Jon Lansman’s role as a key figure in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy for several decades must surely be in question now, after his January 10 anti-democratic coup in Momentum - as well as his failure to champion, during his time in charge of Momentum, one of the CLPD’s key demands: the mandatory selection of parliamentary (and other) candidates.
The imposed new constitution of Momentum abolishing at a stroke the national committee, regional committees and conference, imposed a so-called ‘one member, one vote’ constitution without daring to submit the constitution itself to ‘one member, one vote’ approval. Imposing this so called “digital democracy” was backed by six votes, by email, without face-to-face discussion, of an illegitimate steering committee. Changing it now requires not only 50% of those voting in an online ballot, but a positive vote by 30% of the membership - the kind of threshold desired by Tories and Labour rightwingers to make trade unions ineffective.
The coup has outraged democrats in Momentum. The abolished national committee refuses to be abolished, and has elected a coordinating group to work between meetings. The abolished conference arrangement committee refuses to be abolished, and is pressing ahead with a March 11 “Grassroots Momentum” networking conference of local groups. Many candidates, myself included, standing for election under the imposed constitution to Lansman’s national coordinating group, are campaigning on anti-constitution platforms. The Labour Representation Committee and Red Labour have rejected, in disgust, the offer of places in Momentum as affiliated organisations.
But what of the CLPD? Labour Party Marxists has submitted the following motion to the CLPD AGM, to be held on Saturday February 25 at Friends Meeting House, Euston (11.15am start).
“Noting that the CLPD is invited to affiliate to Momentum, this AGM reaffirms that the CLPD remains committed to campaign for the democratisation of the Labour Party, including mandatory selection of parliamentary candidates.
“The democratisation of Labour is not furthered by undemocratic behaviour in Momentum. This AGM regrets the curtailment of normal democratic procedures in Momentum.”
Come along and support the motion. If you have not renewed your CLPD membership for 2017, you can do so online at www.clpd.org.uk. “Membership is open to all members of the Labour Party, and we welcome affiliation from all labour movement organisations.”
Labour Party Marxists
A post keeps popping up on my Facebook news feed urging me to vote for the slate of candidates promoting a ‘United Momentum’ in the elections for Momentum’s national coordinating group.
So far I’ve managed not to comment that what they really want us to vote for is a ‘well behaved Momentum’. But I’m not sure how much longer I can resist - I’m not that big an advocate of ‘well behaved’ politics.
It is bad enough that the Tories on Warwickshire County Council have pushed through their £67 million cuts package, as they did at their meeting last Thursday, but we are furious that they could only get these massive cuts agreed by having the full support of all 22 Labour councillors. The cuts announced are a direct result of a compromise budget agreed between Tory and Labour councillors.
We expect councillors in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party to oppose austerity, but we knew from November this was unlikely in Warwickshire. Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition wrote to all opposition councillors suggesting they joined together to use their numerical majority to overturn the Tory budget proposals. The Greens replied to say they would oppose some cuts, the Liberal Democrats noted our plea, but not one of the 22 Labour councillors had the courtesy to even reply. Labour clearly has no appetite to fight.
These cuts will affect everyone. Hundreds will lose their jobs. The 4% increase in council tax will hit the poor and those on low wages particularly hard. We will all be affected by the massive cuts to care for the elderly, libraries, the Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service and road maintenance - and to cut support for recovering addicts is simply callous.
We know that, locally and nationally, Labour councillors have shown a woeful lack of fight against cuts in recent years, and we shouldn’t be surprised that Labour voted for a package of cuts to services in Warwickshire. But, worse still, this is being presented as a ‘joint budget’. What a sad state of affairs that the Greens and Lib Dems are the only voices raised against cuts that will seriously affect local people. Labour’s excuse for this abandonment of their natural voting constituency - the working class, the poor, the underprivileged - is that they were able to take out “some of the more vicious cuts the Conservatives were proposing”. Councillor June Tandy, head of the Labour group, went on to say: “We are proud that we have the courage not simply to vote along party lines, but to look toward better services for Warwickshire people.”
It is inconceivable that a Labour politician can express pride at voting through cuts on this scale. The founders of the Labour Party would turn in their graves to hear such words. What has happened to standing up for what is right? This is political pragmatism and it is a disease that is destroying the Labour Party. It is high time that Labour goes back to its roots, remembers why it was founded and what it stands for.
