Friday, September 30, 2011

The Art of Revolution


By Andy Brooks

The Art of Revolution: John Callow, Grant Pooke and Jane Powell. Hbk, illus, 96 pp, Evans Mitchell Books, London 2011.

THE USSR collapsed, or rather was destroyed by the counter-revolutionaries at the helm of the Soviet communist party in 1991.  Along with it went the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and many other so-called communist parties that had clung to coat-tails of Gorbachovism.
The CPGB’s archives went to Manchester’s People’s History Museum. Other documents were piled up in the cellars of the Marx Memorial Library to languish in the dust until the work of cataloguing and preservation began in 2005.
It was then that an amazing discovery was made. Hundreds of posters from the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies were found amongst the bundles of old CPGB dossiers and pamphlets. A collection spanning the entire period of Soviet power from the October Revolution to Brezhnev’s days had come to light, including key campaigning posters from the early days of the German Democratic Republic and socialist Czechoslovakia.
With the help of the GMB union these posters have all been recorded and conserved at Marx House for art scholars and students of the world communist movement. Now a selection of these images has been published in a book produced with the support of the Marx Memorial Library, the GMB and TUink.
This book contains full colour images of over 60 Soviet and revolutionary posters from 1917 to 1953, together with a couple of very rare early examples of CPGB agitational art. While some of these posters are old favourites well known to veteran communists, many others are exceedingly rare and have probably not been reprinted since the day they were first issued.
The publishers have clearly provided a service to the working class in helping a new generation discover the graphic realism and political punch of proletarian art.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the text that accompanies the images. Three academics, John Callow from the Marx Memorial Library and Grant Pooke and Jane Powell, both from the University of Kent, provide a commentary that is technically superb but sadly politically flawed.
The cliché reference to the “Soviet Government, and latterly its satellites…” in the very beginning of the first chapter sets the tone for a potted history of the Soviet Union that accompanies the posters from the Stalin era and it largely accepts the bourgeois explanation of the “Great Purges” that accompanies them. Thankfully it is overshadowed by the detailed commentary on the artists and teams who produced the posters of the 1930s and 40s, which brings to life these gems of Soviet mass art for the modern reader.
This is not a systematic collection of political posters over the years. It simply reflects what was brought back to Britain by leading comrades such as R P Arnot and Andrew Rothstein from trips to Weimar Germany, the Soviet Union and post-war Czechoslovakia. This limitation accounts for a certain unevenness in the selection presented in this book though those posters that have been chosen clearly have been picked to illustrate the particular views of the authors. There’s no other explanation, for instance, for the curious elevation of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was shot for treason in 1937.
When it comes to the final chapter, largely devoted to Czechoslovak posters of the 1940s, we are treated to an openly revisionist narrative that consciously distorts the role of the leadership of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia  (KSČ) at that time.
 People’s power came to Czechoslovakia in February 1948 when the communists thwarted a bourgeois coup in parliament aimed at breaking up the KSČ-led coalition government.
            The authors accept that the right-wing moved first but then suggest that the KSČ, the largest party in parliament, was set to lose seats in the forthcoming 1948 election. This forced them to portray the right-wing manoeuvres as “miscalculations” based on “too much reliance upon the USA to rally international opinion to their aid”.
 The real motive of the Czech bourgeoisie – to bring down the communist-led government and replace it with one that would accept Marshall Aid – is never mentioned. The Marshall Plan – US imperialism’s project to rebuild war-shattered European economies with American “aid” to exclude communists from government and build a new trans-Atlantic alliance to confront the Soviet Union – is ignored.
 The Prague show trials are treated in a similar way. Former KSČ general secretary Rudolf Slansky and a number of other leading members of the Party arrested in 1951  are said to have been denounced as “bourgeois nationalists”. But we see the snake-like heads of three of them in the grip of capitalism, being beheaded by a worker armed with a hammer in a poster entitled We have captured dangerous vermin. In fact they were all charged with high treason.
 The authors says that the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of most of them was “in reality, an internal struggle within the ruling power” without saying what that struggle was about. They claim that “the root cause of the trials, aside from the animosity of North America, was the refusal of Marshal Tito to let Yugoslavia become entirely subordinated to Stalin’s will and the needs of the Soviet economy”.   
But this is meaningless without explaining what “Titoism” meant, or was supposed to mean, in Czechoslovakia or the other people’s democracies in 1940s eastern Europe.
In 1948 Czechoslovakia had been a major arms supplier to Israel and a training ground for the Zionist air force in 1948. A secret air-base in the town of Žatec, which the Zionists called “Ezion”, was also used to fly four surplus US air-force B17 Flying Fortresses to Israel, despite an official US arms embargo on all warring sides during the first Arab-Israeli war.  One of them bombed Cairo on its way to Tel Aviv.
 But there’s no mention of this or the fact that within the KSČ some wanted that relationship to continue for economic reasons or out of sympathy with the Zionist cause, despite Israel’s rapid alignment with imperialism. Nor is there any suggestion that some of those arrested were, like Tito, opposed to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance set up by the USSR in 1949 to counter Marshall Aid in eastern Europe.
Nothing is said about the continuing controversy that still surrounds the Slansky trial in the Czech republic. The revisionist leadership of the mainstream Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, a mass party with two senators and 26 deputies in the Czech parliament, endorses the rehabilitation of Slansky & Co that took place in 1968. But hard-liners, inside and outside its ranks, still uphold the original Slansky verdict. And even today’s bourgeois Czech establishment concede that Slansky was framed by a letter implicating him as an agent of imperialism planted by an agent of Okapi, a Czech émigré movement set up by the CIA to encourage subversion and sabotage in the new people’s republic.
The text is one problem. The other is the price. This slender volume is no bargain at £30. But at the moment copies can be obtained for £15 plus £2.50 directly from the Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R ODU.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Hidden Hand at Work


