Archive for Politics

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy is a film based on the novel of the same name by J.D. Vance.

Hillbillies in popular culture have usually been represented as figures of fun, even ridicule. Older readers will remember “The Beverly Hillbillies”, a TV comedy series based on a family from the Appalachian Mountains when oil was struck on their land, producing untold riches. They moved to California and continued to live like hillbillies in, of course, Beverly Hills. More affectionately, Don Macleans “Good ol boys drinkin` whiskey and rye” were clearly hillbilly types, albeit from further south. The hillbillies represented in this film could scarcely be more different.

So who were the hillbillies? Descended mainly from Scotch and Irish Protestant settlers who had ventured westward into the Appalachian Mountains from the 1750s onwards they had lived primitive lives in small, isolated mountain settlements with a good deal of in-breeding. The Appalachian Mountain chain stretches north to south from the Canadian border to the northern counties of Alabama and Georgia, but the hillbilly heartland is centred on West Virginia and the eastern areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. The discovery of coal in the 19th century led to major industrial developments in this still mainly rural and scenic region, but they were concentrated in small towns and villages. To this day the region has no large cities. Marked by violent industrial strife, impoverished by the Great Depression and, after a brief period of prosperity, suffering from the effects of post-industrialisation from the 1980s it has the lowest living standards of any region in the U.S.A. In racial terms it has remained overwhelmingly white. This is the Hillbilly country depicted in the film – poor, white, backward and devastated by an opioid epidemic. The film is set around Jackson, eastern Kentucky, and the small industrial town of Middletown, Ohio. A review in AP News described the book on which the film was based as “an election year explainer (2016) to liberal America about the white underclass that fuelled Donald Trump`s rise”

The film is autobiographical, based on the experiences of 3 generations of one family. Mamaw (Glen Close), the grandmother who holds the family together, Beverley (Amy Adams), her daughter and J.D. (Gabriel Vasso) Beverley`s son and the author of the novel. J.D. has progressed from a troubled childhood, enlisted as a Marine and used the money earned to work his way through Ohio State University. His scheduled interview for a post in a prestigious firm on Wall Street is jeopardised by an emergency call from his sister back home – their mother has succumbed yet again to an overdose of drugs. The family story is told through a series of flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence. It is moving and, at times, frightening. The film had a mixed reception, with nominations for both the Golden Globe and the Golden Raspberry (Close became the third performer in history to be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Raspberry for the same performance). The film was criticised for perpetuating stereotypes about the poor and praised for its realism.

J.D. Vance himself is an aspiring Republican politician considering a run for the United States Senate in 2022 representing his home state of Ohio. A successful venture capitalist, he is being tipped as a future Presidential candidate (he will be 44 in 2028). Indeed some regard “Hillbilly Elegy” as a promotional film with this in mind. Watch it (it`s on Netflix) and see for yourself!

Reviewed by Henry Falconer
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: J.D. Vance (based on the book by), Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso

View the trailer

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It Happened Here (1964)

It Happened Here Film Review by Anthony C Green

What if?

Kevin Brownlow was only eighteen years old when he began work on what would become the low-budget, cult-classic, Alternative History movie It Happened Here. Already a keen amateur student of the history of cinema, he had only a single 16mm camera to his name as his project commenced.

It was 1956 and Brownlow’s native London still showed much evidence of the effects of the brutal world war that had ended a mere eleven years earlier. For him growing up, as for so many of his age group in every major town and city in the country, bomb sites had seemed to be a permanent feature of his physical environment. Now, although the speed of post-war reconstruction was gathering place, it was these physical reminders of the horrors of war that gave Brownlow the subject for his film. The question he pondered as he began work was a question that had already been explored by many, and would be explored by many, many more, through the mediums of both film and literature: That is, what if Hitler had won the war and Britain had, like so many European countries, been invaded and occupied by the Nazis?

We should perhaps state that initially, Brownlow was under no illusion that, given the extreme limitation of his resources, he could produce a whole, professional-looking movie alone. The best he hoped for at this stage was that he would be able to produce a few reels of sufficiently interesting quality to be able to hawk them around various film studios, impressing enough of the right people to make his dream of seeing his project reach the big screen into a reality.

His early efforts, by his own admission, were not great. For actors, he used friends, friends of friends, relatives, and any passers-by he came across who looked right and were willing to give their services for free. For costumes and props, it was very much a DIY, make-do-and-mend aesthetic. For example, Nazi uniforms were made by the simple expedient of sewing swastikas onto a job lot of American army uniforms that Brownlow had acquired cheaply from a local theatrical costumier.

Everything changed, and work on the film properly begun when, whilst buying German war-time helmets on Portobello market, Brownlow was introduced to somebody whom it was felt might be able to assist him with his project. That person was Andrew Mollo who, at mere sixteen years of age, was even younger and more precocious than Brownlow. As luck would have it, it was to the subject of military history and to the collection of military artifacts that young Andrew had decided to dedicate his time and single-focused dedication. Intrigued by what Brownlow told him about his nascent movie, he agreed to take a look at what progress had so far been made.

Crammed into Brownlow’s small flat, surrounded by rolls of film, empty film canisters, and Fascist magazines that had been bought purely for the purposes of research, Mollo was not at all impressed with what he saw projected onto a white sheet affixed to a wall. Calmly but firmly, he told Brownlow that almost every single detail as regards the military aspects of the film was wrong. He then went on to amaze Brownlow with his detailed knowledge of the work of Eric Von Stroheim.

Stroheim had been an Austrian-American filmmaker of the silent era who had acquired legendary status through his obsessive attention to detail. For instance, in period pieces, he would even insist that his actors wear underwear appropriate to the time in which the movie was set, even if there was never any intention that any of this underwear would ever be seen on screen. The original version of his classic 1924 movie Greed originally ran to more than nine hours, a length which was unsurprisingly cut to a little over two before Metro-Goldwyn Mayer deigned to release it. Stroheim was considered to be so difficult to work with that his career as a filmmaker effectively ended in the early 1930s, and he spent the remaining thirty or so years of his life as a well-regarded but little-known Hollywood character actor.

That Mollo had even heard of Stroheim hugely impressed Brownlow, and Andrew was soon on board as the joint Producer/Director of the film, on the mutually agreed understanding that as close to a Stroheim-like degree of accuracy would be applied to their joint creation as possible.

The film would take eight years to complete, and it would be a further two before it would gain a full cinematic release.

Though both have since admitted to there being some degree of ongoing creative tensions between the two of them, Brownlow and Mollo clearly complemented each other as far as their skills and areas of special interest were concerned. Whilst Mollo brought to the movie a degree of authenticity that lifted the film well beyond that of being a mere home-made curio, Brownlow brought to it a political dimension that made it different from anything else in the ‘What if Hitler had won’ cinematic, or literary canon, either before or since.

By 1956, just over a decade after its conclusion, many film adaptations of major events of the Second World War had already been made, including many which are rightly still regarded as classics to this day. But one thing, in particular, struck Brownlow about these films, and that was that ideology had essentially been removed from all known portrayals of the conflict. The German army, and even elite Nazi forces such as the SS, tended to be depicted as little different to any other generic movie bad guys. But, considered Brownlow, wasn’t the Second World War essentially a battle of competing ideologies, in a way that no other war had ever been? On the one side, we had the Allies, comprised as they were of an uneasy, and as it turned out unstable, between Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. On the other were the similar, though not identical ideologies of Japanese militarism, Italian Fascism, and most importantly of all, in the vanguard of the Axis powers, the philosophy of Hitlerite National Socialism. For Brownlow, as both a filmmaker and as a committed leftist, a clear understanding of what National Socialism was and what it was that National Socialists believed was essential.

This determination to show Nazism as a real live ideology, for which people were prepared to fight and, if necessary, to die, led Brownlow to make a decision that was to prove to be highly contentious: This was the decision to allow real-life, modern-day Nazis the opportunity to describe their own belief system, without the mediation of actors, or even of properly scripted dialogue. We will return to this subject shortly. Through sheer necessity, despite their determination to apply the greatest possible degree of historical accuracy, the low budget/homemade ethos of the film remained. Only three professional actors would be included in the finished product, each of them agreeing to work for the minimum scale of Equity pay, on the understanding that their parts would be relatively small, so that they could fit in other work around the filming schedule, and that they would be paid properly in the unlikely event that the movie would receive a cinematic release. The remainder of the roles continued to be played by amateurs, some of whom were enthusiastic battle reconstructionists, and some of whom were former members of Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, temporary actors who no doubt relished the opportunity to dig their old Blackshirt uniforms out from their guilty hiding place at the back of their wardrobes. The rest of the uniforms came from Mollo’s ever-expanding list of contacts in the sub-culture of collectors of militaria. These were supplemented by the cast-offs from mainstream movies, as Mollo started to get paid work in the props and art departments of various movies.

Brownlow and Mollo found their lead actor in Pauline Murray, a middle-aged, Dublin-born woman who at this time was living in Wales. Murray was introduced to Brownlow by his friend, the film critic, and journalist Derek Hill. She was a working nurse who had a passion for amateur dramatics, though she had also had a small amount of paid acting experience as a background artist in a handful of little-known British films. Extra layers of realism were added to the movie by the fact that the character she portrayed on-screen would also be called Pauline, and that the character would also be a nurse by profession.

Although a strictly part-time actor, Pauline Murray apparently put the professionals to shame when it came to the seriousness with which she applied herself to her role, turning up on set early each time she was required, despite the long journeys from Wales to London, and always word-perfect.

Despite the resolutely DIY nature of It Happened Here, the film would not have been completed without the assistance of two major cinematic figures. The first was the film director Tony Richardson who had just enjoyed success with one of the earliest, and best, examples of what came to be known as ‘Kitchen Sink’ British movie dramas. This film was called Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Intrigued by what he had heard of Brownlow and Mollo’s project, Richardson asked to see what progress had been made so far. After reviewing the raw footage, he asked that it be expanded from 16mm to 35mm so that he could get a clearer idea of what a finished product might look like in the cinema. Liking what he saw, he agreed to bankroll the movie on three conditions: Firstly, that it could be completed for £3000 or less; secondly; that the rest of the film be shot using 35mm film; and thirdly, that the filmmakers provide a workable script. Up until this point, they had been working without one, improvising scenes when and where they could, using what would later be called ‘Guerrilla filmmaking’ techniques around general themes and ideas.

This last point was no real problem. Brownlow and Mollo had enough of an idea of the general shape of the story to be able to formalise it into a decent enough script. The problem lay with the first and second points. 35mm film was expensive, and paying for that alone would undoubtedly take Brownlow and Mollo way over Richardson’s kindly given but limited budget.

It was here that another established filmmaker came to their rescue, the already well-respected and later legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Brownlow met Kubrick, rather ironically, at a showing of Von Stroheim’s Greed, and took the opportunity to tell him how much he’d enjoyed his recent film Paths of Glory, which was set during the First World War. At this time, Kubrick was in London working with Peter Sellers on the classic Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove. Hearing about It Happened Here, and like Richardson intrigued by what he heard, and also remembering the struggles of his own early attempts at film making, Kubrick agreed to provide Brownlow and Mollo with the 35mm ‘short ends’ (film left unused at the end of a roll) from his new work-in-progress free of charge.

Through the help of Richardson and Kubrick, the goodwill of all of those who gave their services freely or cheaply, the contacts of Mollo, and the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ dedication of both he and Brownlow, the movie was finally completed by the autumn of 1964, and a mere £3000 over the sum allocated to them by Richardson. It received showings at a couple of film festivals, and the reviews and word of mouth grapevine from these was positive enough to alert the interest of United Artists. Thus began two years of tortuous negotiation before the film would finally get its proper cinematic release.

