Notes on Kipling

February 28, 2010 at 11:00 pm (Uncategorized)

After my recent post on CLR James, I decided to re-read James’ book on cricket Beyond a Boundary. I was never a cricket fan as a kid, but James’ book is so much more – history, class analysis, autobiography, and yes cricket too.

In the opening of the book, James references Kipling’s famous comment writing, “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket knows.” Kipling’s original comment, what do they know of England… has become part of the language, but is originally from a poem “The English Flag.”

My first conscious memory of  Kipling is his infamous poem ‘The White Man’s Burden”, his poem about the virtues of British imperialism, which I think I read in a history class in high school.  My general take on Kipling was with much of the left, dismissing him as a reactionary. A much more balanced treatment of Kipling can be found in  George Orwell’s essay Rudyard Kipling . Orwell notes that one need not defend Kipling the man or his odious views, to appreciate his work. As Orwell writes:

Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

The first movie I ever saw in a theatre was Disney’s film, The  Jungle Book. I loved the film, and still do today (despite the rather dated quality of it), but it wasn’t until much later that I read the stories (I re-read them last year after reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)  They are fantastic stories. The adventures of Mowgli and others mixed with Kipling’s poems are marvellous for a child and still great for adults. 

As I was writing this post, I was listening to Billy Bragg, and remembered Bragg set one of Kipling’s poems to music, “A Pict Song.” The poem is from Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill.  Bragg’s song appears on his William Bloke album. Bragg’s version makes several changes, most notably substituting state for great in the second stanza. The whole thing reminds me of “Song of the Worms” by Margaret Atwood.

A Pict Song

Rome never looks where she treads
Always her heavy hooves fall,
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on – that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.

We are the Little Folk  – we!
Too little  to love or to hate.
Leave us along and you’ll see
How we can drag down the Great!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the room!
We are the germ in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!

Mistletoe killing an oak –
Rats gnawing cables in two –
Moths making holes in a cloak –
How they must love what they do!
Yes, – and we Little Folk too,
We are as busy as they –
Working our works out of view –
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!

No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along,
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves;
But you – you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

We are the Little Folk, we!  etc.


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Review of Joe Jacobs: Out of the Ghetto

February 24, 2010 at 11:50 pm (Uncategorized)

Seems like a lot of foot notes to the February Music Notes post. I mentioned that the song “Ghosts of Cable Street” by The Men They Couldn’t Hang was completely fictitious. I’m reprinting a review of Joe Jacobs’ book Out of the Ghetto published in Red & Black Notes.  Joe was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was one of the few to be expelled twice! He was later a member of Gerry Healy’s  Socialist Labour League, Solidarity and a founder of the Echanges network. He was also present at the Battle of Cable Street. Here’s Joe’s account of the events, followed by the review of his book.


It might seem curious to be reviewing a book that was posthumously published more than twenty years ago. Curiouser still, that in this age of the dismissal of the working class as a force for change this book deals exclusively with working class, predominately Jewish, life in the East End of London in the years between the first and second world wars. Such scepticism is entirely misplaced, because the book is a fascinating chronicle of working class existence in that period and is something of a socialist classic.

 Joe Jacobs was born in 1913 in the East End of London. He lived and worked in London and was involved in socialist organizations his entire life. Joe was a member of the Young Communist League, before he joined the adult party from which he was expelled not once but twice (no easy matter). He was later one of those who helped to found the libertarian socialist organization Solidarity (the UK not the US version), and after being expelled from that, was a founder of the network Echanges et Mouvement in 1975.

To be honest the book is a slow read. Not because the language is difficult to read or the subject matter is dull; on the contrary, the book is straightforward and written in plain English, unlike much left reportage, but it is a thorough book. I read slowly because the wealth of detail threatened to overwhelm me, and I was afraid I would miss something important!

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1913 Joe endured terrible poverty and personal hardships while growing up. His father died a year after he was born and the family was constantly short of money. When Joe was 12, he lost an eye due to a medical problem. An elder sister was lost to TB in squalid circumstances and other family members existed in equally dire circumstances.

