Many people know Nadezhda Krupskaya simply as Vladimir Lenin’s wife, but Nadezhda was a Bolshevik revolutionary and politician in her own right. She was heavily involved in a variety of political activities, including serving as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister of Education from 1929 until her death in 1939, and a number of educational pursuits. Prior to the revolution, she served as secretary of the Iskra group, managing continent-wide correspondence, much of which had to be decoded. After the revolution, she dedicated her life to improving education opportunities for workers and peasants, for example by striving to make libraries available to everyone.
During the Mexican Revolution, female soldiers known as soldaderas went into combat along with the men although they often faced abuse. One of the most well-known of the soldaderas was Petra Herrera, who disguised her gender and went by the name “Pedro Herrera”. As Pedro, she established her reputation by demonstrating exemplary leadership (and blowing up bridges) and was able to reveal her gender in time. She participated in the second battle of Torreón on May 30, 1914 along with about 400 other women, even being named by some as being deserving of full credit for the battle. Unfortunately, Pancho Villa was likely unwilling to give credit to a woman and did not promote her to General. In response, Petra left Villa’s forces and formed her own all-woman brigade.
Nwanyeruwa, an Igbo woman in Nigeria, sparked a short war that is often called the first major challenge to British authority in West Africa during the colonial period. On November 18, 1929, an argument between Nwanyeruwa and a census man named Mark Emereuwa broke out after he told her to “count her goats, sheep and people.” Understanding this to mean she would be taxed (traditionally, women were not charged taxes), she discussed the situation with the other women and protests, deemed the Women’s War, began to occur over the course of two months. About 25,000 women all over the region were involved, protesting both the looming tax changes and the unrestricted power of the Warrant Chiefs. In the end, women’s position were greatly improved, with the British dropping their tax plans, as well as the forced resignation of many Warrant Chiefs.
German revolutionary Sophie Scholl was a founding member of the non-violent anti-Nazi resistance group The White Rose, which advocated for active resistance to Hitler’s regime through an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign. In February of 1943, she and other members were arrested for handing out leaflets at the University of Munich and sentenced to death by guillotine. Copies of the leaflet, retitled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich, were smuggled out of the country and millions were air-dropped over Germany by Allied forces later that year.
Blanca Canales was a Puerto Rican Nationalist who helped organize the Daughters of Freedom, the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. She was one of the few women in history to have led a revolt against the United States, known as the Jayuya Uprising. In 1948, a severely restricting bill known as the Gag Bill, or Law 53, was introduced that made it a crime to print, publish, sell, or exhibit any material intended to paralyze or destroy the insular government. In response, the Nationalists starting planning armed revolution. On October 30, 1950, Blanca and others took up arms which she had stored in her home and marched into the town of Jayuya, taking over the police station, burning down the post office, cutting the telephone wires, and raising the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the Gag Law. As a result, the US President declared martial law and ordered Army and Air Force attacks on the town. The Nationalists held on for awhile, but were arrested and sentenced to life in prison after 3 days. Much of Jayuya was destroyed, and the incident was not fairly covered by US media, with the US President even saying it was “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”
Asmaa Mahfouz is a modern-day revolutionary who is credited with sparking the January 2011 uprising in Egypt through a video blog post encouraging others to join her in protest in Tahrir Square. She is considered one of the leaders of the Egyptian Revolution and is a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution.
Three years ago, in a post on Victor Serge, I linked to a blogpost by Nick at Churls Gone Wild which attacked Susan Sontag. I called Nick’s post “petty, mean-spirited, Stalinoid”. Those are quite extreme and intemperate and probably unfair words, for which I should apologise, prompted by a comment last month from the author of the post. However, I kind of think I wasn’t totally wrong. I am not a big fan of Sontag, but I have often been struck by the attacks on her from a particular leftist tradition, attacks which echo those made from the same tradition on other anti-Stalinist leftists, such as Serge, Arendt, Orwell, Shachtman and the New York intellectuals or, later, figures such as Walzer and Hitchens. I wouldn’t call these attacks Stalinist, exactly, but I don’t think Stalinoid is too wrong a word. Here’s why. (more…)
This was recently posted at the Austrialian Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
The POUM: Those who would?
On January 3, 2015, historian Doug Enaa Greene led a discussion on the history of the POUM and the lessons to be drawn for today. It was presented to the Center of Marxist Education. His talk was based on the text below.
For more by Doug Enaa Greene, click HERE.