The main sticking point in these negotiations was the filmmaker’s determination to proceed with the inclusion of the real-life British Nazis. United Artists insisted that this footage be cut.

The scene in question was a six-minute segment during which Pauline is undergoing ideological training through the Immediate Action Organisation. The IA, as it is generally known, is a kind of British equivalent of the Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, membership of which is required before workers are allowed to begin, or to continue with, their chosen profession, in the case of Pauline, that of nursing. As part of this training, she and a small group of others are shown discussing with three British SS officers. These officers are played by former members of Mosely’s BUF, and who at that time of filming, in the early 1960s, were current members of the National Socialist Movement, a small party that included amongst its leadership would-be British Fuhrer Colin Jordan (a few years before he was convicted of stealing women’s underwear), and future National Front and British National Party leader John Tyndall. The scene is largely improvised and, prompted by the questions of Pauline and her fellow trainees, the Nazis had the opportunity to put forward their views on such topics as the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ over the Jewish race, and the need for methods of ‘humane’ euthanasia to be used against the disabled, or ‘useless eaters’ as they are described. The scene was accused by United Artists of allowing Nazi propaganda to be put forward virtually unchallenged. The British Jewish Board of Deputies would go further and accuse the filmmakers themselves of being anti-Semitic, despite Brownlow’s (Mollo was and is, by his own testimony much less of a political animal) impeccable Leftist, anti-racist credentials.

This part of the film has also, perhaps more plausibly, been criticised on purely aesthetic grounds, including by Brownlow’s film critic friend Derek Hill. Hill believed that, though fascinating it its own right, the scene unnecessarily interrupted the narrative flow of the movie. It is indeed true that the scene does seem to be rather shoe-horned into place, and perhaps a bit more scripting may have proved useful in integrating it into the film as a whole. But, like Brownlow, I would argue that the segment simply has to be there. Its inclusion, particularly given the added knowledge that these filmic Nazis really are Nazis who are articulating their own true beliefs, rather than actors simply speaking words that have written for them by others, is a big part of what makes It Happened Here special; and what better indictment of National Socialist ideology could there be than to hear one of its advocates declare that not only is he in general approval of a law allowing for the ‘putting down’ of disabled children but that he would happily take matters into his own hands as regards to a disabled child of his own, should such a law not exist?

In the end, through a sheer desire to see their long and difficult creative journey come to a successful conclusion, Brownlow and Mollo let United Artists have their way, and the controversial scene was cut. This was a decision that Brownlow, in particular, seems to have always regretted; and it should almost go without saying that the scene has been restored to its rightful place in all subsequent media releases.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its origins and the struggle to get it made, It Happened Here was something of a success. Extras in the Blue Ray release show queues outside a cinema in the West End, and examples of giant billboards advertising it that had been erected at strategic points around the capital. The idea that the film was a ‘lost’ low budget masterpiece that disappeared without trace after its release, only to be discovered later by dedicated British film buffs, is simply wrong. In the six weeks of its initial run in the West End, it made a gross profit of £26000, not quite Hollywood blockbuster material by modern standards, but a still not insubstantial amount in 1966.

Unfortunately for Brownlow and Mollo, this money was swallowed up entirely by United Artists’ advertising campaign, a campaign which included expensive cinematic trailers in addition to the billboards, plus the belated payment of the professional actors, and other assorted ‘expenses.’ Despite being shown at many venues across the UK, and also in several countries outside the UK, the two people who had dedicated ten years of their lives to the realisation of the project made not a single penny from its relative success. So, what of the movie itself? I won’t give away too many spoilers as regards the plot. Suffice to say, that the action takes place in the period of 1944-5, in a universe where Britain has been occupied by the Germans following the surrender of the British armed forces after their military defeat at Dunkirk in 1940. It is never explicitly stated, but a background photograph of Oswald Mosely next to a portrait of Adolf Hitler suggests that the government is now in the hands of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley’s leadership, with guidance from the German occupying forces.

A full-scale armed resistance movement is under way, and one of the most powerful moments in the movie, in another scene that some have criticised on the grounds of being anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, is the fiery oration delivered by a British SS officer at the torch-lit funeral for one of his comrades, a comrade murdered in an ambush by ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ members of the resistance.

For me, two themes stand out most strongly in the film: Firstly, the explosion of the myth of British exceptionalism, the idea that, unlike our less than courageous allies on the other side of the Channel, ‘we’ would never have accepted defeat and collaborated with our conquerors, had the war been lost. In the world of It Happened Here, the British people behave exactly like the French, the Dutch, the Danish, and indeed the residents of the Guernsey Islands, the only British territory that actually did fall to German occupation. That is, some collaborate enthusiastically with the Nazis, some fight actively for their nation’s liberation, and the vast majority in the middle simply accept the reality of their predicament and make of it the best that they can, perhaps resisting in small ways, as shown by the dirty looks that Pauline receives on the bus the first time that she ventures out in her IA uniform. The second theme concerns the moral compromises that ordinary people are forced to make when faced with extra-ordinary situations, simply to get by, to earn a living, to survive and to support their families, compromises that, as is the case with Pauline, can lead them into the kind of actions that they would never have contemplated should the world they had known not been brought to a shocking halt.

These extra-ordinary actions of course apply equally to those who resist as to those who reluctantly collaborate, a point that is well illustrated close to the end of the film, when a resistance leader, following the brutal and summary execution of a group of British SS members, comments: ‘Sometimes in order to fight fascism, you must use fascist methods.’

Another high point of the film, and another moment of uber-realism, is the faux-German newsreel extolling the brotherhood of the German and British people, and the glories of the new National Socialist Britain. In the creation of this segment, Brownlow in particular was heavily influenced by Orson Wells use of a similar device in Citizen Kane.

The It Happened Here ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel was in fact so real that an Italian documentary film in the 1970s took it to be an actual German propaganda film explaining what a glorious opportunity for Britain an alliance with Germany would be. Within it, we see faked footage (and all of the footage in the movie was created by Brownlow and Mollo, as they took a conscious decision not to use any stock footage) of the Christmas Truce of 1914, and of occupying German soldiers behaving not as cartoon-villains or as brutal conquerors, but as living, breathing young lads on an adventure, posing for photographs at famous London landmarks, drinking in cafes and bars and flirting with local girls.

One particularly believable touch in this section is provided by a brief shot of young British boys laughing as they jokingly imitate the Nazi goosestep. If the film has a weakness, it is one caused simply by the budgetary limitations placed upon its creators. Chief amongst these is that Pauline is the only constant character in the movie. Other characters are either extras, or else they appear briefly in order to fulfil a narrative function, to illustrate a ‘type’, be it an enthusiastic Nazi, a reluctant collaborator, or a determined, politicised resistance fighter. These were the roles that were played by the three professional actors, the structure of the film and the brevity of their role designed specifically to allow them to do their bit and move on to more immediately remunerative work.

But if this is a quibble at all, then it is a very minor one. It Happened Here is a one-off, perhaps the best Alternative History movie ever made, and one of the best British films ever made. Given its humble beginnings, the extreme youth of its creators, and the shoe-string nature of its budget, it is a truly remarkable artistic achievement. Actually, to say that It Happened Here is a one-off, is not quite accurate. Brownlow and Mollo were to work together once more, on the film Winstanley, released in 1976, about the 17th Century writer and social reformer Gerrard Winstanley, one of the leading figures in the proto-communist Diggers movement during the English Civil War. This film also took a decade to make; was also made for next to nothing using a mostly amateur cast, and also made virtually nothing for its makers. It is a worthy companion movie to It Happened Here. Since this film, Brownlow has devoted himself to the silent movie era that is his abiding passion. He has written books and made documentary films on this subject, and most notably he played the primary role in restoring Abel Gance’s classic 1927 film Napoleon, the five-hour epic about the early life of the future French Emperor. Andrew Mollo has continued to be much in demand as a cinematic Art Director and advisor on matters military, in recent years working on such high-profile movies as The Pianist and Downfall.

The 2018 Blue Ray release of It Happened Here includes, as well as a the beautifully restored main feature, an excerpt from a documentary on the making of Winstanley, early unused footage from It Happened Here, a longer version of the ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel sequence, and a brilliant hour-long interview with Brownlow, during which he goes into much greater detail about the making of the film than has been possible here. It is fabulous value for money.

Directors: Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo Writers: Kevin Brownlow (story and screenplay), Andrew Mollo (screenplay) Stars: Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw, Bart Allison

Anthony C Green’s latest novel Better than the Beatles! is available as both a paperback and an eBook

Purchase It Happened Here

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Review: THE BALKANS IN FLAMES; YUGOSLAVIA FROM BIRTH TO DEATH 1919-99

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This three-part PBS documentary explains how and why the ill-conceived state of Yugoslavia descended into chaos and barbarity not once but twice, first in the 1940s and again in the 1990s.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, re-named Yugoslavia in 1929, was established in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It brought together Serbia and Montenegro, which had been independent before the War, with Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The King of Serbia became Head of State and both the army and administration were dominated by Serbs. There were problems from the beginning. Serbia and Montenegro had fought on the Allied side in the War, the other nationalities on the other. Serbs and Montenegrins were Orthodox in religion and used the Cyrillic script, Croats and Slovenes were Roman Catholic and used the Latin. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina contained large numbers of both Serbs and Croats they were outnumbered by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks). In addition the Kingdom had large Hungarian and Albanian minorities. Not exactly a recipe for stability, as was demonstrated when on a state visit to France in 1934 the King was assassinated in Marseilles by Croat separatists.

The German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 led to its disintegration. An independent state of Croatia was established controlled by the Ustase, an extreme Croat nationalist movement led by Ante Pavelic, whose aim was to produce an ethnically pure Croat state targeting Serbs, Roma and Jews. Concentration camps were set up, the most notorious being Jasenovac. The Serb minority in Croatia, concentrated in the Krajina and Eastern Slavonia, was terrorised and massacres took place, with as many as 200,000 Serbs killed. The northern Serb province of Vojvodina was occupied by Hungary. Civil war erupted in Serbia and Bosnia between a collaborationist Royalist regime, Serb nationalists (known as Chetniks) and Communist partisans led by Tito. Communist support grew as the War progressed and when German and Italian forces withdrew in 1945 Tito`s forces took control of the whole country and carried out violent reprisals against collaborators, Ustase and anti-Communists.

Tito ruled Yugoslavia until his death in May 1980. Under the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity” he hoped to overcome national divisions by establishing Communist administrations in Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, under the authority of a central government in the Serb capital Belgrade. Serb influence was further diluted within Serbia itself by the creation of separate administrations in Vojvodina and Kosovo. Under Tito`s iron hand this appeared to work well. Having broken with Stalin in 1948 Tito assumed leadership of Non-Aligned countries affiliated with neither the U.S.A. nor the Soviet Union, thereby giving Yugoslavia a prominent role on the world stage. Industrialisation, worker participation in state-run companies and the rapid growth of a tourist industry on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia produced apparent stability and relative prosperity in the 1960s. The re-emergence of nationalism in the Croatian Communist Party in the early 1970s was countered by the imprisonment of its leaders. However the economy faltered in the 1970s. Prosperity was unevenly spread, with Slovenia and Croatia resenting subsidising the other republics. Albanian unrest simmered in Kosovo. There were growing fears that Yugoslavia might not survive after Tito`s death.