Yet despite these situations politics also seemed a constant. Through his father’s first wife, Joe had an elder brother he never met, who returned to Russia to take part in the Revolution. Dave had been a Bolshevik supporter, but later joined the “Workers Opposition” and eventually left Russia to live in Paris. Other snapshots of family and friends who drifted in and out of the East End socialist and political milieu are described in detail throughout the book. Joe’s own introduction to politics came in 1925 when he was 12 and stumbled across a demonstration in support of the Jewish Bakers’ Union. Joe described his feeling as akin to a drug addict’s first fix: “I was elated . . . most certainly something had entered my bloodstream.” Joe’s also described being “profoundly affected” by the General Strike in 1926, especially after witnessing mounted police attacking a crowd with sticks.

But it was in the Communist Party that Joe was to earn his political stripes. He was a loose contact of the party, before joining the YCL. and later the adult party. It was to become the centre of his life. Joe vividly describes the tremendous variety of activities and organizations in which the Communist Party was involved. It is hard for those of us active today, particularly in North America to imagine the kind of influence the CP wielded. Significant also is the way he viewed the party. Several references to Trotsky and oppositionists are mentioned yet Joe refused to even read their words: “Might as well ask a Catholic to read Maria Sopes, when the Church had said he must not.” He accepted the party’s belief that they were traitors, and even the Moscow trials, although they were harder to swallow. But after all they had confessed hadn’t they?

Yet Joe was often considered a trouble maker in his branch. Throughout the latter part of the book, he paints a picture of the struggle in the branch between those who wanted to work through the trade unions and those who looked to alternative organizations and street work to advance the party’s message, each brandishing Marx and Lenin to support their positions. Joe was a supporter of the latter group and was labelled an ultra-leftist by his colleagues.

No account of life in the East End in the 30’s would be complete without a mention of the “Battle of Cable Street.” The announcement by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists that they would march through Cable Street on Sunday, October 3 and the efforts to prevent it have become the stuff of (C P) legend. The Fascist movement in Britain, while it never gained the influence that it achieved in continental Europe was certainly growing. Mosley’s march was a provocation. Yet, despite the wave of popular indignation, and later CP accounts, the Communist Party initially decided to press on with their already announced demonstration for solidarity with Spain at Trafalgar Square on the same day. A letter from a CP leader to Joe stated that if “Mosley decides to march let him.” Organizing around the slogan ‘They Shall not Pass’ was deemed to be a stunt! When it became evident that the people of the East End were going to resist Mosley whatever the CP’s position the party switched gears. Mosley never got to Cable Street. The Metropolitan police, watching the massive display of force and resistance called off the demonstration and Mosley was forced away. Joe rightly commented that it was a defeat for Mosley courtesy of “Jews and Gentile alike.”

 But Joe’s connection to the CP was soon to be severed. A little over a year after the events of Cable Street, Joe was expelled from the party. In 1951 he rejoined the party and although welcomed with open arms, he was expelled again within a year.

Many accounts of working class activists come down to us via autobiography, but all too often the accounts are written by those who, in their youth, “were socialists too.” Often their writings have the ring of hollow justification of their current activities. Happily Joe Jacobs’ book does not bear this stamp. The main problem is that it ends too soon. Joe’s untimely death in 1977 prevented him from writing, as he had planned to do, about more of his own past. Out of the Ghetto deserves a wide readership.

From the ending of Out of the Ghetto:

“I am aware of the “ego-ethno-social- centrism” of any attempt to describe experience. This is not an exercise in “writing” History, only a witness account of what I and my friends were doing in a place which was a melting pot of political and other social activity. We radiated the results of our handling of events and influences which came into our lives in this unique place.

I am not deliberately seeking to influence anyone toward an acceptance of my ideas, although these ideas to influence an unavoidably selective and incomplete account. With hindsight, you and I can make up our own minds about what is interesting, relevant or significant. Many of the problems we faced still exist. The story ends at the outbreak of World War Two, when I was only 26 years old. The next forty years transformed my ideas in a constantly changing world. To “Keep Your Head” simply means keeping up with these changes without getting too confused, or worse still completely lost. Survival is not only about physically keeping your head. It is also about the quality of survival. Is survival acceptable if it can only be secured at any cost to integrity and self-respect?”

