Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Life isn’t worth living (a review)

In C.Spiby, Reviews, Uncategorized on July 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Hermit_ionescoA review by C. Spiby of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxims is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him at work. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks – more out of social duty than actual like of one another. And this is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, most notably their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

And yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France albeit still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by; satisfy his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. His outlook tempts our sympathies for the hermit to begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but where male chauvinism is replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. His fall coincides with the onset of events which feel a bit like Paris 1968 and the social unease surrounding it. He’s immersed in a fantasy of urban revolt and revolution akin to the civil spark possible from ’68. Except soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which reminded me more of the fall of Yugoslavia but happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage in the uprising, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine, revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, makes no distinction between left and right but nor can he seem to distinguish between love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening and why, just like the hermit we experience the outcome, and for the first time we fully feel the way he does about life in general: as an outsider. It’s quite a feat of writing.

Later still the revolution is now just a mess of reactionary forces and even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): now though everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement. At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and help establish the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. And yet this novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness, in my opinion.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

The Hermit’ is indeed a gloomy book but engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more fantastical. In that absurdity it becomes more satirical, almost a different book. And yet somehow its pace which takes you from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest.

It’s moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and it is his ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is, in my opinion, always the mark of a good writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online
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David Aaronovitch Interview

In Guest Feature, T. Chinnick on August 8, 2016 at 11:58 am

by Tyler Chinnick

{on-line special – full un-edited article in one piece, rather than split across two issues as in the print edition}

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for the Times and Jewish Chronicle (formerly The Independent and The Guardian). He is a winner of the Orwell Prize, chairman of the free speech organisation ‘Index on Censorship’ and author of ‘Voodoo Histories’ (about conspiracy theories). His new book ‘Party Animals’ examining his communist upbringing was published earlier this year. I caught up with David as he was padding up what he assured me was one of the steepest hills in London.

I think of you in the same bracket as people like Christopher Hitchens and Claire Fox who started out on the revolutionary left (Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party until 1987) and have migrated over the years to a point now where you’re post-political almost. Do you still consider yourself on the left?

[Laughter] Post-political?! I most certainly am not. And Hitchens wouldn’t consider himself as post-political.

I don’t think of myself as post-political and nor do I think of myself as a kind of classic journeyer from the far left over to the right. Some of the things that were actually the most important things to me politically when I was younger are still the most important things to me politically so I’m loathe to accept that classification.

And if it’s true that the kind-of people who regard themselves as being the cup-bearers for the left would not regard me as being of their number but to a certain extent I don’t care what they think.

You mentioned in the talk at the Hay festival that Internationalism is still one of your guiding principles are there any other principles that guide your politics?

Internationalism, inter-dependency, co-responsibility, feminism.

Without wanting to engage in any cheap psychologism it’s not difficult to see why a movement like feminism might have appealed to the young Aaronovitch. His parent’s relationship was not a happy one due mainly to his father’s serial infidelity. Painful enough at the best of times but to a mother who prized loyalty above everything else, almost unbearable. She coped with it by lying to herself, even in her own diary.

What about enlightenment values?

Yeah, actually, enlightenment is more important to me now than it was then because I didn’t really understand it as a concept, so in that sense I suppose you can say that is a kind of shift. You know gradually I’ve become much more militant in favour of freedom of expression, freedom of speech as the things that underline our capacity to be the people, to be the societies that we want to be. To take an example, I’ve become far more aware of the importance of say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 than I would have been as a young communist.

Some people feel that those kind of values are under threat now in a way that they haven’t been in a while – would you share that fear?

In places, yes. After the fall of the Berlin wall we had a kind of view about the progress toward the acceptance of by-and-large the value of Western liberal democracy and I think for ten, fifteen years you could see that. So by the time we got to 2010 the number of democracies in the world had increased exponentially, through Latin America and so on and that’s still by-and-large been the direction of travel but there’s the substantial kick-back: Putinisation in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, various other countries. We waited for a long time for a significant reform movement in Iran that has never really been successful, that has always been suppressed.

I was thinking specifically about here at home. With elements of the left cosying up and forming alliances with people who they may never have done so in the past.

No that’s true, and that’s irritating. But that’s kind of, quite a parochial concern in a way. I mean I do see that among certain sections of the left. A kind of relativism, an unthinking, a certain, basically a ‘find the underdog’ and whoever the underdog is, adopt their views – makes no sense. It depends on who the underdog is and what their views are whether you want to do that. So you can find people who are very strong say on women’s rights in the rest of society but that believe, effectively in withholding their solidarity from, let’s say Muslim women who are claiming the same rights – well, that’s not very impressive.

How has university and particularly student politics and freedom of speech on campus changed since you were there in the 70’s?

