Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Last to Fall
(the life and letters of Ivor Hickman – an International Brigader in Spain)
by John L. Wainwright
Pubs Hatchet Green publishing
Pbck £10.99

This book’s cover displays a somewhat faded, sepia-coloured photograph of a sunburnt, handsome young man staring out at the onlooker with unflinching determination. Immediately you feel the urge to read about who he is and what he did.

The author had a long history of interest in the Spanish Civil War and had even written a film script about it. But the only facts he had to go on when he began researching this biography of Ivor Hickman was a small memorial plaque on a wooden bench outside Peter Symonds College school in Winchester with Hickman’s name engraved on it and a modest memorial to several International Brigaders in Southampton. He was determined to find out more about this enigmatic man. After a friend was able to establish contact with the two daughters of Hickman’s former wife and asking if they knew anything about him, they discovered a dusty parcel of faded letters in the attic of their old house. These turned out to be letters Hickman wrote to Juliet MacArthur, his girlfriend and later wife. Slowly Wainwright was able to piece together Ivor’s short life story.

It is a fascinating tale and a glowing symbol of the idealism and commitment which persuaded between 30-40,000 young men and women, among them over 2,300 from Britain, to volunteer to fight fascism in Spain. Wainwright writes about this key historical juncture with lucidity, imagination and insight.

Ivor Hickman was a bright student who went up to Cambridge, joining the Communist Party there, before going on to work in Manchester, in 1936, as a mathematical engineering apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers, a big engineering factory. At Cambridge his lecturers included C.P. Snow and Ludwig Wittgenstein, with both of whom he corresponded after finishing his degree. At university he also met the love of his life, Juliet MacArthur, who was studying psychology.

In that same year he married Juliet before immediately departing for Spain. His newly wedded wife was left behind, and although they both hoped she would be able to join him out there, it never happened. That, though, didn’t prevent her playing an active role in looking after refugee Basque children in Norfolk, who had been evacuated from the fighting.

His early letters to Juliet, while at university or from Manchester, are full of youthful passion and sexual desire, like those of any normal young man. His dispatches from Spain were, of course, censored, but provide a vivid picture of the harsh reality of that unequal struggle.

The cause of the Spanish Civil War captured the imagination of left wing youth throughout the world as hardly any other cause has done, before or since. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives for a cause the passionately believed in and, if the pusillanimous western powers had given sufficient support to the legitimate Spanish government, fascism would have experienced its first defeat and the Second World War in Europe may have been avoided.

All this is now ancient history, but it is does provide a vivid and salutary illustration of how some individuals time and time again can and will rise above their peers to fight selflessly for justice and a better life for their fellow human beings. Unlike today, ideological issues then were perceived as black and white: you were either anti-fascist or a reactionary; you were either a communist and supporter of the Soviet Union or an upholder of out-dated bourgeois values. It was a time when many realised that Europe was on the cusp of cataclysmic change and traditional values were being seriously challenged.

Wainwright cleverly interweaves the essential history of the Spanish Civil War around Hickman’s life. He includes interviews with other veterans of the International Brigades, including Sam Lesser (Sam Russell) the former Daily Worker/Morning Star reporter. These give added weight and colour to that war that took the lives of so many valiant comrades in the prime of their youth.
A Buddhist take on Marxism
I have often thought that while Marxism is a wonderful tool for analysing society and its various processes, but with its overemphasis on classes it largely ignores the question of individual morality and ethical behaviour as determining factors in the historical process. This ‘missing link’ in Marxism may partially explain why the communist project went badly wrong.

Professor Richard Winter readily admits that his suggestion of connecting Marxism and Buddhism could appear ‘surprising or even downright bizarre’ to many. When I realised that he is suggesting this as a way of countering the denigration of our humanity under capitalism, I too thought he must be a little ‘off-beam’. However, his lucidly and concisely argued case completely disabused me. Far from being an ‘odd ball’ he is a man with a deep comprehension of the ills of our present system and he has a thorough understanding and appreciation of the value of Marxism as an analytical tool. He has his feet firmly on the ground, based on his wide experience working in our educational system, and he sees education as a potential tool for change. His desire for radical change, together with his strong sense of compassion and justice led him to examine Buddhism as a means of individual self-enlightenment, and as an additional means of bringing about the sort of social change many of us desire: first by changing ourselves. Buddhism is often seen about being about ‘enlightenment’, but it is really more concerned in reshaping character and behaviour than mystical experience; younger Buddhists are more likely to be fired by social action.

