Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Obituary: Phil Rabin (1995)

Obituary from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

An organisation calling itself the Socialist Party of "Great Britain" might not be where you would expect to find the grand old man of traditional east European Jewish cuisine but for most of the sixty years since he first joined our old Hackney branch, Phil Rabin was an active participant in our advocacy of a new world-wide social system.

Before the Second World War—when he joined—Phil was a keen amateur boxer and his talents in this field were sometimes called upon to protect our outdoor platform from being attacked by fascists when certain of our speakers were speaking. At that time he worked as chief carver at Bloom's Shoreditch restaurant and at the end of the war he played a key part in building up a chain of shops selling government surplus goods for recreational purposes trading as Millets, Victoria. That phase enabled him to set up his famous salt beef bar in Windmill Street, Piccadilly designed by his architect son. It became the focal point for figures from the sporting scene, the underworld and showbiz.

After Arthur Miller once brought in Marilyn Monroe for a snack she expressed her satisfaction by giving Phil a peck on the cheek, which he would never forget. Some of his comrades in Islington Branch like to think that the Beef King's adoption of a vegetarian diet in his later years might well have assisted in his reaching the ripe old age of eighty-five although for those interested he would still provide the recipe for making authentic salt-beef. To wash it down only he could make the perfectly thirst-quenching glass of lemon-tea.

Phil was a widower for thirty years but gained much comfort from his son and daughter and their families. He was a keen fisherman and guided by Isaak Walton was a "Brother of the Angle" of whom it might be said, "This dish of meat is too good for any but anglers, or very honest men". Years after he sold it the Windmill Street business still operated under the title, "Rabin's Nosh Bar" but he was to spend several years in the catering trade in Portugal and South Africa where he had relatives, before settling down in his flat in Dalston.

The Spanish Civil War Revisited (1998)