Well there were always people who, if you like, were keen to constrain the dangers of other people’s speech. Mostly they tended to be on the left and mostly the target tended to be people on the far-right and in a sense given that we were still only 30 years on from the Second World War and so on and we had a real problem of significant and violent racism – you could understand that even if it was slightly misplaced. But there were always people who tried to extend it then. So for example when I was a student leader you had a problem of some Trotskyists saying ‘well we have no platform for racists, the UN has just declared Zionism is racist, therefore we can have no platform for Zionists. And the Union of Jewish Students supports Israel which is a Zionist thing to do therefore we better ban them from speaking’! Some actually made that argument. It was always easily defeated but since then you’ve got a completely different thing that’s come in which is kind-of a degree of sensitivity, often hyper-sensitivity on behalf of someone else saying ‘we can’t bear to have these things said in this area because the speech itself constitutes an attack’ – almost as if it were a physical attack. This is not just restriction on speech it almost becomes a form of thought control.

Actually I’m beginning to think that we might have nipped the worst part of it in the bud now in Britain, if not in America. I think the Student Unions and others got the message that this is not the way to go. So I’m half-hoping that the problem will become less not more.

You opposed the Vietnam War when you were a student but you supported the Iraq war. What’s the difference?

There’s no similarity between them at all. The problem was that Saddam Hussein – was to all intents and purposes – was a fascist, ran a fascist regime by incredible violence, absolutely staggering violence and to effectively, in the end defend him from attack had nothing to do with the Vietnam war. But people will pose it in the way that they think it’s the same thing. The Vietnam war was, in a way, the arse-end of de-colonialisation, the Americans got hooked into because of the problems of the Cold War and their idea that almost anything was better than allowing countries to become communist. Saddam was a completely different kettle of fish.

What do your think attracts people to conspiracy theories?

As I said in ‘Voodoo Histories’ they’re better stories, they’re less complicated in some ways, they can give complete answers rather than the incomplete, unsatisfactory answers of real life.

So it has the attractiveness of a thriller is part of it and then the other part of it is the explanation for one’s own defeat, so, the kind of conspiracy theories which the Republicans threw at Clinton after they [The Republicans] lost the White House. ‘How could it possibly be”, they said to themselves “ that these Democrats who we hate so much have won more votes than we have, well, it must be jiggery-pokery because anything else has an explanation that lies in our unattractiveness and of course we don’t think we are.

Do you think we’re more susceptible to conspiracy theories now than we were because with the internet they have a viral quality that they didn’t in the past?

I think conspiracy theories get formed quicker and go round the world quicker but I don’t necessarily think that we’re more susceptible to them. I mean the anti-semitic conspiracy theories were incredibly widespread in Europe in the period after the first world war, ridiculously so. And they were probably more widely believed than any similar such conspiracy theories now. And of course once people have got them into their head it was hard to debunk them because you didn’t have a mechanism for reaching all those people who believed these things

Why do you think Communism was so socially conservative in practice?

Right at the beginning of the British Communist Party, interestingly, there was a puritan strain in that part of it was composed of temperance campaigners believe it or not. Then of course you had this notion of sacrifice for the working class and giving up everything to politics and to organisation, it’s quite a puritanical stance … so you had this strange combination of bohemianism i.e. we’re changing the world, everything is turned upside down and puritanism, everything for the sake of the class and so on and they sat in a kind of odd way. Now, at first after the Russian Revolution you had this explosion of experimental theatre, experimental art as all the artists think ‘well now we’ve thrown off the old shackles’ etc but the whole business gets very, very serious, you know about fighting off invaders, fighting off the counter-revolutionaries etc then the puritans gradually take over and what they say is actually your art should be entirely subject and your life should be entirely subject to the needs of the political moment. Now that becomes a very, very conservative position because it says it’s much less interested in experimentation now it’s much, much more interested in directing everything.

And I suppose the Party in Britain would have just been taking their lead from Russia?

To a certain extent but even to a quite late degree in the British Communist party you had the Bohemians, people who didn’t fit into the normal weft of Western life. I’ll give you a good example. You know the spy Guy Burgess, being a sort-of active gay guy in an era when that was frowned upon. You can quite easily see that some of his decision to oppose his country had something to do with his homosexuality. I’m not saying by the way by any means that homosexuals are traitors but what I am saying is that sometimes if you find yourself going up against everyone else you look for other affiliations.

And I suppose that would also explain why there were a disproportionate number of Jewish people in the Russian revolution?

Well precisely so. It does, and so a lot of forward thinking people or very imaginative people joined the revolutionary movement. But when that movement becomes a consolidation of power and then faces an existential crisis you know you’ve got an actual country there that you’re running then in that case it appealed to an innate conservatism. And so for instance Russian textbooks on anatomy for school would miss out the reproductive organs altogether, just wouldn’t mention them. Like Ken and barbie dolls really. When you got to that bit they were all gone. Not very helpful.