By Andy Brooks

The Poisoned Well: Sean Kelly; NCP pamphlet £2.00

COLD WAR propaganda and Trotskyist dogma would have us believe that everyone arrested during the Soviet purges of the 1930s was innocent. Western pundits would regularly portray the Soviet secret service as an incompetent and brutal instrument of terror and in the same breath charge it with organising legions of dupes in the western world for espionage purposes or to ferment civil unrest.
At the same time the public were fed with romantic tales of agents of imperialism like Sidney Reilly, the “ace of spies” shot by Soviet intelligence in 1925 after an abortive attempt to overthrow the Soviet government, and the fictional exploits of James Bond whose antics soon rivalled those of American comic-book super-heroes.  But a veil of silence was drawn over the army of western government informers and agents within the labour movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did the ruling class feel confident enough to boast about some of their real agents’ exploits. The release of documents under the “thirty year rule” revealed that the radical novelist George Orwell, the darling of the Trots, had been a police informer.  The BBC ran a series called True Spies in 2002 which revealed that secret service agents bugged, burgled and bribed their way into the heart of the unions throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet the story of the sinister role of intelligence agents within the communist movement has still to be published. This pamphlet redresses the balance by summarising attempts to sabotage the communist movement in America, Britain and other parts of Europe.
And it starts by looking at the extraordinary career of Morris Childs, the American communist trained at the Lenin School in Moscow, who became deputy leader of the Communist Party of the USA and the go-between who arranged the transfer of secret Soviet subsidies to the US party. From 1958 until 1980 Childs made 52 trips to Moscow.
 Morris was trusted by leading members of the Soviet party and became a close friend of Leonid Brezhnev. In 1975 the Soviet leader presented Morris with the Order of the Red Flag in recognition of his services to the international communist movement. What Brezhnev did not know was that Morris had been working for the FBI from at least the beginning of the 1950s.
Well if you want to know more order this pamphlet, which is a revised edition of two articles that first appeared in the New Worker in 2002, it can be obtained from:

NCP Lit,
PO Box 73,
London SW11 2PQ

Please add 50p for postage and packing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Twin Towers ten years on

