The Dreaded C Word

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (Vintage)

A great thing has happened, many of the educated young are left-wing again. Not only that, they are unafraid of the word ‘communist’.

This comes with dangers though. I sense that in the rush to embrace a c-word even more offensive to the polite middle classes than the original, some old lessons have been forgotten. Or rather, some material has been edited out of the script, as always.

It is timely then, that Vintage have just re-issued a slew of Russian classics, including The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. They are beautifully designed, sumptuously sleeved and reasonably-priced.

Doctor Zhivago is of course better known for its film version. But it is well worth rewinding and reading the original. Here, the romantic aesthetics and soundscapes were yet to be imposed on the narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and the film could not be shot there, so it was made in Spain, in 1965, where Francoism was only just beginning to thaw.

There are things to be read in this, for sure. David Lean’s film returns us to ‘the human story’ under the Bolshevik ideology, the ‘universal’ of love that is so often co-opted as a story to deflate revolutionary requirements. We should definitely be wary of these things, but not just because they limit action, for this is the same romantic bloom that obscured the fascist sympathies of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward.

Doctor Zhivago contains other things to be wary of. Things that are perhaps being missed by some of the New Left people I meet. In a scene in the middle of the novel, among seeders and threshers, an old lady pulls the switch to shunt trains. In between this, she knits to supplement her meagre wages with other activities, something known to most people in those times, and now these. The lines of telegraph poles stretch off in all directions…

A conversation begins between the Doctor and Samdevyatov. Samdevyatov objects to the assertion that a ‘Marxist has to be a mush-minded driveller’, arguing that Marxism is a hard science with an objective view.

The Doctor is pensive. ‘Marxism has too little control of itself to be a science’ he replies. ‘I don’t know of a movement more isolated within itself and further from the facts than Marxism.’ These remarks are treated by Samdevyatov as ‘the whimsicalities of a witty eccentric’. He chuckles and does not bother to reply. The silence in his mouth contains millions of unmarked graves.

These things are not highlighted here to ask for a turn away from Marxism. They are pinpointed to ask for a version of it in the spirit of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and actually, a dialectics which properly understands how Hegel really figures in all of this.

The theoretically-inclined might get Henri Lefebvre’s little book Dialectical Materialism, republished by Minnesota University Press in 2009.

But the less theoretically minded could do much worse than return to this grand, stylish novel, and others in the series, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman particularly.


On Yer Bike!

JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)

It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.

In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.

To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.

He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.

Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.

In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.

Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.

Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.

Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.

At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.

Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.

The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.

Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.

Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.

There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.

It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.

There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.

What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.

– Natalie Bradbury

Windows within Windows

John Berger – Landscapes (Verso)

On an ordinary page, right in the middle of this collection, John Berger states that ‘stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art.’

It is one of those wake-up moments John Berger is so good at providing. He goes on to explain that these intrusions are painful and often have great suffering at their roots. Even Marxists do not welcome these into their contemplations. As a counterpoint, he then describes Picasso, staying at the Savoy in London, as a successful enfant terrible, no longer seeing the poor at café tables.

What Berger has done, persistently, from every angle, all his long life, is explore how our windows on the world are constructed. He questions what they engage with, edit out and why.

If we look at ‘English landscapes’ from the late 18th century, they are made through the lenses of Italy, and the grand tour. The misty blue beyonds are coming out of an appreciation of the Italian renaissance as the ‘pinnacle’ of perfect art, and also out of the artist visiting Italy.

They are historical constructs. This is how ‘Landscapes’ makes sense here. This is not a BBC4 scan of lush English Pastoralism to tasteful music.

Renaissance perspectivalism was seen, in the west, in British art traditions all the way up to the early twentieth century, as ‘more real’, ‘more natural’, more correct in the ways in which they represented the world. The example often given in art schools is Piero della Francesca’s View of an Ideal City (1470) which uses technologies of perspective to illustrate the ‘ideal form’ of utopian city spaces.