Tito

Was its collapse inevitable? I do not think so, but the circumstances certainly existed for ambitious nationalist politicians to exploit. The atrocities committed in the 1940s were well within the living memories of millions and passed on to their children and grandchildren. As economic problems grew worse in the 1980s it was Yugoslavia`s tragedy that such politicians emerged, notably Slobodan Milosevic, who became Head of the Serb Communist Party in 1986, and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. The first crisis erupted in Kosovo, where demonstrations by the Albanian majority against discrimination by the Serb-dominated administration led to counter-demonstrations by Serbs. Milosevic visited Kosovo and championed the cause of the Serbs, making him a nationalist hero not only in Serbia itself but amongst the large Serb minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Predictably, this in turn produced a counter-reaction. By mid-1990 both Slovenia and Croatia were threatening to secede from Yugoslavia, followed shortly afterwards by Bosnia-Herzegovina. Albanians in Kosovo demonstrated for the right to secede from Serbia. Old hatreds were being re-kindled. The result was a decade of warfare and ethnic cleansing involving the deaths of hundreds of thousands and atrocities not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War, ended only by the intervention of NATO forces in 1995 to end the war in Bosnia and again in 1999 to bring hostilities in Kosovo to an end.

Why was this? Slovenia`s secession in 1991 was almost bloodless because it was homogenously Slovene, but this was not the case in either Croatia or Bosnia. Almost 40% of Serbs lived outside Serbia as minorities in either Croatia or Bosnia. This didn`t matter as long as they remained all together in Yugoslavia However, when in 1990 Croatia elected a government led by Franjo Tudjman`s HDZ party committed to independence, Serbs who formed a majority in the Krajina region of Croatia, backed by Milosevic`s government in Belgrade and the predominantly Serb Yugoslav Army, declared their own secession from Croatia. For them, Croat nationalism meant the Ustase, and the hatred and fanaticism can only be understood in the context of memories of the 1940s. Sporadic fighting in that region continued until August 1995, when the Croatian Army, trained and equipped by the U.S., recaptured the region in Operation Storm. The Serb population fled in their cars and tractors and were eventually re-settled as refugees in Serbia proper. There was also extensive fighting between Serbs and Croats in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia, eventually settled by the Dayton Peace Agreement (see later) in December 1995.

Milosevic`s aim was to bring together all Serbs in former Yugoslavia in the same state. Inevitably this involved conflict with non-Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia, which declared its own independence in April 1992. Fearing minority status under Bosniak (Muslim) rule, Bosnian Serbs set up their own state, Republika Srpska. elected their own President, Radovan Karadzic, who in turn appointed Ratko Mladic as commander of a Bosnian Serb Army which commenced a 3 year bombardment and siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo (where a memorable Winter Olympics had been held as recently as 1984). Some 20% of Bosnia was predominantly Croat. For a year Croats and Bosniaks fought side by side against the Serbs, but in the spring of 1993 the Croats changed sides, Tudjman and Milosevic plotting together to divide Bosnia into Serb and Croat regions at Bosniak expense. In 1994, under U.S. pressure, the Croats changed sides again in return for U.S. backing for an independent state of Croatia. Finally in August 1995, after the massacre of some 8000 Bosniak men and boys by Mladic`s Serb forces in Srebrenica, NATO decided that enough was enough and intervened militarily to bring the siege of Sarajevo to an end and force the warring factions to the conference table at an airbase in Dayton Ohio.

Milosevic

Dayton brought the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to an end. Yugoslavia was no more, replaced by Independent Republics in Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia (recently re-named Northern Macedonia). Bosnia was divided into two regions, Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat Federation. It did not, however, deal with the problem of Kosovo. For Serbs it was their historic heartland which for them had an almost mystical significance. The Albanian majority, however, had had enough of Serb repression. A guerrilla force the K.L.A. carried out attacks on Serb targets, to which Milosevic`s forces responded with increasing ferocity. Historically Serbia had always looked to Russia for support, but Boris Yeltsin`s Russia was at a low ebb in the 1990s and humanitarian demands for western intervention against Serbia grew. NATO bombardment of Belgrade and other Serb targets in the spring of 1999 again brought Milosevic to the conference table and an independent state of Kosovo was set up. Thus by 1999 what had been a united Yugoslavia in 1990 had been replaced by seven separate states.

The three-part PBS documentary covers all of this in graphic detail and provides a valuable and objective guide to this complex unravelling of a country. German re-unification and the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet satellite states had been almost bloodless. The reason why this was not the case in former Yugoslavia is a combination of historic conflicts, populist nationalist politicians and the indifference of the rest of Europe until it was almost too late.

Slovenia and Croatia are now members of the European Union. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo are all candidates for accession. Bosnia has not yet met the conditions for membership and its future is uncertain.

Henry Falconer

Tito photo credit: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Milosevic photo credit: Stevan Kragujević, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the former Yugoslavia attribution: Yusuf Ziya Safi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Review: Leeds – United!

Henry Falconer reviews Leeds – United! a BBC Play FOR To-DAY (1974) available on YouTube

Nothing to do with the Football team of that name, this is a film based on an unofficial strike of Leeds female garment workers in January-February 1970. Directed by Colin Welland, already well-known for his acting role in Z Czars and soon to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Chariots of Fire, and with a leading role for Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley in Coronation Street), it is a brilliant portrayal of working- class life, living conditions and industrial relations in what now seems a bygone era. Being filmed in black and white gives it an added air of authenticity.

The plot involves a three-way struggle between the employers, the official Trade Union leadership and the employees in the Leeds garment industry. The industry itself was fragmented. A few firms, most prominently John Black`s, employed 100 or more workers. Others employed only a handful, with the owner and employees working side-by-side. The exclusively male Union bosses had in the previous year negotiated a deal with the employers which gave an increase of 5d per hour to male workers but only 4d for females. The case for equal pay had been made forcefully two years earlier in a 3 week strike of Ford Dagenham workers; this clearly served as a stimulus for what was about to happen in Leeds. A meeting of John Black`s workers elected an Unofficial Strike Committee demanding an immediate increase of a shilling an hour across the board under the slogan “gi` us a bob”. Its elected leader was one Harry Gridley, a member of the Communist Party (C.P.). The women marched around Leeds calling on workers in other workplaces to join them in the interests of solidarity. Nearly all did so, and a mass meeting was called in Leeds Town Hall with an atmosphere similar to that of the recent Civil Rights protests in the U.S.A., singing “We Shall Not Be Moved”. The Union leadership, fearing that it was losing control, refused to support the strike. Harry Gridley, true to the C.P.`s tradition of insisting that it should be in control, attempted manipulate the strikers into negotiating with the employers through official Union channels (“trying to ride two horses with only one arse”, as one of the unofficial strike leaders colourfully put it). By the fourth week the strikers, without Union backing and therefore receiving no strike pay and running out of funds, began to drift back to work. However the Equal Pay Act, passed later in 1970 and due to come into effect in 1975, perhaps gave them some satisfaction.

Viewed from the perspective of 2021, Leeds United is a piece of social history. By 1970 the textile mills in the surrounding towns in West Yorkshire and across the Pennines in East Lancashire were employing large numbers of immigrants, mainly from Pakistan. Towns such as Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax, Dewsbury in West Yorkshire and Rochdale, Oldham, Burnley and Bolton in East Lancashire were already feeling the political effects (in the 1972 Rochdale by-election one Jim Merrick, a Bradford-based candidate for the British Campaign to Stop Immigration received 8.9% of the vote). Yet the workforce in the Leeds strike was exclusively white. Few if any of the strikers could have foreseen what lay ahead. A moving moment in the film was the pride of a young worker telling her mother that she had acquired “a skill for life”. Little did she realise that only a few years down the line her work would have been outsourced to cheaper labour overseas and the “bob an hour” would be on “the dustheap of history”. Leeds-United stands as one of the last hurrahs of the organised manual white working class. The road to zero hours contracts lay ahead.

Director: Roy Battersby
Writer: Colin Welland
Stars: Lynne Perrie, Elizabeth Spriggs, Lori Wells, Bert Gaunt

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Race War: The Fight of the Century Johnson v Jeffries, July 4th 1910

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Johnson v Jeffries

Middle class liberals hate boxing. For this social milieu, the notion of competitive sport is problematic anyway, but the idea that two men, and alternatively in the modern world, two women, should voluntarily take part in a sport where winning is achieved by battering your opponent into a state of unconsciousness, or at least by hitting them more times than they hit you, is so far beyond the acceptable as to be off the moral scale.

Both competitors and followers of boxing tend to come from a working class background, and I come from a working boxing family. The ‘noble art’ was a huge topic of discussion and interest between my dad and myself throughout the seventies and eighties, and up until his death in 1993. Even during the times when I lived away from my home town of Grimsby, during a brief hiatus in the Shetland Isles 1980-81, or after I became a mature student in Manchester for the last three years of his life, our sporadic letters back and forth, most of which I still have, would contain references and predictions concerning this or that upcoming big fight, or our reflections on one recently fought. Dad’s own boxing memories stretched at least as far back as staying up, as a young, fit, keen sixteen-year-old way back in 1937, through the early hours of the morning to listen on the ‘wireless’ with his own dad, the grandfather I would never meet, to Welshman Tommy Farr’s valiant attempt to lift the World Heavyweight Championship from the great ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis, the excited British commentary convincing the two of them, as it convinced so many of their fellow countrymen, that the plucky British underdog had done enough to win. In fact, despite Farr’s remarkable heroism against one of the greatest Heavyweights to ever lace on a glove, the scores and the film of the fight show that Louis won clearly enough. It wasn’t until the era of Lennox Lewis six decades later that Britain could boast a Heavyweight Champion of the World, and Canada had a better claim on his heritage than we ever did.

My dad even did a bit himself and would like to tell the story of how, somewhere, at some point during the Second World War, he was called before his infantry platoon commanding officer after some misdemeanour or other, probably for being drunk and disorderly or for arriving back late from a period of leave. The CO said, after surveying my dad’s small stature but chiseled physique for a suspiciously long time, ‘you’ve got two options: It’s ten days in the Glass House (army jail), or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team.’ My dad chose the latter and competed regularly for the duration, even bagging a trophy or two.

It was fortunate that my shared interest in boxing with my dad spanned perhaps THE Golden Age of the sport. In the seventies, we enjoyed together, always on delayed television recording the night after the fight in those pre Pay-per-view days, the great clashes between Heavyweight colossuses like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Shavers, Lyle, Quarry, and, err….Bugner. In the eighties there was the vastly underrated Larry Holmes, who pummelled a faded, sick Ali into tenth round corner retirement as I travelled with my best friend Mike on the sleeper train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to the St Clair ferry and Lerwick; and the masterful series of clashes conducted between the Welterweight and Super Middleweight divisions involving Marvellous Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto ‘stone-fists’ Duran, Tommy Hearns and the tragic Wifredo Benitez. We also watched together the irresistible rise and rapid fall of ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson.

Standing above them all of course, in terms of pugilistic skill, charisma, moral courage and cultural significance, stood Ali; and what a beautiful, vivid memory it is, that of my dad entering my bedroom on the morning of November 1st 1974, with a transistor radio relaying the voice of the Greatest recounting for the world’s press the splendour of his miraculous victory over the seemingly indestructible George Foreman in the heat of Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Republic of Congo), a few hours earlier. I was proud, and still am proud, to have won a couple of quid from dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defy the odds and emerge victorious in the Rumble in the Jungle.

In that fight of course, Ali had regained the title that had been unjustly stolen from him on political grounds seven years earlier. It had been his second attempt to regain the title. His first, against ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier in March 1971, following a mere two comeback ‘warm up’ victories over Quarry and Oscar Bonavena after being unjustly banned from the sport for three and a half years because of his courageous decision to have nothing to do with the Vietnam War, had ended in a narrow, but fair points defeat.

That fight, at Madison Square Garden, had been billed as the Fight of the Century; and indeed this clash of two unbeaten giants of the ring, who both had a worthy claim to the Heavyweight Championship of the World, deserves its place amongst the greatest nights in boxing history.

