Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Roque Dalton: Fusilemos la Noche! (Roque Dalton: Let’s shoot the night)

Roque Dalton’s name is hardly known in Britain, but in Latin America his reputation as a poet is up there with the best. He was killed in 1975, aged only 38, murdered by his erstwhile comrades in El Salvador’s ERP Guerrilla movement.

Today he has become El Salvador’s posthumous national poet. He wrote passionate, at times sarcastic, image-laden works dealing with life, death, love, and politics.
The Salvadorian embassy is to be congratulated for organising the premiere of a new film about Roque Dalton’s life by the Austrian film maker Tina Leisch. It was ably introduced by Roger Attwood, an acknowledged expert on the poet and his work. The film is a more than fitting hommage. 
The only archive footage that exists of Dalton is a few seconds of badly scratched film from a Cuban interview with him. So Leisch had to trace his footsteps meticulously to build up a rounded picture of the man. She finds and interviews not only one of his sons and his wife, but former girlfriends, fellow poets and writers, several former comrades from the ERP, as well as short, perceptive contributions by Regis Debray and Eduardo Galeano.
As a young man Dalton was captured by police forces of the military dictatorship on several occasions and once escaped a probable death sentence when an earthquake destroyed the prison in which he was incarcerated. 
After training in Cuba, he returned to El Salvador and tried to join the main Salvadoran political-military organization Popular Liberation Forces ‘Farabundo Marti’ (FPL). but its leader, Salvador Carpio, rejected his application, saying that Roque's role in the revolution was as a poet, not as a foot-soldier. Because of this, he joined the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), the military wing of another left-wing faction. 
In his short life he was a prolific writer of plays, short stories, a novel, journalism and many poems. Leisch solves the filmic problem of dealing with poetry in film by persuading the people she talks to, from vendors and students on the street, to former girlfriends and comrades to read some of them, even a policeman in uniform is persuaded to read one on imprisonment and torture.
She follows Dalton’s footsteps from El Salvador to Prague, from Vienna to Havana and in each place sets up a larger than life cardboard-backed photo of Dalton to provoke reactions from her interviewees, and to emphasise his continued presence amongst us. Small elements of animation underline Dalton’s humour and passion for life alongside his earnest politics.
Leisch’s film in many ways mirrors Dalton’s iconoclastic poetical forms, his deep feeling for the language of the streets and his unique mix of tenderness, fun, philosophic curiosity and his outrageous larger-than-life personality. Her film is no hagiography and she doesn’t avoid Dalton’s failings, but in the end the audience is made aware not only what a creative genius this man was, but what a tragic loss his early death was, both for the revolution and for literature. 
In 1955 he and the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo founded Círculo Literario Universitario - a group of contemporary writers - which published some of Central America's most recognized literary figures. He also won a prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for his writing
Dalton deserves to be wider known here in Europe and is, alongside his compatriot and fellow communist Neruda, the most deserving of the title ‘poet of the revolution’. I sincerely hope this film will help redress that lack.
Dalton (1937–75) was the major literary figure and an important political architect of the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. Like his friend and contemporary, the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo, he chose  to combine a writer’s life with that of a guerrilla fighter and paid the ultimate price: precocious martyrdom. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Remembering the witch hunts

Remembering the Witch Hunts

This year marks 50 years since the height of the Hollywwod witch hunts. From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine that the USA once had a powerful progressive and left-wing movement and a strong Communist Party that attracted numerous prominent figures to it. Before the poisonous paranoia spread by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), followed by McCarthyism had infected the country with its deadly fever, the United States was widely respected for its political freedom and progressive spirit.
            Despite the rise of fascism in Europe and right-wing gangsterism in the USA, the period during the thirties and early forties, shortly before the blacklist, was also a time of left-wing optimism and successes. Although Hollywood was not dominated by left-wingers, they were not without clout. The Communist Party had, at an estimate, around 300 members and at least double that in terms of sympathisers, many in well-paid and respected positions. But, it wasn’t all serious politics; the parties and fun that was had by these Lefties is perhaps surprising under the circumstances, and the invitation lists read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood celebrities.
            The leadership provided by the Communist Party of the USA in combating fascism, its commitment to anti-racism and minority rights and success in building the trade union movement unleashed the hatred of the capitalist class and right-wing politicians. The infamous HUAC hearings were used to suppress and make illegal not just the Communist Party but anyone associated with it as well as any organisations in which it avowedly had influence. As a result, tens of thousands were blacklisted, careers and lives were destroyed and families broken. The country was plunged into a nightmare of fear, hysteria and red-baiting from which it never properly recovered. Party officials were, under the Smith Act, deemed to be foreign agents and subject to draconian sentences; in Texas they even faced the death penalty.
            Because of their prominence, celebrity status and ability to articulate ideas, those film workers in Hollywood who became the focus of attention for the witch hunters are the ones most talked about. Many books have been written about the Hollywood blacklist, but Tender Comrades by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle is one of the best. Such books are a chilling reminder of just how neo-fascism and the emergence of a totalitarian security apparatus can lurk just below the surface in an apparently open and democratic society.
            Many of those who became leading figures in the motion picture industry in Hollywood during the thirties and forties and were also members of the Communist Party or fellow travellers, came from poor, immigrant Jewish backgrounds. This experience gave them an understanding of ordinary people, of their struggles and of life as lived ‘at the bottom of the pile’. It gave many a strong sense of solidarity, of sympathy with the underdog and with discriminated minorities. It is also one of the chief reasons why such people were so sought after in Hollywood as writers, because they could turn in believable dialogue that encapsulated the tragedies, humour and resilience of ordinary people. They were able to endow what were often banal original stories with the necessary human interest, drama and social relevance that would make them successful box office hits. 
            Most of the big picture moguls of the time – who ruled their studios with the iron fist of feudal lords – had little idea of how to make films, but had the money to hire those that did. They invariably had clichéd outlooks, right-wing politics and strong Puritanical moral pretensions, but ironically, they employed many Communists or left-wingers who knew how to write and create the films that made them their money.
            The well-known character actor Lionel Stander, commenting on life in thirties America, said: ‘To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times – the best of times because you were young, and the worst of times because of the actions of Hitler and Mussolini, etc. Hollywood was the Mecca for nearly every worthwhile intellectual in the 1930s from all over the word. You saw a lot of what was happening through the eyes of the German refugees – actors, writers, directors, technicians, and artists – who came here and through the activity of mass organisations like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, etc. The power of the left existed because it said all the things that everybody believed in and wanted to hear; it represented every person who believed in human decency, justice, and equality and was against racism and bigotry. And the Communist Party always took the frontal position.’
            Betsy Blair Reisz, a dancer and actress, married first to Gene Kelly and later to the British film director, Karel Reisz, has an unusual biography in that she tried to join the US Communist Party after the war but was told by the leadership that she could be more effective outside, and if she were to join it could harm Gene’s career. Gene Kelly was, and remained a solid left-winger, who supported many progressive causes -  a ‘social democrat’ Betsy called him. She won critical acclaim for her film roles and a Best Actress Award at Cannes. Once blacklisted she left the USA first to France and then the UK. In Europe, she acted in films made by leading progressive directors like Antonioni, Tony Richardson and Costa-Gavras.
            One interesting tit-bit revealed in the book – which has resonances with the surveillance being carried now - is how the FBI used psychotherapists. Many Americans, even at that time, used psychotherapists the way Catholics use the confessional or others use the bus, so the Party insisted that anyone visiting a psychotherapist leave the Party. One of the chief FBI informers was a ‘lefty’ psychotherapist called Phil Cohen to whom many left-wingers in Hollywood turned.
            Many of those black-listed were talented, humane and fascinating individuals. Their life stories provide a depiction of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ in its heyday and a historical narrative very different from the mainstream one. They also offer fascinating little vignettes of many of the famous celebrities and villains of that time from John Wayne, James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and Sam Goldwyn among many others.
            Norma Barzman, another Hollywood blacklistee who found refuge in France and Britain wrote the book, The Red and the Blacklist (2003), about that period of blacklisting and exile, also reveals the comic side. Her friend, the blacklisted writer John Barry, responding to her query how things were: ‘It's hell,’ the communist director said of exile. ‘I live in Paris, meet beautiful women and go out to dinner with Jean-Paul Sartre.’ For actors, of course, it was much more difficult than for writers who could use pseudonyms and ‘Fronts’ The actor Zero Mostel noted that, unlike scriptwriters, he couldn't hide from the blacklist by adopting pseudonyms: ‘I am a man of a thousand faces, all of them blacklisted,’ he said.
            Through the words and stories of these individuals it also becomes clear how different the United States could have been if the right-wing had not been successful in suppressing the left-wing and creating such a climate of fear of all things communist or associated with it. It managed to achieve a ‘brain-washing’ of generations of US citizens, imbuing them with an irrational fear and a distorted ideology that enabled capitalism to run rampant and imperialism to wage wars unhindered. Those of us elsewhere in the world who lived through those oppressive decades at the height of the Cold War also paid the costs.
1261 Words
John Green

