On This Day 2007: Death of Mary Low

This is part of her excellent obituary,  by Jim Jump, in the Independent (hyperlinks added):

Mary Low was a poet, linguist and classics teacher who, as a 24-year-old Trotskyist, vividly described the revolutionary fever that gripped Barcelona in the months following the military uprising against the Spanish Republic in July 1936. The era ended in May 1937 when the Republican authorities suppressed the city’s anarchist and dissident Communist movements.

Low’s Red Spanish Notebook: the first six months of revolution and the civil war (1937) was jointly written with her Cuban husband, the Surrealist poet Juan Breá, with a foreword by the Marxist historian and critic C.L.R. James. Her contribution consisted of 11 snapshots of mostly everyday life in those extraordinary times – when, as she reported, street barrel-organs played the “Internationale”, shoeshine boys carried an anarchist union card, waiters refused tips and notices were hung in brothels urging the clientele: “You are requested to treat the women as comrades – The Committee (by order)”.

George Orwell praised the book in a review for Time and Tide on 9 October 1937: “For several months large blocks of people believed that all men are equal and were able to act on their belief. The result was a feeling of liberation and hope that is difficult to conceive in our money-tainted atmosphere. It is here that Red Spanish Notebook is valuable . . . it shows you what human beings are like when they are trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

This was the scene that Low found in Barcelona’s central thoroughfare of Las Ramblas:

“Housefronts were alive with waving flags in a long avenue of dazzling red. Splashes of black or white cut through the colour from place to place. The air was filled with an intense din of loudspeakers and people were gathered in groups here and there under the trees, their faces raised towards the round discs from which the words were coming.”

She brought a perceptive outsider’s – and Anglo-Saxon – eye to convey the quirks of life in “red” Barcelona, avoiding the heavy-handed heroics of some of her contemporaries. She notes, for example, the bureaucratic culture of the politicians and functionaries of the Catalan government in contrast to the egalitarian mood on the street. She visits the deserted suburb of San Gervasio, its fountains still playing in the gardens of the locked villas where the city’s rich families once lived.

There is no pomposity or romanticisation in her account of the burial of the anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti, killed in November 1936 leading his militia in the defence of Madrid. His funeral, attended by tens of thousands of supporters, was delayed because alterations had to be made after it was discovered that the tomb for his coffin was too small, as was the pane of glass for viewing his embalmed corpse.

Newly arrived in the Catalan capital, she was horrified to find that the siesta was still being practised. “Do you mean to say that you shut up everything and go to sleep from one till four during the revolution and civil war?” she and Breá asked one inhabitant incredulously, only to note: “He stared at us from large languid eyes as if the sun had struck us.” Equally dispiriting for her was the continuing enthusiasm of the locals for the lottery – “the eternal lottery, like a veil of illusion still preserved for Catalan eyes”.

Born in London in 1912 to Australian parents – her father was a mining engineer and her mother a former actress – Low was educated in France and Switzerland. She mixed in circles frequented by left-wing political activists and avant-garde artists in Paris, where she met Breá in 1933. Among their friends were André Breton, Paul Eluard, René Magritte and Yves Tanguy. They travelled around Europe and to Cuba, eventually making their way to Barcelona in August 1936, where General Francisco Franco’s revolt had been crushed by workers’ militias and elements of the armed services loyal to the Republic.

Like Orwell, Low and Breá joined the quasi-Trotskyist POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity). Low worked on the English-language broadcasts for the party’s radio station and helped finance, co-edit and translate its fortnightly English newsletter, The Spanish Revolution. She was also the POUM’s representative in the press office of the Catalan government.

Paul Hampton gives more detail here:

She was part of a talented group of Trotsky-influenced young people, including the surrealist poet Benjamin Peret, Kurt and Katia Landau, Hipólito and Mika Etchebehere, Lois Cusick (Orr) and Charles Orr, Pavel Thalmann and Clara (Ensner) Thalmann, Nicola Di Bartolomeo and Virginia Gervasini, Robert de Fauconnet, Erwin Wolff and Hans Freund who went to Spain to fight for working class socialism. Many paid for their courage with their lives.

Low did radio broadcasts and edited the 8-page English-language weekly newspaper, The Spanish Revolution, from its first nine issues from 21 October 1936 until 23 December 1936. She was responsible for the section “News and notes” and for translating into English articles published in the POUM’s paper, La Batalla.