Book Review from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Friends of Durruti Group: 1937-1939 By Agustin Guillamon, trans Paul Sharkey. AK Press 1996.
Buenaventura Durruti was killed on the Madrid front early in the Spanish Civil War. His comrades in the "flying column" of dedicated anarchists he led formed a group at his death dedicated to continuing his aims. These were to oppose collaboration with the Spanish Republican Government which the majority of the CNT had entered into, and to convert the war into a revolution by seizing the land and factories.
The CNT (National Labour Federation), which Durruti belonged to, was the biggest workers' organisation in Spain with a claimed membership of over a million. It had a core of political activists, the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) numbering some fifty thousand, and was strongest in the Southeast i.e. Aragon, Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante-the most economically developed part of the country. The language spoken there is Catalan, not regular Spanish (i.e. Castilian). The other languages of the peninsula are Galician, a Portuguese dialect and Franco's mother tongue, and Basque, a language unrelated to any other in Europe.
This linguistic-cultural diversity has always created problems for central governments in Spain, as did the landscape which has rivers and high mountain ranges running from East to West, making communications difficult. It is ideal guerrilla country, whence the word arose during the attempted occupation by Napoleon's army. This was the setting for the Spanish Civil War, something of a misnomer, since after the first few months it became a European War by proxy, and a dress rehearsal for World War II.
In 1936 a conspiracy of generals backed by conservative groups, the aristocracy and the high clergy had mounted a coup d'etat against the five-year-old Republic which succeeded the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. The uprising failed; the main centres of administration-Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia-were not captured and the rebels were left in the countryside with winter coming on. Most of Spain is a vast plateau and in the winter has more in common with Tibet than anywhere else.
At this point Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent forces in to help their right-wing proteges, and Soviet Russia intervened, helping the Communist Party (which was a relatively insignificant organisation) rather than the government. The war ended with a million dead and the Franco dictatorship in power from 1939 until 1975.
The country which three centuries earlier was the first World Power had become moribund. Features which had virtually died out in the rest of Europe were still very much alive-a military class, a priestly class, competing monarchical claims, near-serfdom among seasonal rural labourers, and mass illiteracy. Consequently, understanding Spain is not easy even for those interested. But for those who are, Paul Preston's one thousand pages of text and notes deals splendidly with the enormous mass of data from before, during, and after the war.
He is not detached. It is difficult to imagine anybody with experience of representative government and a free press, secular education and freedom of movement-however heavily qualified-being indifferent to these questions. Hugh Thomas in his History of the Spanish Civil War came close to it. No doubt in good time creatures will emerge from the woodwork and try to do a revisionist job on Franco. It was Stalin's slaughter of his comrades and fellow Russians that allowed this malignant, pot-bellied dwarf to pose as the saviour of European civilisation, and caused many British conservatives, including Churchill to support his claim.
The losers, as always, were the common people, pawns in a struggle between power brokers. Those who weren't killed were crammed into Franco's concentration camps, penal labour battalions, or settled down to a hungry future. The country swarmed with 57 varieties of police. It really was government by machine-gun and terror.
Then twenty years after the war, a totally bizarre and novel factor entered the scene. Billions of pounds, francs, florins and deutschmarks poured into the country in exchange for blue skies, warm sea and sand, cheap wine and other agricultural surpluses, and a vigorous folklore. Spanish capitalism took off vertically. Mass tourism had arrived.
Other than as a dress rehearsal for World War II, the events in Spain from 1936-9 were not of great consequence for the rest of the world, but they have generated an enormous amount of debate.
At the time the issue appeared to be a simple matter of democracy versus dictatorship, and provoked passionate debate in the Socialist Party as it did in the reformists parties here and abroad. The attempt of the Communist Party to enter the debate was frustrated by their rejection of democracy in the first place ("democratic centralism" was what they called their version of dictatorship). But for libertarian organisations there was a real problem. If there is no democracy, how could Socialist ideas be spread? On the other hand, a war within capitalism could only be fought on capitalist terms. You can't have a democratic army, as the anarchists in the CNT found out.
"Arming of the people is meaningless. The nature of military warfare is determined by the class directing it. An army fighting in defence of a bourgeois state, even if it should be antifascist, is an army in the service of capitalism . . . War between a fascist state and an antifascist state is not a revolutionary class war. The proletariat's intervention on one side is an indication that it has already been defeated. Insuperable technical and professional inferiority on the part of the popular or militia-based army was implicit in military struggle on a military front" (Guillaman, p.10).
And if you have an overwhelming majority, you don't need any army anyway. No amount of oppression can be made to work against it, as the Communist Party found out in Moscow in 1989. But that overwhelming majority has to know what it is about. And that is what the Friends of Durruti concluded:
"What happened was what had to happen. The CNT was utterly devoid of revolutionary theory. We did not have a concrete programme. We had no idea where we were going . . . By not knowing what to do we handed the revolution on a platter to the bourgeoisie and the Communists who support the farce of yesterday."
There are a number of traps for the unwary in Guillamon's book. The word junta does not mean the same to a Spanish speaker as to an English speaker. Also, the revolution we are told has to be "totalitarian". This cannot be personal dictatorship which is what the word has come to mean. It can only mean wholehearted, excluding the possibility of a halfway house between capitalism and socialism.
A greater problem arises on page 11: "why the revolutionary option was not exercised. And the answer is very simple: there was no revolutionary vanguard capable of steering the revolution". This Trotskyist recipe contradicts anarchist emphasis on personal responsibility and originally arose from keeping bad company and because the consciousness and conditions for real social change were not there.
The Friends of Durruti were "not brilliant theorists nor gifted organisers but essentially barricade fighters". Heroism is not enough, although there was plenty of that. These brave people deserved better from history.
Ken Smith

The First World War (1964)

Book Review from the March 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The First World War: An Illustrated History by A. J. P. Taylor (Hamish Hamilton)

Perhaps Mr. Taylor is, in the strict sense of the word, our most eminent modern historian. Yet whatever a man's knowledge, nobody should be deluded into believing that his conclusions are unassailable.

