Monday, 14 January 2019

Time to change course?

Time to change course?

I, like many on the Left voted for Brexit because the EU is demonstrably an undemocratic organisation, representing the interests of capital and the few, higher developed and dominant countries in the group. Its structure makes it virtually impossible for any member country to determine its own economic parameters or to develop socialist forms. That said, I feel the present chaotic and dangerous situation must make all of us review our positions. When I voted, I certainly didn’t envisage negotiations on Brexit being undertaken and completed by one of the most right-wing and incompetent Tory governments of all time. I am also unhappy at finding myself in bed with a whole number of unsavoury characters like Nigel Farage and Co.

We are also deceiving ourselves completely if we imagine that most of the Brexit voters did so for good left wing reasons. Those who did so can be roughly broken down into a few distinct groups: a miniscule minority on the Left who would like to see our country in a position to build a socialist society, then the majority – in the main, north of London and working class – who were fed-up with austerity and their lack of representation both in Westminster and Brussels, then a backwoods Tory grouping comprising those who look back with nostalgia to the Empire days and, finally, the xenophobes who just hate all things foreign. Not a simple or straightforward ideological mix.

Irrespective of whether Brexit goes through on May’s deal or as a no-deal hard Brexit, no rational person will deny that the consequences for the UK are incalculable and full of bear traps. There is no doubt that the Tory hardline Brexiters, like Liam Fox, would be more than happy to see Britain fall into the arms of the USA and become the 51st state. And that is certainly not what we want.

For those of us who would like to see a Labour government under Corbyn, bring in genuine socialist policies, the chances of this coming about are far from certain. Since Thatcher demolished most of Britain’s manufacturing industry, the country has become reliant on financial trading, foreign-owned assembly-belt industries and the service sector. Even if a left-wing government under Corbyn were elected, the country would need immediate and massive investment (where would the money come from?) and it would take generations to re-establish a skilled and educated workforce and years to rebuild a domestic manufacturing infrastructure.

There is a strong feeling in the country, including many on the Left, particularly young people and a majority in Momentum – whose enthused commitment will be vital for any successful election campaign – that Brexit as it stands – May’s deal or no deal – offers no solution to our problems and could plunge the country into more chaos and impose a more dire austerity. The wealthy, as always, will not suffer either way; they have already parked their wealth in offshore tax havens and invested elsewhere. It will be those already bearing the brunt of Tory polices who will suffer. There will be mass sackings by those firms reliant on European exports and no new jobs without mass investment.

If an election is called, many will be very reluctant to vote Labour because they see the leadership’s present stance as equivocal, and they can’t see how a Corbyn government could obtain a better deal than May has. The process has now gone too far for any meaningful re-negotiations.

The overwhelming majority of those who voted Brexit, apart from the few committed Lefties, will not be persuaded to vote for Labour. They are fully behind May, who they feel is courageously ‘fighting Britain’s corner’ against a bullying EU, in the old Churchillian spirit. They say, get on with it, Brexit now, whatever the cost! In a new election, it would not be too wild an assumption to see the Tories romp home again and Labour’s vote split on this issue alone. While correctly continuing to argue that the EU is undemocratic and not reformable in its present form,  we have to draw back from the brink and adopt a different strategy, joining most of the other left-wing European parties, if we are to maintain a united movement.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Art for All Book Review

Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War
by Christine Lindey
Pubs: Artery Publications
Price: Hdbck £45; Pbck £25

In her previous well-received book Art in the Cold War  Lindey discovered British artists largely ignored by the dominant art world, largely for political reasons. This omission became enshrined in subsequent art history much of which still implies that 1930s British socially committed art petered out until the renewed interest in art and politics by artists of the1960s.
This attractively-designed, extremely readable and informative book fills this  gap by reclaiming socially committed artists active in these two intervening decades. This time span also offers fascinating contrasts between the dominant contexts of patronage and aesthetics during the wartime social consensus as opposed to the individualism promoted in the first phase of the Cold War. Most mainstream critics either ignore  the political context of art production and fail to see a close relationship between politics and art. Christine Lindey demonstrates how the two are inextricably linked.

