Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Rise of the Green Left – inside the worldwide ecosocialist movement
By Derek Wall
Pubs. Pluto Press

The term ‘ecosocialist’ is a relatively new one. Today it might seem almost unnecessary to attach the ‘eco’ prefix as hardly anyone in the socialist movement can be unaware of the urgent ecological problems facing us. However, as we know to our cost from the past, many socialists believed the new system would triumph by producing more and outperforming capitalism in terms of industrial expansion and ‘taming’ nature. Few would think that way today.

Derek Wall, as a regular Star columnist, hardly needs any introduction as a clear and fervently committed socialist as well as environmental campaigner. Here he puts forward a compelling case for socialism but with an essential ecological core. He begins by defining what he means by ecosocialism and in doing so returns to Marx and Engels. He goes on to formulate an ecosocialist manifesto and outlines the challenges both socialists and environmental activists face in a world of globalised capitalism.

He answers those who ask: ‘why can’t we just be Green?’ and shows how almost any environmental initiative is only welcome to capitalism if it promises to generate profit and this corrupts what, in a different social context, would offer genuine progress. He points out that ‘ecosocialism is to a large extent also a battle over property rights.’ Under capitalism enormous, transnational corporations dominate national economies and lifestyles, and land ownership - still in the hands of a tiny minority – mean that democracy itself has become nothing but a withered fig-leaf.

Wall doesn’t shy away from criticising those Green Parties (as in Germany and Ireland) which have joined governments only to jettison many of their cherished principles in their embrace of a share of power and capitalism. He reiterates how it is impossible to be really Green if you don’t challenge capitalism itself.

In one chapter he gives a valuable and succinct overview of ecosocialist initiatives around the world, from Venezuela to New Zealand. He examines recent experiences in Latin America and the advances made there in terms of ecosocialism. Cuba’s agricultural system, he says, offers us an excellent example of where property is held in common, and where organic methods are widely used and recycling advanced.

He concludes his book with suggestions on what action needs to be taken to ensure that ecosocialism takes hold of the public imagination and how we can go about challenging the present power structures. He also lists a whole number of organisations which are involved in environmental/political campaigning. He points out that there is even already a Green-Socialist international: the Ecosocialist International Network, launched in 2007. He avoids getting bogged down in sectarian thinking on the left and steers a clear course between the various factions and parties without being over-cautious or timorous.
This is a slim book - Wall doesn’t believe in unnecessary prolixity - he makes his points clearly and succinctly. All in all, a very useful guide to where we are at in terms of environmental and socialist advance. It underlines once more the vital need for a broad alliance of the left and the Greens if we are to move forward.
A Painter of Our Time
By John Berger

Pbck £9.99

Berger’s classic portrait of an artist was first published in 1958 and Verso is to be congratulated for re-issuing it now, along with two other of his books: A Seventh Man and Corker’s Freedom.

This novel is written in the form of a posthumously discovered diary written by the émigré artist, Janos Lavin, with additional commentary by the author himself. Although a purely fictitious portrait it is closely modelled on Berger’s friend, the Hungarian-born artist Peter Peri. Of course socio-cultural novels like this are not unaffected by the passage of time, and Berger’s portrait is very much of the immediate post-war period. Then, hopes of fundamental social change were still very much alive, despite the devastating stories emerging from Stalin’s Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War.

Janos Lavin is a Communist and painter who was involved in the establishment of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, but later forced to flee his homeland. He eventually settles in Britain and marries a middle-class English woman who has sufficient income to keep them from starving. Although not well off, the couple live a relatively comfortable, if very modest, existence. His safe and sheltered life gives Lavin a guilty conscience, as he knows that other comrades stayed behind to continue the struggle. His best friend becomes a government official in the post-war Hungarian Socialist Republic, only to fall foul of the Stalinist clampdown on artists considered dissidents. He struggles to come to terms with what he accepts as a necessary party discipline, but at the same time deplores the bloody sacrifices it seems to demand.

By cleverly reproducing selected entries from his fictitious diary, Berger weaves a clear but complex portrait of a man torn between active political intervention and dedication to his art. By placing a central European Communist in a western capitalist setting, he also draws out the conflict between honest dedication to ‘artistic truth’ and the pressures of the commercial art world and gallery culture, as well as the tug of political activism.

Lavin is a dedicated painter; it is in his blood. That’s what he needs to do and what he does best, but he is also only too aware that painting canvases won’t change the world and could even be considered as a cowardly opting out of the ‘real’ struggle. The novel raises questions and issues that are still valid today, about ‘truth’ in art, about its purpose, about abstraction versus realism and about the artist’s role in society. In that sense, it is as apposite today as it was in the fifties when Berger wrote it.

Everyone recognises that Lavin’s work is supremely competent, if not highly talented, but his paintings are often monumental and figurative, whereas the post-war trend in the West was towards total abstraction. Lavin is thus seen as quaintly old-fashioned. He, his wife and his friends know that he needs to show in the galleries if he is to sell and make a proper living, but he resists this with every sinew in his body. For him it means ‘selling out’, betraying his comrades. Berger’s perceptive descriptions of the gallery scene with its wealthy patrons and obsequious art critics are, however, as accurate today as they were then.