She and Breá left Spain on 28 December 1936. (The following issue of The Spanish Revolution, Volume II, No1, 6 January 1937 announced her departure.) Breá had been detained twice by the Stalinists and was involved in a near fatal and suspicious car “accident”.

Jump again:

Low and Breá were married in London in September 1937, shortly before the publication [by Secker and Warburg] of Red Spanish Notebook, for which Low translated Breá’s seven chapters from Spanish into English. Following interludes in Cuba and Paris, from early 1938 the couple lived in Prague, where they had several Surrealist friends, until July 1939 when they were forced to leave in the wake of the Nazi invasion.

Low’s poetry first appeared in a joint compilation with Breá, La Saison des flûtes, published in Paris in 1939. Again displaying her skills as a linguist, the poems were written in French and, in “La Chauve-souris visite Marseille” (“The Bat Visits Marseilles”), contain the apparently self-referential lines:

Type standard de l’aventurière internationale 
cheveux roux 
regard fatale, longue 
robe blanche, accent onomatopé 
aux surprenantes ambiguïtés harmoniques.

In 1940, Low and Breá boarded a transatlantic liner in Liverpool and made their way to Cuba, where she would remain for the next 25 years. Breá, however, was already ill and died just over a year later. In 1943 in Havana Low published a selection of essays, La verdad contemporánea, on political and cultural themes which featured a foreword by the French poet Benjamin Péret, whom she had known in Paris and Barcelona. The essays were edited versions of talks which she and her late husband had given at the city’s Institute of Marxist Culture in 1936 under titles such as “The Economic Roots of Surrealism” and “Women and Love from the Perspective of Private Property”.

In 1944 Low married Armando Machado, a Trotskyist Cuban trade-union leader, with whom she would have three daughters. At the same time she acquired Cuban citizenship, keeping her dual British-Cuban nationality for the rest of her life.

More poetry collections followed: Alquimia del recuerdo (“Alchemy of Memory”) in 1946, illustrated by the Cuban-born Surrealist Wilfredo Lam, and Tres voces – Three Voices – Trois voix in Spanish, English and French in 1957, for which the Cuban artist José Mijares provided illustrations. In 1948 she also translated El rey y la reina, as The King and the Queen, by the exiled Spanish novelist Ramón Sender.

Low and Machado welcomed the 1959 Cuban revolution. She taught English and Latin at the University of Havana and both of them became leading members of the re-formed Trotskyist POR (Revolutionary Workers’ Party). However, the party soon fell out of favour with the new regime. Indeed Machado was on one occasion arrested and only freed following the personal intervention of Che Guevara. Low moved to Sydney in 1965 and in 1967 she and Machado settled in Miami. She taught Latin and classical history at some of Florida’s élite private schools, having been barred from any public-sector teaching posts on account of her background in left-wing politics. She continued her writing and poetry, which were published in In Caesar’s Shadow (1975), Alive In Spite Of – El triunfo de la vida (1981), A Voice in Three Mirrors (1984) and Where the Wolf Sings (1994).

She retired from teaching in 2000 and, until wheelchair-bound in her final year, continued to travel, regularly visiting and making new friends in Europe, with whom she enjoyed telling anecdotes from her eventful life.

JJ Plant adds, in relation to her later years:

She worked closely with the Surrealist tendency associated with Franklin Rosemont….

In October 2002 she was one of the many signatories to the Surrealist-sponsored declaration Poetry Matters: On the Media Persecution of Amiri Baraka. Her final militant act was to sign a declaration of critical historians opposing the dominant historiography that depicts the Spanish revolution simply as a struggle between fascism and anti-fascism, (exemplified by Hobsbawm among UK academics) and seeks to erase the struggle between the classes from the historical record.

Mary Low’s ashes were scattered in Cuba and in Paris.

Some further sources and image from this wonderful Cezch website:

GUILLAMÓN, Agustín. Esbozo biográfico de Juan Breá. La Bataille socialiste [webové stránky], 2010 (původně otištěno v časopise Balance, noviembe 2009, no. 34).

GUILLAMÓN, Agustín. Mary Low, poeta, trotskista y revolucionaria. La Bataille socialiste [webové stránky], 2009.

