Monday, 9 August 2010

Dias Lourenço –legendary leader of the anti-fascist struggle in Portugal

António Dias Lourenço the legendary Portuguese communist leader and editor the party’s paper, Avante!, died on 7 August in Lisbon at the age of 95.
He was born in the village of Vila Franca in 1915 and became a lathe operator, joining the party as a 17 year-old in 1932. Portugal was at the time suffering under the iron fist of fascist dictator Salazar – which would become the longest surviving fascist dictatorship in the World. Dias Lourenço was responsible for the illegal publication of the party paper Avante! from 1957 until 1962, under the dictatorship, and became its editor from the day of its first legal issue in 1974 until 1991.

He was imprisoned twice under Salazar in 1949 and in 1962 and spent 17 years in fascist prisons. He made a spectacular escape from the notorious prison fortress of Peniche in 1954. This damp and formidable medieval fortress, on the western coast, is lashed by the sea and from which it was believed impossible to escape. But Dias Lourenco managed to hide in the prison, before jumping off the high wall into the freezing Atlantic waters and swimming to safety. While in prison he was viciously tortured to reveal party secrets, but kept silent.

When I was filming in Portugal only a few months after the momentous 1974 April revolution, we made a portrait of Dias Lourenço for GDR television. We accompanied him to Peniche prison where he related his story. While filming in his old cell, now holding former fascist guards (in very liberal conditions I might add), he rushed out, feeling nauseous. We wondered what had happened and he told us that one of those guards was had been his torturer during his own incarceration.
He took an active part in the reorganisation of the party in 1940/41 in the area of the Baixo Ribatejo and was elected to the regional committee. From then on he led a life of clandestine political activity, responsible for party publications and their distribution. Together with the party’s general secretary, Alvaro Cuñhal and others, he was able to forge close links between the country’s progressive intellectuals and workers, thus building the party’s unique standing throughout the country and giving the anti-fascist struggle a broader base.
He was elected to the central committee in 1943 and remained until 1996. He was one of the chief organisers of the mass strikes of July and August in 1943 and in May of 1944. He also led the struggle for the eight-hour working day for agricultural workers.
António Dias Lourenço was elected a member of parliament after the revolution 1975-87. He also wrote several books about his experiences under fascism and in the party.
He was a man of incredible courage, passion and commitment. With an unassuming modesty and love for his country and its working people. He will be sorely missed by progressives in Portugal and internationally.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Injustice – why social inequality persists
By Daniel Dorling
Policy Press
Hdbck. £19.99

This book is a must read for all those looking for an evidence-based demolition of free-market capitalism. It is a fine complement to The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Wilkinson and Pickett. It is a combination of passion, compassion and astute factual argument.

Dorling, who is Professor of Human Geography at Sheffield University, argues that there are five tenets underpinning injustice in our society: elitism is efficient, exclusion is necessary, prejudice is natural, greed is good and despair inevitable. He amasses a whole gamut of compelling facts and statistics to make his case. These tenets were central to the Blairite agenda and Con-Dem agenda. Dorling provides us with one of the most incisive analysis of society’s ills to be published for a long time.

He argues that in affluent countries ‘social injustices are now being recreated, renewed and supported by new sets of beliefs which need confronting’. His central thesis is that inequalities in our society are more rampant than ever, despite our living in an era of labour saving technology, abundance and wealth. This fact, he says, demands a complete change in the thinking we all to some extent hold.

‘Greater equality is easily possible,’ he writes, ‘even in the US. In 1951 the communist-hating soon-to-be consumer society and nuclear-powered USA taxed the rich at 51.6% on earnings.’ Today the rate is between 10-30%, although Obama has recently undertaken a redistributive budget in an attempt to haul the country out of recession – only a year earlier an unimaginable step for a US government. Here in Britain, on the contrary, our government is doing the opposite.

Incredibly, ‘in countries like Britain people last lived lives as unequal as today, measured by wage inequality, in 1854 when Charles Dickens was writing Hard Times,’ he says. Inequality is plastered over by having more police to enforce state power, building more prisons and prescribing more drugs. Interestingly, too, the most unequal of rich countries were the most willing to go to war since 1939. That’s another way of taking people’s focus away from inequality and injustice at home.

Dorling, though, is adamant that injustice and inequality can be successfully fought, but it requires rethinking and concerted action by the supposedly powerless. Almost every time there has been a victory for humanity against greed, he writes, it has been the result of millions of small actions mostly undertaken by people not in government. ‘Resistance has always been most effective when exercised by those taught that they were the most powerless.’