Originally published in Red & Black Notes #7, Winter 1999. 

This article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.

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More on Ian Dury

February 24, 2010 at 2:16 am (Uncategorized)

In this month’s music notes, I mentioned the forthcoming Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. I was never a huge fan of the Blockheads although I do own a CD best of and an old 45 of Rhythm Stick (I wonder if that’s worth anything?) Still, the prospect of a movie is intriguing. 

Maybe I’m getting old, but I spend a lot of time returning to the music of my youth and especially those crucial years between 1976 and 1980. It’s amazing just how much stuff there is now on this period in terms of video, photos and reminiscences. Why shouldn’t there be movies as well? 

Anyway, the day after I posted the comments, I picked up the new issue of Uncut. Well, the one with Hendrix on the cover; the issue on sale in Toronto always seems to behind the one in the UK. The issue has a pretty good article on Tinariwen, the North African group playing Toronto on March 4th (got my ticket).  But lo and behold, there are two articles about Ian Dury in it, including a review of the film.

In the review, Neil Spencer concludes “you can’t helping liking the film for all its faults.” He further notes, Andy Serkis is “spellbinding” as Dury (check out the trailer) However, a few pages on, Uncut editor Allan Jones suggests the film is a  “cartoonish encapsulation” of Dury’s life. Instead he recommends Will Birch’s biography Ian Dury. Will Birch was a member of the Kursaal Flyers, a pub-rock group that played the same circuit as Dury’s former band Kilburn and the High Roads. Birch also  drummed for The Records, a late 70s power pop group who had a hit with “Starry Eyes.” Birch has also written a book about the pub rock scene, No Sleep Till Canvey Island.  Jones describes the biography as “exemplary.” Sounds as if it’s worth a look; actually, the movie too.

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Max the Cat

February 21, 2010 at 10:43 pm (Uncategorized)

When I was in university in the late 80s, I got a cat whom I called Benn. Now I loved that cat, but the fact that he scratched or bit pretty much everyone he met made him a little difficult to handle. After a while my wife developed an allergy, and we were forced to give him away.

No more pets.

The neighbourhood I live in had a cat. His name was Max. Actually he belonged to a neighbour, but he always seemed to be outside. Once he loped into our backyard and I gave him milk. That was it. After that he seemed to come by almost every day for attention. Quite often after he had received his daily TLC quota, he sat on the back porch mat as if to say this is my place.

A cat with personality.

On Tuesday, we heard he had died. Initially I feared he had been hit by a car, but it seems as if it was a heart attack. A friend told us that there’s an illness raccoons get which is transferable to other species, and Max had plenty of run-ins with raccoons.  

We all felt sad. My wife was especially looking forward to spending  the summer with him. Life goes on.  

Max on a Fence

I don’t want to turn this into the kind of blog where I feel what I had for breakfast is of interest to others. Nor should it become a personal blog. Yet, I decided to write this little note about a cat I barely knew, but that I feel sad because I will never see him again.

Is it simply familiarity or that cats are intrinsically cute? (The last person to say that was bitten by Benn as she petted him) Perhaps there’s something about our species that allows for empathy towards other living things. The political association to which I belong published an extended debate on species being (or human nature over the course of several issues of our magazine) I think it’s worth a think. What is it that truly makes us human?

Max, you will be missed.

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Music Notes February 2010

February 21, 2010 at 1:27 am (Uncategorized)

 This month’s music notes.

1. CatL

Punk blues? Blues punk? Dunno, but this  Toronto three-piece is well worth investigating. The new album is called With the Lord for Cowards you will find no Place. I’m planning to check them out at the Dakota Tavern later this month. Have  a listen at their myspace page

2. Sex and Drugs and Rock and  Roll  

From the UK comes a bio-pic about Ian Dury. Former Kilburn and the High Roads singer turned music hall punk, and scoring a massive hits with “Rhythm Stick”  “Reasons to be Cheerful” and more. Andy “Gollum” Serkis does an amazing job as Dury. (The marvellous Olivia Williams plays his wife). Watch the trailer at  the official site

3. Massive Attack – Heligoland

Even though it’s been subject to middling to good reviews, I like this one. It’s a bit more upbeat than  100th Window. Brooding layered dance music. I actually decided to spring for the I-Tunes LP edition to see what it was like. It’s a bit more impressive than the usual download, which contains next to no information about the songs. The I-tunes package comes with lots of art work which you’d normally only get with the vinyl or CD editions. I still can’t get into it in the same way, but it’s a recognition that packaging is also important. You also get remixes of some of the songs on the album, some of which I think are better than the originals. There’s a lot of videos at their site at the moment.   