For generations of leftists, the most recognizable images of the Spanish Civil War is from May 1937 comes from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia of anarchist and POUMist workers defending the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona from the Communist Party. This image is said to represent the betrayal of Spain’s libertarian communist revolution by agents of Moscow. In the decades since May 1937, a great number of polemics have been exchanged on what went wrong and on many “what ifs” on how the revolution could have won in the streets of Barcelona. [READ THE REST]
Meanwhile, this is cool:
Finally, it comes to my notice, via this blog, that George Orwell has been immortalised in a war game toy soldier:
If we are to turn to the great George Orwell in this hour of our NSA Deep-State Surveillance Machine disorientation – is it even possible that the Washington Post and the Guardian could have mucked things up this badly? – the overwhelming evidence is against the claim that it should be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I set out my case in the Ottawa Citizen today: Big Brother Isn’t Watching You.If it’s Orwell’s guidance we need at the moment – and when would Orwell’s counsel not come in handy? -a far more pertinent text might be Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, the essay that synthesizes Orwell’s lifelong concerns about the mortal perils of euphemism and the virtues of precision and plain speaking.It was Orwell’s habit to rail, as he does in that essay, against the sort of rhetoric that can “make lies sound truthful.” To allow that journalism is quite capable of performing that ugly trick, too, is to be led directly to the sort of journalism underlying the NSA-PRISM rumpus at hand, which now consists mainly of a great unraveling of a whole lot of mischief made by the reliably sinister Glenn Greenwald, the creepy Laura Poitras and the sad little paranoid.I’m banging on a bit about Orwell in the Citizen today not only because everybody keeps bringing him up but also because I’m a bit of an Orwell anorak. I taught a course on Orwell’s life and legacy in my stint as the University of Victoria’s Harvey Southam-Stevenson Lecturer in Journalism a couple of years ago. Don’t get me started because I won’t shut up.Orwell’s legacy of integrity and honesty is not a torch that has been picked up by the Washington Post and the Guardian in recent days. Snowden can’t even claim to be a “whistleblower” in any conventional meaning of that venerable term. He has exposed no wrongdoing, shed light on no lie, and exposed no criminal act. There has been edifying contemplation and reflection, mind you. For instance Christian Caryl’s thoughtful and illuminating essay in Foreign Policy, composed around the question: What’s Worse? The NSA or the East German Stasi? Avert your gaze to avoid this spoiler: “Definitely the Stasi.”
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By ABHISHEK K CHOUDHARY | 1 April 2013Debapriya Mookherjee looks on as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar bows before a bust of George Orwell during his 2012 visit to Motihari.IN 1983, British journalist Ian Jack travelled to the town of Motihari in Bihar to visit the place where George Orwell was born. In a piece published in 1984 in the Sunday Times, titled “In search of a Jaarj Arwil”, Jack recounted that locals were clueless that their town was the writer’s birthplace, and that it took a string of enquiries before he finally found the opium godown where Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, had worked as an employee of the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Blair, was born in quarters nearby in 1903.
But Jack may have been exaggerating when he wrote: “I found that nobody, save the district magistrate, had ever heard of Orwell.” “The first time I read Orwell was in college [in the early 1970s],” recalled Debapriya Mookherjee, a soft-spoken businessman of 57, when I met him at his Motihari residence this February. But Mookherjee admitted that it was only after Indian publications ran accounts of Jack’s visit that he learnt that his hometown was also the birthplace of the author ofNineteen Eighty-Four. (more…)
Meanwhile, last month “marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics.” Check out some interesting examples via Maria Popova.
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On the morning of June 23rd 1937, George Orwell boarded a train at Barcelona station with his wife, Eileen, and two companions, John McNair and Stafford Cottman. The train was bound for the French border and Orwell (or Eric Blair – he had yet to adopt his now famous nom de plume) was posing as a wealthy English businessman travelling with his wife and associates. In reality, they were fugitives, hunted not only by the fascist forces they’d come to Spain to fight, but also by the communists. McNair was leader of a contingent of fighters organised by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) who had left England to try and stem the rising fascist tide. This small group of revolutionaries and idealists – one among many such groups from all over the world –included Orwell. Prior to boarding the train that morning he had spent much of the previous six months in the trenches until a sniper’s bullet pierced his throat. By the time he’d sufficiently recovered to leave hospital, the internal divisions within the anti-fascist forces had shattered whatever slim chances they’d had of defeating Franco and his allies. [READ THE REST, from Jim Bliss]
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Victor Serge seems to be becoming more and more prominent these days, which I welcome. It’s partly because his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev features on various lists of books to read before you die and NYRB have added Memoirs of a Revolutionary to their library of his books in their Classics series, with an intro by the wonderful historian Adam Hochschild. I think it is also fair to say that Christopher Hitchens’ championing of him has played a role, Hitchens having come to Serge in his youthful International Socialist days, before their Leninist turn. In 2003 he wrote:
After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.