He is in no doubt that ‘the human condition is fundamentally social and the modern preoccupation with individuality is really just a fantasy, a form of self-delusion.’

In conclusion, Dorling makes no attempt to offer facile solutions or utopian vistas, but says we can change this system if we all take some responsibility and don’t leave it up to others. In other words those in power can only continue to hold and abuse that power because we let them. He also illustrates how easy it would be to redistribute wealth, given the will to do so.

In this book he combines his skills as a human geographer with a sound understanding of economics and sociology. He has an easy, informal, yet authoritative style – essential reading for everyone concerned with social justice.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Time to celebrate our own revolution?

The French are proud of their bourgeois revolution and celebrate it. Why do we pretend we never had one and why do we vilify the man who led it?
Today, on 3 September, 352 years ago Oliver Cromwell died. Despite being the leader of the English bourgeois revolution – the first in the world - which transformed Britain’s historical trajectory, he is someone we appear to want to disavow like a disreputable relative. British historians still insist on calling our revolution the ‘Civil War’(1642-51). Every year the French celebrate Bastille Day - the anniversary of the symbolic storming of the Parisian citadel on 14 July 1789; the rallying call of that revolution was adopted as their national anthem. They are proud of that legacy and celebrate it, despite the fact that it unleashed unprecedented violence and the bloodbath of the ‘Terror’. We are ashamed of our revolution so we prefer the euphemism ‘civil war’, which bowdlerises that momentous event. Novels and most historical narratives written about the period since glorify the Cavaliers and romanticise the aristocracy while denigrating the ‘vulgar and brutal’ Roundheads and the ugly and ‘tyrannical’ figure of Cromwell. The old ruling classes, despite their defeat, were able to impose their interpretation on the narrative. There are only two statues or monuments to his memory (one in front of Parliament and one in Manchester) and none, as far as I am aware, to the revolution in the whole of Britain.
Few leaders and no revolutions are pure, ideal or completely virtuous; what matters is their historical significance and the role they have played in changing society for the better. Cromwell we know was certainly no paragon in this respect. His suppression of the really radical elements within the revolution and his, later, brutal oppression of Catholic Ireland sullied the ideals and aspirations of the revolution. He also became increasingly reactionary in power and turned on the more progressive elements in the New Model Army, extirpating any attempts to build a truly more just and egalitarian country. All that, though, should not blind us to the extraordinary changes he did usher in and the role the revolution played in releasing those bourgeois forces which later made possible Britain’s industrial expansion, transforming it into the ‘factory of the world’. He was the founder of the Republican Commonwealth – England’s first Republic. He was certainly no dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, even from the outset, nor was he a leader of the oppressed, but he did have a strong sense of the injustice prevailing in the country. As late as 1650 he said, ‘the law as it is now constituted serves only to maintain the lawyers and to encourage the rich to oppress the poor.’ We perhaps also need to remember, as another positive example of Cromwell’s rule, that in 1656 he was responsible for re-admitting Jews into England for the first time since they were expelled in 1290 under Edward I.
In order for the merchants, traders and gentry to push through the radical changes they desired, they had to enlist the support of the general populace if they were to achieve success, but it was an uneasy alliance. Well before 1642 piecemeal enclosures had forced thousands off the land, excessive taxation and exploitation had also played their parts in driving people from the countryside into the cities. These were people full of anger, frustration and class hatred who readily embraced the Cromwellian revolution as a means of getting even with their oppressors and ushering in a more just political system. They formed a sort of masterless, anarchic army of the poor with no roots and nothing to lose. Cromwell’s New Model Army was the most democratic army the world had seen, with ‘agitators’ appointed to regiments (comparable with the Commissars in the Bolshevik Forces). The army became a university for the soldiers – there were avid debates, radical political groupings and fiery preachers. Officers were obliged to win the respect of their men if they didn’t wish to be demoted or removed.

As the historian Christopher Hill points out, there were actually two revolutions taking place during the sixteen forties - a revolution within the revolution. From around 1645 to 1653 ‘there was an overturning, questioning and revaluing of everything in England,’ he says.

