Friday, 21 August 2020

The Love of Leon Trotsky


Eighty years ago today, Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, better known as the Communist revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, died in a hospital in Mexico City from fatal head wounds sustained the day before when a Stalinist agent, Ramon Mercader, attacked him in his study with an ice pick. Trotsky's guards had almost beaten his assailant to death, but while still conscious, he ordered them to stop and after a spell in jail Mercader was to end up spending many years in idle retirement in Cuba at the expense of the USSR.

It was the end of an eventful life. Born to relatively affluent farming parents in the southern Ukrainian Jewish community, Trotsky grew up observing the gross inequalities and violence of Imperial Russia. He became interested in the radical socialist ideas sweeping Russia at the time at university and quickly got into trouble with the Czarist authorities. He was jailed and exiled twice to Siberia, escaping both times and adopting the name of one of his jailers firstly to aid his flight and later to be his revolutionary codename (just as Vladimir Ulyanov became Lenin).

In 1901, anticipating the century ahead from his readings of Marx and Engels, he foresaw better times and devoted himself to struggle for them:

As long as I breathe I hope. As long as I breathe I shall fight for the future, that radiant future, in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizons of beauty, joy and happiness!

Trotsky's odyssey took him from the Russian forests to Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium, France,  and the USA in pre-revolutionary exile. He first returned to Russia in 1905 where at the age of just 26 he latterly headed the first St Petersburg Soviet (revolutionary council) during the revolutionary insurrections that nearly toppled the Czar that year. Previously a member of the Russian Social Democrats, a Marxist party, he had stepped back following the split in 1903 between the Bolsheviks under Lenin, who pushed for a highly centralised party to prepare to act as a revolutionary vanguard, and the Menshevik wing headed by Martov, which argued for a more decentralised organisational structure and a more gradualist approach to change. 

For all that Trotsky was committed to socialist revolution, he was at least initially one of the more pragmatic members of the movement, working to reconcile the two wings and maintaining a degree of independence almost right up to the Communist October revolution. He joined the Bolsheviks in spring 1917 when the Russian Empire had collapsed and the liberal regime that had replaced it was veering between repression and chaos. With a reactionary coup narrowly defeated by armed workers, Trotsky headed the Military Revolutionary Committee that co-ordinated the seizure of the Winter Palace and dissolution of the Provisional Government of Kerensky (a bombastic character, much misrepresented in the West in subsequent decades as some tragic democrat as opposed to a would-be Bonapartist dictator-in-waiting).

In the subsequent Russian Civil War, when a range of foreign powers and domestic opponents sought to overthrow the Soviet government, Trotsky was instrumental in creating the Red Army and as Commissar for War directing much of its ultimately successful strategy, fighting a four-front struggle. Traversing Russia in an armed train numerous times, unlike most other leaders on all sides he frequently risked his personal safety to direct and encourage the frontline troops.  

Trotsky speaks on top of his armed train

Once it was over, he initially sought to return to his first love - writing on political theory and practice and history, including producing a four volume history of the revolution - but was persuaded to stay on in government by Lenin. With the country in ruins, Trotsky maintained a militarised approach to reconstruction and while the new socialist regime struggled for some time, his hard tactics began to work and industrial production began to rise again. He worked with Lenin to both nationalise and revitalise the economy, including backing the controversial New Economic Policy which briefly reintroduced small scale market economics while not veering from the aims of a socialised society.

Perhaps though one of the biggest tragedies of both the Revolution and in some ways the whole 20th century was that, following an attempted assassination attempt in 1919, Lenin became chronically and progressively ill, dying in 1924 - possibly hurried along during a visit from Stalin, his ultimate successor and an avowed opponent of Trotsky. 

Stalin had started out as a sort of Bolshevik enforcer - he organised gangs of agitators and fundraised for the Party by carrying out bank robberies (NB - this was one of the few criminal activities Lenin sanctioned). He had always been in the background, almost invisibly so during the revolutions of 1917 but by 1923 had risen to be General Secretary of the Communist Party, a key role overseeing how it ran. 

In the ensuing struggle for power within the party, Trotsky was repeatedly outmanoevred by the rising Georgian sociopath, first being expelled from the Communist Party along with several prominent supporters, then sent on internal exile to Central Asia and finally deported with his wife Natalia Sedova to Turkey in 1929.

In his final, prolonged exile, Trotsky first set up in Prinkipio, an island in the Sea of Marmora just off Istanbul, before subsequently having to move on to France, Norway and then to Mexico as government after government either objected to or feared his activities in the ferment that was 1930s Europe. He worked with relatively small groups of international revolutionaries to develop a counterforce within communism to the increasingly totalitarian Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. 

This he devastatingly critiqued in his work Revolution Betrayed, a searing indictment of the bureaucratization of the country, which he had repeatedly warned about in the earliest days of the revolution. A new class had arisen - one of administrators and managers, serving themselves rather than the People, and accountable only to itself. The democratic promise of the early Soviet days had all but evaporated and while he conceded that there were material gains for many ordinary people, these were both impeded and stolen by the new Masters.

