Friday, January 13, 2006

New life and strength to fight on women's issues

Report on the Women’s International Democratic Federation 60th anniversary celebrations and conference of the European section in Paris in December 2005.

WOMEN from all around the world gathered in Paris last week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Women’s International Democratic Federation at the UNESCO building on 6th December. Delegations, including one from the New Communist Party of Britain, also came to pay tribute to many women who have been playing an exceptional role in the battle for women’s rights and equality under different circumstances and conditions around the globe.
This was an event that many thought would never happen after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the European socialist countries – who had been the staunchest supporters of the WIDF with resources of all kinds.
They recognised that the struggle for women’s equality was part and parcel of the struggle for peace and socialism and against oppression and injustice.
Certainly the western imperialist powers thought – and hoped – that the WIDF would disappear without Soviet support. It did take a knock back but it has survived and is now growing again, largely due to the hard work and dedication of the women involved.
If anything it is now stronger than before, independent of backing from any one particular source, standing definitely on its own feet uniting women from the Third World, the developed world and every corner of the planet.
Furthermore, the Russian section, in the former Soviet Union, remains one of the staunchest divisions in spite of the anti-socialist government there at the moment.
The WIDF has survived and now grows in strength because the issues that it champions have not gone away – the need to fight for women’s rights, peace and social justice –grows more intense.
Skevi Koukouma, who is co-ordinator of WIDF-Europe, organised the anniversary event and a conference the European Regional Bureau the next day in the town hall of La Corneuve d’Aubervilliers – a Paris suburb with a commitment to supporting women’s rights.
The event began with speeches of support from official representatives of UNESCO, the European Parliament, the French government and a number of ambassadors to France – including the Cuban and Brazilian ambassadors, who brought good wishes on behalf of their governments.
Then the WIDF president, Marcia Campos from Brazil, gave a long speech covering the history of the movement and its struggles to re-establish itself. This was followed by speeches from the leaders of various regional bureaux of the WIDF, reporting on their struggles and the issues that faced them.
They included WIDF vice-president Mayada Abbassi from Palestine, Dora Carcaño from the WIDF American office, Adelia de Carvalho from Angola, representing the African WIDF office, Linda Mattar from the Lebanon, representing the WIDF office of Arab countries and Ha Thie Kie from Vietnam, representing the WIDF Asian office.
All the speakers linked the struggle for women’s rights to the struggle for human rights in general, for peace and against imperialist warmongering. They also linked it to the class struggle.
After the speeches the WIDF paid homage to women who have been particularly active in various struggles in different parts of the world by presenting them with special certificates.
The WIDF issued a statement from the anniversary event, summarising the views expressed there. It said that the participants “send a militant message of solidarity and common action to the democratic and progressive women’s movements and generally to women throughout the world”.
It continued: “The Women’s International Democratic Federation, founded on the 1st December 1945, just after the victory over Hitlerite fascism and the end of the Second World War, unites women regardless of race, nationality, religion and political opinion so that they can work together to ensure peace, democracy, national independence and to establish bonds of friendship and solidarity among the women of the whole world.
“WIDF expresses its anxiety for the international developments that are characterised by the continuation and consolidation of the so-called new world order. The position that what has henceforth prevailed is the undermining of international law and the imposition of the rights of the powerful has been affirmed.
“The United States and its allies wish to maintain and expand their political, economic and strategic hegemony to every corner of the planet.
“The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 in the US presented the opportunity to strengthen their imperialist policy and the excuse for greater arbitrariness based mainly on the dogma of preventative war, but also for the attacks on political and human rights and individual freedoms.
“The main examples of this policy were the wars waged in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore and attempt is being made be every possible means, by using the cloak of alleged democratisation, to overthrow all the regimes that the US considers as being non-friendly.”
The WIDF calls for the tackling of terrorism to be conducted collectively under the aegis of the United Nations. It asserts that “the only way to safeguard world peace and stability is by upholding international law, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent states, ridding the United Nations from American influence and strengthening the role of the organisation in tackling international problems.”
This glosses over some aspects of the history of the United Nations, which sanctioned and supported the invasions of Korea, the Congo and Yugoslavia. The UN is an international forum that reflects the balance of power in the world. When the anti-imperialists are strong, the UN can become a strong bulwark against imperialism but when the imperialists are generally stronger they can use the UN as an instrument to oppress small nations. The refusal of the UN to back the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 reflects a division within the global ruling class – a division that has weakened imperialism and given strength to anti-imperialism. But, like the machinery of state, the UN is not neutral in the class struggle.
The WIDF statement goes on to condemn the effects of neo-liberal globalisation, saying that “the gains of working people and especially of women are taking a battering; labour relations are being deregulated, the social role of the state is restricted and gender, class and social inequalities are intensifying.
“The importance of steps for women’s education, for sexual and reproductive health and rights, for economic advancement, for political participation and for putting an end to violence are far from their aims.”
The statement expressed support and solidarity for “the heroic people of Cuba”, suffering from the illegal US blockade.
Looking back to the Beijing Platform for Action for women’s rights, the WIDF recognised that the road for women’s emancipation has a long way to go yet. “The space between political decisions and their implementation is widening. Poverty, violence against women, unemployment, low participation in the decision making bodies, the spread of AIDS/HIV among women and young girls, the affect on women and girls of being in a conflict situation, the sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children, and the exploitation of migrant women continue to give the democratic and progressive women of the world the obligation to unify their struggle against those who are ruling the world economically and politically.”
The following day, at the conference of the European bureau in La Corneuve d’Aubervilliers, around 30 delegates discussed mainly administrative matters to strengthen the organisation, increase its activity and relevance and to arrange future events.
These included a meeting of the executive committee of the WIDF to take place in Beirut next year and a congress of the whole organisation, which will probably take place in 2007. Nicosia in Cyprus has been proposed as a venue but this is subject to agreement by other regional bureaux around the world.
The WIDF has to strike a difficult balance in holding its events in different regions in turn and also bearing in mind that member organisations are not rich and raising travel expenses for delegates can be difficult.
Ironically now delegations from socialist and progressive Third World countries like Brazil, Cuba, Vietnam and Angola are more likely to have real support from their own governments, while delegates from the imperialist countries receive no such support.
Olga Daric from the New Communist Party of Yugoslavia raised the issue of Milena Arezina, a senior government finance minister in Yugoslavia during the government of Milosovic. After his deposition – engineered by invading imperialist forces – she was pressured to falsify an audit of a major socialist manufacturing enterprise to make it appear uneconomic. She refused as was instantly beaten up by imperialist military thugs and was severely injured.
Milena Arezina was thrown out of her job and now has great difficulty making a living. “The American want all our women to have no jobs but prostitution,” said Olga Daric.
One delegate, who works for the European Union Secretariat, reported that the left group of MEPs within the European Parliament are now facing an uphill struggle on women’s issues because that parliament is now dominated by the right, especially the Christian Democrats who maintain a repressive attitude to women’s reproductive rights.
The left MEPs raise initiative after initiative only to find they are defeated or omitted altogether. The current European Parliament has merged the programme dealing with violence against women with the programme on drug abuse. It has also lumped together the issues of fighting poverty and the trafficking of women. Obviously none of these issues is being taken seriously.
Much of the WIDF work is taken up with protests and lobbying governments and international bodies like the UN and the EU.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dominance of US imperialism in the world, the need to defend women’s rights around the world has grown. But so has the determination of politically active women to refuse to allow the clock to be put back on women’s rights. This organisation is not going to go away. It is going to grow and in time it will be not just tugging the sleeve of the various global authorities – it will be seriously challenging them to deliver equal rights and social justice for all.

NCPB Politburo member Daphne Liddle represented the Party at both events.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Remembering Frank Ryan and the International Brigade

THE ORATION below was given on the morning of Sunday 16th October 2005 by Manus O’Riordan, International Brigade Memorial Trust, in Glasnevin Cemetery at the final resting place of a fighter for Irish freedom and the Spanish anti-fascist struggle: Frank Ryan.
Frank Ryan is a name that is part of my communist education because my father, Frank West, told me about this fighter for freedom.
Dad was one of the last 11 International Brigaders to be freed from Franco’s fascist prison – San Pedro de Cardenas (formerly, and now again, a monastery) in April/May 1939.
Frank Ryan, having been severely beaten up by Franco’s thugs was being left behind. But he stood in the yard of the building giving the “Red Front” salute. For those who may not know, the “Red Front” salute is the clenched fist raised when we sing the Internationale.
The German Democratic Republic gave some members of the International Brigade a holiday each year. On one of these my father had a photo taken at Frank Ryan’s grave in Berlin – before his body was moved to Ireland.
The reason for Manus O’Riordan’s oration was to set the record straight about Frank Ryan. For decades the right wing in Ireland have tried to defame and diminish the revolutionary record of this child of his class – most recently in the Irish Times by columnist Kevin Myers on the 19th October 2005.
Dolly Shaer.