Consider, for example, Mr. Taylor's opinion on the cause of the First World War:
Men are reluctant to believe that great events have small causes. Therefore, once the Great War started, they were convinced that it must be the outcome of profound forces. It is hard to disciver these when we examine the details. Nowhere was there conscious determination to provoke a war. Statesmen miscalculated. They used the instruments of bluff and threat which had proved effective on previous occasions. This time things went wrong. The deterrent on which they relied failed to deter; the statesmen became the prisoners of their own weapons. The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.
The First World War had begun—imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age.
Now this may appeal to those who hold the "accidental" theory of history. But that theory does little more than spell out the process of events; it tells us nothing about the causes of those events nor does it illuminate the larger canvas of human history in all its social phases. Like the 1914/18 soldiers' song, it says, in effect, that we are here because we are here because . . . 

The theory that the First World War was an avoidable accident ignores the previous history of Europe. It ignores the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, the German ambitions in Africa and the Middle East and the threat which an expanding German capitalism represented to the established European powers. It ignores, even, the very fact that nobody tries to ignore—the massive build up of military strength on the Continent before 1914 and it certainly tells us nothing about the reasons for that build up.

Mr. Taylor, in truth, cannot ignore this fact: -
The German general staff did not believe that they could conquer decisively if they had to fight at full strength on two fronts, against both France and Russia at once. Therefore they had long planned, ever since 1892, to put practically all their armed weight in the west and to knock out France before the slow machine of Russian mobilization could lumber into action.
And if there is a contradiction in a theory which says that a war can break out by accident, although one power has planned for over twenty years to knock out another—well, that is Mr. Taylor's contradiction, not ours. We know how fallible the experts can be.

Apart from this, Mr. Taylor is fashionably harsh upon the generals (one picture of Sir John French, in morning coat and topper hurrying through a crowd, describes the B.E.F. commander as " . . . in training for the retreat from Mons.") and favourable to Lloyd George. The photographs are nothing less than brilliant; each one loaded with the atmosphere of its time. Here are pain and courage, pathos and provocation. Look at these pictures again and again—there seems to be something fresh there every time.

Those from the fighting itself are positively horrific—a legless French soldier, some Tommies who have been blinded in a gas attack and stand dumbly in line, each man guiding himself by his hand on the shoulder in front. The pictures from the home front are no less impressive. The shot of the Eton schoolboys on their way to dig over some plot shows how timeless are the fashions and the demeanour of our master class. These boys could have been photographed yesterday—unlike the working class lads who, on page 21, are cheering the volunteers outside a recruiting station.

And the pictures are supported with biting captions.

The First World War released a flood of human suffering such as few had foretold in 1914. It slashed a great gap into a hopeful generation and it wrecked Europe's morale. Yet in 1939 they were ready to go into it again, ready with the uniforms and the flags and the claptrap about the glory of war.

Let those workers who urge their fellows into uniform study the photographs in this book. Let them smell the mud and the cordite, feel the tight fear of men about to go over the top, share the endurance of a civilian population under bombardment. And let them see, almost at first hand, the pompous cynicism of the generals and the statesmen—the leaders who are at their most beloved and trusted when the world is at its deepest in agonised confusion.

Greasy Pole: Reckless In Rochester (2014)