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Pay day loan sharks

The greatest hazard to health - loan sharks

Usury – is defined as lending money at unethical interest rates. The practice has been condemned ever since money became the chief means of undertaking transactions.
Some of the earliest known condemnations came from Indian Vedic texts. Similar condemnations can be found in religious texts from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Throughout history, many nations from ancient China to Greece and Rome outlawed loans with any interest. Though the Roman Empire eventually allowed loans with carefully restricted interest rates, the Christian church in medieval Europe banned the charging of interest at any rate. How civilised our forebears were!

Today the Christian churches have little to say on this important issue and the wealthy Islamic states have no qualms about investing globally and profiting from interests on loans. Governments, too, see no need to introduce legislation to protect the most vulnerable from loan sharks and unscrupulous financial operators. Although so called ‘payday loan’ firms, which often lend to those who cannot obtain loans from High Street banks, are currently the subject of a Competition Commission review.

The ubiquitous lending firm Wonga – ‘the payday loan alternative’- recently reported pre-tax profits of £84.5m for 2012, an increase of 35% on the previous year. It is symptomatic of the immoral and unscrupulous times we live in that a company like this can operate and flourish with impunity. This government has made no attempt to curb its predatory activity.

The company has a representative APR of 5,853 per cent - although a typical advance of £200 for 14 days would incur fees and interest of around £34. But the company knows from experience that borrowers can rarely pay back in time, thus incurring high interest rates – that’s how it makes its money.

Its chief victims, of course, are the poor and those who find themselves in temporary financial difficulty ie those least able to repay the loans on time, if at all, so that in the meantime have to fork out horrendous sums in interest. The result is misery, mental health problems, family breakdown and homelessness.

In the old days the local loan shark would do his rounds, knocking on the front doors of those likely to be in need. Today loan companies use the internet – it’s cheaper for them and anonymous.

Ordinary working people and particularly the poor are those who always suffer most in times of crisis. We are not only being made to pay for the incompetence and greed of bankers, but also being ripped off by such so-called loan providers. But the ruling elite doesn’t care. It takes the same attitude as its heroine Margaret Thatcher did when she remarked to the then French president, Francois Mitterand, who was planning to bring in legislation to tax the rich. ‘But, Francois,’ she said, ‘why do you want to tax the rich, there are so few of them, it’s much better to tax the poor as there many more of them.’

Wonga’s South African-born chief executive Errol Damelin is coining it. He set up Wonga in 2007 with business partner Jonty Hurwitz - and now employs 500 people, making 3.5million loans last year totalling £1billion, which was a 40 per cent rise on the previous year. Damelin has a £30million stake in the company, which is based in Camden, north-west London. Damelin was educated at Boston University in Massachusetts and Cape Town University, and founded his first company in Israel.

In a rare public expression of disgust by religious bodies, last year, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called Wonga.com's high interest rates ‘shocking’ and ‘usurious’. He promised to compete it out of existence by setting up a Church of England credit union.

What is equally insidious is the way other companies and organisations who should no better, are jumping on the Wonga bandwagon. Wonga sponsored free travel on the London Underground on New Year's Eve in 2010, and posters were put up on the network with the slogan ‘sometimes you need some extra cash’ and giving the website details. London Assembly member Jennette Arnold said that it was 'shameful' that the Mayor of London had allowed such sponsorship at a time of year when people are most vulnerable financially. Transport for London later banned payday loan companies from sponsoring their services.

In October 2012 Wonga announced a sponsorship deal with Newcastle United for £8m a year. Several MPs spoke out against the deal and the leader of Newcastle City Council told The Guardian he was ‘appalled and sickened’ that the club had signed a deal with ‘a legal loan shark’. In July this year Papiss Cissé courageously refused to wear the kit. In 2012, Wonga.com sponsored ITVs Red or Black, which also evoked wide criticism. In January it was announced that the firm will sponsor the UK showing of American Idol on Channel 5 for Season 12.

Mr Damelin defends Wonga and says: ‘Access to practical and affordable sources of credit is a big issue for our society and Wonga is playing a part by lending responsibly, and at scale, to people who can generally afford to pay us back quickly.’

Monday, 5 August 2013

Thomas Cromwell – a maligned figure of English history

Thomas Cromwell – a maligned figure of English history

Until the success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, focussing on the life of Thomas Cromwell, few would have recognised his name, and even fewer would have had an inkling of the key role he played in English history. He was one of the leading forces in the English Reformation and laid the basis for the modern state.