Serge features in Hitchens’ posthumous Arguably: as one of the “intellectual misfits…ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler”, dying in “penurious exile in Mexico”.
Here is some recent Serge-blogging:
- James Bloodworth nominates him as an intellectual hero.
- Adam David Morton starts what looks like an excellent series on his novels.
- Orwell mentions him in his 1942 diary: The Communists in Mexico are again chasing Victor Serge and other Trotskyist refugees who got there from France, urging their expulsion, etc., etc. Just the same tactics as in Spain. Horrible depressed to see these ancient intrigues coming up again, not so much because they are morally disgusting as from the reflection; for 20 years the Comintern has used these methods and the Comintern has always and everywhere been defeated by the Fascists; therefore we, being tied to them in a species of alliance, shall be defeated with them.
- More negatively: A Churl attacks Susan Sontag’s introduction to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (from the same NYRB series mentioned above). The petty, mean-spirited, Stalinoid post is mainly worth reading for his quotations from Sontag, which I reproduce below the fold.
Image above via War and Peace, from whom I also took the Hitchens quote.
It was the climate of opinion that made the courageous Romanian-born writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) consider withdrawing his truthful report on a sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in 1927-1928, Vers une autre flamme (Towards Another Flame), at the behest of the powerful French literary patron, Romain Rolland, which, when he did publish it, was rejected by all his former friends and supporters in the literary world; and that led André Malraux in his capacity as editor at Gallimard to turn down the adversarial biography of Stalin by the Russian-born Boris Souvarine (1895-1984; real name: Boris Lifchitz) as inimical to the cause of the Spanish Republic.[…]
And there was more: a memoir of the anarchist movement in pre-First World War France, a novel about the Russian Revolution, a short book of poems, and a historical chronicle of Year II of the Revolution, all confiscated when Serge was finally allowed to leave the USSR in 1936, as the consequence of his having applied to Glavlit, the literary censor, for an exit permit for his manuscripts – these have never been recovered – as well as a great deal of safely archived but still unpublished material.[…]
…They had taken my rifle away again, and there seemed to be nothing that one could usefully do. Another Englishman and myself decided to go back to the Hotel Continental. There was a lot of firing in the distance, but seemingly none in the Ramblas. On the way up we looked in at the food-market. A very few stalls had opened; they were besieged by a crowd of people from the working-class quarters south of the Ramblas. Just as we got there, there was a heavy crash of rifle-fire outside, some panes of glass in the roof were shivered, and the crowd went flying for the back exits. A few stalls remained open, however; we managed to get a cup of coffee each and buy a wedge of goat’s-milk cheese which I tucked in beside my bombs. A few days later I was very glad of that cheese.
At the street-corner where I had seen the Anarchists begin firing the day before a barricade was now standing. The man behind it (I was on the other side of the street) shouted to me to be careful. The Civil Guards in the church tower were firing indiscriminately at everyone who passed. I paused and then crossed the opening at a run; sure enough, a bullet cracked past me, uncomfortably close. When I neared the P.O.U.M. Executive Building, still on the other side of the road, there were fresh shouts of warning from some Shock Troopers standing in the doorway—shouts which, at the moment, I did not understand. There were trees and a newspaper kiosk between myself and the building (streets of this type in Spain have a broad walk running down the middle), and I could not see what they were pointing at. I went up to the Continental, made sure that all was well, washed my face, and then went back to the P.O.U.M. Executive Building (it was about a hundred yards down the street) to ask for orders. By this time the roar of rifle and machine-gun fire from various directions was almost comparable to the din of a battle. I had just found Kopp and was asking him what we were supposed to do when there was a series of appalling crashes down below. The din was so loud that I made sure someone must be firing at us with a field-gun. Actually it was only hand-grenades, which make double their usual noise when they burst among stone buildings. …
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One more to add to these.
The end not yet in sight: Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ 75 years on
March 8th marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s 1937 landmark The Road to Wigan Pier, a work of extreme candor on pre-war poverty in England. It is a cherished snapshot of the North in the 1930s, and The Observer, among others, have been nostalgic ↑ in printing pictures from the area for the commemoration of Orwell’s journey.