In her text, Lindey carefully traces how world events affected the thinking and actions of British artists. In the twenties and thirties, for example, many joined the Communist Party and a few, such as Cliff Rowe and Pearl Binder, spent time working in the Soviet Union. Some remained party members for life, some did not.  Some fought with the International Brigades in Spain, where, one of them, Felicia Browne was one of the first to be killed. Some had no direct political affiliation, but were happy to produce works for working class sponsors such as the trade unions.  Some were founder members of the Artists International, later the Artists International Association, an organisation whose foundation, expansion and decline paralleled the waning influence of Marxist and socialist ideas within the British art world during the Cold War.  This was further demonstrated by the attitude of the Arts Council.  Founded in 1946, it was warmly greeted by those artists who believed in the need for state sponsorship of the arts.  But when the Council quickly moved away from its initially stated  position of ‘The Best for the Most’ to that of ‘Few, but roses’ they swiftly became disillusioned by its essentially elitist approach.
That artists could organise and work together for political ends may seem astonishing to us today when international capital dominates the art market as never before.  The rediscovery of such concepts, and of the artists who believed in and worked for them, is one of the many delights of this book.

Twenty-nine artists are featured in this book. Keen to reach the masses and aware of the conservatism and escapism of mass taste, socialist artists varying from Peter Perí to Ghisha Koenig remained committed to an accessible art. This set them apart from the formal experimentation favoured by ‘high art’ canons of taste, as well as from the sugar-coated dream worlds of mass produced art prints and mass media imagery. In resistance to these formidably dominant High and Low art opponents, artists of conviction including Clive Branson, Priscilla Thornycroft and Ruskin Spear created unvarnished depictions of contemporary life. Sometimes overtly political, the works were more often humane assertions of the social importance of working people and their lives. The ‘modernism versus realism’ critical debate dominated both decades. That socially committed artists’ realism was ultimately a matter of content rather than of style is shown by contrasting the works with avant-garde and rear-guard ones; for example a comparison of the humanism of Josef Herman’s modernist portraits with the alienation of Lucian Freud’s realist ones and the idealised portraits in Vladimir Tretchikoff’s mass produced prints.
Marginalised artists are brought to the fore by discussing their diverse lives, aims and works in their cultural and socio-political contexts. Exploring the personal and political events which influenced key artists’ formative years explains how artists of different generations, gender, social class and national origin were politicised and came to share similar outlooks. While it was not unusual for artists to be broadly left-leaning, unlike their peers a few disparate artists such as the upper class Betty Rea, the working class George Fullard and the Hungarian political émigré Peter Perí put their work at the service of their political beliefs. Although activism brought many of the artists together they did not form a self-defined movement, it is their shared ideological commitment which links their works. A detailed identification and definition of recurring content in socially committed artists’ stylistically diverse works reveals a shared desire to promote social justice and respect for working class life. The content of their works and their theoretical debates relate to the continuing arguments on the left about art and propaganda and the relationship between art and politics. Some, like Spear and James Fitton fought from within the art establishment and became the enfants terribles of the Royal Academy while others such as Boswell, Paul Hogarth and Ken Sprague continued the 1930s socialist practice of working as illustrators, sometimes for left wing organisations. The relative lack of critical success of many of the artists highlights the restrictive effects on patronage and critical response of the dominant art world’s ideological assumptions. This is emphasised by the contrast between the greater assimilation of socially committed artists into the mainstream during the wartime consensus compared to their increased marginalisation during the Cold War.

In her preface, the artist and writer Lynn MacRitchie writes that ‘the books subject is new. It redefines art history by reclaiming a marginalised aspect of British art and by discussing it in the contexts of High and Low art. By avoiding jargon it is accessible to the general reader. The book  is timely, given the current revival of interest in socialism and socially committed art. Although it deals with little known artists some of whom are obscure, the book’s story has a larger resonance by showing that the artists’ relative obscurity was partly due to their politics. These courageous outsiders, largely consigned to obscurity by Cold War ideology resisted the formidable cultural power of dominant aesthetics. Their evocations of their eras ambiances and preoccupations made a minor but important contribution to British art. Their works and stories deserve to be better known.’
I could not sum up  the importance of this book better than Simon Casimir Wilson does. He is the author of Holbein to Hockney: A History of British Art, former Tate curator, columnist for RA Magazine. He calls Christine Lindey ‘a doyenne of British art history and one of its most original, accessible and principled practitioners. In previous publications she has approached traditional art history in novel ways, as well as revealing the importance and fascination of previously neglected areas. Her thought and writing combine academic rigour with a rare lucidity. In Art for All she explores a rich vein of British art … As a historian of British art myself I found this book a revelation, not least, for example, of artists of the quality of Eva Frankfurther of whom, to my shame, I had never heard. An important contribution to the history of British art, this book, in its focus on a socially and politically aware practice that seeks a genuinely wide audience, seems particularly timely in this historical moment of rampant individualism and raging inequality.’ 

