Jun 22 2018

ALLAN ARMSTRONG REVIEWS ‘THE RED AND THE GREEN’ BY GERARD CAIRNS

Review of The Red and the Green – Portrait of John Maclean by Gerard Cairns

Gerard Cairns has recently published his informative and challenging new book, The Red and the Green – A Portrait of John Maclean. I have known Gerry since the early 1990s and I would find it hard to call him Gerard, so I will use Gerry for the rest of this review.

The book’s title reveals the two main aspects of Gerry’s assessment of John Maclean. The Red and the Green highlights Gerry’s research into ‘Red’ John and his relationship with the ‘Green’ or Irish community on Clydeside .[1] A Portrait of John Maclean examines Maclean the political activist and family man. It raises questions about how Socialists organise and relate to others, especially their partners and families. When assessing  Maclean, Gerry brings his own personal experience to bear. “This has been a very personal portrait of a man I have researched, studied, lectured on, debated for a long time.” [2] Thus Gerry’s book is viewed through the prism of his own life of political activism. Continue reading “ALLAN ARMSTRONG REVIEWS ‘THE RED AND THE GREEN’ BY GERARD CAIRNS”

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Apr 06 2017

EDINBURGH PEOPLE’S FESTIVAL TO COMMEMORATE ITALIAN PHILSOPHER AND ANTI-FASCIST, ANTONIO GRAMSCI

 

The Edinburgh People’s Festival has secured funding for a major conference commemorating the life and work of the influential Italian philosopher and anti-fascist Antonio Gramsci.
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Mar 29 2017

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Allan Armstrong writes about the contribution made by Paddy Bort, who died on February 17th, to our understanding of Scottish and Irish cultural and political links.

 

PADDY BORT – 1954-2017

Eberhard Bort, Germano-Scot and Germano-Irish by choice, “in essence the ultimate European”, and known to most acquaintances in Scotland and Ireland as Paddy, died unexpectedly on February 17th. Steve Byrne, founder member of the folk group, Malinky, and convenor of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust, wrote what has become Paddy’s much circulated obituary. It begins with the strikingly appropriate words, “A hole the size of Arthur’s Seat is in the Edinburgh folk scene today.”
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Mar 09 2016

HAMISH HENDERSON, FOLK SONGS AND THE BUILDING OF SCOTTISH LEFT WING IDENTITY

Adam Ramsay of  open democracy has written the following review article after seeing the new film, Hamish, about the life of Hamish Henderson. It was first posted at:- 

 

https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/adam-ramsay/hamish-henderson-folk-culture-and-building-of-scottish-left-wing-identity

 

HAMISH HENDERSON, FOLK SONGS AND THE BUILDING OF SCOTTISH LEFT WING IDENTITY

 

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For me, he was the polyglot communist who first translated Antonio Gramsci into English. For my singer sister, he was Scotland’s great musicologist, the iconic folk song collector who left thousands of recordings now found on Tobar an Dualchais. For my Dad, he was the charismatic founder of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies and its folk society, and the rumoured son of the philandering husband of his great-aunt Kitty, the Red Duchess.
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Aug 05 2015

WHAT THE FUK? – Fascist UK, Britannia and the Far Right

Gavin Bowd’s book Fascist Scotland, Caledonia and the Far Right has given succour to unionist opponents of Scottish self-determination. Allan Armstrong (RCN) provides a republican and international socialist critique.

WHAT THE FUK?

Fascist UK, Britannia and the Far Right

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1) What is a fascist organisation?

Gavin Bowd’s book, Fascist Scotland, Caledonia and the Far Right, contains a lot of useful material about far right writings, culture and organisation in Scotland since the 1920s. However, Bowd does not define what he means by fascism, nor distinguish it from other forms of reactionary or right populist politics. These often invoke similar chauvinist, ethnic or racist themes. The purpose behind Bowd’s lack of clarity over the political basis of fascism only emerges gradually.
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Oct 03 2014

‘THE STORY OF SANDY BELLS: EDINBURGH’S WORLD FAMOUS BAR’ – A review

Allan Armstrong (RCN) writes a review of Gillian Ferguson’s new book, The Story of Sandy Bells: Edinburgh’s World Famous Bar.

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Sandy Bells on Forrest Road is “Edinburgh’s World Famous Folk Bar”, as the subtitle to Gillian Ferguson’s informative and entertaining new book, The Story of Sandy Bells, tells us.

Gillian is not exaggerating. Traditional and folk music enthusiasts do come from all over the world to visit Sandy Bells. “The traditional music department at Tokyo University recommends Sandy Bells to students visiting Scotland.” In 1977 Sandy Bells launched the very influential fortnightly Broadsheet covering Scotland’s vibrant folk scene. By the “8th year, the international demand saw copies being despatched as far as Canada, USA, Sweden, South Africa, Eire, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Bermuda and France.”

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Nov 22 2013

2nd RADICAL INDEPENDENCE CONFERENCE ‘EMANCIPATION & LIBERATION’ SPECIAL

 

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Our Emancipation & Liberation Radical Independence Conference Special will be available at the conference on Saturday, November 23rd.