It was on that same Gandesa front that Frank Ryan was captured by Italian Fascists in March 1938, along with Bob Doyle. Bob is present with us here today, in the company of his fellow International Brigade veterans Jack James Larkin Jones and Michael O’Riordan, in order to pay tribute to a man who gave such inspirational leadership to all International Brigaders during the Spanish Anti-Fascist War.
We also have a Second World War veteran present, former Irish Labour Senator Jack Harte who, serving in the British army, fought against the Nazis in Greece. He subsequently became their prisoner-of-war, being transported from Greece to Italy, and then to Germany itself. As a Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland official, Jack Harte served for many years as Chairman of the James Larkin Commemoration Committee, and he is here today in order to pay his respects to the memory of Frank Ryan, whom Big Jim Larkin himself had held in such high esteem.
Following his capture on the Gandesa front, Frank Ryan had initially been sentenced to death by the Fascists. This was later commuted to a life sentence, in response to a wave of international pressure led by the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera himself. But the severity of the penal servitude that Frank Ryan was to endure at the hands of the Spanish Fascists for the two years and four months that followed was itself a threat to his very life. The last four years of that life would be spent in Germany, well cared for by friends, but with his health irreparably damaged as a result of what he had previously suffered. He eventually died in Dresden on 10th June 1944.
A cross was placed on Frank Ryan’s grave by his fellow Irish national, Mrs Budge Mulcahy Clissmann, who attended to that final act upon Frank’s death with the same loving care that she had shown him in life, and who is present today in memory of that friendship.
Thirty five years later, from that Dresden grave still marked by the self-same cross, Frank Ryan’s remains were accompanied back to Ireland by three of his International Brigade comrades-in-arms: Frank Edwards and Peter O’Connor, since deceased, and my father Michael O’Riordan, present here today. So it was that on 22nd June 1979, Frank Ryan was finally laid to rest in his native land in this Glasnevin Republican grave. And as today we once again approached Frank’s graveside for this commemoration, it was particularly fitting that the tune played by piper Noel Pocock was that North Dublin anthem of homecoming, Return to Fingal.
Frank Ryan had not yet reached his 42nd birthday by the time of his death. Born in Elton, near Knocklong, County Limerick, on 11th September 1902, it is also particularly appropriate that today’s commemoration will end with Noel playing the tune that had previously been played on the occasion of Frank’s re-burial here in 1979, Limerick’s Lamentation.
Frank Ryan was well served by his first biographer, Sean Cronin. That unsurpassed 1980 biography has, unfortunately, been long out of print. It has been followed by two more. The more recent is indeed both fair minded and well researched, but lacking Cronin’s sharpness of exposition, it has not received the media approval given to another poorly researched one, in an era when the soundbite appeal of the superficial, sensation-seeking chapter-heading of Collaborator calls to mind Yeats’ lines about “the clever man who cries the catch cries of the clown”.
Having his memory pulled awry, as anticipated in Charlie Donnelly’s poem, is indeed a long-standing experience in the case of Frank Ryan. In June 1958 the Irish Times published a sensationalist denunciation of Ryan by the former second-in-command of the Third Reich’s Abwehr Intelligence agency, Erwin Lahousen, in which he pilloried Ryan as “the Irish Communist”, “a wild Irishman ... of a distinctly Red complexion”, “a ruffian” and “nothing but a gangster”. And last week it was again the Irish Times that published the sneering reference by Newfoundland academic Peter Hart to “Frank Ryan, the Republican saint/Nazi collaborator”.
Frank Ryan was none of these things. A life-long Catholic, he was in fact a James Connolly Republican Socialist. His Republicanism was that of Wolfe Tone, with the objective of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman. He denounced Catholic sectarianism no less than he did Protestant sectarianism.
Frank warned against the development in Ireland of any sympathy for what he called the “disease” and “plague” of Hitlerism, and he specifically denounced any anti-Semitic hostility towards Dublin’s Jewish community. Frank Ryan’s internationalist solidarity with the Spanish Republic was also of a kind that brought together volunteers from all over Ireland, both North and South, and from the best of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish working class traditions in this island. He proclaimed that he was fighting against Fascism in Spain in order to prevent its triumph in Ireland. And there was none braver in that good fight.
Following his brutal incarceration by Spanish Fascism for over two years, Frank’s life was to be saved in July 1940 by the combined efforts of the Irish Minister to Spain, Leopold Kerney, and two members of Abwehr intelligence in Germany, Jupp Hoven and Helmut Clissmann, who, as former members of a left-wing National Bolshevist organisation – the Young Prussian League – had formed a friendship with Ryan on visiting Ireland a decade previously. And this action to save Frank’s life was sanctioned by none other than the Irish Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera himself.
Ryan was to go to Germany neither as a prisoner nor as a Nazi collaborator. Britain and France had already sacrificed Spain to Fascism, and in the subsequent World War that had been inevitably facilitated by such appeasement, Ryan came to wholeheartedly support de Valera’s strategy of saving Ireland from the horrors of both war and Fascism through a policy of neutrality. In pursuit of this strategy Ryan became de Valera’s de facto political representative in Berlin, reporting back through Minister Leopold Kerney. And it was in such a capacity that he was accorded diplomatic status by the Germans, to whom he fearlessly pointed out that they had lost the War by their invasion of the Soviet Union.
Throughout his stay in Germany, as in Ireland and Spain previously, Ryan remained a Connolly Socialist. Indeed, the Spanish Anti-Fascist War never left his thoughts, for in the delirium of his last day on earth he was heard to issue orders in Spanish, as if once more back on the Jarama battlefield. As regards Ryan’s services to his native country, shortly before his own death in 1975, Eamon de Valera praised him as “this great Irishman”, and stated that “Frank Ryan always put Ireland first in everything he did or said, at home or abroad. He has earned his place in history.”
In his own November 1941 pledge to Irish Minister Kerney – wherein he proclaimed 100 percent patriotic loyalty and support for de Valera’s wartime strategy – Ryan himself had written: “There might be also a situation (I was always a pessimist) in which I might be asked to do something I don’t like. Such a situation is – soberly speaking – highly improbable. But if the unlikely should ever happen, sit yez down aisy! For – I won’t do the dirty. And when you plant my tombstone let it be of granite – like my stubborn cranium”. And so, fittingly, this tombstone of Frank Ryan’s is indeed made of granite.
This is not an occasion for further polemic in vindication of Frank Ryan. I will in fact address the issue in greater detail next Saturday afternoon at the Annual Roger Casement Symposium, when speaking on the theme of “Casement and Frank Ryan – Parallels?”
Today, in the spirit of Charlie Donnelly’s poem, it is more appropriate to let Ryan speak for himself, beside a grave that contains not only Irish, but also Spanish soil. Frank Ryan’s great rally at the battle of Jarama was powerfully inspirational as a deed in itself. But it was no less inspirational in the way that he himself went on to recount it in The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade. All the more reason, therefore, that when we visited Jarama in 1994 for the unveiling of a tombstone over the mass grave of 5,000 of its martyred dead, I should bring home some soil and an olive branch from that self-same Jarama battlefield, and bury both here in Frank’s grave. Here, then, are Frank Ryan’s own words:
“On the road from Chinchon to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were now scattered all who survived – a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards. Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
“Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armament of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.
“I recognised the young Commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nevertheless with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everybody in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martin de la Vega, and take the Moors on their left flank.
“Groups were lying about on the roadside, hungrily eating oranges that had been thrown to them by a passing lorry. This was no time to sort them into units. I noted with satisfaction that some had brought down spare rifles. I found my eyes straying always to the hills we had vacated. I hitched a rifle on my shoulder.
“They stumbled to their feet. No time for barrack-square drill. One line of four. ‘Fall in behind us’. A few were still on the grass bank beside the road, adjusting helmets and rifles. ‘Hurry up!’ came the cry to the ranks.
“Up the road towards the Cook-House I saw Jock Cunningham assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together we two marched at the head. Whatever popular writers may say, neither your Briton nor your Irishman is an exuberant type.
Demonstrativeness is not his dominating trait. The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons o’ guns!’
“Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened: tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing:
‘Then comrades, come rally,And the last night let us face;The InternationaleUnites the human race.’
“On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks. I looked back. Beneath the forest of upraised fists, what a strange band! Unshaven, unkempt; bloodstained, grimy. But, full of fight again, and marching on the road back.
“Beside the road stood our Brigade Commander, General Gall. We had quitted; he had stood his ground. Was it that, or fear of his reprimands, that made us give three cheers for him? Briefly, tersely, he spoke to us. We had one-and-a-half hours of daylight in which to recapture our lost positions. ‘That gap on our right?’ A Spanish Battalion was coming up with us to occupy it.
“Again the Internationale arose. It was being sung in French too. Our column had swelled in size during the halt; a group of Franco-Belge had joined us. We passed the Spanish Battalion. They caught the infection; they were singing too as they deployed to the right. Jock Cunningham seemed to be the only man who was not singing. Hands thrust into his great-coat pockets, he trudged along at the head of his men ... We were singing; he was planning.
“As the olives groves loom in sight, we deploy to the left. At last, we are on the ridge, the ridge which we must never again desert. For while we hold the ridge the Madrid-Valencia road is free ... And thus the men who had been broken and routed a few hours before settled down for the night on the ground they had reconquered. They had dashed Fascist hopes, smashed Fascist plans. Thenceforward, for more than four months, they were to fight, and many of them to die, in these olive groves. But never again were the Fascists to rout them. They were to hold that line, and save Madrid; fighting in the dauntless spirit of the great rally of that afternoon, fighting too, in the spirit of those reckless roars of laughter that night in the Wood of Death.”
A year after that great rally, Frank Ryan told his fellow prisoner Bob Doyle, as they were being marched away by their Fascist captors near Gandesa: “They published my book today”. Some book launch! It was in fact his fellow Irish volunteers Bob Doyle and Jackie Lemon who saved Frank’s life on that particular occasion, by restraining him as he was about to launch back at an Italian Fascist officer who had hit him a punch on the jaw with all of his might.
The New York Jewish International Brigader Max Parker, who was captured that same day, was to testify on several occasions of how great an inspiration Frank Ryan had been to all his fellow prisoners. A German Gestapo officer asked Ryan why he was fighting in Spain and not in Ireland, to which Frank replied that it was the same fight. Frank asked him in turn what he as a Gestapo officer was doing in Spain. The same officer told Ryan that he was a brave man and wished him luck.
And a brave man he most certainly was. Bob Doyle recalls the argument about the anti-fascist prisoners’ right to refuse to give the Fascist salute, but, as Bob also says: “The threat that we would be shot for refusal to comply with the order quickly changed our minds. We gave the salute. Only Frank Ryan refused, stating ‘only when a pistol is placed against my forehead’ would he obey.”
Bob Doyle is one of the most compelling eye witnesses to Frank Ryan’s outstanding integrity. Before we now conclude this ceremony with Noel Pocock on the pipes playing Limerick’s Lamentation, it is particularly appropriate that the person chosen on behalf of all of us to lay a wreath on Frank Ryan’s grave should be his fellow inmate of the Spanish Fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cárdenas, and now its last surviving Irish ex-prisoner, the self-same Bob Doyle. Situated only two graves in front of Frank Ryan’s own final resting place is that of Father Michael O’Flanagan, Irish Republican priest and Vice-President of Sinn Fein, who had been chosen to recite the invocation at the first meeting of the newly-proclaimed Irish Parliament in January 1919, following the Irish people’s vote for independence in the November 1918 General Election. He went on to be the only Irish Catholic priest who had the courage to defend the Spanish Republic in the years 1936 to 1939. On the morning of the Frank Ryan commemoration itself, a floral wreath - in the red, yellow and purple colours of the Spanish Republican flag – was also placed on O’Flanagan’s grave, with the dedication: “In loving memory of Father Michael O’Flanagan, true friend of the Spanish Republic, from Veterans of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War and the International Brigade Memorial Trust”.
The colour party for the Frank Ryan commemoration was formed by grandchildren of International Brigader Michael O’Riordan. The Irish tricolour was carried by Luke O’Riordan, the flag of the Spanish Republic by Neil O’Riordan, and the memorial banner of the Connolly Column, 15th Brigada Internacional, by Jessica O’Riordan and Dara McGaley. They were followed by the three surviving International Brigade veterans present: Dubliner Bob Doyle (89), veteran of the battle of Belchite and former inmate of the San Pedro concentration camp; and Liverpool’s Jack James Larkin Jones (92) and Cork’s Michael O’Riordan (88), both veterans of the battle of the Ebro.
The Irish language inscription on Ryan’s tombstone reads in English language translation:
“Frank Ryan. Born in Elton, County Limerick 1902. Died in Dresden 1944. His body was brought back to his native country 22-6-1979. He fought for freedom in this country and in Spain. May God grant him the reward of his life’s labour.” The dedication of the Spanish Republican floral wreath placed on his grave reads: “In loving memory of our comrade-in-arms Frank Ryan, from Veterans of the Spanish Anti-Fascist War and the International Brigade Memorial Trust.”