4. The Three Johns – Live in Chicago

Once, when I came home from university, I found a Three Johns records among my sister’s albums. Knocked me out. I once saw an ad for an album, but never heard it. A few years later, I picked up a CNT compilation with the Three Johns, the Mekons, the Red skins, the Newtown Neurotics and others, but there’s not much out there by the band, but there is this rather nice live set from Chicago with most of the hits. Along with a groovy T-Rex cover.

There’s an unofficial web site with some downloadable Peel sessions and other stuff, but it seems to be down most of the time. Try also their myspace page.

5. The Men They Couldn’t Hang – How Green is the Valley

If the Pogues had been a little less into folk music and a little more into the Clash… no, that’s unfair, but listen to this record and you’ll see what I mean. Marvellous mid-eighties record. Full of great hooks and memorable tunes. The immediate classic is “Ghosts of Cable Street” which tells the story of Oswald Mosley’s attempt to march his Blackshirts through the east end of London. Great song, completely historically inaccurate, but still a great song. Great record too.

6. Cristina – “Is that All There is?”  

Early eighties cover of the old Peggy Lee song with spiced up lyrics. At the time it was considered risque (references to arson and spanking led the writers to withhold permission to use it), but now it seems a bit old hat. Love the bored affectation in her voice though.

7. Abba

It may be in our DNA to respond to Abba. At work in the morning when Abba makes its way into the PA rotation, it’s hard not to respond. There’s something about the chorus in “Knowing Me Knowing You” that makes me melt.

However, when we watched Mama Mia, the charm faded. “The closest you’ll ever get to A-list actors performing drunken karaoke” said one reviewer. I watched about twenty minutes.

Still like Abba Gold though.

8. The Ting Tings

I hear they’re recording a new album. Apparently it’s called Kunst, the German word for art. How unfortunate.  The New Musical Express suggested its addition on a list for the worst named records of all time.

9. Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions

Last year, Mojo gave away a CD called Africa Rising. A great collection of African artists I’d never heard of. The stand out track for me was  by Tinariwen called “Tenhert.” Great guitar sound. A month or two later I picked up a copy of Uncut which had a free Velvet underground influenced CD with it. Same song is on it.

OK, I thought, look into this. Glad I did: Poet guitarists and soul rebels from the Sahara. Unlike much I’ve heard before, but simply amazing. Have a listen and a look. They play Toronto on March 4.  

10 Bruce Springsteen – “The River”

I was never a big Bruce Springsteen fan. The first Springsteen song I heard was “Candy’s Room” from the Darkness at the Edge of Town album in 1978. S’ OK, but i was into things a little harder and faster then.

I remember waiting to see Stiff Little Fingers, or possible Adam and the Ants  and the club playing most of  The River.  Wasn’t really impressed by that either.

I think I first sat up and took notice when Nebraska came out. The starkness of the sound, and the intensity of the lyrics just grabbed me. It contains two of my favourite Springsteen songs, “Atlantic City” (great back and white video) and “Highway Patrolman.”

Anyway for some reason, I pulled an old Springsteen CD to listen to in the car on the drive to work on friday. I was looking for something upbeat as i fought traffic, but it was “The River” that stood out.

It’s a simple song. Boy meets girl and they plan to get out of nowheresville, USA. Boy gets girl pregnant, and he goes to work in the factory. Sometime later, there’s no work, and those dreams, “I act like I don’t remember and Mary acts like she don’t care.” But there’s still the river, and those dreams he once had. “Is a lie a dream that don’t come true or is it something worse?”

A lot of people call Springsteen a fraud. Asking how he can write songs about the ordinary a millionaire like him is so far removed from. I don’t know about that, but this simple tale reveals something far deeper. It’s a beautiful song. And that’s no small achievement.

