From Useful Productions
Adventures in political dreaming
Every time I see the establishment line up to commemorate the “glorious” dead of the First World War I can’t help but think of Siegfried Sassoon’s words ; “The Great Ones of the Earth approve with smiles and bland salutes, the rage and monstrous tyranny that they have brought to birth.”
The official celebrations of the Great War treat the conflict like a great patriotic tragedy. However even at the time hundreds of thousands refused to go along with the war. Risking their lives, liberty and the hatred of others they raised their voices against the killing, and those voices only grew louder as the war went on.
In Britain conscription was introduced in 1916 and more than 20,000 men refused the call, declaring themselves Conscientious Objectors (or COs). Many organisations helped to oppose the war including those on the left and Quakers. This being Britain each CO had to fill in a form and tick a box as to whether they were objecting on religious or political grounds. Around half ticked religion and the other half politics – although in truth for many it was a bit of both.
Those who applied for CO status weren’t always granted it, first they had to convince the magistrate at a specially convened court and they were rarely sympathetic. Anarchists began organising what we’d call “solidarity actions” today, filling the court with supporters and then creating mayhem when proceedings began. Socialists would sing red or anti-war songs.
It’s sometimes argued that Britain was particularly lenient in not shooting those who refused to fight, however this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. One of my relatives on my father’s side, Arthur Sowter, was a conscientious objector and sentenced to hard labour, and was then sent to France to work as a grave digger at the front. Physically broken and suffering from shell shock he died in his twenties, for the crime of refusing to pick up a gun for his country. We were only lenient if it is kinder to break someone on a wheel than execute them out right. These men were far from cowards for refusing to take up arms.
It was far from an easy course of action, COs faced jail, social exclusion, violence and vile treatment. They had no idea what might happen to them and the threat of execution (and even fake firing squads) were used to intimidate COs in an attempt to crack their resolve – which must have broken some. My grandmother remembered having bricks thrown through her windows as a child during the war and COs suffered violence and scorn from prison guards and other soldiers alike, aside from the gruelling duties of hard labour, stretching bearing or the degrading conditions of prison.
Some COs, nick named Absolutists, refused all orders, up to and including wearing the uniform. George Dutch recalled his experience;
“They stripped me of my own clothing and put the uniform down beside me and said ‘Now you’ve got to put it on’. I said ‘Well, I will not put it on’. ‘Alright, you’ve got to sit there’. I sat there for a day or two and the whole camp was interested. Everybody knew what was going on. Soldiers used to come and say ‘Go on, stick it boy, stick it if it kills you’. The major was very much disliked and I can understand that. I can see what type of person he was. He must have noticed it, because after a day or two suddenly my tent was taken up and taken right up on top of the cliff overlooking the sea.
This was in November and it was pretty cold, misty weather. And I was taken up there and my uniform put beside me again by the tent pole, and just to make things worse than ever they rolled the tent walls up so that the wind came right into the tent, all round, and I could sit there and freeze. Which I did. And the orders were that no one was to come near me until I dressed and came down. Well I didn’t dress and I didn’t go down and I stayed there and I’m not quite sure how long it was, but I think it must have been at least ten days – and nights – in just my singlet and pants and socks. Just sitting like that in the tent and before I’d been there many hours I was frozen right through with exposure. Then suddenly a whole group of them turned up. The medical officer, the doctor, and the NCOs that had put me up there and rolled the tent walls up. The doctor was very angry. So he said to his men, ‘Get him down to the tent, down to the medical tent.’”
One leading anti-war organiser, Fenner Brockway, while imprisoned in Walter Prison, Liverpool, began the first illicit anti-war newspaper in prison, The Walton Leader. Carefully written on toilet paper it was distributed cell to cell, man to man. When it was eventually discovered and he was punished the jail erupted in a ten day prison strike until he was transferred to Lincoln jail (and solitary confined for around the next two years). Brockway later became a recruiter for volunteers to fight in Spain through the ILP and wrote a recommendation letter for George Orwell when he set off to Barcelona.
With most of its male activists arrested the No Conscription Fellowship continued its activities run almost entirely by courageous women. Those women who resisted the war are often written out of history. Of course, because they were not subject to conscription they had less opportunities to get arrested but they were part of and led the movement none-the-less.
