Jan 21 2015




Photo of RCN banner – Patricia Kirk & John Lannigan


A) The emergence and clash of Left British unionism and Left Scottish nationalism

B) The politics of the Scottish independence referendum campaign

C) How the Left responded to the demand for greater national self-determination in Scotland

D) Carrying over lessons learned from the SSP experience

           i)   the need for political platforms

           ii)  the need for a revolutionary pole of attraction

           iii) the need for political balance sheets to avoid repeating earlier mistakes

E) Promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’

           i) The political legacy of the Republican Socialist Conventions and the Global Commune events

           ii) Debating with other socialists during the Scottish independence referendum campaign

           iii) promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’ in RIC

           iv) the debate over secularism

           v) the debate over Ireland

F) Debates and differences within the RCN

          i) in the lead up and during the referendum campaign

          ii) since the September 18th referendum

          iii) the future for RIC, the all-islands Republican Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Left Project






Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Apr 14 2012

Mary McGregor reviews ‘The Last Calendar of Events’ by Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a regular contributor to Emancipation & Liberation. He has published several books of poetry. Here Mary McGregor, also a teacher of English, reviews Jim’s Last Calendar of Events, which covers his last year of teaching.

“And I gave them ideals

and have held on to then still

a youthful spirit unbroken.”

On finishing Jim Aiken’s The Last Calendar of Events, there is no doubt in my mind that Jim Aitkin is a “youthful spirit unbroken”. Political integrity is a rare commodity especially in politicians but Jim’s book oozes with integrity and commitment, which is inspirational in its honesty and emotion. This is far more than a diary of a final year’s teaching; reminiscing in a dewy eyed fashion about decades of struggle and achievements. Nor is it just a polemic against the bureaucracy and box ticking which has defined teaching in the last few years. It is something much more important. It is a book about the complex relationship between a man and his life’s work. It is a monument to the fact that despite the brutalisation and alienation that capitalism throws at us, human beings are capable, through the very essence of their humanity, of living a life imbued with justice and compassion and are capable of sharing that with those around them.

I don’t remember ever meeting Jim Aitkin; never had a conversation with him; never watched him teach. But I know. I know that he has changed the lives of so many young people and colleagues over the years. His daily acts of revolution – passing on e-mails to staff on the economic inequalities of 21st century Britain, bringing the relevance of the Arab Spring to disaffected school students, representing staff as a union rep, challenging trade union bureaucrats – show not only what needs to be done but what has to be done. I have spent a lot of my life with people who talk the socialist talk but Jim walks the walk.  Through this diary, we have a tremendous insight into the ways so called “ordinary people” live and think and act in their daily lives in an unselfish and conscious way to try to improve the world we live in. That is part of the inspiration of this book, it shows that we can all further the cause of socialism in the here and now and we must not wait till the great revolution before we begin.

The style of the book is interesting. As a diary, we see the mundane juxtaposed against the huge geopolitical events of our time. We see the personal and the political inextricably intertwined. At times this could seem banal but instead, it makes the politics all the more profound and real. It is a style reminiscent in its power and application to Tom Leonard’s poetry.

The love that Jim feels for his family is palpable, particularly for his baby grandson Michael. Yet he links this love and concern to the need to maker a better world for them all. He dreads that education in its current form will knock the imagination and wonder out of Michael and process him like so many others: skills not imagination being the order of the day. This is no grey faced ranting lefty devoid of feeling and sentiment. This is a man who is not afraid to speak of love or his ill mum as well as speaking out against the Afghan war, the bombing of Libya or the trams in Edinburgh.

As he contemplates another union sell out, he still finds the joy of going out for a curry with his department and laughing and going to see a play. Thus, Jim’s humanity shines through. He does not lecture or scold – he is not that kind of a teacher – he gently allows us to form a picture of what is wrong with our society and how it can be put right.

There are great touches of humour in this book and I don’t think you have to be an English teacher to laugh out loud at his “lost scene from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men”. I will be sharing this with colleagues and classes!

For me, the fact that he is so conflicted about his retirement is particularly relevant. I have only 5 years to go – if they don’t change the goalposts again! I recognise these mixed emotions, “Marx makes the distinction between working time and living time ……I should welcome the chance of living rather than working…. but my emotional part does not feel entirely like this.”