His relative eclipse is undoubtedly also associated with the very class-based historical research approach of previous historians who were unsympathetic to the idea of ‘ordinary men’ making history. Cromwell is often described as ‘the most hated man in England’ A recent Guardian piece labelled him ‘the ruthless master politician’. However, a more contemporary evaluation written by Thomas Fuller in his Church History of England in 1655 said: ‘This was the cause why he was envied of the nobility, being by birth so much beneath them and by preferment so high above most of them…’

Cromwell was a poor boy, the son of a Putney brewer and blacksmith, who rose to become one of the most powerful men in England, mixing as an equal with the aristocracy. He was hated by many of the aristocrats as an upstart of low-breeding. They also recognised the danger he posed as an outsider with no tribal interests to defend. He was undoubtedly Henry VIII’s most loyal public servant and rose to become his chief minister, in which role he served from 1532 to 1540, before a conspiracy of his aristocratic enemies persuaded a volatile and increasingly fractious Henry to arrest and execute him.

How did this man of such humble birth become, for a short time, the most powerful man in England?
Unfortunately we know little about his early life. Mantel imagines a miserable childhood as the son of a violent, drunken father. It is reasonably certain that he ran away as a youth and spent a number of years on the continent, where he learned several languages, diplomatic and financial skills and forged valuable contacts.  He learned about politics, economics and met some of the leaders of the Luther-inspired Protestant revolution then sweeping through Europe. His life-shaping experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands undoubtedly gave him the necessary credentials for his later career. He had been a soldier, a merchant and an accountant for a Florentine bank. Importantly he had clearly been impressed by the Protestant reformation.
In 1527 he was back in England, a little over forty years old and already a trusted agent of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel portrays Cromwell as possessing an all-round competence: ‘at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.’
Cromwell was not only one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation, he was also in a position to do something about it. His helping to engineer the annulment of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, gave him the key to push reform further. He realised before many others that without a break from Rome and a curtailment of the powerful and wealthy monasteries in the country, England would never be a truly independent, powerful and sovereign nation. Supremacy over the Church of England was officially declared by Parliament in 1534. Cromwell, particularly after his experiences in Italy and elsewhere in continental Europe developed a healthy disgust of the waste and superstition of the Catholic Church, and he took a very materialist view of relics and indulgences.
Today, he is largely remembered for the key role he played in Sir Thomas More's conviction and execution for treason in 1535 – he is portrayed as the villain and More the hero in Robert Bolt’s film A Man for all Seasons. But More was rather the victim of his own stubbornness than of Cromwell’s ire – he several times gave More the opportunity to change his opposition to Henry’s marriage annulment. He recognised that More’s intransigence on this issue, if allowed to go unchallenged, would jeopardise the necessary reform of church and state and a break with Rome which he so assiduously sought.

He should be remembered primarily as a remorseless reformer and legislator, unblinkingly opposed to an old religion that ‘keeps simple people in dread’ and that was, moreover, sitting on a fortune that could be put to better use.  He tells More in a key remark that, ‘among the ignorant it is said that the king is destroying the church. In fact he is renewing it. It will be a better country, believe me, once it is purged of liars and hypocrites.’ For the first time in history, Englishmen were able to read the Bible and prayer book in their own vernacular.
Mantel's relatively sympathetic interpretation in her novel owes much to the German-born Tudor historian, Geoffrey Elton, who portrayed Cromwell as the prime mover behind the Tudor revolution in government – the first glimmerings of the modern English state. In Mantel's hands, this picture of Cromwell as a reforming legislator acquires new life, as he meditates on how the state can offer work to the unemployed:
‘We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would have all the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.’
Its hardly surprising that the England of Mantel's Cromwell, a nation in flux and turmoil, should resonate with our own. It is a world seemingly suspended between an old order past its sell-by-date and a new order waiting to be born. Cromwell was the man for those times. He realises that England will never be great unless it breaks with a corrupt and over-wealthy Roman Church. Given the era he lived in, he could see that the only way to achieve these reforms was by empowering the monarch and winning his support. He was a fervent believer in a well-run state and he set about constructing one on his sovereign's behalf and with the common wealth in mind. He knew what needed to be done and how to do it. To accuse him retrospectively and anachronistically of brutality and scheming, is to use a contemporary yardstick, rather than the bloody and opportunistic measures of Tudor times.
In July 1536, the first attempt was made to clarify religious doctrine after the break with Rome. Bishop Edward Foxe, with strong backing from Cromwell and Cranmer, tabled proposals in Convocation, which the King later endorsed as the Ten Articles. Cromwell circulated injunctions for their enforcement that went beyond the Articles themselves, provoking opposition up and down the country. These widespread clerically-inspired uprisings were successfully suppressed. This success spurred further Reformation measures. In 1537, Cromwell convened a synod of bishops and doctors to prepare a draft document, The Institution of a Christian Man. Cromwell ensured that it was in circulation, even before the King had given his assent.
He was a reformer, not a zealot. He found old practices unsavoury – hairshirts, indulgences for relief from purgatory – but he was also, at times, exasperated by the obstinacy of those such as Tyndale, the translator of the Bible into English, on whose behalf he tried to broker a deal with Henry.
Throughout 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against idolatry by the followers of the new religion. Statues, roods, and images were attacked, culminating in the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. He also completed a new set of injunctions declaring open war on ‘pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstitions’, and commanding that ‘one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English’ be set up in every church. Moreover, following the surrender of the remaining smaller monasteries during the previous year, the larger monasteries were now also ‘invited’ to surrender throughout 1538.
As the reforms progressed, and despite the riches pouring into Henry’s coffers, he grew increasingly worried about the extent of change, and with the conservative faction at court gaining strength, he began to resist further Reformation measures. The King's anger at being forced to marry Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell's conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, needed to topple him. Cromwell had thought this marriage to a German would help cement Protestant reforms.
His life and legacy have aroused enormous controversy. However his effectiveness and creativity as a royal minister cannot be denied. During his years in power, he skilfully managed Crown finances and extended royal authority. In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentation to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers occasioned by the dissolution of the monasteries. Two other important financial institutions, the Court of Wards and the Court of First Fruits and Tenths, owed their existence to him. He strengthened royal authority in the north of England through reform of the Council of the North, extended royal power and introduced Protestantism in Ireland, and was the architect of legislation, the Laws in Wales Acts, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales. He also introduced important social and economic reforms in England in the 1530s, including action against enclosures, the promotion of English cloth exports, and the poor relief legislation of 1536. By master-minding these reforms, Cromwell was said to have laid the foundations of England's future stability and success.
Despite his widespread reputation as a cold-bloodied opportunist, he showed considerable generosity towards friends fallen on hard times and to the poor. He carried out a ritual distribution of food and drink to 200 poor Londoners twice daily at the gates of his residence. In his will he left monies to ‘penniless maidens on their marriages, money to be distributed to the poor and to prisoners of several prisons within the area where he had lived for much of his life. His accounts are littered with divers donations to the poor and needy.