GUILLAMÓN, Agustín. Perfiles revolucionarios: Mary Low y Juan Breá. Iniciativa Socialista [webové stránky] (původně jako předmluva ke knize Mary Low a Juana Breá Cuaderno Rojo de Barcelona /Barcelona: Alikornio, 2001/).

Juan Breá. In KELLEY, Robin D. G. – ROSEMONT, Franklin (eds.). Black, Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009, s. 55-58.

JUMP, Jim. Mary Low. The Independent, January 30, 2007.

ROCHE, Gérard. Mary Low (1912-2007) (materiál kombinuje autorovy texty otištěné v knize Mary Low Sans retour: Poèmes et collages /Paris: Syllepse, 2000/ a v bulletinu, vydávaném Sdružením přátel Benjamina Péreta, Trois cerises et une sardine, novembre 2007, no. 21).

Věnování z publikace Juana Breá Poemas de entonces (La Habana, 1942)

Věnování B. Broukovi a Toyen z publikace Juana Breá Poemas de entonces (La Habana, 1942/1943?)

Mary Low (1912-2007) a Juan Breá (1905-1941), nedatováno

Mary Low (1912-2007) a Juan Breá (1905-1941), nedatováno

Mary Low (1912-2007), Barcelona, 1936

Mary Low (1912-2007), Barcelona, 1936

Mary Low (1912-2007), nedatováno

Mary Low (1912-2007), nedatováno

Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion (1989, obálka)

Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion (1989, obálka)

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Trotsky-Surrealism-Peret-Durruti-Brazil

One of the purposes of this blog is to join the dots in a history of the anti-Stalinist left: transnational traditions of dissident Marxism, democratic and libertarian socialism and class struggle anarchism which have actively resisted totalitarianism in all its forms. I came across this  at the blog Psychadelic Bolshevik, and I take the liberty of reproducing it here. I’ve covered a lot of this material before (click on the tags at the bottom for more), but this puts it all together well. After I pasted it in, I realised most of it is the text by Nick Heath published on libcom, to which I have added a hyperlink where the quotation starts. However, in re-reading that, I am a little confused on the different French Trotskyists twists and turns, so added a note on that. If anyone can check that and let me know if I’ve got it right, I’d be grateful.

SURREALISM, PERET AND TROTSKY (DELEGATES DELIGHTS) BY SLIM BRUNDAGE

(more…)

Sixty years ago: Death of Frida Kahlo

From On This Deity:

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

…and Frida’s reality was a lifetime of extreme physical pain and tortuous suffering, punctuated with a tempestuous emotional turbulence.

Artist Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, the daughter of Hungarian Jewish father and indigenous Mexican mother. She grew up in Mexico City at a time when Mexicans were beginning to take great pride in their native culture and traditions. Frida was proud of her pre-Columbian heritage and wore local costume, including long embroidered skirts in bright colours, big silver earrings, flowers, and jewellery from the folk tradition. Her distinctive look gave her a brand, yet averted attention from her tiny, weak, disabled body. (more…)

The anti-Stalinist left: some notes from the literature. Part I: The French anti-Stalinist left

This post is the first in a short series that include extracts from the academic literature on the anti-Stalinist left. Part of the purpose of the series is to argue that there has been a strong a cohesive entity that could be called “the anti-Stalinist left”, a position I take in opposition to those who would simply say that some leftists have happened to be anti-Stalinist. Hence, it is not intended to form some kind of coherent narrative, but rather gathers together evidence from the literature for the existence of such an entity.

THE FRENCH ANTI-STALINIST LEFT

In this edition, we focus on the anti-Stalinist intellectuals associated with the surrealist movement, including Andre Breton and Georges Bataille.  (more…)

Memetic

Two memes channeled by my comrade Bob: the five word meme, and the academic bestsellers meme. Here are some snippets.

Words

Bob on Anti-fascism

antifascismAnti-fascism is at the core of my political being. The first political activism I was involved in, as a 15 year old, was action against the NF. Almost everything else about my politics has changed, but that has remained constant. What has changed, of course, is fascism. The classic Nazi-style fascism of the NF is no longer much of an issue (although extreme right violence remains a threat in the US and UK, and classic neo-Nazis are a major issue in parts of Central and Eastern Europe). The two mutations of fascism that are most important to combat now are, first, the rising forms of Euro-nationalist populism that are predicated on a generalised anti-immigrant racism as well as anti-Muslim racism, a movement that has been growing electorally across Western Europe, and, second, the rising forms of Islamist fascism which have had such a destructive effect on so many parts of the world.

