Where have the left gone. At a time when we really need an effective radical left-wing movement to protect the interests of the working class they are nowhere to be seen. There are anti-democratic forces trying to frustrate the outcome of the recent referendum in which the people of Britain voted against increased globalization and increasing power to the corporations. This should have been a first step on a path to create a better Britain, one in which corporate needs would be forced to play second fiddle to the communities needs. It should have been the time when a radical revision of our society and economy started. But the radicals are nowhere to be seen.
The likes of Owen Jones and Paul Mason who, prior to the referendum, clearly knew the dangers that the EU posed to working class communities, and the poor, now happily toe the party line. Jeremy Corbyn has spent three years trying to hide his true opinions in the hope that it will buy him time and power. Like their wealthy friends, the TV executives, the bankers, the business men, the celebrities, the judges and the well-off metropolitan middle class, they sing from the same hymn sheet and tell the people to get back in their box. They tell the working class that they are uneducated and don’t know what is good for them, and they should be thankful for the guidance of their betters. They smear them as elderly racists; ignoring their concerns about youth unemployment, wage levels, and a failing welfare state, claiming they are only concerned about skin colour. An opportunity to create a better, fairer, more open society is being squandered and thwarted by media ‘liberals’ and ‘lefties’ who don’t want to risk turning off the state support that supports their ventures. As long as their lifestyles are safe then to hell with the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the marginalized .
We seem to be on the cusp of a constitutional crisis : one group want to thwart the will of the majority, in response, another group want to undermine our parliamentary democracy. There can be no happy outcome to this crisis. The flames of a populist revolt are being fanned by both sides but the right is in the position to seize the fire and use it. The previous ‘firebrands’ of the left are now acting as puppets trying to placate the mob and maintain the status quo, any authority they once had will soon evaporate leaving the right with less opposition. It is no wonder that we have witnessed the death of the major socialist parties across Europe, their unwillingness to defend labour against capital means they are largely an irrelevance. This may have been their time to rekindle their relevance but it seems that they have missed their opportunity.
In their place will be the right-wing and the nationalists. The blame for their success can squarely be placed at the door of the current left, they left the majority of us who voted for Brexit with only Boris Johnson to protect our interests – shame on you.
This book, by Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin, deserves to be widely read. It is a sober and informed look at the growth of national populist movements which have occurred all over the globe. It does primary focus on Europe and America and particularly on the surprises, to many, of Donald Trump’s election and the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum. However, its reach is much broader than this and it tracks the growth of this movement much further back, over two centuries, and considers its growth in very many countries.
Roger Eatwell is professor of Politics at Bath University and an acknowledged expert on fascism and the development of right wing politics. Mathew Goodwin (His PhD student) is similarly a Professor of Politics, at the University of Kent, and also a specialist on right-wing politics and Euroscepticism. The book they have produced is well researched and obviously the product of men with academic rigour. The ideas discussed and considered with good historical detail and opinions are not ventured without significant and adequate hard evidence.
This may sound as if the book is going to be data heavy, full of facts and figures, and in many respects this is true. However, in part this is why it is readable. Much of the data given is there to challenge the reader’s presumptions and to make them rethink what they think they know about national populist movements; whether it is Americans stunned by Trump, British people shocked by Brexit or the French worried about the Gilets Jaunes. The authors show that there are very many, largely well-meaning, myths held about these movement and present the data to show why these are wrong.
The myth that these movements are simply angry responses to the economic upheaval that followed the crash in 2008 is belied by their existence and growth well before that event. The myth, or possibly fond hope, that this is a movement of angry old white mean is not supported by the data on the demographics. The hope, likewise, that simply waiting for the more liberal young to grow and displace the more conservative elderly is not supported by the evidence. (There is data in the book to suggest that the degree of difference between the young and elderly in viewpoint is largely accounted for by a rightward shift in people’s outlook as they age. Rather than there being two different cohorts of people). Myths that these movements are simply fascist or racist trends are likely shown not to be in accordance with the known facts.
