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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Survivors – Comparing the TV Series, Covid 19 & the Future Part 3  ‘Food’

Survivors_LogoReviewed by Tim Bragg

Spoiler Alert: the following talks generally about ideas from the series, with specific information related to ‘Food’.

Before I start writing – or rather re-writing this article – I have to say that I lost 1,000 words as a result of a power cut. An hour or so trying to recover the original document proved fruitless. So I will turn the loss into an advantage! Needless to say I was very happy with what I wrote but I cannot recapture those particular thoughts. But this has emphasised the dependency we have on both electricity and technology – themes I shall cover in the future. And I have decided to have singular articles for Food and Medicine whereas I had intended a combination.

The plague in ‘Survivors’ is called ‘The Death’. Without food and water you die – of course. And at times, without medication, you also die. In the series, life for the survivors is an awkward mix of reliance on the past (pilfering food and medicine) and adjusting to the needs of the future. The baton of the past being slipped into their hands for them to run with. Although they have stockpiled non-perishable foods, they have to plant and grow their seasonal, fresh needs. Most survivors would be ordinary folk with few skills – those WITH skills would find themselves elevated within their small communities. The ranking of folk is also something I wish to write about later.

For the moment I am going to concentrate on food and its production. Our group has finally decided to set up in a permanent place. It’s an old manor house which offers room, protection (to a degree), plenty of grounds to cultivate, a river and some animals close by. Fortunately a lone man joins the commune with self-sufficiency skills and he is able to point out where the group’s initial husbandry is going wrong. Paul (the new member) is able to look at land and know how it is to be cultivated (or not) – he has a seasoned eye for a young chap. He understands about irrigation too and how that is to be managed. Most people will have come from urban areas and have little clue about how to grow things, when to sow crops, how to raise and treat animals, how to cure meat and pickle or dry food. In the commune there is an old Jewish lady that seems to have some of the latter skills (harking back to a pre-war time) and having Paul arrive is a God send (or a ‘writer’ send).

Apparently during the lockdown here in 2020 large rats have been invading homes in the UK as their normal source of food in restaurants has been cut off! That got me thinking about the state of towns and cities in ‘Survivors’. How long would these places yield food? With so many dead bodies – neither buried nor burnt – diseases would surely flourish. Rats would teem and likely carry disease. In one episode of  ‘Survivors’ a small community has been close to wiped out as a result of eating poisoned fish. Rivers could easily become polluted by all manner of means – not least the slurry of dead humans and animals, plus toxins leaked from unmaintained factories. Every aspect of healthy living would be challenged. What water could/couldn’t you drink (running water from high-up streams would be best I imagine)? How would you tell if a fish was poisoned? You’d have to know a healthy fish – here any anglers would play their part. I don’t eat meat or fish but as the future overtakes the past with each new generation then I imagine all people would simply be glad and thankful for the food on their plate. The magical appearance of ready-made foods would be long gone – our whole connexion with Nature and Animals (flora and fauna) would be radically changed. How good would you be at picking edible mushrooms for instance?

Food would continue to be scavenged of course but as I have written, fresh food, meat and milk would be needed. In one episode a forlorn character realises that they will never eat bananas again. Even tomatoes would have to be grown in greenhouses (in Britain). Potatoes are a great crop as they are hardy and it’s possible to get three (but at least two) yields a year. You’d need to find potatoes that have germinated and duly plant them. And keep them blight free! All crops would be dependent on the season and its weather. You’d have to think ahead – think in a way most of us have never had to. Growing vegetables and herbs isn’t ‘easy’ – okay nature does a lot of the work but you have to dig the ground and maintain the soil. And keep insects, slugs and snails (maybe animals) from eating your crop. An episode showed how our group, though it had a tractor, realised they’d need to re-learn the skills of ploughing with horses. And as soon as animals are involved you really need to know what to do. It would be likely that horse-related skills would be found within the survivors – if not, then how do you handle a horse? How do you get it to wear a harness? Where is the food to sustain it? (You’re going to have to grow that.) If you have sheep/cows/goats – do you know how to look after them. Someone would have to step in and get their hands dirty – literally. These animals need to be disease free, well fed, sheltered if necessary. And how do you milk a cow or goat – not as easy as portrayed (Jenny in ‘Survivors’ was shown milking a goat). Okay you learn. But it would be such a complete change of mentality needed. The milk would come straight from the animal. How do you keep it fresh? Where would the bull be for the cows – who’s going to take charge of him? It wouldn’t be a story-book farm or some sentimental reflection you’d previously seen on the TV.