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Shall I Compare thee to a summer’s day?

February 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

OK, I’m a softie at heart. For February 14, everyone’s favourite sonnet


Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?

Thou are more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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New Links

February 10, 2010 at 12:25 am (Uncategorized)

Long overdue, so here are a few new links. I’ll probably add more soon as the mood strikes me.

Counago and Spaves

A comment on a recent post here at Notes from Underground led me to this blog. Culture and politics, and lots of interesting links. Any blog that lists the Three Johns and Tiswas is OK with me.

If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger

Very cool celebrity and non photographs. Possible to spend hours browsing here.

Internationalist Perspective Blog

Shorter articles and exchanges by IP.

UK anarchist, but not just, library. Amazing collection of materials and discussion boards. Hosts Red & Black Notes materials.   

Massive Attack

My favourite band of the moment. New album out right now!


UK magazine. Politics and culture again.

Sketchy Thoughts

Montreal blog tending toward direct action, but also covers events in the city.  


Carl Wilson’s blog. Covers Toronto music and other stuff. Author of an interesting book on Celine Dion. 

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Report on CLR James Book Launch in Toronto

February 4, 2010 at 12:54 am (Uncategorized)

Marty Glaberman once observed that everyone has their own CLR James, an observation echoed by the chair of the meeting to launch a new book of writings by CLR James, You Don’t Play With Revolution.

And at the meeting there were many CLR Jameses: James the teacher, James the writer, James the Trotskyist, James the sponteneist, James the anarchist, James the anti-imperialist , James the cultural critic, and so on. That CLR James could be so many things to so many people suggest one of two things: either he was a political scoundrel trying to appear to be all things to all people, or that he was a genius whose political thoughts and interests were not limited or bound by the dogmas within the traditions he traversed.  

For me, it’s the latter answer, even though my CLR James would be more heavily Johnsonite than some of the others. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be held to all of the political positions I’ve espoused in my political life, some of which (many?) are deeply embarrassing now.   (See the earlier post, The Legacy of CLR James for a bit more of a critique of James. )

The occasion of the meeting was the publication of lectures James delivered in Montreal in 1967. The book contains the three public lectures James gave, on the making of the Caribbean people, the Haitian Revolution, and King Lear, as well as five private lectures he gave on Existentialism and Marxism, Rousseau, The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the Caribbean, Marx’s Capital, and Lenin on the trade union question. In addition the book contains interviews with James, and some previously unpublished correspondence and supplementary materials. (the book is published by AK Press). 

For those interested in James, it’s a worthwhile investment (a very reasonable $20 for a 300 plus page book), and those those who aren’t it’s worth having just for the range of interests James brings. Read James’ Beyond a Boundary on cricket, a game I dislike. Read James’ book on Moby Dick. And see the insights.

About 25 people came out to hear David Austin, the editor of the collection, give a general overview and read selections of the book. Austin’s task was not an easy one as most of the audience too had their own CLR James Like many who get caught up in their subject, Austin sometimes let his enthusiasm get the better of him. (He announced several times  he was finishing, but , “well, maybe one more little thing…” )

The discussion ranged from James politics at various points in his career and the impact of the lectures of the Montreal Caribbean left , to current political realities in the Caribbean and elsewhere. (Lots of thoughts to follow up on including an article Hegel and Haiti) . I didn’t speak as my had ended up at the  bottom of the list, and it seemed as if here was little for me to add (except sectarian sourness? – Nice to leave it out once in a while).

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The Legacy of CLR James

February 3, 2010 at 12:42 am (Uncategorized)

Last month, I posted a noticed about the Toronto launch of a new book by CLR  James, You Don’t play with Revolution. It was a very interesting meeting, and I’ll post a report about the meeting tomorrow, but for now, you’ll have to be satisfied with a piece I wrote a few years back on James. I still agree with much of the critique of James here although the last section on organization reflects a certain councilism on my part. My thinking on the matter has evolved since then.


The following article was written for an on-line discussion of CLR James’ book Facing Reality. It was been edited for publication by Red and Black Notes, and is republished here.