THOUSANDS of Americans attended the Ground Zero memorial service in New York last Sunday for those who lost their lives in the terror attacks of 11th September 2001. The solemn occasion, led by President Obama, was repeated at similar ceremonies across the United States and in the capitals of US imperialism’s allies across the world.
The movers and shakers of the imperialist world publicly express their grief at the 3,000 innocent civilians killed in the terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They talk about the “war on terror”. They claim that the world has become a better place in the past 10 years. But they say nothing about the million or so equally innocent civilians who have died at the hands of US-led imperialism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya since 9/11. No one plays the bagpipes for them and their names will not be immortalised in bronze in New York or anywhere else in the United States.
US imperialism’s bid for global hegemony began with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under cover of a bogus United Nations mandate, a trick they first used to attack north Korea in 1950 and one they have used time and time again ever since, Anglo-American imperialism attacked Iraq. Soon after they moved to violently break up the Yugoslav federation and attack the Serbs.
But the American plan for world domination, called the “new world order”, really kicked off after the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001; 9/11 was used by the US ruling class as a pretext to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a plan for total imperialist control of the immense oil and gas resources of what they began to call the “Greater Middle East” region.
Arabs and Muslims who stood in the way were demonised as brutal religious bigots and savages while the crimes of those autocratic feudal leaders willing to serve imperialism were whitewashed by the imperialists and the “human rights” gang that trail behind them. The random terrorism of the oppressed is branded as barbarism while the systematic terror of imperialist occupation is routinely denied.
Piracy and hostage-taking by impoverished Somali fishermen is condemned as extortion while a blind eye is turned to the abuse of prisoners in concentration camps in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. It’s not surprising to see the murder of a Basra hotel worker, beaten to death by British troops in 2003, so easily dismissed as a “very serious and regrettable incident”. His death will doubtless be blamed on individual soldiers and not on the underlying culture of imperialist military occupation that led to the atrocity in the first place. The imperialists spent billions of dollars in their drive to control the resources of the world. But at the end of the day what have they got to show for it?
Despite all the might of their aviation and the strength of their legions the Americans are on their way out in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US economy is in the doldrums along with the rest of capitalist world that is sinking into the biggest slump seen since 1929. Though they control a large part of global oil production they cannot change the rules of supply and demand or the fundamental law of value.
Ten years on the wild hopes of the imperialists lie buried in the dust of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the hundreds of thousands of victims who perished in the attempt to make the world a better place for the big oil corporations.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Oliver Cromwell

1599 - 1658

OLIVER CROMWELL, the leader of the English Revolution, died on 3rd  September 1658. Cromwell, the MP for Huntingdon, was the leading Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War, which began in 1642 and ended in1649 with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart and the abolition of the monarchy. The Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was styled in English, was proclaimed soon after.
The fighting had taken a fearful toll in lives and property in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The death toll, including civilians, came to around 870,000, some 11.6 per cent of the pre-Civil War population. Material damage was immense, particularly in Ireland. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell became head of state, the Lord Protector.
Royalist hopes of a counter-revolution were smashed with the defeat of their forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Cromwell represented the most militant elements amongst the Puritan bourgeois gentry. While in favour of reform they feared social upheaval that could overturn their own exclusive right to private property.
The democratic movement born from the New Model Army, the Levellers, was crushed by Cromwell’s supporters and the most militant regiments sent to Ireland. Attempts to set up farming co-operatives by the Diggers, many of whom were also former soldiers, were also suppressed.
The republic Cromwell led included England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the port of Dunkirk and colonies in New England and the Caribbean. During its brief life the Commonwealth became a force in Europe. Culturally it inspired the great poetry of Milton and Marvell and other radical and pacifist religious movements like the Quakers who are still with us today.
Oliver Cromwell was succeeded by his son, Richard. Richard was neither a politician nor a soldier. Unable to reconcile republican generals with the demands of the rich merchants and landowners to curb the influence of the New Model Army, Richard Cromwell resigned the following year. The government collapsed and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Oliver Cromwell’s death invoked genuine mourning. His funeral, modelled on that of the King of Spain, was the biggest London had ever witnessed.
Two years later his body was dug up and ritually hanged in public at Tyburn. All those still alive who had signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant, apart from a handful that managed to flee the country, were hanged, drawn and quartered. And the “good old cause” they had fought for was buried with them. It was clear that a great revolution had taken place. It is equally clear that it was incomplete.
For communists the English Revolution is a paramount importance. It influenced the thinking of the American revolutionaries. The Victorian utopian socialist and co-operator, Robert Owen, embodied some of the ideas of the Digger philosopher, Gerrard Winstanley, in his writings. And even today the question of the monarchy and the House of Lords is still unresolved.

A Russian sniper's story


By Andy Brooks

Notes of a Russian Sniper: Vassili Zaitsev, Hbk, illus, 208 pp, Frontline Books, London 2010 £19.99.

