is a useful and easy to use service for activists worried about state surveillance.

In information security there is often a trade off between ease of use and level of security. But here One-Time Secret is a winner. It is extremely easy to use (no setting up of new accounts or downloading apps), and provides a high level of confidentiality for your email.

Basically, you open the webpage, write a message in the composition box, click and get a link. Instead of sending your message in an email you send the link instead. The recipient views the message by clicking on the link.

So, what’s the point? Well, the message can only be seen once. After the recipient has accessed it, the message is wiped from the servers of One-Time Secret. Of course, you can paste/copy the message content, but there is no evidence of whom it is from, nor is anything left on the net.

If the recipient can’t access it, s/he knows that somebody else has. So if you and your correspondent discover that you are under surveillance - or if you don’t trust One-Time Secret - you have the option of passwording (i.e. encrypting) the message. You then, of course, need to communicate the password to the recipient by some safe channel.

Left activists worried about surveillance, but not needing an NSA level of protection, can easily make use this service. On 10 November 2016, presumably to protect itself from the British Investigatory Powers Act (which requires providers to store their customers' data and break their own encryption) One-Time Secret moved its servers from London to Frankfurt.


Please note: I am not a technical expert, so I am not able to vouch for any technical aspect. One Time Secret is open source software.