But perspectivalism was exactly that, a technology. These pictures contain the idea that their way of representing the world was becoming ‘more correct’, that western art gets better and better, more realistic, as history goes on, an idea that the era was steeped in, partly through the philosophy of Hegel.

Yet if we look at non-western art, we get a very different range of ways of representing the world. We also get very different ways of seeing through the ‘isms’ that shattered those simplistic ‘windows on the world’ in the twentieth century.

Within the western representational tradition, one of the few places we can find a very different take on visual representation is in the art of children. The idea of the child as something untutored lies here, of the ‘primitive’ as something to be ironed out of creativity.

These debates sit on bigger questions of nature versus nurture, of Rousseau and Locke. But when we look at an example such as Alfred Wallis, we can see how this intuitive, ‘untrained’ sense of visual representation isn’t exclusively produced by infants at all.

Wallis began painting in his 70s after his wife died, and was considered eccentric until discovered by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the early twentieth century, when modern artists were beginning to think all over again about the idea of the ‘primitive’ and the ‘sophisticated’ in art.

Similarly, what Berger does is to explore everyday life at the other side of his window on the world. He goes to the marginal edge zones figures such as Wallis came from, again and again, as much as he goes to national galleries to interrogate dubious masterpieces.

Rather than look at what is assembled ‘out there’ as a landowner might, looking at what he owns to then have it painted in oil, Berger travels to engage it in dialogue. So here we get lettuce, radish and horseradishes on market stalls in Krakow, next to discussions of Joyce’s Ulysses, now utterly levelled in its importance, back to the everyday it emerged out of.

For Adorno, a revolutionary painting teaches you how to read its new dialect at the same time as it utterly shatters the linearity of previous conventions, as did Ulysses, but with Berger we never lose sight of the everyday life such new forms came from.

Abstraction and other ways of seeing come out of the real. Artists abstract from that real, for various reasons. They are not trying to break into the real from the abstract, even if they try, even if this is what they think they are doing.

Berger might, then, add another thing that people often do, which is to declare avant garde art elitist and impenetrable.

But Picasso intentionally brought African forms into cubist perspectivalism, for instance, in his controversial Demoiselles d’Avignon. Both Cubism and the interest in non-western art were calculated to shatter the assumptions of a ‘natural’ form of representation, or a ‘correct’ form in perspectivalism.

The interest in so-called ‘outsider art’, arriving out of these sorts of discoveries, also examines – and murkily collects and sells – the art of asylum inmates. This can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’ or ‘raw art’ and early twentieth century modernists and their interest in the art of the ‘primitive’, or untrained, or children.

But we need to question the politics implicit in terms such as ‘outsider’. For what are these artists and these ways of representing the work actually outside of?

It has been suggested, by writers such as Martin Jay among others, that the renaissance perspectival form is just one ‘regime of modernity’. It is just one way of representing the world, a product of just one culture, which, because of the violence of imperialism, saw itself ‘at the centre’ of ‘civilisation’ and the ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ to be in the ‘peripheral’ colonies they were subjugating and exploiting.

This is then mapped onto practitioners such as Alfred Wallis even in western territories, and onto asylum inmates. This is why Marxists do not welcome politics into their contemplation. Because the messages those intrusions bring are heavy.

In excerpts from his trilogy here, that begins with his novel Pig Earth, Berger sides with the ‘so-called backwards’, as he does so eloquently in his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man.

Berger is not just ‘for the outsider’, in some ways – although we have to be careful with this – he has lived with them and as one of them. We can ask questions about whether or not Wallis’s vision of the world is more correct than that of Francesca. Is it right to call Wallis ‘child-like’, ‘eccentric’, or ‘primitive’?

Such terms are at least implicitly imperialistic, we must stare those facts fully in the face and they are big intrusions.

Berger gives us different stories of both artists and peasants moving from place to place, via his own peripatetic life. He shows us, in short, the windows through windows through windows that writing about art inevitably involves.