When the Irish International Brigade poet Charlie Donnelly was killed in the battle of Jarama in February 1937, two unpublished poems were found among his personal effects. The first, entitled The Tolerance of Crows, was published a year later by Frank Ryan in The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade. The second, which was simply entitled Poem, had been inspired by the integrity of their mutual friend, Republican Congress leader George Gilmore. This Charlie Donnelly poem has much to say to us as to the challenge of setting the record straight, not least in respect of the life of Frank Ryan himself.


Between rebellion as a private
study and the public
Defiance, is simple action only on
which will flickers
Catlike, for spring. Whether at
nerve-roots is secret
Iron, there’s no diviner can tell,
only the moment can show.
Simple and unclear moment,
on a morning utterly different
And under circumstances
different from what you’d

Your flag is public over granite.
Gulls fly above it.
Whatever the issue of the
battle is, your memory
Is public, for them to pull awry
with crooked hands,
Moist eyes. And village reputations
will be built on
Inaccurate accounts of your campaign. You’re name
for orators, Figure stone-struck
beneath damp Dublin sky.

In a delaying action, perhaps,
on hillside in remote parish,
Outposts correctly placed,
retreat secured to wood,
bridge mined Against pursuit,
sniper may sight you care-
lessly contoured. Or death may
follow years in strait confine-
ment, where diet Is uniform as ceremony,
lacking only fruit. Or
on the barrack square before
the sun casts shadow.

Name, subject of all-consider-
ed words, praise and blame
Irrelevant, the public talk which sounds
the same on hollow
Tongue as true, you’ll be with
Parnell and with Pearse. Name
aldermen will raise a cheer
with, teachers make reference
Oblique in class, and boys and
women spin gum of sentiment
On qualities attributed in error.

Man, dweller in mountain huts,
possessor of coloured mice,
Skilful in minor manual turns,
patron of obscure subjects, of
Gaelic swordsmanship and
mediaeval armoury. The
technique of the public man,
the masked servilities are
Not for you. Master of military
trade, you give
Like Raleigh, Lawrence,
Childers, your services but not

The dangers of revisionism in culture

Book Review

by Renée Sams

Understanding Film -- Marxist Perspectives
Ed. Mike Wayne, Pluto Press, London 2005, Pbl £16.99

FOR ALMOST 100 years the film industry has entertained and influenced people. It is a medium that both capitalists and Marxists have found a powerful tool for communicating ideas to people.
A new book Understanding Film – Marxist Perspectives is a collection of essays by some English and American university professors and lecturers exploring the work of some of the key theorists on the industry whose writings have been influential.
It is a very long-winded intellectual perspective, obviously intended for discussion in university circles, but it is interesting if you have the patience to plough your way through the academic verbiage.

Mike Wayne, who edited the anthology, teaches film, television and video practice at Brunel University. He is the author of several books on Marxism and the film industry and feels that “questions of ideology, technology and industry must be situated in relation to class”.
In his introduction he makes a delicate reference to “the Russian Revolution” that “opened up the prospect of an alternative modernity, very different from the capitalist one that has spawned the horrors of the First World War.”

In the first essay, Esther Leslie, a teacher at the School of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London, discusses “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film” during the early years of the film industry.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), an early critic of film, argued that capitalism feeds people with the products of a “culture industry” to keep them “passively accepting their lot in life, satisfied and politically apathetic”. His views stemmed, Esther Leslie says, “from his experience of California, the apex of US commercial culture”. Like many other theorists who would follow him he focussed on culture to change the social situation rather than economics. He was disappointed that capitalism did not seem to be as close to coming to an end as Marx had thought but had become more entrenched. His pessimistic views were coloured by his experience of Nazi propaganda and, Leslie says, his knowledge of “mass culture” in the Soviet Union. All of which led him to the belief that films would be of no value to art.

Leslie’s second guru is Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German theorist who took a more positive view of the subject. He was acquainted with Adorno but his ideas on film were strongly influenced by Bertolt Brecht. He saw film as part of the technological revolution that would bring culture to a wider range of people. His major work published in 1935 was The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility in which he argued that photography and film, unlike painting or sculpture, are different in that every copy is an original and that therefore makes a difference to the understanding of art. He was afraid that mass reproduction of art, which was rapidly becoming possible, would threaten its status as something special. But film, he thought, was the only form that had become able to analyse social relations in the age of the new technical revolution.

The third guru in this essay is Bertolt Brecht (1895-1956), who was a communist, playwright and poet, whose work was more influential in theatre than film. He was forced to leave Germany in 1933 after the Nazis burned his books. He fled to Europe and then went to the United States where he worked on some films in Hollywood until in 1947 he was forced to give evidence before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After that he returned to the German Democratic Republic. His kind of “epic” drama was designed to remind the audience that what they are seeing on stage is not reality but a demonstration of an illusion of reality and should be looked at with critical detachment. The alienation effect (Verfremdunseffekt) was achieved through such devices as having the actors wear masks.

The next essayist is Marcia Landy, a Distinguished Service Professor of English and Film Studies with a secondary appointment in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh who writes on “Gramsci, Sembene and the Politics of Culture”.
Gramsci (1891-1937) studied at the University of Turin with, among other people, Palmiro Togliatti, future General Secretary of the Communist Party of Italy and he became a member of that party. He was an active anti-fascist during the rise of Mussolini and was imprisoned several times for his militant writing, spending the last 15 years of his life in gaol where he wrote his major work, The Prison Notebooks. In her essay Marcia Landy says that Gramsci’s ideas “represent a challenge to orthodox forms of Marxism that adhere to distinctions between rigidly determining economic base and the social and cultural superstructure.”

The African film maker Sembene goes along with Gramsci’s thinking in “contrast to Marxists committed to…the central role of economics”. He “saw that social, political and economic transformation is impossible without a corresponding transformation in knowledge, behaviour and belief.”
Gramsci’s Notebooks were not published until after his death and only came widely known in the 50s and 60s when they attracted worldwide interest. But it was written in the 30s at a time when the cinema and radio were the most popular forms of culture, which Gramsci felt had more influence on people than written forms of communication.
To him, social institutions such as the church, popular knowledge, folklore and specific artefacts such as radio and film played a crucial role in influencing people in favour of the capitalist society. He was also particularly keen on the role that intellectuals could play in the transformation of society.

It was not until the late 60s and early 70s that film studies appeared on university curricula at time when “ideology” was the subject of much discussion among students, lecturers, left wing political groups, film critics and those involved in the media and education fields.
In her essay The Athusserian Moment Revisited Deborah Phillips who teaches at the School of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, London University, writes about that time: “The concept of ideology…was the buzzword of conferences and meetings, and the unavoidable issue of contemporary Marxist thinking.”
Along with other critics of Marx, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) was part of the trend towards distancing communists from the Soviet Union, basing policies on social forces instead of economics and class, a trend that became known as “Eurocommunism”.
She quotes historian EP Thompson’s essay The Poverty of Theory in which he saw the danger of advocating theoretical practice as politics, scathingly describing the adherents of these ideas as “bourgeois lumpen intelligentsia: aspirant intellectuals, whose amateurish intellectual preparation disarms them before manifest absurdities and in practice leave them paralysed in the first web of scholastic argument…”
Althusser who suffered from a bi-polar condition for most of his life had a violent episode in 1980 in which he killed his wife and was consigned to a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life and his works fell out of favour with those who were re-writing Karl Marx.

The next essay by Mike Wayne brings the series up to date on with a piece on Fredric Jameson, Distinguished Professor of Contemporary Literature at Duke University, described as a Marxist, who has received much acclaim for his work on contemporary critical theory of post modernism.
For three decades he has written extensively on writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Georg Lukacs, TW Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. His essay: Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of late Capitalism was published in New Left Review in 1984.
Jamieson argued that we live “in a world frighteningly controlled by vast forces” which “stultify our capacity to represent history and manipulate knowledge and information to the extent that the boundaries between what is real and what is not, what is true and what is false, effectively disappear.”
Jamieson comes to the conclusion that postmodernism; “the cultural logic of late capitalism” is the dominant force in media culture – a conclusion that Mike Wayne disagrees with and I would certainly go along with. As Wayne says:
“Postmodernism is only one of the many cultural resources at play,” which is culturally significant but not dominant. Ideology is no longer the buzz word of meetings and conferences but the ideas of all those “Marxist” theorists who set out to turn people against socialism and communism spread throughout the media, and were infiltrated into the communist movement where they brought about the demise of the CPSU, and communist parties throughout Europe.
The McCarthy era in the United States, and the Cold War were under-pinned by anti-communist theoretical writing and supported by the Hollywood moguls who turned out anti-Soviet films by the dozen, which were seen by millions, some of which are still shown today.