But, at least in the opinion of this opinionated writer and boxing buff, it should really have been billed as the Second Fight of the Century. The accolade for being the first properly belongs to a bout that took place six decades earlier, almost one hundred and ten years ago at the time of writing, in Reno, Nevada, on July 4th 1910. This fight too involved a former Heavyweight Champion returning to the ring in an attempt to regain the title he’d never lost in the ring, in this case, the Great White Hope Heavyweight James J Jeffries.

It also involved a man without whom there would have been no Ali, no Frazier, no modern boxing at all as we have come to know it.

That man was the Galverston Giant, Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world.

The Fight was not just a fight. It was an event that in its cultural significance far exceeded anything that the world of sport had previously known, and arguably anything that it has known since. Essentially, it was a race war, or at least an important round in a race war that had been being conducted on American soil since the early, predominantly white, predominantly European settlers had decided that the native population was an impediment to the progress of civilisation, whilst also deciding that the capture and enslavement of black Africans would provide a great boost to that ‘civilisation.’

In 1910, it was a mere forty-five years since the 13th amendment of the United States constitution had, after a four-year-long civil war, finally abolished slavery. That is, it was as close to people then living as 1975 is to people of my generation. A great many former slaves were still living, as were many former slave owners; and in any case, the racism which underpinned slavery had not disappeared with its abolition, and America remained, and some argue still remains more than a century later, a deeply racist society.

Back then, the assumption of the natural superiority of the white man over all other races was accepted by even, as judged by other standards, radical and progressive people, as we will see shortly in the case of the great American writer Jack London.

Jack Johnson was himself was the son of former slaves, born to Henry and Tina Johnson in Galveston, Texas on March 31st 1878. His father was to serve, and be wounded, in the 38th Coloured Infantry of the Union forces during the civil war. Johnson would later describe his father, despite a permanent impediment to his movement caused by a bullet being lodged in his leg during the inter-American hostilities, as ‘the most perfect human specimen I have ever seen.’ Interestingly, although he was raised in a deeply racist society, working class people in the neighbourhood where Johnson grew up seem, at least according to Johnson’s own memories, to have been remarkably integrated, united by their material poverty and shared exploitation, in an era when working class self-organisation and resistance to poor working and living conditions was still scant, even amongst white members of the working class. Johnson would later recount how, from an early age, he ‘ran with’ a group of ‘rough white boys’ who ‘never made me feel inferior’. Perhaps this experience had a strong bearing on Johnson’s refusal, once he became famous, or perhaps more accurately became ‘infamous’, ever to behave in the humble fashion that white society demanded.

Johnson bought his first pair of boxing gloves with money saved from working as a janitor at the age of 16, and had his first paid bout two years later. He quickly established a reputation through his prowess in the ring, although the ‘Texas State Coloured Middleweight Championship’ he lifted in 1899, a year after his pro debut, was probably about as meaningful as many of the ‘Alphabet Soup’ ‘Title’ fights we see today.

It should be remembered that at the time Johnson began to make a living from the sport, boxing has we have come to know it was still in its infancy. The first international fight of any significance had been in Hampshire, England between the American John C Heenan and the local hero Tom Sayers. Prize Fighting in those days was fought with bare knuckles until one fighter was rendered unconscious or unable to continue. It was also, in Britain at that time, as in many American states, illegal. The Heenan v Sayers fight was broken up by the police after forty-two rounds and more than two hours of savage combat. It was later agreed between the fighters and their seconds to call it a draw.

Another great fighter of the bare-knuckle age was England’s ‘Gypsy’ Jem Mace whose career spanned more than three decades. But it is generally accepted that it is an American, the legendary John L Sullivan, who deserves to be afforded the accolade as the first lineal Heavyweight Champion of the World, gaining general acceptance as champion after knocking out Paddy Ryan in the ninth round in Mississippi in 1882. Sullivan became famed for walking into bars and declaring ‘My name is John L Sullivan and I can lick any man in the house!’ This was almost certainly always true, and for a decade he could justly claim that he could lick any man nt only in the bar, but in the entire world.

Well, probably.

The one question mark around Sullivan’s claim to be the best heavyweight of his era was posed by the existence of a British West Indies born, naturalised Australian citizen and a black fighter by the name of Peter Jackson. Jackson fought all over the world and in the context of a British Empire that, in this regard at least seems to have been more enlightened than its bastard American offspring, had defeated top class white opposition to claim the Heavyweight Championship of both Australia and of the Empire itself. He coveted a shot at Sullivan, and his record proves that he deserved it. But it never happened.

Fights between white fighters and black fighters were illegal in many American States anyway as an aspect of the general ‘Jim Crow’ laws against race mixing and integration then in operation. But the fight could have happened somewhere, in Australia, in Britain, in Canada and wherever it happened it would have made both fighters a lot of money. The fact that it didn’t happen was down to Sullivan and Sullivan alone. Citing the colour bar then in general operation across American society, he declared ‘I have never fought a black man and I never will!’ He was, sadly for Jackson, who would die near penniless of tuberculosis aged just forty in 1901, Sullivan was true to his word.

John L is regarded as both the last of the old bare-knuckle London Prize Ring Rules (the loose code that governed boxing in those days) and the first of the new-fangled gloved Marquis of Queensbury rules, even though the only fight he ever had under these latter rules (aside from in meaningless four-round exhibition bouts) was when he lost his title to ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett (later to be immortalised by Errol Flynn in the movie Gentleman Jim) by 21st round knockout in 1892.

Corbett had fought Peter Jackson in a gruelling 61 round draw the year before beating Sullivan. But as champion he, like his predecessor, drew the line he drew at risking seeing the championship fall into the hands of a black man. The same went for the man who took his title in 1897 with a brutal shot to the solar plexus in the first fight ever to be captured on film, Cornwall born but naturalised Australian and then American citizen Bob Fitsimmons; as did the man who took the title by knocking out Cornish Bob two years later.

That man was James J Jeffries.

Jeffries was a great fighter who held the title for six years, and he deserves to be remembered for more than his loss to Johnson when well past his prime. But his refusal to defend his title against, to use one of the more polite terms then in vogue, a negro, is a blot against his character, even if it is understandable in the context of the time.

And it is even more of a stain on his record for the fact that his reign as champion coincided with the rise of several great black fighters, each of whom would at the very least have given Jeffries a good argument as to whom was the best Heavyweight in the world. As well as Johnson, a contender from 1901 or thereabouts, there were the likes of Jean Jeanette, Sam McVey, and most of all the great Sam Langford. Black boxing had progressed beyond the not so distant point when they took part in Battle Royals’, where up to half a dozen of them would fight each other simultaneously in the ring until only one remained standing, all for the enjoyment of a paying, baying almost entirely white audience, but the difficulty of finding top-class white opposition willing to fight them meant that these great fighters had little choice but to do battle with each other on numerous occasions. Johnson and Jeanette alone fought each other seven times during this period.

Despite his refusal to meet any of the worthy black contenders, Jeffries was an excellent heavyweight champion, a big man for the time at 6ft 1 and a half inches tall, and around sixteen stones in weight. He was also a remarkably good all round Athlete for someone of his size, apparently able to complete a hundred yard dash in a little over ten seconds at his peak. He was a natural left-hander who nevertheless chose to fight out of the orthodox rather than the southpaw stance, and was thus endowed with a powerful sweeping left hand that knocked out the vast majority of fighters he fought. Amongst those who tried and failed to rest the championship from his broad shoulders was ex champion James Corbett (twice). He also holds the record for the quickest ever victory in a Heavyweight Championship fight, a 55 second first-round victory over one Jack Finnegan.  In the spring of 1905, with no worthy (white) contenders on the horizon, he took the decision to retire as undefeated champion. He himself referred the contest to succeed him as champion, a fight in which Marvin Hart defeated Jack Root. Hart lost the title in his first defence, by twenty round decision to Canadian Tommy Burns.

It is unlikely that anybody but the most partisan of Canadians would ever rank Burns amongst the greatest Heavyweight Champions in history. His place in the record books is secured mainly by him being the smallest of all Heavyweight Champions. At 5ft 7 and around 12 stone in weight, he was really little more than a middleweight. Despite this, he proved himself a busy champion, as well as the first globe-trotting champion, defending his titles no less than eleven times in three years, in France, England, Ireland and Australia as well as in America.

But his reign was dogged throughout by the dark shadow of Jack Johnson who, in his series of bouts against his racial contemporaries, had proven himself to be the first amongst equals, lifting the ‘Coloured Heavyweight Championship in 1903 with a twenty round decision over Ed Martin. Johnson followed Burns from country to country, taunting and questioning Burns right to call himself the Heavyweight Champion of the World until he had fought and defeated himself, a feat that Johnson knew was beyond Burns, and beyond any boxer then living, of any race, creed or colour. In his public pronouncements Burns, to his credit, refused to draw the colour line, declaring that he wanted ‘to be the champion of the whole world, not just the champion of the white world.’ But if words were deeds then we would all be heroes, and in practice he showed a great reluctance to face Johnson.

In the end though, whether it was through pride or money (he was paid a then whopping $30,000, more than a million Dollars by today’s standards, for the fight), or perhaps out of a real conviction that he had the beating of Johnson, Burns finally agreed to break with convention and defend his title against a black contender in Sydney, Australia on (aptly) Boxing Day 1908.

If he did indeed believe he would win, then he was sadly self-deluded. Johnson taunted and toyed with the brave but comparatively diminutive Burns until the police entered the ring in the fourteenth round in order to avoid the racial indignity of seeing a white man knocked unconscious by a black man.

A new age had dawned. The official greatest fighting man on the planet was now a black man. Jack Johnson, a son of slaves, was the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

At ringside for the Johnson – Burns fight, reporting for the American newspaper The New York Herald for the substantial fee of twenty-five cents a word, was the aforementioned great American writer Jack London. As well as being a great writer and already a household name in his own country, London was an outdoorsy adventurer and lover of sport, much as another great writer Ernest Hemmingway would be four decades later. He was also a staunch and vocal socialist. I recently re-read his novel The Iron Heel, and still consider it to be amongst the finest examples of Socialist Science Fiction ever written. His book The People of the Abyss, which is essentially about how even those at the very bottom of capitalist society readily take the ideology of their oppressors and exploiters as their own, is also required reading for all socialists.

But London was a man of his time who accepted as natural the right of the white man to rule over the black man. His socialism had no place in it for the ‘inferior races’, and it was he who, from the moment Johnson’s victory over Burns was confirmed, took it on himself, whilst magnanimously paying his respects to Johnson’s abilities and fairness as a fighter, to lead the campaign for James J Jeffries to come out of retirement and reclaim the title on behalf of the white man. In his report on the Johnson v Burns fight, which in its level of eradication more closely resembled an extract from one of his novels than it did your average boxing report, he described Johnson as a ‘Giant Ethiopian, toying with a naughty child’, and also referred to the new champions ‘Golden Smile.’ By way of conclusion, and in words that would echo across the globe, he issued his plea for the return of the retired former champion: ‘But one thing remains. Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face. It’s up to you Jeff.’’

Jeffries had initially enjoyed his retirement. As well his farm, where he tended cattle, hunted and fished, he also owned a nice house in downtown Los Angeles, a saloon which had reportedly the longest bar on the Pacific Coast, and an arena called the Jeffries’ Athletic club where he staged boxing matches which he would also sometimes referee. He grew fat and seemingly content, a good seven stone over his old fighting weight. But by the time the clamour for him to return to the ring to fight Johnson began, his businesses were apparently not doing so well. If the easy life was to remain easy, he needed money.

