Category Archives: politics

UKIP are not exceptional – the radical right is in flux across Europe

As the tide against austerity politics seems to be turning, I’ve seen a fair amount of comment recently trying to pin down the main beneficiaries of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and austerity in Europe.

Much of this has come from the left, and much of it claims that left-wing parties in continental Europe are the main beneficiaries. In the UK, some of this has come from people involved in the Left Unity project, which hopes to form itself into a new party later in the year.

Left Unity are clearly trying to model themselves (rightly, in my view) on the more accessible, non-sectarian left parties that have sprung up in Europe in the last few years, the most obviously successful of these being Syriza in Greece (currently the official opposition and neck-and-neck in polls with the conservative New Democracy party)*.

This seems like a welcome break from the terminally sectarian, constantly splintering, and undemocratic parties of the past, led by ‘charismatic’ leaders of the Galloway/Sheridan/Scargill variety, and a break from the politics of the Cold War. These old parties are, as Slavoj Zizek bluntly said when talking about the old Stalinist Greek Communist Party (currently suffering huge losses to Syriza), the people who ‘forgot to die’.

With the excitement around Syriza, and the air of triumphalism around the fact that austerity seems to be on the ideological back foot – with even the IMF urging a focus on growth – it is worth examining who is benefitting from mass anger against austerity in Europe.

UKIP scored big in the recent local council elections in the UK – 23% – and many leftists here seem to see this, wrongly, as an expression of an innate British conservatism not reflected in the rest of Europe, where they see protests, strikes, and rising left-wing parties as an expression of anger against austerity politics. Even a brief look at the current state of Europe reveals that this is simply not true. Rather than being an exception to any imagined European fightback against austerity from the left, UKIP are mirroring the rise of the radical right as the dominant opposition to mainstream politics in Europe , even in countries with a traditionally strong left.

France is the most obvious starting point, and the 2012 elections an almost perfect example of Europe’s problem. Despite heavy media attention, and lots of hype from even the mainstream press that he would perform exceptionally due to the backlash against austerity, Jean-Luc Melenchon disappointed, with his share of the vote was totally eclipsed by Marine Le Pen’s  de-nazified Front National. Le Pen is one of the few European political leaders to take a party that was once explicitly racist and anti-semitic in the old neofascist tradition, and successfully transform it into a ‘reformed’ nationalist party. It is interesting that Le Pen once said she saw the Front National as more like UKIP than the BNP.

In Germany, the Die Linke party – another European left-wing success story – seem likely to suffer heavy losses in the upcoming federal elections – currently polling around 7%, down from nearly 12% at the last election. Given the German nationalist right’s inability to ‘detoxify’ as other European parties have – something Italian neofascists equally struggle with – most votes that would otherwise go to a reformed nationalist party of the northern European variety are channeled to the centre-right.

In Spain, Izquierda Unida, the main left party, finished millions of votes behind the two neo-liberal parties, and barely increased their vote share from the previous election. Regional nationalism has seen a surge of support, especially in Catalonia – manifested in last year’s gigantic march in Barcelona for independence, and often plays on rhetoric that has focused on a claimed disparity between productive and unproductive regions. Catalan leaders have attempted to paint their region as economically productive as opposed to the rest of Spain, especially the ‘lazy south’. This mirrors the xenophobic language of current European politics in general, with the austere northern countries contrasted favourably with lazy, indebted, unproductive periphery countries. A clear fabrication, especially since the revelation that Greek workers work on average 48% more hours than Germans. While many, if not most, Spanish regionalist parties are generally liberal, if not social democratic, they nevertheless express a rise of nationalism over a universal leftism.

bssThis rhetoric has fed the rise of the radical right parties in northern Europe, arguably where nationalists have been most successful. The Danish People’s Party, Swedish Democrats, True Finns, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have all performed well (extremely well in some cases) in recent elections, and have dominated opposition to their respective centre-left/centre-right parties. While some of these parties differ in their embrace of liberal economics – the True Finns, for instance, are supportive of the welfare state – all share a focus on halting immigration, strong law and order policies, protectionism, Euroscepticism, ‘national culture’, and an opposition to social liberalism and multiculturalism. They have all broken from the neofascist, and explicitly racist tradition that has until now characterised the postwar radical right – in the way that Nick Griffin failed to do with the BNP – and present themselves as professional, capable politicians. In their rhetoric and policies, they are generally undistinguishable from UKIP.