As an Orwell scholar, my interest in Wigan Pier is largely in the role it played in the road to Animal Farm and 1984. But the anniversary of the publication comes at a pertinent time – during what is the worst economic hardship since just after the Second World War. It is now being asked if Wigan Pier can be used to address present anxieties. Would Orwell think his original argument still stands for current poverty in the North of England and beyond? [READ THE REST]
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Orwell on the 99%
An entry in George Orwell’s War-Time Diary for 3 June 1940:
From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies:
“Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining… in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”
Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exists.
Lady Oxford was Margot Asquith, widow of Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister from 1908-1916.
HE was one of Britain’s leading political writers, famous for novels including Animal Farm and Burmese Days. But to a young Scottish junior doctor unaware of his identity, the quiet middle-aged man was just another patient. Within weeks, Dr James “Jimmy” Williamson found himself at the forefront of medical treatment in Scotland helping administer a revolutionary new “miracle drug” to George Orwell.
The author used his political and literary connections and royalties from Animal Farm to obtain the drug from the US. In 1948, Orwell, then 44, became the first person in Scotland to be treated with streptomycin, which was unlicensed in Britain and too expensive for the post-war government to ship in.
The writer, who had been living in a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura to help try to improve his health, was admitted to Hairmyres Hospital, near Glasgow, under his real name Eric Blair, for treatment for infectious chronic tuberculosis.
Professor Williamson, 91, from Edinburgh, recalled the novelist sitting in bed working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell jumbled the numbers of the year 1948 to produce one of the most famous titles of the 20th century, introducing words such as “Big Brother” and “doublespeak” to international audiences. “He’d been in the hospital for about two weeks for investigation of his tuberculosis before I arrived. I’d never heard of him. Then one of the nurses told me he was a well-known writer.
“I remember he was in a double room and he would be sitting up in bed with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth typing away most of the time. He smoked almost all the time, was sort of addicted to tobacco and rolled his own cigarettes. Lots of people in hospitals smoked in those days, even the doctors. The noise from the typing didn’t seem to cause any bother with the other patient and they got on very well together.”
Professor Williamson remembers Orwell bravely undergoing painful treatment. “We would chat about his condition and he would do what you wanted him to do. But he was highly strung and we had to give him treatment which involved air being injected into his abdominal cavity. This upset him a lot but he didn’t complain.”
However, more drastic remedies were required and in February 1948 Orwell wrote to his publisher David Astor saying his specialist had told him “it would speed recovery if one had some streptomycin. He suggested that you, with your American connections, might arrange to buy it and I could pay you.” Astor contacted Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who had been Orwell’s editor at the Tribune, checking this would not cause a political row.
But after a few weeks Orwell developed a severe allergic reaction to the drug and treatment stopped. Orwell donated the remaining supply to the hospital. Orwell’s health deteriorate further and he died in January 1950 – six months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Iain Macintyre, a former vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and co-author of Scottish Medicine – An Illustrated History, which includes details of Orwell’s stay at the hospital, said: “There is an irony that Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm, was in a position to be able to take medical advice to go to Jura and then to obtain streptomycin.
“But when it’s your life on the line you try everything you can to save it.”
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” George Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In “Animal Farm,” he concluded that revolutions are inevitably betrayed by their leaders. His novel “Burmese Days” ends with the hero killing himself because he is unfit to live in this sour world. He shoots his dog too.
As a rule, modern civilization disappointed Orwell when it did not actually sicken him. But in at least one respect he was way too optimistic. Bookselling, he wrote in Fortnightly in November 1936, “is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”
Jump forward three-quarters of a century, and a certain Seattle-based combine is being accused of exactly that. All sorts of merchants, but particularly booksellers, were infuriated by Amazon’s effort before the holidays to use shops on Main Street and in malls as showrooms for people to check out items before ordering them more cheaply online. The retailer’s refusal to collect sales tax is a persistent grievance. Independent booksellers have even been forced into the novel position of hoping that their one-time foe, Barnes & Noble, survives so that it can serve as a bulwark against Amazon. Publishers, if anything, are more fearful than booksellers.
Now take a look at the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek two weeks ago. It shows a book in flames with the headline, “Amazon wants to burn the book business.” What was remarkable was not just the overt Nazi iconography but the fact that it did not cause any particular uproar. In the struggle over the future of intellectual commerce in the United States, apparently even evocations of Joseph Goebbels and the Brown Shirts are considered fair game.