In addition to financial considerations, there was also a steady flow of letters, encouraged by London’s ongoing press campaign, from white people incensed that what was already described as The Richest Prize in Sport should be in the hands of a black man. Talking of this period years later, whilst in happy permanent retirement, Jeffries reflected: ‘They kept on at me. Even in the churches they were sermonising that I was a skunk for not defending the white races honour.’

Maybe, as well as the money and the expectations of his white brethren, there was also that feeling that never quite seems to leave great fighters, the same feeling that made Muhammad Ali return from two years retirement to take a one-sided beating from Larry Holmes, the same feeling that made the great Sugar Ray Robinson continue to compete in tank towns across America long after his glory days were over, that made Roberto Duran fight until he was fifty, that made Sugar Ray Leonard return one last time to get flattened by Hector Camacho, that feeling that maybe, just maybe, I still have it, if only for one night, if only for one last great fight. (At the time of writing a short clip of the 53 year old Mike Tyson blazing away at the training mitts in apparent readiness for a return to the ring has gone viral on social media).

Whatever his reasons, almost as soon as Tommy Burns hit the canvas for the last time against Johnson, Jeffries secretly resumed training, beginning the arduous task of losing the vast excess of flab that too much good food and too much hard drink had added to his already large frame, whilst publicly letting it be known that he would only take the fight with Johnson if he was sure that he was in good enough shape to be sure of victory:

‘I realise that (if I win) I’ll be hailed as the greatest champion in pugilism’s history. I know that it would mean more fame than ever fell to any fighter’s lot, and it would make me a rich man. But I also realise that to lose to Johnson would make me a dog. I simply won’t fight unless I know I am good enough to knock out Johnson. You don’t catch Jim Jeffries losing to a coloured man.’

Before turning to the fight itself, it is first necessary to say something about the character of the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. If Johnson had been a humble individual, if he’d behaved in the manner that was expected of black men, even in the case of those rare creatures ‘successful’ black men, if he’d said ‘yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am’, if he’d shown that despite his physical prowess inside the ring he knew and accepted his place outside of it, if he accepted racial segregation as merely an expression of the natural order of things, then the hatred directed against him by the white establishment and the clamour to see his ‘golden smile’ erased from his face by a white heavyweight, any white heavyweight, would perhaps not have been so strong, though of course the very fact of him holding the championship would still have been seen as a racial affront by a good many white Americans.

But all that is immaterial in any case. Because Jack Johnson was not a humble man. He bowed down to no one, whatever their colour. He not only defeated white fighters, he taunted and humiliated them, letting everyone know that he could win more or less whenever and however he pleased. Outside of the ring he flaunted his wealth, erratically driving the fastest, flashiest of those new-fangled motor cars that his money could buy, even dabbling in automobile racing. Once, when given an on the spot $5 fine for speeding he handed the police officer a $10 bill and told him to keep the change, explaining that he intended to drive at the same speed on the return journey too. He dressed in a manner that was a cross between a parody of an English dandy and a pimp, wearing a Top-Hat and Tails, carrying a silver tipped cane, and adorning himself with garish jewellery. Worse than any of that, he broke the greatest racial taboo of them all. He flouted his black, masculine sexuality by ‘cavorting’ with white women, at a time when mixed relationships were illegal in thirty American states, and at best frowned upon within the rest. In the first ten years of the twentieth century, approximately seven hundred black American males were lynched in the United States, many of them accused of raping white women. In fact, a good proportion of these alleged ‘rapes’ were purely consensual liaisons between black men and white women. The myth of the extra ‘endowment’ and sexual prowess of black men was widely accepted as true, and it seems that plenty of white women were only too eager to seek confirmation of this ‘truth’.

Johnson married three times, each time to a white woman, but many more were to pass through his bed chambers. Once, when asked the secrets of his sexual staying power after several beautiful white women had been seen to visit his hotel room in succession, he replied ‘jellied eels and distant thoughts.’ The first of his wives, a socialite named Eta Duryea committed suicide amid claims of physical abuse from her husband. Johnson’s ‘immoral’ race-mixing even brought criticism from within his own community. Black scholar Booker T Washington opined that it was a ‘shame’ that Johnson used his fame and wealth in a manner that ‘brought harm’ to his own race. Interestingly, in an interview with Howard Cosell in the early ‘70’s Muhammad Ali, after praising Johnson’s skill as a boxer and his courage in succeeding in a white man’s world, also made clear that, as a Black Muslim, he could not condone Johnson’s behaviour as regards to forming relationships with white women.

It was in April 1909 that Jim Jeffries publicly announced that he would resume boxing in order to return the Heavyweight Championship to its rightful place amongst the white race. He said that he believed he needed ‘eight to ten months’ to get into good enough fighting shape to ensure victory. In fact it would be another fifteen months before the Fight of the Century would take place. Before that, another Great White Hope, the hard hitting, hard living reigning Middleweight Stanley Ketchel got a shot at Johnson. After being toyed with in the manner that Johnson had toyed with Tommy Burns for eleven rounds, he had the temerity to knock the champion to the ground in the twelfth. Embarrassed and enraged, Johnson immediately jumped to his feet and rendered the upstart challenger unconscious with his very next blow, spreading four of Ketchel’s teeth around the canvas in the process. A photograph of Johnson standing over his prone opponent also reveals a lone black face in the crowd, smiling with satisfaction amidst a sea of grim, white faces. Such images could only have served to increase the pressure on Jeffries to restore the honour of his race.

Jack Johnson and James J Jeffries finally climbed through the ropes to face one another for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World in front of 22,000 people in an especially constructed arena in Reno, Nevada on July 4th 1910. Jeffries was being paid $120,000, over $3 million at today’s prices, and Johnson around half that amount. In addition, both were guaranteed a cut of the proceedings from the sales of the film of the fight, which was scheduled to be shown in movie theatres across the country in the weeks following the contest. Outwardly at least it was clear that Jeffries had worked hard at getting himself back into condition, looking honed and chiselled and weighing in at more or less his old fighting weight at 16st 3, 19 pounds more than Johnson.

But as was demonstrated by Ali’s ill fated comeback against Holmes, losing weight and looking good is not in and of itself a guarantee that a fighter has regained the abilities of his peak years. Jeffries was a narrow 7/10 favourite to beat Johnson, the odds perhaps tilted in his favour by the knockdown Johnson had suffered against Ketchel: after all, if a middleweight could put the upstart negro on his backside, what could the much bigger and infinitely more powerful Jeffries do? Indeed, a great deal of money was, mostly illegally, waged on the result. Fears of racially and gambling related violence was so great that guns were banned from the stadium.

As is the case at big Las Vegas fight nights today, a great many celebrities and champions of the past were amongst the audience. The biggest cheer of all during the pre-fight introductions was for John L Sullivan and the Irish American Jake Kilrain, who had battled each other bare-knuckled for the championship for an amazing 75 rounds two decades earlier, before Kilrain had finally succumbed to the Boston Strong Boy.

The expectation of boxing pundits for the course of the fight was that Jeffries would rush forward with his left hand extended in his customary fashion, seeking to trap his opponent in corners and the ropes before unleashing the full extent of his power to head and body. Johnson, it was thought, would use his masterly defensive skills to fend off Jeffries’ attacks by blocking, parrying and counter with jabs and crosses whenever the old champion left himself exposed. In fact, just as Muhammad Ali would confound the experts by eschewing his usual dancing master style to fight George Foreman to a standstill from the ropes in Zaire sixty four years later, Johnson too shocked the pundits, and more importantly shocked Jeffries, by staying close to him, trading blows at close quarters, taking whatever Jeffries had left to offer on his arms and shoulders, whilst rocking him repeatedly with lightning fast crosses and uppercuts. Occasionally, he would pause his assault to tie up Jeffries inside whilst chatting amiably with ringside onlookers, or to whisper mock-concerned enquiries as to ‘Mr. Jeff’s’ well being into the increasingly battered white man’s champions ear. At one point he marched Jeffries over to the ropes close to where ex-champion James J Corbett was sitting at ringside. In stark contrast to his ‘Gentleman’ nickname, Corbett had racially goaded Johnson throughout the long build-up to the fight, insisting that the champions black skin concealed a ‘yellow streak.’ This race-baiting had continued during the fight itself. Now, holding tightly onto Jeffries, Johnson looked over his opponent’s shoulder and yelled over the ropes ‘where do you want me to put him Mr. Corbett?’

The result was never in doubt. In the fifteenth round, a third of the way through the scheduled forty-five, Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel after their fighter had been floored heavily for the third time in the round, perhaps in response to such shouted pleasantries as ‘Don’t let the n..ger knock him out!’

Jeffries was at least magnanimous in defeat, refusing to blame age or his long lay-off for his failure to restore the title to the white race, conceding that ‘even on my best night I couldn’t have beaten him. No, I could never have got near him.’ Sullivan too, who unsurprisingly given his refusal to defend his title against Peter Jackson or any other black fighter, had been amongst the loudest voices clamouring for Jeffries’ return, now admitted: ‘The Fight of the Century is over and a black man is the undisputed Champion of the World….he is one of the craftiest, most cunning fighters ever to have stepped into the ring…the best man won and I was amongst the first to congratulate him…’

If the boxing world now grudgingly accepted Johnson’s dominance, wider American society did not. News of Johnson’s victory was greeted with wild celebrations in Harlem and in other centres of what was yet to become known as the ‘African-American’ community. A poem by the black American poet Norris Wright Cuney perhaps best summed up the mood amongst his racial compatriots:

Oh, my Lord

What a morning,

Oh my Lord

What a feeling

When Jack Johnson

Turned Jim Jeffries’

Snow White face

To the ceiling.

Supposedly lucrative showings of the fight in cinemas were banned in many American cities and States for fear that it would provoke racially motivated violence, although this didn’t stop it being the most watched footage in American history, until it was surpassed by D.W. Griffiths classic cinematic homage to White America in the movie Birth of a Nation five years later. Nor did it stop the violence: there were apparently riots of varying degrees of seriousness in response to the result of the fight in twenty-five American states, and fifty cities, with the death rate for these disturbances put at anywhere between twelve and twenty six. Even once the initial period of celebration and outrage subsided, the campaign against Johnson’s ‘reckless’ and ‘disrespectful’ personal behaviour continued in the American press.

The search for a Great White Hope capable of wiping the ‘Golden Smile’ from the lips of the strutting champion also continued. It took two years before a suitable challenger was found, although the fact that ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn, a fighter who’d been stopped by Tommy Burns in a title fight six years earlier, was the best opponent that could be found is perhaps an indication of how limited the potential white opposition to Johnson was at this time. My dad, in the pre DVD, pre VHS era, had a reel to reel silent film of this fight. It was most notable for the already legendary former Wild West Sheriff Wyatt Earp stepping into the ring before the fight to the acclaim of the crowd, two guns strapped to his belt. Flynn was disqualified in the ninth round after repeatedly trying to head-butt Johnson at close quarters.

Perhaps disappointingly, Johnson himself seemed to operate an unofficial colour bar once he became champion, refusing to give a title shot to any of his worthy old black foes like Langford, Jeanette or McVey, or to a young up and coming black fighter by the name of Harry Wills. Only once, in Paris December 1913 did Johnson give another black boxer, the unrelated Jim Johnson, a title shot, although their ten round bout is regarded by many boxing historians as being little more than a glorified exhibition.

