Archives for posts with tag: Communism

{early, un-edited version of my next Forest of Dean Clarion magazine article}

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

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This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.

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Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.

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On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.

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With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.

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{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}

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Reviewed by C. Spiby for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine.

Maxim Leo’s book ‘Red Love’ is so much more than the story of a family from the GDR; it is the story of WW2 anti-fascist heroes, the relationship between parents and their children, and a state and its people. Clarion subscribers will find it a truly fascinating read.

With the unique perspective of author Maxim turning 19 as the Wall comes dored_love_coverwn, and his father, Wolf being 19 when the Wall went up, this family history traces three generations of German socialism.

But as each generation comes of age, there is a lessening of the cause, a lessening of the hope of socialism.

Under Walter Ulbricht and the Soviet Union this road to socialism is replaced at first by a paranoiac state and then by the 1980’s, by a generation who have become so remote from the cause and the possibilities of socialism that the freedom they seek seems indistinguishable from the freedom to be just like those in the West. In the end Maxim feels that “Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am.” A view probably shared by his entire generation.

Their story is the story of their state. Maxim writes “Our family was like a miniature GDR…where ideology collided with life.”

While his father, Wolf, was not a Party member, it was not because of his opposition to socialism, but his opposition to that particular kind of socialism which destroyed the people’s trust in their own state, the son stating at one point “He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy.”

What clearly started as an exercise in family history has become so much more. Its topics range from

  • history (Werner, one of Maxim’s grandfathers shifts from almost ambivalent Nazi supporter to Communist Party member, expressing with real authenticity the experience of life in WW2 and post WW2 Germany)
  • politics (“Others became Communists because they felt drawn to the world of ideas. For Gerhard it’s a matter of experience, of feeling, of friendship.”
  • philosophy (“Man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence.”)
  • socialism and humanism (the disgrace with himself that Maxim feels when he is interrogated by Stasi and capitulates immediately, giving them the information they seek in a moment while recalling Gerhard, his grandfather who resisted days of torture by the SS for his role in partisan activities is among one of many touching moments – this time of pride and shame).

‘Red Love’ is great journalism: it’s engaging and informative, revealing authentic experiences of real people through hope and trauma. But just as the example of the GDR saddens me, so too does Maxim’s underlying conclusion.

The “GDR was the result of the struggle, the reward. The point of life. He {Gerhard} couldn’t get out of it without losing himself. ‘That was my country,’ he said in that interview. And it sounded sad, but also a bit proud. And I reflected that it couldn’t be my country for precisely that reason. But I said nothing.”

For me the GDR is not something consigned to history. It is a tragedy of what could have been.

From it we can still learn much; of how far it swerved on the road to socialism, how it can warn us, but also that it was not an utter failure. In ‘Red Love’ we are introduced to people who believed in something greater. Totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War never killed that.

‘Red Love’ is published by the Pushkin Press (2014 paperback, English translation).

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

Reflecting on the failure of the socialist dream people like his own communist parents had subscribed to, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in a 1994 poem [1] that ‘Research has shown Socialism to be a universal failure wherever practiced by secret police’.

This, to me, is at the nub of the problem with 20th Century socialism.

Now, however, at the juncture of the greatest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, is it time for communism to rehabilitate itself?

The best example for us in the West of the dream gone sour is that of the former GDR (DDR or East Germany) – the Soviet satellite that found itself the frontier of the Cold War, both on its border (with West Germany) and in its capital, Berlin – divided geographically and ideologically.

In the last decade there have been a number of examples that have shown us an East Germany shaped only by the Stasi. Works like ‘The Death of Lenin’ or ‘The Lives of Others’, both brilliant movies, but both pedalling only a single thread of the wider story that was day-to-day life in the GDR. Then there have been journalistic forays into a state held captive in both Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ and even the BBC’s own ‘Lost World of Communism’. All these rightfully question the role of the state and the individual, and offer many cases of terrible injustice and oppression. But I feel the idea of an ideology in crisis is not explored. The examples merely qualify the statement I cited earlier from Ginsberg. Those works don’t widen the debate.

Other publications, like ‘Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic – What Can We Learn from It?’ and the Stasi Museum’s own ‘GDR Guide’, give fuller examples of everyday life for quiet conformists. They offer a narrative that living in a police state was not actually the main experience of life for the overwhelming majority, even if the culture it bred created its framework. This is not to revise, forgive or ignore those state crimes but we must be mindful that we witness the GDR from a purely Western perspective.

I am also mindful, however, of Rowan Williams’ Easter address this April where he picked up on the point that life can be richer than material wealth. A clear admission, perhaps, that the basis of socialism is still a natural human desire for many people, though they’d never call it that.

And Rowan Williams isn’t the first man of faith to recognise our principles…

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

…says the Dalai Lama [2]. It might be a bit strange for a Marxist to cite religious leaders, but what I am doing here is trying to highlight the universality of the basis of socialism.