 

 

CONTENTS

 

Editorial (also posted below)

Scottish Self-Determination: For a Scottish Wannabe Ruling Class or for Scotland’s People? – RCN

Why is Venezuela relevant to Scotland’s Radical Independence Movement? – Ewan Robertson

Women and Independence – Alice Bowman

Why we won’t wear a poppy – Jim Slaven

The Scottish Republic and the Commonwealth of England – Steve Freeman

Republican Socialist Platform

The Republican Communist Network (Scotland) – What We Stand For – From Theory to Practice

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) a commemoration – Mary McGregor

Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, a film review – Zofia Walczak

Freedom Come All Ye, Hamish Henderson

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Feb 11 2011

TRADE UNIONS IN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY

Below are two articles. The first is a report of the Third Global Commune event entitled ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?’. The second is Allan Armstrong’s talk given to the Independent Workers Union conference in Dublin on 4.4.09. on behalf of the  SSP’s International Committee.

 

1. THE THIRD GLOBAL COMMUNE EVENT, 29.1.11  

Trade Unions – Are They Fit For Purpose?

 

It was generally agreed by participants that the third Global Commune event, jointly hosted by the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and the commune, on Saturday, January 29th, was a very worthwhile day. Once again, the event was held in the ‘Out of the Blue’ Centre in Leith (Edinburgh) and involved, as well as the organising groups, members of the Independent Workers Union (IWU) in Ireland, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Permanent Revolution, the Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh (ACE), current and ex-members of the SSP, and the Anarchist Federation.

The theme for the day was, ‘Trade Unions – Are They Fit for Purpose?’ There was a shared agreement that the traditional Broad Left strategy for working in trade unions had been shown to be wanting. By and large, Broad Lefts accept the existing union structures and concentrate on replacing Right wing leaderships. However, we now have the situation where new Broad Lefts have to contest old Broad Lefts, which have become as conservative as the leaderships they replaced. This highlights the flawed thinking behind their ‘capture the machinery’ approach.

Mary Macgregor of the RCN chaired the initial and plenary sessions.  The opening platform of speakers consisted of Allan Armstrong of the RCN and the commune, Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, Tommy McKearney of the IWU, Alberto Durango of the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA) and the IWW, and Mike Vallance of ACE. They each put forward different approaches, including organising within or outside existing trade unions, in TUC/ITUC-recognised or independent unions, and the possibility of a strategy involving a mixture of these methods.

Apologies for being unable to attend were given by Brian Higgins of the rank and file Building Workers Group, who is currently involved in the anti-blacklist campaign; and by Jerry Hicks, who has just campaigned on a rank and file platform for the post of General Secretary in UNITE. Therefore, Allan Armstrong, the former Scottish Teachers’ Rank & File convenor provided a rank and file perspective.

Allan used his experience in the Lothian and the Scottish Rank & File Teacher groups. He drew a distinction between a rank and file movement and a rank and file caucus. In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. The teacher delegates were backed by a demonstration outside of striking teachers, whilst the Scottish Office had the backing of the Special Branch (or some other state agency) cameramen on the roof!

The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action. They also worked within the EIS. Many activists were EIS school reps. Eventually there was a palace coup at EIS HQ. This enabled a rejigged union leadership to sanction its own official action. Negotiations were confined once more to union officials and the Scottish Office, much to their mutual relief. Nevertheless, the strength of the independent strike action was enough to force the government to concede the financial equivalent of nearly the whole rank and file movement’s £15 pay demand. However, with negotiations now conducted by EIS officials, the distribution of the money gained was massively skewed in favour of school managements.

The self-confidence gained by teachers meant that further action over the next two years, mostly official, but sometimes involving independent action, was able to win substantial improvements in teachers’ conditions. A new contract clearly defined maximum working hours and class sizes. In the process of these struggles, Scottish education and teacher trade unionism was turned upside down. The employers and union officials were unable to fully reassert their control until the McCrone Deal was implemented in 2001.

After the ending of the initial rank and file movement, around the action over pay in 1975, Scottish Rank & File Teachers continued as a caucus. They campaigned around a very wide range of issues, e.g. pay (for a single salary scale, for flat rate increases), improved conditions (smaller class sizes), for women’s and gay rights, against the use of the belt (the form of corporal punishment in Scottish schools), for the right of school students to organise, for egalitarian educational provision, secular education and support for Gaelic language teaching. They also campaigned to democratise the union – demanding head teachers out and directly elected and accountable union office bearers on the average pay of the members. Most importantly though, they championed the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces, and defended, and when possible initiated, independent action.

The Scottish Teachers Rank & File caucus was sabotaged by the SWP in 1982, leaving only the Lothian Rank & File group. Later, a Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers (SFST) brought together the Left once more. However, the SFST became a hybrid Broad Left/Rank & File caucus. Furthermore, the employers had encouraged division amongst teachers by creating a plethora of promoted posts. They also curtailed a vibrant culture of alternative educational thinking amongst classroom teachers, through the top-down promotion of tightly policed ‘educational’ counter-reforms. The Tories’ anti-trade union laws undermined independent strike action, massively aided by trade union officials. However, there was still limited independent action until as recently as the 2003, in protest against the war in Iraq.