The current riots in Sweden are highlighting this similarity. The Swedish Democrats have been getting a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream press in the last few days, and have succeeded, without really having to try too hard, in blaming the unrest on immigration, multiculturalism, welfare, and liberal social policies (see: http://rt.com/op-edge/sweden-stockholm-immigrants-riots-771/ ), as well as the welfare state. They are behaving almost identically as the right and their press did during the riots in the UK.

The idea that the left is ascendant in Europe, and that UKIP is an exception to this rule, is a dangerous fallacy that needs to be confronted where it appears. Despite high-profile protests, and the rise and subsequent defeat of the Occupy and Indignado movements, the left has somewhat disappeared from the stage. At the moment, opposition to the political and economic consensus is being captured by the nationalist right and its emphasis on the EU, liberalism, public spending, law and order, and immigration. Social democrats who prescribe unending stimulus, ‘growth measures’ and ‘investment’ as a way of keeping the neoliberal patient alive, are not benefitting from disaffection, except in the pages of the liberal and centre-left media, and are not convincing their own populations. The Labour Party are not polling spectacularly, the German social democrats are set for a hammering in the upcoming elections, and the Hollande government is immensely unpopular. The radical right is filling a vacuum where the non-neoliberal left should be.

*Not forgetting that Greece, perennially contrarian as it is, also has an explicitly racist, unreformed neofascist party in third place in the polls.

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The Making of the English Working Class, and Lord Byron hugs a Luddite

I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.

If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish to:

‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’

These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.

There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.

Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”

The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.

The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.

The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.

The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.

While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.

Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;

‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’

It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.

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Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon; politicising everyday life

Sidney Lumet died last month, and although this is a little late for a ‘tribute post’, I thought I’d write something on what I consider one of his most interesting films, Dog Day Afternoon.

Released in 1975, Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalised account of a bank robbery that occurred in 1972 in New York City. On a boiling August morning, John Wojtowicz, a former bank teller, and two accomplices walked into a branch of the Chase Manhatten bank in Brooklyn with the intention of robbing it. It went wrong. One of the accomplices got cold feet and fled the scene when he saw a passing police car in the street, they held a number of hostages for 14 hours, and there was a botched attempt at a negotiated escape (a classic hostages for helicopter scenario) which ended bloodily, but Wojtowicz survived.

In the film, John Wojtowicz is substituted for Sonny Wortzik, who is played by Al Pacino (interestingly, Wojtowicz later stated that he based aspects of his plan on scenes from The Godfather, which he had watched earlier in the day), and aside from several minor aspects that Wojtowicz later stated were embellished for the film, the actual robbery itself is mostly an accurate representation of what happened.

In his recent tribute to Lumet on Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film, ‘politicises everyday life in ways that modern films wouldn’t dare do’, and this is the film’s main appeal; that the motivations behind an act that most films would take at face value, a bank robbery, along with the political atmosphere of the time, are spelled out and form the backbone to the film. Instead of a film that is just about a bank robbery, Dog Day Afternoon presents an uncompromising insight into the society in which Sonny lives. At the present time, there is a tendency in film and literature to follow the cue of a depoliticised society, where social problems and acts are personalised and diluted of their political significance, Lumet’s films, notably Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and his excellent 2006 release, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, treat everyday occurrances with the political significance an overreaching post-political, and post-ideological culture denies them. Lumet is the enemy of what the documentary maker Adam Curtis has called ‘oh dearism’, the spectacle of an event that has been removed from its political context, and therefore not understandable or possible to analyse through any meaningful political discourse. The example he used was the Rwandan Genocide, which, deprived of its political context by a media now confused by its inability to use the good guys-bad guys dichotomy of the Cold War, which had recently ended, was reported solely through a constant barrage of awful images with little political explaination, to which the only possible response from the viewer can be a neutral and helpless ‘oh dear’.