And what about killing your ‘food’? Someone will have to break the chicken’s or rooster’s neck; someone will have to snare a rabbit and kill it – then skin and prepare for cooking; someone will have to take a lamb and hold back its head so its throat can be slit (and the blood caught and used)! None of the meat from the animals killed would be wasted, at least. I imagine a random group from a survival rate of 1 in 5,000 wouldn’t produce many slaughterhouse workers, butchers or folk used to despatching animals. Methods of killing would have to be learnt and then done as quickly and efficiently as possible to save further pain to the animal. If rabbits or deer are shot then that will require the skills of stealth and accuracy – otherwise wounded animals will escape only to die later, slowly and painfully – or find themselves easy prey (meat) for another species. And the animals which are kept will have to be raised properly – all sorts of parasites will need to be monitored. Veterinary practices will also need to be raided. Where will future replacements come from? How will future drugs be made? Re sheep – who will learn to sheer the sheep – not as easy as one might think, I imagine. Would our attitudes to animals change for the better or be far worse (in the interim period at least)?

I don’t know how long drugs can be used safely – whether there are ‘expiry’ dates. Eventually alongside the growing of plants to eat, must come the growing of plants and herbs as medicine. Alcohol and cider could be made – but a primitive distillery would be required to create high-percentage alcohol that could clean wounds. There would be a LOT of drugs/medicine to go round – but going into towns and cities might become prohibitive. Just too dangerous – too dangerous even for the collection of much needed medicine. At some point  surviving folk would have to go right back to the fundamentals of medicine and how it is obtained. We would need folklore customs and detailed books for growing and gathering medicinal plants and herbs – then their domestication. We would need to re-discover the variety of produce in hedgerows.

Food is not just about ‘staying alive’. We need variety and good taste. Vegetables would need to be sown at the correct times and rotated. Land would be ploughed. Orchards located and/or fruit trees grown close by. Much time would be spent growing and tending food – making sure each season supplies its crop. Growing food requires forethought. Food could, of course, be traded and exchanged with other local communities (that could be trusted). And each group would need manpower (people-power) to keep its existence sustained. I think there would be a return to pre-modern sex-based roles. Men hunting and doing heavy manual work with women preparing and cooking food. This food would also need to be stored correctly. In one episode of  ‘Survivors’ our group loses much of its stock as it has stored the food in a cellar – which would have seemed sensible. But with heavy rains the cellar was flooded, causing extensive damage.

Eating food is a communal act – a celebration, a bonding of folk. We used to say ‘grace’ before eating – acknowledging that all food came from God. Perhaps in some future, devastating pandemic (as in the fictional ‘Survivors’) we would either re-discover a connexion with God and/or give praise to all the souls that brought the food to the table. A recognition that it was a group effort to bring about the nourishment on the plate: those who tended the vegetable and herb garden; those who ploughed the fields; those who cured and pickled; those who reared, killed and prepared the animals; those who obtained salt; those who fished; those who collected honey; those who picked fruit; those who knew which mushrooms or berries to pick and eat (not the poisonous varieties!); those who COOKED! Those who gathered wood for the fires and those who kept them going. Everyone would be as intertwined as the life found in a hedgerow.

Through the growing, rearing, managing, preparing and cooking of food there would come a  re-alignment of our relationship with Nature and ourselves. Rain and sun would affect crops as would the phase of the moon re sowing! Wind might drive the sails of mills (re-built for grinding wheat). We would become creatures of daylight again – and fire-lighting and maintenance a pre-occupation. With our natural ingenuity and enough minds put together (along with all the tools required and books found in libraries) we certainly could manage to transform from a ‘everything you want – when you want’ society into a self-sufficient hybrid society. I say ‘hybrid’ as we would take the best of the past and use it for as long as possible to help effect a sustainable future. With enough time, the transition could be made. But we would have to live WITH Nature not against her. Every aspect of food and our relationship with it would be altered. Life might become harder but perhaps – more rewarding.

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

survivorsboxsetSurvivors

  • Starring: Denis Lill , Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch and Carolyn Seymour
  • Directed by: Pennant Roberts , Terence Williams and Gerald Blake

You can buy Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975] here

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Survivors – Comparing the TV Series, Covid-19 & the Future Part 2 ‘Law & Order’ 

Survivors_LogoReviewed by Tim Bragg

Law & Order

Spoiler Alert: the following talks generally about ideas from the series, with specific information related to ‘Law & Order’.