The upcoming nationwide Insiders/Outsiders Festival (March 2019-March 2020) will celebrate the contribution made to British culture by refugees from Nazi Europe whose work will be displayed in many of Britain’s prestigious art venues during the year. Christine Lindey’s book which features a number of such refugees from fascism, can be seen as pioneering and sets the tone for such an important ‘rediscovery’ of these artists.

Why has the Russian government let loose its secret service on the West?

Why has the Russian government let loose its secret service on the West?
There is little doubt, based on the evidence available, that the Russian state security services have been behind a number of recent attempts to hack into Western institutes and organisations as well as interference in elections. According to US intelligence officials, Russian hackers made repeated attempts before the most recent US presidential election to penetrate major US institutions, including the White House and the state department. They also made used of Wikileaks to hack into Hilary Clinton’s emails.

German officials say a Russian hacking group was behind a major attack last year on the parliament in Berlin. The attack – like those in the US – involved phishing emails. They were sent from an account,, which appeared to come from the United Nations. The hack may have gone on for several months.
There is also evidence that the hackers have attempted to target Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party too.

The most recent attempt has been a Russian cyber-attack on the headquarters of the international chemical weapons watchdog, which was foiled by Dutch military intelligence only weeks after the Salisbury novichok attack. All this has led to an escalation of the diplomatic war between the West and Putin.
The targeting of individuals, like the ‘traitors’ Litvinenko and Skripal is part of the pattern.
Outrage at such subterfuge and callousness by or with the collusion of the Russian state is understandable. But all this evidence is being used to demonise Russia even further and increase its isolation, instead of using diplomacy to persuade the Russian government to stop using such tactics. So why does Russia feel the need to risk worldwide opprobrium by adopting such tactics in clear contravention of international law?

What is deliberately ignored in the coverage of all these events, is the political and economic background.
While abhorring illegal and inhuman acts, and not wanting in any way to excuse Putin’s government of culpability, I am interested in discovering the motivation for recent Russian misbehaviour on the international stage, and looking back into history can help explain these issues.

There are clear precedents as seen in Stalin’s behaviour after the death of Lenin vis a vis the West. At the time, Stalin’s policies were explained as due to his serious psychotic state, his paranoia and callousness. However, if we step outside the box and for once view things from a Russian point of view, Stalin’s paranoia and more recent events take on a very different shape.

Immediately after the revolution, Russia was invaded by a whole number of Western powers, Britain, the USA, France, Poland and Romania as well as Japan. Deeply alarmed by the ‘Bolshevik threat’, Churchill poured troops into Russia to assist the counter-revolutionaries during the so-called wars of intervention. ‘The foul baboonery of Bolshevism’, as he called it, must be ‘strangled in its cradle’. Churchill was concerned that Bolshevism could spread to Germany and so urged his colleagues at the Paris Peace Conference to treat Germany as a friend in the post-war world: ‘Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun,’ as he wrote to Violet Asquith at the time.

With the rise of fascism, Stalin was once again confronted with Western duplicity, when these governments made every attempt to appease Hitler and send him East rather than invading Western Europe. A strategy that fatally misfired. If Stalin tended towards paranoia right from the start, Western policies certainly compounded it, as they are doing today with Putin.

British and US attempts to bully the post war Soviet Union with their new ‘super weapon’, the atomic bomb, also misfired when the Russians managed (with the help of sympathetic Western scientists) to build their own.

When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in 1979, largely in a move to protect its vulnerable south-eastern flank, the West mobilised the Taliban with the help of Bin Laden to confront their forces, and look what that mushroomed into.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1990, we all thought the Cold War as well as the continued threat of a hot war was over and we could all breath a sigh of relief. Many of us expected NATO to be disbanded as the Warsaw Pact no longer existed. How naïve.