As teachers, we are very lucky that despite the undoubted ridiculous workload and educational nonsense imposed from on high, so many of us enjoy our jobs – the daily acts of rebellion when we can go off message and actually encourage young people to think! We have access to sensitive, sometimes damaged students who can with our intervention at times show creativity and insight, which defies the grey fog of capitalism. As the months progress, the retirement niggles then looms then eventually is embraced by Jim. But it is not a simple process. Sometimes on the left, we fail to recognise the complexity of our relationship with work. Jim talks about the work ethic that is so much part of his character. Rarely off sick, a sense of responsibility wanting to do the job well – so many of us have that schizophrenic relationship with a job that is often killing us. It will never be any different under capitalism which will squeeze every drop of productivity out of us but it is the wonderfully subversive act of remaining human which confounds the system completely and it is that which Jim exemplifies.

There is no doubt in my mind that with more time on his hands, we will see even more of Jim’s poetry and that his activism will continue in various forms. He just is that kind of man. He will not give up the fight. There are things that I disagree with Jim about particularly on the nature of young people now compared to back in the day. Maybe some time I will be lucky enough to have a blether with him about this. But until then, I will recommend his The Last Calendar of Events as a book, which shows what teaching should be about and what kind of future we should strive to create,


“Nothing short of changing the world,

was where I started and now end,

drying my face in the towel.

See Emancipation & Liberation interview with Jim Aitken at:-



Tags: , ,

Jan 13 2011

Around the Time of Aitken

Around the Time of Aitken

Andy McPake reviews the latest book of poetry, Around the Time of Michael from Jim Aitken. Jim has become a regular contributor to Emancipation & Liberation, and he credits us in his preface.

Around the Time of Michael is Jim’s ninth published volume of poetry and, as the quote above suggests, a continuation of his exposé on the great injustices of our times. Throughout this collection, we sense Jim’s estrangement with a political consensus that he regards as perverse and inhumane. His inability to reconcile this with the beauty of the birth of his grandson and the natural & human worlds is the dichotomy that drives Aitken’s work. This dichotomy encapsulates The Time of Michael. Aitken gives this contradiction many forms: new life and old, the humane against the inhumane and the ignorant against the searching. All of these he perceives in our times.

Fear is the new industry
the base of our prosperity
where we manufacture consent
for all the new profits we make

Crusading against capitalism is nothing new to Aitken’s poetry, but in the past his work has mostly concerned the ravages of that economic system on the peoples of other shores. While Jim’s passion for the Palestinian cause can still be seen in poems such as White Pete, Aitken’s ire is now aimed towards immorality at home. The economic slump is being used as a smokescreen by right-wing politicians who are now implementing an ideological wish list that they have been fomenting for decades; all of which amounts to the dismantling of the welfare state. Caught in the midst of a clamour to return to Dickensian levels of inequality, Aitken castigates those who would create human waste.

There is a lot that Jim Aitken does not like about the modern world. However, anyone used to using the term modern in the academic sense knows that there are few more modern than Aitken. The influences of Yeats and MacDiarmid can be seen not only in the content of his poetry, but in the form, especially Krakow, Auschwitz and After. But Aitken is a modernist poet and thinker living in a post-modern world. His convictions are dismissed as ‘grand-narratives’ by a world that has become atomised and unsearching. Throughout much of the collection, we are given the sense that Jim feels that the good and decent values are dying. We see this in Mrs Lindley and Benny, a moving reminder of how dependent we are on one another.

This collection of contradictions deals not only with inhumanity, but with humanity. The only thing that can parallel Jim’s anger is the tenderness with which he describes those dear to him. Newly Arrived & Expectancy should appeal to anyone who has had the good fortune to have been a parent or grandparent. In Another Coredila, Aitken is forced to confront the fact that he is no longer the most important person in his daughter’s life. The poet’s awareness of his advancing age is most moving in Four Months On when a musing Aitken takes a moment to contrast the youth of Michael with his own image:

I have observed him observing
as current talk goes from teething
soon, crawling after, as I stare
into my own mirror shaving
and wishing to hold back the years

Perhaps Jim should remember that with age comes wisdom. The unjust world that Aitken despises is also an ignorant one. Nowhere is he more explicit about this than in The Return of Apasmara Purusha. Hindus believe that Apasmara represents ignorance; for Jim his return is heralded by a world that is cutting education for the sake of bankers’ bonuses.

Aitken searches for wisdom in many places and the collection draws on Buddhist as well as Hindu thinking. That search is undertaken by a dwindling few living in our convenience culture, a culture that disgusts Jim, moving him to parody it in The History of Searching. In this poem, he contrasts the philosophical endeavours of bygone ages with my own generation’s dependency on Google. Btw, if you do find any yourself unaware of a person or concept mention in Jim’s poetry I have one solution for you…

The Time of Michael is a contradictory one. What is consistent is the presence of hope. Aitken believes that the vicious world into which Michael is born is not the End of History, it is not natural. The collection is a balanced one and for every uncompromising exposition of injustice is a glimmer of hope for the world. When discussing the horrors of war and poverty he is neither morbid nor voyeuristic. Instead, every line implores us to fight back, to remember that another world is possible. The poet asks us to keep our focus on Michael because he represents the future; potentially a better one. Despite its attempts to pit us against each other, the capitalist system has yet to eviscerate all that is decent within people. Perhaps the better part of our nature might win out. Here’s to Michael.