Allan summed up by saying that he thought the rank and file approach was still valid in various unions. However, there had been a rapid decline of union membership in many sectors of employment, as well as new areas of work without any union organisation. Union leaderships were often more interested in suppressing any attempts to resist the employers, acting in effect as a free personnel management service for the bosses. Such leaders wanted little more than sweetheart agreements with the employers to ensure a tick-off system of subs collections, primarily for their own benefit. Therefore, socialists should think tactically, and consider when an independent union, or possibly dual official/independent union approach, may be more appropriate than a rank and file caucus approach.

Stuart King of Permanent Revolution then drew on the experience of the early Minority Movement in the trade unions in the early 1920’s. The CPGB’s work in the Minority Movement formed part of the wider work of the Third International, which had organised the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) in 1920 to conduct united front work within the international trade union movement. Although mostly associated with the official Communist Parties, RILU drew together wider forces within the unions, especially those from a Syndicalist tradition.

Stuart argued that there were some similarities in the early 1920’s to the situation we face today. In April 1921, the two leaderships of the NTWU (later the TGWU) and the NUR, failed to support the miners of the MFGB (later the NUM), in the face of employer imposed wage cuts, despite being part of the Triple Alliance. This ‘Black Friday’ climb-down led to a growing feeling of demoralisation amongst workers. Many left their unions. The Minority Movement launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign, with the intention of getting workers organised to resist the growing employers’ offensive, and to bring the union leaders under the effective control of the rank and file.

Stuart said that we also face a period of retreat today, as existing union leaderships had joined social partnerships with the state and employers. There was also declining union membership. The ‘Awkward Squad’ had also turned out to be not that awkward when it came to effectively challenging the employers and the state. Nevertheless, workers still look to their official unions when it comes to taking defensive action – as recent strikes of civil servants, airline cabin staff and others have demonstrated. This means communists must be active within the existing unions and struggle to bring them under effective rank and file control.

Stuart’s contribution provided a counterpoint to others who emphasised the fundamental differences in the situation we face today, compared to the past. In particular, Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland highlighted the major challenges workers now face.

Tommy argued that thirty years of neo-liberal economics have finally done fundamental damage to the system it was meant to promote. Facilitated by globalisation, the enormous transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists has created a situation where consumers in the west no longer have the purchasing power to buy the produce of their own industry and the developing countries have not yet reached a level where they can take up the slack. The contradiction is explicable only by Marxist economists.

What has also happened, almost unnoticed by many commentators, is the collapse of social democracy in the face of the neo-liberal assault and the most recent crisis in capitalism. For a few years the social democratic movements of Europe disguised their collapse by stealing the clothes of the neo-liberals. Tony Blair, Schroder, Mitterand were in reality as far to the right as any Tory or Christian Democrat. In the face of economic collapse post 2008, they could only offer right-wing solutions.

Moreover, the trade union movement that had give birth to and thereafter sustained these parties for almost a century was as ideologically and organisationally bankrupt. There is no longer a viable middle way between socialism and capitalism.

The IWU recognises this fact and has decided to seek out new and more appropriate methods of organisation in order to meet the new challenge. Among other strategic options, the IWU is actively developing a policy of building community and/or social justice unionism. This concept is not new or devised by the IWU but it recognises the need to emphasise the struggle between classes and the need to promote the unity and solidarity of the working people.

Tommy summed up by saying that we are in a new era. There has been a fundamental change in social relationships in the west, and we must recognise this in our ideological analysis, in our policy decisions and in our organisations structures. The IWU may be small but we are confident in our analysis and in our strategy.

Then Alberto Durango gave a thorough and humorous account of his experience as a migrant worker from Colombia now living in London. Migrant workers often had more than one job to make ends meet. This sometimes meant that they could be in more than one union.

Alberto had started as a cleaner in a non-unionised office. First of all, his boss had resorted to Alberto for help, asking him to inform workers who did not speak English that they would have their hours cut and changed. Alberto brought the workers together and told them in Spanish  – “This fucking manager wants to… !” They began to organise, turning first to the T&G. The T&G (now UNITE) organised an official Justice for Cleaners campaign. There were some initial successes against large City of London and Canary Wharf companies. LAWA, which Alberto was very much involved in, was to the forefront of campaigning, and was provided with office space and money by UNITE.

However, there was a limit to how far the UNITE leadership was prepared to push. After organising some demonstrations, it contented itself with signing ‘no further action’ deals in return for minimum pay awards. The employers then started changing workers’ hours and conditions and pressured them over their immigration status. Alberto was sacked, arrested and had his home raided by the police.

UNITE’s leadership wasn’t prepared to challenge this. Therefore, workers had to organise their own independent Cleaners Defence Committee. This had led to an international campaign {including solidarity action in Edinburgh, following Alberto addressing the first Global Commune event}. The UNITE leadership, supported by the local Broad Left, then turned on the workers involved, smearing activists, refusing to back those without papers, and taking away LAWA’s facilities.

In order to organise, LAWA then turned to the IWW. A wider organisation was required to unite migrant workers from many countries. They needed an independent forum for organising, without being directly sabotaged by UNITE officials and the Broad Left. The new IWW cleaners’ branch provided this. However, some cleaners still worked within UNITE too, and had participated in the rank and file campaign to elect Jerry Hicks.