It was refreshing to see an essay on cinema in Democratic Korea, or North Korea as it is called in the essay written by Hyangjin Lee, a lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of “Contemporary Korean Cinema Identity, Culture and Politics” as well as many articles on North and South Korean cinema and culture.
In her essay she says Kim Jong IL asserted that Juché oriented art and literature are “communist art and literature that meet the requirements of the new age and the aspirations of the popular masses” and she asks the question “What does this conveniently elastic cliché mean for filmmakers?”
Hyangjin Lee is not supportive of the Korean revolution, characterising it as a “passive revolution carried out by the oppressive regime at the apex of which is the Great Leader, which insists on the necessity and continuity of the revolution.”
She does, however, provide an interesting account of the early beginnings of film in Korea, then a Japanese colony, where the KAPF (Korean Proletariat Art Federation in Esperanto) was established in 1925 with the merger of two socialist-oriented literature circles.
The organisation developed into a “radical political” body and declared: “the art movement as a weapon for political struggles”. Members of the KAPF were active and concentrated on “political agitation and ideological uniformity with the party line in order to achieve national popular revolution”.
In 1935 many of its members were arrested, and some of them returned to underground Korean Communist Party work, others went on to make pro-Japanese films or non-political literary films.
Since the division of Korea by the Allies in 1945, Hyangjin Lee writes, the south has “maintained anti-communism as the state ideology”. In the north, from 1948, “the ‘socialist’ regime gave new life to the former KAPF filmmakers.”
In 1955 Kim IL Sung defined Juché as “a theory, which rejects the universality of mass-initiated class revolution” and she says “proposes the ideas of the Great Leader” instead. But Kim IL Sung in his explanation of the theory emphasised that this was a “creative adoption of Marxist-Leninism to the Korean situation for revolutionary purposes.”
Like all these theorists Hyangjin Lee expresses her fear of the “subordination of film to politics”. Both Hyangjin Lee and the editor of the anthology are pessimistic about the situation in Democratic Korea.

In his introduction Mike Wayne says that the state has “now merged with the party, as a centralised body of coercive force and political and cultural power,” and this leaves the masses in “the same position of passivity and non-participation as in orthodox capitalist countries.”
He only sees that Marxism is a useful tool for the critique of capitalism but, neither Wayne nor the other essayists, can see that it was not the failure of socialism that caused the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Europe, but the work of imperialist enemies without and the revisionist enemies within those parties that finally brought them down.

They cannot see that the peoples of China, Democratic Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos are engaged in a heroic struggle to overcome the problems of working out the economics of building a socialist society and that art and film have a useful role to play in that struggle.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

All in rhe family (part one)

by Daphne Liddle

WE ARE BROUGHT up with assumptions about the nuclear family being eternal,the natural order of things – cave-man mum, dad and family.But this is not so, the nuclear family of just two adults and theirchildren that we are familiar with is the product of social and economicforces and has changed throughout history according to predominant economicmethods and culture.

Western anthropologists, encountering different peoples and societies,assumed that the men would naturally be dominant in those societies as intheir own. They spoke only to the men and discovered only half the truth.“All our histories have hitherto started from the absurd assumption, whichsince the 18th century in particular has become inviolable, that themonogamous single family, which is hardly older than civilization, is thecore around which society and state have gradually crystallised.” That wasFrederick Engels writing in The family, private property and the state. And from Robert Briffault’s The Mothers: "The fanciful opinion that women are oppressed in savage societies was partly due to the complacency of civilised man, and partly to the fact that the women are seen to work hard.Wherever women were seen engaged in laborious toil, their status was judged to be one of slavery and oppression. No misunderstanding could be more profound."

The primitive women is independent because, not in spite of her labour.Generally speaking, it is in those societies where women toil most that their status is most independent and their influence greatest; where theyare idle, and the work is done by slaves, the women are, as a rule, little more than sexual slaves.“No labour of any kind is, in primitive society, other than voluntary, and no toil is ever undertaken by the women in obedience to an arbitrary order".

Referring to the Zulu women, a missionary writes, ‘Whoever has observed the happy appearance of the women at their work and toil, their gaiety and chatter, their laughter and song … let him compare with them the bearing of our own working women.’“It is not labour, but exploited and enforced labour that is galling tothe human being.”

Going back to our human origins – what is a natural family? Is there such a thing?For mammals the basic family unit is mother and dependent offspring,needing milk and protection until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Usually this is a matter of weeks or months.Different mammals have different family or group structures: – some are simply mother and offspring together for a few weeks. With some, a father is involved in the short time it takes to rear the young.With many, a whole group hangs together, as with herd animals. This is more common among herbivores who find protection from predators in large numbers. Carnivores tend to walk alone or in small groups because they are rivals to each other for the food supply.Our closest animal relatives, the great apes all live in groups but havevarious different types of group structure: chimps live in male-dominatedgroups, bonobos live in female-dominated groups, orang utans are usually isolated except for females with young. The point is that there is no specific predetermined group structure for human beings that is right orwrong.

The earliest humans were forced to live in groups bigger than the bourgeois nuclear family to survive and protect the most vulnerable – the youngest and the very old. Any species that does not protect vulnerable youngthrough to self sufficiency does not survive. And human groups need more than one generation of adult carers to ensure the survival of the young.Babies need their grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as their parents.

Human females are the only animals that naturally survive well beyond their years of fertility because children with grandmothers are more likely to survive than those without.Human young take a much longer time to reach a state of self sufficiencythan any other species. One or two people alone cannot successfully rear them. It needs a group, a wider family circle; it needs society,co-operation and collaboration.Those human beings who were able to co-operate and work together and carefor others survived – and passed these traits on to their descendants.It was this need to work together, to provide food and to rear the young that led to the development of language among humans, as pointed out by Frederick Engels in his short work, The part played by labour in thetransition from ape to man.

Co-operative work needs sophisticated communication – language; and so does passing on essential survival information from one generation toanother.Those who were entirely selfish and looked only after themselves may have survived for a while but their offspring stood no chance and there were nodescendants to pass these traits on to.We do not know exactly how the earliest human family group structures worked. But certain deductions can be made from studying groups of humans living at different stages of development before they came into contactwith civilisation.

The early anthropologists saw the different societies of the world through male-biased eyes. But the Victorian anthropologist Lewis H Morgan took a less biased approach and his researches provide the factual basis forEngels’ classic The origin of the family, private property and the state.

His work showed that primitive tribal and family structures were very complex, with many different degrees of kinship and rules governing whocould form a relationship with who.From the huge variety of different types of family structure, he looked at the traits they had in common and deduced that the earliest forms of marriage were group marriages. They were primarily an agreement of economiccollaboration between one family and another. All the sisters of one family would marry all the brothers of another.Their children would regard all the women as their mothers and all the men as their fathers. The children would all regard each other as brothers and sisters.

These marriages would be matrilocal, in other words based in homes of the women. The children would be part of the wider maternal family.A child would regard his mother’s brother, who was part of the same maternal family, as a closer relative than his father, who would have been born in a different maternal family. Throughout his whole life a man would feel closer ties with the family he was born into than the one he married into. He would protect his sisters’ children before his own.

These marriages were not necessarily permanent. Neither side was economically dependent on the other. Both men and women, working in groups,were food producers. They tended to divide into men being hunters and women being gatherers of wild fruit and vegetables.In case of marriage breakdown the women, working together, could supportthemselves and their children. The men, as hunters, tended to be more mobile. They could easily feed themselves but it was not so easy for them to rear children while hunting. They left the children with the more settled women.“The communistic household, in which most or all of the women belong to one and the same gens, while the men come from various gentes, is the material foundation of that supremacy of the women which was general inprimitive times,” – from Engels’ The family, private property and the state.

The total amount of work done to produce the necessary food in those days was not more than a few hours a week. That was enough and most of the restof the times was spent in leisure and social pursuits. We can speculate that, with the development of language, this gave rise to discussions, toshared thoughts and the beginnings of the arts, crafts and sciences.Certainly these people needed and used applied sciences: studying the living habits of animals they needed to hunt – and those predators whomight hunt them.

The growing cycles of food plants, herbal medicines andpoisons would have been an essential study. They would have speculated about what caused all this and how could they influence it. Conversation would have been a powerful social bonding activity – as it still is. I would also speculate they would have spent a lot of time in social bonding, not just talking but grooming each other. Some of the earliest artefacts found from the stone age are decorated combs.But these few hours’ work a week would not have rendered any stores of food or any security against drought and famine. People would have been very vulnerable to natural disasters and populations would have risen and fallen often.Under these circumstances people would have moved about seeking more productive areas and clashing with other groups.For millions of years this is how the human race existed, with numbers just about holding even.

There is speculation that for part of its development the human race inhabited mainly seashores, finding food easily from various shellfish between the tide-lines. David Attenborough says this is still a minority view among anthropologists but “there’s a whole series of bits of evidence that keep cropping up from those who are trying tosolve this conundrum”. A diet rich in fish would have supplied the necessary GLA oils needed for brain expansion. A beach area would also have provided essential safetyfrom fast and powerful predators. Some men might just be able to outrun lions, panthers and wolves on dry land. Women with children would not.

The shallow sea would have been a safe refuge. Some believe this is how humans came to walk on two legs, as a wading ape, with thick hair remaining only on the bit that stayed out of the water.Eventually the discussions and conversations around the home base gave rise to some scientific and economic advances – the use of fire, how to plant useful fruits, vegetables and herbs near the home base by the womenand how to herd animals rather than just follow their natural migrations bythe men. Protecting the herd animals from wolves and so on would have guaranteed that the herds would grow and produce a surplus food supply.

