NO HOME BUT THE STRUGGLE
Solomon Reményi: 1919 – 2017
You tread the edge
of this bright world
gingerly, unsteadily as if
for you it lay in shadow.
Old red heat grown dull
in the world still glows
in you: a bust of Uncle Joe
watches you dine
(cold commons in the kitchen
with the morning news) watched
by that photograph in passe-partout –
the comrades in the trenches
outside Burgos, 1936, all fags
and grins and black and white
bandannas. The flat’s upstairs –
steeper every month – above
an Asian minimart. Great confusion
yesterday when you asked
in early morning stupor
(stunned by a dream of Ronnie Gold
drunk in an alley after Cable Street)
for the long-gone Daily Worker.
Consternation too when leaning
on stick and counter you recalled
out loud young Harry Patchett who,
in September ’39, sung the Internationale
to his passengers as he clipped
their tickets on the 131
to Dalston Junction. Poor Salim –
too polite to interrupt – smiling
towards the shelves of catfood
planning reorientation round
a centralised display. Competition’s fierce
with Tesco Express by the roundabout.
Belts to be tightened, profits trimmed
this fiscal year. Family first, family first.
For you too, once, it was
family first: both grandparents
left the ghetto in a lorry –
Lodz had become too crowded
and they needed workers
somewhere east of the city.
Three years on you learned
the truth. You stood outside
The Greyhound by Whitechapel
Underground, the letter in your hand,
and wept without a sound;
wept not just for a photograph
of Papi and Baba, stiff and grim
in some Carpathian valley,
but for a sea that parted
once again, but a different sea
a red, unfathomable tide in flood,
now and forever. You wept without
a sound, even as Whitechapel fell
about your ears in 1944.
And you’re weeping now
with a squeezy bottle of
Domestos in your hand,
weeping for another world
that never really wobbled out
of night and into dawn: Uncle Joe,
your Catalonian comrades,
Harry Patchett, Ronnie Gold,
the red blood of the Party
beating deep and strong,
all gone, all gone to ashes.
Salim looks around for his mother.
What to do? He seems always
so sad, this solitary pensioner
who drops his coins, forgets
to pay his bills. “And where”,
his angry mother whispers,
“are his sons? Do they
not care that he’s shaving
in cold water? What
of his church? Can they not
take him in?” They help him
to the door. He smells of piss.
They shake their heads
and carry out the fruit and veg.
Such times with fortune hostage
to the flagship enterprises. What
a world, such changes, revolution
turning on a dollar dropped.
Solly under the dawn street light,
sodium shadows falling long
and ragged over the paving stones,
the unbending curb. What
a world, implacable, unchanging.
Solly treads the edge
of this dark world unsteadily.
Cable Street: An East London street in which in 1936 an epic battle was fought by Jews, Socialists, Communists & anti-fascists against Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – the British Union of Fascists – who were attempting to march through the Jewish quarter of the East End.
The Daily Worker: The old Communist Party of Great Britain newspaper. Morphed into the Morning Star, which still publishes weekly.
Whitechapel Underground: A subway station in the heart of the East End, in an area subject to massive bomb damage.
LEAVING THE LEFT
For the nascent rebel between the wars, it was so much easier: mass unemployment, a shooting war against fascism, a Soviet Union, which, when caught by the light at a certain angle, might still be seen as a brave experiment, and a fully fledged class struggle complete with a noble proletariat and an effete ruling class. Anyone with half a mind and half a heart followed la bandiera rossa.
But for the noble prole, the reality was closer to the bone. The practical manifestation of class division and capitalism red in tooth and claw was starkly evident in the slums that scarred every major city. Avenues upon which to escape from poverty and servitude were few and sparsely populated. Aspirations to social or financial betterment were dream scenarios fostered by the burgeoning film and advertising industries.
For the second time in one century the universal trauma of a global conflict wrought profound social, political and cultural change. Following the revelations of the Moscow Trials and the further excesses of Stalinism and of the Holocaust the nihilistic cynicism at the heart of the two great doctrinaire ideologies, Communism and Fascism, was exposed and their popular powerbase dissolved. The immediate post war years saw a reorientation on the Left with increased factionalism within its revolutionary wing and a broadening of belief and function within social democracy. In Britain the Labour Party absorbed over time a substantial number of previously zealous Marxists whose allegiance was now to a more evolutionary, consensus view of Socialism. The ideological journey for some of these erstwhile activists was, however, significantly more extreme, involving not only a complete recantation of previous belief but an enthusiastic embracing of its polar opposite.