The last of the morning speakers was Mike Vallance. He explained how ACE, with its own premises, had been set up in the aftermath of the successful Anti-Poll Tax campaign. ACE became very much involved in claimants’ campaigns, providing a venue for meeting and socialising, organising support demonstrations and providing advocates to support people in their dealings with various state agencies. ACE also operated as a venue for a wider range of campaigns and various organisations, including the Anarchist Federation. It was also involved in the production and distribution of a number of bulletins and other publications, including the commune.

Currently ACE was involved in the Edinburgh refuse workers’ campaign which was challenging the City Council’s massive cut in pay and worsening of conditions. The Council’s attack was being made under the guise of bringing about ‘parity’ across their workforce. It had begun under the last administration led by the Labour Party, and was continuing under the present Lib Dem/SNP administration. The refuse cleaners’ union, UNITE, was in cahoots with the Council, and they had organised no effective backing, despite the campaign being official. Their main concern was to bring the current official work-to-rule to an end.

ACE had been involved in providing bulletins, posting support stickers, but most of all, in attempts through sit-down actions to blockade scab drivers employed by the Council to break the refuse workers’ work-to-rule. Workers fear that it is the Council’s intention to privatise the refuse collection service, and replace them with non-union workers on lower pay and worsened conditions. Yet, despite the almost total lack of official support, the workers had so far rejected any of the union-backed ‘offers’. In the light of this determination, ACE was hoping to draw others into its solidarity campaign.

This was followed by a short plenary session. Contributions ranged from one participant who said that social democracy had revealed its bankruptcy as far back as the First World War. Matthew Jones of the commune particularly welcomed Tommy’s appreciation that a new political trade unionism was needed after the now evident failure of social democracy and stalinism. In order to maximise participation, the meeting soon broke up into two workshops, with RCN and commune members acting as facilitators and recorders.

After lunch, Paul Stewart and Patricia Campbell of the IWU presented the case for a community or social justice unionism approach. Paul showed a DVD drawing on the experiences of the Kanagawa City Union in Japan. This union organised migrant workers, especially from Latin America. It addresses not only workplace issues, but the wider problems workers face in the community such as racially motivated and domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, welfare and visa problems. It also calls on members to participate regularly in protests outside offending companies. Paul was going to make this DVD more widely available.

Patricia followed this up with a power point presentation (until the technology failed!) of the current work of the IWU in attempting to broaden out union organisation into the communities. The IWU had conducted a participatory survey into the issues that local communities wanted to address. It also sought to address the problems faced by migrant workers. The IWU had already challenged the strong-arm tactics of the PSNI (the revamped RUC) in Armagh City. It had also campaigned on the streets, with red banners, against the DUP/Sinn Fein government’s proposals to limit marches. These would prevent workers from organising their own demonstrations. The IWU had helped to force the authorities to retreat.

The two follow up workshops discussed the possibilities of wider community organising. They also returned to the issue addressed in the morning of whether unions were fit for purpose.

There was a final report-back plenary session with further discussion. The initial platform speakers were provided with an opportunity to say what they thought had been learned and gained from the day. The majority of those in attendance over the day were activists. However, the need for wider forums for strategic debate and discussion, which did not necessarily lead to immediate calls for activity, was nonetheless appreciated.

There was a wide consensus that there was no single approach to organising workers in the complex and changing situation we faced. The long period of working class retreat probably disguised some of the new methods of resistance that were emerging in the face of the current capitalist offensive. It was also acknowledged that learning from wider international experience, especially that of the IWU, had been very useful. There had been differences over whether the situation we now face is altogether different from earlier experiences, and over the longstanding issue of whether ‘to party or not to party’. However, these differences were all aired in a very comradely manner.

A good day was followed by the now traditional Global Commune social session in Wetherspoon’s  ‘Foot of the Walk’, where members from all the organisations present through the day continued their discussions till much later!

Allan Armstrong. 10.2.11

 

2. TALK GIVEN TO THE INDEPENDENT WORKERS UNION CONFERENCE IN DUBLIN ON 4.4.09

Allan Armstrong was invited to speak for the SSP International Committee 

I would like to thank the IWU organisers very much for giving me the opportunity to speak for the Scottish Socialist Party’s International Committee.

The origins of the SSP lie in the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, which   rocked British politics between 1989 and 1991. However, it was to take a number of years before the various political groups involved had broken sufficiently with earlier practices and gained the confidence to create a new political organisation. In 1996 the Scottish Socialist Alliance was formed. And right from the start, political organisation was linked with working class struggles. SSA members threw themselves into the campaigns against water privatisation, the Glacier works occupation and Save Our Schools. By 1998, the SSA had become the Scottish Socialist Party, and Tommy Sheridan was elected to Holyrood the Scottish parliament. Keith Baldassara and Jim Bollan were elected SSP councillors in Glasgow Pollock and West Dunbartonshire. In 2006, the SSP gained 6 MSPs at the expense of both the SNP and Labour Party and formed part of a wider rainbow opposition,

And then of course came the Tommygate ‘car crash’. Tommy McKearney has pointed the finger at the underlying problem, in Fourthwrite. The attempt to build a party around a celebrity figure has a bad record in Britain, whether it be Derek Hatton in Liverpool in the 1980s, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s  and George Galloway’s Respect most recently. In the 2007 Holyrood election, the SSP experienced wipe out, although all the Left faced setbacks internationally after the failure to stop the Iraq War in 2003. The only SSP figure still in a publicly elected position is councillor Jim Bollan.

