Jim Jepps

Adventures in political dreaming

On Communist Hobgoblins

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…”

communist goblinI’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?

Is communism spooky?

Is communism spooky?

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.

The Goblin Shark of Communism

The Goblin Shark of Communism

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’m not sure about this new “Cinderella Law”

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.

doll-and-number-bigAccording 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.

Mapping work in the UK

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).

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.

Eleven background snippets on Ukraine

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.

ukraine1. There have been two previous referendums* in the Crimea. One in 1991 and one in 1994, both of which were overwhelming in favour of closer ties with Russia and greater autonomy for Crimea.

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;

 * apparently referendums is the correct pluralisation. 

Review: Comrade Jim – the spy who played for Spartak

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

Australia against conscription 1916

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.

Music Hall; not such a lovely 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.

London Socialist Historians’ Day School

A few weeks ago I attended the really excellent London Socialist Historians Group day school “From Imperialist War to Class War” which was both stimulating and informative. I thought it would be useful to write a quick report of the event and a recommendation to attend their future activities, if you’re that way inclined.

There were five speakers who focused on different subject areas. Neil Faulkner gave a strong overview on how the war came about, Megan Truddell spoke about the anti-war movement in Italy and how the fracturing experience effected post-war Italian politics, Ian Birchill spoke mainly about the movement against war in France while George Paizis spoke about the Greek anti-war movement in, mainly, Salonica and Terry Ward had a focus closer to home and was particularly interested in both family histories and leading socialist turned pro-war triumphalist Robert Blatchford.

What I liked about Faulkner’s paper was that it was a fresh attempt to create a more integrated, holistic approach to the causes of the war. This means not simply taking a dry appraisal of specific events or the build up of Imperialist war machines, that created an almost inescapable logic for war, but also things like the psychology of the time and how colonialism plus industrialisation plus capitalism created a mindset as well as a politics that allowed not just war to take place but to take place on such an unprecedented scale. It’s hard to understand how millions launched themselves into the slaughter without seeing how fundamentally alienated and brutalised society had become.

I’m not sure I agree with everything he was saying, but that’s what exploring ideas is all about, looking at things in new lights see what shadows they cast. Where I think he was strongest was in talking about how the war was a complete paradigm shift from previous conflicts. While we’d seen certain aspects of the war (trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, mass conscription) prefigured in previous conflicts the First World War brought these elements together in a horrifyingly destructive way. It also helps explain why it required a paradigm shift to end the war. Unusually the war ended while ‘enemy’ troops were still in the countries they had invaded, which reinforces the fact that the war ended because the Russian people ended their war and provided an example across Europe that the slaughter did not have to continue. This is highly unusual.

Ian Birchill pointed us towards Hobsbawm who said that “the whole point of history is to be a pain in bum to national myths”. However, it’s undoubtedly true that when the war began it was greeted by an upsurge in patriotism and ‘war fever’ across society (with notable, honourable exceptions). Burchill put this down to how deeply ingrained imperialism was in the major European powers, the propaganda around things like poor little Belgium and “raped nuns”, genuine physical intimidation making opposing the war a frightening experience, silencing many who had doubts, and a failure of leadership from those who, before the war, you might have expected to provide radical leadership. This not only included socialists like Blatchford, anarchists like Kropotkin and suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst but also entire organisations.

Jean Jaures, French socialist leader assassinated on the eve of warIn France this included ‘revolutionary syndicalists’ in the CGT union federation which had 300,000 members and, like most of the French left, had opposed the build up to war. Once the German army was on the move however they instantly lost their nerve. This must be at least partly because being invaded is a very different experience than joining a foreign war. Intimidation was also a very real feeling. French socialist leader Jean Jaures (pictured) was assassinated on the eve of war because of his very opposition to the coming war. It was also fueled by a conception that the left should ‘always be with the class’. This led one CGT leader to volunteer for the front – but refuse to carry a gun! Quite what his officers thought of this I’m not sure.