Around the Time of Michael is published by Scottish CND and is available, price £5, from Wordpower Books (books@word-power.co.uk)

In Search Of Middle England

The political commentator said:
The new leader of New Labour
will just have to make himself
more acceptable to Middle England.’

Being a traveller, a geographer even,
I searched my atlas for Middle England.
I could find no such place so I wandered
around the post-industrial Midlands instead.

Without luck I wondered if my Scots ‘Hullo’
would be better if I tried the English ‘Hill-low’,
I tried it out. Got nowhere. Silence and laughter
met me in equal measure. Was there such a place ?

I thought maybe it all harked back to Tolkien
and his Middle Earth with all that business
about the Shires. I tried them out. Got nowhere
until some bloke whispered candidly in my ear :

‘Look Jock, there’s no such bleeding place.
Never was. It’s a huge con trick by the Beeb.
The perpetuation of a myth, that’s what it is.
It panders to an imperial past with all that stuff
about Rule Britannia and Johnny Foreigner.
You’ve got it up in Scotland too, mate.
It is designed to hold back real change to keep
all these creeps in power. Brainwashing clap-trap.
Yes, there’s toffs, but they’re few and we’re many.
Just get a load of it here. What’s great about this?
Reality is tough for people these days they believe it.
Need something to hold on to. Love the accent.’

Jim Aitken

Tags: , , , ,

Sep 29 2007

Lyrical Delicacy and Political Toughness

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 7:25 pm

Allan Armstrong interviews socialist activist and poet, Jim Aitken, about his life, politics and works.

Jim Aitken: socialist activist and poet

Jim Aitken: socialist activist and poet

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

I was born and raised in Edinburgh. My mother was from Wick, one of a family of six. She left Wick to work in service in London. She never saw the city because she was working all the time. She met my father in North Berwick. He was one of eight children raised in Edinburgh. His family originally came from Dublin. I consider myself a mongrel. I feel Celtic, it is part of my roots.

My mother was a member of the Labour Party, whilst my father was chair of the local branch of the old UPW, the posties’ union for 27 years. Uncles and aunts were members of the Communist Party. My aunt, Gertie McManus, was a stalwart of the Edinburgh Trades Council, as a delegate from USDAW, the shopworkers’ union. She was behind the moves to get the James Connolly plaque put up in the Cowgate.

I was brought up in a wider, literate, working class, socialist culture, which has largely disappeared today. It seemed natural to be a socialist and republican. When I rebelled as a teenager, it just pushed me further Left.

How did your interest in literature come about?

There were plenty of books in the house. There was also an atlas and I collected stamps. These all helped to arouse my interest in the wider world. This all contributed to my internationalism. I went to Portobello High School. I was fortunate that this was the period when comprehensive schools provided a real opportunity for working class kids. The teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal, and some of my English teachers, in particular, provided me with good leads. I read Beckett in my sixth year. This led me to a whole lot of interesting existentialist writing, for example, Sartre, Camus and Kafka.

When I left school I worked for two years. I began to write poetry. I met Norman McCaig, along with Michael MacDairmid and Deidre Chapman in Milnes Bar. I became a friend of Norman’s and read my poetry to him at his flat. He did a lot to encourage me. When Norman got the readership at Stirling University I decided I would go there to study. I studied literature, fine art, philosophy and religious studies. I had some of my poetry published in the university magazine and did some readings there.

Somebody else who has had a great and continuing influence on me is Hugh MacDairmid. I recently read Revolutionary Art of the Future produced by John Manson, who was interviewed in your last issue.

How were your politics developing at this time?

I didn’t join any political party, although I went to some meetings organised by the Communist Party at the University. John Reid was the President of Stirling NUS at the time! I was more interested in particular campaigns and issues like Vietnam, Anti-Apartheid and CND.

Why did you decide to become an English teacher?

I decided that since I had personally benefited from the comprehensive system, I wanted to offer something to working class kids from a similar background. My love of English is tied up with the openings on the world which literature provides.

I taught briefly in Stirling, but since then, I have been teaching in Edinburgh. The English department I joined was a really good place, where, once again the teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal. However, there was still the authoritarianism symbolised by the use of the belt.