Among many things ‘Party Animals’ is a potted history of the major developments in Soviet history and how the CPGB, it’s leadership and members reacted to them. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the invasion of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and perhaps most problematic of all to a communist the 20th party congress at which Khrushchev revealed the truth about the Stalinist show trials and purges.

Did you ever talk to your parents about the revelations made by Khrushchev?

Thing is I didn’t have to talk to them about it because those had happened when I was a toddler, even younger than that and so by the time I would have been asking them questions about it it was already in the historical background. By the time I was in the party myself I – this sounds awful – but I didn’t care about their attitudes toward stuff was. I was not sufficiently enamoured of them to want to discover it.

Why did you decide to join the party?

Because I believed that the party was a good organisation that did the right things for people around the world and I wanted to be part of that.

But there were – and there still are – lots of Socialist and Communist groupings why the Communist Party?

Oh, I didn’t know that. I mean I knew there was the Labour party but I didn’t know there were all the other ones. I didn’t really know of the others until I went to college.

Though he says he was dimly aware of other left-wing parties he mistakenly thought that is was all more-or-less the same thing. He was soon disabused of that notion by a Trotskyist heartbreaker who slapped him across the face on discovering that in addition to joining her Trotskyist group he had also joined a Stalinist organisation. “She hated me” he recalls, the dismay still alive in his voice, “for being the wrong breed of leftist!”

Why did you decide to leave the party and how was that greeted by your family and former comrades?

I was already by then working in the media for five years. So I’d stopped really being politically active in any huge activist sense because it was incompatible with reporting on things to make yourself too much a part of them. In my house which I was sharing with other people we would put up things to do with help for the miners during the miners strike. I can remember writing things that were very sympathetic to the striking miners, if not to their leadership, but in terms of the party itself I’d more or less gone already. I mean I couldn’t really see myself the point of the Communist party already by ’87. I thought I would be better expressed probably in the Labour party. Also after I’d left being President of the National Union of Students I was just really politicked-out. I’d been an activist ever since I was a toddler. I’d been on countless demonstrations, I’d sold the bloody Morning Star on the student union steps almost every week for four years or something like that, I’d done my bit, I’d spoken on demos, been on demos, been arrested at demos etc. I’d just had enough of it.

All through my student life I was too political and I’d never really had any fun. I’d had some political fun but not really any other kind of fun. As it happens I’m not really a night-clubber or anything like that so it mattered less than to some people.

So you weren’t into night-clubbing and you didn’t particularly like Elvis Presley when you were younger and you’re disparaging about the drug culture … How did you rebel then – did you rebel at all?

I rebelled against my parents by taking myself out of the house and not going to anything with them, not going on holiday with them and so on. I mean it didn’t seem necessary to rebel more than that.

You weren’t tempted to become a Tory?

[Laughter] No! God no! I was not. That was the bloody last thing … [More laughter]. It’s extraordinary enough that I’m a Times columnist that’s kind of testing the limits without being a Tory. But if it seriously got to the point where I thought that the only way to keep a Corbyn government out was to vote Tory then that would be intellectually the right thing to do but it would be an incredible wrench. I mean I’ve never voted Tory in my life!

I was brought up thinking by and large that Tories were essentially devilish creatures and of course I’ve met quite a lot of Tories since and have discovered that some of them are quite personable. But I’ve never been even remotely tempted to be one.

What would your Dad make of Corbyn?

I think my mother would have been emotionally attracted to Corbyn on a very simple basis which is that he is the closest thing standing to what we used to stand for. My Dad was an autodidact, he taught himself Marxism and then economics. And one of my Dad’s favourite words was rigour – the idea that you must subject everything to rigorous work and rigorous analysis, you had to know all the facts and then you had to analyse them and that was really, really important to him. Say for instance you wanted to talk about the working class you had to have a definition of what the working class was, who is in the working class, how do they come to be the working class and when you say ‘the working class movement’ who are you actually talking about – which forces, in what kind of alliance, how would you get them together and how would they work and so on. I am pretty sure that he would have looked at Corbyn and thought this is an absolute bloody shambles, this is just not serious. And Corbyn has asked himself none of those sorts of questions, has no kind of intellectual interest in them as far as anybody can see and therefore is fundamentally unserious and therefore can’t lead anybody. I’m pretty sure that that’s what my father would have thought although I must say it’s very convenient for me thinking that that’s what he would think.

Do Labour/the left have an anti-semitism (AS) problem and if so how much, if any, is the fault of Jeremy Corbyn? The accusation is that he’s brought people into the party who would have been outside it otherwise.