Despite the break up of the Soviet Union and its adoption of a capitalist system, Western powers still fear its geo-political strength. Despite promises made to Gorbachev by Reagan and George Bush sr. that NATO would not attempt to move its forces up to the Russian border, that has happened. Former Soviet Republics have been encouraged to join NATO, Ukraine has been actively encouraged to confront Russia. Putin has been demonised and ostracised. Is it any wonder that Russia fears Western motives and is determined to take every measure possible to protect itself?

From the Western perspective, Russia remains the only large stumbling black to western capital’s total hegemony over Europe and that part of Asia. Admittedly, the action Putin and his government have taken has not made it particularly easy to look sympathetically at the Russian case, but that should not be the focus.

Putin, while ideologically undoubtedly on the side of capitalism, is also a strong nationalist and, like Stalin before him, is determined to protect Russia in the face of determined aggression. His fears, just like Stalin’s, are not based on a wild imagination. The media do not mention the continual spying, subterfuge and hacking that the Western powers have continuously undertaken against, first the Soviet Union and then Russia, as if interference is a one-way street.

We need honest diplomacy from both sides, as well as enforceable agreements to prevent electronic interference in each other’s internal affairs and a moratorium on espionage activity. And we also have to recognise Russia’s genuine concerns and demand that NATO pull back its forces from the border. Co-operation rather than confrontation is essential if we are to avoid a new and dangerous escalation.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

book review: More Dire and Dirty than Fire and Fury - inside the Trump White House

Fire and Fury – inside the Trump White House
by Michael Wolff
Pubs. Henry Holt and Co.

The furore surrounding Wolff’s book is unsurprising because he lifts the lid on the foetid cesspit that is Trump’s White House. In the tradition of scandal-mongering journalism, he reveals the back-stabbing, in-fighting and squabbling of this ramshackle administration of bigots, ignoramuses and incompetents.

Successful Lid-lifting exercises are not new and offer their authors rich rewards, even if what they reveal is less rewarding for the reader. Trump’s election and administration have been mired in controversy from the start and already he threatens to compete with Roman emperor Caligula’s antics. Wolff’s insider’s revelations embellish the tale, but does little to reveal the political and economic factors behind Trump’s elevation? The collapse of Trump’s flagship aim of repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act, for instance, is given less than a single sentence in the book.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump came to be the soundboard for the widespread discontent in the US, and that deserves greater examination. Among the book’s chief shortcomings is its failure to explain how in the world’s ‘greatest democracy’ someone like Trump became president.
Wolff’s book rips off any remaining veils, allowing those who know Trump best to reveal his obscene nudity in full. But Wolff is more consumed with the news media and personalities than policy issues. He says he’s not interested in politics but people and power … and while what he writes is compulsively fascinating, he does exclude facts and fudges specifics. He excoriates the entire Trump entourage and is a keen judge of character. Much of what he says, though, has to be taken on trust, as few sources are cited.
Wolff didn’t write this book because he abhors Trump’s policies. He is a journalist who, like Trump, is not squeamish about bending the truth in favour of a good story. His book opens with a dinner conversation that included Bannon and Ailes, former Fox News boss, before the inauguration, offering verbatim quotations. He says the dinner took place ‘in a Greenwich Village townhouse’, but omits to reveal that it was his home and he was hosting it.
Bannon has the loudest mouth – a spurned lover invariably becomes a most vitriolic critic. He brands the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower,  attended by a number of Russians, as ‘treasonous’, unpatriotic and bad shit’. Wolff also quotes Henry Kissinger’s take on the internal feud between Kushner and Bannon as ‘a war between the Jews and non-Jews’.
As Jonathan Martin in the New York Times (8 Jan) puts it: ‘Wolff is unsparing in his portrayal of Trump as an aberrant chief executive, not only detached from governance but barely literate. He summons withering on-the-record assessments from ostensible allies of a seemingly infantile president.’

Fire and Fury has ignited a war that will leave its share of ‘collateral damage’. In essence the book underlines that Trump is simply Trump, he has no clear ideology, no political cause, he is simply an extreme egotist.