Trotsky initially sought to avoid any split in the Communist movement. His stated aim was to restore workers' democracy rather than divide the party, but after Stalin ordered the German Communists to decline any Popular Front with the Social Democrats against the rise of the Nazis, in 1933 he agreed to create a new socialist movement, the Fourth International. This sought to promote a different path to a genuinely communist state, one where power was more firmly in the hands of the masses - though Trotsky's approach remained decidedly centralised, a conundrum in his thinking he never resolved. In any case, the Soviet system as it had evolved to be was to be dismantled and forged again. 

In addition, while Stalin had reconciled with capitalist states, Trotsky argued that Communists should forever press for global revolution - given the state of the world, full revolution in one country was not possible; however challenging, permanent revolution had to be the objective of all communists until world revolution was achieved.

Brooking no opposition, Stalin consolidated his position as supreme authority within the Party and state in the early to mid-thirties before unleashing his Great Terror against his remaining opponents, real and imagined, in the purges of 1937. By the end of the year, virtually all the original revolutionary leaders had been eliminated within the USSR and, condemned in absentia,  Trotsky was to be no exception. Spending his final days in a well-fortified house, Avenida Viena on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, he seems to have sensed his coming end, either from high blood pressure or at the hands of an assassin and while he resisted Mercader, in his reported final words, he seems to have been unsurprised by his pending demise at the behest of his one-time rival.

Volumes have been filled about Trotsky, a good number of them eloquently and passionately by the man himself - Trotsky's writings are rarely not an enthusiastically good read. Yet in spite of this, in many ways he remains one of the most enigmatic characters in revolutionay history. Loved and loathed by socialists of different hues, a genius to some while demonised, literally, by others, his stamp on one of the seminal events of modern history is unquestionable. While communists will argue that historical forces brought about the 1917 revolutions, as Trotsky himself wrote, while such forces are supra-personal, they nevertheless operate through people. 

Trotsky, Lenin and Kamenev in 1918
Without Trostky, Lenin would not have carried the Politburo in favour of the October revolution. Without Trotsky, the Red Army would potentially not have even been created let alone have won the civil war. Without Trotsky, the Soviet Union would have died in its cradle.

Here of course is where everything else moves to the what ifs of alternate history. What if Lenin had lived? What if Trotsky's struggle against Stalin had had a different outcome? What if the Soviet Union had developed along the more proletarian, democratic path he advocated? After the years of War Communism and central direction, how different from the totalitarian Stalinist state or the later Brezhnevite bureaucracy might the Soviet Union have ended up being, or not?

Trotsky, like any human, was of course full of contradictions. He fulminated against Stalin's banning of his Left Opposition faction within the party, but had previously supported Lenin in banning the Workers' Opposition and other factions opposing their strand of thinking. He denounced Stalinist totalitarianism, but had successfully opposed Lenin, a relatively unusual stance, in banning independent trade unions, arguing that such things were no longer necessary in a workers' state.

His own opponents often claim he butchered thousands of people in the civil war, in putting down the Kronstadt rebellion and in suppressing opposition parties in the early 1920s. Yet all this needs some context.

The civil war was a bloody affair. That is the nature of civil wars. All norms of behaviour are destroyed. Distrust rules and outcomes are rarely gentle. The Russian civil war began when Social Revolutionaries, Kadets and other so-called liberal parties decamped from Moscow and Petrograd to Samara in central Russia and set up the Komuch, a rival government, in June 1918. Co-operating with hardline White Russian Czarist generals and soldiers, as well as the Czech Legion, they launched a violent attack on the Soviets, with the avowed aim of liquidating the Bolsheviks who were then ruling in coalition with a faction of Left Social Revolutionaries. 

Over the following three years, the Komuch largely ate itself - the rival liberal and socialist parties turned violently on each other and then, sponsored by the British Empire, the White "People's Army" turned on them and installed Admiral Kolchak as effective dictator. To portray their bloodthirsty campaigns and pogroms, armed and aided by a range of foreign states including the UK, France, the USA and Japan, as some sort of crusade for democracy and freedom is at best misplaced.

It is true that in reaction to the Komuch, the Bolsheviks suppressed, though did not initially ban, the remnants of these parties in their areas and after the Left SRs attempted to assassinate Lenin and carry out a coup d'etat in late 1918, the Soviet Government ruthlessly carried out a wave of often extra-judicial arrests, torture and executions. Even so, this should still be viewed as a response to the nature of the threat they faced, as was the continuation of oppression in the immediate period after the civil war ended. 

Russia was grossly under-developed compared to most of the rest of Europe - it was the last place that Marxists had anticipated a socialist revolution. Initially favourable developments elsewhere in Europe, with Germany in revolution in late 1918 and early 1919, Hungary briefly declared a Soviet Republic, Italy going through a range of Red Uprisings and Leftist movements growing in France and Britain, gave hope for international revolution to follow the Soviet example. However, one by one these were suppressed and snuffed out, often with great violence, but the ruling class's hostility towards the New Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was undiminished. 