I’m with my father in this respect really, which is I’m always interested in the question of what we mean by the words that we use – what do we mean by AS? I don’t regard it as anti-semitic per se to say ‘I don’t think Jews should go and live in a place called Israel and therefore I’m not a Zionist.’ I’m slightly more worried about people who of all things want to be anti-Zionist because that means that they’re against one particular form of national self-expression but not against any of the others but I don’t think they do that because they have a prejudice against Jews particularly.

So the anti-semitic tropes we’re talking about are the ones that are a transference to the word Zionist or the idea of Israel that are the old prejudiced perceptions about Jews. That they are incredibly and disproportionately financially successful and crafty and that they influence people by nefarious means, not open means to get their way. These would have been tropes that were highly recognisable to far-right people. And actually some of them come from far-right people so you now get this bizarre business that’s this cross-tweeting between Corbynistas – and I don’t mean people who are close to Corbyn particularly though some of them might be – and some sections of the far right, they just simply can’t tell the difference. They both claim to be for Palestinian rights above everything and that’s partly why all this has a particular salience really. It comes from this super-notion of the jewish lobby, or the Israeli lobby, or the Zionist lobby and so on you are essentially picking up on an anti-semitic trope which has gone down the centuries. That Jews are particularly tribal and close and manipulative. And I think that has infected sections of the Labour party or activists within the Labour party and I think it is a problem that the Labour Party now has.

The other aspect of this of course is that some of these attitudes are absolutely routine among some sections of the Muslim community. They’re just simply what Imam’s teach about Jews arriving out of the Koran and with no contradictory experience i.e. with no experience of actual Jews themselves to compare this against it is what an awful lot of people in the Muslim community including Muslim members of Labour believe – it’s what they’ve imbibed actually, which is even worse. In other words that’s almost the default position before you get to anything else.

Do you think there is any hope for socialism?

Now you remember what I said about my Dad – what’s your definition of socialism?

Let’s say Clause 4 the “democratic ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

Let’s dig down into that a little bit. If we replace private ownership and private profit with democratic control as an economic mechanism – so think about it, who is exercising the democratic control and where are they exercising it – what are we talking about there? Who’s doing what?

I’ve always been taken with Jean Jaures notion that for, say nationalised industries a third of the board would be elected by the government, a third by the workers in that industry and a third by the electorate.

The thing is people don’t want to spend their time electing and in a lot of meetings and they won’t run these companies particularly well and whenever this has been tried it’s not worked.

The question is what the optimum level of involvement in action is. When I was a student activist, Trot’s put an incredible amount of emphasis on the idea of direct democracy. They thought that if you were at a meeting the vote you took was ten times better than any vote you took if you weren’t at a meeting by virtue of having participated in the discussion and so on. I kind-of half thought that was true for a while but I just don’t any more. I don’t think you get good decisions that way and I don’t think it really works. In the sense that we’re talking about that kind of socialism, democratic control over the means of production etc. – I think it’s very good that you put it like that because you took the question seriously and attempted to create a definition which you’re probably aware is not what Corbynistas do. What they generally say is ‘oh well, we’re just going to do better things for everybody and life will be better for everybody’. And wave a vague stick at it. So you at least tie it to a proposition – even if it’s a proposition that we can then say once we’ve dealt with it won’t work.

By the time I was in the mid 80’s, late 80’s, I just didn’t believe anything like that would work. That’s not to say that capitalist system isn’t open to huge levels of reform, I mean after all the whole business of regulation, which has grown and grown and grown because we all know that you cannot simply leave it to the profit principle to decide how society is completely organised and who in the end absolutely gets what. It has to be mediated and how it’s mediated is always an open question but to set an arbitrary point about mediation and to say that this side of this point is socialism and this side isn’t when you haven’t fundamentally altered the system is I think a bit of a confidence trick.

Who do you think will win in November in the American election?

Hillary Clinton will win. And I’m saying that largely because I don’t really want to be on the planet if that’s not the case.

RE-DRAWING THE MIDDLE EAST: And re-visiting the film “Lawrence of Arabia”

In John Wilmot on September 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Recently I’ve been re-watching the classic 1960s film, Lawrence of Arabia.

It was much acclaimed at the time, winning a clutch of awards. It was directed by David Lean but backed by American money through Sam Spiegel at Columbia studios – and the US influence does tend to show through.

Much of it follows the heroic (and sometimes manic) actions of T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) attempting to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks during the First World War. Thus much of the action takes place in the scorching heat of the desert as the various tribes quarrel, unite, and then go on to score stirring victories over a disintegrating Turkish army. They manage to gain control of  Damascus just ahead of the British forces led by General Allenby.