He was a close friend and supporter of Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and was a reformer like Cromwell himself.  He published the first service in the vernacular and actively promulgated the new (Protestant) doctrines through the Book of Common Prayer and other publications.

Henry was never really interested in the ideas behind a modernised religion, but was happy to go along with Cromwell’s reforms as they helped consolidate his own power, brought him considerable wealth from the dissolved monasteries and, of course, allowed him to annul his several unsuccessful marriages.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Josephine and I - fabulous, bravura performance by Cush Jumbo

Josephine and I
Bush Theatre, Shepherds Bush
Until 17 August

The name Josephine Baker will mean very little to today’s generation, but her life provides a colourful and fascinating subject for a one woman show.
Born into a poor black family in Missouri, she is forced to leave home, aged 13, and via work in nightclubs and chorus lines, she is serendipitously spotted by a producer taken with her precocious talent who offers her a job in a new show in Paris: La Revue Nègre. From there she quickly progresses to the Folies Bergère. Her exotic and sensational dance routines transform her into a star of the twenties. She soon owns her own cabaret, and becomes the muse of artists like Picasso and his circle. Working and living in Paris has set her free from the oppressive racism of the USA, and on visits back home, she is again and again confronted with discrimination despite her worldwide fame. She works as a courier for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation, and sets up her own ‘united nations’ by adopting 12 children from around the world who she houses in her magnificent chateau. She was a vociferous civil rights campaigner and was invited to speak at Martin Luther King’s mass rally in Washington in 1963. She died, aged 68, in 1975 only four days after a final sell-out performance, attended by the likes of Mick Jagger, Sophia Loren and Shirley Bassey .

Cush Jumbo gives a bravura, fast-paced performance interweaving episodes of Baker’s life with her own as a black actress today. She is, like Baker, a multi-talented performer – dancer, actress, singer and comedienne. And she wrote the script! She takes us on an emotional roller-coaster, from comic stand-up, through pathos, to political comment and euphoric joie de vivre. Her final personal rendering of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changing’ is an apt coda to an uplifting, informative and entertaining evening. Phyllida Lloyd’s tight and imaginative direction, with only sparse props, provides the ideal framework for Cush Jumbo’s very personal take on Baker’s life. The Bush’s cabaret style seating provides the ideal setting.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Red Love - GDR family saga

Red Love – the story of an East German Family
Maxim Leo
Pushkin Press £16.99 Pbck

This is a much praised family documentation and winner of the European Book Prize.
Leo was only 19 when the Wall came down, so hardly experienced it as an adult, but like many of those who grew up and lived in the GDR, he can’t get it out of his system. In order to (re)discover what life was really like in the GDR he interrogates his parents and grandparents about their experiences. Theirs was a generation fractured by war and its aftermath. His parents, however, grew up in a privileged environment, as one grandfather, although German-Jewish, was a veteran of the French Resistance and a top Party journalist. His daughter, Leo’s mother, was a member of the Party and imbued with a belief in the socialist system, until she becomes completely disillusioned. Ironically, the author’s father – an anarchistic artist who chafes under the GDR’s ‘provincialism’, becomes equally disillusioned, but by the consumerism and materialism of the new united Germany.

Leo’s portrait of the GDR is like an exercise in describing someone by beginning with their every little wart and scar, detailing every failing and weakness, to end up unsurprisingly, with a very ugly portrait. His is a description of a 1984 dystopia, in which nothing relieves the oppression of state and Party interference in everyday life apart from fleeting escape into one’s personally-carved niche. Even a truth can become an untruth if there is deliberate and serious omission. As with the film ‘Life of Others’, which was shot almost entirely at night time, as if the GDR never experienced sunshine; this book, too, is entirely in negative colours.

It is as if the author suddenly realised after almost 20 years since the GDR’s demise, that he didn’t really know the country in which he’d spent his youth. It is clear from his own comments that although he spent his boyhood in the GDR, his head was always in the West: he loved western music, clothing and flashy cars and despised everything at home, so he hasn’t really taken a full cognisance of that society, only noted its shortcomings and frustrations. He thus felt the urge to ask his parents and grandparents questions he’d never bothered to ask before, but he has filtered out anything positive they might have said and only listed the negatives. Did his parents not experience some episodes of fun, relaxation and enjoyment? It is as if Leo instinctively knew that publishers would only be interested in a book that confirmed all the prejudices and clichés. In this context, it is interesting when he tells the story of his six weeks in hospital after a car accident. The car that hit him apparently had a false number plate, so it must have been a ‘Stasi car’. While in the hospital the doctors only allow his parents to visit him once a week “to prevent his becoming over-excited”. The room he is in is on the ground floor and the windows are barred. ‘Westerners,’ he tells us, in a very revealing sentence, ‘loved that story because it was exactly the way they imagined the GDR.’

Virtually all small children in the GDR went naked when swimming outdoors and relished the freedom of such naturalness, but Leo was ‘forced’ by his parents to do so. The children’s Young Pioneer groups become, in translation ‘troops’ and it’s ‘no fun’; ‘there are constant appeals [a mistranslation of ‘roll-calls’] and processions’. This is a caricature; most children, in my experience, loved the Young Pioneers because they could do all sorts of exciting activities with their mates, outside the parental or school remit.

By relating his grandfathers’ tales of the Nazi period, alongside that of his parents in the GDR, he also tacitly accepts the present German establishment narrative of the ‘two totalitarianisms’, as bad as each other. In fact, the stories told by his grandfather, Werner, who was a member of the Hitler Youth, makes the Nazi period sound more fun for a young boy than the GDR was for Leo himself. 

His two grandfathers, one Jewish, the other ex-Nazi, both became firm supporters of the GDR state, but in an example of Leo’s invariably snotty and patronising attitude even to his close relatives, he writes that they ‘could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time’. And later, he is amazed that they never became disillusioned with their failed paradise because, ‘They [his grandparents and parents] saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion’. One wonders if Leo has ever seen real poverty in his life. It was internationally verified that the GDR had the highest standard of living within the socialist world and while few could be described as ‘extremely well off’ there was certainly no poverty as compared with that in the Third World or in many parts of the materially well-off West.

The author is very much, one feels, an egotist, someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t attempt to fit into a collective or identify with collective endeavour. He betrays a singular lack of sympathy with those who sacrificed and devoted their lives to this attempt to build a new, anti-fascist and socialist Germany.

When his grandfather, as a privileged pensioner, manages to wangle things so that his grandson can accompany him on a memory trip to France, instead of sympathising with those who have no such relatives with the right connections and who are unable to travel to France, he despises them. He takes the Mickey out of his compatriots, as rather stupid provincials, by pretending to be a rich Western visitor to their country.

And adds: ‘Even the photographs of France that I hand in to be developed at the stationery shop in Karlshorst look somehow bleached on the East German paper. I find everything stupid and ugly, and I quite enjoy playing the part of the global traveller, letting the hicks back home feel a little of my contempt.’