With virtually the entire world ranged against the nascent workers' state and more than willing to use everything from economic embargoes to military intervention to overthrow it, the conditions sadly did not lend themselves to generosity towards rivals with murderous intent. 

And yet, in the USSR, women gained marital equality and the right to divorce; it became the first country in the world to legalise homosexuality; the land was collectivised and the economy was taken into state hands. Ultimately, albeit not entirely by the means Trotsky himself advocated, in less than a generation and in spite of the worst war in history and the appalling carnage of the Stalin regime, the Soviets achieved free education for all, built houses for tens of millions, provided free healthcare and were the first country into outer space. Under communism, a peasant state had become a superpower in barely three decades.

Trotsky devoted his life to change: that he miscalculated on occasions, sometimes on a grand scale, does not diminish either his effort or achivements. He was flawed - even allies like Max Eastman, an American supporter, reported that while he observed every protocol of politeness and seemed to have little vanity, his global view of everything made him a detached, in some ways cold character often quite incapable of the diplomacy and sociability required of a successful politician. Typical of his bearing is the story that when Stalin attempted to make a joke to him about a relationship Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent female Bolshevik, was rumoured to be having, Trotsky angrily rebuked him and never spoke to him again in any personal way.

Lenin with Stalin

Yet with his sociopathic charm and crude bonhomie, Stalin was able to build coalitions that literally overwhelmed Trotsky and his earnest comrades in the Left Opposition. 

And while his earlier exiles in Czarist Russia had been times of rising intrigue, his final exile in the 1930s was marked by years of impotent frustration, ranting to his small coterie of followers and staff. While damning Stalin for the rise of Hitler and his unwillingness to compromise with the German SPD, Trotsky was equally to be found blocking and condemning any co-operation between his own Fourth Internationalists and groups like the Spanish POUM, a temporarily highly successful anarcho-syndicalist force in the Spanish civil war.  A reading of his deteriorating and increasingly irate correspondance with his fellow exile, the writer Victor Serge, is a striking example of how banishment did nothing to soften Trotsky and how his intransigence frequently isolated those who, somehow, continued to respect him from afar.

Trostky's son, Lev Sedov, commented that "I think that all Dad's deficiencies have not diminished as he has grown older, but under the influence of his isolation, very difficult, unprecedentedly difficult, got worse. His lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy have increased. It is not personal, it is a method and hardly good in organisation of work."

It is something much ruminated on - the revolutionary who loves The People, but not people. To Eastman, Trotsky saw the masses but not the personal; all was great forces in action with little regard for individuals who were the parts that made up the sum. And so he was allegedly capable of summarily ordering a roomful of revolutionary officers to be taken outside and shot in the belief that they had failed to carry out their tasks well enough, while at the same time issuing proclamations urging revolutionary soldiers to show mercy to any White combatants who surrendered so that they could be won over to the cause.

Yet while some revolutionaries like Gramsci wondered if having never experienced personal love diminished their capacity as a revolutionary, Trotsky was certainly capable of personal love. Contrary to appalling biographies that try to portray him as an unfeeling psychopath, he cared deeply for his children and risked his life to protect his grandson during one attempted assassination. His brief but passionate love affair with Frieda Kahlo aside, he was devoted to his wife Natalia (whom he also referred to as Natasha) for decades and one of his last pieces of writing offer up a moving tribute to her and what she meant to him, as well as his hopes for a future he by then knew he would not see. It is as beautiful a paean to a revolutionary life as could be penned and in itself is perhaps the best testament to the contradiction of love and zeal, of pragmatism and ideology that was Leon Trotsky:

I thank warmly the friends who remained loyal to me through the most difficult hours of my life. I do not name anyone in particular because I cannot name them all. However, I consider myself justified in making an exception in the case of my companion, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova.

In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being her husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness. 

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. 

Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Mexican exile: Natalia Sedova and Lev Davidovitch

Monday, 17 August 2020

Dear Other White People

Dear Other White People

If the covid crisis is unprecedented, the last few weeks has seen Britain reach even deeper depths of the surreal as again and again race issues we liked to imagine existed only in the USA come more and more frequently to the fore here too. Whether it is someone abusing people from black or other minority ethnic background on a train or bus, or police stopping a car with black occupants (one of whom turned out in a recent incident not to be a burglar but a Member of Parliament), or the rise of openly racist groups like the Patriotic Alternative (even the BNP at least pretended not to be racist), our society stands as exposed as any other as saturated in bigotry and prejudice. As much as anywhere else, our society can hear the rants and witness the acts committed against those whose skin colour or clothes or other characteristics suggest they are not directly descended from the white Caucasians our history traditionally claims “native” British people are descended from.