If we are to understand this movement it is important to know when we are wrong. We will not be able to preserve liberal democracy if we misdiagnose the threats that face it and, as a consequence, apply the wrong remedies. These are the types of failures we have seen happen in recent referenda. For example, in the Brexit referendum a belief that all this resentment stemmed simply from economic damage lead to a campaign primarily warning people they would be worse off (By £4000 a family) if they voted to leave. This was an error, cultural and political factors were far more important in the anger that was being felt, and had people listened they would have known this. There was even polling showing that people who supported Brexit would do so even if they were certain that there would be a negative economic impact to them personally. This lesson hasn’t been learnt and, still today, many of those petitioning for change of direction think that if they just point out economic hazards minds will change – there is little evidence that this strategy has proven any more successful second-time around.
The biggest myth that the book challenges is that this movement is a temporary disruption and, as things get better (or through things worsening people see the light), shortly the status quo ante will be returned. The myth that this is an aberration and soon we will be back to ‘business as usual‘ is the most dangerous myth the book lays bare. Our political parties are no longer aligned with our populations political beliefs, and thus the apparatus we have for running our democracies is out of step with the wishes of large swathes of public opinion. There is an increasing loss of connection between the electorate and the politicians, and it is likely populists from either the right or the left that will try and bridge this gap, and we should be surprised when we find that this continues to happen. The negative consequences of globalisation, and there ae many, have given a new fire to the ideas of nationhood and the importance of the nation state.
This book helps the reader understand this important strand of political thought and helps them correct some of the errors they may hold. It is a very valuable read in our continuing volatile political climate.
British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May, is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.
We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties. In 1981, four senior labour MP’s (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.
I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?
It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.
They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-
The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.
and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-
We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.
Socially and personally they avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-
We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.
We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.
On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation, but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-
The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.
There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.
Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.
Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier, is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.
Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.
It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.
There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other; to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed. At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.
Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007, suggested :-
“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”
This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful”
Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.
If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.
I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.
He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.
I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them, the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.
So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.
This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century that it has been capitalism, not socialism, which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.
It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do. However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).
Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more. In his bookSapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.
It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”. Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.
This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires. Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion plumbs its nadir.
Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoy said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”
I am not really sure why I bought this book. Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.
But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).
When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.
The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left” (See Nick Cohen, Dave Rubin, and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.
All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.
I never thought it would happen. I almost thought it was impossible. But, I have found the situation when the film was better than the book, and not by a small margin : Dr Zhivagio the film is much better than the book. Dr Zhivago is a classic of the film-makers art, the book, on the otherhand, is an overlong and maudlin saga.
I remember well when I saw David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago” as it made an immediate impact on me. The photography was spectacular, there was an epic tale of revolution and chaos, upon which was played a moving love story. The whole thing was bound together by the magical music particularly “Lara’s Theme“, by Maurice Jarre, the leitmotif that glued everything together. Even today I only have to hear a few bars of this, or the opening of “Somewhere my Love“, to be instantly back remembering this film. Although I enjoyed and regarded the film highly it was initially a difficult film for me.
When I first saw the film I was a youth, a teenager, and a firebrand for the left. I found it difficult that a film as powerful as this was not a paean to the great communist revolution, but rather a shocking indictment of the treatment of the individual at the hands of the state. Being obstinate and foolish, as a lad, I omitted to read the book as I had the habit then of only tending to read what confirmed the prejudices I already cultured. I was therefore delighted when our bookclub decided to do Dr Zhivago, it gave me the chance to rectify a wrong and I would read Dr Zhivago, the book.
I knew the history of the book, I knew it had won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, and I knew that it was an important text in revealing the problems of totalitarianism. I had mentally filled it alongside George Orwell’s “1984” and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch“, both of which I had re-read recently and found excellent. It was therefore with expectant optimism that I started “Dr Zhivago”.
The first couple of days were fine, but as time passed my spirits sagged and my reading slowed to a barely perceptible crawl. I found the text dense and difficult, there was far too much detail which failed to add to setting scenes or developing characters or relationships. The frequent use of multiple, different names for characters was occasionally confusing. The story was rather jumbled in its chronography and relied heavily on coincidences for plot development, many of which were very contrived. None of this was helped by the poorly drawn characters who failed to engage with me. In particular, our hero, Yuri Zhivago, is rather dislikable; arrogant, self-opinionated, a philanderer and user of women. He is a poor example of the individual in a book promoting the Tolsoyian ideals of the individual.