But here Lawrence’s dream of creating an independent Arab state falls apart, as the various tribes once again quarrel amongst themselves, divide the loot, and leave the city.

ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES:

And we become aware of a sub plot to all this action. The major players had no intention of allowing the emergence of an independent Arab nation. Instead they had plans to divide the Middle East amongst themselves.

France was to be given what became Syria (further subdivided into Syria and Lebanon), whilst Britain would take control of Iraq.  And so, as they say, it came to pass.

The Middle East and much of North Africa was to be carved up between the European nations. France had much of Morocco plus of course Algeria, and now added Syria to its portfolio. Italy had already seized control of Libya in 1912 and it was to be administered as an Italian colony until 1943.  Meanwhile, Britain added Iraq and what was then known as Transjordan to its “sphere of influence” – that already included Egypt.

“A HOME FOR THE JEWS”:

It was of course a case of the imperial powers sharing out the booty. And, to complicate matters even further, under the “Balfour declaration” we also promised a “home for the Jews” in “the land known as Palestine”.

The declaration was contained in a letter sent by James Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild in November 1917.

True, the declaration stipulated that respect should be paid to “the existing inhabitants” of Palestine. And, at the time, it was not intended that it should become effectively a Jewish state. But what the letter succeeded in doing was to spread both hope and mistrust amongst Arabs and Jews alike.

Meanwhile, Britain was given the mandate to govern Palestine by the League of Nations (fore-runner of the UN) which it fulfilled until the late 1940s.

The territory was handed back to the United Nations, which decided on partition as a solution to an increasingly intractable problem. The rest, as they say, is history.

A BITTER CONCLUSION:

The Arab nationalism that T.E. Lawrence had bought into so avidly endured until perhaps the 1950s. The notion that a better world, for all Arabs, could be built has now fragmented and sadly has been replaced by a divisive, sectarian, religious fervour that is tearing parts of the Middle East apart..  That sense of Arab identity still exists on paper in the form of the Arab League, but in recent conflicts it has proved to be powerless.

And maybe we can trace much of the conflict back to divisions created by the European powers at the end of the Firs World War. It’s said that we can learn from history (if we’re prepared to do so) – but sadly we can never wind back the clock.

by JOHN WILMOT

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

In C.Spiby, Reviews on April 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm

{a review by C. Spiby for The Clarion}

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.

MAKING A POINT – OR JUST BEING OFFENSIVE?

In Reviews, T. Chinnick on January 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

TYLER CHINNICK reviews the film “Religulous”, made by American comedian Bill Maher in 2008. It’s now available on DVD.

Bill Maher is an American comedian and journalist, and one of that new breed of militant atheists who display all the arrogance and imperiousness that they attack in the religious. “Religulous” starts with him telling us that he is “seeking answers”, trying to find out why people believe, but it quickly becomes clear that he lacks the humility of a seeker, and this is nothing short of a polemic against religion. He approaches his subjects with a smugness that quickly becomes grating. He is frequently very rude to people who have granted him interviews and agreed to share with him some of their most sacred and deeply held beliefs.

Most of those he interviewed are predictably quite crazy and hold opinions which deserve to be rigorously questioned (indeed in some cases ridiculed), but he approaches them all with an hauteur, a bluster, a conceit that is so positively napoleonic that we find ourselves as viewers sympathising with people whom we’d normally find total unsympathetic.

It’s easy to make fun of religion and indeed a good, witty and entertaining movie could and should be made. This, sadly, is not it. For something far funnier and more insightful, you’d do better to re-watch Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

STEREOTYPES:

It’s when he tackles Islam, however, that his approach becomes more troubling. His analysis of Islam, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict, is riddled with prejudices, stereotypes and double standards.

For example, when the manager of the “Holy Land Amusement Park” explains that they’ve had visitors from the Gaza strip, it is illustrated with shots of hooded Hamas members shooting guns in the air. The sound of gunshots and screams continues throughout the interview.

And footage of a radical imam exhorting Muslims to kill Jews is followed by a shot of a bomb going off in Jerusalem, reducing the whole conflict to nothing more than Palestinian anti-semitism.

There are lots of examples of Muslim prejudice but none of Zionist lunacy, as if hatred and fundamentalism are only to be found on one side. This reflects the commonly held American view of the conflict, and it is just another confirmation that Maher has no interest in asking pertinent questions or in finding answers – only in scoring easy points.

He also interviews Geert Wilders, the fascistic Dutch politician who believes that the Quran should be banned. He is allowed to pontificate without question or contradiction. Maher doesn’t speak to any Muslims who have suffered verbal or physical abuse incited by men like Wilders. Indeed he doesn’t acknowledge that the problem of anti-Muslim prejudice even exists.