Certainly in the short term this meant that the anti-war movement pretty much melted away as soon as war was declared. However, it’s worth remembering this is a snapshot in time. By the end of the war something like half of the French army had deserted and mutinies and anti-war feeling was at an all time high. This was partly a product of the fact that hundreds of thousands of socialists had earlier filled the ranks of the army – a very different approach than the British Conscientious Objectors.

There were similarities though. The Clarion, the most popular left paper at the time edited by leading socialist Blatchford outright supported the war. Terry Ward quoted one letter from a “Clarionette” saying that he was glad to serve in the army and that if he should die he’d “die a socialist”. This about turn by those many would have been looking to to give a lead against the war meant that many found themselves disorientated and unable to stand against the pro-war tide.  At least at the beginning of the war.

These complications were also examined in the discussions on Greece and Italy where previous political allegiances and fissures found the war drive with some unexpected left allies. But it was also true that some nationalists in Greece and the Pope himself in Italy opposed the war giving heart to a great many who thought the slaughter was wrong.

In Italy over five million men were called up, but over 10% were prisoners of war by the end of the conflict. It’s no wonder that there was a general strike in Turin in 1917 and a growing anti-war movement led by women workers, who were often writing to their loved ones at the front encouraging them not to fight.

One lesson from all the papers seemed clear to me. That it is far easier to stop a war before it starts than after the shelling begins. Iraq and Afghanistan today show us that once you’ve plunged yourself into a war getting yourself out of it again can be near impossible – and the Parliamentary vote on Syria shows that it is possible to stop wars before they’ve begun.

It’s clear that the commemorations of the war will be as much about the conflicts of today as they are about remembering and honouring the past. That gives us double the reason to ensure that those who opposed the war then are not forgotten who are part of a tradition that many of us stand in today. As Megan Trudell said the commemorations “will not be over by Christmas” and we are at the start of four years where the past, as well as the present, are contested.

The Luton Peace Riots (1919)

Is it possible to have a riot in favour of peace? Possibly not, but the good people of Luton in 1919 certainly gave it a good crack.

The day they burned down the town hall over “Peace”

The day they burned down the town hall over “Peace”

It all started in July 1919 when the Mayor, Edwin Oakley, announced there would be a banquet to celebrate the end of hostilities. Uncontroversial you might think, but far from it.

First of all women were not allowed to attend. Worse still those who had not been invited directly by the Mayor had to pay fifteen shillings to attend, far out of reach for most ex-servicemen – although a half penny had been added to the rates to ensure that the well to do of Luton could have a slap up feast.  Add to this no veterans organisation had been asked to help plan the events, and when they decided to hold their own alternative event in the park permission was effectively refused.

Those who had only just come back from the war could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t welcome at the Mayor’s Peace banquet. If this wasn’t enough the people of the area had a long standing grudge against the Mayor who was widely regarded as a war profiteer, raking up food prices in times of scarcity and growing fat on the proceeds. This was not the land fit for heroes that the soldiers had been promised.

They decided to hold a march.

I’ll let the Luton News of 24th July take up the story;

“The first sign that there was likelihood of trouble was when the procession reached the Town hall. A detachment representing the Comrades of the Great War was heading the column and a halt was called in front of the Town Hall”.

“The Mayor, wearing his robes and chain of office, came to the edge of the pavement and proceeded to read the King’s Peace Proclamation and briefly to address the discharged men. His appearance was the signal for a hostile demonstration on the part of the crowd, cheering turned into jeering. The attitude of the crowd a little later assumed a distinctly ugly character, and as a precautionary measure, P. S. Matsell and three constables took up a position on the steps”.

“There were loud cries for the Mayor, and a section of the spectators advanced and demanded that his Worship and the Town Clerk should come to the front and give explanations of the Corporation’s decision in regard to Wardown. The request was not acceded to, and a move was made in the direction of the doors”.

“For quite a time P. S. Matsell and his police colleagues, though hustled considerably held their ground. Finally – overpowered by sheer weight of numbers – the police were rushed and the doors forced open. The object of the crowd which streamed into the building seemed to be the Assembly Room, in which Monday night’s banquet [see above] was to be held. They swarmed upstairs, and found a table or two set out for tea, presumably for the civic party”.