If no white boxer could catch up with Johnson, then the white man’s law could. In October 1012 he was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act whilst travelling with a white eighteen-year-old alleged prostitute called Lucille Cameron, a woman who would later become his second wife. The Mann Act was a new law that forbade the ‘transposition of women across state lines for immoral purposes’, a catch all which could be used to persecute any black man travelling with a white, female companion. The case collapsed when Cameron refused to testify against Johnson, but he was arrested again shortly afterward under the terms of the same law whilst travelling with another white alleged prostitute, one Bella Schreiber, a woman who’d been ‘romantically’ involved with Johnson on and off for over three years. Schreiber did agree to testify, almost certainly in return for financial remuneration. Johnson was convicted by a predictably all-white jury and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.

Freed on bail pending appeal, Johnson chose to skip the country rather than face the indignity of jail time, joining Lucile Cameron in Montreal in June 1913, the two of them setting sail for France shortly afterward.

As an exile Johnson continued to box, both in title fights and in exhibitions, even trying his hand at bull fighting in Spain, before, at the of 37 finally losing his Heavyweight Championship by twenty sixth round knock out to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba in April 1915. At 6 ft, 6 inches tall and nearly 17 stone in weight, Willard was a giant of a man for the time. Most importantly of all, for those who detested the holding of the championship by an uppity negro, Willard was white.

Controversy still rages over the legitimacy of the result. A famous photograph of Johnson lying on the canvas shielding his eyes from the blazing sun is taken as evidence that he was not really unconscious, that he’d taken a dive in return for a promise of a pardon for his conviction by the American courts. But a boxer can be dazed enough to be counted out after being floored without being rendered fully unconscious, and raising one’s hands as protection against the Sun is a natural, instinctive act even for someone who is no longer fully conscious. In addition, if you are going to throw a fight, why battle through twenty-six (of a scheduled forty-five) hard rounds before doing so? This was Willard’s take on the controversy too: ‘If he was going to take a dive, I wished he’d have done it sooner. It was as hot as hell out there.’ The truth is probably simply that a younger bigger man was able to wear down an aging champion who’d grown too used to easy living, in conditions so excessively hot that even a peak Johnson would have struggled to cope in such a prolonged contest.

If there ever was a promise of a pardon for Johnson, it went unfulfilled, and for the next five years, the now ex-champion continued to travel and continued to box, until, apparently home sick, he surrendered to American Federal Law enforcement officers at the Mexican border in July 1920. Photographs of the event show both the law enforcement officers and the returning fugitive smiling genially for the cameras of the waiting press.

Johnson served ten months in Leavenworth state penitentiary between September 1920 and July 1921, though he seems to have served it in relative comfort, being allowed to train and even to put on boxing exhibitions with guards and fellow inmates. After his release, he resumed boxing, challenging Jack Dempsey, who’d ripped the title from Willard in three brutal rounds in 1919, to a title fight. By this time, with Johnson approaching his mid-forties and Dempsey in his devastating mid-twenties peak, Johnson would likely have taken a beating much more savage than the one he’d dished out to Jeffries more than a decade earlier. But in any case, it was never going to happen. From the moment Johnson was counted out against Willard, he unofficial colour bar which had been in operation from the time of John L Sullivan up until the reign of Tommy Burns, was reinstated. Black heavyweight Harry Wills had become the ‘Coloured Heavyweight Champion’ and was the man many regarded as the best possible challenger to the formidable Dempsey. But he never got a sniff of a title fight. After Dempsey had lost twice to the highly skilled Genie Tunney and Tunney had retired undefeated as champion, a succession of white heavyweights held the title for relatively brief periods: Max Schmeling; Jack Sharkey; Primo Carnera; Max Bear; James J Braddock, none of whom are regarded today as being in the same class as either Jack Johnson or James J Jeffries. It was not until Joe Louis’ unstoppable rise to become the second black heavyweight champion that the boxing world would again have a champion who is regarded as amongst the all-time greats.

Louis, or at the least the predominantly white people making big money from Louis’ skill and punching power, learned from Johnson’s example, the fighter earning the respect of the white world both within and without the boxing by sticking to his own kind, stressing his American patriotism and always showing due respect, at least outside of the ring, to his racial ‘superiors’. This helped to smooth his path to the championship. The phrase ‘a credit to his race’ was one that was often used in relation to Joe Louis. But it didn’t do him much good in the long run. After nearly twelve years as champion and a record twenty-five title defences, he wound up broke, owing money to the taxman. He was forced to make an ill-advised comeback that saw him outpointed by Ezzard Charles and knockout out by Rocky Marciano. After that, he engaged in the indignity of rigged Professional wrestling bouts, before developing drug and life-long mental health problems.

Instead of showing racial solidarity as Louis rose through the ranks towards the title in the thirties, Jack Johnson was rather sniffy about his successors fighting ability, calling him mechanical and comparing him unfavourably with himself. He earned much criticism within his own community when he boasted of having won a considerable sum of money betting against Louis before the Brown Bomber’s upset defeat against Max Schmeling in 1936, the year before Louis won the title from Braddock.

Unlike Muhammad Ali, whom age and ill health taught humility, and who was consequently transformed from a black separatist figure of white hatred into a symbol of universal peace and reconciliation, as was demonstrated by the ecstatic acclaim which greeted his lighting of the Olympic flame with a torch held in an alarmingly tremulous hand at the start of the 1996 Atlanta Games, Johnson never really seemed to mature as a human being, nor to reconcile himself to life after boxing. He continued to crave and to attempt to live the high life long after he’d lost the boxing skills and thus the financial means to allow him to do so. His last official fight was a knockout win in 1931 at the age of 53, but he continued to fight exhibitions after that, as well as to take part in unlicensed ‘cellar fights’ for private audiences in seedy basements. For a time in the 1930’s he even worked in a fairground where punters could pay a dollar for the privilege of saying they’d boxed a round or two with the great Jack Johnson.

He last climbed through the ropes in November 1945 at the age of 67 for a three one-minute round exhibition bout with old rival Jean Jeanette in aid of American military War Bonds.

Seven moths later, he was dead, a victim of his love of fast cars and refusal to accept the norms of white society, as he crashed his car whilst speeding angrily away from the scene of a segregated restaurant that had refused him service.

How good was Jack Johnson? It’s not easy to tell from the surviving, flickering black and white film of his contests, including of the battle with Jeffries. He was regarded in his time as a master of the art of self-defence, and whilst this was no doubt true, his preferred mode of defence was to block, parry and deflect blows with his hands, in a style strangely reminiscent of two-time champion George Foreman, though without Foreman’s devastating punching power. He shows little of the feet and head movement that would later characterise Ali and in our own time Britain’s Tyson Fury. But, if he was around today with all the advantages of modern training methods and more than a century of great fighters to learn from, who knows? In any case, as Lennox Lewis was to say, ‘Nobody can do better than be the best in their own time.’ Jack Johnson was the Heavyweight Champion of the World for seven years, and could probably have lifted the title three to five years before he did, had he not faced the ingrained obstacles placed in the way of black Americans in all fields of endeavour. The respected Boxing Historian, fight film collector, writer and long-time editor of Ring magazine Nat Fleisher saw every heavyweight champion fight live from Johnson to Joe Frazier. As a young man, he even met the very first official Heavyweight Champion, John L Sullivan; and Fleischer never wavered in his opinion that Jack Johnson was the greatest of them all.

But more importantly than that, Johnson was one of those rare figures who transcend whatever first brought them to public attention. Jack Johnson was not just a boxer he was a symbol, a symbol of resistance, of resistance to the great injustice upon which American society was founded. When he squared off against James J Jeffries on July 4th 1910, Jack Johnson, the son of slaves, was fighting not just for himself, but for his people, for victims of racial oppression everywhere, whether consciously or not. He was undoubtedly a flawed individual, but above that he was a free individual. And when the towel fluttered sadly into the ring as a symbol of the white man’s surrender in the Fight of the Century, it was his Golden Smile that glinted in the Nevada sunlight.

Postscript:

On May 24th 2018, after a long-running campaign, President Donald J Trump awarded Johnson a posthumous pardon for his conviction for violating the Mann Act.

Anthony C Green (May 2020)

Links:

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/104/1044822/unforgivable-blackness/9780224092340.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0gRGoDchMU

https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/50_Years_at_Ringside.html?id=6pE-AAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIrZIog0Oa4&t=447s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvTTn-DtZYw

 

 

 

 

 

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 Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani – A Defence

fullyautomatedluxurycommunismAlthough Karl Marx and his key collaborator Frederic Engels were politically engaged, active participants in the class struggle as well as being the theoretical founders of Scientific Socialism, neither of them had much to say about what a future Communist Society might look like. It is not true to say, however, as some critics claim, that they gave no indication of how society and the state might function in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of capitalism. In his book The Civil War in France, Marx made it clear that he saw the form of Direct Democracy exercised by the Communards in the short-lived but heroic Paris Commune, as an indication of how the working class might exercise State Power in a socialist society, a society that he saw as the transitional stage between Capitalism and Communism. The ideas Marx expressed here were later developed by Lenin in his pamphlet ‘The State and Revolution’ as a model for the future Soviet State, although in reality, for reasons that need not detain us here, very few of them were actually put into operation once this state was established.

That neither Marx nor Engels were willing to speculate on how Full Communism might look, once the concentration of power in the hands of the Proletariat under socialism had been long enough established for the state to, in his own terms, ‘wither away’, was more than anything else an indication of how far away such a prospect seemed at the time that they were writing. One thing that they were clear on however was that Communism, a society where class rule, and hence the repressive apparatus of the state had ceased to exist completely, could only arise in a situation where the application of scientific theory and praxis had created an ‘abundance of goods’ that were accessible to all, rather than to a small pampered elite that lived off the wealth creation of others. Once established, such a society would free individuals from the necessity of dedicating the bulk of their lives to maintaining the barest of existences through their work, thus enabling them to take part fully in the running of that society, as well as being able to dedicate themselves to such noble pursuits as Art, Philosophy and Science. An example of how such a society might function was perhaps given, in somewhat primitive form, by the Ancient Greek City states, where those who were fortunate enough to enjoy full citizenship were freed from the prosaic needs of survival by the existence of large numbers of much less fortunate slaves, thus enabling a flowering of creativity and thought that remains influential to this day. Marx and Engels were of course not agitating for a return to slavery, and indeed strongly supported the abolitionist North against the Slave owning South in the American Civil War. Rather, they saw in the rapidly advancing technological marvels of the Industrial Revolution, the outlines of a future world where mechanisation would allow full citizenship for all, and through that developments in the finer elements of human endeavour that would make the achievements of the Ancients, and of the Enlightenment, seem like a mere prehistoric prelude to history. Under Full Communism, every man would be a Renaissance Man.

Marx and Engels resided for a long period in Victorian Britain, which was then the citadel of world capitalism, as well as the birthplace of the industrial revolution; and it was a through a study of this society that much of what we have come to know as ‘Marxism’ was developed. Here, even in the most developed nation on Earth, they found conditions of extreme poverty afflicting the developing working class, as described most graphically in Engels ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England.’ Given such appalling conditions, speculation about how a future communist society might look once all such poverty had been eliminated, along with the system of class exploitation itself, would have seemed just that: wild speculation best left to utopians and dreamers, and best avoided by those who based their analysis on the application of the scientific method to the study of politics. Of course, It was also axiomatic to the founders of Scientific Socialism that a society of abundance could only be built from the starting point of the highest forms of capitalism. That is why, the clear expectation of both Marx and Engels was that the first socialist society would be established in one of the most developed capitalist nations, most likely in Britain or Germany. The reality, of course, is that the first state in the world that proclaimed itself to be a Socialist State in the process of advancing towards Communism arose in backward, semi-feudal Russia, a fact that has had a great bearing on the development of socialist thought both East and West.