Things really changed for the worse under Thatcher. She was a class warrior determined that her class should win out. She was vicious. Mass unemployment was used to discipline the working class. The schooling system was remoulded to better fit the economic system. There were fewer and fewer possibilities for real education, as everything was subordinated to continuous assessments. O grades became Standard Grades; Highers became Revised Highers (revised again and again) as more finely graded assessment procedures were imposed, to control both student and teacher.

English teachers were at the centre of the resistance to all this. I became a member of Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature (SATOLL). The late Tony McManus was the inspiration behind this. Many of those involved, like Tony, were themselves writers and artists. We had a considerable impact. I had articles published in The Scotsman and The Herald.

I was also quite heavily involved in the Edinburgh Local Association of the EIS. I was on the Local Executive, alongside other left-wingers from Rank & File Teachers. I chaired the English subject section. The Edinburgh LA was to give its support to various initiatives, like SATOLL’s Sense and Worth and, more recently, the pamphlet of anti-war poetry, Magistri Pro Pace, written by Scottish Federation of Socialist Teacher members, Allan Crosbie, Annie McCrae, Andrew McGeever, Linda Richardson and myself.

How did your politics develop through this period?

When Thatcher came to power I joined the Communist Party. This is where I believed I would find the best criticism of capitalism. Somewhat mistakenly, this is where I also thought the fightback against Thatcher would begin, because of the CP’s strength in the big industrial unions. But the big debate, which was taking place inside the CP, was which way forward – the working class or the new social movements. I was with the industrial working class-based wing. However, just when the wider labour movement needed the CP, it was tearing itself apart.

Since internationalism was so important to me I continued to be active in a number of campaigns. These included Liberation (originally set up by Fenner Brockway), the Britain-Vietnam Association, Anti-Apartheid and Latin America Solidarity.

When the CP folded, I became a member of the Midlothian Peace Forum (I was living in Penicuik at the time), which combined CND, Peace groups and Anti-Apartheid. The leading figure was David Smith, a local Labour councillor, and also a committed socialist. We invited Canon Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to address one of our Burns Suppers. Scottish self-determination was becoming an important issue, under the hammer blows of Thatcher. Scottish devolution eventually came about as a response to Thatcher’s attacks.

This was also a great period of Scottish cultural renaissance. When political options run out, cultural renaissance can reach the parts that politics can not reach. World class writers such as Alistair Gray and James Kelman came to the fore. The artists, Ken Currie, Steven Conroy and Steven Campbell had a major impact.

When the EIS leadership accommodated to the Tories, and then to New Labour, they slowly strangled the teachers’ union as a vehicle of resistance, I dropped out of LA activity. I used the time to do a two year course at Edinburgh University, on Scottish Cultural Studies, led by Murdo Macdonald, followed by a two year course on European Studies. I also took a considerable interest in Latin American writers, particularly Jorge Luis Borges (despite his right wing politics) and Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. When I finally published my book of poetry, Glory, in 2001, I included an essay on Borges.

So let’s go on to your books of poetry. Was Glory your first to be published?

No, back in 1993, I had published Twelve Poems for Mikolaj. Mikolaj Januszewicz was a close friend of mine, when I lived in Midlothian. He had just died. Mikolaj was a remarkable person and a Communist in several European parties. As a Belorussian Communist he had fought with the Partisans in the Second World War, before moving to France to fight with the Maquis. After the war he moved to London, then Midlothian, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member of the old CPGB.

Glory was published in 2001. It was dedicated to my children and to the Irish granny I had never met. It included poetry I had written over many years. It deals with major political events in the world, but also with my own internal life and cultural interests, My most recent book, Neptunes’s Staff & Other Formations, follows this format too. It has been the most successful in terms of sales. This book has gone to a second edition and raised money for CND.

The book launch was very successful too. Sixth year students produced a musical accompaniment to the poem, Leroy’s Rapping Lament, which links events in Baghdad and Falluja with New Orleans. Teachers and students also made a film with images from these places.

I have always tried to have my work sponsored through wider labour movement bodies and campaigns. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to my writing of From the Front Line of Terror in 2002, and Another Line of Terror in 2003, and my contributions to Magistri Pro Pace in 2006. This was also dedicated to Tony McManus. The Herald printed a double page selection. My other recent book of poetry, Celta Arabica, 2004, was written with the Palestinian writer Ghazi Hussein. These were all written under the auspices of the Anti-War Movement.

Palestine is obviously very important to you. How did you become involved?

Palestine is the Left’s ‘Vietnam’ for today. Palestinians are the conscience of the world today, as the Jews once were. When I met Ghazi, who originally lived in Syria, as part of the Palestinian diaspora, he said that the Palestinians were at the bottom of the barrel in the Arab countries too. This is why they are at the forefront of all the struggles against injustice.