I remain sceptical of those who suggest answers to our pressing problems can be found in ‘exotic’ cultures, whether Indian Hinduism, North American indigenous traditions or Chinese Confucianism, even if they can offer us new and valuable insights. But Winter is not suggesting this. He is attempting to address Marxism’s underplaying of the role of the individual by suggesting a combination of Marxist theory with a meditational approach derived from Buddhism.

However, while I can go a long way with him and even accept that aspects of Buddhist teachings have much to offer us in the West; I doubt such ideas could be easily adopted. Yes, it might be a good idea, but is it feasible or even imaginable that one could persuade a sizable proportion of people not steeped in a Buddhist tradition to adopt such a Buddhist approach to their lives? That is always the dilemma for those who want to change society without being able to obtain a majority electoral mandate: where can you effectively start?

Winter argues that one of the keys lies in education. ‘Without changes in our individual awareness and behaviour our attempts to make our institutions more just and more compassionate are doomed in the long run,’ he says.

His advocating meditation is basically suggesting a series of straightforward actions that anyone can engage in. Meditation is a method of personal change, he says, and he demonstrates how it can refine our personal and ethical responses to practical situations and how it could support the effectiveness of our attempts to change political and economic structures.

Meditation as ‘pure awareness’ can have merely the general and familiar meaning of sustained purposeful thought, he says.’ It involves a heightened state of concentration, derived from being a wholly absorbed awareness of the present. ‘This methodology,’ he argues, ‘helps us resist our spontaneous ego-orientation and thus our assimilation into the stress-filled responses of our exploitive culture, whose ramifications penetrate so deeply into our lives.’ Meditation practice is inseparable from ethical awareness.

Winter is not suggesting that we adopt Buddhism as the new religion or see it as a magic solution. But using Buddhist ideas, particularly that of meditation could help us understand ourselves and help us better comprehend and deal with our society in terms of its pressures, stresses and consumer demands. Buddhism places an emphasis on the present and on those things in life that are vital to a meaningful and happy existence, that represent enduring reality. In other words, all the ephemeral trappings of wealth and fame, of vanity and worries about the future or preoccupation with the past, only distract us from the real question of the here and now, and dissipate our creative energies. ‘For Buddhism in its origins and most of its contemporary versions meditation is the primary practice; its teachings are, above all, a rationale for the validity and power of meditation as an individual path of self-transformation,’ he writes. It also helps overcome self-doubt and encourages our creativity.

What is certainly true, and something few would deny, is that if we wish to change the world we have first to change ourselves; and in our own behaviour we have to encapsulate the type of society we aim to create.

Both Marxist and Buddhist perspectives also emphasise that ‘our spontaneous experiences are frequently based on misperceptions of reality; what Marx called ‘false consciousness’. That is why, Winter argues, that any education curriculum needs to go beyond simply involving students’ personal experience in the learning process: a ‘curriculum for transformation’ is needed to help students engage in a radical critique of their experience.’

He says, perceptively, that behaviour, which constitutes part of the ‘ethics’ of capitalism, is not really endorsed by the general population: rather it is seen as a regrettable compromise. He realises that simply putting forward yet another ‘vacuous plea’ for a ‘change of culture’ is pointless. He knows that such pleas avoid the crunch question: through what agency could the changes we desire be brought about? That’s why he argues forcibly that we are all potentially ‘agents for change’.

One might not agree with much of Winter’s argumentation, but his ideas are certainly thought-provoking and deserving of close attention.
(Prof Winter’s recent book: Power, Freedom, Compassion is published by Willow Tree Press £10)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Alfred Russel Wallace socialist and co-founder of evolutionary theory
Next year will see the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace. Simultaneously with Darwin the discoverer of evolution due to natural selection, but history has obscured him under Darwin’s immense shadow.

Wallace came from a lower middle class background - his father was a provincial solicitor, at that time a lowly occupation. He left school at 14 to work as an apprentice surveyor with his brother William in order to supplement the family income. This itinerant job took him all over the country and engendered in him a love for the countryside, science and nature.