Law and order will be key to any major crisis. During current times we have virtually imprisoned ourselves in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. In China the Government used and continues to use draconian methods to control movement of people and the spread of the virus. The Government monitors Chinese people through their mobile phones (which appear ubiquitous) and phone users now have to have their faces scanned and their devices linked to their real identities (which are also monitored through their national identity cards). There are nearly a quarter of a million face recognition and surveillance cameras throughout the country. In the UK and France we have seen some ‘heavy-handed’ policing operating alongside quite ‘laissez-faire‘ attitudes. In France we have ‘attestations’ to fill out if we move from our homes (to exercise, shop, work etc.) and some places have had curfews installed. In the UK, alongside drones hunting down lone or small groups of folk walking in rural areas, it seems a ‘blind eye’ has been turned to certain communities who have carried on as normal. Along with some police acting as if their new ‘apparent’ powers have gone to their head: insisting on ‘social distancing’ in parks – other folk have carried on travelling in overcrowded public transport. In France some local governments have instructed the CRS (the riot-control police) NOT to enter certain unofficial ‘no go zones’.

Most people are complying with the emergency measures governments have introduced and, it seems, have enthusiastically embraced the wearing of masks and gloves. In France (as currently in other countries such as the Czech Republic) mask wearing will soon become compulsory. It’s certainly an odd situation to find oneself in. Humans are social animals where most communication is non-verbal – but we find ourselves isolated and masked. We find ourselves complying with every governmental decree – partly I would argue because it is our natural inclination to protect others and partly because we readily seem willing to obey. As I discussed in Part 1 the mortality for Covid-19 is running very low – maybe 0.34% – but maybe we neither know the true figures at one end or the possibly manipulated figures at the other. We just don’t know. Where I live in France we have the lowest death rate (as I write) – these include folk transported into this area as we have vacant hospital beds. It’s likely you could count the poor local souls who have died on one hand. And yet I see people acting with palpable fear. It’s likely our department will seal itself off (as all others) while the borders around France are closed for exit but open for entrance. It’s all a tad odd.

In Survivors the first real brush up against Law & Order occurs in Episode 2. Abby arrives at a house (and small commune) run by an ex-Trade Union official called Arthur Wormley. He has effectively declared himself ‘Protector’ of the surrounding area. Wormley also hints that he has, or has had, some insider knowledge of the pandemic through government contact. This seems an attempt to give him legitimacy. While Abby is there she witnesses a ‘Kangaroo Court’ and a man taken to be a threat to the commune is summarily executed. Wormley’s men are encountered in Episode 3 too when they lay claim to the goods in a supermarket which Abby, Greg and Jenny are taking food from. Apparently they would be allowed to take what is ‘fair’ if they first obtain ‘official chits’. On the one hand we could argue that this is a reasonable attempt to manage resources and distribution – on the other it appears more as if Wormley is setting up as a ruthless and authoritarian ‘Chieftain’.

Again – I’m not attempting to re-write the plot of this first series but to highlight certain issues. It is obvious that Wormley will become both an active and an existential threat. His dictatorial regime is one manifestation of government. This idea has a volt-face in the Episode; ‘Garland’s War’. In a sense this episode looks at a Feudal System of government, with a twist of course. The main character, Garland, has found himself evicted from his ancestral home by a chap named Knox and his followers. Garland is waging a one-man guerrilla war to get his place back. At one point we have the idea that Knox is the reasonable alternative to how he sees Garland – as a despotic feudal baron. A few twists of the plot later and it’s clear that Knox is the ‘bad guy’ and Garland – though still an outcast – has an old-fashioned, patriarchal but also benevolent and romantic idea of how the estate should be run. There’s a definite spoiler possible here for you – so I’ll quickly move on!

There are a few clashes between groups as one would expect, with independent groups, militia-type groupings and even a small settlement with a tank! But the main episode for Law & Order is interesting and a defining moment, perhaps, of the first series (for a number of reasons). It has been decided within our group of survivors that they need some entertainment – and those of us under lockdown in 2020 can readily relate to this. There’s dancing to Greg’s guitar and singing (not bad at all in fact and realistically portrayed in the way these scenes most often aren’t) but also alcohol freely flowing. Price, the Welsh chap, has defected back to the group and has struck up a relationship with Barney (who is simple-minded but has useful natural skills). Price also has his eyes on a young woman called Wendy who joined the group with an old Jewish woman she’d been staying with.  Barney leaves the festivities and main hall first, obviously drunk. Wendy goes to bed soon after and Price follows her. It’s obvious what he wants and in her bedroom she is knifed to death by Price – presumably as she struggles against his advances. The next day when Wendy’s body is found Price manages to frame Barney as her killer – who is unable to articulate his innocence. There follows a form of trial where Barney is incapable of defending himself. He is found guilty of the murder and it is decided he should be killed (as opposed to ‘banishment’). Which he is. This is quite startling and unexpected (in these Hollywood-ending times). Price in fact finally owns up to his guilt but in a discussion between Greg and Abby, Greg states that they can’t admit they have killed the wrong person to the group and they can’t afford to kill another man. Thus there is a secret between Price, Abby and Greg. (Without giving the game away further this IS resolved.)