Vassili Zaitsev was the Soviet sniper immortalised by Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates, the  2001 blockbuster movie set during the Battle of Stalingrad with a star-studded cast including Ed Harris as his Nazi counterpart and Bob Hoskins as Nikita Krushchov. Stalingrad has long been used in the West as a symbol of the sacrifice of the Soviet people in the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The film is remarkable for the visual power of the gritty battle scenes and realistic recreation of the ruined city. So film-goers could easily be forgiven for thinking that the movie, produced by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, was an accurate portrayal of Zaitsev’s wartime career.
            Far from it. Zaitsev, who died in 1991, would have turned in his grave had he lived to see Enemy at the Gates which depicts him as a barely literate hunter from the Steppes and reduces the Second World War to a sniper duel between two men. But while Zaitsev’s own account of his exploits in Stalingrad had been published in the USSR back in 1956 the first English translation was only published in 2003.
            This revised edition published by Frontline Books includes the original introduction by Marshal V I Chuikov and a pithy foreword that demolishes the anti-communist nonsense that is passed off as artistic licence in Annaud film.
            As a boy Zaitsev was taught to shoot and hunt in the woods by his family. A dedicated communist he served a pay clerk in the Soviet Pacific Fleet but volunteered to fight in the army when the Germans invaded in 1941. And it was in Stalingrad that his particular skill was recognised. With at least 242 kills to his credit Zaitsev ended up running a sniper school in the city that broke the back of the Wehrmacht.
            Library shelves are full of dusty memoirs of generals who portray war in terms of manoeuvres and tactics. This book sees war through the eyes of a rank-and-filer on the front-line in a struggle against a cruel and determined foe.
Though Zaitsev was like the millions of Soviet youth who rallied to the call to defend the Soviet Union his particular skill sets him apart from most other soldiers. 
            Snipers are a special breed. They shoot to kill in cold blood and without remorse. As Zaitsev says: “As a sniper, I’ve killed more than a few Nazis. I have a passion for observing enemy behaviour. You watch a Nazi officer come out of a bunker, acting all high and mighty, ordering his soldiers every which way, and putting on an air of authority. The officer hasn’t got the slightest idea that he only has seconds to live”.
            There’s plenty more of this as Zaitsev tells his story of the fight for Stalingrad which also includes a report of his experiences first published in Moscow in 1943 and Stalin’s famous “Not a Single Step Back!” Order Number 227 of 28th  July 1942.
            This is a book well worth reading. Don’t be put off by the publisher’s cover charge. It can be bought for far less on the web or obtained by ordering it from your local library.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Burston School strike