However, the SSP is pulling itself up again.  We remain profoundly Scottish internationalist. At our 2007 conference, we gave support to ‘No One Is Illegal’ so we can campaign to defend migrant rights. We reject ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. The struggle of the Turkish GAMA workers in Ireland, the Latin American Workers’ Association leading the London cleaners and Asian workers at Heathrow provide an inspiring example for us all. Showing our commitment to internationalism, the SSP is putting forward a candidate to the forthcoming 2009 Euro-election as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Left. We hope to bring over a French worker to speak to meetings as part of that campaign.

With regard to trade unions, there is spectrum of opinion within the SSP. On one hand there are those who advocate a Broad Left approach which seeks to replace existing Right-wing leaders with Left wing leaders. I, however, belong to those advocating a Rank & File approach, which is, in effect, industrial republicanism. This sees sovereignty lying not with general secretaries in union AGMs, hiding behind AGMs, which they circumvent just as the inner cabinet ignores House of Commons in the UK. And if the union officials don’t actually swear an oath of loyalty to the general secretary, their appointment and privileges ensures where their loyalty lies.

An industrial republican approach sees sovereignty lying with members in their workplaces. Any action we decide to take is not unofficial but independent action. Members can spread this action through both picketing and organising area, regional and national meetings. All union officers should be elected, recallable and on the average pay of the members they represent.

To some of us in the SSP, the IWU’s commitment to developing community unionism represents a twenty-first century update of the industrial unionism, which produced the great Wobbles in the USA and had such a profound effect on Larkin and Connolly’s and Irish Transport & General Worker Union. The wave of the future could well be community unionism which links workplaces with communities.

At a deeper political level, the SSP seeks the break-up of the UK state and its alliance with US imperialism. We want an end to the anti-democratic Crown Powers, which have seen death squads, juryless Diplock courts and detention in her majesty’s prisons in recent Irish history. They have also been used to prevent the people of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean returning to their homes, despite a high court ruling in their favour.  And back in 1975, The Australian Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the UK appointed governor general. And these Crown Powers have also been used to bring troops into industrial disputes.

The UK state is organised across the three-and-a-bit nations on these islands, and still exerts a great deal of economic and political pressure on the 26 counties too. This is not something that is being countered by the British TUC, Scottish TUC, Welsh TUC, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, or its Northern Ireland Committee. Indeed, the post-1997 ‘Devolution-all-round’ and Good Friday Agreement, which together cover all these islands, have not only reinforced social partnerships between union leaders, employers and the state, but have turned these leaders into significant backers of this political set-up, particularly in Northern Ireland. This represents a further political projection of union officials’ role in supporting social partnerships. These already reduce union officials to a cheap personnel service for the employers and government.

Socialists need to be able to challenge this on an all-islands ‘internationalism from below’ basis. Tommy (McKearney) came across and spoke to the SSP’s Republican Socialist Convention in Edinburgh on. The SSP also took its message to the well-attended Convention of the Left in Manchester in September 2008. I would like to thank the IWU again for inviting me to your conference today. I have learned a lot from the other speakers both form Ireland and further afield here today. The great Scottish internationalist, Hamish Henderson had a saying which I would like to finish on – ‘Freedom Come All Ye!’

 

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also see:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2002/12/03/rank-and-file-or-broad-left/

 

 

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Mar 13 2007

The Republic of the Imagination

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 8:46 pm

The Republic of the Imagination

In August 2006, Allan Armstrong interviewed the literary critic and poet John Manson about his life and works

Could you please give us some background information about your life?

John Manson

John Manson

I was born on a croft on the coast of the Pentland Firth in 1932. My mother was widowed in 1941. Within that year, 1941-2, she lost her husband, my father, and his brother, who lived with us (both to pneumonia), and her own brother, a wireless operator, whose ship was torpedoed. She worked until 1968 with no pension, except the old age pension at 60.

In 1950 I went to Aberdeen University to study English Literature and Language and completed the first three years. In the winter term of 1952-3, I attended David Murison’s Extra-Mural lectures on Scottish Literature and must have heard of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work there for the first time. At the same time I became interested in Franz Kafka and have followed the two strands of Scottish and European (and World) literature ever since. At the same time, or perhaps a little later, I began to read articles from a Marxist point of view, although I wasn’t living in class-conscious circumstances. I started to do some writing. This was the period of the Korean War, the colonial repression in Malaya and Kenya, and the suspension of the constitution in British Guiana.

At home in the summer of 1953 I began to have a partial breakdown of health (psychosomatic) – no hospitalization – and this went on for a few years. In 1955 my mother and I moved to a smaller place in Sutherland and I recovered my health there to a large extent. For the first time, I felt free from pressure. Later I qualified as a primary teacher and taught in Fife, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway.

I began to read widely in literature. Of the novels I read at that time, I expect the works of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov would most stand rereading. I also read the trilogies of Konstantin Fedin and Alexei Tolstoy. When Dr. Zhivago, Lolita and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were published I read these as well. MacDiarmid published some of the Zhivago lyrics in The Voice of Scotland and introduced a selection of Pasternak’s work in a translation by his sister, Lydia Pasternak Slater (she moved to Britain before the Second World War).