When Martin Glaberman died in Detroit last year [2001], it was in many ways the end of a tradition. Marty often referred to himself as an “unreconstructed Johnsonite” and given that James died some 12 years previously, he could reasonably claim to be the last survivor of the tradition. Despite some impressive publications and a working class orientation and readership that many left groups would envy, the Johnson-Forrest tendency never built a large organization. At its peak the group was little more than one hundred people. The split between James and Dunayevskaya in the mid-50’s saw the latter take over half of the organization (about sixty people) to found the still existing News & Letters group. In 1962, the tendency was further reduced when founding member Grace Boggs and some of her supporters split away taking the name correspondence. The remaining members continued until 1970, when at a conference Marty moved dissolution of the group, over James’ objections.

In his introduction to James’ Marxism for Our Times, Marty wrote that organizationally the James tendency was a failure; however, it was a failure that was rich in lessons for a democratic revolutionary Marxism.

Is this a reason to read James? In reading Facing Reality the book’s strengths and weaknesses still jump out. In her autobiography Living for Change, Grace Boggs wrote that the book was pure James in its “celebration of spontaneous rebellion and its insistence that the main role of socialist revolutionaries is to recognize and record the rebellions of ordinary working people.” A not entirely accurate characterization in my opinion. Boggs confessed to doubts, but signed her name anyway. The other author was even less pleased by the final product. Cornelius Castoriadis (Pierre Chaulieu) of Socialisme ou Barbarie wrote the section “The Marxist Organization Today,” which was subsequently edited without his knowledge or permission. In “For a New Orientation,” written in October 1962, Castoriadis wrote of James’ claim that socialism already exists in the factory, “if the socialist society already existed, people would probably have noticed.”

Facing Reality is an often maddening book containing a marvellous critique of the pretentiousness of the numerous little vanguards, and at other times a telling naivety about opposition forces in society. James’ praise of the shop stewards’ movement in Britain must bring a smile to anyone who has studied the ‘rank and file’ oppositions so beloved by organizations like Labor Notes.

Likewise, the generally soft approach to the unions. Although the Johnsonites were aware of the role of the unions, and Marty Glaberman wrote very powerfully on this question, they also believed that they were working class organizations which could still be used by the working class. But perhaps the worst passages were the fawning over Nkrumah. James’ comments are worth quoting:

In one of the most remarkable episodes in revolutionary history he [Nkrumah] singlehandedly outlined a program, based on the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Gandhi [!], for expelling British imperialism from the Gold coast. (Facing Reality 77-78)

Just a few short years later James became virtually a house leftist for Eric Williams’ People’s National Movement, before his conscience reasserted itself and led to house arrest. These latter attitudes represent a part of the Johnsonites’ incomplete break with Leninism. Indeed, James referred to himself as a Leninist till the end of his days.

Loren Goldner has pointed to a number of key strands in the book and draws certain conclusions from them.

1. The use of Hegel

2. The one-party state as a stage in the development of capitalism and the consequences for the Bolshevik model

3. The importance of the automation

4. The immediacy of revolution and the impediments to it.

I’d like here to concentrate on points one and three, but approach them from a slightly different angle. Namely, one, What happened to the working class? And two, the vanguard party.

Facing Reality contains much of the familiar Johnsonite lyricism about the working class. Not that this is surprising. Their 1946 document, The American Worker, set the stage for postwar “councilism.” An extremely worthwhile document, and which taken with other material produced by Johnson-Forest expresses their point of view as everywhere the working class chomping at the bit in the struggle for socialism, held back only by trade unions and other guardians of “workers’ interests.” This view is not so outlandish at it now sounds. Nor was it unique to the Johnsonites.

Despite the cold war atmosphere of the 1950’s and apparent quintessence of the working class, it was a time of massive struggle. In the United States the auto-wildcats that so humiliated Walter Reuther, along with the emerging civil rights movement heralded the beginnings over a decade of building working class struggle. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 seemed to prove Johnson- Forest’s belief that the working class could act without the vanguard. If the working class in a Stalinist state could, without the ‘wisdom’ of a party overthrow the existing social structures, why not in the more materially advanced USA?