His schooling in the GDR is summed up as, ‘Listless teachers wrote the tables [for rote learning] on the board, listless pupils wrote them in their notebooks, listless parents signed off the classwork. That was socialism as it reached me. Phrases in table form.’

And again: When he is not selected by the school to take his A-levels [he admits his grades are not the best] he says: ‘For the first time I felt the power of this state, which could simply determine what path one’s life could take.’ Wish I’d thought of that argument when I wasn’t allowed to go to a grammar school (my IQ grade in the 11+ was apparently not sufficient).

At times it is not just a one-sided and jaundiced perspective, but downright inaccurate. He talks about ‘the boundless hatred of Israel in East German propaganda…’ I challenge him to produce any examples of this. While the GDR made no secret of its support for the Palestinians in their struggle for justice, it was scrupulous in its reticent and fact-based criticism of Israel.

Not even the GDR’s greatest supporters would suggest that the country was a paradise or that there weren’t serious problems and shortcomings, but it was country attempting, in a hostile world environment, to build a different type of society. If Leo had focussed his attacks on the bureaucracy, the intolerance of petty officials or the party’s dominance of so many areas of life that would not be contentious, but his dystopic portrait, plus the obligatory Stasi tales, hardly give the reader a fair or holistic picture of the GDR. The ubiquitous Stasi state demonisation is also a coarse distortion as most ordinary people would have had no contact at all with the Stasi during their lives. The fact that around a third of ex-GDR voters have successively voted for the successor party to the old GDR’s SED, indicates that many of his compatriots would not share Leo’s picture.

Many have talked and written about the ‘Schere im Kopf (‘scissors in the head’ or self-censorship) that existed in the GDR, but in this book we have, I would argue, a prime example of the same phenomenon.

The translation, by Shaun Whiteside, while commendable, reveals at times an ignorance of the era, e.g. the 1951 World Youth Festival in Berlin becomes a ‘World Fair’. Markus Wolf is described as ‘head of espionage’, when he was in fact the head of the GDR’s counter-espionage unit.

It is unsurprising that the book has won widespread praise in the West because it reiterates the uni-dimensional image of a totalitarian regime, constantly peddled by the victors. Many other, much more differentiated, life stories have been published but are not translated. However, one that is in English is Edith Anderson’s ‘Love in Exile: An American Writer's Memoir of Life in Divided Berlin’ (Steerforth Press). It is no rosy-tinted view but a much more accurate picture of a complex reality.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Bolivia in transformation

Bolivia: Processes of Change
By John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin
Zed Books
Pbck. £14.99

This is another extremely useful contribution by Zed Books to our understanding of the recent transformations sweeping Latin America.

Bolivia is Latin America’s poorest country, despite possessing a wealth of raw materials, from silver, tin and hydro-carbon deposits. These resources have been exploited over centuries by first the Spanish colonialists, then by multi-nationals with the connivance of local oligarchs, leaving the overwhelmingly indigenous population barely surviving in dire poverty. It has, like its neighbours, seen numerous governmental changes over the decades: military coups and dictatorships which represented merely a change of exploiting group. However, with the election of the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006, real change became possible. He is a former union leader and avowed socialist, determined to radically transform his country, giving indigenous people greater autonomy and control over their lives for the first time and nationalising much of the country’s mineral wealth resources.

Crabtree and Chaplin know the country well and have conducted independent research, including hundreds of interviews with ordinary people, grass-roots leaders, trade unionists and indigenous groups, and have used these as a basis for their illuminating description of what has been taking place under Morales’s presidency.

What the book clearly explains is how the complex ethnic make up of the country, its history of dictatorships, trade union militancy and popular revolt, overlaying class conflict, makes the implementation of effective and democratic change extremely difficult.
It is a book which will be of vital importance for those with a deeper interest in Latin America and Bolivia, but for a general reader it conveys a fascinating picture of the historical development and contemporary change in this little-known, land-locked Andean country.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Marxist history of the world

A Marxist History of the World - from Neanderthals to Neoliberals
by Neil Faulkner
Pluto Press
Pbck ₤18

Anyone attempting to write a history of the world is, one might think, either a fool or a Hercules, but Faulkner is neither. He takes the reader on a heady gallop through the epochs, dynasties and empires of history, providing often illuminating insights and valuable aid to comprehending history as an interconnected process. For those looking for a broad grasp of human history in one volume this may be your book. He explains why certain societies or systems were successful or not, how one supplanted another, and how geography, social and economic relations influenced that process.

Sadly, once he reaches the 20th century his Trotskyist blinkers are firmly in place. Predictably, post 1917, the communist parties in the various countries of the world, with their ,Stalinist dogma‘, are the reason for the collapse of the world revolutionary movement. He is at one with right wing historians in quoting Orwell as the authority on the Spanish Civil War, and writes (p. 237) that the PCE played ,an actively counter-revolutionary role‘ in that struggle. The clear implication: without the ,treachery‘ of the CP, there would have been a glorious outcome. In Portugal, too, (p. 278) it wasn‘t Soares and his mis-named ,Socialist Party‘ that frustrated the revolution with the help of the CIA and funding from West German social democracy, but the communists again. I find this treatment of the Portuguese party‘s forty years‘ heroic struggle against fascism a wilful travesty. In the Arab world his analysis is the same: ‘The old Arab Communist Parties, following the Stalinist line, led their supporters to defeat by subordinating working-class movements to treacherous bourgeois-nationalist leaders.’ (p.289)

Allende, the former Chilean president, who was a convinced Marxist is described as a ‘left-reformist’ (p. 276) The Polish Solidarnosc movement is described as ‘a workers‘ revolutionary movement’ (p. 248), ignoring the fact that Walensa and his cohorts were motivated more by a reactionary Catholic-nationalism and certainly not by a vision of a democratic workers‘ state.

He describes how on 9 November 1989 ,hundreds and thousands converged on the Berlin Wall...and began to tear it down‘. No they didn‘t - a few West Berliners, tanked up with alcohol, sat astride the Wall and began chipping at it, but East Germans were more interested in their new freedom to travel to the West, not with dismantling the Wall.

The Soviet system was of course ‘state capitalist’. How the Trotskyists square a Marxist understanding of capitalism and the Soviet economic system takes some mental acrobatics. There was much wrong, but as far as I know, no individuals were salting away vast profits in Swiss bank accounts and no class lived off profits. Call it state socialism if you like or even bureaucratic socialism, but capitalism, no.

Despite covering up to 2012, Faulkner completely ignores the Latin American revolutions and the transformation of that whole sub-continent, surely a watershed moment of modern history?