History is Made at Night on Surrealism

trotsky-780584When I first got interested in politics I was greatly attracted to Dada, Surrealism and the Situationists, initially through second hand accounts in books like Richard Neville’s Play Power, Jeff Nuttal’s Bomb Culture and indeed Gordon Carr’s The Angry Brigade. The emphasis on play, festival and the imagination still resonates with me, but I would question the notion of desire as an unproblematic engine of radical change. Desire is surely formed amidst the psychic swamp of present social conditions and I would no longer advise everybody to take their desires for reality – sadly I have seen far too much of the impoverished desires of men in particular. Just look through your spam emails.

Martin in the Margins on Saramago

SaramagoI used to say that the veteran Portuguese writer was my favourite novelist, until I remembered that I’ve only ever finished one of his books. However, that book – The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – ranks as one of the best (if not the best) works of fiction that I’ve ever read. In this phantasmagoric exploration of Lisbon, Saramago’s usual quirky and meandering prose is held in check by an intriguing plot and aborbing sense of place – not the case in the other novels of his that I’ve tried. When I first read the book some fifteen or twenty years ago, its author’s politics – he’s a lifelong Communist – were an added enticement to me. That was before my own disillusionment with ‘democratic centralism’, and before I discovered that Saramago’s involvement in the Portuguese revolution, far from being heroic, revealed the Stalinist tendencies of his (and his party’s) politics. Not to mention my disappointment that a writer capable of such great prose and historical imagination could make such foolish, naive and offensive comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, as he did notoriously on a trip to the West Bank. A shining illustration, then, that creative genius and political stupidity can and often do co-exist.

The Social Republic on Chartism
One has to be awe of the millions who marched, organised and campaigned for the Charter. They did so in times of great and cruel distress, in a time before telegrams or mass railways, when the main traditional bases of such a cause were in near terminal decline. The General Unions had been broken in the most part, the old clubs of the Radicals were dying. You have to remember too that the Political Unions of the 1830s, seeking a similar political solution, had been a cynical con, carried on the masses who had given them a power to threaten the system.One under researched element of the movement, only touched upon by the culturalists, is that the Whig reforming state had erupted into areas of life untouched by the previous ‘Old Corruption’. Be it the poorhouse, exclusion from borough and parish government or the moves against popular ‘messy’ festivals, these ‘innovations’ aligned with a general and crippling crisis in the economy created a nomic crisis for the poor. As the church failed to keep up with the explosion in urban population and relief without the gulag conditions of the workhouse disappeared, the Charter was transformed.

In its political demands were a longing for a more equitable and less ruthless past and a brighter and ‘progressive’ future. Within the carnival of the movement, the realisation of the moral power of the crowd and the rhetoric, we can detect a attempt to break out of a time of misery into a meaningful time of hope and change. The movement that pushed self-education and self awareness, probably doing more for mass literacy that anything till the public schools of 1870, could create experiments in collective living, in ground upwards politics. Blessed with the belief in the moral case for the charter, the movement was able to become a transformative revitalisation movement. As a reaction to the crisis of modernity, such a formation is common. However, this mass movement, unlike Fascism or Bolshevik Communism, had no cult of struggle, of dying or killing. It’s internal discussions over Moral versus Physical power showed a remarkable maure level of understanding on the dangers of volence to the cause and the subsequent corruption of their ends.

This maturity, noted by Marx, combined with its moral power and willingness to openly discuss and challenge show a sparkling precedent for the left. How one could see Hamas or the CCP ‘progressive’ after learning of the ragged millions joyfully declaring their liberty and their rights is beyond my fuzzy headed imagination.

The New Centrist on Avrich
The historian of the U.S. and European (esp. Russian) anarchist movements. I had the opportunity to hear him speak a couple of times and he was an inspiration to me and my work. Attended his funeral in 2006 and remember his daughters talking about him taking them to a cemetery in Russia to locate the graves of Kropotkin and I think Bakunin as well but I could be wrong about Bakunin.

Books

Henry on E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class

A classic, which reads more like a novel than a piece of academic history, rescuing organizers, sectaries, pamphleteers and gutter journalists – from the enormous condescension of posterity. Moving, smart, and wonderfully written.