While carrying out this work, Wallace talks of being forced to travel in the ‘wretched third class’ carriages where passengers in open trucks were transported like cattle. After one such journey with his brother William, they took cheap lodgings in a damp room in Bristol, which led to his brother consequently dying of pneumonia.

Wallace’s mental development was grounded in the provincial, industrialising countryside, where he would mix with weavers, factory inspectors, railway workers and farm labourers. He was completely self-educated in the sciences and became an early socialist, greatly influenced by lectures he heard in the Hall of Science in Tottenham Court Road, given by Robert Owen. He said: ‘I have always looked upon Owen as my first teacher in the philosophy of human nature and my first guide through the labyrinth of social science.’ He, like Owen, took a prominently anti-Malthusian line (put crudely, Malthus argued that disease and early death were necessary among the working masses to keep the population down). Darwin, given his class background, was much more sympathetic to Malthus’s views than Wallace was.

During his wanderings throughout the country Wallace’s avid curiosity and thirst for knowledge led him to attend many lectures at the local Mechanics’ Institutes –in Victorian Times places where ordinary working men and women could listen to prominent and learned speakers on a whole range of subjects. He also made full use of the free libraries for his studies.

Although his family was ‘old fashioned Church of England’, Wallace very soon shed all shreds of religiosity, developing advanced secularist views on society and human nature. Like almost all Victorian naturalists, he also began his career by collecting - in his case beetles and butterflies. At one of the Institute lectures in Leicester he met hosiery apprentice, Henry Walter Bates, who’d also left school early, at 12, and also embarking on his own self-education. He, too, was an enthusiastic naturalist and the two began making excursions together. From this time on Wallace began reflecting on the origins of the human race and the idea of continuous change of species.

Ironically, because of his radical political views Wallace was, from the outset, a more likely candidate than the conservative Darwin to come up with such a radical hypothesis as evolution. 14 years younger than Darwin, he was a likeable, mild-mannered man full of visions for a reformed society. His friend E.B. Poulton (later to become a professor of zoology at Oxford) described Wallace as a man of great ‘personal magnetism’ and ‘lofty ideals’. But he undoubtedly lacked the self-confidence that comes with a public school education and affluence.

In 1847 Bates and Wallace discussed travelling abroad and earning their living collecting specimens along the River Amazon. Unlike Darwin who was easily able to organise and finance his own long voyage on the Beagle, Wallace and Bates had to beg money for their trip. The mania of Victorians for collecting natural history specimens gave them the opportunity. In the end, Stevens, a natural history agent, advanced them money for the trip. In 1848 they sailed for Brazil and spent several years there, enduring disease, hardship and catastrophe. Their experiences were physically as far removed from Darwin’s relaxed and comfortable Beagle voyage as could be imagined. Unfortunately Wallace’s return voyage ended in shipwreck and the loss of all his meticulously recorded notes and arduously collected specimens.

In 1853, despite vowing never again to return to sea, Wallace again set sail, but this time for Malaysia with the same aims as before in the Amazon. He also wished to investigate primitive tribes and pursue his ideas on human origins. His readings of the anonymously published book ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ had convinced him that humans were descended from apes, possible from an orang-utan like animal as found in Malaysia. This was a dangerous expedition for a lone adventurer, and he lived for some time among the Dyaks - the notorious head-hunters of European legend. Before he left Sarawak he dispatched a short theoretical paper that Darwin and his friends Edward Blyth and the renowned geologist, Charles Lyell read, in which he speculated about how varieties of species arise and how geography was key in determining origins. His ‘betters’, including his agent Stevens, felt he should not waste his time with such pointless speculation, but concentrate on obtaining specimens for their collections. However, Darwin wrote him a warm and encouraging letter complimenting him on his paper. In 1858, after a bad bout of Malaria Wallace wrote another paper setting out, for the first time, his basic idea of natural selection and evolutionary development. He was completely unaware that Darwin had been secretly working along similar lines. He sent it to Darwin and asked the latter to forward it to his friend Lyell. The way his seminal paper overlapped with Darwin’s thinking on the same issue was remarkable.