ALL CONDEMNED EQUALLY:

Islam particularly but religion in general is treated as one big, indivisible monolith. The idiocy and violence of one sect is used to condemn the whole religion, and in so doing he joins the ranks of the EDL and Pastor Terry Jones. This kind of atheism displays a level of intolerance that is deeply unhelpful and which I find personally distasteful. Are tolerance and mutual respect really so bad?

Religion is presented as something that is uniformly evil. Without light and shade, without a right and a left, without liberal and conservative. If he was really conducting an honest inquiry and using the scientific methods he claims to believe in, then he would have gravitated towards those areas most problematic for his thesis. If religion is as he believes so intrinsically bad and stupid, then how could it have inspired people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi to battle prejudice an injustice with such courage? Or artists like Michelangelo to create such majestic paintings? There are answers to all these questions for the atheist, but he doesn’t even ask them.

FAILURE:

“Religulous” is a failure. It’s a failure as a quest because he isn’t interested in the answers. It’s a failure as an argument because he doesn’t consider the things which might disprove it, and it fails as a witty polemic because he’s too concentrated on making an argument.

As for me, I believe in Karl Marx’s rather generous treatment of religion: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

(as quoted by Christopher Hitchens).

Utopian Dreams: in search of a good life

In C.Spiby, Reviews on August 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

non-fiction review by C. Spiby

It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

DOUBLE TAKE: More than one Road #2

In A.Graham, Reviews on June 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I Believed: The Autobiography of a former British Communist

by Douglas Hyde (Heinemann, 1951)

REVIEW #2

DOUGLAS HYDE grew up in a Methodist family in Bristol. In 1928 he joined the Communist Party, and spent the next twenty years or so working his way up through the ranks until finally he made it to the upper echelons of the Party, becoming a speaker, organiser and joining the editorial staff of the Daily Worker.

His book, I Believed, recalling his life in the Communist Party, was published in 1951. It ran to two reprints within a couple of months. It was a time of political polarisation, with the McCarthyite “witch hunts” in the USA at their height. Over there, being a “Commie” or a “Red” was seen as being guilty of “UnAmerican activities”, and thousands suffered as a result. Some were gaoled, others were merely blacklisted.

Though there was no blatant witch hunting over here, some of the climate had rubbed off in Britain. Coincidentally, it was about this time that I was beginning to get involved in politics. I was a teenager, just embarking on a new life in London. I ended up in a bedsitter which I shared for a while with another young lad who was a member of the Young Communist League. He made sure that I read the Daily Worker, and would engage me in “political discussions”. I never did join the Communist Party – though I admit that I did waver. The nearest I came to it was when the Rosenbergs were executed in America. They were sent to the electric chair on a charge of revealing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. They had been arrested in the summer of 1950, and despite a world-wide campaign for clemency, they were finally executed in 1953. The morning after, the Daily Worker came out with a one-word headline using the largest typeface it had – “MURDER”. The case stirred me emotionally. I believed in their innocence then, and still do today.

But eventually I veered away from the Communist Party. I think two factors helped to clarify my thoughts. One was the Soviet repression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956, and the other was the emergence of the nuclear disarmament movement a couple of years later. I took a different route, becoming increasingly involved in the peace movement – although with a developing Socialist perspective. For the record, I went on to join the ILP, which had been the CP’s major rival for the left-wing conscience in the 1930s.

It was against this backgound that I first read I Believed. It did have an influence on me – though not in the way that was intended by the author or indeed the person who gave it to me. It must have been difficult for Hyde to deny totally twenty years of selfless activity for the cause. At that time I was more interested in reading his accounts of the workers’ struggle – the hunger marches, the anti-fascist campaigns and the Spanish civil war – than the anti-Communist message superimposed as the overall theme. And I was in no way attracted by the alternative that Hyde chose – a sort of mediaevalist catholicism, beloved by such writers as Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc at the time.

Now, with maturity, I can take a more detached view of it all. Hyde knew better than most that the Communist Party at the time did as it was told, according to the shifts in Soviet foreign policy. The “party line” could (and did) change according to the dictates of Moscow, whilst the Communist policy document, The British Road to Socialism, was about as British as was allowed by the Communist International (later re-branded as the “Cominform”).

But what of the Party membership, which was still quite considerable in those days? When Hyde left the Party, it still had two MPs (though both seats were lost in the 1950 election), scores of councillors, a trade union base, and as late as 1960 boasted of a membership of some 30,000. As for the Daily Worker, it was selling 100,000 a day – and could have sold far more except for the strict rationing on newsprint that existed just after the war. The CP was not without its influence. I got to know many Party members in West London, and it was difficult to view them as “tools of Moscow”. They were sincere and committed and really believed that the “people’s democracies” offered the way forward.