Following the casting of the statue of 18th century slaveowner Edward Colston into the waters off Bristol harbour, at the entrance to the ocean over which he transported 100,000 black Africans to work as slaves in the British colonies, a wide range of white voices, sadly including even the new Labour Party leader, condemned the act by a crowd of people of different races. They had marched through the streets of a city whose wealth is founded on the slave trade, all united in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter particularly in the wake of the appalling murder in the USA of a black man George Floyd by a white policeman, who slowly strangled him in public over nine long, agonising minutes. A couple of weeks ago, extraordinarily, video footage showed a British cop trying the exact same thing on a black suspect.

Fascist taking the piss on a police memorial

In June and July, tens of thousands of all race backgrounds took part in BLM demonstrations in hundreds of cities and towns around the UK, but the wave of protest was largely negated. The mass media pondered on the possibility of a surge in covid (which never happened) as a result of the protests, in spite of them being generally well-arranged and socially distanced. Where there were crowds, they were far more often the rightwing Football Boys or remnants of the EDL or Britain First who trooped out in varying but smaller numbers tanked up with bile and beer to shout abuse at the BLM marchers in between literally pissing on the streets of London on behalf of the pot-bellied Master Race.

Yet somehow the narrative shifted. Spray paint on Churchill’s statue in London one weekend led to the monument being boarded up the following weekend and in a well-tried rightwing tactic several tabloids associated a call by a small anarchist group to remove it because of his well-known racist views (he was particularly hostile towards Indians and as well as denigrating their vital contribution to the war, stood by disinterestedly as three million Bengalis died of famine in 1943 as food was diverted to feed the British army) as being a demand of the wider BLM movement. Faux horror and shock erupted over an almost entirely false story and before long PM Boris Johnson first obliquely encouraged had right violence supposedly in defence of the statues and then proclaimed that he would not “take the knee”, the symbolic act of BLM.

So now the prevailing argument runs that we need to concentrate on the Now; the statues are either irrelevant or, apparently, key symbols of our history and to remove them would pose a great threat to our identity as Britons – presumably white ones. And as for now, well, we need to focus on stopping an "invasion" of would-be migrants, many fleeing wars started by or supplied by the UK, from crossing the Channel. The far right Britain First group is lauded by the gutter press for launching a patrol boat to deter the desparate people making dangerous attempts to enter a country where they perhaps mistakenly believe they will find safety. As the Home Secretary bravely talks about deploying the armed services against these wretched refugees, many families with small children, we seem to go into some sort of xenophobic fit.

But of course, it's not to do with race. It's just about protecting ourselves... After all, with four Asian or Black Ministers sitting at the Cabinet table in major offices of state, how could Britain be anything but a multicultural paradise, blind to prejudice? With a few black and brown faces on TV and even in parliament, we may argue Britain has changed.

Except it hasn’t. We still live in a racist state.
We sing Rule Britannia on live TV at the BBC Proms each year and create the mythical narrative of our ancestors bravely shouldering "the white man’s burden" of civilising the savages.

Yet we were, and we are, the savages.

For as we sing "Britons never, never shall be slaves", we conveniently forget - we were slavers. Our Empire, its wealth and the legacy we still benefit from, were in truth the black peoples’ burden as, along with Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Danish slavers, Britain ripped nearly 13 million black people from their homelands, communities and families and transported 10 million to the Americas (3 million people - dead, dying or insubordinate - were put overboard en route and lie at the bottom of the Atlantic) to labour in a range of plantations, whipped, raped, abused and worked to their deaths. And back in Africa, our great heroes like Stanley machine-gunned thousands of Congolese and torched hundreds of villages in search of the saintly Dr Livingstone as he acquired swathes of Africa for the Empire.

Black African or Caribbean people are 4% of our population, but 40% of those in poverty. People of South Asian origin are castigated as terrorists or grooming gang members, while people who look like they may have antecedents in China 
are accused of causing covid sickness. All are more likely to be unemployed, unwell, physically attacked - or worse.

Just this last week, the Metropolitan Police closed the case of Stephen Lawrence, the young black man murdered by passing white racists while he waited for a bus back in 1993, on the grounds that they do not believe they will ever prosecute all those involved in his death - only two members of a much larger gang who stabbed him to death have been jailed and even that took 18 years to achieve. While the appalling handling of his case eventually led to a finding of the Met being institutionally racist and some attempts at reform being carried out, for Stephen and his family, justice remains as elusive as ever.

Stephen Lawrence - murdered by racists in 1993

And this is where we have to look at ourselves if we are white. We may consider ourselves to not be racist. We may have black or Asian friends, maybe we’ve been to a Hindu temple or Muslim mosque or a Sikh wedding, enjoyed a culture night here and there. Like a good curry...

In truth we seem to be actually quite an insecure lot. Perhaps our assumption of superiority, whether manifesting as smug benevolence or hostile aggression, stems from knowing our greatness exploded from the barrels of guns and that our Empire was no different to any other. Brutal, exploitative and racist.