“Immediately they commenced to wreck the furniture, and a suggestion was made that the whole of the tables and chairs should be thrown through the windows into the street. Chairs were pitched on to the pavement below, some windows being broken in the process, whilst a missile of some kind was hurled through one of the windows in the Town Clerk’s office”.

“At this point the police exhorted the men to remember that innocent women and children were in the crowd below, who stood a serious risk of injury if the furniture were thrown out. Intruders then got on to the balcony and proceeded to tear down all the bunting and decorations, as well as the framework of the electrical illumination scheme erected the previous day”.

“An urgent message had been sent to Wardown for police reinforcements, and the arrival of the Chef Constable and other mounted men, and Inspector F. Janes and a party in a motor-car, was the first intimation to many people in New Bedford-road and Manchester-street that anything untoward was occurring. The 20 specials who had formed part of the procession were also marched back to the Town Hall by Deputy Chief Constable Robinson. The police eventually cleared the Town Hall, and after the wreckage of chairs and bunting etc., had been carried inside, the doors were again barred”.

“Several members of the crowd, including a crippled ex-soldier, then mounted the Town Hall steps and impassioned speeches were made, grievances regarding pensions and other matters affecting discharged and disabled men being ventilated”.

“Excitement gradually simmered down, and apparently not knowing if the Mayor had left the Town Hall, a large crowd marched to his private residence in London-road. Report has it that the Chief Constable showed the greatest tact in a trying situation; that he succeeded in getting the ear of the men and asked them to nominate a leader. This they did, but on inquiry found that his Worship had not arrived home, and accordingly they took the advice of the police and dispersed”.

“During the late afternoon and early evening, a revival of trouble being feared, efforts were made by the local authorities to enlist police aid from London, but without avail. Between 10 and 11 p.m. a large and determined mob arrived to swell the already congested Town Hall approaches, armed with bricks, hammers and other weapons. Though there was a good deal of noise, no real attempt at damage appears to have been made until the lighting of the giant Dover flares at each end of the town – People’s Park, Hart Hill, London-road, and the back of the Downs – lit the whole district as though it were day”.

“Immediately, as though by pre-arranged signal, a fusillade of bricks and other missiles was rained upon the Town Hall, and the windows were smashed with great rapidity. Rushes were made for the building, but the entrance was barred by the police. Several efforts were made to fire the Town Hall, but as and when they occurred were dealt with by the police inside the building. The doors and windows of the Food Office, on the Manchester-street corner, were completely wrecked, but Inspector Janes and his comrades repeatedly ejected from the room men who had gained entry and were endeavouring to fire the place. In the end, baton charges had to be made to drive the crowd back some distance. Shortly after midnight, by the aid of the petrol referred to, the fire was actually started and rapidly assumed most serious proportions”.

“The Fire Brigade arrived on the scene via Guildford-street, but were immediately surrounded by the hostile elements and were prevented from attacking the flames owing to the fact that their hose pipes were severed in all directions and the two men accompanying Chief Officer Andrew were immediately knocked out by the crowd”.

“The shop of Mr. W. S. Clark, at the corner of Wellington-street, had by this time been smashed in and parts of its contents looted; but mainly the ringleaders contented themselves with taking the owner’s stock of glass bottles, in order to strengthen their supply of “ammunition””.

“In addition the Herts Motors garage was burst open and tins of petrol were seized to feed the fire. Weakened by their long and continuous effort to maintain the property intact, and by the loss of many of their number who had been put out of action by close contact and also the rain of missiles, the police and firemen were practically powerless, and the fire got really started in the Town Clerk’s department, and in the Food Office”.

“Men could be seen hurling into the room all sorts of inflammable material – pieces of broken window frames, doors etc. – which they could obtain; and, the outbreak once having been actually started, was fed by fireworks and petrol until it had obtained a complete hold on that corner”.