The film begins as it means to go on. To the tune of Elton John’s Amoreena, we are presented with a four-minute long montage of shots that we typically associate with 1970s New York. Long traffic jams, litter-strewn streets, open fire hydrants, people sitting on benches and talking the day away, dogs eating out of bins, all conducted under exhaust fumes and a boiling summer sun. Then the camera focuses in on the bank, and we see the prospective robbers arriving. The first part of the robbery plays out like black comedy. We have Sonny wrestling with the box he has hidden his gun in, unable to get it out, his accomplice panics, asks Sonny if he can leave, and nearly drives off in the getaway car so he doesn’t have to walk home, and a general series of unfortunate events that eventually lead to the police turning up. Then, after the shots of the massive police presence descending on the bank, barriers being erected, and snipers settling on rooftops, Sonny begins to communicate with the negotiators, and the political side of the film begins from where the initial montage introduction took off.

Sonny eventually goes outside to remonstrate with the police, and with the camera acting as his eyes, he is faced with the overwhelming nature of his situation in wide shot, complete with jittery cops pointing guns down the camera lens. The local residents are another important aspect of the film; as the police turn up, so do the locals. As the police surround Sonny and the bank, the local population surround the police, constantly pushing against the barriers to catch a glimpse of the action, and the relationship between these three sets of protagonists is explored throughout the film. When Sonny goes outside for the first time, this is when the film reveals its political nature.

Sonny talks with the negotiator, and, failing to be convinced by the usual ‘you’ll get off lightly’ arguement, he then fires up the crowd with shouts of ‘Attica! Attica!’, invoking the name of the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot, where prisoners staged an uprising after the death of George Jackson, an inmate and Black Panther Party member, at the hands of prison guards. After four days of rioting and negotiations, the riot was put down by force, at the end of which 39 people were dead. A New York State Special Commission on Attica, set up after the riots, concluded that,

‘With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.’

The crowd are soon heard shouting in support of Sonny’s anti-police speech. As Sonny is under siege in the bank, the police are under seige in the neighbourhood, and when the camera ventures outside, we usually see the crowd surging against barriers and pouring scorn on the police.

The invocation of Attica renders the anti-police atmosphere obvious, and another exchange between Sonny and an FBI negotiator, who has replaced his police counterpart, makes an equally pertinent political statement. Sonny asks the agent if he would be willing to kill him, and the reply is ‘Yes, but I would only be doing my job’. A familiar response from an authority figure (and one that I heard countless times from those policing the student protests in London in the winter), it is interesting to remember that the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it was known, had recently closed in 1971, and was very much still fresh in the public mind when Dog Day Afternoon was released.

Established in 1956 by J Edgar Hoover, the aim of COINTELPRO was to, ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’, ‘subversive activity’ in the United States. It did this through smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment, illegal surveillance, violence, and even assassination, against targets such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, left-wing groups, anti-war activists, and even monitored the activities of Albert Einstein. Implicated most notoriously in the murder of Fred Hampton, a radical black activist, the existence of COINTELPRO was dramatically and publically revealed after the burglary of an FBI field office in 1971. At a time when law enforcement agencies in America had just been found to have committed political assassinations, Sonny’s reply to the negotiator, ‘I hope if someone kills me it’s because they hate me’, is a powerful negation of the ‘only doing my job’ arguement, the attempt to divest yourself of personal responsibility by deferring responsibility to somebody else, in this case, your superiors, or your ‘job’. And unless the FBI solely consisted of completely barbarous individuals, we can assume that in the immediate post-COINTELPRO years there were many guilty people moaning about ‘only doing their jobs’.