From Amazon’s point of view, the cover is incorrect even if you disregard any Nazi connotations. What would be the use to Amazon of a charred hulk? It does not want to destroy the book business, but simply to reinvent it — or, as its opponents would have it, seize control of it. (Amazon declined to comment.) [READ THE REST]
The house where Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 and spent his infant days till his parents migrated to England next year, vividly tell the story of neglect as thick vegetation has mushroomed in the six-acre premises.
The walls surrounding the house have been covered with piles of loose bricks, many of which have been taken away by the locals for their use. The vast open field in the walled structure where some dilapidate godowns (used during the British rule for storage of opium cultivated at the instruction of the colonial rulers) stand in dilapidated condition and the entire area is filled with garbage even as some unauthorised huts have sprung up.
All that is left to the memory of the legendary British author is his bust made of white stone and the foundation stone outside the gate of his house which get a symbolic facelift to mark his birth and death anniversaries.
The Rural Works Department (RWD) executive engineer Harendra Pratap said that Orwell’s house has been lying in a dilapidated state and the premises was encroached by local people. “We are unable to construct a proposed second gate at the structure due to encroachment by the locals,” he told PTI.
The Motihari Nagar Parishad Prakash Asthana also said that Orwell’s house has been lying in bad shape, but claimed that the renovation of the house will begin soon upon release of funds by the state government. There is definitely a project underway to renovate the house and give it a facelift as larger plan to development the British litterateurs house as a tourist destination, he said.
Bihar Art, Culture and Youth Affairs Minister Sukhda Pandey said that her department had released Rs 32.70 lakh to the district administration for beautification of Orwell’s memorial structure and construction of road, drainage and boundary wall sometime back and utilisation report sought. She said that a reminder will be issued soon to the district administration in this regard. On the encroachment in the British author’s house and the premises being used for residence by school teacher, Pandey said that she has also received complaints in this regard on which she has sought a report from the district magistrate. Maintaining that Orwell’s house was a treasure of Bihar, the Art, Culture and Youth Affairs Minister said that all steps will be taken for protection and development of the historical and monumental structure which, she said, will be developed as a tourist destination.
I went into many tea shops while I was in Myanmar. Each time, I looked around to see if any suspicious person was listening to my conversations with my tour guide and other people I got acquainted with there.
Teashops in this country, where freedom of speech has been restricted for many years, are places for not only relaxation but also exchanges of information, and I heard that secret police officers and tipsters were deployed to these places.
Several years ago, a U.S. female journalist published a report on Myanmar titled, “Secret Histories,” and its Japanese translation published by the Shobunsha publishing house drew attention from many Japanese readers. The writer followed in the footsteps of British novelist George Orwell (1903-50), who worked as a police officer in Myanmar for five years when the country was under Britain’s colonial rule. She identified Myanmar as a country with national monitoring under dictatorship that Orwell depicted in his futuristic novel “1984.”
The author wrote that she felt as if she had stepped into the world depicted by “1984.” She undoubtedly viewed teashops as the core of Myanmar’s monitoring network. Her book is subtitled, “Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop.”
However, Japanese experts agree that Myanmar is a loose society. “Although authorities regulate speech, ordinary people don’t feel the situation confining. It’s far from the world of ‘1984,’” says Toshihiro Kudo of the Institute of Developing Economies. I felt the same way.
A monitoring device called a “telescreen” has been extended throughout the society depicted in “1984.”
Sophia University professor Kei Nemoto says, “Britain, which has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras, is the democratic version of a country with national monitoring depicted by Orwell.”[…]
[T]here is no doubt that many difficult problems that Myanmar currently faces derive from Britain’s colonial rule. At the time, Britain gave important posts to ethnic Karens to repress ethnic Burmese. In other words, Britain ruled Myanmar by preventing different ethnic groups from joining hands in rising in revolt against it. The Burmese restored control over Myanmar when a democratic administration was formed when the country won independence. However, Karens and other ethnic minorities went into an armed struggle with the government to win separation and independence.[…]After Myanmar won independence and withdrew from the British Commonwealth, the socialist administration led by General Ne Win concluded that regulations requiring cars to travel on the left side of the road, a legacy of British rule, were inconvenient and dangerous, and switched to a right side of the road system, according to the guide. Some people say Myanmar did this as a result of fortune-telling, but it is widely viewed that it did so out of antipathy against Britain.
Pro-democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in her column in the Mainichi Shimbun in June 1996 that the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military regime’s top decision-making body at the time, sounds as if its name had been given by Orwell, and sarcastically praised clauses in a law called, “Decree No. 1, 1990,” as great sentences like those by Orwell.