And like anyone raised in an environment where brutality towards others is seen as a norm, we need to spend some time in questioning our own assumptions, beliefs, feelings. We may not think we are like our great-grandparents, but their blood courses in our veins and their ideas endure in our heads and outlooks, just as their loot lies deep in the founds of our country.

And we need to ask ourselves, who are we really?

Reams have been written about the ongoing racism that leaves black and Asian people in the UK facing discrimination, harassment, intimidation and even physical violence – deaths are mercifully fewer than in the USA, but that is probably more on account of our lacking a full-on “gun culture” than any greater racial harmony - and firearms deployed by the police feature often enough in the deaths of black people identified as potential or actual menaces purely because of their skin and the stereotypes around these of “looking suspicious”.

And this is far from confined to neofascists on the far right, like the rotund characters “defending” Churchill’s statue in London with alleged Nazi-style salutes and bottles chucked at police horses while chanting “We are racists and we like it.” Nor is it just the constable in Cambridge whose video from 2015 shot to viral infamy as he explained to a motorist that he was indeed stopping him because, “no offence mate, but you’re black.”

This prejudice soaks our culture – from a presenter on Sky News asking a black colleague why she stays in Britain (her home country) when she has so many criticisms to make of its racism to the every day assumptions that ultimately leave people of colour substantially more likely to be sick and dead from covid than their white counterparts.

Many years ago, Mohammed Ali memorably asked Why is everything white?” in an amusing but telling interview on the BBC Parkinson show. Nearly half a century on, there seems to have been little progress or, if there was, it has now been substantially reversed by several decades of a political culture that has used “immigrants” and “refugees” (spit the words out!) as scapegoats for the much harsher, individualistic country we have become.

And for these words, read “black people” – for as the Brexit debate crystallised (but did not originate) the hate, the xenophobia that has become ever more blatantly evident has not primarily been concerned about incomers as a whole nearly as much as it has played to deeper white prejudice against black people, whether migrants or British born. “Go home to Africa!”, accompanied by puerile monkey-noises, has been an oft-heard taunt of the counter-demonstrators at more than one Black Lives Matter event in recent weeks.

Yet while many, even the majority, of white British people will insist they are not racist and may ourselves find the poisonous outpourings of Britain First and the Football Lads Alliance (never mind our Prime Minister’s encouragement of them) deeply offensive, there is another side to prejudice against black people we all too often shy away from; and that is white privilege.

The mere mention of White Privilege of course often meets with howls of protest from white people. Where is the privilege of a white homeless man compared to the wealth of someone like Chancellor Rishi Sunak? What about a single parent Mum on a predominantly white council estate rubbing by on social security compared to Priti Patel or Kwasi Karteng, both senior government ministers or a slew of prominent black people on the media, in sport or business? How can there possibly be such a thing as white privilege?

Well, let’s look at what White Privilege is and what it is not.

I recall just once, a single time ever, being treated in what could be viewed as a racist way when another white man attributed to me "Scottish narrow-mindedness" because I disagreed with him on something at work. Taken aback, I remember asking him what he meant and it became obvious this was his long held view not just of me, but of all Scottish people, whoever we were. In effect, he was shutting down my voice not because of anything I had done or could do – but because of where I was born, who he perceived me to be.

One, single time. It had no particular consequences for me. My other colleagues didn’t share his prejudice nor his view on the matter in hand and I suffered no detriment other than brief frustration at not being listened to.

But I have often wondered since - what if that happened to me every day, several times? What if it had been going on since I was born? What if it was accompanied by insults and anger even from random strangers? What if it was accompanied by threats and actual violence? What if people stared at me suspiciously on trains or equated me to an animal or a pet "as a joke"?

What if they sprayed that I wasn’t welcome on the door of my home? Or shoved shit or poured petrol through the letterbox? What if my achievements were either denigrated as having to be down to cheating or special treatment or even bizarrely praised as exceptional for "someone like you"?

And what if people who shared my nationality were many times more likely to be out of work or low paid or in substandard housing or sick or killed, maybe because everyone else thought like my former colleague that there was something inherent in us that meant we didn’t even deserve to be heard? And what if I complained or even just politely asked for better, I was asked who I thought I was or why was I "playing the race card"? How would I feel, day in, day out?

Yet that is precisely how it is for black and Asian people in the UK. Even those who may enjoy other types of privilege as males or being from a wealthy background. Still they have and continue to face denigration of one sort of another not because of what they think, say or do, but simply because of the colour of their skin, or their faith or accent.

A black woman posted a video on Facebook today of a white man screaming abuse at her and other black people on the London Underground simply for being black. The sheer hatred exuding from the man towards people he had never met before is terrifying, but perhaps the saddest part of all was in the words she posted on the video: "Being black in the UK is tiring."

So my white privilege is that I don’t face these things, at least not for being white. It is the advantage of not being treated with derision or suspicion, of not having to do something twice to prove you're not cheating, or not having negative assumptions laid upon and hostile treatment visited on you - simply because of your race or the colour of your skin.

Here comes the Master Race!