Councils can avoid passing on government cuts by using their reserves and, if necessary, the prudential borrowing powers that are available to local authorities. They can set a budget that meets the needs of the local community and join with other local councils to demand the government makes up the shortfall. Governments can be persuaded to change course, if they perceive the policy as being unpopular enough to lose them votes.
This would not have been a difficult argument to pursue. It is not illegal to set a no-cuts budget, and councils can set legally balanced budgets that avoid cuts. Governments can find alternative ways to deal with deficits, including a wealth tax or improving ways of preventing tax evasion/avoidance. Austerity is a political choice. It is outrageous that Labour is backing the Tories to inflict more austerity, more misery, on the people of Warwickshire.
Jeremy Corbyn became the focus for working class resistance to austerity by accident. However, the radicalisation around him - including the mass rallies and the big spike in people joining the Labour Party to support him against the right - has been a positive sign and the radical Corbyn wave has not yet been defeated, although it is starting to recede.
The movement has to learn the lessons from the partial setbacks that have occurred, and that are coming. I say ‘partial’, because I see mass left radicalisation as a growing feature of the next period. An adequate international socialist party will begin to emerge from the battles that are to come. Either the Labour Party will split or it will dwindle as a mass force. In its present form, it has little or nothing to offer working class people.
The growth of reactionary nationalism, epitomised by Trump and by Brexit, is both a warning and a spur to action. Those in the labour movement who propose that the way forward is through an accommodation with the reactionary Brexit project of the Tories and its anti-migrant scapegoating must be fought and removed from positions of power within the labour movement. We need a democratic socialist movement that can take on and defeat the move to the right by the ruling class.
Will Corbyn rise to that task and promote such a movement? The omens don’t look good, given recent events in Momentum and the anti-democratic coup. The socialist left needs to democratically organise itself in order both to put pressure on Corbyn not to politically capitulate to the right, and to get across the socialist message of international working class unity against austerity, social inequality and the drive to war.
Don't go soft
Soft Brexit will be the real disaster for Labour. Can you imagine continued membership of the European single market - all those fees to pay, but no say on the leading bodies of the European Union? Worst Brexit ever! ‘Tariff-free access to the ESM’ is not a slogan that is going to win hearts and minds for Labour. No, no.
There are only two games in town: far-right Brexit, by which Britain becomes an offshore tax haven for the super-rich, full of unemployed, homeless slaves - a sort of fascist nightmare; or socialist Brexit, by which a regime of full employment is established, a national bank with a monopoly of credit and the mega-profits and property of the giant corporations and superrich are made the property of all.
Socialist Brexit would seek a new European settlement that does not treat the working class like migrating cattle or tethered donkeys in sink communities. The worst possible thing for Labour will be to get sucked into an unpopular front for soft Brexit with the likes of the Lib Dems, the Greens, pro-EU Tories, Bob Geldof, Richard Branson and corporate capitalism.
Ask Hillary Clinton how 90s neoliberal throwbacks get on electorally against the proto-fascists. They don’t. They don’t want to. Fundamentally, Britain voted for Brexit because British capitalism is moribund and dead, and cannot any longer compete in Britain, let alone in the ESM. ‘Remain’ was never an option, so the only logical response if we don’t want to end up in the capitalist version of North Korea is socialist Brexit. Don’t let all this crap about triggering article 50 be just a cover for capitulating to the wretched EU and soft Brexit.
Professor AC Grayling told his audience at the recent Putney Debates that he had been opposed to Scottish independence in 2014, but he was now in favour of it. What had changed his mind was Brexit. He says “a mere 37% of the gerrymandered electorate voted ‘leave’.” He blamed this on Cameron, who “lazily and thoughtlessly allowed the referendum to be poorly organised” by excluding young people and EU citizens living and paying taxes in the UK. He concluded “had they voted in the EU referendum, the result would have been markedly the other way. Their exclusion was gerrymandering.”
This week the issue is the triggering of article 50 to start negotiations. Corbyn is in a no-win situation - damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. This is generally how Corbo gets a bad press, whatever he does, every day of the week. On article 50 he really is between a rock and a hard place. What should he do?
Hard Brexit is the hardest anti-working class policy not only for UK workers, but for workers in the EU. Hard Brexit must be fought tooth and nail, the only question is how? First, the working class is seriously divided and that must be recognised and taken into account. Second, hard anti-working class Brexit will not be defeated in parliament. Nobody should have any illusions in the House of Commons or Lords.