As a result of this episode the actress playing Abby had a massive barny (no pun intended) with the director and effectively left the series (with a further four episodes remaining to which she must have agreed to continue acting as Abby). I also noticed that the writer of this episode didn’t write any further ones! This episode being discussed is actually called ‘Law and Order’ and set a dark and most realistic tone, in many ways. It made me question the whole procedure of guilt and innocence. Some thoughts:

  1. How reliable can evidence be?
  2. How can a man without full faculties be tried for a crime?
  3. How responsible would that person be with ‘diminished responsibilities’?
  4. How else were the group to respond to what seemed like ‘overwhelming evidence’
  5. Would ‘banishment’ have been a fairer sentence? (It was presumed Barney would have died alone once away from that commune.)
  6. Could he have had an alternate form of punishment – such as working longer and harder for x amount of time to ‘repay his debt’? But could they continue to trust him – might ‘he’ not strike again?
  7. Had they the right to execute him?
  8. Had they the right NOT too? (There would always be the apparent chance of him doing something like that again and if he were ‘rescued’ from banishment might he not do the same to a girl from another group? In that case they would have to share some of the guilt for letting him free!
  9. Greg became the ‘executioner’ by lot. Was it fair for any of them to be so?
  10. How would a New World Order re-create laws and justice? In a new situation what would the laws be based on? The Bible? Common-group-sense? Biased-group-sense? The Old Order?  ‘Might is Right’?
  11. An innocent man was executed having been ‘tried and sentenced’. What precedent would that set for the group and other communities?!
  12. A guilty man effectively went free. His ONLY redemption being that he confessed – albeit too late.

The fewer the people and the greater the existence of ‘strong men’ (or violent men or psychopathic men) would mean that, as with Wormley, the greater the chances of summary execution. Again there would have to be a correlation with maintenance of law and order and the amount of people LEFT in society. For us ‘here and now’ law and order is largely maintained – but not completely. People that think differently – ACT differently. People who think differently or live their lives under different mores won’t see a situation in the same manner.

I usually say: the more people there are the greater the laws needed to control us (well, I paraphrase) and with fewer people, of course, there might possibly be: fewer laws, concentrated laws or specific laws. In response to an epidemic such as that found in ‘Survivors’ it would seem that laws have been put into place, such as they are, in a piecemeal fashion. Thus the laws are concentrated in certain areas where certain groups either have, or wish to have, control. The laws we are experiencing at the moment across the globe often reflect the nature of our existing governments – with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) coming in the hardest. The dangers for freedom/liberty are that the extended powers given Western governments (such as the UK and France) will not be wholly rescinded. Further, there is always the danger of tyrannical measures arriving on the coat-tails of disaster.

We have therefore two opposites: next to no law (and certainly no national, coherent law in ‘Survivors’) and a kind of emergency regime in democratic nations with more hard-line governance in dictatorial regimes. And with some countries taking a more ‘relaxed’ approach to the virus (re ‘social distancing’, wearing of masks, etc.). I imagine that differing amounts of people would reflect in the nature of any imposed law and order – perhaps a certain balance between government officials and number of survivors would bring in even MORE draconian measures. If a million folk, say, were to survive in a nation then the Government might try hard to keep these folk ‘together’ under their preceding law and order regime and in so doing might well resort to heavy-handed military force.

In the last episode of the first season of ‘Survivors’ (which I have only recently watched) Greg says: we are all out for the best for ourselves. By the end of the episode he has begun to communicate with other groups with the idea of creating a Federation. It’s going to be interesting to see how these pockets of Law & Order either coalesce or separate like oil and water.

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

survivorsboxsetSurvivors

  • Starring: Denis Lill , Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch and Carolyn Seymour
  • Directed by: Pennant Roberts , Terence Williams and Gerald Blake

You can buy Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975] here

 

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Survivors – Comparing the TV Series, COVID-19 & the Future Part 1 ‘Introduction’

Survivors_Logo

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

Spoiler Alert: the following talks generally about ideas from the series, with specific information related to Episode1.