The Greasy Pole Column from the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
This was not a fertile year for the party conferences what with Ed Miliband in his leader's speech 'forgetting' to mention what Labour would try to do about the economy and the mess it is in and David Cameron working to make everyone else ignore that the Tory party is having nightmares about mass defections to Nigel Farage and his UKIP. Most prominent among these was Mark Reckless MP for the highly vulnerable seat of Rochester and Strood. Reckless was one of the 2010 intake into the Commons but in so brief a time there he has made himself a name as both a rebel and a 'statesman' –which means he has a talent for adjusting to some of the most threatening aspects of capitalist society. In 1996 and 1997 while employed by the investment bankers UBS Warburg he was rated as one of the top three economists in that breeding ground of such life forms known as the City of London. And another similar rating in 2012 placed him as Conservative back-bencher of the year after he led fifty-three MPs in rebellion against the EU budget. Other issues on which he has stood out include tuition fees, the so-called pasty tax and restricting Child Benefit. On another theme – which may have been more appealing to Farage –he missed voting in a debate on the Budget because he was in a drunken stupor. This was in the small hours: 'I thought it was inappropriate' was how Reckless excused his lapse, which evaded the fact that it happened when he was just two months into his career as an MP and was supposed to be supporting the 2010 budget – Osborne's first contribution to the great Conservative crusade to salvage the British economy.
Blazing Row
His case for leaving the Tory party was that the leaders were 'not serious about real change in Europe... Britain could do better'. The matter came to a head when he was in a group of MPs at an 'away day' at Cameron's Cotswold home, when the guests were expected to wear casual clothes and, apart from other activities, play football on the house lawn while they composed the manifesto for the next election. Cameron had attacked him (but not on the pitch) over the rumours of his pending departure and a blazing row ensued which left Reckless 'losing faith' in Cameron. Apart from anything else he was reported to be disturbed by the pressure of the Whips on some MPs, at times using knowledge of embarrassing aspects of their private lives. Perhaps this example of our leaders' caring unity was among the titbits served to Reckless when he was taken to lunch in the Members' Dining Room by Chief Whip Michael Gove.
It did not help Reckless make his case against the insincerity of the others when he gave so many assurances that, apart from not moving over to UKIP, he would be prominent in the party's campaign in the Clacton by-election: 'Good to lead coach for Team 2015 campaigning in Birmingham Northfield on Sunday and will be followed by our Clacton action day next Thursday' he announced, although this was at the same time that he had been busily plotting his changeover with the UKIP defector – and now UKIP MP for Clacton – Douglas Carswell. Typical among the flood of angry responses the chairman of his constituency Party trumpeted that he was '...astonished and disgusted... only 48 hours ago he proclaimed his support for the Conservatives and their plans for a referendum on Europe and he gave me assurances that he wouldn't defect'. This aggravated Reckless' own expectation that he would face an 'enormous personal risk' by changing his party and excused him concealing his intentions because he knew that to reveal it all would unleash 'a media onslaught on me . . . in a 'vicious, vicious way'. He has yet to explain why his awareness of so aggressive a potential in the Conservative Party did not dissuade him from joining it.
As the rumours swirled and flashed about the intentions of so many Tory MPs (even Stephen Bone, the carelessly right-wing MP for Wellingborough who is famous for publicising his long-suffering wife, muttered an admission on Have I Got News For You that he also had thought about defecting) there was a fully primed machinery of abuse and threats ready to go into action. Early, and particularly nasty in this when Reckless eventually came clean was Grant Shapps, the Party Chairman. But he has not been free of controversy himself. Before he got into Parliament he was accustomed to use the pen name of Michael Green. It was Michael Crick (who was once assaulted by a prominent UKIP member with a loosely rolled-up leaflet) on Channel Four News who revealed that Shapps’ marketing website about his business included 'testimonials' from people and businesses who, if they did exist, could not be traced. But this revelation was no deterrent for Shapps as he sounded off in the Reckless affair: 'He has lied and lied and lied again' he bellowed at the Tory faithful '...Today, your trust has been abused. You have been cheated. But worse, the people of Rochester and Strood have been cast aside'. This is part of the very stuff of politics; change the odd word and it could have been Miliband going on about Cameron, or Clegg about Miliband or, at another time, all three about Shapps.
With its cathedral and castle and Cornmarket and so many other such buildings Rochester is an interesting place, a particular favourite of Charles Dickens. On the coast of Kent, it was once a symbol of British naval power and of building the ships which went along with that. Symbolic of something else, it was nearby that the first of the supposedly enlightened penal establishments for youngsters was set up at Borstal. But as shipbuilding declined so did the town; the Chatham dockyard closed in 1984 and unemployment soared in what was feared to be a post-industrial economy. If there has been any kind of easing since then it might have been seen in the revival of the traditional May Day 'Jack In The Green Sweeps' dance. Will there be any relief in the by-election, in the bitter recriminations, the blackmail, the transparently dishonest promises about a better, safer world?

Politics of poetry (1990)

From the December 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Words can convey different things to different people at different times and in different places. This is why definitions are so important—it all depends upon what you mean.