During the war Sylvia Pankhurst was sent to jail for five months (not for the first time), on this occasion for sedition. Editions of her paper were suppressed for calling on soldiers not to fight. She compared Labour politicians, who had opposed the war before it started and then voted for war credits once it had begun like this; “Some Socialists tell us that the floor of the House of Commons is a splendid platform for propaganda; but the trouble is that when they get into the House, their courage seems to evaporate like a child’s soap bubble. We have heard of Labour Members of Parliament being ready to do and say all sorts of heroic things, and to get themselves put out of the House, to arrest the world’s attention on some appropriate occasion. That is not much of course, as compared with running the risk of death in the horrible trenches or with being incarcerated for years in prison.”
It wasn’t just small groups of activists that opposed the war. While we shouldn’t pretend there was any shortage of patriotic pro-war fervour we know that a large minority were down-right opposed. This has some reflection in the music hall, despite the fact that it was difficult to legally voice outright opposition. One popular song, first written for the US music hall became an international anti-war anthem and it’s not difficult to see why when we look at the lyrics of “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”;
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier/ I brought him up to be my pride and joy/ Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy? / Let nations arbitrate their future problems/ It’s time to lay the sword and gun away/ There’d be no war today/ If mothers all would say/ “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”.”
The song A Conscientious Objector is, on the face of it, a wry attack on those who refused to fight as effeminate cowards, but scratch the surface and it’s far more complex. Audiences would enthusiastically sing the chorus “send out the bakers and blooming profit makers but for Gawd’s sake don’t send me.” In an era where bakers (and some other professions) were seen as explicitly exploiting the war to fill their pockets there is a definite popular anti-war angle here.
Australia is probably a helpful example because, unlike in Britain, they held a referendum to introduce conscription and so many arguments that were illegal here were part of the legitimate debate. Posters showing the Labour Party making coffins declared those in the party advocating conscription were both betraying workers who would be sent to die and would kill the party. Others showed the figure of death canvassing for a yes vote or men voting yes to put their head in a noose. The Blood Vote poster described the ballot box as a “box of blood”.
Those campaigning against conscription narrowly won the vote, which outraged the authorities who promptly arrested the leaders of the movement and held the referendum again – which returned a no vote with a wider margin.
Many of those who refused to fight did not label themselves conscientious objectors. By the end of the war around a third of French army had deserted and there were many forest camps populated by deserters from armies from both sides who were simply sick of the war.
The famous football match is a wonderful image, but it’s also the officially sanctioned ceasefire where soldiers still, literally, played by the rules. Far less famous are the unofficial ceasefires where whole stretches of the trenches refused to fight, or would simply agree to fire to miss, or only throw bombs at allocated times of the day.
The General Staff were firing off frustrated orders and memos to each other trying to solve the problem of an army that refused to fight, or seemed to be on positively friendly terms with those in the opposite trenches. In the end whole aspects of military strategy was designed in order to ensure soldiers would have no option but to kill the enemy.
In Mark Thompson’s brilliant The White War which details the Italian / Austrian front he describes how even officers more than once ordered a ceasefire simply to stop the killing. “On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian Captain shouted to his gunners, “What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.” The Austrians stopped firing and called out; “Stop, go back! We won’t shoot anymore. Do you want everyone to die?”
Other more individualist solutions included shooting the officer who was responsible for ordering a charge, deserting or simply wandering across no man’s land and giving yourself up to the enemy, knowing that there was no war in the prison camps.
The Conscientious Objectors of the First World War were courageous and principled. Whether motivated by religion, political principle or a simple sense of common humanity they were prepared to suffer the most terrible consequences in refusing to take part in a bloodbath that left millions dead across Europe.
They were also the tip of the iceberg of many tens of thousands of others who refused to fight in other, subtler ways. We’ll never know the truth about the mutinies that did take place in the British Army and Navy, but it’s clear that those who wanted no part of someone else’s war were far from alone.
Once again, for my own reference really (I do say this isn’t a blog after all) here are some useful links around publishing, self-publishing, etc..
- Active Distribution – an excellent anarcho-producer creating everything from badges and posters to DVDs and pamphlets.
- Calverts – down the line, friendly, professional publishers. They’re also a co-op.
- Flyer Alarm – ridiculously good value on producing postcards and the like.
- Imprint Digital – small print run publishers who have a very handy little price calculator gizmo.
- TU ink – printers who handle a lot of trade union business.