Like Sigmar Polke, who treated his canvases with resin so you could see the frame behind, Berger does not try to convince us that he is providing a clear view through clean glass onto an objective reality. But oddly, via doing that he always gives us a richer, more authentic and real take on that reality.

Also like Polke, once he has disabused us of the notion of a straightforward ‘window on the world’, Berger overlays the resulting deflated space with poetry. Tom Overton’s editing has an important part to play here, as with the previous volume Portraits, he puts Berger’s artificially separated projects of fiction, criticism, biography and politics back into the single powerful river it always came from.

These collections are only just beginning to resurrect Berger from the default image of him smoking on television in big shirt collars. These are the landscapes of Berger’s life as he reaches its end, and they are nothing short of a journey through the whole of twentieth century Europe.

Their Revolution, Our Revolution

Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga – Revolution in Rojava (Pluto)

The complexities of the current middle eastern conflicts don’t make it easy to see what is assembled there. The stories that get out are fed into the global news sausage machine, then out they pop, a neat pinched off bit of ideology, that lands with a brief whiff of truth.

All we see is smoke rising from above, interminable maze-like streets and another explosion, as equally mystifying three-letter acronyms scroll beneath. It seems like a non-starter to suggest that among the high-pitched screaming over no-fly zones, Assad and the Russians, something progressive might be happening.

But Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan is a real world-historical Asterix village, not only holding out against ISIS, but installing ‘one of the most progressive societies in the world today’ and this book is coming straight from Syrian activists.

This is the first single authoritative volume on the Revolution. It is the counterpoint to Patrick Cockburn’s book on ISIS, which barely registers the Rojava struggles. Cockburn essentially believes in Assad as ‘a solution’. This book is the antidote to his argument.

This new Rojava society is being constructed via a polity named ‘democratic confederalism’, which is a ‘communally organised democracy’ that is ‘fiercely anti-capitalist’ and ‘committed to female equality.’

At the same time, it rejects ‘reactionary nationalist ideologies.’ Leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan, pronounced ‘oh-ja-lan’, says that a ‘nation state is not the solution but rather the problem’, although Öcalan is described as ‘a Kurdish nationalist’ almost by default.

The federalist system is apparently built on ‘effective gender quotas’, a ‘bottom-up’ democracy, ecological policy and ‘a powerful militancy that has allowed the region to keep ISIS at bay.’

This book works very clearly through the origins of the conflicts in the region. The different groups with their abbreviations that often cause acronym-blindness.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for instance, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are affiliated but separate, and rivalry is more than detectable. These are the two main bodies, but surrounding them are a myriad more.

The writers then exhaustively detail the working parts of the Revolution, co-ops, portraits of tough women soldiers, organisational strategies and layers.

These portraits and discussions with participants are particularly strong. They really cut through the CNN view from above. The everyday banalities, sacrifices and heroism are all of a piece here.

I also admire this book from a fairly traditional Orwellian standpoint: The women’s autonomous collectives and ecological cooperatives in Rojava are protected by ‘multiethnic peoples’ self-defense’.

There is no sense of the naive peacenik here, how could there be? This idea that washes around the left in the west, that ‘if we all just say no to conflict’ is refreshingly absent.

Rojava’s Revolution means picking up and using the gun for the collective, and that means all the genders and ethnicities within it. Conscription for short periods of time is in effect, but the right to conscientious objection has also been upheld in the region this year.

This is all the more astonishing considering what Rojava is facing. The Revolution is fragile and surrounded by powerful and persistent forces that want to destroy it. Not only the ISIS fanatics funded by the super-rich Gulf States and Turkey, but the whole madhouse capitalist globe beyond the Revolution. NATO are supporting Turkey in its fight against both ISIS and the PKK.