The poets I read at that time were Christo Botev, the national poet of Bulgaria, in Paul Eluard’s French translation; Nicola Vaptsarov, also Bulgarian, who was shot by the Fascists; Martin Carter of (then) British Guiana, whose Collected Poems and Selected Prose, University of Hunger, was published in early 2006; and Nazim Hikmet, who is now regarded as the major poet of Turkey in the last century. I also became aware of Louis Aragon’s poetry in 1956, through his weekly paper, Les Lettres Francaises; and then read two of his 6 volume series, Les Communistes, and other novels in French. I still have a copy of a letter from Collet’s, listing eight volumes of Antonio Gramsci in Italian. Some of the other writers in whom I became interested at this time will emerge during my answers. I read the early works of Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, nearly all Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, and at least one each of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.

How would you describe yourself in political terms?

A non-Party Socialist, since the dissolution of the CPGB

What do you see as the significance of the literary side of politics?

Politics is part of the public life of the times and it should be recreated as an important aspect of culture.

You see 1991 as forming a break in a certain period of literary politics. Why is this?

1991 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s the end of an era in that sense, but not the end of other Communist Parties. It’s much more difficult to say how this affects the literary side of politics. The Portuguese Communist, Jose Saramago, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, for example.

You see Hugh MacDiarmid as the most important literary figure in Scotland in the 20th century. Why is this?

MacDiarmid was a great lyrical and satirical poet and he was also a national regenerator through his anti-imperialist writing. He had enormous influence on other people, mostly when they were young and this influence extended to the worlds of art, music, history, language, philosophy, politics and economics as well as imaginative literature. He made the greatest single-handed contribution to ensure that Scotland would not be, as in the line from Tom Buchan’s poem, a one-way street to the coup of the mind. He wrote instead:

For freedom means that a lad or lass
In Cupar or elsewhaur yet
May alter the haill o’ human thocht
Mair than Christ’s altered it

I never set een on a lad or a lass
But I wonder gin he or she
Wi’ a word or deed’ll suddenly dae
An impossibility.

(Complete Poems, 1, pp. 257-8, Hugh MacDairmid, Manchester, 1993.)

MacDiarmid was at the centre of a number of political and literary controversies:

a. His alleged Scottish fascist past

b. The ‘bomb London’ poem from the Second World War(On the Imminent Destruction of London, in The Revolutionary Art of the Future – Rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDairmid, edited by John Manson, DorianGrieve and Alan Riach, Manchester, 2003.)

c. His ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl.

What are your views on these particular issues?

MacDiarmid was never a Fascist in the sense of a supporter of a right-wing dictatorship; he didn’t belong to a Fascist group, for example. A study of his article in The Scottish Nation (1923), Programme for a Scottish Fascism, shows that he saw ‘a Scottish Fascism’ as Nationalist –

‘Scotland First’ for us as it was ‘Italy First’ for them’ – and Socialist – ‘… a Scottish Nationalist Socialism … will restore an atmosphere in which the fine, distinctive traits and tendencies of Scottish character which have withered in the foul air of our contemporary chaos, will once more revive.’

He thought that …Fascism in Italy must incline to the Left. He also quoted The Fascist Movement in Italian Life where Pietro Gorgolini says that,

Fascism understands the immense social importance of land, hence it condemns absentee and unproductive possession, which leaves vast tracts of land uncultivated that could be highly productive.

(Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Prose, pp. 34-8, Alan Riach, editor, Manchester, 2000.)

Obviously, MacDiarmid thought this kind of ‘fascism’ could be applied to the Scottish Highlands but he failed to give weight to the fact that the Peasant Leagues were being broken up in Italy at this time. At the time MacDiarmid wrote the article he was a member of the Scottish Home Rule Association, the ILP and the No-More-War Movement through the League of Nations. He was also becoming interested in Social Credit.

Similarly, MacDiarmid took ideas from Wyndham Lewis’s book on Hitler (1931) which seemed to chime with his own.

Hitler’s ‘Nazis’ wear their socialism with precisely the difference which post-socialist Scottish nationalists must adopt. Class-consciousness is anathema to them, and in contradistinction to it they set up the principle of race consciousness.

(The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea in Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, Duncan Glen, editor, London, 1969.)

He takes over the concept of ‘Blutsgefuhl’ or ‘blood feeling’. He equates Hitler’s attacks on ‘Leihkapital’ (loan capital) with Major Douglas’s (the main advocate of Social Credit). MacDiarmid was very impulsive and often wrote reviews and articles in great haste. MacDiarmid was certainly deceived by Hitler as a man in 1932-3.

Here are some quotations from his Free Man articles At the Sign of the Thistle:

In view of the recent discussion in Scotland of the necessity of militant action, readers should carefully weigh what [the poet] Mr [John] Gawsworth says:-[Hitler] is as much a prophet as Mahomet, Mussolini, or Lenin, but he is an armed prophet’.
(23/6/32)

Compare the mental calibre of the members of the Scottish Development Council with men like De Valera in Ireland, Hitler in Germany, Gandhi in India.
(9/7/32) The SDC had been formed in 1931.