Those who have called themselves ‘Socialists’ or ‘Communists’ in the West since the Russian Revolution of 1917, have tended to place themselves at either one of two extremes: Firstly, those who follow Marx in insisting that the society of the future is almost unimaginable to our puny, capitalist indoctrinated brains, and therefore such speculation is best avoided; and, secondly, those who say that such a society is already in the process of being created, in the Soviet Union, China, Albania, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea et al. Both of these approaches have their weaknesses. The former has led to many activists seeming to do little more than ask people to continue to fight the good fight and to have trust in a brighter future, in the way that religious zealots might demand faith in a future paradise that can bring about through good works and/or devout faith. The latter group is all too easily, rightly or wrongly, portrayed by the defenders of the status quo as apologists for Totalitarian Dictatorship and mass murder.

It is to these historical weaknesses in the case for Socialism/Communism that Aaron Bastani’s book Fully Automated Luxury Communism is addressed.

His essential thesis is that a future of material abundance is now far from unimaginable. The technological advances made since Marx’ time, and particularly in the period since the Second World War, have been literally astonishing, calling to mind the dictum that ‘if technology is sufficiently advanced it becomes indistinguishable from magic’. Marx was around at the time of the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell: what would he have made of our modern mobile phones, devices through which we hold in our hands virtually the sum total of all human knowledge? The primary mode of transport in Victorian London at the time of Marx’ period of residence in our capital city was the horse-drawn carriage, and the world’s first Railway network was still in the process of being created through the brute labour power of overworked and underpaid itinerant  Navies, the ‘precariat’ of their day. Today, the motor car is king, human beings have walked on the Moon and have developed the ability to send crafts, albeit unmanned, well beyond the confines of our own Galaxy.

And yet, as Bastani shows in clear, easy to read, accessible prose, our astonishing technological advance has been and still is used in the service of a tiny elite, rather than utilised for the benefit of the many; and to make this state of affairs even worse, the ceaseless pursuit of private profit by a few techno-corporate giants threatens, even sans nuclear warfare, to destroy our planet, our habitat, our home, the environment upon which our very survival as a species depends.

Bastani is able to show that a society of post-scarcity is both possible and necessary, as well as to give an indication of how such a society might be achieved and might look. Those of us who are actively engaged in the struggle for a radically different, fairer world, whether we call ourselves Communists, Socialists, Anarchists or Ecologists, be we Trade Unionists and/or campaigners for peace and climate justice, need to absorb, to treat with seriousness, and to make use of the kind of analysis and agenda that Bastani and his co-thinkers are currently advancing. If we don’t, if we ignore such developments and merely implore activists to stick to a study of the classics of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Enver Hoxa, Kim Il Sung, mix and match as you see fit, and if we continue to re-fight the battles of the past rather than becoming proselytisers for an incomparably brighter and entirely realistic future, then we will confine ourselves to perpetual life on the political margins. The revolution will remain, as one wag put it, ‘just around the corner, the same place it has always been.’

Sadly, too many on the political Left have decided to dismiss Bastani’s work as worthless ‘hipster communism’, often it seems to me without having even bothered to read the book, let alone to engage seriously with the ideas put forward within its pages.

Here, in defending Bastani from his ‘Leftist’ critics, I will confine myself to two main points.

The first of these is the contention that FALC is essentially a ‘Reformist’ project. This is a point that is easily dealt with. Of course, the ideas in the book are indeed reformist, reformist in the sense that it contains a set of proposals to be implemented by a future radical government. That is, it is reformist in the same way that Labour’s 2017 and 2019 Election Manifestoes were reformist, in the same way that the 1945 Labour government was reformist. Reforms are important. Reforms, before Thatcher and Blair between them made the word ‘reform’ mean the opposite of its former political definition, have given working people much. But the reforms contained in Bastani’s book, if implemented in full, would amount to a revolution in the way we live more radical than anything ever previously seen.

In one badly argued ‘Left’ critique of FALC, from John Sweeney of the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star, July 1st, 2019), Bastani’s assertion that the revolution won’t come about through a storming of the Winter Palace was written off disparagingly: why? Leaving aside the point that there was a lot more to the Russian Revolution than the storming of the official residence of the Tsar by an armed detachment of the working class led by the Bolshevik Party, how many on the Left in Britain today seriously believe that the British revolution will come about through a storming of Buckingham Palace? Does Sweeney himself believe this? If he does, then that is indicative of a very narrow understanding of the form and meaning of the socialist revolution.

One of the most exciting ideas that Bastani advocates is that of using technological development in order to advance towards a society of ever-increasing free Universal Basic Services, or UBS, a method he prefers to that of Universal Basic Income, UBI, (UBS rather than UBI), the latter which he rejects as little more than a trick to further enhance the capitalistic notion of ‘personal responsibility’ at the expense of the socialist imperative of collective security, as well as a way of further shrinking what remains of our actually existing Welfare State. Even at the present level of technological development, Bastani argues, it would be possible, once the capitalist class has been dispossessed, to rapidly advance to a system of UBS in the provision of energy, of high-speed broadband and other means of communication, in transport, in housing as well as in education and health care.

As well as UBS, Bastani advocates worker’s ownership of the means of production, to be administered in differing and varied forms (e.g. state ownership, municipal ownership, cooperatives), and the virtual abolition of all intellectual copyright and patent laws, so that the fruits of the sum total of human knowledge truly become the property of all.

Contrary to the impression given by Sweeney and many other ‘Left’ critics, Bastani doesn’t shy away from the need for political struggle if such a radical overhaul of society is to come about. The Red-Green Populist mass movement he calls for might not in and of itself be sufficient to bring about the changes he advocates. But is it really any less realistic than the idea of a shrinking industrial working class being led to power by a ‘vanguard’ party of the type Lenin first advocated in his ‘What is to be Done’ pamphlet way back in 1903?

This leads me to my second main point: the idea that Bastani is a Techno-Determinist who believes that Full Communism will emerge naturally through technological advance, without the need for political struggle at all. In reality, this is a weak caricature of Bastani’s thought, about as accurate as the common misconception that Marxism is an ideology of Economic Determinism which believes that socialism and communism are inevitable, whatever we as human beings do or don’t do.

In fact, the main thread that runs throughout the pages of Fully Automated Luxury Communism is that the potential for modern technology to liberate the whole of humankind from the evils of drudgery, poverty, and alienation, as well as to reverse climate change through ending our dependence on the rapidly diminishing supply of oil, is severely and quite deliberately limited by the physical and intellectual ownership of this technology by a tiny corporate, globalist elite. In short, Bastani’s work is wholly compatible with the Marxian analysis that under capitalism the capacity of the Forces of Production to liberate mankind will always, so long as capitalism exists, be limited by the Relations of Production, the ownership of the means of production by a tiny elite who then use that ownership to enrich themselves rather than to benefit the many.

A single quotation from the closing pages of the book should forever refute the idea that Bastani believes that political struggle is unnecessary in order to bring about revolutionary change:

‘There is no necessary reason why they (scientists and corporations currently leading technological advance – T.G) should liberate us, or maintain our planet’s ecosystems, any more than that they should lead to ever-widening income inequality and widespread collapse. The direction we take next won’t be the result of a predictive algorithm or unicorn start-up – it will be the result of politics, the binding decisions on all of us that we collectively choose to make.’

I am by no means a Bastani fan-boy. I have my own criticisms of his book. I’m not keen on the use of the word ‘Luxury’ for a start, a word that to me conjures up images of indolent decadence rather than of the unleashing of the creative potential of the masses that I believe would arise in a society built on abundance for all. There is also a strong case for dispensing with the word ‘communism’, a word that has, again rightly or wrongly to have much more negative connotations than its original Marxian meaning.  And I agree that Bastani doesn’t say enough about the form that the sort of movement he believes needs to be developed should take: for instance, a new political party, work through the existing parties, a Gramscian long march through the institutions, mass street protest, Trade Union action, or all of the above? Would such a movement, and/or a government committed to implementing Bastani’s ideas be prepared to use violence in order to defeat resistance that would inevitably be mounted by a threatened ruling elite? I would also add ‘Democratic’ and ‘National’ to Bastani’s ‘Red-Green-Populist triptych. ‘Democratic’ because, contrary to the sectarianism that has plagued the Left since the time of Marx himself, it really would be better if we let as many flowers bloom as possible, and ‘National’ because the political struggle is still fought primarily at the level of the Nation-State, and I believe that history has demonstrated that the Nation-State remains the largest form of political organization possible for the operation of a truly democratic culture. In addition, I wouldn’t be as quick as Bastani to dismiss the revolutionary/reformist potential of UBI, dependent on how it is implemented and by whom. There is no contradiction between the ideas of UBI and UBS. The two are twins, not opposites.

But at the very least FALC offers a hopeful vision of a future worth fighting for, and of how that future might look, something that, as I have already suggested, has been sorely lacking from Socialist discourse from its inception. Admittedly, I’m no scientist; and therefore, I’m not in a position to comment on the feasibility of asteroid mining, of nano-technology, of quantum computers, to give but a few examples of the many technological wonders of the future that Bastani believes can lead to a life of meaningful, healthy leisure for all. Nor do I know if the capacity of renewable energies can be expanded to the point that everyday energy usage can be made free for all, whilst at the same time making a huge contribution to reversing climate change, as quickly and as easily as Bastani suggests. But I doubt that many of the True Communist critics of the book are in any better position as regards such matters than I am.

Aaron Bastani advances a vision that inspires me, and can I believe be used to inspire others, to show the disillusioned and the dispossessed that, contrary to the fatalism and pessimism that is deliberately fostered by the ideologues of capital, that another world, a world for the many, not the few, a world that sees nature as a home in need of repair and protection rather than as a resource to be exploited,  is indeed possible.

It is time to leave our self-constructed Far Left ghettoes; time to dream; time to allow the imagination to take power.

Anthony C Green. Anthony C Green is a social care worker, novelist, Trade Unionist, and political activist living in Liverpool. His latest novel Special, based on his experiences as a social care worker, is now available: https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/special/

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto Hardcover – 11 Jun. 2019
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Verso Books (11 Jun. 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1786632624
ISBN-13: 978-1786632623

 

 

  • Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto Hardcover – 11 Jun. 2019
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Verso Books (11 Jun. 2019)
  • ISBN-10: 1786632624
  • ISBN-13: 978-1786632623

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Co-Void 19 Thoughts From a Rural Location Part 1

countryside-2175353_640Earlier today (as I write) I finished reading Colin Wilson’s second postscript to his book: ‘The Outsider’. This work has been with me before, and now during, the current pandemic. I think Mr. Wilson was probably something of an ‘outsider’ too. This was his first book and, for a young man, propelled him into some unexpected fame, the like of which had probably not occurred since Lord Byron and his ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. It seemed both men woke one morning to find themselves famous (to paraphrase Byron).

I have a few books ‘on the go’ as they say, but browsed my untidy bookshelves and picked out Isabel Colegate’s: ‘a pelican in the wilderness — hermits, solitaries, and recluses’— it seemed fitting (and no capitals in the actual title!). There’s a bookmark just over half-way in so it seems I’ve been here before — but I am either blessed (as in ‘peak experience’ blessed) or cursed by being able to read a book/listen to music or watch a film as if for the first time on each occasion.

The sun was shining (I’m in France so we get it here first) and the cat was lying down next to me fast asleep (plus ça change) and as I was reading the introduction, I felt the shadow of indolence pass over me. It wasn’t just indolence though. I was content. It felt like a partially drug-induced soporific state. As if I wasn’t quite in the real world. It could have been an experience where I shifted into another reality or received a visitation. But neither. Yet it was perplexing. Here I was — like so many of us — in forced lockdown with so much TIME on our hands. ‘Eternity in an hour’ — well not quite but with such autonomy (apart from geographic constriction) we could/can do anything. I have a whole pile of books ready to be read. I have songs ready to be recorded and I can compose, play, record (each part), mix and master songs from home. I can write to my heart’s content. And yet, back then, I simply slumped in my chair.