People play the cross-purpose game, confident in the belief that understanding is mutual. This is particularly true of words that are symbols for concepts like Socialism, Freedom, Democracy, Revolution, which are of a magnitude too great for single words to carry. On some occasions though, as in poetry, definitions are not only in the main absent, but would be out of place (inhibiting to flow and form), so that one is then free to make of the words what one will.

In 1929 D. H. Lawrence published a collection of poems entitled Pansies because, as he wrote in the preface, "they are rather 'pensees' (thoughts) than anything else". What is interesting about some of the poems in the book is how they can be seen to reflect socialist ideas and aspirations. Take for example the first and last verses from a poem called 'The Root of Our Evil':
The root of our present evil is that we buy and sell.
Ultimately, we are all busy buying and selling one another.
What we want is some sort of communism
Not based on wages, nor profits, nor any sort of buying and selling
But on a religion of life.
Lawrence was not a Socialist and, from a reading of his letters in terms of practical policies, very naive. But on the evidence before us his mind now and then flew on quite surprising social lines.

The nature of poetry wonderfully concentrates the mind, so what attempted in prose might be trite, in poetry achieves a cogent intensity. Critical accuracy is not important. If Lawrence says that "the root of our present evil is that we buy and sell", when in fact it is the ownership of property in the form of capital, this does not dampen its impact and essential social truth.

In the poem 'Kill Money' the literal interpretation is not the relevant point, more the power expression of working class life experience, that comes through.
Kill money, put money out of existence.
It is a perverted instinct, a hidden thought
which rots the brain, the blood, the bones, the stones, the soul.

Make up your mind about it:
That society must establish itself upon a different principle
from the one we've got now.

We must have the courage of mutual trust.
We must have the modesty of simple living.
And the individual must have his house, food and fire all free like a bird.
This theme is extended in 'Money Madness; to show how money comes into the way we estimate or value people, and the shame and stigma of poverty:
For mankind says with one voice: How much is he worth?
Has he no money? Then let him eat dirt and go cold.
And if I have no money, they will give me a little bread,
So I do not die,
But they will make me eat dirt with it.
There is also to be had a touch of William Morris's ideas on how important work is for people and how different it would be in a Socialist world. In 'Men Are Not Bad':
Men are not bad, when they are free.
Prison makes men bad, and the money compulsion makes men bad.
If men were free from the terror of earning a living
There would be abundance in the world
And men would work gaily.
Lawrence sees a distinction between work and labour. What comes through in the next poem is the social character of work, or rather, how the social relationships of work pronounce upon the way we view work and its effect upon our lives:
All that we have, while we live, is life;
and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.
And work is life, and life is lived in work
unless you’re a wage-slave.
While a wage-slave works, he leaves life aside
And stands there a piece of dung.
Men should refuse to be lifelessly at work.
Men should refuse to be heaps of wage-earning dung.
Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves.
Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves,
And put their life in it.
For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.
The wages system is central to working class slavery and Lawrence could see in his poem 'Wages' the irony in the need to work for wages being presented as the freedom to obtain ones wants and needs, whereas it is in reality, vicious and constraining:
The wages of work is cash.
The wages of cash is want more cash.
The wages of want more cash is vicious competition.
The wages of vicious completion is - the world we live in .
The work-cash-want circle is the viciousest circle
that ever turned men into fiends.
Lawrence's politics, whatever they were, are none but of academic concern. Occasionally, as mentioned earlier, he touched on politics in his letters, as in January 1921 writing from Italy to the author Eleanor Farjeon:
If I knew how to I'd really join myself to the Revolutionary Socialists now. I think the time has come for a real struggle. That's the only thing I care for: the death struggle. I don't care for politics, but I know there must and should be a deadly revolution very soon, and I would take part in it if I knew how.
Words indeed, but what do they mean? One could, of course, say the same of Lawrence's poetic writings, but at least we may take what we will and use their inspiration to illuminate—imagination to spark upon imagination. What any writer may intend in his work is of little importance. The act of presenting it to the world makes that world the heir and the interpreter, to make what it can from what it already knows and understands.
Ian Jones