Suu Kyi studied in Britain and married a British national. It is natural that the leadership of the military regime, who had been eliminating the legacies of British rule, had antipathy against Suu Kyi who loudly called for Western-style democracy and talked about Orwell. […]
Britain, Myanmar’s military regime and the Burmese dynasty did almost the same things. In the words of George Orwell, “Good is bad, Bad is good.” I think this is true.
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Cross-post: an extract from a longer piece at Bob From Brockley: On reading obituaries of Christopher Hitchens
I’ve barely started going through the flood of obituaries and memories of Christopher Hitchens. I started writing my own, but it seems a little surplus to requirement. Kellie provides the definitive list of links (as well as Hitchens commenting on totalitarianism, in light of the departure of the North Korean dictator), and a good first point of call is Vanity Fair. Rosie sums up the rest: “The tributes are pouring in, the reminiscences, the summings ups, the paying off of old scores. The famous, the obscure, the mandarin and the meanest of spirits are all having their say. I’ve read a few of their pieces and liked David Frum’s best of all for its warmth and this final paragraph from Jacob Weisberg.” Terry Glavin’s, of course, is especially lovely, as is George Szirtes’. And, although it feels strange to say it, given how little regard I’ve had for Peter Hitchens up to now, his lovely brotherly obituary in the Mail is probably the single thing most worth reading.
Francis Sedgemore comments on the throwaway nature of many of the obits, and in a highly recommended short post shows how journalism has changed for the worst since Hitchens entered the trade. Francis is right, and most of the ones I’ve read have irritated me more than anything else.[…]
I think this post at Harry’s Place best captures what Hitchens meant in the last decade or so to people like me, who groped for “an anti-Islamist, anti-Saddam, pro-democracy left” in the new world order opened up by 9/11, as we watched our former comrades on the left go deeper and deeper into the abyss of isolationist, anti-American, anti-democratic “anti-imperialism” and its alliance with various forms of right-wing politics, an alliance we could not have imagined a few years before. As the author says, Hitchens was an inspiration for the early noughties trans-Atlantic political blogging explosion (that I was one of the later, smaller tremors), due to the strange synchronicity between the availability of Web 2.0 as a platform and the locking out of morally decent people from the old platforms of the mainstream left.
This point is made too when Francis describes Hitchens as a “fellow drink-soaked popinjay”, taking up as a badge of pride the wonderful term of abuse coined by the eloquent George Galloway, which of course was the name of the collective blog Francis was part of a few years back, which defined the range of anti-totalitarian radicalism so well.
I’m not sure what the connection is between the drink-soaked thing and the anti-totalitarianism, but there is one: totalitarianism is based on the suppression or deferral of human desires and pleasures. Marx, a spendthrift, hard-drinking bon viveur beloved by small children, would have been unable to live under the regimes he gave his name to, while Chomsky’s priggish hatred of sport, music or anything fun illuminates why his brand of libertarianism is ultimately actually authoritarian. Hence the contempt from the puritans Ian Leslie calls “thin-lipped disapprovers”.
Here’s Nick Cohen, who famously turned up splendidly drunk to denounce the right-wingers honoured with a prize named after George Orwell (a truly libertarian socialist, as well as a man who liked to smoke and drink), on the BBC’s mean-spirited obituary:
[It was delivered by its media correspondent, Nick Higham, a ferrety cultural bureaucrat who has never written a sentence anyone has remembered. He assured the nation that Hitchens was an “alcoholic”. Hitchens could certainly knock it back. But [if] he were a true alcoholic he… would he have been loved, for addicts are too selfish to love. Something else the BBC broadcast inadvertently explained was why the world feels a more welcoming place for the tyrannical and the censorious without him.
Former Trotskyist Bushite
Leninists (not least those of bourgeois origin, i.e. most of them) would no doubt call the imperative to not speak ill of the dead a form of “bourgeois morality” to be dispensed with. Of course, they’re right, and Hitchens would agree with them: Kim Jong-il’s passing does not exempt him from derision and hatred, and nor would that of, say, Ahmadinejad or Kissinger (example: Hitchens the day after Jerry Falwell died). But I was irritated by the petty-ness of some of the vindictive lightweights coming out to kick Hitchens’ corpse and of some of the Leninist inquisitors coming out to confirm his ex-communication from the sect.