… it is just this vital force, this resourcefulness and colour which attracts me in Hitler as, say, against the utter nullity of Sir Robert Horne or the horrible local preacherism, writ large, of Ramsay MacDonald.
(3/9/32)

I agree with Hitler in one thing – probably the only thing in which I do agree with him at all – and that is his doctrine that action must not negate propaganda.
(4/11/33)

b. MacDiarmid saw London as metropolitan city, the centre of empire.

c. MacDiarmids ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson were public. Ewan MacColl records his private discussions in his autobiography, Journeyman. MacColl writes:So why had he chosen to single out the folk revival as a special target for his venom? Because of the kailyard, the nineteenth century parochialism which had poisoned Scots literature and condemned it to a debilitated existence in the cabbage patch. MacDiarmid had rescued it and, with the help of a talented band of devotees, restored it to its proper role. And now it was being threatened again by vandals calling themselves folk-singers, by a movement which had within it seeds which, if allowed to germinate, would produce such a crop of weeds that the kailyard would triumph again. MacDiarmid’s fears were not entirely unfounded.
(Journeyman, an autobiography by Ewan MacColl, pp. 284-5, Ewan MacColl, London, 1990.)

Macdiarmid had positives as well as negatives. He drew attention to modern epics such as Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Hikmet’s Human Landscapes.

Could you explain how you came to persuade MacDiarmid to fully publish his Third Hymn to Lenin?

On my first visit to Macdiarmid’s house, Brownsbank, in February 1955 I asked him if it had been published in full (one-third had already been published in Lucky Poet). I saw he made a mental note and he published it in the next issue of The Voice of Scotland in April. Almost fifty years later I discovered that it was originally written as part of The Red Lion project (in the mid-Thirties) and that he then realised that it could be regarded as a ‘third hymn’ – but it wasn’t directly conceived as a ‘hymn to Lenin’ like the first and second hymns. Although it does address Lenin in parts of the poem it is more of a ferocious attack on the housing conditions in Glasgow and on the modes of thought which allowed these conditions to exist.

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

How did you discover the material which formed the basis for The Revolutionary Art of the Future – rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDiarmid?

In 1990 the National Library of Scotland purchased (for £250,000) the archive of material which Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton had been buying from him in his lifetime. An American University would have paid double. This has been classified into 246 folders and notebooks. As soon as I opened one of these I realised that some important poems had remained unpublished through lack of opportunities at particular times.

Other people had realised this before but perhaps I made a more thorough search than they did and recorded them in typescript. I had made several (more limited) discoveries of uncollected and unpublished poetry and prose on previous occasions, e.g. From Work in Progress in Penguin (1970), now retitled Kinsfolk, and the eight stories in Annals of the Five Senses(1999).

Your house contains many photographs and maps of places associated with MacDiarmid. Do you see ‘place’ as being important in his work?

Yes. Langholm, his birthplace; Whalsay, where he lived in the 1930’s; and also Liverpool and London. In Liverpool he wrote the poems in the abcbdd stanza (with the truncated sixth line) which he didn’t use before or after, when he was thinking back to Langholm; and in London he began The Red Lion project perhaps because he joined the CP there in August 1934 and had also just read Allen Hutt’s pamphlet Crisis on Clydeside.

Scott Lyall’s book, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry of Politics and Place was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.

You have also located unpublished Lewis Grassic Gibbon writings in your researches.

Gibbon signed a contract with Faber to write a biography of William Wallace. He never completed it, but I found the first ten pages in the National Library of Scotland. Gibbon presents Wallace, At the head of a force that bore the significant title of the ‘Army of the Commons of Scotland’ and that after his defeat at Falkirk, not again, tell on tale, did the Commons of Scotland gather to battle under their ain folk till the Covenanting times.(William Wallace – Knight of Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with introduction Braveheart in Kinraddie by John Manson, in Cencrastus, no. 61.)

In an important literary/political debate in the 1930’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Barke seemed to reject a Scottish national identity. Yet MacDairmid later claimed that Gibbon had become a supporter of a Scottish Workers Republic. What is your view of this?

MacDiarmid may have drawn this impression from his last meeting with Gibbon in Welwyn Garden City in September 1934 but there is no evidence for it in Gibbon’s writing. Less than five months later he was dead.

You have spent some time recently working on James Barke. What do you see his significance was/is in the literary side of politics?

I think The Land of the Leal remains an important popular novel. Major Operation should also be republished though it is spoiled a bit by speeches like MacKelvie’s on materialism (in the context of the novel).

Jim White, a long time member of the Communist Party, has claimed James Barke was a Party member. Why do you dispute this?

Jim only had Bill Cowe’s word for it. I’ve rehearsed the evidence in my essay, Did James Barke join the Communist Party? (Communist History Network Newsletter, 19, 2006, published by Politics section, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, website)

Why do you think James Barke was a member of the Freemasons?

I’ve no evidence here. Maybe it was the Burns connection? He was also a member of the Boys Brigade 1920-22 and spoke warmly of the Brigade in an article in 1956 (among other organisations).

Sorley MacLean doesn’t appear to have figured as much as MacDiarmid, Barke or Gibbon in your work on the literary side of politics. Is there a reason for this?