Bob on CLR James The Black Jacobins

This makes a nice companion to Thompson. As Peter Linebaugh has written, while Thompson was writing in the shadow of the Soviet tanks in Budapest, James was writing against the Communist murder of non-CP anti-Franco partisans in Spain. The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution, showing how slave struggles in the colonies helped drive the great revolutionary moment of 1776-1792, unveiling a different dimension to the emergence of the great values of liberty, democracy and rights which triumphed in the French and American revolutions.

Brigada Flores Magon on The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose

I have to declare an interest as my paternal grandfather, an iron-moulder who had been disabled aged 19, as a private in Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard, in the Kaiserschlacht of Spring 1918, was as good an autodidact as you’d find outside the Jura Federation and this book is very largely about the autodidact tradition among the British working classes, taking in the WEA and other helping hands as it goes along. I have read it at least three times since I bought it in 2002 and return to it again and again for encouragement. It is written in a thoroughly professional way but full of what can only be called love for the matter and manner of lifelong learning. Anyone involved in education must read this book.

More books

Moving on from memes, but kind of related to the book issue, a post from the Raincoat Optimist about writing drunk, touching on the brothers Hitchens, Nick Cohen at the Orwell Prize, and the “old culture” of the pub.

Finally on books, Contested Terrain notes three new publications of note, of which this one caught my eye:

A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement
By Jame Horrox

Against the backdrop of the early development of Palestinian-Jewish and Israeli society, James Horrox explores the history of the kibbutz movement: intentional communities based on cooperative social principles, deeply egalitarian and anarchist in their organisation.

“The defining influence of anarchist currents in the early kibbutz movement has been one of official Zionist historiography’s best-kept secrets…It is against this background of induced collective amnesia that A Living Revolution makes its vital contribution. James Horrox has drawn on archival research, interviews and political analysis to thread together the story of a period all but gone from living memory, presenting it for the first time to an English-reading audience. These pages bring to life the most radical and passionate voices that shaped the second and third waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, and also encounter those contemporary projects working to revive the spirit of the kibbutz as it was intended to be, despite, and because of, their predecessors’ fate.” —Uri Gordon, from the foreword

“A brilliant study of anarchism in the kibbutz movement, particularly regarding economy and polity. Revealing the roots and processes of the influx of anarchist ideas and practices into the early Jewish labour movement, assessing the actual kibbutz practice and seeing the kibbutzim as both a model way to live and a set of experiments to learn from, Horrox gives this history the meticulous attention it deserves. A Living Revolution is comprehensive, caring and even passionate, but also critical. Horrox’s study is an exemplary undertaking we can learn much from.”—Michael Albert, editor Znet and Z Magazine.

More from Horrox at Zeek.

One more thing

Because I haven’t found a better post to put this in, read this excellent account of Gramsci’s relevance today, at Left Luggage.

One more for Franklin

I think I missed this one:

Franklin Rosemont In Memoriam – 1943-2009 Friends of Franklin

From Area Chicago: Everybody’s Got Money Issues

Previous obituaries: here, here, here.

More Chicago radical local history from Area Chicago No.7 68/08:

Benjamin Péret: songs of the eternal rebels

From History is Made at Night:

Benjamin Péret (1899-1959) was active in the Surrealist movement from its formation until his death. Among other things he edited at one stage the journal ‘La Révolution surréaliste’.

[…]

Péret was one of the first of the Surrealists to break with Stalinism. In the early 1930s, living in Brazil (with his wife, the singer Elsie Houston) he joined the trotskyist Communist League. In the Spanish Civil War, he worked first with the independent socialist POUM and then an anarchist militia fighting on the Aragon front. Later he was part of a group called the Union Ouvriere Internationale which broke with the trotskyist movement over the latter’s defence of the Soviet Union as a degenerate workers state (see this biography of Ngo Van Xuhat for more about this)

In a 1949 poem, A Lifetime, Péret looked back on his long association with Andre Breton and wrote of:

‘the songs in raised fists of the eternal rebels thirsting for ever new wind
for whom freedom lives as an avalanche ravaging the vipers’ nests of heaven and earth
the ones who shout their lungs out as they bury Pompeiis
Drop everything’.

Main source: Benjamin Péret, Death to the Pigs and Other Writings, translated by Rachel Stella and others (London: Atlas Press, 1988). The best source online is L’Association des amis de Benjamin Péret (in French)

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 5:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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