They also tried to influence the weather, using magic and to communicate with dead ancestors – keeping the family unit together in spite of death.Those men and women who claimed to be able to make rain were in greatest demand. They achieved high status as magic workers but were in danger if they failed in time of great need.

Some groups started to produce more than they needed. They had a surplus they could exchange with other groups – the beginning of bargaining and marketing. Even so, everything they produced, they made and owned collectively.Over time the marriage structures also changed gradually. Many preferred pairing marriages but they still contained elements of the group marriage traditions – and, before the concept of private property they were still matrilocal. This is a better term to use than matriarchal because that implies the exercise of power. In early human society there were few powerstructures. Most tribes had some way of making important decisions about alliances and so on involving representatives of all the families in the tribe – usually the oldest and more experienced. Since women usually live longer than men,many tribal types of council were predominantly female. In some parts of the world, if a wife died, her husband would be expectedto marry her sister – a legacy of the spirit of group marriage.Lewis Morgan relates many examples of children in Africa who regard their mother’s sisters as additional mothers and their father’s brothers as extra fathers – and who regard their cousins as brothers and sisters.In other parts special high status women priests would undertake to carryout the duty of being communal wives to the men of whatever tribe or groupthey were formally married to, and let their sisters off of this task.

Julius Caesar, visiting Britain in 55 BC found that the Belgic Celts who inhabited Kent practised polyandry, a form of group marriage, where one woman would have several husbands, usually brothers. “Wives are shared between groups of ten or 12 men, especially between brothers and between fathers and sons; but the offspring of these unions are counted as thechildren of the man into whose home the woman was first led,” Caesar wrote in his de bello Gallico.

In the early days most marriages, even pairing marriages, still involvedcomplex economic commitments between the families. The large matrilocal families took on husbands literally to husband the livestock, to look after the farm animals in exchange for access to one or more of the daughters. Ifand when the marriage broke up, the man could go on his way with no economic harm to the woman and her children.“The pairing family, itself too weak and unstable to make an independenthousehold necessary or even desirable, in no wise destroys the communistic household inherited from earlier times.“Communistic housekeeping, however, means the supremacy of women in thehouse; just as the exclusive recognition of the female parent, owing to theimpossibility of recognising the male parent with certainty, means that thewomen – the mothers – are held in high respect.” – from Engels, The origin of the family.

All in the family - second and final part

by Daphne Liddle

“ONE OF the most absurd notions taken over from 18th century enlightenment
is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man. Among all
savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and to a certain
extent of the upper stage also, the position of women was not only free,
but honourable,” – from Engels' The origin of the family, private property
and the state

Families with a lot of stock or wealth would be very particular about the
qualities desirable in a husband. These routinely involved proof of his
ability to hunt or herd or otherwise keep up a good contribution to the
family economy.

They could also involve proof of ability to fight and protect the family
and even prowess in magic.

Many old fairy tales carry the theme of young suitors having to prove
their magic skills in order to win a bride. In remote rural areas of Europe
and Asia these traditions lasted until after the Roman Empire had disappeared.

The beginning of barter and bargaining led to the introduction of money as
a way of simplifying exchanges. The first coins carried images of cattle to
show they were worth the value of one cow. This in turn led to the
beginnings of writing – initially simple marks on soft clay tablets to
record transactions – and of course arithmetic to work out how much money
should be paid and how it should be divided up among the sellers.

Then came the concept of private property. If someone could make a profit
from a bit of buying here at one price, and selling there at another, did
the money belong to the trader or the tribe?

Market towns grew up along the herding/migration routes, where people
could live just by buying and selling or by making goods for the market.
They no longer depended on their tribal group. It was possible to live by
being a professional specialist craftsman or woman.

Civilisation literally means living in towns. Along with this came all the
phenomena we usually associate with the word civilisation: writing and
arithmetic, learning and culture, professional craftsmanship, buying and
selling, private property and debt, greed and economic insecurity, slavery
and freedom (without one, the other has no meaning).

In the West, the first towns sprang up in the fertile crescent of the
Middle East from Sumer through to Egypt.

Merchants from these towns travelled and interacted with tribal peoples
throughout Asia, Africa and eventually Europe. The vast majority of people
still lived in villages in tribal groups.

There were two main economic divisions: the nomadic herding tribes who had
to keep moving to where the best pastures were and the settled tribes who
stayed in one place and cultivated food, vegetables and now corn.

Naturally in the first group the economic contribution of the men was
predominant, meaning that the women became dependent on the men, making the
men more powerful. In the settled groups, the economic contribution of the
women predominated.

These contrasting ways of life threw up contrasting cultures, traditions
and religions. The nomads tended to worship male gods while the settled
farming tribes worshipped female gods.

There were many violent clashes between the cultures, as between the
farmers and the cowmen in the 19th century United States.

It was the nomadic tribes naturally who first combined being merchants
with being herdsmen and among whom private property first existed.

The new towns brought with them anti-social factors like debt and greed,
cheating and lying. Private property brought a division between rich and
poor. Wealth brought power and society divided into classes – those who had
wealth could force those who had no money into servitude. They could employ
others to make them richer.

The old tribal councils could not cope with the breakdown of law and
order. The new ruling classes used their power to create a state machine –
government, written laws, a penal system, taxes and armies.

Armies were needed as rival towns fell into wars with each other.
Previously tribal clashes had mainly been about which tribe had rights to
extract food from a particular territory. Once the losing tribe had been
driven away there was no reason to continue the conflict.

But towns had great wealth to plunder – including human property, slaves.

As Engels put it in The origin of the family, private property and the
state, “Only one thing was wanting: an institution which not only secured
the newly acquired riches of individuals against the communistic traditions
of the gentile order, which not only sanctified the private property
formerly so little valued and declared this sanctification to be the
highest purpose of all human society; but, an institution which set the
seal of general social recognition on each new method of acquiring property
and thus amassing wealth at continually increasing speed; an institution
which perpetuated not only this growing cleavage of society into classes
but also the right of the possessing class to exploit the non-possessing,
and the rule of the former over the latter.

“And this institution came. The state was invented.”

This had a dramatic effect on the status of marriage. Men no longer needed
to enter into complex economic commitments with the wider, maternally-based
families in order to get a female bed mate. They could simply buy one in
the market.

The home base of the marriage was shifted from the matrilocal home to a
home that was the man’s private property – as was everything in it.

From then on the men could dictate the terms and conditions of marriage.
And having accumulated some wealth, they wanted sons to pass it on to; they
wanted to be sure their sons were their sons, so they put heavy
restrictions on the sexual activities of their wives. They insisted on
virgin brides and then restricted the lives of all their women.

This completely undermined the women’s rights within the family. Engels
wrote, once again in The family, private property and the state, “The
overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female
sex. The man took command of the home also; the woman was degraded and
reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere
instrument for the production of children.

“This degraded position of woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks
of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been
palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form, in no
sense has it been abolished.”

The clash between the old and new, the matrilocal and patriarchal marriage
traditions are revealed in the classical stories of the Trojan Wars. Helen
and her sister Clytemnestra are queens of the matriarchal towns of Sparta
and Mycenæ.

They chose their own husbands, Menelaos and Agamemnon who are newly arrived
rough and ready adventurer immigrants from the Achæan family and from a
patriarchal tradition. They become kings only by marrying queens, like
their cousin Odysseus who marries Penelope, queen of Ithaka.

The queens are free to change their minds and choose another husband. But
when Helen dumps Menelaos in favour of Paris she leaves Sparta to go with
him. This leaves Sparta in trouble – she embodies the city’s sovereignty,
without her, no one can be king. The Achæan brotherhood are forced to make
an alliance to get her back.

“Helen herself, the fairest of them all, had chosen her husband for
herself from the Achæans competing for her hand; and having chosen freely
in the first instance, she was free to change her mind. In this case it was
the husband who objected, and the Achæans rallied to his side. It took more
than Helen’s face to launch the thousand ships. Paris stole goods as well.
The wealth went with the woman. The fights about fair ladies were fights
about hard cash,” – from George Thomson’s The prehistoric Aegean.

The most important aspect of the ancient Greek goddess Demeter to her
worshippers was that she upheld the right of women to divorce their husbands.

This right disappeared when private property was concentrated in the hands
of the men, cutting off women’s economic independence.

In the later Greek classical era of Pericles’ Athens, women were entirely
confined to their homes, and only a part of the home at that. They were not
allowed to venture out or meet with guests.

The only exceptions were immigrant women, not born in Athens. They were
excluded from marriage with Athenian men. Most of them became hetaerae, or
high class prostitutes. This gave them a degree of economic independence
and they mixed socially with men on far more equal terms. They kept their
own households, organised social gatherings and were often respected as
intellectuals and great debaters. They were far freer than the Athenian
women who were technically of a higher status.

We are often told that Greece, at the time of Pericles, is the birthplace
of democracy. Yet before then the more ancient Greek peoples had tribal
councils that operated at least as democratically. Frederick Engels writes,
in The origin of the family, private property and the state: “Among the
Homeric Greeks, this Umstand [those standing around], to use an old German
legal expression, had already developed into a regular assembly of the
people, as was also the case among the Germans in primitive times. It was
convened by the council to decide important questions; every man had the
right to speak. The decision was given by a show of hands (Aeschylus, The
Supplicants) or by acclamation.

“The decision of the assembly was supreme and final, for, says Schömann,
in Griechische Altertümer [Antiquities of Greece] ‘if the matter was one
requiring the co-operation of the people for its execution, Homer does not
indicate any means by which the people could be forced to co-operate
against their will’.”

It would seem the chief difference between the traditional village tribal
council and the Athenian agora is not that every man had the right to speak
and vote, but that there was a state apparatus to compel compliance.

And the new laws that had to be complied with were chiefly about property
and wealth. Wealthy Athenians, by lending money to local farmers, acquired
great power over the peasant class. Engels says that “all the fields of
Attica were thick with mortgage columns bearing inscriptions stating that
the land on which they stood was mortgaged to such and such for so and so
much”. Peasants had to count themselves lucky if they were allowed to
remain on the land as a tenant and live on one sixth of the produce of
their labour.