 Yes, we can all have tough times. And no one is saying all white people have it easy - in our world, relatively few people do. There is much that needs to change for all of us, which is why I am a socialist. 

But if you are white, then yes we have the privilege in our racist society, with its "hostile environment" and a government - elected by us - headed up by a man whose lazy, drooling lips ooze racial insults and calls his Orcs onto the streets to spit their venom and piss their prejudice over the pavements of our capital city.

If we are white, we have the privilege of being born into, growing up and living in a country founded on the spoils of Empire, the loot from scores of other countries around the world and the impressed labour of countless millions of black, Asian, Chinese and other peoples. Yet even last month at the height of the BLM demonstrations, an opinion poll showed that the overwhelming majority of white British people are actively “proud” of our Imperial past and suddenly keen to preserve the statues of slavers and colonialists they hitherto probably barely even noticed as they passed by. Removing these things would allegedly “erase our history” even although oddly enough I have no recollection of learning history by looking at statues usually randomly erected to praise the wealth of dead men.

We are of course far from alone in not confronting our past. Few nations ever do - so perhaps we could lead the world for once in acknowledging the tragedies of our history.

Acknowledging our white privilege is not about blaming ourselves for the deeds of our ancestors, but it is about acknowledging, understanding and making some sort of reparation for the impact of the past on today. Just as no family exists independently of its preceding generations, nor does any nation. You may not realise it but if you were a UK taxpayer, then as late as 2015 you were still paying for the huge compensation payments made to slave owners by the British government when slavery was finally ended in the 1830s. But for white Britons, at the same time as paying the taxes, we gained all the benefits of the wealth of Empire and the economic advantages founded on that and which continue through to today either via the legacy of past Dominion or by the economic imperialism of today.

And if you want to truly know our white history, and your own, it is worth reflecting that if you know of a black person who shares your surname, you almost certainly do so because at some time some of your ancestors owned their ancestors – slave owners were not just a rich elite: a bit like property timeshares today, tens of thousands of ordinary British people “invested” in slaves they never met or saw, but whose labour or rental paid dividends to them. You can track back at the National Archives online. More than any statue of a slaver, a black person with your surname is a living testimony to our true history of violence, murder, indenture and rape.

In contrast, the "freed" black slaves received not a penny in compensation and indeed initially remained in a similar legal condition as "apprenticed freemen". Even when this was done away with, overwhelmingly they remained mired in poverty and scrapping by on the subsistence wages paid by their former owners – and those who later came here on the Windrush and subsequently, who worked in the jobs white people wouldn’t do and who have played a huge part in keeping the NHS going, they have also paid via their taxes towards the debts on the slave-owners’ compensation. In effect even in the 21st century black Britons have been having to buy their own freedom.

And just as our white advantages have endured, so have so many of black people’s disadvantages. That is how capitalism functions - generation by generation generally it locks in the benefits and barriers, and all the more so if accompanied by racism and violence.

So only by understanding our history and economic system better do we make any sense of today and of ourselves and our attitudes. We cannot on the one hand want to commemorate the myths of our allegedly glorious past while denying the impact of the horrific things done by our ancestors. And while we urgently need to tackle our institutions and social norms, we also have to check ourselves – no amount of race awareness training, positive action programmes or diversity monitoring will make an ace of a difference if we don’t look at how we ourselves behave, consciously and unconsciously too. How colour blind are we truly? And indeed, should we be, for by setting race aside, are we truly seeking equality or is it as much a means of denying the reality for BAME people of the prejudices past and present in limiting life chances and even in some cases life itself?

Psychology shows that humans are a social creature. We thrive on one another and our inherent nature is compassionate and co-operative, not the competitive, conflict-driven creature we are repeatedly told we are. Yet just as we are at core collegiate, the inevitable limits of the number of people we can personally know and the division of our world into nations, races and classes – all, ultimately at some level fictions we choose to believe in – we can too easily be drawn into a sense of Us, our community, our family, our friends, and the Other: those who do not look like Us, who maybe wear different clothes, have different accents, traditions, skin tone. And if we don’t like anything, it seems uncertainty and the unknown hold much fear for many humans.

So here, too often, some sow the seeds of division, turning the joy of difference into a threat: a demand for equality somehow a call for domination. Nearly always it is driven by ignorance rather than hostility, but the one can easily morph into the other and it is certainly experienced by its victims as hostile. Racism has been fostered by decades of rumours and lies spread by small groups of organised xenophobes and fascists, egged on at a supposedly respectable distance by the mass media and many mainstream politicians. So in the 70s we saw Thatcher steal the National Front’s clothes to crack down on immigration, in the 2000s Gordon Brown sought to tackle the rise of the BNP by wittering about British jobs for British workers and of course the allegedly liberal Cameron fostered the hostile environment to ape UKIP as it grew at his party’s expense.