Survivors was a successful TV series first broadcast on television in 1975 (with further series in ’76 and ’77). The episodes I have re-watched thus far have been mainly written by Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks (from Dr.Who) among many other credits. When the series first aired I was a youth discovering life and this had an impact upon me. We would wait from week to week to discover the unravelling fate of the eponymous ‘survivors’. I think all (or most episodes) of the series are available on YouTube – I’ve seen a playlist containing 24 episodes, though that would be two short for series one and two (both 13 episodes respectively). Regardless, I shall deal with each series generally and maybe hone in on the themes of particular episodes. Throughout I shall try to marry the narrative of the 70s survivors with both the reality NOW and how we might have responded to a similarly exaggerated situation. In the fictional account, only 1 in 5,000 people have survived – rendering the UK’s population to around 10,000. We are probably looking at a contemporary COVID-19 death rate of between, say 8 and 17 per 5,000 of those WITH the disease. Thus against the survival of ONE per 5,000, we have something like 4,990 – it’s hard to be accurate as we don’t know how many have had (or will have) the virus. The figure could well be closer to 4,995 plus survival rate. Currently, we only have stats for those dying from the virus and even these figures are questioned. In the area I live in in France the death-rate is roughly equal to our previous year (we seem to have the lowest rate of infection in France). Okay – its current speculation set against a fictional creation. But you get the idea. ‘Survivors’ REALLY IS about surviving.

The flavour of the series is interesting in that it marries prescience with a now almost achingly old-fashioned and nostalgic sense of England. For instance, the virus has come from China and is a pandemic/epidemic (as far as is known). The Government response seems incompetent with deliberate lies about the extent of the effects of the virus. Everything we are experiencing now seems to have been considered but obviously highly exaggerated because of the death-rate. The infrastructure of the whole of the UK seems to have quickly shut down, with no electricity and faltering public services. As I respond I’m going to relate my ideas to this fictional account with what we are currently experiencing – and how we might deal with a virus such as that NOW. How would we modern humans cope compared with those fictional mid-70s characters?

The main figures I have encountered thus far are Abby – a middle-class married woman whose young son is at boarding school. She contracts the illness but survives, whereas her husband dies. At least the first half of Series 1 is structured around the search for Abby’s son (who isn’t among the dead boys at the school and is apparently part of a group of healthy students sent camping into the countryside). Contrasted with Abby is Jenny – a young working woman from London. Most of the characters speak with middle-class accents. (On a side note – have a listen to musicians from the 1970s and you will be surprised at how ‘well’ they speak, Roger Waters springs to mind but remember should you watch any music documentaries). The final main character (thus far) is Greg. Greg is resourceful and ‘handy’. Another adult character that crops up and is intertwined throughout is Tom Price – a Welshman. He adds an element of ‘humour’ and represents, perhaps, a typically useless (as well as devious) survivor. Though full of seeming bravado his only real skill is in ‘wheeling and dealing’ and the ability to ingratiate himself into any situation or with any company. I’ll introduce other characters as they occur.

Abby responds to the death of her husband by leaving their house after burning it down. This seems both extreme and odd. This would surely be the place her son would head for if he has survived (and she finds out later that there is such a chance). Though we are constantly, and rightly, told that the chances of ANYONE surviving are extremely low. Abby is later framed as a leader, though I am yet unconvinced. Jenny walks out of London to find herself in the countryside where Abby is from. I’m not going to re-write the plot, but the first major idea of the series is presented in this episode: that society must start again. Everything must be re-learned and that though there is plenty to go round for the moment all of that will be gone in one or two further generations. At that point, humanity would have to stand on its own two feet and not rely on the spoils of previous generations. In this case, Greg is a very useful figure but not the most competent as we later find out when other characters’ skills become apparent. But he is useful and can turn his hands to most things.

My thoughts on what might happen as a virulent virus scythes down a population and how best to make initial responses will be compared with both the series and a modern highly lethal variant of Covid-19. If you were to find yourself surviving amid utter carnage with the collapse of everything around you – what would or what MUST you do? The responses will be as varied as the survivors themselves of course – with both cool heads and crashing emotional reactions. I found Abby to be quite cold emotionally but maybe she was stunned by the lightning changes brought about by the virus. Whereas we have experienced an abstract response perhaps to Covid-19 (unless we have lost someone close or are working on the ‘front-line’). I do recall the gradual sense of ‘awakening’ to what was happening as elements of normal life were shut down and civil liberties curtailed in quick succession. In a quick and total collapse, there would be NO government and NO law. This is something I will discuss later.