The author‘s style is readable and clear, but it does at times feel more like an evangelical lecture than a joint enterprise of discovery with the reader. Faulkner concludes his tome with the predictable mantra of how to achieve world revolution in three easy stages, an appeal that only undermines any credentials he may claim as a disinterested historian.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Maduro wins in Venezuela

Maduro certain to win

With the sudden death of Hugo Chavez on 5th March Venezuela was plunged into crisis and, as obliged under the constitution, has to hold new presidential elections which are to take place on 14 April. Few doubt that on that day Nicolas Maduro, the acting president, will be elected. He has been accepted with little if any dissent by those who voted for Chavez and by the progressive political leadership.

Little time was left for mourning before the country was gripped yet again by election fever. Hugo Chavez was president of the country for fourteen years, but in that short time he literally transformed the country. There is hardly another world leader in either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries who could claim to have had an equally positive impact not only nationally but on an international level too. There is a consensus that Chavez’s real lasting legacy will be the system of ‘Misiones’ or ‘missions’ that have been the main tool in transforming the lives of so many poor Venezuelans.

Most critics of Chavez seem to ignore the fact that Venezuela was and still is a very under-developed country, scarred by mass poverty, despite its enormous oil wealth. The difference now is that, thanks to Chavez’s intervention, the gulf between the super rich elite and the majority of the population has been narrowed.

When we visited the ‘barrio’ of Petaré in Caracas – allegedly the biggest shanty town in the world – young members of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), in their colourful patriotic T-shirts, were holding an impromptu event in the central square and giving interviews to a local television team about how they were going to implement the goals Chavez had set them.

Just off the square we discovered an old colonial building with a quiet courtyard laced with palm trees and a lower ground floor with shelves full of children’s books on all sorts of subjects from fairly tales to philosophy and science. It was a newly established free library. The white walls were colourfully painted by local children with views of their city. At a table a teacher was helping another in mastering French. This was another example of the transformations that the Chavez government has introduced. Nearby we saw new clinics and a pharmacy where patients can obtain subsidised medicine.

However voices like those like the Guardian’s Rory Carroll, echoing the White House, accuse Chavez of ‘squandering’ the country’s vast oil wealth and of ‘buying popularity’. The mainstream western media ignore the enormous internationally-validated progress achieved during Chavez’s presidency. The right wing presidential candidate, Capriles accuses Chavez and his party, the PSUV of ‘dividing the country’ that he is promising to ‘reunite’. This is to ignore the century-old chasm there has always been between rich and poor. What Chavez has done is to empower the poor to challenge that divide and to wage the ‘class struggle’ more effectively. While his detractors decry him as a dictator, they wilfully ignore his government’s immense achievements. The statistics of these improvements are not only impressive, but seemingly endless. Of course, Venezuela is still, despite all that has been done, a severely underdeveloped country, despite its enormous oil wealth. Over decades, well before Chavez, the country’s oil wealth had been funnelled out of the country into the US and offshore bank accounts of the oligarchic super rich. Slowly over the Chavez period years that is being reversed.

Luckily the fourteen years of the Chavez presidency have brought forth a whole new generation of capable, knowledgeable and committed socialist politicians has been schooled and who are determined to continue the country’s transition to socialism.

Let me list just a few of the achievements of the last ten years:

  • Over 1.7 million people were taught to read and write through Mission Robinson;
  • over 820,000 people have been included in secondary school studies and over 565,000 have entered higher education through mssion Ribas and Sucre;
  • In the last two yeaars alone, under Mision Vivienda (the project responsible for building new apartments for those in desperate need 300,000 new homes were built by the end of 2012; 20 new universities have been created;
  • a subsidised food production and distribution network (Mercal) has been established;
  • As a result of Project Canaima, two million computers and seven million free school textbooks have been distributed to school students;
  • under Mision Barrio Adentro, more than 3 million free eye surgeries and over 560 million medical consultations have been carried out over nine years;
  • child mortality rates in the country have declined by 34%;
  • the inclusion of an additional 520,00 new pensioners into the country’s pension system through mission Greater Love, meaning that now more than 2 million people get a state pension;

And it was announced that by February unemployment had fallen to 7.6% - compare that with the rates in Spain of Greece as a result of the crisis of capitalism. These statistics are not based on internal government figures; most have been validated by international institutions like the UN and UNESCO. The promotion of women in new and active roles in successive Chavez administrations and at local levels too is also an impressive achievement.

If one compares, for instance the minimal progressive changes Blair and the Labour government brought in during their 10 years in power, then the Chavez governments’ achievement is all the more impressive. He set in motion a genuine socialist revolution in the face of implacable and vitriolic opposition, given succour by its supporters in Washington.

One could go on and on, but the above examples should serve to demonstrate the immensity of the achievements of the past decade. In a recent report (The Rise of the South) by the United Nations Development Programme categorises Venezuela as exhibiting a ‘high’ score on the Human Development Index in the context of economic growth in the global south. Venezuela has seen some of the greatest poverty reduction and quality of life increases over the past decade. Acting president Maduro has said he is committed to maintaining and expanding the missions programme and is setting up a co-ordinating body to optimise the use of resources and to increase their efficiency even more.

The right-wing opposition candidate Capriles is so desperate to get elected that he is making the wildest promises such as offering to raise the minimum wage by 40% (it was Chavez who introduced the concept of a minimum wage in the first place) and that he will ‘recapture the acquisitive power of the workers’! He continually patronises former bus driver and trade union leader, Maduro, with ruling class arrogance. He said having Maduro at the helm ‘is like putting a junior doctor in the pilot’s seat of a plane because he happens to be the son of a pilot.’ Echoing Bush, he says he is, ’ undertaking a crusade to ensure that the country ‘is not governed by lies’.
In recent months Venezuela had opened up a new channel of communication with the US in order to attempt to mend fences, but these were broken off at the end of March in response to interfering and insulting comments by US State department Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Roberta Jacobsen who said, in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais that it would be ‘a little difficult’ for Venezuela to conduct ‘clean and transparent elections’.  Shortly before this US secretary of state John Kerry had said that ‘depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition’. There is no doubt that the US is doing all it can to boost the chances of Capriles and undermine Maduro, but even it realises his chances are slim. Maduro has constantly warned his supporters to remain peaceful and avoid violent confrontations or provocations by the opposition.
It is always dangerous to predict political outcomes, but most opinion polls and sober assessments put Maduro well ahead of his opponent. If nothing earth-shattering happens between now and 14th April Maduro is most likely to be the next president. National representatives of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela have endorsed Maduro and he has the full support of the other left parties in the government coalition, including the Communist Party which usually polls around half a million votes. By the end of March an opinion poll conducted on behalf of  Barclays Bank international put Maduro ahead of Capriles by 14.4 points.

Chavistas are those who read

Chavistas are those who read

‘As long as you read, the more you will know and the more you will liberate yourself.’ This is just one of the many pertinent quotations by Chavez that adorn the walls of buildings all over Caracas. It could also be the leitmotif of this year’s international book fair in the city.