The Commons is out of touch and will prove once again to be a pliant tool of the crown. Nobody should have any faith or belief that the Commons can or will defeat anti-working class Brexit. If there is endorsement or rejection of the dodgy and corrupt deal Her Majesty’s government will come up with, it is far better to put it to the people. Who should vote on the Tory deal? Trust the people or trust MPs? It is no contest. There should be a referendum on the final deal. Let the case be made, tested and contested in the workplaces, on the streets and in our communities.
The real battle over Brexit will have to take place outside parliament. This phoney struggle between MPs and parties inside parliament is only useful in so far as it educates working class people about the true state of affairs and what is to be done to by the working class movement to unite and mobilise direct action.
Corbyn has done one thing correctly. He has put the Parliamentary Labour Party behind the idea of a democratic mandate on article 50. The question is, what is a democratic mandate? Is it a British unionist or UK mandate? Is it a mandate from local constituents? Is it a mandate from the people of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales? The latter is the only democratic mandate that Corbyn should accept. It is the only option if you are prepared to do battle outside parliament.
The people of Scotland and Northern Ireland (and the rest of Ireland) have voted to remain in the EU. The people in England and Wales voted to leave. These votes are a nail in the coffin of the UK. All people around the world who have been victims of British imperialism will rightly be happy about that. Brexit is about a revamp of British imperialism, more firmly dependent on and subservient to the United States and the newly elected King Donald the First.
The PLP has split between British unionists, who will be voting under their three-line whip to trigger article 50, and localists who take their mandate from their constituencies. It would be political suicide if every Labour MP voted along the lines of their constituency. It would split the Labour Party even more deeply than the Tories have been divided over Europe.
If we were standing in Corbyn’s shoes, what should we do? Or, to put it another way, what would a revolutionary democrat do in the face of this dilemma? In the first case Corbyn should instruct his Scottish MPs to vote against article 50, taking their mandate from the Scottish people. This is what the Scottish National Party has done. He should instruct his English and Welsh MPs to vote for triggering EU negotiations. If he did this, he would send out a signal the people outside parliament how the battle is going to go.
On the other hand, a revolutionary democrat would recognise the right of nations to self-determination and the sovereignty of the people. Conservative Tories, liberal unionists and conservative communists have one overriding principle in the preservation of the British crown and British union. Defending the Great British nation instead of ending it as quickly as possible is nothing other than reactionary stupidity. In the post-Brexit world the British union is heading backwards towards the British Union of Fascists.
Corbyn’s socialism is rooted in liberal democracy, not revolutionary democracy. He is right to attend to issues of the ‘will of the people’ and a democratic mandate, not least because of the divisions in the working class. But he has no more recognised the democratic rights of the Scottish or Irish people than Theresa May. May, a hard-line unionist and anti-working class Brexiteer, has already declared she will drive her tanks all over Scotland and Northern Ireland. Corbyn is now tying himself into that with fatal consequences.
Left Unity and Rise
Reading Mike Macnair’s thoughtful piece on United States foreign policy under Donald Trump (‘The new president and the new global order’, January 26) brought to my mind something that Mike said to me last summer: that those hoping for a genuine British exit from the EU, as opposed to a fudged deal, would need to bank upon the victory of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election this coming spring.
I am convinced that the French presidential election, were Le Pen to be elected, would be a turning point not merely in French, or even just in European, but in global affairs. She has made it clear that unless the EU becomes no more than an informal arrangement amongst sovereign states - that is, more or less dissolves itself - she will campaign for France to leave. She already intends to pull France out of the euro, which would cause severe problems for the economy of Europe.
The EU can cope with Britain’s departure, as it was always semi-detached. France was a founder-member of what is now the EU - it is central to it; were France to leave, this would completely destabilise it. The course would be set for the disintegration of the EU in a flurry of rightwing nationalism - a course beset with uncertainty and the danger of the revival of national rivalries amongst the European powers.
Were this to occur, then the realisation of Trump’s dream of a disintegrated EU would mean that the US ruling class would need to adopt his particular version of an ‘America first’ policy. Mike points in his article to the close relationship between the EU and Nato in respect of the establishment and subsequent exercising of US power in Europe: could Nato exist as an institution if Europe fell apart into a gaggle of nation-states that were potentially or even actually rivals? The US would then need to relate in a multilateral manner to the nation-states of Europe, and would probably have to step in, perhaps with Russian help, were their rivalries to get out of hand. This would almost certainly further destabilise an already unstable continent.