The middle east is not just a crucible for those who live in the region, it is the world stage of global power. But this is where this book moves beyond the sum of its detailed and well-oiled parts into something like a manifesto for the rest of the world. As Servet Dusmani explained elsewhere:

‘In this situation, we must neither be surprised by, nor blame the PYD if they are forced to abandon even their current position, in order to found an alliance with regional and global powers to break the ISIS siege. We cannot expect persons struggling in Kobane to abolish the world scale hegemony of capitalism or to resist this hegemony for long. This task can only be realised by a strong worldwide class movement and Revolutionary alternative.’

Revolution in Rojava, like the Spanish War in the 1930s, already involves all of us, but it will only succeed if we all get involved. For our local readers, there are Syrian Kurd support groups and fundraisers in Manchester, but we all need to think about how we live and organise through this book.

From Manchester to Moscow

Lenin’s April Theses and Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (Verso)

Here’s one to ponder for our more local readers: If you go to Parsonage Gardens, just off Deansgate in Manchester, and look at the greyish building overlooking the lawn, the Ermen & Engels office was once in there. We don’t really know, but it might not be stretching credulity to suggest that Engels frequented that office to salt away petty cash to send to Marx in London, so that he could write Capital. We know that he did it, but not all of the exact details.

Stand there then, and try to take in the full weight of the facts. Manchester Capitalism was created here and exported to the world. Capital was partly paid for here and based on the city, the trilogy was encouraged and finished by a man sometimes working in that office.

Capital was translated first into Russian, where it later exploded in the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, for the intellectuals who oversaw it. Then comes the huge historical arc of WW2, the Cold War and the fall of the wall separating East and West Germany: Capitalism triumphed at the cost of millions of lives.

Stand there, in your ordinary shoes, and look and think about all of that.

The Communist Manifesto and what became known as Lenin’s April Theses are clearly linked. When Karl Marx died, in 1883, Russian revolutionary exile Pyotr Lavrov wrote from Paris on March 15:

‘In the name of all Russian socialists I send a last farewell greeting to the outstanding Master among all the socialists of our times. One of the greatest minds has passed away, one of the most energetic fighters against the exploiters of the proletariat has died. The Russian socialists bow before the grave of the man who sympathised with their strivings in all the fluctuations of their terrible struggle, a struggle which they shall continue until the final victory of the principles of the social revolution. The Russian language was the first to have a translation of Capital, that gospel of contemporary socialism.’

These Russian copies of Capital were unexploded ordnance, waiting for the trigger of the Global Imperialist Wars, which in Britain we really only know via the dates 1914-1918. Tariq Ali, who introduces both texts here, understands and explains this well. But those books also lay obscure for nearly a quarter century.

There has been too much written on the Manifesto and not enough on the April Theses. The later postscript to the Manifesto by Engels is also included, which is great, but to have the Manifesto clearly placed in a lineage that goes even further forwards, rather than looking backwards to the text as a monument of past struggles, is refreshing.

This beautifully designed edition has one text beginning one way, flip the book over and the other text starts the other way. In the middle, then, is a kind of no-man’s land that I think is the most interesting space of all: Two pages, facing each other, upside-down.

This odd space is important. There is a clear line from Marx’s graveside in London in 1883 to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917, but there is also a huge gap and the texts do have an inverted symbiotic relationship in some ways. Marx’s death and revolution in Russia were only 24 years apart, but in some ways they may as well have occurred in different dimensions. In 1917, Lenin and others, also exiled, boarded a sealed train to Russia as the Czar and family were placed under house arrest. Lenin went back to Marx to ask the now-famous question ‘What, then, is to be done?’

But the answer to the question was not obvious at that moment. Its response, socialist statism based around the Soviets, would have to be fully enacted later. This inverted gap between the two texts is poetic because Marx only ever threw in a token line about the Russian struggle. He never envisioned the Revolution beginning in a largely agrarian country with low literacy levels, he assumed it would come through more ‘advanced’ urban societies experiencing the sheer polarising contradictions of accelerated, hyper-catalysed history.

This book performs the dialectic, formally. This place in the middle where the end of the following text comes in, upside-down, is the middle point where the helix comes together and then steadily diverges, away, into the future…