Hyde was, in effect, a “proto-defector”. He was able to write his book whilst starting a new life in which he rejected “atheistic Marxism”. After he left the Party and the Daily Worker he became a columnist for the Catholic Herald. Others, of course, were to leave the Communist Party in later years, though not all of them lost their commitment to Socialism. The Party survived – but a “New Left” was also born in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

DOUBLE TAKE: More than one Road #1

In C.Spiby, Reviews on June 18, 2010 at 1:59 pm

REVIEW #1

I Believed: The Autobiography of a former British Communist
by Douglas Hyde (Heinemann, 1951)

As a former British Communist myself, I greeted with interest the invitation to read and review a copy of Douglas Hyde’s reflection on his life in and out of the CPGB and its paper, the Daily Worker. The reading, for me, proved personally significant and incredibly arresting. At times I was incensed, at others engrossed.

Brought up in Bristol, Hyde found his way into organised politics via the International Class War Prisoners Aid while still living with his liberal parents, which he openly refers to as ‘petty-bourgeois’. But not before he considered a life of the cloth.

The holy path, however, was diverted by his doubts. His reading of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man challenged his theological learning. His feelings that arose from the apparent abandonment of the WWI wounded or the poverty of Welsh miners just across the Severn drove him to anger. And it was society’s mute response to these issues which informed his growing sense of intolerance of the injustices of the world and the way it was ordered which finally pushed him toward socialism and inexorably away from the church.

Hyde writes in a straight-forward manner which is accessible if rather bland and, on occasion, dry. Nonetheless he comes across as a very diligent but not entirely exciting journalist. Somehow though, the bare facts and the passion still rise through this dry prose. And this story is all about passion of one sort of another. After all, what else drives a person into the Communist Party?

It is clear to me that the life quest of Douglas Hyde is all about belief systems. Indeed, you begin to get the impression that the man can see no difference between a belief in Marxism and a theological belief even though he himself fails to make this connection. Marx and Stalin are as good as Gods to him. Only this can explain why he moves from a theological future to a socialist one and then back again. His journey is a spiritual one. He’s a man in search of a home, a purpose and a soul. And this soul exists on a keen sense of social justice.

Taking us through the Spanish Civil War and into the Second World War, I Believed has many such tests of justice and parity not just for Hyde, but the Party and the paper he eventually writes for, let alone the West. It is steeped in events of the period and its authenticity is undoubted.

Later in the book Hyde describes Marxists as evil and represents Party members as one might today refer to the Moonies: a cultish, insular sect bending easily-influence minds. This too is in keeping with his almost religious understanding of atheistic socialism but it is not an all an aspect I recognise in the Party I joined in the mid 1990’s. In fact, he is out rightly ominous at some turns…

…even though we knew quite well what we would do with freedom of the Press and democracy when the revolution came.

Of course, today we should read I Believed as part of the cannon against Stalinism and not as an indictment of socialism or communism per se, which is what Hyde thought he was writing. He can be forgiven for thinking so too: when Hyde was writing Stalin’s reach was long in length and lasting, much to the disgrace of more progressive and humane communists such as the British Party.

It seems the lying had become pandemic among the Party hierarchy. For example, Hyde cites one again that following the lifting of the ban on the Daily Worker, and with a policy of strong Government support of the Red Army against the Nazis, the Government of the day actually paid for a lot of Daily Worker advertising space. So much so that the paper actually began to make money. A decision had to be made on whether the wind up the paper’s fighting fund which had previously pleaded poverty to its readers in hope of them delving into their often threadbare pockets. The outcome was to lie and continue with the pleading. This money paid for a new HQ and then surplus was passed directly to the Party. Arguing that this was all good for the cause just sickens me.

Of course, we only have Hyde’s side of the story here and it wasn’t long before those brief fortunes were once again reversed but the point remains. For my part, even when I belonged to the Party, I have never subscribed to the cause over the truth – does that make me a bad Marxist?

Also, when it is convenient for his argument against communism, Hyde tends to forget the intention of the socialist internationalism. And that is the desire to look beyond nationhood and into and for the brotherhood and sisterhood of our fellow working class the world over. In the early section of the book this is one of the attractions of communism but by the time we see Hyde’s dissatisfaction with the Party take hold, this internationalism is likened to being agents of the Soviet Union.

Russia has forty thousand such potential spies in Britain in the ranks of the Communist Party, and millions more throughout the world.

Which shows the later Hyde speaking, but this is followed, by a section looking back at Hyde the Communist…

At no point did the question of its being unpatriotic enter into our thoughts. We were, after all, agreed that a communist Britain would be a better Britain… The conventional attitude [among communists] to patriotism and love of country was easily dismissed with the question: ‘Whose country- theirs or ours?’