Ignorance will never be defeated by softly legitimising it with a dob of “reasonable racism”. It can only be tackled by calling it out when you see it. Silence doesn’t just mean consent – it positively manufactures it. It creates cultures where many who are profoundly uncomfortable with what is going on around them will nevertheless comply because the silence of others makes them feel they are alone and resistance is futile. Watch the closing scene of “Butterfly’s Tongue”, a film about the relationship between a little Spanish boy and his elderly schoolteacher during the civil war, and you will see how easily it happens.

Yet the striking thing when you do challenge racism is not how entrenched it is, but how paper-thin much of the anger can be. Ignorance stems often from its own pot of despair, fed and fuelled by genuine grievances but with a misplaced target. One of the most striking moments for me when I was canvassing and encountered three people sitting on a garden wall who said they were voting for the hard right BNP. I have known some on the Left whose response would be to angrily denounce them as racists and even refuse to speak with them – yet that would do nothing. Calling out racism isn’t necessarily about shouting at it.

Instead, talk with them. If they utter racial slurs or threats, ask them why they have chosen to do or say what they do. Ask them to think how they would feel if someone did that to their mother or father. If they think white Britain has supposedly “superior values”, ask them where bigotry sits among them, and why. Above all, listen – as I did with my three whose main concerns were about the local GP surgery and buses to town. They had been told both were much better in Asian areas, which some in the local media had made out were subsidised because Asian people lived there. In truth, most of the local Asian and white areas were mired in much the same poverty and poor services, something they seemed to take on board during our discussion – by the end of which they at least promised to vote differently. It is from finding common issues - not difficult in our grossly unequal society - that bridges can be built and barriers broken down, and the very real problems faced by people of all races can begin to be genuinely tackled.

Listening though is not agreeing. It is about understanding in order to effect change: never become complicit. Challenge prejudiced decisions at work or in the community. Speak out when someone makes a racist statement with the implication that, as another white person, you must feel the same way. Don’t go along with a bigoted joke – though rather than denouncing the teller, ask them why it is funny, ask them why they thought you would find it amusing and how they would feel about a joke like that told about them. Most people are good-natured enough that if you peel back the edifice of division created by all manner of extrinsic factors, they do not see the Other, but rather recognise another human being. (Alongside this though, we might exclude the fascist leaders and organisers - some will not be won over, and it is important to recognise this too and never, ever compromise with their vile ideologies.)

All lives matter, yes, but it’s black lives that are being taken. Understand that the call for equality is just that, nothing more – though be prepared for those who will see it as a threat to their status and authority even.

If you are a white person, like me, we can help make a difference even by just making clear to other white people that we don’t share their views, and that their assumption we do is offensive to us. If they play the old card that the problem isn’t with black or brown skinned people but that they want that nonsense they call integration rather than multiculturalism, ask them what they mean – every single one of us is different. I may share the same skin tone as you, but our tastes, our likes and dislikes, the things that make us who we are could be wildly different, while if they bothered to talk to someone from a different ethnic background, they could be very surprised at how much they have in common. There are many injustices and wrongs in this world - why add to them by being racist? Or by accepting racism as somehow being inevitable?

Listen to black and other ethnic minority friends, colleagues, neighbours and others, but equally don’t assume that they will want to tell you their personal experiences. You don’t need to have a child abuse survivor recount their abuse to know it is wrong and act against it. Similarly with racism. If someone feels able and wishes to tell you their story, fine, be honoured that they wish to share it with you, but don’t expect it or require it. Just be an ally - be a comrade. 

And as one black American writer has pleaded, as black people are often raised with the mantra that they need to be twice as good (as white people) to fit into society, if it is going to be like that, please can white people be twice as kind - twice as thoughtful about what our neighbours of colour may be going through encountering things we simply don't. Our white ancestors created this awful problem - but we can sort it, or begin to, not by beating ourselves up about the past (though equally not blindly celebrating it either), but by embracing our neighbours with different skin tones and cultures, by learning about them and looking for the things that bind us together.

Racism damages lives, destroys them even, cuts them short – and it is the accumulation of the often small acts in themselves that build up to legitimise the harm. Hitler’s concentration camps did not just spring into their awful existence overnight – years of gradually insulting and slowly dehumanising Romanies, Jews and others normalised the hatred, so much so that many camp guards actually believed they were committing an act of good when they forced victims into gas chambers. And so it goes that every act of hatred, or ignorance, no matter how small, needs to be challenged.

In the end, in our society with its imperialist past and racist now, our white privilege is the privilege of standing on the shoulders of thieves and murderers who conquered the world and fashioned it to our advantage. Our white privilege is the privilege of centuries of accumulated wealth and the multitude of benefits that go with that. Our white privilege is the privilege of not being black.

And we need to be utterly ashamed of that fact, and we need to listen to our black sisters and brothers and collectively and individually work to create a world that is better and happier for all of us, black and white alike, and the identity that we all share - the battered, fragile but ultimately compassionate and loving one called the human race.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Class Hatred

Classroom war

The class war came into the classroom last week with the appalling skewing of the English A-level results to favour private schools over the state sector, potentially locking masses of 18 year olds into the ossified, servile social class positions our elitist Masters deem them fit for. 