What do you do? Where do you go? With dead bodies everywhere diseases would soon spread. Do you get away from humanity as fast as possible or should you attend to local things first? Should you look for babies or children in the neighbourhood who might have survived? Or anyone else? Or as society disintegrates, and people are freed of any moral shackles – would there be an interim of utter lawlessness, chaos, and danger? How would ordinary people behave? The reaction in a village would surely be completely different to that in a metropolis. Jenny is ordered out of London by her doctor friend (who knows exactly what’s going on and the effect of the virus). She encounters some youths on her escape. I found this moment almost touching. The youths were like I was back then – bell-bottomed jeans and long hair. They were not particularly aggressive. Today it might not be quite the same. We have lost the hegemony of culture and depending upon where we live – the surrounding society might not be so ‘high trust’. What we have NOW – low numbers dying but a great degree of fear leading to initially appalling scenes of people fighting for toilet rolls and general looting in certain areas – might have been much worse. In ‘Survivors’ there would have been a brief time of immediate danger – but as the numbers rapidly thinned then the danger would – for that moment – have been different. In other words – the death rate of a virus will mirror both how folk respond and the real danger of immediate groupings. How quickly would some of us turn savage?

Ideally, bodies would be disposed of – but if the numbers became overwhelming the remaining few could do very little. Would pets be kept, or killed (the latter as an act of mercy)? In ‘Survivors’ there is a fear that roving packs of dogs could well be rabid. Would folk remain in their own areas or run? Either way, they would need the wherewithal to note where food could be obtained and petrol – especially if traveling on foot or by car (perhaps ‘stolen’ cars. Jenny had to walk from London as the streets were either congested by folks fleeing or blocked by abandoned cars).

With the whole environment opened-up as it were – then survivors would need clean water (or the means to boil or purify); wood stoves or Calorgas stoves and heating and – though this might not pop into the head of a survivor in a state of absolute shock – to know where a library was and get as many books as possible on HOW to survive. I imagine many would think ‘help was at hand’. In one episode Tom Price goes on about the Americans or Japanese helping – to which he is abruptly shut up. There is no-one to help. All this makes me wonder about the numbers of folk required to survive to maintain any notable infrastructure and I will talk about this later. The first generation of survivors would be the ‘lucky’ ones. Food shops, chemists, cars, petrol, goods of all sorts readily available. Seemingly. Garden Centres might be prized as they contain tools/clothes/poisons etc. as well as plants and seeds. The transition from modern to medieval would be extremely hard. But at least those plunged into darker ages would have modern knowledge.

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

survivorsboxsetSurvivors

  • Starring: Denis Lill , Lucy Fleming , Ian McCulloch and Carolyn Seymour
  • Directed by: Pennant Roberts , Terence Williams and Gerald Blake

You can buy Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975] here

 

 

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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 3

countrysidewild-geese-3379677_640As I was walking down the slope into the small valley I could hear voices ringing out and the heavy sound of machinery. This was unexpected. Gradually the sounds quietened. It got me thinking about what a surreal dream we all inhabit – bordering on a nightmare. I’ve mentioned this before but it came to me so clear. What exactly is going on? I was thinking about how we are becoming afraid of our fellow beings. Mind forged manacles indeed – now we are not simply ‘isolating’ ourselves but imprisoning our minds. I carried on and dropped still further to a stream. There stood a man, alone, looking at the waters flowing. It was an encounter. Briskly I continued and as he turned and walked to me I gave him a wide smile (the only form of ‘reaching out’). He seemed perturbed. Maybe this was just my interpretation – but it felt awkward. I said ‘hello’ (‘bonjour’) and he replied in like. After crossing the stream I watched him climb the slope I had previously come down. His trousers were salmon pink in colour – I have this fanciful idea that he came from the stream and took human form! What better time for another species to tread warily into human society. They must never have witnessed us so scared and vulnerable.

The way from the stream is a fair climb – but with rocky outcrops on the path to aid the ascent. I could feel my heart beating and my lungs filling with breath and subsequently exhaling. My legs moved with the will of my mind – thankfully they have the strength to do my bidding. We are physical as well as mental creatures. We need to move. It’s inbuilt. By the time I reached the top, I was panting but I could see back down towards the valley. The trees are clothing themselves and soon the ‘clear-season’ and its sights will be fully clothed and veiled. Dare I say it, masked! From the heights, I felt stronger – mentally and spiritually. But what is going on? What is happening to us? Will this nightmare become but a thing half-remembered, to haunt us only in future fears and anxiety?