…To the seasoned Marxist the axiom that ‘the workers have no country’ is sufficiently well absorbed for such considerations not to enter into his conscious reasoning at all.

As an argument against communism, this to-ing (supporting internationalism) and fro-ing (accusations of acting as spies) weakens both sides of the debate without actually being balanced at all. This is a bit of an enigma, but I see the word ‘spies’ used in its negative connotation: a clandestine vanguard against Britain. In reality, communism might often have been secretive and subversive, some of which is in its nature in a capitalist society, but, as Hyde says, for whose Britain is this struggle for?

It appears to me that sometimes Hyde’s memoir sets out to be sensational in order to heighten the anti-Communist stance. If so this just adds to my case against his poor reasoning. Remember, I see Hyde as, essentially, a good Communist, and I can see why he left. Really, his reasoning should have left him to fight the socialist cause against the Stalinisation of the Party from within or elsewhere. To choose God instead seems, to me as a communist atheist, to be a weird solution. He even touches on this when he says…

For years I had dreamed of what we would do when we had set up our Worker’s State as the Russians had done. It would be different from their, no doubt, for our traditions and even temperament were different.

So this betrayal of Hyde’s own thinking is saddening. But I think we should blame Stalin, not Hyde himself – it is Stalin who sets Hyde back up the churchyard path. Let me give you another aspect of that sensationalism. Is it really true that all Communist Party of Britain members in the 30’s-50’s were sex-mad out-of-wedlock people lusting after constant free-for-all intercourse with scant regard for women’s rights inasmuch as an abortion was treated like a contraception? That is the sensational impression one gets from certain passages of the book, and I don’t buy it. Later he calls female Party members “so utterly unbedworthy”.

For sure, modern Communists need to be clear on the works of Engels and the family and where they stand on it today. After all, we do have another 100 years of human learning as well as social anthropology, sociology and psychology to take into account. Hyde’s book just puts these aspects too simply, sending a message that to be a communist is a bit like belonging to a religious cult in terms of relationships. Even though he is equally sure to point out that many took advantage of the sex but really lusted after a stable, almost Christian, family life. But why should we believe his opinion on that either?

This is, after all, the man who says…

It is difficult, I suppose, for anyone who has never been a Marxist, to understand how people who pursue immoral policies can in most cases nonetheless be likeable, intelligent and… well-intentioned…

…but this is Hyde, the Christian. The question arises as why is it valid to measure Marxists by Christian morality at all? Where I do agree with Hyde is in his more incisive analysis of the problems of communism, which is, in my view, entirely Marxist…

There is a great deal in communism which clashes with human nature.

The is a welcome point gladly accepted in John Foster’s 2006 publication for the Communist Party of Britain The Case for Communism. And communist shouldn’t shy away from such analyses.

It is sad to see that Hyde appears now to have been forgotten by the Party. Despite being News Editor at the Daily Worker and leading the British antifascist campaign for the paper at the time, his legacy does not warrant even a mention in the 2001 publication Is That Damned Paper Still Coming Out? (a celebration of ‘the very the best of the Daily Worker and Morning Star). This was when the Daily Worker was being read by an estimated half a million readers (counting the number of hands it was passing through from the original purchaser – 5 at the time).

For my part it was suggested that I leave the Party and while having done I have since felt somewhat rudderless. Unlike Hyde, I did not have an alternative faith to fall back on. The same pang which drives an intolerance of the manifold injustices of our time has not lessened. I still consider myself a communist.

This book reawakened some of that passion for the Party, although we can be sure that this was not Hyde’s intention. I respect his book and his opinion. Indeed, I believe it is time for his rehabilitation into the Party’s British history for I believe in an open communism. The same kind of openness, no less, which Marx, Engels and Lenin called for when they challenged communists to be the most robust critics of themselves. This is what progressive politics really meant. Hyde had inadvertently written a memoir which highlights this fact. Though he didn’t know it he did indeed get to the kernel of his misunderstanding of Marxism when he said…

I was a trained Marxist and so spoke and thought as a Marxist without any conscious act of will

That is not what I understand as Communism. Just as we could be a ‘community of nations’ with all our differences in culture and plurality of heritage, desires and makeup we could be individuals fighting for all. Not drones fighting for some over-centralised and paranoid Party hierarchy.

Today, the Communist Party of Britain believes the Labour Party and Labour Movement is best saved from within rather than building new divisive endeavours like ‘Respect’. Hyde’s book shows us how the same tactic should have been adopted by the CPGB for its own party under the shadow of Stalinist Russia which, just to be clear, was never a communist state. It was a dictatorship parading under communist slogans. Now we know that, communists need to move on and believe in ourselves and in the power of self-checking that proper Marxist self-criticism offers.

I look forward to your views on the matter in the letters and e-mails to The Clarion.

CS