I am not for a second suggesting that everyday life in a police state is better than today’s relative affluence. But following the most recent banking crisis and with public services sliding away from us only to build more profit for the powerful few, the desire for something more humane is widespread. So, I contest we might to do better than to gloat at the dubious humanity of capitalism’s triumph over the Soviet Union, asking of ourselves instead whether can socialism mean more than totalitarianism?

Of course it can.

Show me where the great British socialists William Morris, Engels or Marx even suggest the formation of a police state or the summary arrest of ordinary citizens. You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The basic premise of socialism is our most precious principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. But even that can only be built on solid ground. The opening remarks of many a revolutionary tract is the need for freedom from our oppressors. Not the freedom to oppress others.

I share the analysis of philosopher (and incumbent International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London), Slavoj Žižek, that the time for the rehabilitation of communism is now. In my opinion, the most important means to achieve this is to publicly denounce the legacy of totalitarianism and divorce it from our own modern British programmes. We have nothing in common with the dictatorships of China or North Korea, though we have everything in common with its people. That seems a good place to start.

Two fundamental aspects of Marx I find lacking in the conduct of socialism are the most important checks that have never been served well by its executors. Firstly, that Marx clearly makes a case for analysing reality in its current context – that things move in struggle and it is only in our understanding of that struggle in its current place in time that we can hope to address it; that means we cannot use early 20th Century revolutionary means to overthrow the capitalist state of today. But that does not mean the goal has moved but rather that we actively revise Marxist thinking for our own age.

Secondly, and to complement the first point is the issue of self-criticism within the current context. If only Mao had read Orwell’s 1984, then I’d rather think the Cultural Revolution would be one less shame laid erroneously at our door.

Žižek picks up on Lenin’s point [3] that sometimes it is ok to start-over. The road to revolution is not always best achieved from starting from where we left off the last time we had to abandon that road – this leads us only to misinterpret the failure and, ignoring history, repeat the mistakes for generation after generation. If we re-boot from the ground up then we build a new solution from outset in today’s context based on today’s analysis. That might sound like the road to Pol Pot’s year zero but hear me out – I cannot think of any philosopher or scientist worth listening to today who doesn’t see the education of our children as the best way to change the world for the better.

In post-war East Germany, the Soviet’s built up a youth movement to create great patriots of the Soviet. The terrible reality, however, was that, apart from the colour of their neck-ties, its members looked exactly like the Hitler Youth. It seems to me that the issue here is fear: fear of losing popular support. The need to force an ideology on citizens shows a fear that, perhaps, the ideology is not really up to the job of human civility.

I don’t think this is true. I think that if we truly believe in the power of socialism – and in particular our fundamental basis of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – then its greatest asset is in its freedom to stand proud against the immoral basis of capitalism, and to stand up to scrutiny from our own, let alone our enemies.

A socialist state built by popular support is the true expression of this project we call ‘civilisation’.

The task now is to find a home from which we can build a movement. The ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the programme of the Communist Party of Britain – unlike its less mature SP and SWP programmes, seeks this home in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. It is under no illusion of power, but it is a compelling reminder that – if we’re honest with ourselves – for the left and true Marxists who can see the job at hand, in its current context, there is only one true place for British socialists.

[1] from ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’ by Allen Ginsberg (Penguin, 1994)

[2] http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes1.html#marxism

[3] In his ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ (Verso, 2009)

I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between two texts (Tobias Jones ‘Utopian Dreams‘ see below and ‘The Survivors’ by Patrick Rivers’), one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.

‘A BOUT DE SOUFFLE’

Directed by Jean Luc Godard, France 1959, starring: Jean Seberg & Jean-Paul Belmondo

{Film review for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion, 2004.}

France 1959.

The year Claude Chabrol’s tender and more emotionally engaging ‘Les Cousins’ won the Golden Bear in Berlin and Truffaut won Best Director at Cannes for ‘Les Quarte Cents Coups’ (‘The 400 Blows’).

Why then was it not these nouvelle vague movies but ‘A Bout De Souffle’ that became the cornerstone of the new wave, cementing itself a deep and notorious place in international film history?

Based on an original treatment by Francois Truffaut but lacking any coherent script, and with Claude Chabrol acting as artistic advisor (plus Jean-Pierre Melville appearing in front of the camera), ‘A Bout De Souffle’ made, as Halliwell’s guide puts it “insolent use of the jump cut” and in doing so tore into the anarchic consciousness of a new, intelligent generation. ‘Breathless’ was a chaotic and rebellious mix of intellect and pulp; an anti-establishment Beat mix of cool jazz and Mozart.

Graduating from just writing about the movies in film magazines, ‘Breathless’ was Godard’s directorial debut and while obviously influenced by the American noir scene, heralded the arrival and opening salvo of the French New Wave. Today the film still stands out as a zig-zagging narrative; an existential meditation of life, love, crime, freedom, tedium and chaos.

Quinlan’s ‘Film Directors’ lists Godard’s politics as “communist but anti-soviet” and indeed after his initial successes, Godard went on to produce a number of left-wing films that despite their genuine commitment to the cause, but which generated little interest in the west. This was partly due to his rebellious reluctance to embrace the regular channels of finance and distribution – the very same thing which, on the whole, has continued to strangle creativity in film to this very day.