Articles and advise;
- The Creative Penn – which is a whole heap of resources on self publishing.
When Helen Macfarlane produced the first English language translation of The Communist Manifesto she began the text by saying; “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism…”
I’ve always loved this evocative but, let’s face it, inaccurate translation of the manifesto’s opening line “Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa – das Gespenst des Kommunismus”. It is a delicious thing to conjure up the image of socialist revolution as some kind of seditious whisperer, carrying respectable bourgeois children into the night as recruits for its cause.
These days the line is usually rendered as “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism” which has it’s own charms, avoids translating “Gespenst” as two entirely different things in the space of one line and doesn’t dis communism as “frightful” right at the start of a pamphlet whose main purpose is to make us feel warm and fuzzy about the idea.
However, it puzzles me that I’ve never seen anyone mention that a spectre, or ghost, is an intriguing thing to compare a living movement to. These are spirits of the dead who may well frighten the living but are, ultimately, echoes of those who have departed the world – a spectre cannot inherit the future but is a forgotten ancestor. So why would Engels and Marx choose this as the hook with which to start such an important pamphlet? Perhaps they didn’t.
Is communism a sprite or a spirit?
Both Marx and Engels were “Left Hegelians” and were attracted to Hegel’s concept of Gheist, which can be a world mind, spirit or ghost – or all three at once. Today we’re familiar with ideas like that of a ‘zeitgeist’ (the spirit of the age or moment), and the concept of an era being defined by specific moods or ideas are key to Hegel’s philosophy, and this can be seen reflected in Marx and Engels’ work.
Nowhere is this clearer, it seems to me, than in this “Gespenst” that is “haunting” Europe. I’d ask you does it not make more sense for a political propagandist to say to those radicalised by the revolutions of 1848 that “There’s a spirit sweeping across Europe, the spirit of Communism” (which is an entirely viable translation) than comparing his movement to a chain rattling apparition?
Certainly the word “haunting” here is derived purely from context and could just as easily be “walks”, “is out and about” or “travels” when decoupled from its ghoulish subject.
Hold your horses. What about the next sentence?
Despite being the second sentence of a very famous book the next line is rarely quoted and often forgotten yet appears to reinforce the imagery of Communism as spectre. We translate it as “All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
It does look inconvenient for my argument, but let’s get closer. There is an explicit German word for exorcising a ghost, exorzieren, which is not used in this context. The original reads “Hetzjagd gegen dies Gespenst” which, it seems to me, can just as easily be translated as a holy alliance “ranged against this spirit” or “to drive out this spirit”. If we cling to the use of “spectre” then it makes sense to explicitly exorcise this unholy demon, but if our “Gespenst” refers to a new, radical mood… then we’re talking political opposition rather than Bible readings and incense.
I know it’s not as flowery but there is a fairly significant, if subtle, difference between the two. One’s a radical mood (spirit) and the other’s an undead apparition (spectre). We tolerate this out of place “spectre” not just because few of us ever consider the fact that we’re reading a translation rather than the original and there may be differences between the two, but also because it has, through repetition, become part of the canon. It has become the property of the prophets, so it somehow feels heretical to question the translation even when it blatantly makes no sense – as in this case.
Bring back the hobgoblin
I think I’ve made a brief but sound case to say that the classic opening line of the Manifesto is an eccentric and unhelpful way of translating the original German. But I’m going to go further. I want to argue that Macfarlane’s frightful hobgoblin is actually better than the original.
While Soviet power or land, peace and bread don’t immediately conjure up images of mischievous fairies stealing your underpants please bear with me. Goblins do things for themselves, they have agency, spectres possess people and use them for their own ends.
There has been a consistent problem on the far-left of seeing things like General Strikes, Revolutions, and indeed the working class itself as mystical events which have a special, almost religious meaning, outside of the real people doing actual things.
The Leninist Party, even when it is wholly wrong, gets to embody the holy mission towards our socialist utopia. It becomes a religious artifact whose properties are somehow more than the members and their actions because it is part of this spectre of communism.
The Stalinist tradition was particularly bad at deifying “the proletariat” and its so-called historic mission of inevitable proletarian revolution, but they were by no means the only offenders. It’s a way of divorcing your political analysis from things like facts, or knowing what you’re talking about. It’s a theology where all ethics is subordinated to “a spirit” rather than to people.