Most authorities feel that Le Pen is unlikely to win the election, and I tend to agree with them. If she loses, then the US ruling class can breathe rather more freely, bourgeois opposition to Trump can take off in earnest and the British capitalist class can seek its preferred ‘least worse’ option of a fudged deal with the EU. Nevertheless, a victory on her part is not impossible: after all, who two or three years back would have thought it possible that Britain would vote to leave the EU and that Trump would become US president?
The ruling classes all around the world will be preparing for this eventuality; on our side, we who want a socialist alternative to both the status quo and a world determined by Le Pen and Trump must consider how we should respond, were she to win the election and thereby trigger the biggest upheaval in world geopolitics since the end of World War II.
As International Women’s Day (March 8) celebrates all that is great and good about the ‘fairer sex’ and 80 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War, it would be timely to remember one woman from England whose lust for liberty would see her fight against fascism and pay the ultimate sacrifice for doing so.
Felicia Browne was born into a well-to-do family on February 18 1904 in Surrey. The talented girl had a flare for art and at the age of just 16 enrolled in art college. In 1928 Felicia went to Berlin, where she traded in her paint brushes and canvas for a brief dalliance with metalwork and stonemasonry. She was in Berlin to witness the growth of Nazism and, instead of cowering away from the dark cloud of the swastika, Felicia took it on and was an active member in anti-fascist activities in Berlin, including street fights with Hitler devotees.
Perhaps it was her active role in the anti-fascist movement in Berlin that saw her leave the city sooner than she preferred. She left it in such a hurry, she even left behind her art tools, but her activism did not wane and when she returned to her home soil she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Felicia had witnessed at first hand the rise of Nazism and the spread of fascism, so she flung herself wholeheartedly into the fight to stop it. She took part and organised protest marches, because, as she saw it, it was up to the ordinary working class to rise up against fascism, as those in Downing Street were merely ignoring it. She continued with her art, but it took on a more leftwing perspective and she became an art contributor to the Left Review.
In July 1936 Felicia went on a driving holiday through France with her friend, the journalist and photographer Dr Edith Bone. Their vacation saw them journey from Paris down south and over the Pyrenees, where Barcelona was marked as their final destination of the holiday, but at the heart of this decision, of course, was Felicia’s leftwing politics.
The two holidaying ladies arrived in Barcelona in time for the People’s Olympiad - a socialist opponent to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which saw swaths of swastikas and a beaming Hitler overseeing it all. Unfortunately, the People’s Olympiad didn’t get a chance to go ahead, as a coup by the fascist general Franco against the republican government occurred.
Many athletes and tourists either fled or found themselves stranded, but many more, including Felicia, chose to stay and fight it out with the Francoists. She joined a Marxist militia and for a time was stationed in Barcelona, where she did patrol duty. As the war escalated, she wanted to be in the thick of the action and undertook weapons training before going to the front.
Felicia did not find it easy to enlist in a combat group. She had to fight gender discrimination in order to win her place to fight the fascists. Every time she tried to join a militia at the front lines, she was dissuaded by those in charge: men! But she held out, wore them down and eventually won them over with her with gusty attitude. “I can fight as well as any man,” she sternly informed them.
Felicia saw action on the Zaragoza front, where on August 25 she joined a small group of 10 on a dangerous mission. They drove to Tardienta town by car before walking 12 kilometres to a rail line used by Francoists. Their aim was to blow it up. All went well in the way of placing the dynamite without arousing any suspicion, but, little did they know, they were being watched by a troop of Francoists nearby. Making their way back from the railway line over the unruly Spanish terrain, Felicia and her comrades came across a downed plane. They recognised the dead pilot as one of their own and, as they were burying him, 40 fascist soldiers ambushed them.
In the ensuing firefight, one of Felicia’s comrades, an Italian, was shot. As she tended to his wounds, the ambushers unleashed a hail of machine gun fire on them, to which Felicia and her Italian comrade succumbed. In order to make a quick getaway, Felicia’s comrades were unable to bring hers or the Italian’s body with them, but they managed to gather some of their belongings and from the 32-year-old Felicia they took a sketch book.
Felicia’s sketchbook managed to make its way back to England, where its contents made up part of a memorial exhibition in London in October 1936. They were then sold by the Artists International Association, with proceeds going towards Spanish relief. No doubt, the lady killed in defence of the Spanish republic would have approved of her art aiding the cause for which she gave her life.
Some of the commentaries around House of Commons speaker John Bercow’s remarks about Donald Trump are interesting.
On the one hand, liberals are delighted that ‘our great institutions’ are reflecting ‘British values’ (vomit) and applauding Bercow. On the other hand, the ultra-left are sneering that a bourgeois politician is doing the job the working class should be doing and warning of parliamentary cretinism.