Many students predicted to achieve A-results have often seen these reduced to Bs or Cs or even Ds,often resulting in the loss of university places for the coming academic year. Perhaps particularly perniciously, the algorithms applied by the regulator Ofqal, using previous school statistics, have decided that some of those due to sit exams would not have turned up in any case and so have applied "Uncertificated" results - as good as simply not having an A level at all. In all, 40% of pupils - about 300,000 people - received lower than predicted grades, with those attending state schools and colleges badly hit.

By contrast, not a single entrant from Eton had a single grade reduced - doubtless on the grounds that none of them would have missed the exams if they were poorly as Nanny would have sat them on their behalf. (This in spite of the fact that many private schools work to the Cambridge International A-Level, a course deemed by this Government as too easy to be valid in state schools...)

With deadlines looming urgently for university admissions, rather than celebrating achivements after years of study and work, life plans are now on hold or being revised drastically downwards for hundreds of thousands of young people, predominantly from poorer backgrounds. The class war waged by the self-entitled rich elite has potentially devastated a generation's life chances .

Given the covid crisis and the closure of schools from mid-March, this was always going to be a difficult year for resolving the academic results of courses where exams due to take place could not happen. An approach combining logic, common sense and compassion was vital given the impact that the results would have on the long-term prospects of the students involved. In previous years, the approach taken by the Education Department has been to compare exam outcomes with predictions based on previous assessments - with the integrity of the exams based on how closely or not they matched the predictions. With much previous work having been marked in the classroom and mock exam results and teachers' assessments available, it should surely have followed that there would not be any need for any radical revision of predicted outcomes. Any competent Education Secretary would have made the decision to go with these.

However, our Education Secretary is one Gavin Williamson, MP, a man who as Defence Secretary backed the Saudi Arabians bombing of Yemen in spite of warnings of war crimes. Then he ridiculously implied that back in the 1980s Jeremy Corbyn was a Czech spy, apparently in an attempt to deflect criticism of his own soliciting of a £30,000 donation from the wife of a former Vladimir Putin Minister. 

So little compassion or common sense there. And as for his competence - before being elected to Parliament, Gavin "ran" a ceramics company that briefly rose to infamy when it produced a range of pottery to celebrate the Royal Wedding of Charles and Camilla - unfortunately firing every last piece with the wrong date!

Nanny will sort it.
Yet now in his rather inappropriate Education role, this moron saw fit to to declare that the algorithms applied to A level students' classroom assessments, which shoehorned individual results into crudely designed national quotas, were in fact perfectly robust and should be left unchanged. The towering Cabinet intellectual claimed that there would be a grave danger that such pupils would run the risk of over-promotion in the workplace were their results to be reviewed and upgraded.

Williamson and his boss Boris Johnson have of course subsequently been running in circles to try to remedy the chaos they have created. With characteristic world-beating bullshittery, they have set up something called a "Gold Command" to sort out the mess: though after publishing the appeals criteria for students to use, they withdrew it hours later, leaving many bewildered and panicking at the rapidly diminishing time left to resolve their grades. Williamson has to time of writing continued to flap and flounder and say he is "very sorry", while the PM, who promised to take personal charge of the crisis, has..erm... gone on holiday.

How could we have ever expected better from this Government? This is after all a group effectively coralled by Dominic Cummings, who believes that ability and achievement is down more to genetic breeding (i.e., of his class) than teaching or effort. The last thing they want is people from other classes to partake of that dangerously intoxicating chalice of education. What ideas might they get in their muddled serf-heads?

Johnson - the Eton days

Kafka has nothing on this elitist regime of lazily smug, sleazy sociopaths - the irony that they are literally the most useless group of people from any party assembled around the Cabinet table is sadly lost on their super-sized egos. And yet even now, in spite of all the unprecedented deaths, corruption, sleaze, racism, blatant lies, misogyny and sheer incompetence, the Conservative Party remains pretty much as far ahead as ever in the opinion polls of the largely silent Labour "opposition".

But change will come - younger generations are distinctly more left wing in their outlook and aspirations for future society as the current one increasingly fails them in providing decent employment, affordable education or housing, and now can't even get their exam results right. As the banners waved by demonstrating pupils today made clear, the damage done to them at this crucial moment in their young lives will not be soon forgotten by them or by their friends, families and relatives. Boris may fluster and bluster, but some things can't be explained away or made up as they go along. 

It is a crying shame that Starmer is left staring like a rabbit caught in headlights as the government should be on the ropes over its blatant social elitism, but others outside parliament are already taking up the torch of opposition. With over four years of Tory rule to go, it is outside of Westminster that the new struggles are already being shaped. The 18 year olds at the centre of this storm may play a leading part in shifting the paradigm firmly towards deep-seated social change - not only in education, but across society as a whole.

And as for Gavin, over-promoted and under-performing, perhaps it's time to get back to the pots. Perhaps this time with a calendar.