It’s like being in a sci-fi ‘B’ movie (forgive the Americanism) but not quite ‘The Walking Dead’. On the latter, I really enjoyed most of the series though I gave up at one point as it seemed to have morphed into something quite different. That original ‘something’ was the essence of the series that appealed so much — the existential angst; the amoral threat of the zombies. The zombies weren’t even important — it was simply this uncontrollable (well, near uncontrollable) threat. In fact, a threat that HAD to be controlled in some fashion. In this current sci-fi film, I find myself in it’s all rather perplexing. The threat of the virus seems very abstract and that’s probably because I live in a foreign and rural community. Shopping is becoming more and more surreal but not at the stage of the UK. So — how do I guard myself against something that is an abstraction? In shops, folk are gloved and masked and cashiers are goldfish like, wrapped in perspex or polythene (or something similar which I haven’t identified). I don’t wear gloves or a mask — I find that faintly absurd. Perhaps I shouldn’t — but in my ‘bit-part’ in this unfolding ‘movie’ or ‘mini-series’ that’s how it feels. I’d feel very odd clapping at my doorstep too — it just isn’t me. I have expressed my appreciation to friends who are nurses ‘on the front-line’, besides no clapping in rural France — yet. Maybe this is just my misanthropic side. I remember in 1997 when the UK went mad regarding the death of Diana. It was an odd feeling for me, I was bewildered and unsure why I wasn’t (or hadn’t) been caught up in the hysteria. How should I have felt then and how should I feel now?

For the moment (as I shall keep these thoughts fairly short) I too am an ‘outsider’. I look in. I’m at the wings of the stage. Who are the actors? Who’s in the audience? Well, back to me slumping in the chair in the calming rays of the sun — something eventually stirred me and I went off on a walk (I’ll share a link at the end of this of some words I wrote, photos I took and music played and composed of this particular walk I enjoy.) While walking, ideas came to me and one of the ideas was writing — well THIS. Walking, like any form of exercise, often needs to be prompted — it needs to become a habit and so it is with writing. Writing has its own muscle. I’m flexing it now. Tomorrow I might well slump in the chair again — but I have got my guitar out a few times now and firming up those fingertips (ouch!). I’m playing a lot of bass too but am currently unmotivated with other instruments or recording. (In fact, I have recorded music for a brace of poems and some drums for — just about – ‘on-going’ projects.) One step at a time, eh? So if you feel yourself nodding off and sliding down the cushions of your chair — make a mental note and give yourself a start! There’s much to do in these (for me and perhaps you) idle times — you can be busy doing nothing or can shake off the automaton-skeleton and come alive. Zombies come in all shapes and sizes so prepare yourself!
Tomorrow — I shall take out my chair and read. Maybe play some guitar too. You never know. I’ll try and go on my walk and let ideas flow, then share it with you.
(Here’s a link to my new writing channel – with the aforementioned ‘rural walk’: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEw98UVm8HXamMj0NWsOgLg…

By Tim Bragg
Tim Bragg is the author (amongst many books) of Lyrics to Live By – Keys to Self-Help Notes for a Better Life available from Amazon
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.

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The Havering Post

The Havering Post.  Double-sided A4.  Colour.  March 2019.  Available in pdf form from Facebook/Independent Havering: https://www.facebook.com/groups/499768197023360/

THE HAVERING POST is a local publication produced in support of several Residents Association groups & independent parties in the London Borough of Havering.  Havering would have been part of Essex before it was transferred to London by the London Government Act 1963.  This same act effectively created what is now known as Greater London as it abolished the administrative county of Middlesex and also absorbed parts of Kent, Surrey and Hertfordshire.

The Facebook site of Independent Havering – https://www.facebook.com/groups/499768197023360/about/ – informs us that it is ‘a pressure group campaigning to maintain and improve our borough’s quality of life.  It aims to lobby and hold national and, especially, local Government and bodies to account for their actions.  In the event of a future independent/RA Council it would aim to work closely with them to ensure promises are delivered but also have their ‘back’ if so.’

The Independent Havering group appears to be very well organised with lots of local ‘grassroots’ support.  In fact, the last local council elections (held in May 2018) nearly saw them sweep away 17 years of Tory rule in the borough.  Bizarrely four Residents Association councillors, who were elected on a anti-Tory ticket, later jumped ship to support the Tories.  One later went on to join the Tory Party itself.  Even more bizarrely, all Labour councillors seem to support the Tory administration!

It should come as no surprise then, that issue 1 of the Havering Post (HP) examines the question of ‘democracy denied’ at both a local and national level.  Refreshingly, however, as well as pointing out how democracy can be turned on its head, it also notes that future issues will ‘look at Proportional Representation, a ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) option on ballot papers, Referendums, Preferendums and Voter Recall.’

As noted above, the Havering Post (which is written to a Daily Mail standard) looks at national and local cases whereby the electorate has been cheated.

As its national example it cites the case of what used to be known as The Independent Group (TIG).  It was founded earlier this year when disgruntled pro-EU Tory and Labour MPs quit their respective parties.  Counter Culture readers may recall that, at the time, these MPs came across as very ‘high and mighty.’  However, as the HP notes, despite being elected as Labour or Tory candidates they ‘all refused to resign their seats and intend to stand as candidates for TIG in any subsequent by-elections.  In doing so, they have shown that they have no morals or honour.’

The paper then looks at the denial of democracy in Havering itself.  As described earlier, several Residents Associations (RA) and Independent groups had united under the ‘Independent Havering’ banner and were really giving the Tories a run for their money.  Thus began the political shenanigans.  As the Havering Post notes:

‘Things were so tight that the local Tories had do some horse trading.  It appears that some Residents Association and Independent councillors were approached by the Conservative Party and were offered positions to help them to set up a Havering Council Administration. In the event, four of them jumped ship.  Known as the ‘Back Stabbers’, they are Michael-Deon Burton (who even joined the Tory Party), Brian Eagling, Martin Goode and Darren Wise.’

The rather thoughtful (and insightful) remarks of one local voter are also quoted.  In part, he or she declares that:

“It’s not like they defected half way through their term, but on the first day. This cannot continue – some judicial review needs to be put in place to stop councillors swapping sides. I am totally disgusted. They have no morals.

I find it a personal insult to hear that some people in the RA and Independent coalition feel it is OK to lie to us, your electorate, by way of selling their soul to the Conservatives, just so they can form a majority party to lead our council. 

I can assure you I will personally do my best to make sure that the people in those wards know full well what they voted for. If we the electorate wanted to be lied to, we would vote Labour or Conservatives.’”

The idea of some legislation being brought into place (to stop elected officials jumping ship) is interesting.  The HP declares that those who switch sides ‘are guilty – at the very least – of betrayal and bad faith. Some may say that they’re also guilty of deliberately deceiving voters.’

Whatever the case, those with honour ‘would do the right thing’ and promptly resign their seat and fight a by-election under their new colours.  To date, none of the Havering ‘Back Stabbers’ nor the TIG MPs have done so.  Depending on the circumstances, it sadly doesn’t really say much for the calibre of those elected officials who turn their backs on their policies, manifestos and the people who campaigned so hard to get them elected.  Is it any wonder why so many people feel disconnected from the political system?

To sum up, the Havering Post provides a robust defence of real democracy.  It highlights the failings of democracy (giving local and national examples) but presents a well-argued case for more – and not less – democracy.  This is particularly apt given present circumstances whereby the establishment ignores the democratic will of the people, if it goes against the interests of the establishment – à la Brexit!

Hopefully issue 2 will be in the offering soon.  No doubt it’ll concentrate on local affairs, but as stated earlier, future issues ‘of the Havering Post will examine other ways in which we can make both national and local politics more representative of the people. Thus we’ll look at Proportional Representation, a ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) option on ballot papers, Referendums, Preferendums and Voter Recall.’  What’s being proposed here seems to be a purer form of democracy based on participation as opposed to representation.  Here, popular participation (a form of personal self-determination whereby voters exercise action and responsibility) will replace the current system of handing over power and responsibility to others.  With the political air full of doom, gloom and negativity, it’ll be refreshing to read something that’s extremely positive and forward looking.

Reviewed by John Jenkins

Haveringpost+

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Review: Sixties counterculture: A lecture from Dr. Greg Scorzo at The Academy 21 July 2019

gregscorzo

Greg Scorzo

Greg Scorzo is the director and editor of Culture on the Offensive and host of the Art of Thinking. I attended his lecture at The Academy which contrasted the counterculture of the 60s with the Leftist culture of 2019. Greg’s central argument was that the 60s counterculture was predominantly individualistic whereas the 2019 Left stressed collective themes.

For Greg, the 60s counterculture was in favour of pluralistic free speech and not only opposed government censorship of ideas but sought to foster a cultural environment that nurtured the expression of radical, even ‘dangerous’ ideas. Alongside this sat the belief that this could be done in a peaceful way and that such free expression led away from a view that violence was the only way to gain a voice or achieve change. Fast forward to the present day and that concept is linked explicitly with the Right. The Left instead now champion a ‘call-out culture’ which seeks to restrict free expression with symbolic prohibitions. Bans on words, symbols and even certain types of creative writing (for example writing with a cast of characters who are not sufficiently diverse). Additionally, Religions have been reclassified in terms of ethnic culture rather than seen as ideologies. This places them off-limits for criticism on the basis of the values they promote or their political impact. The Left today would view such criticism as an attack on the ethnic culture these religions now represent.

Whereas the 60s counterculture valued non-conformity the Left today engineers social incentives for people to stay ‘on message’. In Greg’s view whereas pluralistic free expression led away from violence the suppression of ideas favoured today was likely to create the conditions for it.

Greg also highlighted how the 60s counterculture appealed to universalism. It sought to persuade those who held a different view and emphasised to them the fairness of equal treatment. He accepted that there were those within the 60s counterculture who favoured equality of outcome as an aim but argued that this was not the dominant ideology of the movement. The 2019 Left emphasises equality of outcome which essentially looks at dividing power between rival groups and holds individuals responsible for the group to which they belong. Rather than appealing to universal values, it is divisive.

How the Left in 2019 has moved from the positive ideas of freedom expressed in the counterculture of the 60s to the promotion of a bureaucratic conformism today is a question worthy of further study? How they square this with an emotional attachment to the earlier counterculture is also a puzzle. I left Greg’s lecture full of these and other questions.

By Pat Harrington

#theacademy

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Book Burning

bookburning

There’s a book burning today are you going to come?
It’s someone we loved but you should hear what they’ve done
They’ve defended Goldstein – you’ll be sick at their views
Vile and twisted, it’s all over the news

There’s a book burning today bring all he has written
Tear the pages and spines and make sure that you spit on
Chant his name with hate as the books are consumed
This old way of thinking must be stamped out and doomed

Are you coming to join in as the heat rises high
You’re shaking your head – so tell me just why?
You aren’t a Goldstein, a hater of love?
For any who hate – in the fires, we’ll shove

There’s a book burning tonight be sure that we’re here
Any who aren’t let them stay home in fear
For when all the books are just piles of ash
We’ll come for the silent ones with pistols and lash

There’s a new book we love and you all have to read
It’s message is love and has a story to heed
And writers will never deviate from our thought
Rebels are burnt when tracked down and caught

There’s a burning tonight and she’s on top of the fire
Her views have kindled her own funeral pyre
Let this be a warning of love to you all
We’ll bury haters alive, wherever they fall.

By Tim Bragg

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