In reality, both are wrong. Bercow’s actions are not devoid of context. Who can doubt that they are directly influenced by the enormous wave of anti-Trump sentiment and the massive demos of recent weeks? In this sense, the working class is doing exactly what it should do: forcing bourgeois institutions to bow to its will. Fancy that: protesting, kicking off, etc, actually does work, eh?
It’s now entirely possible that the planned state visit will not take place after all. Well done to all concerned. Now, if we could only apply the same fury and will to the matters of food banks, poverty pay, the NHS, the housing crisis, and so on.
Art and truth
The late John Berger praised certain artists, as well discussing the great issues of realism and formalism - artists such as Cézanne and Léger; the sculptor, Ossip Zadkine; the Mexican muralists; and the photo-montage maker, John Heartfield.
In the 1950s, when Berger was a young art critic, abstraction - particularly abstract expressionism - was the dominant style in the art market, along with the figuration of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. But Berger wasn’t hostile to formal awareness as such. Neither the artists he admired nor his mentors, like Ernst Fischer and Max Raphael, championed naturalism as the only thing worth doing. Berger - British-born but committed early to ‘Europe’ - wrote approvingly too of Cubism, while his writing style owed much to Paris existentialism and phenomenology. He would often start with a statement, but go on to description, pinpointing his interaction with a work and not just the ideology behind it.
“I am not anti-abstract,” he wrote in 1952. “I get considerable pleasure from those works in which real considerations lie behind each decision about colour and shape. The trouble is that the pleasure is incomplete.”
He often wrote about drawing - as an activity in itself and during essays on painters like Watteau or Rubens. Drawing for him was a metaphor: looking at things, searching out lines, making choices, relating a part to the whole; but this attention was only the start.
“A style,” he wrote, “can never be criticised as such; it can only be criticised in relation to what the artist is intending to communicate.” What we take away from the work is “the artist’s way of looking at the world” and Berger asks: “Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.”
Even a Goya sketch of an elderly woman gives us her indomitable character and can provoke questions about how we live our lives or treat the aged. It isn’t a slogan, but it is an insight into more than the artist’s own feelings, just as a Cézanne is more than an arrangement of snazzy colours. An artist like Jackson Pollock, though, had isolated himself in the cell of his own emotions and his paintings are like the marks “made on the inside walls of his mind”.
On the other hand, the sculptor Zadkine made a modernist war memorial in Rotterdam that addresses the town’s experience of being bombed in World War II (‘Problems of socialist art’, 1959). Zadkine’s large metal figure draws on cubism to portray a wounded body that is both bent in agony and rising in resistance. This many-sidedness of the figure, Berger argues, attests to the whole complex experience, which the town inhabitants were proud to have recognised: “The figure represents a city and the sculpture is of bronze and so the wound, which is in fact a hole right through the body, is seen in terms of the twisted metal of a burnt-out building.”
In his 1960 Pollock essay, Berger avows that “the constant problem for the western artist is to find themes for their art which can connect them with their public. (And by theme I do not mean a subject as such, but the developing significance found in a subject.)” This significance is the content of the artist’s work and connects us to a way of seeing that can enrich our own.
In Berger’s own paintings, books, screenplays and TV programmes, his content was found in neglected subject matter. His 1975 book, A seventh man, with pictures by photographer Jean Mohr, examined the importance of migrant workers to Europe before even Salman Rushdie mentioned them as a symbol of modernity. Some years later, Berger would remark about his more recent works of fiction that “a story is a rescuing operation”.
He believed in evaluation: when he thought a work had failed, it was because it had failed to engage with the world. Take the example of the photo-montage pieces by the German, ‘John Heartfield’, in the 1930s. Heartfield was not a ‘fine artist’, but an acute political satirist using bits of photos to make a new picture like a cartoon. But Berger showed that Heartfield produced indifferent work, when, instead of ridiculing something precise like the Nazi slogan, ‘Guns before butter’, he had tried to embody an abstraction, like ‘Viva the Popular Front’. By 1969, when this essay, ‘The political uses of photo-montage’, was published, Berger was all too aware that this failure of effect was particularly a danger for the committed artist, either because they had given into party diktat or moral pressure.
It was because he was a realist that the late John Berger didn’t reject the discoveries of modernist art or the use of any medium or the value of collaboration, whether between practitioners or with the audience. Art was not “a weapon”, but a process of attention. “The truth,” he wrote, “is always first discovered in open space.”