“The Chief Officer had by this time lost several of his men, owing to the attentions of the crowd, and he deceived the wild elements by withdrawing his motor from the scene. A rush was made to wreck the machine by damaging the radiator, and the Chief received a heavy blow, but his helmet saved him from injury. He returned to the vicinity of the Town Hall by a devious route. He got a length of hose fixed from a hydrant in Dunstable-place, but when, with the aid of special constables and civilians (among whom, we understand, were members of the Comrades of the Great War), the nozzle was run down to near the blazing building, a rush was made to collar the hose”.

“The attention of the crowd being concentrated on this matter, the Brigade were enabled to get a second line of hose going, the connection being made in a few seconds. It was then the rescuers commenced to get the upper hand, for with very powerful crossed jets of water, at high pressure, the firemen swept the entrance to Upper George-street in machine-gun fashion, kept back the men who tried to rush the path (several being knocked clean off their feet), and attacked the flames in earnest”.

“It was apparent that the main structure was doomed, and principal attention was devoted to adjoining property, In their efforts in this direction they met with considerable success, for at one time it seemed highly probably that the whole of the block of buildings back to Gordon-street might be involved. This danger was happily averted, and the flames were prevented from spreading beyond the principal set of buildings”.

“The Food Office was completely gutted and the situation there as such that on Monday morning it was necessary to demolish the outer walls at the corner in the interests of public safety. At one time on Saturday night, before the fire had gained a firm hold, there was a big shower of coupons and other literature thrown out of the window”.

“From this point onwards the crowd was somewhat less bellicose in its attitude towards the fire-fighters and police, but the grim carnival was carried to extreme limits”.

“Messrs Farmer & Co.’s piano warehouse was broken into and the instruments dragged into the street. To the tune of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” the wilder elements of the huge gathering danced and sang, some even mounting a grand piano for the purpose”.

“All this time the Brigade maintained its attack on the blaze, the hydrants and hose being guarded by special constables, though the force was sadly depleted, owing to the number of men who had been injured and had been removed for treatment to the police station and to the Bute Hospital, Mrs. Griffin and others rendered yeoman service in this direction and the motor ambulance was kept regularly employed”.

TROOPS CALLED IN 

“About 3 a.m.a body of the R. F. A. [Royal Field Artillery] from Biscot Camp, marching eight abreast, swung down Upper George-street singing gaily as they came. At the sight of khaki the crowd seemed to fade away, and with a cordon of troops drawn round the Town Hall, Chief Officer Andrew was able to get down to the task of obtaining control of the outbreak”.

“The arrival of the R. F. A.  was too late to prevent the damage and looting of the premises of Mr. G. Payne [confectioner, 5 Manchester Street] and Messrs. Brown [J. M. Brown & Company, boot and shoe dealers, 9 Manchester Street], in Manchester-street”.

“Finally a section of the crowd visited the shop of Mr. Caspers, hairdresser, in Bute-street [Carl Caspers, 4 Bute Street], and having smashed the windows, looted the umbrellas which formed a portion of his stock; whilst a brick was thrown through a window at the shop of Mr. H. Stern [Hermann Stern, straw hat material merchant, 5 Bute Street - both were, of course, German names], on the opposite side of the road”.

“It was five o’clock before the special constables were able to be released, and the regular police force still fit for duty remained at their posts until they could be replaced by officers drawn from outside areas”.

“Early on Sunday morning, a very large body of troops were marched in from Bedford and took charge of the centre of the town”.

If anyone ever tries to tell you that there was a patriotic consensus in Britain tell them about the Luton Peace Riot. How a war profiteer mayor tried to prevent ex-servicemen attending any commemoration event in favour of a banquet for the rich. That the men in response burned down the town hall, tore up the bunting and stood rounds the flames singing “Keep the home fires burning”. Perhaps this little moment from history indicates that not everyone thought the war had been fought for peace and freedom after all.

Crisis in the Ukraine (round-up)

Links and articles from the last few days that you may find useful on the situation in the Ukraine.

News

Statements

Informed Speculation

Events

Readers’ Suggestions since posting

Feel free to message me at the contact details below if you have other articles you think are worth reading. I will update this post for a few days but I won’t be attempting an ongoing comprehensive dossier, just a useful set of links as the situation unfolds.