The idea of organising poetry readings came in response to the fire-bombing of the Annandale Street mosque by racists in 2001. It was decided to hold a solidarity meeting in the damaged mosque. Tom Leonard, Liz Lochead, Aonghas MacNeacail, and others, all agreed to read their poetry. It was so successful over 40 people had to be turned away. When ever have you heard of people being turned away from poetry readings!

This led to further events being held annually as an alternative Remembrance Day. It was at one of these events that I first met Ghazi. He had written the play One Hour Before Sunrise, about imprisonment and torture in Syria. We agreed to write and publish Celt Arabica. We have become close friends.

How did your politics develop during this period?

If Thatcher’s 1979 election victory prompted me to join the CP, then the Iraq war prompted me to join the SSP. The Scottish dimension of politics is important. However, I also joined the SWP, for the same reason I had earlier joined the CP. It provided the best critique of capitalism, especially in its new virulent imperialist phase. The anti-war, anti imperialist movement is very important to me.

Now that there has been an SNP victory in the election to the Scottish Parliament, I believe it is the job of the Left in Scotland to take on the same job, pushing the SNP, that the old CP once did, pushing the Labour Party. I’m involved in Solidarity and the SWP. We believe such pressure can influence events.

People voted SNP to punish Labour over the war, privatisation and social neglect. So far, Salmond hasn’t really put a foot wrong. When, however, the SNP members, in the Edinburgh City Council coalition, initially backed the 22 school closures, Left pressure, organising the strike and other protests, was able to force them to back down. Salmond probably also pressured them, since his eyes are on the next election, so he wants to remain popular.

My main political activity, though, remains with the anti-war movement and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Back in the 1970’s I had supported Palestinian Medical Aid, when it was the only organisation of any sort providing support for the Palestinians. Edinburgh now has a very active Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, which has brought prominent speakers from all over the world. They have done a great deal to raise the level of debate in this city.

The Palestinian issue prompted your first foray into play writing. How did this come about?

This arose because of the opportunity provided by the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. There is a close link between Scotland and Palestine. Arthur Balfour, the UK Foreign Secretary who wrote the original Declaration in 1917, promising Palestine to the Jewish people, lived at Whittinghame, outside Haddington, in East Lothian. Scotland has to know of its participation in British imperialism.

Due to the considerable confusion surrounding present day events in Palestine, many people just see the conflict as a war between two tribes. I wanted to get back to the source. This was British imperial sponsorship of Zionism, which then represented a small minority in the worldwide Jewish community.

This is why I wrote From Haddington to Palestine. The play imagines the ghost of Balfour confronting a present day Palestinian at Whittinghame. The actors were all activists from the Edinburgh branch of the Palestinian Soldarity campaign. The Theatre Workshop helped with the direction. It was well received by the Palestinians living in Scotland.

Your most recent book of poetry draws from your trips to Ireland and the Highlands.

This reflects my love of these two places. I visit both regularly. Joyce and Beckett are my favourite authors. One contemporary author whose writings I enjoy is Niall Williams – a sort of Irish magic-realism. I also enjoy Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The Highlander, Neil Gunn, is one of my favourite Scottish authors, whilst Sorley Maclean’s poetry is up there with Macdairmid’s. I support anything to keep the Gaelic language going.

My poem, A Drink in Doolin, is set in Gus O’Connors Bar in County Clare. It is a cultural magnet for Celts from all over the world. The Leith-born singer, Dick Gaughan, another socialist, also with Irish and Highland parents, has produced a TV programme, set in the same pub, showcasing folk music with common Irish and Scottish roots.

Since my regular visits to Skye, I have also made friends with, of all people, an Edinburgh banker, who originally hails from Uig. The Uig Banker shows the redemptive capabilities of the awesome scenery of Skye, away from crazy, crowded Liverpool Street.

The cover of your book has a plug by the well-known Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton. How do you know him?

I don’t know Terry Eagleton well, but I wrote to him. I was taken with Eagleton’s idea of extending the language of the Left. This does not mean a return to religion, but a turn to ontology, or our reason to exist. He points out that the “Left is at home with imperial power and guerrilla warfare, but embarrassed on the whole by the thought of death, evil, sacrifice or the sublime.” Even if you have a socialist revolution tomorrow, people will still have to confront the ontological and existential situation. You can’t ignore religion. It has been part of all human cultures. I am interested in Buddhism and Islam because I am interested in the world. This interest comes from my socialism.

Jim Aitken’s poems are a delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness, Terry Eagleton

Tags: ,