Far better, it seems to me, to see the movement as a living, breathing thing. A creature that can have children, make mistakes, roll in the mud and poke out its tongue when feeling cheeky. A political movement is made up of specific people who make specific decisions, there are no ghosts in its ranks or undead zombie masters commanding the hosts. I already regret that metaphor, but you know what I mean.
Just as no two goblins are alike, different movements have their own features. Unique personnel, strengths and weaknesses that they themselves are responsible for. I think Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I believe that’s true, but I also believe that we’d be wrong to think history is going to do anything at all independently of us. I worry that this ghost, or spirit, or spectre encourages us to believe that there is a magical paper seller in the sky who has an overview of the situation and can only be accessed directly via the medium of the Central Committee’s Ouija board.
This problem doesn’t come from this one line in this one book, it underpins a great number of far-left writings, but if a hobgoblin is good for anything it’s poking a stick into a bag of hot air. Goblins love heresies, spectres are allergic to them. Goblins are flesh, spirits are ideal. You pick which one a materialist should go with.
I’ll leave you with the words of Helen Macfarlane which seem as apposite now as they were way back in the nineteenth century when she wrote them.
“All sects hedge me in with limitations. I cannot move a step in any direction without running into some creed, or catechism, or formula, which rises up like a wall between the unhappy sectarians and the rest of the universe; beyond which it is forbidden to look on pain of damnation, or worse.”
I’ve been reading about this proposed “Cinderella Law” outlawing “emotional abuse” of parents of their kids. Apparently it’s going to be in this week’s Queen’s Speech which means it’ll be a key element of the government’s legislative agenda in the last months of the Coalition’s term.
According to this, supportive, article 1.5 million kids “are thought to be” suffering from emotional abuse – so I guess this law would instantly criminalise over two million adults for not being good enough parents. Of course they wouldn’t arrest two million people.
They’d only arrest the travellers, the different, the poor, those with mental health problems, those from different cultures, and those they’ve just decided they want to arrest. These people would no longer be able to see their kids and would, presumably, be on the offenders’ register – so the implications are significant for them and their children.
Interestingly the current wording proposed “would add a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished for impairment of “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”. ” (from the BBC) I’d like to see a proper working definition of what this might mean in practice. Seeing as theories on “behavioural development” change constantly what bar would behaviour have to pass to become criminal?
I’m assuming the lack of violin lessons and skiing holidays would not be criminal – but what protection is there against creating a crime of being poor with children? At what point do people in difficult situations find themselves criminalised for being in a situation they themselves are trapped in?
Abuse is bad, and so are bad laws.
No one is going to be *for* emotional abuse, but we need to be cautious about allowing emotive arguments to criminalise those who are struggling rather than criminally cruel. We don’t want to create a situation where parents don’t seek help from the authorities for fear of being locked away for not being able to love and protect their kids the way they know they should.
The Telegraph says that parents who “starve their kids of love” will face jail. “This could include deliberately ignoring a child, or not showing them any love, over prolonged periods, damaging a child’s emotional development.” So parents – don’t be depressed, or traumatised or simply not bond well with your child because the law will decide if you loved your children enough. Literally.
I don’t want to overstate this, I’m genuinely interested in reading proposed legal definitions. I’ve got no interest in protecting abusive parents, but I’m also conscious that people are more and more willing to classify things like smoking in the presence of their children as abuse, and I find it difficult to take those people seriously. I don’t want us to criminalise imperfections.
Frank Furedi (recognise the name but can’t place him for the moment) wrote this in the Independent worrying about the proposed changes.
“Campaigners devoted to the criminalisation of emotional abuse have deliberately defined it in an amorphous and expansive manner. According to the different guidelines drawn up on this subject, emotional abuse can refer to virtually every parental failing…
“For example, the NSPCC includes in its definition of emotional abuse the “making of fun” of what a child says or how they communicate. I am not sure what universe the NSPCC inhabits, but in the real world, the making fun of one another is the stuff of family life. When parents and children interact, they are likely to make jokes at each others’ expense…
“The NSPCC claims that emotional abuse “may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children”. It contends that emotional abuse may include interactions that are “beyond the child’s developmental capability”. But it can also mean over-protecting a child and limiting their “exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction”.
“In other words, just about anything that is not middle-of-the road, unimaginative child-rearing is a potential quarry”.