Everything we think we know comes to us through a screen. Even if others speculate upon this theory or another, their information has also come from a screen. Well, I suppose there must still be some of us reading non-virtual newspapers! It is speculated that the virus might have come from one of Wuhan’s infamous wet-markets (which apparently are beginning to re-open!); others maintain it has come either deliberately or by accident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (manslaughter or mass-murder); others think that the problem lies with 5G (and its towers/masts) and that the coronavirus is simply – dare I say it again – a mask. As a result of the virus there are others who point out possible dangers via enforced vaccination (that might well carry a chip too – so all of our movements would be tracked not simply car journeys); the linking up of our minds (and bodies) with A.I.; a cashless society – whereby we all become slaves of the banking system. The latter reminds me of the proposed UBI (universal basic income) – maybe that will be used as a ‘sweetener’ to gain our compliance? But it might also mean that everyone is reduced to a slave wage with JUST enough to survive. I mean if you tie all these in together – it’s harrowing reading. The image of humans linked in to an artificial web – food for thought, or food for an emerging spidery elite?

  • Maybe this ‘Strange New World’ we find ourselves in will herald a bright future for us and our fellow creatures. It’s entirely possible. Isn’t it? That would mean altering our relationship with SCREENS and our fellow humans. For the moment it feels like reality is processed through a screen. Can we be as brave as Alice and step through the looking-glass? Do we need to live our lives through screens? Surely this dream we are living through has shown us the potential of a different way of life – if only viewed askance. It surely must have prompted many of us to ask basic (and not so basic) questions, such as:
  • What is REALLY important?
  • What is the true nature of REALITY?
  • Who (or what) provides us with our apparent reality? 
  • What will give us real and deep happiness?
  • Where do we belong and what do we belong to?
  • Do we need to constantly complicate our existence?
  • Can we be happy with less?
  • Is it more important to have silence than noise?
  • Are we being manipulated by the media?
  • Who can we trust?

Is it more important to share and live a spiritual rather than materially based life?

I could go on. But I’ll spare you. You get the drift.

So – what’s it to be folks? Or is it a question of ‘wait and see’ (hopefully not followed by ‘hide and seek’)? Is it a question of looking at the chessboard and guessing our opponents next three moves? Or are we all on the same side? And this is where I can only re-iterate: reality presents itself through screens! I really don’t know anything. Absolutely nothing for sure. I wait. I watch. I listen. I think. I ready myself. This spectacular BLIP in the history of ‘Our kind’ might just be that – a BLIP! A nasty blip nevertheless. Once we’re through the looking-glass and then back again into ‘reality’ it might be as if it were all just a bad dream. No technocracy; no crashing of the economy; no mass unemployment; no One World Government – but rather families, extended-families (and Nations) getting on with their lives anew. A major spiritual change moving across the still, silent oceans and passing over the towns and sprawling cities of the World. A return to deeper and simpler ways of living. Can we be trusted with FREEDOM?

Time will tell.

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 Antonius Ntoumas from Pixabay.

 

 

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The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

• Paperback: 320 pages
• Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (2 Mar. 2017)
• ISBN-10: 9780571234875
• ISBN-13: 978-0571234875

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

thevanishingfuturistThe Vanishing Futurist is a novel that I stumbled upon by accident whilst browsing in Liverpool’s excellent News from Nowhere left-wing bookshop. It is set in Russia in the period immediately prior to, during, and after the revolution of 1917.
The story is told from the perspective of Gerty Freely, a young English governess who works for a wealthy Moscow family. It is told in the past tense, from an unspecified point in the future, although it is clear that it is a point at which the Soviet Union is still in existence. References to a Soviet film of The Vanishing Futurist being made in the nineteen fifties, and other snippets of information, make it appear as though we are dealing with real, historical events. The appearance of real-life individuals such as the great Constructivist architect, designer, and artist Vladimir Tatlin and early Soviet Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky add to this sense of realism.

As the revolutionary upheavals of 1917 intensify, the Kobolev family by whom Gerty is employed, decide to leave Moscow, for the warmer and safer climate of the Crimea. Finding it more and more difficult to support herself through the teaching of English, and also partly out of ideological commitment, Freely ends up becoming a member of the Institute for Revolutionary Transformation (IRT), a small community which is established in order to practice a radical form of collectivist living, where all goods, including clothes, are held in common. The Communities increasingly meagre supplies of food are all shared equally, all work is collectively undertaken without distinctions of gender, and all diversions from the inner and outer struggle to reinvent oneself as the perfect Socialist Man/Woman are either frowned upon or banned outright.
Sex is regarded as one such diversion, though the proscription on physical relationships between commune members is tested early in the novel when Gerty falls in love with an avant-garde artist, scientist, and fellow IRT member Nikita Slavkin.