If they defaulted the land was sold. If the money raised did not cover the
debt, or if the debt was contracted without any security, the debtor was
obliged to sell his children into slavery abroad. If this still did not
meet the terms of the contract, the debtor himself was sold into slavery.
“Children sold by their father – such was the first fruit of father right
and monogamy! Thus the pleasant dawn of civilisation for the Athenian
people,” wrote Engels.

Rome later followed a similar path. The arrival of private property
changed a village with a military tradition but basic tribal democracy, in
which the women were free and respected and all labour was voluntary into a
powerful city state.

This later transformed into the hub of a military empire that brought the
“blessings” of civilisation to most of Europe and imposed its own version
of civilisation on those that already existed in North Africa, the Middle
East and Greece.

Romans always remembered their early years of freedom in the annual
Saturnalia, the festival of the god Saturn, which was celebrated in
December. At this time, for one day, slaves were set free and were waited
on by their masters and they drank to the days when “no man was master and
no one’s work was a burden because each reaped the benefit of their own

Even in the early Christian years this persisted as the festival of Lord
of Mischief, the Lord of the Flies, the Bishop of Unrule, the Archbishop of
Anarchy or Father Christmas as we know him now. It marked a temporary,
token relaxation of class separation and accompanying anarchy. Even in
Victorian times, big households put on a Servants’ Ball when the owner and
family would dance with their staff.

The very word family comes from the Latin familia, which actually means
the household slaves – such was the status of the wife and children they
were included in this group. The male householder had absolute power of
life and death over all the people and animals in his household. They were
all his private property.

New babies born either to his wife or his slaves had to be shown to the
master. He had the power to decide whether to keep the new arrival or
discard it on a rubbish dump. This decision usually depended on his income
and ability to feed another mouth. This was family planning under the slave

The Roman Empire was built by slaves and its economy was totally dependent
on the slave system. It was undermined by the emergence of a new more
productive economic system in the centre of northern Europe – both inside
and outside the German borders of the empire.

That system was feudalism in its early stages and was based on a new
system of agriculture. Thus its economic roots were in villages rather than
towns. It gave the workers of the land – now serfs rather than slaves – a
guarantee of security.

They, and the land they tilled, could no longer be sold away. They were no
longer private property but held in fee. In return they were absolutely
tied to that land and obliged to render either produce from the land or a
fixed amount of work to their local feudal lord.

The lord in turn owed feudal duties – money, service or goods and absolute
loyalty – to their superior lord, and so on up to the king.

Some of the first feudal lords were veteran Roman soldiers who had been
given parcels of land on retirement and there were thousands of different
versions of the system practised in different locations. For many years it
operated alongside slavery but slavery declined as feudalism grew.

The nature of the family changed accordingly. It became very much rooted
in a particular place. No marriages were allowed without the consent of the
lord of the manor. He was usually in favour of any marriage that would
bring a new labourer into his village and opposed to those that took
workers away. Newly married peasants were guaranteed a home and a portion
of land to farm.

Marriages among the upper classes were entirely to do with economic and
political alliances. In this respect at least the peasants were better off
in that usually they had some degree of choice in their partner.

Eventually the landlords found they could make more wealth out of keeping
sheep than keeping peasants, so the peasants were driven off the land into
the cities to become wage slaves for the newly emerging industrialists.

When feudalism gave way to capitalism the nature of the family changed
again. The capitalist needed a good supply of cheap workers willing to sell
their labour power. The more members of the family who could work for
wages, the more profits he could make from them.

The capitalist system also needed them to be mobile and flexible, to move
from one area to another as needed. The old ties with the land were torn up
and much of the old rural culture went with it.

Families became the narrow bourgeois nuclear families we know now – father,
mother and their children. For many women this meant total social isolation
in their homes, bringing up children. Lenin pointed out that this was the
cruellest aspect of housework. Human beings are naturally sociable; to
isolate them is to drive them slowly mad. And so the myth of the
silly-headed woman grew as women who were isolated did suffer from lack of
mental stimulation.

But the bosses’ greed has undermined even this. They can now make more
profit out of women by turning them into wage slaves as well as mothers.
Capital investment in housework – washing machines, vacuum cleaners,
take-away dinners and so on – have freed women to become wage slaves
alongside their husbands and partners albeit on a lower wage.

This puts a colossal burden of work on most women but does restore an
element of economic independence. This independence has restored to women
the freedom of divorce. The legal right to divorce has no meaning without
economic independence.

The nature of the family is again changing. Now many more single parents
are rearing children alone. But they still cannot really do it completely
alone. They need wider family support (usually their own mothers)and
support from society, with the social wage, affordable childcare and so on.

The nature of the family will to continue to change. Under socialism,
economic considerations will be taken right out of personal relationships.
People will still fall in and out of love, make and break relationships,
break their hearts, have children, settle down, live together and so on.

But they will do all this freely. Money, dependence, debts and so on will
not be factors in decision making. There will be no artificial social
constraints to limit them to particular patterns.

We are likely to see a much wider variety of relationships, with society at
large protecting children from economic and social insecurity and playing a
larger role in nurturing them.

Arab National Liberation and the communist movement

By Andy Brooks

The Arab national liberation movement is a vital area of study because a major part of our solidarity work focuses on the war in Iraq and the Palestinian problem. Some may argue that the issues are so obvious to communists that there is little need for us, thousands of miles away, to go beyond declaring our support for the forces for liberation. But no effective solidarity with a national liberation movement can be built without some understanding of the problems it seeks to resolve.

Some British Trotskyites still cling to Leon Trotsky’s teachings and argue:

No socialist revolution can succeed unless it takes place in a number of developed imperialist countries at the same time let alone in the underdeveloped Third World.
Should the workers and peasants succeed in overthrowing their oppressors even in a developed country like Czarist Russia, as they did in 1917, their state will inevitably become a “deformed workers’ state” ruled by a party bureaucracy as they characterise the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin.
It is therefore impossible to build “socialism in one state” and what we must fight for is world revolution – that can only succeed if led by the advanced workers in the European and American imperialist heartlands.

This leads them to dismiss national liberation as simply a movement led by the national bourgeoisie that can never lead to socialism even if it is allied or even dependent on mass support from the workers and peasants. “Socialist orientation”, they argued, can never lead to socialism – only a parody of the USSR which they dismissed as a “deformed workers” or “state capitalist” regime. This is why some of them opposed the Palestinian liberation movement and its demands for a Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel in favour of an idealist Jewish-Arab Palestinian state based on the unity of Jewish and Arab workers. They then take this to its logical conclusion by trying to substitute support for the Palestinian national movement with support for tiny Trotskyite groups in Israel and the Arab world that they argue are the vanguard of the working class in the region.
On the other hand some British communists still adhere to the revisionist thinking of Krushchov and Brezhnev that argues that the solution to the problem can be found simply by following the line of the particular communist party in the field. In essence what this used to mean was blind support for whatever the Soviet Union did. It led to unthinking support for Krushchov’s line against the Communist Party of China and against Stalin. It led to the elevation of peace above revolution and it ultimately led to Gorbachovism and the final liquidation of the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
This thinking lingers on. It lies behind the elevation of pacifist resistance in opposition to armed struggle and ignores Lenin’s dictum that communists must always distinguish between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. It lies behind the attempt to qualify support for national liberation movements based on the tactics they use that equates the violence of the oppressor with that of it’s victim and ultimately endorse the imperialist view that armed struggle is always “terrorist” unless it is hopelessly ineffective.
This thinking lay behind the refusal of the old CPGB to support Sinn Féin and the renewed Irish struggle that began in 1969. It lies behind to the position amongst some of the revisionists of full support for the current Iraqi Communist Party despite its open collaboration with the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

The Arab nation

Now when we look at the Arab world we first of all have to ask ourselves what is an Arab? While this seems an easy question we have to remember that the American imperialists avoid using the word altogether these days. In Iraq the occupation authorities are trying to divide the masses along sectarian lines. Though the population in 80 per cent Arab, the other 20 per cent coming from the Kurdish minority and some other small ethnic groups, the imperialists would have us believe, and want the Iraqis to believe, that the country consists of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Kurds. They only use this rule when it suits them because all Arab volunteers in the Iraqi resistance who have come from other Arab states are called “foreign fighters” even if they are Saudi fundamentalists who by this rule should be called “foreign Sunni fighters”. That’s why the imperialists prefer the simple pejorative term – terrorist.
Nor do the imperialists and their hired academics and Middle East “experts” stick to this rule when it comes to their chief stooge in the region, the Zionist state of Israel. Zionism maintains that Jews throughout the world constitute a nation and that anti-semitism is incurable and eternal.
That Jews on a world scale, lacking a common territory, language, culture or economic life, do not constitute a nation in any generally recognised sense of the term is obvious. Zionism, however, would have Jews and non-Jews believe that all members of the Jewish faith are in some way the literal descendants of the Jews of Biblical days. In fact it is nothing more than a reactionary bourgeois-nationalist ideology of the big Jewish capitalists in the imperialist world. It tells Jewish workers that their interests are served by Jewish exploiters and it seeks to colonise Palestine in the same as the imperialist powers it allies itself with have done in the past. It was with good reason that Lenin maintained that “this Zionist idea is absolutely false and essentially reactionary”.
The national question was resolved in the USSR through the study of Stalin, notably his 1913 paper that defined a nation as possessing four major characteristics; common language; common territory; common economic life and common culture. The Arab nationalists, who include the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (Baath), argue that an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic. Sati al Husri, one of the leading Arab nationalist writers of the 1930s and 40s said: “The ‘lands of the Arabs’ are not restricted to the Arabian peninsula alone, as has been claimed; every country where Arabic is the language of the inhabitants forms part of these lands…whoever has links with an Arab country, and speaks Arabic, whatever the official name of the state of which he is a citizen, whatever his religion, or doctrine, or descent or family history…is an Arab…Arabism is not restricted to the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, nor is it specific to Muslims”.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt’s Free Officer Revolution, embraced the call for Arab unity and argued that anyone was an Arab who spoke Arabic and chose to call himself or herself an Arab. That proviso is introduced to cover the Arabic speaking Jewish communities that until recently lived in Iraq and Yemen who did not consider themselves to be Arabs and were not considered to be Arabs and people like the Maltese who speak a form of Arabic but certainly do not consider themselves to be Arabs.
Of course when we look at a map of the Arab League we can also see that the member states, whose frontiers were all defined by British and French imperialism during colonial days, do not include all the Arabs – there is a significant Arab minority in Iran. They also include significant ethnic minorities within their borders like the tribes of southern Sudan, the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria and the Kurds of northern Iraq.
We cannot simply accept language on its own as a definition of nationality. English, for instance is the common language of Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and large parts of Canada and the Philippines but no-one would suggest that the people of those countries are all part of the same nation.
But historically the vast areas covered by the Arab League conform basically with Stalin’s formula. With the exception of Morocco, Somalia and southern Sudan they all were part of one economic, cultural and territorial entity – the Ottoman Empire – until the middle of the 19th century.
Whether the Arabs are a nation with “one glorious destiny” as the Baath maintain or a “nation in the making” as some of the Arab communists once defined it is another question.