The view of permanent struggles was by no means unique to the Johnsonites. The opening lines of Trotsky’s Transitional Program also claim that all the conditions are ripe for revolution and all we need are good leaders to replace the bad. The immediacy of Facing Reality seems mild when compared to the apocalyptic writings of Trotsky prior to the Second World War. Another case in point are some of the left communist organizations such as the International Communist Current, who now claim capitalism is in the process of decomposition.

So what happened? How did a self-confident working class throw away its cards? Did the capitalists take into account the arguments of Facing Reality? The answer to that question could fill at least several books.

On the surface at least it would seem as if the working class has suffered catastrophic defeats: A number of humiliating defeats such as PATCO, Staley, Detroit, Liverpool. Hormel, to name only the best known; the destruction of the unions and the rolling back of the welfare state; the widespread de- industrialization of major capitalist centres such as Detroit The list is seemingly endless. While not wanting to underplay the seriousness of some of those changes and the toll it has taken on the working class, I also want to suggest that the picture is not simply as bad as the average leftist makes out. I’m not suggesting in the form of the Polly-Anna leftist that every strike is the revolution, but to look at class struggle in a different way.

For those who measure class struggle by votes to social democracy or by the sales of their own newspapers, the results of the last two decades must be bleak indeed. But, that’s not really an index of class struggle. For an alternate method I would refer comrades to an article by Curtis Price in the most recent issue of Collective Action Notes entitled “Fragile Prosperity, Fragile Peace” which takes into account the so-called hidden transcript.

So, my disagreement with the Johnsonites is not their notion of working class struggle, although I do think it is oversimplified at times. In my opinion, one of the key strengths of the Johnsonite tendency was their focus on the working class and their notion that the working class was key to a revolution. All hands go up: Every leftist group does that. I disagree. Most leftist groups pay lip service to the idea of a working class revolution, but essentially consider themselves to be the bringers of truth to ‘backward workers.’

I’m almost loathe to enter into a discussion on the question of the vanguard party, since it seems to be an article of faith for many people. While being more critical than James and Castoriadis of the Hungarian Revolution I’d lean much more toward their interpretation. I don’t think the Hungarian Revolution would have occurred had there been a vanguard any significance (and what does it say about Lenin’s theory that the revolution did occur without one?). Furthermore to reduce the defeat of the revolution to the absence of the vanguard party, as do so many Trotskyists, and not even to mention the military power of the Russian army, is, well, missing the point. It is certainly true that the Hungarian workers made mistakes and were even naive in retrospect, but if you look at the Russian workers who made their revolution, you will see mistakes, you will see religious fanaticism and anti-Semitism. All sorts of backward ideas. Marx noted that you make a revolution and that’s how you change people. If you wait for it to happen the other way, you’ll be waiting a long time.

I have a much lower opinion of Lenin than even James and company; rather than being a Marxist, I see Lenin as a Russian populist adopting a mixture of populism and Lassalle’s ideas, via Kautsky. It’s instrumental that until his break with Kautsky Lenin never sought to transfer his ideas to Germany, and thereafter regarded Kautsky as a renegade (implying his earlier work was sound). For those who point to Lenin’s revision of his philosophical views and especially his State and Revolution, there’s also the Lenin of one-man management, of Taylorism and the glory of a “productivist Marxism.” In State & Revolution Lenin also admits his continued fondness for a model of socialism based on the German postal system.

I don’t want to suggest that the working class does not need organization. In fact, organization and the ability to stop production are the key strengths of the working class. However, I would tend to agree with the Johnsonites and also with the late Stan Weir who saw leadership developing organically out of existing conditions. I also want to state that I don’t see leadership stepping fully formed like Athena out of the head of Zeus from a particular struggle. The 1956 edition of State Capitalism and World Revolution contained a preface signed by, among others Castoriadis and Cajo Brendel, which stated:

What type of new organizations do we propose? We do not propose any. The great organizations of the masses of the people and of workers in the past were not worked out by any theoretic elite or vanguard. They arose from the experience of millions of people and their need to overcome the intolerable pressure which society had imposed upon them for generations.

First Published in Red and Black Notes #15, summer 2002.

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