Caracas has a population of between three and six million people, depending on whose statistics you want to trust. Whatever the true figure, it feels big. Many of its citizens live in the densely populated and sprawling ‘barrios’ (shanty towns) that cover the hillsides surrounding the city in tiered ranks of do-it-yourself constructions. It is here that support for Chavez, and now for acting president Maduro, reaches its peak.

The city is a veritable melting pot; not a cosmopolitan collection of separate peoples as many capital cities are, but a beautiful melange of black African, indigenous and Hispanic peoples, with little feeling of racial disparity. This teeming city is bedecked with posters, wall slogans, murals and banners commemorating President Chavez. But all this wasn’t just expressing mourning, but also a determination to maintain his legacy. Many of the T-shirts people were wearing bore the simple slogan: ‘Yo soy Chavez’ (I am Chavez), others confirmed their support for Maduro as his political heir and acting president until the presidential election on 14 April. Only in the middle class enclaves of luxury apartments and gated houses with their electrified fencing is there a complete absence of revolutionary slogans and colourful national flags – they remain quiet and sombre like tombstones in a cemetery.

Caracas’s modern metro system is a boon to commuters from the poorer suburbs and perhaps amazingly is not scarred by graffiti of any sort and the whole system is devoid of the commercial ‘pornography’ most capital cities display. Instead there are government advertorials and information posters reminding people of the need for a heatlhy diet or encouraging them to take up education or promoting campaigns against violence. As in London, pensioners travel free.

The government has also recently built a series of cable cars that allow citizens to travel from the barrios in the hills to the centre of Caracas. Beforehand they were oibliged to walk up and down hundreds of steep steps to shop or get to work, and those who were incapable of doing so were condemned to a life trapped in their shacks on the hilltops.

I was invited to Caracas for the launch of the Spanish language version of my biography of Friedrich Engels. It was to be presented at this year’s international book fair (FILVEN). Shortly before flying out, the tragic news of President Chavez’s death on 5th March was announced, so I arrived in the capital Caracas with some trepidation and also a feeling of deep sadness. However, I soon became aware that despite the expressions of public grief, many of its citizens were also imbued with a clear determination to maintain the momentum of their revolution. The book fair inevitably took on the obligation of paying due homage to Chavez and his legacy.

Venezuela’s annual international week-long book fair brings together publishers from all over Latin America, as well as, in this year, from Palestine and Iran. But this isn’t an event aimed just at the publishing cognoscenti, it is also a draw to thousands of ordinary people. Each day the venue in the city centre with its dozens of stands, conference halls and cafes was packed with people of all ages buying books with the fervour of the thirsty on discovering a well; most left weighed down with bags bulging with books. Who are these people doing the buying, I wondered, and was told that they were mainly Chavez supporters, ‘because it is the Chavistas who read!’ One of the Chavez era’s significant achievements has been the massive rise in literacy. He has said: ‘Our socialist revolution is peacful but armed’ – meaning ‘armed with knowledge’.

This year over 170,000 visitors came to the fair. It also boasted a full programme of daily events: poetry readings, discussions, dancing, music and talks by leading writers. The poet Gustavo Pereira*, who also wrote the preamble to the Bolivarian Republic’s constitution, was this year’s honoured writer.

In Caracas I met an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than 40 years, since we both studied together at the GDR’s national film school. As a young Venezuelan communist he had been forced to flee in the wake of the military dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez. He is still making films, but since Chavez was elected fourteen years ago, instead of having to earn his bread and butter making commercials, he has been able to make features in support of the revolution. While the fair was on, he was preparing a sharp satirical cabaret programme for television in the run-up to the presidential election, alongside his day job as advisor to the minister of culture. He was still in a state of shock at Chavez’s sudden demise and spontaneously broke into tears when talking about him, much as one would at the loss of a beloved parent. He had been in Miraflores, the presidential palace, when the coup against Chavez took place in April 2002 and had worked on his renowned, and largely unscripted, TV talk show: Aló Presidente (Hello Mr. President). He told me how Chavez remained unflappable even in the most extreme circumstances, but that he also possessed an amazingly perceptive political nous that meant he could consistently wrong-foot his enemies. Chavez’s immense capacity for working almost non-stop undoubtedly contributed to his sudden deterioration of his health.

When wearing the T-shirt our own Venezuela Solidarity Campaign had produced to commemorate President Chavez’s visit to London at the invitation of Ken Livingstone in 2006, I was repeatedly approached by strangers on the street who thanked me for showing support for their beloved president. With no prompting they explained why they admired him so much and enumerated for me what he had done for ordinary Venezuelans. Such spontaneous expressions of support for Venezuela’s socialist revolution is the best rebuttal of the western media lies about Chavez being a dictator, a man full of empty rhetoric, a charlatan.

While his coffin lay in state at the military academy, mile-long queues of citizens formed every day over ten days, so many wishing to pay their respect to this exceptional leader, often with tears streaming down their faces. Now his body lies in a specially designed mausoleum in the military museum that was once the barracks from which Chavez launched an unsuccessful coup d’état against the government of President Andrés Peréz in 1992. It is also significantly located on a hillside in one of the barrios for which he represented renewed hope and a better future. Alongside the museum, children play the national sport of baseball in a dusty, makeshift stadium to the sound of raucous trumpeting and loud applause.

I certainly didn’t get the impression that this government is a top-down regime or that a state-ordained mourning had been imposed on a reluctant populace. Undoubtedly Chavez had been a powerful leader, but he ensured that real power was devolved to the people and their communities. Everyone I spoke to emphasised how they had found a new pride in their country and a new dignity for themselves. They readily expressed their determination to contribute even harder to the revolutionary process. One young trade union representative came up to me at the book fair and asked if I’d be willing to address workers in the food production factory complex in Valencia where he works. He told me that although they were implementing socialist economic policies and factory management systems, the workers needed to develop a new, socialist culture as well.

His detractors accuse Chavez and his supporters of having created a crude cult of personality. What they fail to appreciate – or don’t wish to understand – is that there is a huge difference between a deliberate personality cult by dictatorial politicians and the genuine popularity of a highly charismatic and capable leader. Chavez hasn’t encouraged or imposed this so-called ‘cult of personality’ for his own selfish ends or personal enrichment,  as all previous dictarors have done, but capitalised on his own undeniable personal popularity to implement a much needed transformation of the country.

My short stay in this vibrant city, left me in no doubt that the people here are far from disheartened, but are experiencing a new burst of life and hope. It is a country reborn and its revolution will not die with Chavez. It is he who has been largely responsible for returning the country’s dignity for the first time since before the Spanish conquest and of giving its people a vision of a truly democratic socialism; his comrades are determined to continue along that path.

*A bilingual edition of a collection of Pereira’s poetry – the first to be published in the UK - is available from Smokestack Books.