For most of the film, however, we are trapped in the bank with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages. Again, when the camera reverts back to the inside of the bank, the dynamic between the hostages and hostage –takers is almost comedic. The hostages don’t condemn Sonny, they mostly see the episode as an inconenience, and almost treat Sonny with the familiarity of a boy from the neighbourhood ‘gone wrong’. We see them chatting together, and in return Sonny is more than willing to indulge their demands for food, bathroom breaks etc. This dynamic cements the political aspect of the film to the extent that when we see the hostages interacting with the police outside, usually through Sylvia, the head teller who has a maternalistic attitude towards ‘her girls’ (John Wojtowicz referred to her as ‘The Mouth’), she is usually shouting at them or upbraiding them for some oversight. Subverting the dynamic of traditional bank robbery films, and introducing the political atmosphere of the time not as background to the story but as a central feature of it, we are more inclined to view the hostages, Sonny, and the neighbourhood on one side, and the police, the representatives of traditional authority, on the other.

This is something that recent cinema has often failed to do. When we see the apocalyptic ‘last days of Sodom’ madness of seventies New York through Travis Bickle’s eyes in Taxi Driver, we are well aware that his reponse to it is psycopathic, but we understand his motivations, as we sympathise with Sonny, who in essence is holding a group of innocent people hostage in a bank. Compare this to Martin Scorcese’s The Departed,which is in many ways a film of ‘oh dearism’, and the differences are obvious. The criminals are sweary, violent, selfish, one-dimensional characters, the policemen mirror them almost exactly, and the story requires no further thought beyond, ‘crimes are being committed in this film, oh dear’. Where we sympathise with and understand the motivations of the morally dubious actions of Sonny, and the morally dubious and downright psychotic actions of Travis, there is no such depth of theme, or understanding required in a film like The Departed.

Soon after Sonny’s ‘Attica!’ speech, the media arrives, and are treated with the same deserved cynicism that was developed in another Lumet masterpiece, Network, released a year later in 1976. Network tells the story of unhinged news anchor Howard Beale, who, after finding out that his ratings are plummeting, announces on air that he will commit suicide live on television. This accouncement causes his ratings to spike, and as he uses the show to deliver increasingly deranged rants to his audience, he is exploited by a ruthless television executive who uses his madness to further her own professional ambitions.

The message in Dog Day Afternoon is a similar version of this, as Howard Beale is exploited in his madness, Sonny becomes a minor celebrity overnight as his situation is exploited as light entertainment for news channels. He sees himself on television, and is telephoned by reporters, who conduct a live interview with him while he is in the bank. Sonny is baffled by the inane questions; he is asked why he is committing the robbery, and after a moment’s stunned silence Sonny answers, ‘cos they got money here, I need money’. He is asked why he doesn’t get a job, and Sonny runs through the reasons why he can’t find a job, which, given the dire financial straits of New York City during the seventies, is justifiable. He then turns the conversation around, asking the interviewer how much he earns a week, introducing a class dynamic, and further entrenching the idea of ‘us and them’ which is apparent throughout the film, which places Sonny and the hostages in much the same social situation.

By looking at the state of New York City during the 1970s, it is impossible to imagine how Lumet could have made the film without the political thrust that it has. Deindustrialisation as a consequence of a slowdown in the post-war boom, along with mass emigration of affluent city-dwellers to the suburbs, combined to lead to an almost perfect storm of social disintegration. The decade saw an estimated million people leave for the suburbs, taking their jobs and businesses with them. As a consequencce, unemployment rocketed, leaving over a million people living on welfare, property prices dived, crime increased rapidly, and entire districts became slums. Strikes, blackouts and rioting became endemic, and many landlords took to burning down entire apartment buildings to claim insurance on now mostly worthless property, leading to the term ‘Dresdenised’ being coined to describe block-upon-block of burned out buildings in slum areas. One South Bronx fire station in the mid-seventies was recognised as the busiest in America, having to deal with arson attacks of this nature daily. And if this wasn’t enough, in 1977 the city came within hours of financial collapse after defaulting on its loans, and in that summer experienced one of the worst blackouts in its history, which led to massive rioting and looting over the course of two days, during which 4,500 people had been arrested.