It is Slavkin who is the hero of the novel, and the Futurist referred to in its title. He brings his sexual relationship with Gerty to an end not long after it had begun, although his claim that he has done so for ideological reasons is strongly undermined when he quickly becomes physically involved with Sonya, another female member of the commune.

Life in the IRT mirrors developments in the world outside as the young Soviet Worker’s State battles for survival against the combined forces of Imperialist intervention, internal counter-revolution, and endemic poverty and backwardness which has been worsened by the wasteful brutalities of the First World War. Thus, as the original revolutionary spirit of experimentation in art comes up against the austere and harsh requirements of War Communism, a split emerges within the commune itself, between the radical followers of Slavkin on one side, and those who side with Fyodor, an IRT member who stresses the importance of discipline and efficiency as the key to the building of socialism. The original radical impulse of the IRT is further weakened when the leadership of the local Soviet decrees that in order to help cope with the acute housing shortage in Moscow it must open its doors to people who do not necessarily share the ideological fervour of its founders.

This aspect of the novel can be read as an analogy for the way that the revolutionary spirit of Russia’s small but class conscious industrial working class was severely diluted by an influx of more politically and culturally backward elements from the countryside, who were needed to replace workers who had joined the newly established Red Army in order to fight the White Counter-Revolutionaries and imperialist interventionists. This struggle also mirrors the tensions within Russia between on the one side the Slavic/conservative/traditionalist elements and the Westernised/ liberal/modernisers, a tension that dates back to at least the 19h century and is still unresolved within today’s Russian Federation.

It is on two of Slavkin’s radical inventions that the novel hinges. The first is called the PropMash, an abbreviation of Propaganda Machine, which is a form of sensory overload capsule that, by bombarding people with sights, sounds and smells designed to promote socialism, can supposedly rapidly break down individualistic conditioning and raise political consciousness to the required level of the new revolutionary man or woman.

The PropMash has mixed results, and Slavkin’s attention is soon diverted to an intense study of the newly emerging theories of Quantum Physics. These studies lead him to adopt what has become known as the Many Worlds/Multi-verse interpretation of quantum reality, essentially the idea that every decision we make creates a new universe; that an infinite number of parallel universes therefore exist, and that within this plurality of worlds everything that can possibly happen has happened, is happening, or will happen. Although seemingly straight out of a Philip K Dick novel this scientific theory, first postulated by the American Physicist Hugh Everett in the late nineteen fifties, has now become almost mainstream.

Slavkin’s logical deduction from the Many Worlds’ theory is that although Communism, the highest and final form of socialism and thus of human development, may not be possible here and now in the conditions of the backward and impoverished Russia of 1918, there must exist an infinite number of alternate universes where Full Communism has already been achieved. This revelation leads him to invent the Socialisation Capsule, which is essentially a vehicle for the transportation of individuals, beginning with Slavkin himself, from the harsh reality of his own material existence into a dimension where one of these utopian, communist parallel realities exists.

Slavkin’s public questioning of the possibility of achieving communism in present-day Russia quickly brings him to the attention of the local Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. When he disappears from the experimental laboratory where he has been taken, a disappearance that apparently occurs after the facilities’ housekeeper had heard his new device whirling into action, the central mystery of the novel is posed: has Slavkin actually disappeared into one of the alternate communist futures that he believes must exist or, more prosaically, have his radical scientific theorising and experimentation led him to pay the ultimate price under the increasingly harsh excesses of Soviet Communism? It’s a question that Gerty, who has by now found that her brief physical relationship with Slavkin has left her pregnant with his child, sets out to discover the answer to.

I was not entirely satisfied by the ending to the book, but that may be no more than saying that, as a writer myself I would have chosen to conclude it differently. That aside, I thought The Vanishing Futurist was excellent. it is part Historical Fiction, part Science Fiction, and it deals with big questions, about how we should live, about our capacity to imagine different, better worlds, about high ideals, and how such ideals often come into conflict with the material practicalities of brute survival.

If that makes it sound as though it might be hard going, it isn’t. Its light and easy to read style make it a novel that is accessible to all reasonably intelligent readers. I would, however, add the caveat that although prior knowledge is not essential to the enjoyment of the book, the readers who will get the most from it are those with some background understanding of the main events and themes of the Russian Revolution, and perhaps also of the artistic movements that came to prominence and flowered briefly during this period of history, movements such as Futurism and Constructivism. The writer has clearly done her own homework in these areas, and her novel is highly recommended.

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/

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