Not only does it look like a socially authoritarian law that can be used to criminalise those who are not living the typical life, the traditional way, those who insufficiently embody the cultural mores of the southern middle classes. Not only that but also criminalise them for child abuse – something that many of us would, understandably, feel uncomfortable to publicly defend even when grossly misapplied or results in real, tragic injustices.
Right now I’m tending to be against it. Feel free to show me that the arguments for are not all emotive, knee jerk tosh – although I should warn you that attempting to convince me that abuse is bad is a task already won, so no need to waste your time on that, where I need convincing is that this law will solve more injustices than it causes.
Over the last twelve months or so there have been some very interesting, modest little pieces on the specific experience of work. Partly for my own reference and partly because they are worth highlighting I thought I’d list them here. They are in no way comprehensive, but quick impressions that give us a little insight into other people’s lives.
If you know of any others do let me know (there must be plenty), wouldn’t it be great to have a socialist doomsday book of what working life is like in Britain? I don’t mind if they’re a little old, as long as their fair representations of that person’s work experience (it’ll never be representative of everyone, of course).
- General – the anxious worker – Lib Com
- Admin in a univeristy: the dullness of work – rs21
- Admin assistant: diary of an office worker – nerve 13
- Air crew: hard work in the air – The Project.
- Bar, restaurants and cafes – only delinquents need apply – The Project.
- Cafe workers: the rudeness of yummy mummies – Guardian (from ages ago but I still like it)
- Call centre: chained to the headset – The Project (Independent Socialist Network)
- Care worker: secret diary of a care worker – Counterfire
- Cinema worker: the secret diary of a cinema worker – Counterfire
- Cinema worker: secret diary of another cinema worker – Counterfire
- Firefighter – putting the wet stuff on the hot stuff – The Project.
- Nursery workers: worker’s report – rs21
- Nursing: life as a nurse – The Project (Independent Socialist Network)
- Paramedic: a shift – The Paramedic’s Diary
- Pizza delivery guy: what I’m really thinking – Guardian
- Road sweeper: they treat dogs with more dignity – The Project (Independent Socialist Network)
- Sex work: interview with a dominatrix- Lib Com
- Temp: secret diary of a temp worker – Counterfire
- Unemployment: being out of work is a daily grind – rs21
- Waitress: on managers, in a restaurant and the environment at work – Counterfire
Let me know about any I’ve missed that are worth reading. To be clear I’m not looking for strike reports or inspiring accounts of workers fighting back, but sketches of what working life is like.
Like many of you I know a lot more about Ukraine today than I tend a few months ago. To follow up on my round-up of articles on current events I thought I’d add a few factoids I’ve learned about the history of the region which feel tangentially relevant.
2. Ivan Katchanovski has a really interesting paper on the politics of the Second World War in contemporary Ukraine, written last year. Here he explores the close relationship between attitudes towards the heroes and villains of WWII with how Ukrainians see modern politics.
3. @SplinterSunrise tweets that “The industrial city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is in the news. Originally known as Hughesovka due to Welsh industrial expertise.”
4. Ukrainians fought on both sides in the First World War (although most fought for Tsarist Russia) leading to mass shootings of civilians as ‘collaborators’ by fellow Ukrainians.
5. In total more than 1.5 million people died in the Ukraine in the period from 1914- 1921 which includes both the First World War and the ‘War of Independence’ which led to Ukraine becoming a founder member of the USSR in 1922.
6. Something like 10 million people died of starvation in 1932 – 33. This is known as the Holodomor. Thanks Comrade Stalin.
7. There were over 1.6 million Ukrainian military casualties during the Second World, and 5.2 civilian deaths (from all factors, including the Holocaust). This means over 16% of the population died during the conflict, of the USSR regions only Belarus suffered greater tragedy.
8. That’s when the bad stuff stopped, yeah? No. In 1953 almost one million people were forcibly deported from the Ukraine for either being ethnically German or Crimean Tartars. Today we call this ethnic cleansing.
9. Viktor Yushenko (pictured right, before and after the assassination attempt), who was President of the country from 2005 – 2010 had to content with electoral fraud, poisoning, and street violence during the 2004 election, which kind of indicates corruption and violence aren’t new. Shame he was such a crap President. It’s interesting that there’s so little discussion of or comparisons with the Orange Revolution these days.