Through the context of these events, the social setting of a film like Dog Day Afternoon, or the claustrophobic atmosphere of Taxi Driver, where we see the madness of the city through the dirty windows of a taxi speeding through a ghetto, are all the more important.

In the crowds of Dog Day Afternoon, swarming around and goading the police, we see the expression of this environment. This braying crowd is made up of the slum dwellers of mid-seventies New York, and their threatening nature and vehmently anti-establishment feelings are an obvious result of their dehumanised conditions, and this is spelled out clearly in the film. Christopher Null said that it, ‘captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom…John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.’ The character of Sonny is the desperate individual consequence of these conditions, and it is this emphasis on social and political relevence where Dog Day Afternoon succeeds, and where many films that are consciously de-politicised fail.

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Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

In his introduction to Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, a collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches and writings during the French Revolution, published in 2007 through Verso Press, Slavoj Žižek quotes the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’. He is right to quote it; few historical events are as likely to be interpreted through the prism of prevalent political consensus as the French Revolution.

‘Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism’.

So states the intertitles at the beginning of DW Griffith’s silent epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm. As a statement, this is about as bold and unequivocal as a filmmaker can be about the political intent of his film. Released in 1921, Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film The Two Orphans, released in 1915. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two orphans who find themselves in Paris during the Revolution, running afoul variously of lecherous aristocrats and characters of the revolution, including Robespierre, who eventually sends Lillian Gish and her lover to the guillotine.

The referral in the intertitles to ‘Bolshevism’ means that as much as it is a film about the French Revolution, it is equally a film about what Žižek calls the ‘most traumatic event of the 20th century’, the October Revolution, and personalities and events from France in 1789 are manipulated and made to resemble those of Russia in 1917.The last sentence of the intertitle already forms a connection between the proponents of revolutionary terror in France and the Bolsheviks of Russia, warning against any attempt at ‘Bolshevism’ in America.

Griffith was not a mad voice in a crowd. In the years immediately following the October Revolution, Americans were seized by an almost constant fear of a repeat event in their own country, spurred on by the overenthusiastic paranoia of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General of the United States from 1919-1921. An earlier incarnation of Senator McCarthy, and a far more succesful one at that, Palmer fanned the flames of what is now known as the First Red Scare, initiating mass searches, arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals. Where McCarthy blacklisted obscure screenwriters and classified Charlie Chaplin as a threat to national security, Palmer was shipping hundreds of radicals, mostly guilty of nothing other than ‘being’ radicals, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, ‘back’ to revolutionary Russia. Through the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm shows us the violent birth of 20th century communism, and at the same time expresses the early paranoia of ‘reds’ that America was to suffer for the next century.

If Orphans of the Storm is the birth, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 release Danton documents the death, and the host for this allegory is Georges Danton, Jacobin and revolutionary leader. Once an ally of Robespierre, the film documents Danton’s unease with the excesses of the Terror, his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto government of France during the Terror, and his execution because of it in 1794. Wajda is as bold as Griffith in telling the audience that what they are watching is a political allegory of a modern issue, that the film is not about Paris in 1794, but Poland in 1983. We can safely say that Danton, played spectacularly by Gérard Depardieu, represents the Solidarność movement struggling against the Soviet-backed Polish state, which is represented in Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who, symbolically, are portrayed by Polish actors who spoke Polish during filming, and were later dubbed into French.

In Danton, characterisation reflects the popular struggle against the Polish state. If history exists so that one day cinema can be made of it, Danton would have existed for the sole reason that Depardieu would play him. Danton is hulking, larger than life, full of bombast, an insurrectionary bon vivant with a taste for good living and fine dining, in comparison to the stern, prim, mathematical and cold Robespierre, the personification of austere Socialist Realism, and his wild-eyed and fanatical ally Saint-Just. Robespierre’s pre-revolutionary background of a country lawyer gives a mirror image in 1983; had there been no revolution (1789) or revolutionary crisis (1983) we could easily see him being still a quiet country lawyer, or a factory accountant in some industrial backwater of socialist Poland, extolling the virtues of rationing to his fellow workers. Robespierre is always the man summoned by history. If Danton is the freedom loving Polish people, Robespierre is the cold bureaucrat of the Polish state, while Saint-Just could equally be a young, unhinged ideologue of the Party of 1983.