Before Jeremy Corbyn blew a little heat back into the embers, one of our leading playwrights, David Edgar, wrote a fascinating account in The Guardian of this and subsequent schisms within the far Left. Seeking to account for the recurring phenomenon of political poachers turning into gamekeepers almost overnight (which he describes as the politics of defection), he makes particular reference to the post-1968 era. It was, he relates, a disorientating time during which, as the ‘70s progressed through ideological disillusionment and despair, many key figures of ‘the revolution’ on both sides of the Atlantic crossed the intervening territory between left and right in a few mighty strides. He cites in the United States Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, David Horowitz and P.J. O’Rourke and in Britain Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and erstwhile Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling.
He attributes to many of them what he calls Kronstadt moments (‘Kronstadt’ referring to the brutal Bolshevik suppression of a post-revolutionary sailors’ revolt in the St Petersburg port of the same name.) These ‘moments’ have two principle causes, he believes. In the first instance individuals were motivated by their experience of far-left organisations: their authoritarianism and manipulation, their contempt for allies as “useful idiots”, their insistence that the end justifies the means and that deceit is a class duty, their refusal to take anything anyone else says at face value (dismissing disagreement as cowardice or class treachery) and, most of all, their dismissal as “bourgeois” of the very ideals that draw people to the left in the first place. He quotes poet and socialist activist of the ‘30s and ‘40s Stephen Spender: (T)he communist, having joined the party, has to castrate himself of the reasons which made him one.
But a Kronstadt moment may well arise from another source, a species of purblind naivety. Hard enough to be fooled by the party, he writes; even harder to accept that you deluded yourself into believing that the poor are, by virtue of their poverty, uniquely saintly or strong. No surprise that this realisation turns into a sense of personal betrayal, which turns outwards into blame. (And for ‘poor’, of course, read ‘black’ or ‘female’.) This appalled realisation, this sense of betrayal compounding an antithetical reaction to the Left’s authoritarianism and manipulation might well help to account for the magnitude of spectrum shift managed by some of the renegades. Emancipatory ideals were what drew them to Socialism in the first place – a vision of a just world within a new social structure – and the stifling of the ideals by the Left’s suffocating orthodoxy and the evaporation of the romantic vision in the face of banal reality unravelled dreams and broke hearts.
David Edgar quotes Robert Frost: I never dared to be radical when young, for fear it would make me conservative when old. Somehow I seem to have avoided a Kronstadt moment in those turbulent decades since 1968. My Left always eschewed dogma and the dead hand of prescriptive orthodoxy. Whilst on the demos of the ‘60s others were marching grim faced and shoulder-to-shoulder beneath the hammer-and-sickle with the Trots, I was running wild beneath the black flags of the anarchists. Too middle class to do much more than bellow surreal slogans at sceptical onlookers, we proclaimed D.H. Lawrence’s ethic of making a revolution for fun. For us the notion of revolutionary process and product were indissoluble. And since we wanted a world in which love was the law, the cynical adherence to the contradictory principle of ends justifying means was incomprehensible. As for being driven forward by a touching faith in a noble proletariat waiting for the watch fires to go up before seizing the means of production, we knew all along that anarchism was a bottom-to-top hearts and mind job.
So whilst I might have woken up one morning to the realisation that love and fellowship were not immediately at hand and the bad capitalists were still kings of the castle, no Kronstadt moment laid me low. Wishy-washy, unstructured, unscientific, naïve and millennial, yes. But I’ve always favoured Emma Goldman – If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution – over Lenin – It is true that liberty is precious: so precious that it must be rationed. So I’m staying put over here.
I think there has always been a strand of far left thought that has more respect for a certain sort of Conservatism than for Labour. The choice in a capitalist society, the argument goes, is either to overthrow it or manage it. Labour is seen as muddle-headed and unable to deliver social justice – repeated failed Labour governments merely giving radicalism a bad name. That activists might might jump from the revolutionary left to the mainstream right is hardly surprising, seen from this perspective.
And the poem… we never know what the elderly people we encounter might have done unless they tell us.
I’m reminded that I’m half way through listening to the In Our Time on Guernica…
I well remember the bitchy battles back in the ’70s between factions like the Communist Party of England, the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and various other even tinier groupings. I wish I’d kept the scruffy, Jesuitical newspapers that I bought around that time. Shrill headlines over fanatically detailed issues of 4th International protocol!