In the end Lavin does is offered an exhibition in an up-market gallery and even sells a number of his paintings to patrons who merely wish to decorate their mansions and, he feels, have no appreciation of what his art is about. He would have preferred commissions from factories, schools or public institutions. It is all too much for him. He leaves the gallery and very soon after disappears. The novel concludes with a letter sent by him to the author, in the form of a goodbye note, informing him that he is ‘going home’ to Hungary. What happens to him there is left to the imagination of the reader, but there is a possibility that he may have been killed by his erstwhile comrades, before the big post-Stalin thaw had begun, as all trace of him is lost.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Interview with Wu Ming
Wu Ming are at the moment undertaking a tour of Britain, to introduce audiences here to their unique story-telling technique and radical take on history. They agreed to talk to the Morning Star.

They have been characterised as a ‘mysterious guerrilla group of novelists’, but the two members sitting opposite me look far from mysterious and not at all warrior-like. Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 4 (they reject the celebrity cult built around novelists, preferring anonymity) dismiss the ‘mysterious’ tag, but don’t allow themselves to be photographed and emphasise that they dislike the idea of them and their work being mediated by others. They feel this would take away their right to have direct contact with their readers – something vitally important to them. Simply put: they want no limit placed on their public image.

What are their aims, other than to subvert the commercialised literary world, I ask. They reply, laconically, that their aim is simply to tell stories which they love doing. Yes, but your stories are not mainstream, I counter. ‘We write stories about conflict,’ they respond, ‘we look at the key turning points in history and focus on those. We are interested in modernity and how we arrived at the place in which we now find ourselves. So we are not concerned with ancient history but in the history that defines us today’.

‘We are attempting to draw a map of where our generation came from. We try to retell history from new perspectives, from uncanny angles. Thus in our novel ‘54’ we begin with a group of nightclub dancers obsessed with Cary Grant, but the novel examines the relationship between US and European politics. Our forthcoming novel, to be published in Britain shortly, is ‘Altai’ which looks at Europe’s relationship with Islam, based during the historical period of the huge clash between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe from the 13th century onwards, but written from the point of view of the Turks.’

How far are your novels fictional and how far fact-based, I ask.
Wu Ming 1 uses a vivid metaphor. ‘If you think of history as a big piece of Gruyère cheese, where the solid cheese is the history that has been documented, and the holes are the gaps in the narrative, then we squeeze our fictional elements into those holes; we try and illuminate those dark spots.’

Writing is usually a solitary and individual undertaking, so how does the Wu Ming collective work?
‘We have no fixed method,’ Wu Ming 1 tells me, ‘but a subject or period of history is suggested and, once agreed, we discuss it and then undertake an enormous amount of research so that we gain a great deal of knowledge about the subject matter we wish to examine. We begin with what we call ‘lumps’ of narrative matter and once we have enough we develop an outline fro the story. Each of us then writes a chapter which is circulated, altered, added to and changed. The first draft is very free and each of us adopts his chosen style in complete freedom, but a more homogenous style emerges as the drafts develop and evolve.’

Wu Ming describe the process as incredibly exhilarating and emancipatory. Rather than each being stuck in their own ivory tower, ‘like a prisoner in solitary confinement, we experience the joy of writing together’, they say. ‘Being on the road together, we are like kids again, enjoying the childish naivety of making up stories, but it is also hard work. There is a lot of fun, and we learn from each other, grow together. Each novel teaches us something new’.

So what’s the downside of working collectively? ‘The fact that we only get a quarter of the royalties we would get as an individual writer,’ they reply sardonically.

What is also unusual in their methods of working is that they actively promote the use of the internet to interact with their readers. They are not interested in appearing on TV talk shows or having their work mediated by others; they say the physical shared experience of interacting with their readers is vital for them. They attend more than a hundred such events each year. On their website, through their blogs and twitter they communicate with their readers and encourage the latter to get involved in the creative process. So what does that involve? ‘We get hundreds of emails each day, readers send us ideas or their own short stories and comments, even cartoons or pieces of music which they feel could complement or accompany our stories. We have also involved readers as narrators with mixed results, but now readers are doing things by themselves, ‘they say.

Wu Ming have certainly made a deep impact on the cosy world of modern literature with their unusual hybrid brand of popular novel cum historical epic. They offer a radically new perspective on history and on the art of story-telling itself. Once can only hope that British readers are as fascinated by their books as their Italian compatriots already are.

Do they really feel that their approach to novel writing can really have an impact on the commercially-dominated literary world, characterised by celebrity culture? ‘We don’t know,’ they reply, ‘but ethically we have a duty to counter the current trivialisation of everything. We feel like tightrope walkers, constantly trying to find a balance between popular fiction and more demanding literature, and it is very difficult to maintain that equilibrium.

Who is/are Wu Ming?
Wu Ming (‘anonymous’ in English) is a collective of four left wing radical Italian authors, based in Bologna. They grew out of the Luther Blisset Project (named after a black British footballer), which was, as they explain it, a ‘cultural guerrilla’ exercise. The collective’s first novel Q, was a historical spy novel set in the period of the Reformation, and became a best-seller. It is about the Radical Reformation, asking why Müntzer has inspired radicals for almost 500 years. Their third novel Manituana focuses on the US war of independence seen through the eyes of the Iroquois nation which was almost eradicated by the colonial and imperial struggles.

Wu Ming explain that their work is an attempt to demystify authorship, to subvert the cult of the celebrity author and a consumerist attitude to literature. They are also trying to bridge the gap between popular fiction and serious literature. ‘Our books,’ they say, ‘are readable on two levels: as complex political allegories, and as pulp fiction or adventure novels.’

Wu Ming encourages a ‘communitarian’ use of the internet and their official website: provides more information about them and their novels and gives links to their other sites. It enables the worlds of their novels to be enriched and expanded, offering background information and invitations for fans to make their own contributions.

Books by Wu Ming published in English so far are: Q, 54 and Manituana, all published by Verso.