The reliably appalling Guardian paleo-conservative Simon Jenkins come out with one of the standard lines: writes: “The identikit Trot of our early friendship had became a rabid Bushite defending the Iraq war”. It’s worth noting that his Trotskyism was of a very particular sort: he was inducted into the International Socialists (the forerunner of the current, dreadful SWP) by Peter Sedgwick, in its most heterodox, intellectually vibrant period, a time when its publications were open to several non-party members, and when it was as much in thrall to the anti-Leninist Rosa Luxemburg as it was to Trotsky. (Hitchens, in turn, helped induct Alex Callinicos into the party of which he is now a leading member and Callinicos has written a nice and surprisingly generous obit for the Socialist Worker.) The IS did an important job, in a period when the left dominated by the authoritarian Third Worldist fantasies epitomised by Tariq Ali’s IMG, of retrieving a libertarian, democratic tradition within Marxism, the tradition of William Morris, Hal Draper, Victor Serge, CLR James, Sylvia Pankhurst, Max Shachtman and George Orwell. Arguably, it is this anti-Stalinist left that has been the model for the anti-totalitarianism of the so-called decent left, especially its more left-wing varieties.
HP retorts against Jenkins: “Although he was a Marxist to the end and certainly a Trotskyist for many years, I find it hard to imagine Hitchens as ‘identikit’ in any way. And, of course, he certainly never became a ‘rabid Bushite’. I’ll get to the Bushite bit later, but want to amplify the point about Marxism. Here’s Michael Weiss: “Well unto the toppling of Saddam, the only time I heard Hitch use the word “conservative” in a laudatory fashion was when it preceded the word “Marxist.””[…]
The hatred of Hitchens from the Seymours is the hatred of the cult-member for the apostate. He betrayed the left, and it can’t forgive him. Most of them frame Hitchens’ right-ward turn as literally selling out, as exchanging correct thought for the yankee dollar. As David Aaronovitch puts it:
Typical was this, written in May last year, from the high-table revolutionary Terry Eagleton in the New Statesman, claiming that “those who, like Christopher Hitchens, detest a cliché turn into one of the dreariest types of them all: the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love… Paul Wolfowitz”. In other words, he was the lean young man corrupted by proximity to power and need for money, and turned into the fat shill of the people’s enemy.*#
Smarter critics understand Hitchens’ turn in the context of the religious structure of leftist thought. Andrew Coates’ review of the book explores the issue of Hitchens’ relationship with the faith of leftism, and faith is exactly the right term. Leftism is a religion, and Hitchens’ boring obsession with religions in general must be connected to his own relationship to the leftist faith. A more interesting analysis of his apostasy was written up by Guy Rundle in the Spiked Review of Books a year of two ago (h/t AC). Worth noting that Spiked’s origins are also in the IS of that era: its guru Frank Furedi left “in 1975 on issues that remain obscure to all concerned”. Like other escapees from the Tony Cliff cult, Furedi’s RCP also eventually became apostates for the left, right-wing libertarians who make Hitchens’ alleged Bushism look like orthodox Trotskyism. Rundle suggests that Hitchens
took from the IS/SWP’s oppositionality, not a mode of doing politics, but a form of political moralising that rapidly becomes a tiresome and inecessant [sic] judgement on the taking and wielding of power itself. Thus in the early Oxford Union years we continually encounter revolutionaries, activists, writers and so on held to be bursting with brilliance, only to be tagged with the premonitory phrase about the thugs, monsters or moral failures they became. Overwhelmingly this is because they took the power they were campaigning for, and having done so, had to make some grisly choices. But for Hitchens, the result is an endlessly repeated political Fall, in which oppositionality becomes a series of impossible standards.
Perhaps this says less about Hitchens than it does about Spiked’s cringeful adoration of power in the form of the Conservative party (for Rundle, Hitchens reached his “low point” when he slagged off Matthew Parrish for being… a Conservative!) and their pose of oppositionality to the “liberal elite”. But it rings true on one level.
However, the notion that Hitchens abandoned the left is simplistic. First, it ignore the fact that in some ways he was always a dissident within the left. In Hitch-22, he describes the double life he led in his early IS days, when by night he dined, drank and fucked with the most decadent dredges of the ruling class in Oxford, and later his early (limited) enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher. His support for Solidarity and other Eastern Bloc rebels was shared with the rest of the anti-Stalinist left (including, I think, the SWP). His support for Western intervention in the 1990s also presaged his post-9/11 position. As Aaronovitch puts it:
Rwanda provided the embers, Bosnia the fire. Any internationalist, any progressive, any leftwinger would want to intervene to try to prevent such horrors – and not just because they were horrible either, but because they made the world worse for everyone.*
And the idea of Hitchens as turncoat also ignores the continuity in his leftism after 9/11. Not just the obvious points that he continued his crusade against Kissinger and Mother Teresa, against the moral majority dominant strand of American conservatism, and so on, and pretty sharp criticisms of Bush, as well as his attacks on his friend Martin Amis’ ignorant anti-communism in Koba the Dread and his championing of Trotsky on Radio 4. But more fundamentally that his opposition to Ba’athism and to Islamism was rooted in left-wing values not conservative ones. In short, the caricature of Hitchens is, again quoting Aaronovitch, “a self-comforting lozenge that the lazy intellectual Left sucks on to make its pain and doubts go away.”