I have to confess that I could not continue reading after a third of the way through and I cheated. I switched to Audible and had Philip Madoc read the remaining two thirds of the book to me as I walked the dog, fleshed the sheepskins, or cooked the meals (It’s 18 and a half hours long on audible). But this was the only way I could have completed my task. I found it difficult to see why the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature as I agree with Vladimir Nabokov who found it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic” and presume it won for its political impact rather then its literary merit. All in all a great disappointment but did reveal that my earlier prejudice that the book is always greater than the film was wrong.
P.S. Since then I have started to reconsider whether Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” is better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret“, this is a tight contest.
We try to go to our local cinema in the town on a fairly regular basis as we wish to give it our support. Like many small communities we are loosing many of our services as they are concentrated in the cities and larger towns where the economies of scale make them viable. So we go regularly, not because we are film buffs (though we do enjoy cinema), but to try and keep up the audience numbers. It will be another thing certain to disappear in the near future.
The car and personal transport led to the decline of public transport systems; the railway has long gone and the bus services are very rudimentary. Shopping malls and internet shopping have decimated the local towns shops. Internet banking is now taking the banks and building societies away from the small towns and, at the moment, plasma televisions, film streaming and on-demand viewing are banging the last nails of the coffin of our local cinema.
Therefore on a cold Friday night in January we joined the six others who made up the audience to see the latest film on offer. Including the two staff on the evening the number of people just, and only just, made it into double figures ! The cinema itself is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the screen is large, the sound is state of the art and the prices are reasonable. The film we saw was also very good, but I fear our hopes of saving our cinema are rather forlorn.
The film was saw was The Death of Stalinby Armando Iannucci. This is a comedy and political satire based on the events surrounding the death of Stalin and the consequent scramble for power after his demise. The script is historically accurate and the tensions and power-plays of the time are used to good comedic effect. In the early part of the film the difficulties of knowing Stalin are well shown, how do you live with a paranoid psychopath who has total power ? The feelings of tension and fear that this would engender are skilfully drawn. The acting is first class and it was a wise move to forgo using Russian accents as it left a natural feel to the performances and allowed some excellent comedy turns (especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov). It was a pity there were only eight of us in the auditorium to enjoy it.
However, after the film I noticed I had a nagging doubt. There had been nothing amiss with the acting, direction or production and, as I said above, the script was extremely funny. The anxieties of some of the characters was revealed but there was a huge gaping hole in the story. The experience of Soviet citizens living through this nightmare. Although there were scenes which alluded to the terror, these were slight and almost dismissed at times. The assassinations, the firing squads, the tortures, the secret police, the destruction of families, the corruption and the sexual abuse were there but only on the edge of the frame.
While recognising that this was a comedy I can see why many would say that there is no need to spend time on the horrors of totalitarianism. But would we have made a film of this nature about the difficulties of power battles in the Nazi high command ? Would we have had a comedy character for Mengele ? Lavrentiy Beria was at least Mengele’s equal. Stalin introduced him as “our Himmler“, at the Yalta Conference, and he would not allow his daughter to be alone with this known sadist, rapist and mass murderer. This man was the head of the dreaded NKVD which organized the terror which engulfed Russia and he was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing which followed after the Second World War. Is this really a suitable subject for a skit?
It is surprising that we have quite clear double standards when we look back at the atrocities in our recent past. We have no difficulty in condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany but seem to have a blind spot when we remember the horrors which arise from the left field : the horror of the Gulags, the horror of the cultural revolution in China, or the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia. The totalitarianism of the left has not been kinder than that of the right nor has it been less industrious. They are equally responsible for mass murder and abuse. The House of Terror, established in 2002 by Maria Schmidt in Hungary reminds us of this fact lest we forget. So, although I concur that this is a well-made and successful satire, I was left feeling uncomfortable as I am not entirely convinced that life under Stalin was a laughing matter.
I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.
Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.
Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.
The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-
The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.
and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged. Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.