The fight for freedom

The borders of all the Arab states were defined by British and French imperialism who began the carve up of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War completed the process that left only Arabia itself under the House of Saud and Yemen beyond the direct control of Britain and France and Libya which had been an Italian colony since 1912.
Though the original motive was simple colonial robbery through land-grabbing, the discovery of vast oil reserves in the Middle East gave a new impetus to the imperialist desire to control and exploit the region.
There had been resistance from the old feudal elements in the 19th century but Abdel Kader in Algeria, Colonel Arabi in Egypt and the Mahdi of the Sudan were all ultimately defeated by superior imperialist fire-power. The modern anti-colonial movement, that rapidly embraced all apart from the most venal colonial collaborators in Arab society, was clearly inspired by the 1917 October Revolution.
Zionists and other apologists for imperialism claim that Arab and “Islamic” society are backward because the Arab world was not affected by the bourgeois democratic ideas of Rousseau and the French Revolution. What they ignore is the impact of the Russian Revolution in the 1920s that went far beyond the ranks of the Arab working class, then a very small section of Arab society.
Only a tiny section within Arab society ever benefited from colonial rule – the feudal kings and princes whose thrones relied on the “protection” of imperialist guns; the big landowners and those comprador businessmen who served the needs of the colonial armies and the demands of imperial trade.
The vast majority, and this included the small educated and vocal national bourgeoisie, wanted an end to colonial rule. Futile attempts to appeal to imperialism’s better nature at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 made them realise that independence could only be won by mobilising the Arab workers and peasants – in mass struggle against imperialism. The Russian Revolution that swept away the Czar and his oligarchy showed them the way.
The new Soviet government’s Declaration of Rights of the Peoples of Russia and the appeal To All the Working Muslims of Russia and the East had been drafted under Lenin’s supervision and regarded as Lenin’s letter to the Arabs. They heard the Bolshevik call: “Moslems of the East! Persians and Turks, Arabs and Hindus – all of those whose person and property, freedom and motherland have been bought and sold for centuries by the greedy European predators, all those whose countries the plunderers that have started the war now want to divide!
“Overthrow these predators and the oppressors of your countries!...You have the right to do so, for you hold the future in your own hands.”
Arabs struggling against French colonialism in Syria saw the Soviet Union as their friend. The Patriotic Committee of Arab Unity in December 1920 declared that:
“The Arabs regard the government of Lenin and his friends, and the Great Revolution they have launched to liberate the East from the European tyrants as a great force capable of ensuring their well-being and happiness.
“Peace and happiness throughout the world depends on an alliance between the Arabs and the Bolsheviks. To attain their great goal, the Bolsheviks have made many sacrifices and they want the Arabs to take up arms against the exploiters. To do so the Arabs are asking the Bolsheviks to supply them with arms and military equipment…
“Long live Lenin, his comrades and Soviet power!
Long live the alliance between the whole of Islam and the Bolsheviks!”
The October Revolution also inspired Arab socialists to form communist parties. The Palestinian Communist Party was formed in 1921. In 1922 the Egyptian Socialist Party joined the Communist International and renamed itself communist. Syrian and Lebanese communist movements were established in 1924 during the struggle against French colonialism and the Iraqi communist party was founded ten years later.
The national bourgeois element recognised the masses’ demand for social justice and they embraced socialist slogans but not always for progressive ends. The Arab bourgeois and landlord class, fighting for their own freedom, appealed to the traditional religious feelings of the peasants and other working people in order to win them to their side in the fight against imperialism and to disguise class antagonisms with religious-nationalist ideas.
The existing patriarchal character of Arab society, combined with hatred of their colonial oppressors, and petty bourgeois peasant illusions combined to create fertile soil for utopian socialism dressed up in nationalist or Islamic costume.
Lenin’s concrete approach to the nationalism of the oppressed was expressed when he said: “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression and it is this content that we unconditionally support”.
At the same time Lenin pointed out that there was a reactionary content present in any nationalism, and that in Marxists “all chauvinism and nationalism will find an implacable enemy…”
Israel, essentially a colonial settler state, had always been intended as a buffer to contain Arab nationalism. Between the world wars British imperialism encouraged Zionist settlements to play the Jews off against the Palestinian Arabs, though they never originally intended to grant either community any real independence.
The old European colonial order was fatally shaken by the Second World War. Though Britain and France were ultimately victorious this was largely due to the efforts of the Soviet Union and to a lesser degree, the United States. American imperialism, already entrenched commercially in Saudi Arabia, wanted to break the old Anglo-French hold on the rest of the Middle East and it did this by encouraging the establishment of the State of Israel and supporting full independence for Egypt, Syria and Iraq under the corrupt but weak leadership of feudal and big bourgeois Arab politicians who played the national card to win mass support.
The first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 to 1949 exposed the corruption of these newly independent Arab states who so singularly failed militarily to defeat the fledgling Zionist state. This led to a resurgence of Arab nationalism that focused not just on Israel but also on its own corrupt rulers.

Arab socialism

It was at this time that the major Arab national movements were born. The Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party was founded in Damascus in 1947 and rapidly grew after it united in 1953 with the mass-based Syrian Socialist Party to form the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party.
Baathist slogans and its pan-Arab slogans were adopted by Nasser’s Free Officers who had seized power in 1952 in a bloodless coup that deposed King Farouk. These are:

Freedom, Unity, Socialism!
One Arab Nation, One Glorious Destiny!

Freedom from colonialism was the first stage and Arab unity was seen as the precursor of socialism throughout the Arab world.
Nasser went on to build a mass movement around the Arab Socialist Union, that relied almost entirely on his own personality and his immense popularity with the masses. The Egyptian Revolution did, of course, bring in major reforms like the break up of the vast estates that benefited poor peasants and the socialist laws that brought in free education, created a national health service and established “safety net” social legislation like the minimum wage. These were far in advance of many other Third World countries and were regarded by many Egyptian communists who joined the ASU as “socialist orientation”.
The struggle against colonialism and feudalism led to a number of democratic revolutions throughout the Arab world whose leaders embraced “Arab socialism” in one form or another. Though they relied on the masses for support the leadership was largely drawn from middle strata army officers and university graduates.
The leadership of the Arab national democratic movement ultimately reflected the interests of the national bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements. In oil-rich countries like Iraq or Libya social problems were resolved by throwing money at them and workers’ living standards soared.
In the poorer ones like Algeria, Egypt and the Sudan this option wasn’t possible. National health and education services were set up for the benefit of all strata. Social reform and public ownership were taken up but not to the extent of threatening the existence of the national bourgeois elements within their ranks or the interests of the large middle strata of teachers, doctors, civil servants, army officers and small traders. Independent working class political activity was frowned on at best and often banned in the name of national unity.
The Arab national democratic movement adopted the one party system, like much of Africa at the time, which was an advance as it swept away the pseudo-democratic neo-colonial structures that imperialism uses to retain its control. But these movements were often simply a popular rallying point for the leadership and they did not have the organised democratic strength to preserve the gains of the revolution if that leadership changed nor were they organised on class lines.
“Democratic socialists believe, on the other hand, that communist methods on occasion distort agreed socialist ideals to the extent even of negating some of the principles which Marx himself preached” Egyptian Arab Socialist theorist Abdel Moghny Said declared. “ ‘Equality’ can open the way for a rigid economic and political hierarchy ruling in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The principle of humanity can be regarded as expendable in the interests of some future millennium. The scientific objective approach to economics and politics can bend before the demands of dogma and short-term expediency.”
Similarly the Baath constitution says that: “The Arab Baath Party is a socialist party. It holds that the economic wealth of the country belongs to the nation” but then goes on to say that “property and inheritance are two natural rights. They are protected within the limits of the national interests”.
It was, of course, “socialism” that reflected the class demands of the revolutionary democrats and not the scientific socialism of Marxism-Leninism. Nasser could say: “’Arab socialism’ is an invention of the Egyptian newspapers. In my speeches and in the Charter I have never used the term. There are no socialisms. There is only universal, scientific socialism,” even though his own movement was called the Arab Socialist Union and the Egyptian National Charter that Nasser referred to states clearly that the “Arab revolutionary experiment…cannot afford to copy what others have achieved…socialism does not mean observing rigid theories which have not arisen out of the nature of national experience.”
But because the Arab national democratic movement was borne from an anti-colonial struggle that developed into a struggle against the imperialist forces that continued to subjugate the Arab world it developed into a revolutionary democratic force. In government their policies were those of socialist orientation. Arab big bourgeois and feudal elements could not offer any solution to the problems of the Arab masses except in the oil-rich feudal princedoms where they bought off the tiny domestic population with a fraction of their oil bounty and imported cheap immigrant labour on master and servant terms to meet the demands of the petrochemical industries. At the same time the organised weakness of the Arab working class prevented the revolutionary workers’ movements from directly influencing the Arab revolutionary democratic movements that developed in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
The social base of the Algerian FLN, the Baath and Egypt’s Arab Socialist Union was the peasant masses, the petty bourgeois and semi-proletarianised urban population and the radical elements of the nationalist intelligentsia who coalesced into a social bloc in the fight against colonialism, Zionism and imperialism through these parties. Socialist planning was regarded as an essential part of the struggle to achieve economic independence once formal independence was won.
“So the very nationalism of these elements makes them gravitate towards accepting socialism,” the veteran Syrian communist leader Khaled Bakdash pointed out in 1964, adding, “no matter how paradoxical this fact may seem, for it contradicts all our previous criteria, it is a fact wrought by the dialectical development of our time, the time of transition from capitalism to socialism.”
Similar movements took the same path in Africa and Asia though the most successful was Fidel Castro’s 26th July Movement that eventually united with the Cuban Communist Party to build a people’s democracy in Cuba.
The 1975 meeting of Arab communist parties noted that: “One of the most important phenomena in the Arab national liberation movement is the emergence of parties, forces and elements, which, in class terms, belong to the petty bourgeoisie, but have raised themselves to the position of revolutionary democracy”.
The Syrian and Iraqi Baath leaderships always recognised the strength of the working class movement in their countries. They acknowledged the need for alliances with other forces including the communists, in establishing progressive National Patriotic Fronts in the 1970s, which continue in Syria to this day and only broke down in Iraq in the late 1970s.
In Palestine and amongst the vast Palestinian diaspora the endless wars led to the development of a Marxist wing within the resistance movement, originally led by George Habbash, and a broader Arab movement that inspired the National Liberation Front of South Yemen that drove British imperialism out in 1967. This eventually established the first Arab socialist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, under the leadership of the avowedly Marxist Yemen Socialist Party.
A united Arab world with its immense oil resources would resolve all the problems of Arab workers and peasants and that is why the imperialists are determined to ensure that it remains divided and fragmented. Nasser’s United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria continued in name until 1971 but it essentially ended when Syria ended its short-lived union in 1961. The exception is the PDR Yemen and the northern Yemen Arab Republic who united in 1991, the only successful modern experiment in Arab unity.
In the 1950s some Arab nationalists imagined that the Arabs would unite following a successful war against Israel in much the same way as Germany united immediately after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. But Israel has not been defeated and there is no Arab Prussia.