What the meme reveals is the extent to which the Iraq war, even more than Israel, has acted as a cultural code, a shibboleth, for the self-definition of a left that has lost its moral compass as it has abandoned its core constituency and core values. Aaronovitch again: “When the Iraq war finally began in the spring of 2003 after almost a year of argument, it became clear that many on the Left now regarded being against the war as the test of belief, as the essential membership card for comradeship.” Perhaps now, as the last American troops withdraw from Iraq, the left has the opportunity to let go of its obsession and move on. But probably not…
Related articles (more…)
Newly published at M.I.A. A useful text on POUM history.
Pierre Broué: Kurt Landau
Also known as Agricola, Wolf Bertram, and Spectator
From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2008, pp. 229–236.
From Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, partie 4, 1914–1939, t. 33, Paris 1988, pp. 203–205.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Born on 29 January 1903 in Vienna (Austria); disappeared in Barcelona (Spain), September 1937. Member of the Austrian Communist Party, then of various Left Opposition groups in Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Member of the POUM in 1936.
The son of a prosperous Viennese wine merchant, Kurt Landau had a Bohemian student youth similar to that of many young people from the Jewish intelligentsia in the imperial capitals: but it is also said that he attempted various circus jobs and for a time was a lion tamer at the Hagenbeck Circus. In 1921 this educated and cultured adolescent joined the new-born Austrian Communist Party, already shaken by fierce factional struggles and in 1922 became leader (Leiter) of the Warring district (Bezirk) in Vienna. Early in 1923 he supported the left-wing criticisms made by the Italian Bordiga  of the new line of the International, which was described as “opportunist”. In 1924, still in Vienna, he made the acquaintance of Victor Serge, who was part of a group of Comintern emissaries and who worked on its press bulletin Inprekorr.  It seems that Serge gave him the first solid items of information about the factional struggle in the USSR. The same year Landau took charge of the CP agitprop department and became an editor of its main publication, Die Rote Fahne (Red Flag), with responsibility for cultural matters. In the discussion on culture he adopted the arguments developed by Trotsky against “proletarian culture”. (more…)
Let’s start with two snippets from the mainstream media. This morning on Radio 4, DJ Tayler, Orwell biographer, was talking about the Orwellian quest for the perfect pub. You can listen in some parts of the world here, or read about it here.
A roaring open fire. The bartender knows your name. Your pint of draught stout comes in a china cup. Did George Orwell have the recipe for the perfect pub?
Who knows who you might bump into in the perfect pub
… In an article written for the London Evening Standard in 1946, he produced a detailed description of his ideal watering-hole, The Moon Under Water, which “is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights”.
The Guardian has a nice photo gallery of posters from the Occupy movement, with an emphasis on the retro look. Here’s one:
Turning to the alternative, Entdinglichung has a round-up of the latest in German on the Marxist Internet Archive, as part of the on-going project of bringing socialistica to the masses.
He also introduces to a great archival website called Workerscontrol.net, which “aims to be a virtual open library for the collection and access to documentation and theoretical essays on past and current experiences of workers’ control”. Material in a few languages by Cornelius Castoriadis, Ken Coates & Tony Topham, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, Rosa Luxemburg, Ernest Mandel, Paul Mattick, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, and Leon Trotsky, as well as stuff like “The Universe of Worker-Recovered Companies in Argentina (2002-2008): Continuity and Changes Inside the Movement” and “The South London Women’s Hospital Occupation 1984-85“. Check it out.
Although 1984 and Brave New World are hardly the only great dystopian novels of the 20th century (hi there, Margaret Atwood), George Orwell and Aldous Huxley may well have shaped most English-language readers’ nightmare visions of the future. So it makes sense to contrast Orwell’s world of constant war and government thought control with Huxley’s drug- and entertainment-pacified society. You may have done just that in a high-school paper, but the folks behind the documentary #Kill Switch have created a graphic that examines the ways in which each author’s predictions have come true over the past few years. Click here to see a larger version. [via BlackBook on Tumblr]
- Orwellianism in the consumer age (poumista.wordpress.com)