Darwin had also collected a mass of fascinating data during his trip on the Beagle and through diligent correspondence with other naturalists was leisurely developing his own draft ideas of evolution. He was, though, a naturally cautious man and also very aware of how his ideas, once in the open, would undoubtedly cause outrage among the deeply religious. Wallace’s paper, arriving out of the blue, hit him like a thunderbolt. He’d fleetingly met and then corresponded with Wallace, but the two men hardly knew each other. Darwin was aghast and shattered that someone had apparently beaten him to it. The idea of ‘losing’ the letter or ignoring it crossed his mind, but in the end he followed the honourable road and forwarded it to his friend, the renowned geologist Lyell as Wallace had requested.

Darwin was, in fact, about to write to Wallace congratulating him and had almost decided to throw in the towel on his own projected publication, but was dissuaded from doing so by his two close friends and Linnaean fellows, the botanist Joseph Hooker and Lyell. To give Darwin his due, he was in the genuine sense of the words an ‘honourable gentleman’ and felt he no longer had the right to publish his own views before Wallace’s now that he’d read his paper. He was, though, persuaded by his two friends not to give way and to publish a paper of his own alongside Wallace’s in the prestigious Journal of the Linnaean Society. His friends suggested this in the full knowledge that, as a renowned fellow, Darwin’s views would take precedence over the ‘mere collector’ who had no standing in scientific circles. Hooker and Lyell implied that Wallace should be grateful for being given publicity on Darwin’s coat tails. They did this without Wallace’s permission and in a manner unprecedented among scientific colleagues. But Wallace, far away in Malaysia, was in no position to protest.

Wallace, unlike Darwin, had no independent means, was not a member of the gentry nor was he university educated. Darwin and his colleagues viewed Wallace as a useful purveyor of information and specimens, but would not have considered him a philosopher or thinker on their own level. That’s also why Wallace’s paper hit them with such force.

Neither paper caused even a ripple of excitement or outrage at the time of publication, but Darwin, realising the danger to his own work if Wallace developed his ideas further, put his head down and worked like a man possessed to finish and publish his later world-renowned ‘On the Origin of Species, a year later in 1859. This was the book that shook the world. Priests began apoplectically raging from their pulpits, fine ladies had fainting fits at the idea of being related to monkeys, and the popular papers never tired of ridiculing the idea of evolution as if a new flat-earth theory were being propounded.

These historical events again, demonstrate how class invariably determined an individual’s fortune and later historical status. The strictly stratified Victorian society left Wallace little chance of entering the hallowed halls of the elite scientific community of which Charles Darwin was already a respected member. However, after his return from his travels and with selfless support from Darwin, he did eventually gain acceptance, becoming a revered member of those elite scientific circles. Unlike Wallace, Darwin came from a moneyed upper middle class family - his father was a wealthy doctor and financier - and he lived in ease and comfort in the Kent countryside with all the time in the world to pursue his research and write. After studying at Edinburgh and Cambridge, followed by his five-year voyage around the world on the Beagle, Darwin quickly established his credentials as a leading naturalist.

Wallace had to do it the hard way, but humble and modest as ever, he subsequently accepted Darwin’s pre-eminence and his own secondary role in developing the theory of evolution. Darwin actually told him: ‘…you would, if you’d had my leisure, done the work just as welll, perhaps better, than I have done it.’ Undoubtedly Wallace deserves more prominence than history has granted him.

Friday, 2 March 2012

2 March 2012 Letter to Guardian

Dear Sir
Simon Jenkins spells out what we on the left have always maintained, but mainstream historians have strenuously denied: the Soviet Union, even under Stalin’s tyranny had no aim of conquering the West by force. (‘An ignorance that started the cold war now targets Islam’; Guardian March 2 2012). However, Jenkins and the man he praises, Andrew Alexander, leave out the key factor in the equation. It is not only, or even primarily, ignorance of other countries that fuels such myopic and belligerent policies. As Eisenhower warned, just after the end of the Second World War, it is the military industrial complex that we have to beware of. The arms industries are the most profitable worldwide, but particularly so in the US. The need to conjuror up an enemy or a few wars at regular intervals, are essential if taxpayers are to continue footing the enormous and penurious bills. It is also a truism that without a globally dominant weapons arsenal and enormous army, the USA would not be able to play world policeman and ensure its economic interests are maintained. It’s time we realised that continuous rearming and international weapons trading are paving the way to the world’s destruction not to its security.
Yours faithfully