by Robert Laurie

A HUNDRED years ago in February 1911 two schoolteachers arrived to take up new posts in the Norfolk Parish of Burston and Shimpling near Diss. This was not the first posting in the agricultural county for the couple Tom and Kitty Higdon. Kitty Higdon married her younger husband, also a teacher, in their native Somerset in 1896.
            For a while they taught at St James's and St Peter's School in London's wealthy Piccadilly. In 1902 they took up joint posts at Wood Dalling, north of Norwich with Kitty as headmistress.
Here they proved popular and effective teachers. Staunch Christian Socialists they did much to improve the harsh lives of their pupils, such as purchasing shoes and footwear out of Kitty’s own pocket and conducting cookery classes in her own kitchen.
The Higdon's were not content with private charity. Soon after arriving in Norfolk Thomas (himself the son of a farm labourer) was fined for assaulting a farmer who employed boys who should have been at school. He also spoke in public and organised for the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' and Small Holders' Union, founded in 1906.
 This was no easy task. In the countryside the normal difficulties of getting workers to join unions in the face of employer hostility was heightened by the tied cottage system, which meant a dismissed worker was also made homeless.
In 1910 he and other labourers were elected onto the parish council. This was not to the approval of the farmers who employed the labourers. They were also managers of the school and resented the Higdon's continued demands for improvements to the fabric of the school.
Such a lack of deference did not go unpunished. Norfolk Education Committee launched enquiries into their activities. The threat of sacking was finally lifted but these "troublesome teachers" were transferred to Burston in the south of the county. Defiant to the end Kitty Higdon's final remarks in the school log book were later officially expunged from the record.
            Perhaps wary of the Education Committee, the Higdon's kept a low political profile at first, but they soon started making complaints about the state of their new school. In 1912 Tom published a short pamphlet, Bodies without abodes, a fictional indictment of the tied cottage system.
            The April 1913 Parish Council elections saw Tom Higdon return to the electoral fray. He topped the poll along with many farm labourers who were also elected. The man at the bottom was no less a figure than the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, Anglican Rector and chair of the school's management committee.
            He was not a man to take electoral defeat gracefully. From a wealthy Essex gentry family he used his remaining post as chair of the school body to launch a barrage of complaints against the Higdons. Enormities such as lighting a fire for pupils to dry their wet clothes and showing gross "discourtesy" were supplemented by trumped up charges of assaulting two pupils.
            His Reverence persuaded the county Education Committee to sack them (despite glowing reports from the inspectors and a rejection of the assault charges) after an inquiry in which the National Union of Teachers failed miserably. Their last day was the 31st March 1914.
As they were about to hand over the next day, 66 of the 72 children refused to attend school. Instead, led by a concertina band they marched around the Village waving banners and cards reading: "We want our teachers back" and "We are out for justice".
As is normal with the bourgeois press The Times understated the support when on the 2nd April it reported that only 25 of the 72 pupils attended the march that day. Dismissed by the Rector as an "April Fool's Joke" the march was repeated in the afternoon and on the following days. Properly organised lessons were given by the Higdons on the Village Green.
Only six pupils remained at the official school. On the 22nd April the parents of the striking children were heavily fined by the magistrates at Diss. Half-a crown each was a severe penalty for farmer labourers earning less than a pound a week. They were further warned of heavier fines if the trouble recurred.
In the words of The Times of the following day: "All the parents demanded a public inquiry as to why the teachers were dismissed. Some of them said they sent their children to school, but the children joined the strikers. One parent said his lad had joined the strikers and dared not break the rules."
 Repeated fines for non-attendance were indeed imposed on the farm labourers, who were in fact sending their children to the school of their own choosing.
The outbreak of the First World War in August with the resulting need for manpower put a stop to farmers sacking labourers for their insubordination but this did not stop the Reverend Eland from evicting labourers from the allotments he rented out to boost his ample stipend.
A national campaign by the labour movement ensured the striking pupils did not lack funds. Just one example of the campaign can be mentioned. In February 1916 the Higdons, some schoolchildren and their parents visited London sponsored by London trade unionists, where they spoke at four large meetings including a musical event at Bermondsey.
The hatred Eland brought upon himself can be seen in the case which took place in early 1917. The father of a former striker who was killed in the war objected to the Rector putting up a memorial tablet in the church as Eland had opposed the strike.
His efforts to have it removed failed so he smashed it with a coal hammer, an action resulting in the bereaved father being imprisoned. Later the diocesan court had it removed more officially. It was not only the established church that incurred the strikers' displeasure. When a Methodist lay-preacher spoke in favour of the Strike School he was rebuked by his church, prompting the departure of most of the village's congregation.
As summer turned to autumn a disused carpenter's workshop was used as a schoolhouse. The launch of national appeal for a more permanent building bore fruit within three years. The building which survives to this day was opened on the 13th May 1917 by Violet Potter, the leader of children three years earlier.
George Lansbury, chair of the national appeal for the school and future Labour Party leader, unveiled the foundation stone while the militant Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst also spoke.
Many branches of the Independent Labour Party, and the National Union of Railwaymen supported the building fund. Coal mining unions gave £401 of the £1662 raised. Many other labour movement bodies such as the Coventry Typographical Society and the Parkstone and Bournemouth Co-operative Society also contributed.
The departure of the Reverend Eland in 1920 was followed by his replacement by a less hostile Rector, who conducted services for the children of both village schools.
That they competed against each other on sports days demonstrates that the Strike School had become an established fixture of village life. Being the focus of a national campaign it was difficult for the powers to be anything but tolerant of the Strike School.
An annual rally was held by the National Agricultural Labourers' Union, which kept the school in the public eye. The Norfolk Education Committee was doubtless glad not to have the "troublesome teachers" on their books.
Thus the school continued for a quarter of a century. Apart from local children a few were sent by members of the Soviet Trade delegation to London. During the 1926 General Strike and lockout six children of Nottingham miners were boarded and taught for free.
The curriculum did not have classes on how to curtsy or forelock tugging to the gentry, but included trips to trade union rallies. When Thomas Higdon died in August 1939, the school had only 11 pupils. Kitty Higdon, then aged 75 was unable to continue and retired soon afterwards. The remaining pupils were transferred to the county school. She died in 1946 and was buried next to her husband in Burston churchyard near the school to which she had devoted her life.
The initial success of the campaign to defend the Higdons and the remarkable endurance of the school was a fine example of trade union solidarity. While Norfolk was one of the better organised areas the agricultural labourers were too weak in themselves to support the school for long.