In a marvellous scene we see this chasm mapped out; Danton has invited Robespierre to dinner, a first meeting between the two since his brief retirement from revolutionary Paris, which we see him return to at the beginning of the film. Danton intends to convince Robespierre that if the Terror is continued, the people will rise against the revolution, and that it should be ended so that they may continue with a less-bloody revolution as allies. We see him nervously flapping around various intricate dishes that have been prepared for Robespierre, upbraiding his supporters for having put the wrong flowers on the dining table, ‘He only likes blue flowers’, eager to impress his old friend. Robespierre arrives late, treats the meeting like a political mediation instead of a meeting of old friends, and declines food, leading Danton to fly into a rage and upbraid him for his coldness and unmanliness, and his distance from the people – ‘They say you’ve never had a woman’, he shouts, ‘You know nothing of the people’. Danton is the colourful freedom fighter, a man of the people, while Robespierre is the distant bureaucrat of the state machinery. This is Danton as a doomed version of Solidarność, who instead of perishing on the guillotine in Paris as Danton did, are rotting in the Soviet prisons in the depths of Krakow in 1983. But, as the communist states eventually fall in 1989, so too do Robespierre and his allies, executed after the coup of 9 Thermidor in 1794.

Žižek sums up the modern liberal attitude to the French Revolution as ‘1789 without 1793’; an appreciation for the overthrow of a despotic monarchy and aristocratic class, and for the values of modern democracy that the revolution gave birth to, but an abhorrence of the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and the Terror. He argues that without 1793, the ‘zero level of Jacobinism through which the fundamentals of democracy are established’, any talk of the democratic plus-points for liberals of 1789 becomes invalidated, as the revolution would almost certainly have failed, or been defeated. Then, the revolution becomes a product without its vital essence, or devolved of its harmful ingredient; like non-alcoholic beer, a ‘decaffeinated revolution’.

Orphans of the Storm is without a doubt a product of this attitude, albeit in the harsher climate of a rabid American anti-communism. Griffith’s intertitles talk of the exploitative and despotic nature of the monarchy, but also condemns Robespierre and the Jacobins. Danton also plays a major role in Griffith’s film, and in an attempt to find a plausible figure to represent his middle-ground, a completely fictional Danton is manufactured and created as a character who is a sober opponent of oppression, be it Royalist or Jacobin, opposed to both Kings and Terror in equal measure. Early on we see him chinwagging congenially with Thomas Jefferson, who is apparently in France as a diplomat, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate royalist during the revolution who argued the case for a constitutional monarchy. A more historically accurate meeting between Danton and Lafayette would have been on July 17 1791, when Danton led a crowd against the National Constituent Assembly after they had decreed that the monarchy would remain in place, which was fired upon on the Champ de Mars on orders from Lafayette, leaving dozens dead.

What we get in Orphans of the Storm is a Danton twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. Later, he is referred to as the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, and at one point witnesses a benevolent aristocrat distributing bread to the poor, and sadly tells him, ‘If more of the aristocrats were like you, things would be different’. Paralleling the dominant ideology of our times, whereby liberals may acknowledge the unjust nature of capitalist society, and have been handwringing over it since the economic crisis of 2008, but believe any fundamental shift in the structure of society to be unrealistic, and prefer instead tweaking reforms; Griffith believes that France would have been safe in the hands of a reformed and paternalistic aristocracy.

In the midst of exploitative aristocrats and marauding, fanatical sans-culottes, Danton is Griffith’s stabilising factor in the midst of chaos. He has equal distaste for both the aristocracy and the brutality of the fanatical sans-culottes who we see rampaging over Paris, fighting with soldiers, and wielding oversized butcher’s knives and sickles. Equally condemned is the figure of Robespierre, who in Griffith’s interpretation  we can take to represent Lenin.