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Murdoch conspiracy

Murdoch’s Politics
By David McKnight
Pluto Press
Pbck. £12.99

Julius Streicher was the founder and publisher of the nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, which became a central feature of the Nazi propaganda machine. This book prises open the iron doors of secrecy surrounding Murdoch and his empire to chillingly remind us of how his role so closely resembles that of Streicher, but done more subtly.
Those who automatically pooh-pooh conspiracy theories will be seriously disabused by this book. McKnight doesn’t anywhere spell-out that Murdoch is involved in a worldwide conspiracy, but the facts and information he conveys leave one with no alternative conclusion. Murdoch uses a semi-secret network of right-wing ideologues all over the English-speaking world to promote his virulently right-wing perspective and to manipulate the political process to ensure he gets his way business-wise as well as ideologically.
As McKnight demonstrates perceptively, Murdoch doesn’t so much tell his readers and viewers what to think, as set the agenda for political discussion in the English speaking world. Murdoch himself admits that his papers and TV stations aim to do this. They help fashion a climate of opinion – from bringing down Hilary Clinton’s health service reform bill in the States, fighting positive action to fuelling speculation about Obama’s American credentials.
While Murdoch is first and foremost a businessman out for profit, he is more insidiously a highly manipulative and clever operator on the political stage; his self-declared aim is to influence public opinion.
Most of the flagship newspapers he owns actually make a loss, but are cross-subsidised by the lucrative entertainment arm of his global business. He uses them to open doors to the political elite.  He is not interested in facts or journalistic ethics, as was well demonstrated during the Levenson enquiry, but in promoting right-wing ideas and peddling scurrilous gossip. His Fox television station and papers use very few journalists and instead employ key conservative opinion formers. He doesn’t have to tell his editors and journalists directly what to say, he simply appoints those who are subservient enough to agree with him.
Research in the States shows that viewers of Fox News – the virulently right-wing ‘news’ channel - are more misinformed than those who use other sources for their news. When liberal media go to great lengths to check facts and to debunking or ridiculing material used on Fox News, the latter just shrug it off once again as ‘liberal bias’. His news outlets were instrumental in fuelling the hysteria leading to the Iraq War and providing media support for George Bush’s crusade. Interestingly, while liberal and left-wing media are continually outraged by the excesses, the calumnies, distortion and rampant right-wing agenda propagated by his media, it is simply water off a duck’s back for Murdoch and his acolytes. They simply shrug it off as yet more evidence of the dominating ‘liberal bias’.
His media aggressively push stories that they want taken up by the political class – and they usually succeed. What is less well known about Murdoch is how he uses his enormous wealth to fund right wing think tanks and candidates for government office, from Reagan, Thatcher, Howard in Australia to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. This book is a wake-up call to everyone who values the idea of a free press and informed political debate to ensure that Murdoch’s empire is toppled before we do one day wake up in a Murdochian neo-nazi world.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Captain of Koepenick at National Theatre

Captain of Köpenick
In a new English version by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Adrain noble
Olivier at the National Theatre until 4th April
Think Oh What a Lovely War and The Good Soldier Schweyk rolled into one. Adrian Noble’s fast-paced and evocative recreation of Prussian Berlin at the turn of the 19th century is ensemble theatre at its best, firmly in the tradition of Brecht and Joan Littlewood.
Antony Sher as Voigt gives a bravura performance that captures the tragi-comic quintessence of the part – the small, downtrodden working man who puts one over on the establishment. He brings it off with Chaplinesque panache. A superb expressionist backdrop of the metropolis and scratchy recordings of Berlin cabaret songs of the period set the scene to perfection. The choreography is planned and executed with military precision and the production makes imaginative use of pop-up sets and revolving stage to great effect. Ron Hutchinson’s new English translation captures the comi-tragic nuances of the satire eloquently.
Zuckmayer’s Hauptmann von Köpenick, was first produced in Germany in 1931 and 1953 in London. Based on a real story, the play ridicules Prussian military bureaucracy and subservience to authority.
At the turn of the century, Wilhelm Voigt, a cobbler, with a history of petty crime, is prevented from residing in Berlin, where he could find work, because he has no ID papers. Without ID papers he doesn’t exist in the eyes of the authorities and he can’t find a job or a place to live without them. After spotting a captain’s uniform for sale in a fancy-dress shop, Voigt has an audacious idea: he buys it, puts it on and commandeers a small group of soldiers, ordering them to march on the town hall. There he hopes to procure the necessary papers and so end his Catch 22 situation. Although the real sequence of events was less heroic than portrayed in the play, his exploit caused widespread hilarity throughout Germany. Although sentenced to jail, under pressure of public outrage, the Kaiser pardoned him.
The inured Prussian spirit, as lambasted in the play, led irrevocably to the First World War and made Hitler’s rise to power possible. Zuckmayer implies that an alternative was possible with a scene of a workers’ demonstration and the singing of the Internationale. That alternative found its expression in the short-lived 1918 November Revolution in Germany and the setting up of Soviets in Berlin and Munich.
His play would have struck a strong chord among its German audience but it is hardly relevant for a UK audience today. Despite a superbly entertaining theatrical evening one has to ask why choose this play here and now.

Book review - Egyptian Revolution

Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen – Egypt’s Road to Revolt
By Hazem Kandil
Pubs. Verso 2012
Hdbck.  £16.99

If you want to understand the underlying forces and mechanisms of Egypt’s recent revolutionary turmoil, you couldn’t find a more informative book than this. Beyond its detailed analysis of the historical forces that culminated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations and regime change, it also has relevance for understanding revolutionary change everywhere. In his introduction the author says: ‘To study revolution is to study how the masses awaken from their slumber and thrust themselves on the centre stage of their own history only to watch their aspirations either usurped or repressed.’ This rather fatalistic conclusion is, as we well know, too often the historical truth.

Kandil was born in Egypt and now lectures at Cambridge. His deep knowledge and understanding of Egyptian politics within the wider world context is impressive. The main thrust of his argument is that the Egyptian revolution was able to gather strength not as a direct result of spontaneous uprisings of the people, but as a result of infighting between the three pillars of Egyptian state power: the military, the security services and the political elite. He takes us back to the origins of modern Egypt in order to demonstrate his case convincingly. From British colonial rule, through Nasser, the Suez debacle and the catastrophic six days war with Israel, via Sadat, Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood government of today. In this history, he reveals how, after the Second World War, the CIA ‘loaned’ former top Nazi SS and Gestapo officers to the Egyptian regime to help it in its struggle against communism and democratic change and to ensure Egypt remained in the western orbit.

The reason the Mubarak regime was unable to successfully suppress the people’s demands for democracy, he argues, was that the military, unhappy with the leading role given to Mubarak’s notorious security services, was unwilling to allow itself to be used as a tool of suppression or be seen as a continuing supporter of the unpopular corrupt business and political class; it viewed the uprising as an opportunity to re-establish its prominence and status in the country.
A valuable contribution to our understanding of Middle Eastern politics and to comprehending the mechanisms of revolutionary change in general.