Of course, Godard had already upset the establishment by featuring references to the war in Algeria in the 1960 film ‘Le Petit Soldat’. That film was banned and left unseen for three years after production had ended. Later he worked in the Lebanon filming ‘Jusque a la Victorie (Until Victory)’ with the PLO, but again, through lack of funds, the film went unfinished.

The Parisian Maoist underground in which Godard had become involved saw him make low-budget films that dealt almost entirely on class and struggle: dialectical materialism – one example of which featured conversations between workers and students. But this was the 60’s of the Spring 68 revolution and Che.

Indeed, it was in ‘68 that Godard co-founded the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective making radical “political films politically”. The films never made it out of activist circles, but one can’t help but wonder what Godard might think of commercially successful political films like ‘Farenheit 9/11’ or ‘Super Size Me’.

Separately, the anti-heroine of ‘A Bout de Souffle’, the tragic American actress Jean Seberg, would find her own way to the struggle: through her support of the Black Panther Party. Having already been hand-picked by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc, Seberg was a rising star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Seven months pregnant by her white intellectual husband Romain Gary, Seberg was targeted in an FBI smear campaign using fictitious letters suggesting her child was from an illicit affair with a Black Panther Party member. The trauma led to a premature birth and the child died. Shocking the world’s media she presented the dead baby at a press conference, proving the child was white in act of righteously outrageous rage against the smear campaign. The FBI, however, continued to track and follow Seberg, and eventually she took her own life in 1979.

Eventually Godard returned to the relative mainstream of world cinema and while remaining an original artistic force, he never reached the impact and quality of ‘Alphaville’ or ‘A Bout de Souffle’.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, 1959, ‘Ben Hur’ cleaned up at the Oscars.

Currently available on DVD.
 Want more Godard?: we recommend ‘Weekend’ and ‘Alphaville’
 If you like this, then you might like Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’.
 Webs: www.saintjean.co.uk

As unpalatable as it is, it is my opinion that the Tories can only lose the coming General Election: only some cataclysmic embarrassment or folly can surely deny them the helm of the country now. And while that is not entirely impossible, it is unlikely.

Having not voted Labour since they took us into Iraq in 2003, the time has come to reassess my support. Do I cast a losing vote? Do I stick with the Lib Dems in hope they become the main party of opposition and thereby fulfil the meagre hopes I have of it creating some space between them and the Tories, unlike what we had between New Labour and the Conservatives?

As a paid-up member of the Communist Party of Britain I am expected to vote for any CPB candidate standing in my constituency and, where there is none (and there isn’t in the Forest of Dean), then I am to vote Labour on the premise that, despite all the Party’s criticisms of it, we still stand a better chance of putting pressure on Labour than we ever will with the Tories. I think this is a mature approach. Were Labour even likely to return to power.

Of course neither I am under any delusion that the British Communist Party will be forming a government any time soon, but it seems the chances for Labour are heading that way too.  Is their directive, then, a waste of my vote?

I fully expect our Conservative MP, Mark Harper, to retain his seat in May, as Parliament itself swings to the blues. I therefore remain undecided as to how best oppose the right-wingers, bearing in mind that New Labour, on the whole and in my opinion, is only slightly to the left of Cameron’s crew. I am also mindful that we need to be careful of far right using the vacuum of a low turnout to make their own terrible gains.

So, it is to the long-view that we are to look now.

It is my prediction that David Milliband will become Leader of the Labour Party following its imminent trashing at the next General Election.

On the surface he will halt any reference to the New Labour project in all but spirit as he continues the trend in embracing the centre-right, middle class vote above and beyond the grass roots of his own Party. In the face of defeat and low turnout we will be told the Party is learning the lessons of the Blair/Brown years, while at the same time reminding us of their successes (some rightful, others diabolical (Iraq), PPP, foundation trusts etc.) and the advent of the longest term in government for Labour in its history.

Only after the second term of the Tories and the second defeat of the next Labour Party will we really have a chance to demonstrate that a refuelled, grassroots Labour Party is our only true hope for the left. If the Party then isn’t for our taking, be it by its mechanisms or our impotency, then it never will and our historical ties to it (trade unionism and social democratic support writ large) need to be thoroughly reassessed. It will be a critical time in labour and political history.

I urge unaffiliated members currently lacking in a Party home join the Labour Representation Committee as individual members and build the movement of the Left back into Labour during the recess of the coming darkness. You can do this with or outside of a union, as a private member as long as you are not currently in a political party other than Labour. There is much work to be done. If you don’t believe just how much I also urge you to get a copy of the documentary film ‘Taking Liberties’ from your local library or DVD rental service. In only an hour and a half it will remind us how difficult the road will be, but also how essential it is to begin that journey back to civil democracy now.

Only then can we even hope to demand proper socialism take its rightful place back in our Party.

LRC, c/o PO Box 2378, London, E5 9QU
http://www.l-r-c.org.uk

Taking Liberties

“The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat…is a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not a law enacted by a centralised state power.”