When not leading a revolutionary crowd in Orphans of the Storm, Danton is quiet and reflective, not quite the bombastic ‘tribune of the people’, a thundering one at that, we see in Wajda’s film, which presents an overall more truthful version of Danton. When finally charged and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunel in Danton, ostensibly for financial misdeeds, but equally for his opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, Danton is reminded, and acknowledges, that he himself had been instrumental in forming the Revolutionary Tribunel the previous year, which had been used to try and and send to the guillotine countless political enemies. This acknowledgement is important, and leads us to remember that Danton was no political innocent, he was a Jacobin, he had voted for the execution of the King, he sat alongside his friend Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Marat as a member of The Mountain, the most radical group of the National Convention, so-called because they would occupy the high benches of the debating chamber, he had participated in the suppression of the moderate Girondist faction, and he had been instrumental in founding the Committee of Public Safety and had served as its first President.

Danton has long been a staple of literature, he has featured in as many novels, poems and plays as Robespierre himself, and the reason for this could be that he is one of the few figures of the French Revolution who fulfill both the aesthetic, and especially Romantic, ideal of the passionate revolutionary, the crusader for the people, and a safe ideological figure, free from the stain of tyranny in his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the excesses of the Terror. Other figures of the Revolution are unpalatable for various reasons and have been defined as such; the Girondins and other moderates are passionless, dull, and compromising, Lafayette was disgraced, Jean-Paul Marat is a psychopath, Saint-Just is the bloodthirsty fanatic, and Robespierre the calculating tyrant. Danton, or a whitewashed version of his character, ticks all the boxes for a literary ideal where others do not, and it is this version we see in Orphans of the Storm. In turn, when he is designated the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, a preposterous comparison if there was one, Danton is again manipulated to represent the figure of the pure and just American democracy, standing up against the revolutionary excesses of the young Soviet Russia.

Žižek recounts a popular anecdote about the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, he answered, ‘It is still too early to tell’. It is now thought that he was misquoted and was instead referring to the 1968 upheavels, and this is a shame, not only for the loss of poetry from the statement, but because it is true; in 1921 the French Revolution is interpreted through DW Griffith and America’s anti-communism as a warning against ‘Bolshevism’ and the spread of communism, its 1983 version is that of the fall of Robespierre mirroring the eventual fall of the Soviet-backed Polish state, and in the West, in our time, we see it interpreted through the liberal democratic prism of ‘1789 without 1793’. The French Revolution continues to be twisted and manipulated to reflect the dominant ideology of the present, it is the ultimate ‘history of the present’.

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The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

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Demonstrations and violence, some thoughts from Saturday

On Saturday I was on the TUC’s demonstration against public spending cuts, and about 500,000 of us marched through London from the Embankment, past the Palace of Westminster, and up to a rally in Hyde Park. Of the march itself, it was obviously well attended, being the largest in Britain since the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War. It was colourful (trade unions in the UK having finally decided to emulate their continental cousins when it comes to flags/horns/drums/bibs/banners etc) and many of the people there were attending their first demonstration, many with their kids in tow.

Later on in the day some violence occurred, mostly confined to window smashing, and the Sunday papers were predictably hysterical about it. I was also at the student demonstrations in December, where some violence also occurred, and it might be useful to draw a comparison between the two. Unlike the violence that occurred during the student demonstrations, it did not originate from anger within the crowd itself, but was performed by the usual groups of ninja-suited anarchists, who by and large were outside of the main march. I say performed, this kind of thing is ritualistic in nature and can be pretty much guaranteed at any large demonstration in London. I also hesitate to use the word anarchists, as a term it has become fairly meaningless and everyone, including anarchists themselves, completely disagree on what set of ideas it describes. But as whoever might have been involved would term themselves as anarchists, it will have to do.

The anti-cuts movement, if one does materialise, is in its infancy, and tactically speaking, charging around Oxford St in balaclavas and smashing random shop windows has an air of inauthenticity about it. Others at the march seemed mostly bemused by these happenings, and seem to have felt that it was something separate from what they were doing. At best, it was self-regarding, mistimed, and tactically ill-advised and at worst, it served to actively alienate people. There may be a time for smashing the windows of banks, but this wasn’t it, and the mood of the general crowd wasn’t in it.