Islamic fundamentalism

Anglo-American imperialism has always sought to pit Arab against Arab to maintain their hegemony over the Arab world and its vast oil riches. Imperialism has always opposed Arab unity in any form unless it can be diverted for its own strategic purposes like the abortive anti-Soviet “Baghdad Pact” that sought to bring the Middle East into the Nato alliance in the 1950s.
Likewise imperialism has always tried to exploit Islamic fundamentalist movements for its own purposes. In the past these movements were almost always reactionary in content. The charitable and social nature of Muslim movements gave them a mass base amongst the urban and rural poor but the leadership reflected the demands of conservative elements within the middle strata that the modern Arab nationalist movements were competing with. Though they condemned the imperialism and materialism of the West, the “godless” socialists and communists were often their first targets.
The Saudi royal family created a united kingdom in Arabia in the 1920s with the support of the militant and puritanical Wahhabi (Unitarian) movement that started in central Arabia in the 18th century. The oil-rich Saudi kings use the Wahhabis to prop up their feudal rule and they have pumped millions into their coffers in return to fund pro-Saudi religious institutions throughout the Arab and Islamic world. The Saudis provided the “Islamic” cover and much of the money to fund the American sponsored counter-revolutionaries who overthrew the progressive Afghan government in 1992 and later backed the Taliban (Muslim students) movement that followed.
Even the Wahhabis are not immune from social pressure and in recent years sects outraged at the profligate and corrupt life-styles of the Saudi princes have waged a violent campaign against the crown. Others, like Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, were enraged at the stationing of American troops on Saudi soil after the first Gulf War and began a deadly campaign against US imperialism that has now spread throughout the world.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 1920s when it was founded as an Islamic youth movement initially modelled on the YMCA. It rapidly became a political force in the fight against the corrupt Egyptian monarchy and the struggle to drive British imperialism out of Egypt altogether. The Brotherhood set up branches throughout the Middle East and many members volunteered to defend Palestine during the first Arab-Israeli war. Though the Brotherhood initially supported Egypt’s Free Officer revolution, it broke with Nasser when they realised that his government was not going to restore traditional Islamic law. In 1954 one of their followers tried to kill Nasser – a move that led to their complete suppression.
Their essentially reactionary demand for a unified Islamic world put the Brothers at loggerheads with the modern Arab national movement that strove to create modern independent republics with semi-secular constitutions that took account of the needs of the non-Muslim Arab minorities within their ranks. In Syria an attempt on the life of President al Assad in 1980 led to a bloody crack-down that cumulated in the storming of their strongholds.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic organisation. In Egypt they were legalised by Nasser’s right-wing successor, Anwar Sadat. Some sections welcomed the end of “Nasserism” and Sadat’s opening up of the Egyptian economy to imperialism. Others were enraged at Sadat’s treacherous separate peace with Israel and he died under a hail of bullets in 1981. In 1987 the Brotherhood agreed a joint slate with some post-Nasserist social-democrats called the Labour Islamic Alliance which won 60 seats in the national assembly. But they boycotted the elections in 1990 because they were so obviously being rigged.
In Palestine Hamas was originally tolerated by the Israeli occupiers who saw it as a counter to Yasser Arafat’s nationalist Fateh movement. That soon ended when Hamas took up the mass demand to end the Zionist occupation and now Hamas and the other Palestinian Islamic movements play a leading role in the popular resistance that includes communists and progressives.

The quest for unity

Arab unity remains as elusive as ever but that does not mean it is not desirable or attainable. Speaking on behalf of the Arab communist delegates at the Comintern congress of 1935 the Syrian communist leader presented a programme for an Arab popular anti-imperialist front based on Arab unity.
Khaled Bakdash speaking for the Arab communists under the movement name of “Comrade Ramzi” said: “We must unite the anti-imperialist struggle in all Arab countries…” and referring to the division of the Arab world by British, French and Italian imperialism, he stated that: “It is true that this division will always help different imperialist oppressors to fight the insurrections and uprisings of the Arab masses in these different countries. For example, the insurrections in Syria (1925), Palestine (1929), Iraq (1935) Morocco (1924) and so on. But it is no less true that the Arab peoples have often shown an active reciprocal national solidarity and have always expressed their hatred of the division of their countries. We must oppose this existing division, and unite in struggle and solidarity the entire Arab people, against the oppressor imperialism, for the complete liberation of all Arab countries, for the union of independent popular democratic republics.”
Bakdash repeated this call in a different way in 1964. Moving the party’s national charter he said: “The second part…deals with the problem of co-operation between Arabs, what one might call the problem of Arab unity. It is clear that all the Arab peoples are close to one another, be it geographically, linguistically, economically or historically. Co-operation between them this becomes a vital and practical aspect of a great many of the issues which concern our respective countries.
“In our opinion, the most important aspect of Arab co-operation concerns the solidarity of the Arab peoples in their struggle for independence and national liberation. The various Arab countries are, of course, at different stages in terms of this issue; there are countries still struggling for the most elementary right to independence, for instance Palestine, which still lies under foreign mandate and is embroiled in the Zionist calamity. Others, such as Syria and Lebanon, have won some of their rights and have taken important steps towards national independence. Finally, there are countries such as Iraq and Egypt, which are completing the final stages of their progress towards total independence and national sovereignty.
“Under such conditions, what other foundations can there be to Arab co-operation than the need for solidarity between Arabs of all countries in the effort to attain the independence and national liberation of each individual country? It is not enough for governments to evince this solidarity; the people themselves must be committed to the idea. Economic, cultural and commercial co-operation is possible to a degree, but it cannot be brought to fruition as long as the great Arab goal – the independence and liberation of each Arab country – has not been achieved.”
It is fundamentally a matter for the Arabs themselves. Lenin’s first foreign minister, G V Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs made this clear in 1924 in a discussion with a representative of the Hashemite kingdom of Hejaz that was soon to fall under the domination of the House of Saud. Chicherin said: “We greatly sympathise with the Arab people’s desire for unification but we cannot interfere in the matter of whether such unification takes the form of a confederation under Russian leadership or any other form, for that is the Arab people’s own business.”

Today’s fight against imperialism

We often argue that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. This easy formula often produces the right solution as the enemy of British imperialism is almost always a progressive force provided that we identify who our “enemy” is at any given time.
When the Second World War transformed from an inter-imperialist war into a war against the Soviet Union, the bourgeoisie of the United States and Britain became temporarily the allies of the most progressive force in the world. It was clearly incorrect for some Indian revolutionaries like Chandra Bose to campaign and actively assist in the Axis war effort in the grounds that it would hasten the demise of the British occupation. It was also clearly incorrect for some elements within the IRA to seek the assistance of the Third Reich during the war and the same could be said for those Arab nationalists who sought the support of the Axis and used the same argument.
The primary contradiction in the world today is between United States imperialism and the peoples of the world. American imperialism, headed by George W Bush and an administration drawn from the most reactionary and aggressive elements of the US ruling class is seeking world domination, which they call “globalisation” and the “new world order”. They seek to consolidate US power across the globe and extract the maximum advantage from US imperialism’s present strength and dominant position over the entire non-socialist world. The most reactionary, venal and warlike sections of the British ruling class, ably served by the Blair leadership, are backing the Americans to the hilt in the hope of securing part of the plunder for themselves.
By establishing direct control of the Iraqi oil-fields, Anglo-American imperialism hopes to control the price and production of the global oil industry. This was what the war was all about. The issue is clear. This was an illegal an unjust war. British troops should never have been sent there in the first place. They must be brought home immediately. The Iraqi people’s legitimate rights to independence and the control of their resources must be upheld. The Iraqis have taken up the gun in a new fight for independence. Their resistance must be supported.

first published May 2005