Cromwell was the man who created the conditions that allowed the common people to express their own ideas for social change. The revolution provided the space and opportunity for the expression and development of radical and truly revolutionary ideas. Ideas which had been fermenting among the people for decades before Cromwell’s rule now began frothing in earnest. Groups like the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters attempted to impose their own solutions on the problems of their time. The fact that Cromwell led a successful revolt against the corrupt and privileged feudal aristocracy and wrested power from the king, demonstrated to the people that radical change was possible. With each Parliamentary victory, the people saw that their oppressors and even the monarchy itself could be defeated; the world could be ‘turned upside down’.

Although the Parliamentary Army was made up of officers largely from the bourgeoisie, many of the foot soldiers were ordinary men who were fighting for other things - justice and equality and a better quality of life for their class. It could be said that this army was more representative of a cross section of the population than any other national body before or since.

The revoloutionary period of the 1640s was also a time of unprecedented religious debate. The church, whose hierarchy identified with the king, was as hated as the aristocracy itself. It was corrupt, autocratic and levied its own taxes through the tithe system. Already before Cromwell, there was a strong tradition of fiery anti-clericalism and the revolution only provided it with more oxygen.

It was a period, as Hill describes it, ‘of glorious flux and intellectual excitement’, when everything must have seemed possible. The brief years of the revolution ushered in the most extensive liberty of the press, more than had been experienced before or would be afterwards. It brought with it a complete breakdown of censorship and the demise of the hated church courts. Judges no longer went on circuit for fear of their lives. This anti-clericalism and explosion of radical thinking laid the foundations for the ideas of revolutionaries like Tom Paine and the Chartists, generations later.

Despite his maltreatment by history, Cromwell was voted one of the ‘top ten Britons of all time’ in a 2002 BBC poll. However, he and the English Revolution need to resume a place of honour in our history books and their achievements given due prominence.

In a couple of decades we will be coming up to the 400th anniversary, so surely now is the time to renew the campaign to have England’s Civil War renamed as the English Revolution and ensure that it is celebrated as something for us all to be proud of – the precursor of our present day freedoms and parliamentary democracy and as a needful reminder that we once lived in a republic and perhaps now is the time to reignite the campaign for a new one!
Crack Capitalism
By John Holloway
Pluto Press
Pbck £17.99
Since the ideas of socialism were first debated there has been conflict between reformist and revolutionary advocates; those who feel justice and equality can be achieved through piecemeal reform and those who argue that only a single momentous revolution can accomplish that goal. Holloway tries to bridge this apparent contradiction. He maintains that we need to create pockets of resistance, islands of alternative life styles or, as he prefers to put it, create ‘cracks’ in the system. In a sense he is also advocating what has been termed the ‘second culture’, ie a culture in opposition to and alongside the hegemonic capitalist one.
He offers 13 theses in what he hopes is a clear and accessible guide to moving beyond capitalism by creating mini-revolutions in our own individual lives, in our localities and communities. He argues that the dangers facing humanity are so urgent that we can’t wait (do revolutionaries wait?) for the revolution but must work to undermine the system where we are. He says ‘…the idea of a future revolution has become the enemy of emancipation.’ The practice of the left has been ‘to repeatedly commit suicide …by ignoring or destroying lines of continuity [between small victories and the chief goal]; by condemning reformism, by using language that only the initiated understand, by the use of violence in a way that alienates many people.’ While that may be partially correct, it is certainly not the whole picture; most revolutionaries I know fight actively for local and partial victories, but these don’t lead irreversibly or smoothly to the overthrow of the system.
We have to think the world through our ‘misfitting’, he argues. We must see capitalism not as something solid, as dominant, but in terms of its cracks, its crises, contradictions and weaknesses. Of course we have to protest against the system, he says, but if we only protest, we allow the powerful to set the agenda.
The long section on abstract labour is unfortunately very complex and highly theoretical and will have little relevance for the reader looking for concrete ways forward. Although it is a valid discussion, it seems that Holloway is advocating opting out of the labour process altogether as the only real means of challenging and overcoming capitalism. In today’s complex society in which we rely on sophisticated commodities this may seem utopian. It could be better discussed in terms of alienation, I feel.
This book is an attempt to answer the question: what can we do? We know taking state power is not an option at the present time. We cannot hope for the great revolution, we have to start creating something different here and now. Moving from capitalism to socialism is qualitatively different from that of feudalism to capitalism. Socialism cannot arise within the interstices of capitalism but only when the world of capitalism is overthrown. It seems, however, that Holloway is arguing for building the new system within the interstices or cracks in the system. A challenging and useful book, but does it offer a solution?