As during the summit protests of the 1990s and early 2000s, in Seattle, Genoa, Prague etc, violence becomes a mask to hide an intellectual deficiency, and a lack of wider analysis concerning the cuts and the implications of the economic situation as a whole. It was no indication of how angry people feel against the cuts, because this kind of violence is almost guaranteed at any demonstration in London.

The violence did detract from the event itself, but since it is the press who decides whether an event has been ‘overshadowed by violence’, I’m sure it would have been ‘overshadowed’ had only a couple of windows been smashed by an even smaller group of people, or had anything much happened at all.

From a quick glance at a few anarchist discussion boards today, even those on the more sensible end of anarchism who had been arguing years ago against the use of ‘black bloc’ tactics as outdated and achieving little, that anarchists should not seem unapproachable and dangerous, hiding behing masks, and should try to spread their ideas among other demonstrators, have been caught up in the excitement of the moment in believing that this was a breakthrough. Perhaps this is down to the example of Greece, where the recent campaigns against austerity measures have been characterised by mass violence. But from the outside, in a country like Britain, which unlike Greece has no recent history of political violence, and no large communist or socialist movements, these kind of random attacks on property seem no different to those being used ten years ago. This is still a mindset of being in the bubble of activism, where constant overexposure to those with the same ideas, and confined to tiny political groups, can lead you to believe your actions have little consequence outside of these groups.

The response of the left-leaning press has fared little better, with the Guardian, as usual adopting a calmer and less hysterical, but essentially similar position to the right-wing press, of a peaceful march having been ‘hijacked’. Among the stranger responses however has been from New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who has written an article describing her experiences in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Aside from the usual comments from right-wing types that are to be expected, the comments from those who were on the march on Saturday have been fairly sceptical, and they believe large parts of her account have been fabricated. Not having spent too much time on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, I can’t confirm or deny her account.

The entire article has a bizarre feeling about it, from dismissing the half a million of so trade unionists on the main march as ‘humous eaters’, something any sane person would ascribe to a New Statesman columnist than to the firemen, teachers, binmen, council workers, train drivers, paramedics, who had come from all over the country to voice their opposition, to the obvious jumping on a new political bandwagon from somebody whose articles just six months ago were demoaning the Labour Party having ‘let us down’. She is clearly positioning herself as some kind of new Hunter S Thompson, reporting from the front line of a riot, although with absolutely none of his ability to write with artistic flair and avoid cliche, leading us to the atrocious and cringing way the article is written. It reads like fan fiction written by somebody imagining themselves on the barricades of the Rue Soufflot in 1848, definiantly facing down the forces of reaction, as a whiff of gunpowder blowing by on the cool wind as a red flag flutters in the distance. To say it is overly dramatic is an understatement;

“Now, night is falling on the Trafalgar kettle, and the square stinks of cordite, emptied kidneys and anxiety. We’ve been here for three hours, and it’s freezing; we burn placards and share cigarettes to maintain an illusion of warmth.”

“I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.””

For people of my generation in their early twenties, the obvious reference point we arrive at for mass violence during a demonstration is that of the Poll Tax Riot in 1990. To compare what happened on Saturday to that, as some eager people have been trying to do, is incorrect. The protest itself came on the back of months of localised opposition to the Poll Tax, through community organising, non-payment, and resistance to baliffs, and the riot was indicitive of the deep anger felt by those on the march. Contrary to what was said by those in government, the Labour Party, the police, the unions, and various smaller left-wing parties said, an inquiry afterwards concluded that there was;

‘no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups’

The same can be said of the student demonstrations in December, which were popular outpourings of anger, but cannot, by anyone who was there, be said of the demonstration on Saturday. Maybe the anti-cuts movement will have its Poll Tax Riot, but when it does, the real demonstration of anger against the cuts will be when anarchists become superfluous to any window smashing.

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