The reason is that I have no Gaelic and am therefore dependent on translations of his work. I’ve read his poems and his prose collection Ris a’ Bhruthaich (1985) and Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross’s Critical Essays (1986), the interviews he gave, and I’ve also heard him reading.

You have translated several European writers, particularly from the ‘God That Failed’ tradition, e.g. the Italian, Ignazio Silone; from dissident communists, like Victor Serge; and you have been interested in and sympathetic to non-Communists like the Icelander, Halldor Laxness. Why do you draw from these traditions?

A misunderstanding here. I’ve only translated one letter of Silone from Italian and though I’ve translated two books and a number of articles by Victor Serge I only became aware of him in the 1970s. But I’ve certainly been reading and rereading Silone from time to time since the late Fifties initially because he recreated the life of peasant societies and later because he reveals the debates within the minds of some of his leading characters with regard to the Communist Party.

The poets from whom I have translated the most are Pablo Neruda (Chile), Louis Aragon (France) and Paul Eluard (France) – Communists, though Eluard was out of the Party for a decade, roughly 1932 to 1942. They had lifelong careers as authors and wrote intensely personal as well as political poetry – Resistance poetry in the case of Aragon and Eluard, anti-Franco and anti- Yankee poetry in the case of Neruda. Another poet I have translated, Cesar Vallejo (Peru), was also a Communist. But I’ve also translated from poets whose political positions cannot be so easily identified, e.g., Eugenio Montale (Italian), Constantine Cavafy (Greek), Manuel Bandeira (Brazilian), Henri Michaux (Belgian), whose work appears in my pamphlets.

Again I’ve read and reread Laxness since the late fifties, initially Independent People, about Icelandic crofters, and Salka Valka, about fishing communities (along with the Latvian, Vilis Lacis’s A Fisherman’s Son). I have read Max Frisch (Swiss), whose novels deal with questions of identity and who was also a great dramatist; Elias Canetti, Nobel prize-winner (1981), for his threevolume autobiography; Andre Malraux (France), for his novels of the political life of the Thirties; Albert Camus (France), for his stories and his posthumously published novel, The First Man, involving the search for his roots (Nobel prize-winner 1957); many of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (France), and more recently, the novels of the recently deceased Pramoeda Ananta Toer, who spent many years in the Indonesian gulag.

What attracted you, in particular, to Victor Serge, who has been part of the anarchist and Trotskyist tradition in the past?

I was first attracted to Serge in the 1970s through his novels, of which six have been translated into English (and one is currently being translated – Les Annees Sans Pardon. It was through Serge’s literary and historical works that I first became aware of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party; and this led to a much slighter knowledge of other Oppositionist novelists like Panait Istrati (Roumania) and Charles Plisnier (Belgium).

Why do you think there has been a resurgence of interest in Victor Serge recently?

I think Serge appeals because of his probity. But this doesn’t mean that I think he was right about all the positions he took up, particularly after the Second World War where he preferred the semi-dictatorship of the right to the Communist government which would have been in power if the ELASEAM hadn’t been defeated by our own forces (Carnets, p. 158, Victor Serge, Arles, 1985.). Recently I’ve heard that the well-known American essayist, the late Susan Sontag, wrote a preface to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

You are not just a literary critic and translator but also a poet. How important is this to you?

It is important to express my feelings but most of my poems are occasional rather than constructed to a theme. It’s only after they’re written that I begin to see the themes.

Why do you see the land as so important in a Scotland that has become very urbanised?

Simply my own experience.

I’ve lived the life and done the work. And it was also the experience of my forebears on both sides.

You have had a working relationship with the writer, David Craig. How did this develop?

I met David at Aberdeen University in 1951. In On The Crofters’ Trail (1990) which is dedicated to me as ‘poet and crofter’, David writes that … our discussions of literature and history have been incessant ever since.

How much influence have the places you have lived had upon you?

Caithness negative (as explained), Sutherland positive (my adopted county] West Fife positive, modern industry (then) and historical background, Edinburgh positive for its libraries and galleries.

You wrote to Emancipation & Liberation, in response to the article, Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, which was trying to retrieve the revolutionary roots of Scottish Presbyterianism’s left wing. What prompted you to contribute to the wider discussion on Jacobites or Covenanters?

This was purely a literary interest, since the article made mention of MacDairmid’s literary use of the ‘white rose’. (Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation no. 5/6, and letter by John Manson, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 10.)

What is your view of the impact of Scottish Presbyterianism on society after your early experiences?

I found the impact of the particular brand of Presbyterianism with which I came into contact (when I was powerless myself) as harmful and repressive. I try to express this in my poem, To An Unconceived Child. Ian Macpherson’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1931) comes closest to my own experience. The author, Tom MacDonald (Fionn MacColla) called it nay-saying. (10 At the Sign of the Clenched Fist, p. 185, Fionn MacColla, Edinburgh, 1967.)

What literary projects are you currently involved in?

I’ve reconstructed the manuscript of Mature Art, which MacDiarmid hoped to publish with the Obelisk Press in Paris (before its occupation in 1940). After that he withdrew, and sometimes adapted, sections of the poem which he included in In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). The poem has never been published in full and some parts remain unpublished. I’ve also found the plan of The Red Lion, but not all the parts.

A major project has been making a selection from the letters to MacDiarmid in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, which may well number fifteen thousand.

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