10. The word ‘Ukraine’ translates as ‘borderland’.
11. Ukraine has not had nuclear weapons for over twenty years.
A few links from the press to compare positions;
- The Morning Star on the origins of the crisis.
- The US Socialist Worker on Ukraine and the national question.
- The UK Socialist Worker on imperial shifts over Ukraine.
- The Socialist lays out a very similar position on the crisis.
- Jonathon Freedland is as even handed as the Guardian can get.
* apparently referendums is the correct pluralisation.
Last month Inside Left kindly published this piece by me – it’s been a respectful pause so I’m republishing it here.
Although technically accurate, the title of Jim Riordan‘s memoir Comrade Jim: the spy who played for Spartak may lead you believe this is the autobiography of a sporting legend who led a double life scoring in the final seconds by day and smuggling micro-film across the border by night. In fact Comrade Jim is a far more modest reminiscence of the author’s five years in Russia as a young communist and keen amateur sportsman, describing how his growing unease with the realities of life under “socialism” in many ways tempered his commitment for a better society and opposition to authoritarianism.
Later in life Riordan became a respected academic and a little while ago this very site said that “[h]is works on the history of physical culture in Soviet Russia – most notably Sport in Soviet Society – remain the starting point for any serious investigation into the subject. His small book Sports, Politics and Communism is eminently readable and The Story of Worker Sport (edited with Arnd Kruger) is simply fascinating. Anyone who has an interest in left wing politics and sport simply must get a look at this incredible book.”
Riordan’s spying days were brief and completely unconnected with his moment of sporting glory. As part of his national service he spent 1954-6 in Berlin covertly translating Russian communications for the RAF. The time was crucial to the story in that the Air Force taught him Russian and gave him the chance to play for the British Army on the Rhine team which was (wrongly) assumed by his later Russian friends to have be rather more prestigious than it actually was, opening doors that perhaps rightly should have been closed to him.
The truly fascinating sections of the book begin with Riordan’s time in Moscow. While some of these recollections have been clarified with the benefit of hindsight, meeting face to face those who had suffered terribly under Stalin’s rule and the discomfort of others at his more relaxed, less dogmatic approach to politics underscored the desire for a more humane approach to political life, one that left space to play.
Some of his comrades disapproved of the fact that he played with the Diplomatic Corps on Sundays, but as football was barred to the comrades of the Higher Party School (although table-tennis and swimming were allowed) what was he to do? Besides “British Embassy Footmen… and students were hardly an imperialist coterie.” The “rest of the world” team they played was captained by the Kenyan Ambassador who had no boots, playing in bare feet, but did provide the ball, and his batman, who refereed. It conjures up a very different Cold War Moscow than we might have imagined.
Going to Spartak games he realised that “football played a special role in Soviet society. The stadium was somewhere you could let off steam, curse and shout abuse at authority (in the shape of the referee and the linesman)”.
However, football had not always been such a safe space as the example of the Starostin brothers, who had set up Spartak, shows. Spartak was founded in 1935 as a civil society team as an alternative to the currently existing NKVD and army teams. While popular with the football going public, going up against the favourite secret service team of the psychotic Beria, chief of the security forces and football fanatic, was fraught with danger. When Spartak beat his team in a 1939 semi-final Beria stormed out of the stadium. Despite Spartak then going on to win in the final Beria forced the semi-final game to be re-played, only to have Spartak to win again, this time 3 to 2.
All four brothers and many of the team who played that day were to pay a heavy price for their footballing victories. Their crimes, among a list of trumped up charges, were to include plotting to assassinate Stalin and attempting to “instill into our sport the mores of the capitalist world”. Like winning, presumably.
Part of the evidence against the Starstins was having played overseas games in the twenties against rival communist clubs in France and Germany. The idea that foreigners were a danger, even to football, made it all the more of a risk for Spartak to have fielded Jim Riordan, even if it was only for two games until they realised he wasn’t good enough! But that’s a tale I’ll let Riordan tell.
As a whole the book is a fascinating blend of sports anecdotes, musings on the nature of memories, particularly in post-Communist Russia, and simple memoir from a very different place. It’s touching when an older man, who sadly died last year, looks back while “facing up to the brevity of my future” but beautiful too when they have such joyous memories, even if this episode of his life did not end entirely happily.
As he later explained to the FT “In 1966, after five years in Moscow, I began to get into trouble. I wrote an article for a communist magazine that ended up being headlined “The Growing Pains of Soviet Youth”. The party called me in to explain how pains can grow worse as socialism develops. Overnight, I became a non-person. At work, I had been one of the boys but now my friends ignored me. It was time for me to leave.”
For students of Soviet cultural and sporting history this is a lovely little book, but for all of us on the left it’s a gentle reminder that socialism without any space for love and play isn’t fit for real, breathing humans.
Comrade Jim: The Spy Who Played for Spartak – Jim Riordan
One event we’re unlikely to hear much about in the next few years is the 1916 referendum on conscription they held in Australia. Unlike in Britain the people were given a choice as to whether to (re)introduce conscription in Australia.
While much of the propaganda for conscription focused on Australia being invaded by the Germans (!) or the general “cowardice” of those who would not go and fight there was a mass campaign against forcing men to go and fight. Like the anti-war movement in Britain and the rest of Europe this campaign was a mix of radical liberals, working class and socialist organisations as well as religious groups like the Quakers.
The poster for a mass trade union demonstration against conscription at which a future Labor PM spoke.
While this poster shows that many in the Labor Party opposed conscription, it was actually a Labor Prime minister who was pushing for it (and had introduced a form of conscription for boys prior to the war). Many on the left saw their support for conscription as the death of the Labor Party and indeed it led to a split in the party and the formation of a ‘National Labor Party’ after the referendum, which soon merged with others on the right to form the Nationalist Party.
This rally had 30,000 people at it and was followed the next week by another rally of 25,000. An extraordinary show of strength conducted in the middle of the war.
Propaganda poster encouraging people to vote against conscription
While posters like the one above would have been illegal in Britain the space to campaign against conscription was given free reign due to the referendum.
Some argued that while the war was right no one should be forced to go against their will. Badges like this one encouraged people to vote against conscription, but to go and fight as ‘free men’. However, from 1916 onwards there was a distinct drop off in those enlisting to fight in a European war.
No conscription, but yes to the war
Boys as young as twelve were already forced to take part in military training, but this did not require them to go and fight. There was already a great hostility to the idea of compelling children to take part in military training which helped feed the movement against conscription.
The vote on conscription was characterised as the “death ballot”
As in Britain the backbone of the pro-war movement was formed by the government and pro-women’s suffrage organisations. One such group issued a poster saying ’Any right—minded woman would rather be a mother or sister of a dead hero than of a living shirker.’
However, there were, of course, many women who were absolutely opposed both to conscription and the war. This poster asks women not to send young men to their deaths and equates a yes vote with having blood on your hands.
A poem about how a yes vote was as bad as murder.
When the result was in Australia had voted against conscription – but only by the tiniest of margins. 1,087,557 voted ‘yes’ and 1,160,033 voted ‘no’.
Outrageously the government would not take no for an answer and began rounding up and jailing key anti-war figures from both the left and religious organisations. Once the organisers of the no campaign were behind bars they held the referendum again, in December 1917.
Will you vote to be hung?
Despite arresting the anti-war leaders the result was almost identical, in fact the margin was slightly wider. The ‘no’ vote was 1,181,747, winning by a slim majority over the ‘yes’ vote was 1,015,159. Conscription was defeated democratically, even in the face of decidedly undemocratic behaviour from those who were in favour of the war.
It’s hard to imagine but way back one hundred years ago the cultural life of this country was very different. People were not watching The Apprentice on TV or even listening to The Archers on the radio. Books and newspapers were, of course, common but for most ‘ordinary’ people their entertainment was performances and music. The most powerful of these was the music hall.
In 1914 music hall was harnessed in the service of the war with patriotic songs calling on men to enlist and claiming that we’d be in “Berlin by Christmas”. In many ways this was propaganda from below. This was ordinary people swept up in the excitement of the war enthusiastically writing and performing pro-war numbers rather than a centralised, government ordered propaganda campaign.
You can see this in the tone of some of the songs that were far from respectable (for the time). For instance, this number saying that all the ladies love a man in uniform; “The Army and the Navy need attention, / The outlook isn’t healthy you’ll admit, / But I’ve got a perfect dream of a new recruiting scheme, / Which I think is absolutely it. / If only other girls would do as I do/ I believe that we could manage it alone,/ For I turn all suitors from me but the sailor and the Tommy,/ I’ve an army and a navy of my own!”
It’s worth remembering as well that the purpose of music hall was not to sit and passively listen to the acts but a communal sing-a-long. So in 1914 enthusiasm for the war was a collective act, not a solitary one – but as the war developed we can see a collective recognition of the horrors of war and even a grudging respect for those who opposed it.
John Mullen at Paris University wrote a fascinating article on the uses and abuses of music hall in the service of, and against, the war effort from 1914 – 18 which is well worth reading in its entirety. Mullen says “Looking first at those songs which aim at encouraging men to join up, or at justifying the war effort in traditional jingoistic manner, we find such titles as the following : “Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue”, “Be a Soldier, Lad of Mine”, “The Army of Today’s All Right”, “Won’t you join the army?”, “We don’t Want to Lose You (but We Think You Ought to Go)”, “For the Honour of Dear Old England”, “Boys in Khaki, Boys in Blue”, “Men of England, You Have Got to Go”, “You ought to join”, “Our Country’s Call”, “Let ‘em All Come, We’re ready”, and “March on to Berlin!”.’
As the war goes on the tone changes from quick victory to ‘pack up your troubles’ and then dreaming of returning home. No one believes they will reach Berlin anymore.
However, while patriotic pro-war sentiment was high we know that a large minority were not so sure or down right opposed. This has some reflection in the music hall, despite the fact that it was difficult to legally voice outright opposition. One popular song, first written for the US music hall became an international anti-war anthem and it’s not difficult to see why when we look at the lyrics of “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”; “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier/ I brought him up to be my pride and joy/ Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy? / Let nations arbitrate their future problems/ It’s time to lay the sword and gun away/ There’d be no war today/ If mothers all would say/ “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”.”
Other songs were more subtle but no less subversive. In “The Military Representative” the policy of conscription taking anyone and everyone, no matter how ill suited, to fight was mocked with the military authority figure ridiculed as heartless and cruel before those pleading they could not or would not go to fight;
They called upon the next case/ Then a woman rose and said/ I’m very sorry gentleman/ But my poor husband is dead/ The chairman said “Well he’s exempted, he needn’t come again.”/ “Oh, thank you.” said the widow as she ran to catch a train/ But the military representative got up and shouted “Hi!!/ How dare your husband die! / He was A1 in July/ What say ma’am? He’s in heaven now? / Well you just let him know/ I’m sending a Sergeant to fetch him back/ For of course he’s got to go!”
They called on Rip van Winkle next and smiling all serene/ He mumbled “Gents, I’m 91, you’ve got me down 19!”/ (…) but the military representative got up and shouted “Say!”/ Don’t let him run away, though he’s 91 today!/ There are men down at the War office as old as he I know!/ And I’m sure they’re a damn sight sillier/ So of course he’s got to go!”
Soldier’s songs had the freedom of being less formal and so, ironically, were more likely to express high mutinous opinions in thoroughly robust language (skip the rest of this paragraph if you’d prefer to avoid swear words). John Mullen says “One well-known ditty wished that a particularly unpopular general, Cameron Shute would get shot : “For shit may be shot at odd corners/ And paper supplied there to suit/ But a shit would be shot without mourners/ If someone shot that shit Shute.””
The song A Conscientious Objector (which you can listen to here) is, on the face of it, a wry attack on those who refused to fight out of principle as effeminate cowards but scratch the surface and it’s far more complex. You can’t have an audience enthusiastically sing lines like the following and view this as a cut and dried anti-war song; “send out the bakers and blooming profit makers but for Gawd’s sake don’t send me.”
Likewise in “A bit of a Blighty one” (mp3) the artist takes on the voice of a soldier glad to have been wounded just enough to send him home (to Blighty) but not so much that he couldn’t enjoy being tucked in by the nurses; “so when they mop my brow with sponges and feed me with blanchemanges I’m glad I got a bit of a Blighty one.” Gone are the days of marching ever onwards to Berlin in favour of creature comforts and coming home.
So even in the music hall, where a show would have been shut down and the performers locked up if they’d been seen to agitate against the war, there was still space for a subversive message. Whether that be simply that the war wouldn’t be won so easily, the Generals were out of touch, cruel, fools or that the enemy were people just like us working class communities were clearly open to the idea that the war was not one of simply good against evil and that refusing to fight might, in fact, be a sensible, even honourable thing to do.