“We fought for dignity and freedom, not for territory, not for a national identity”

Before you go to sleep tonight, take a few moments to reflect on what happened in Warsaw in the early hours of 19 April 1943. That was when troops and tanks of the most powerfully equipped army in the world – the German Nazis – entered the Warsaw Ghetto to burn the ghetto buildings to the ground, massacre the remaining inhabitants, or deport them to death camps.  At one time the ghetto, comprising just 1.3 square miles, had held more than 400,000 people – almost all Jews, but also several hundred Roma Gypsies.  By April 1943 the inhabitants still numbered 30-40,000 – starved, diseased, beaten – but still holding on to life, just.

In those early hours the Nazi army were shocked to meet armed resistance from a united fighting organisation comprising around 220 people, the oldest of whom was 40. The youngest was a boy called Luciek, a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund’s children’s organisation. He was just 13 years old. They fought with home-made weapons created and smuggled in by Jews living secretly outside the ghetto who were hidden by sympathetic non-Jews, plus a small number of other weapons clandestinely received from the non-Jewish Polish resistance outside.  It took the Nazis longer to defeat those resisters than to occupy whole countries.

Those 220 fighters represented an alliance under a joint command of three conflicted political tendencies: Bundists, Communists and left-wing Zionists. The Bundists and Communists disagreed with each other over centralism, authoritarianism, inner-party democracy, cultural politics, and more. They had been bitter rivals for the allegiance of socialist-minded Jewish workers in 1930s Poland.  Left-wing Zionists believed that Jews needed a territorial state in Palestine to solve the recurring problems that Jews faced in different countries. Both Bundists and Communists warned that any attempt to impose a Jewish state in Palestine would not only lead to permanent bitter conflict with the population who lived and worked the land there, but also could not solve the problem of antisemitism and fascism in the world. In the ghetto, faced by a deadly enemy, these three disparate tendencies united in action as one.

In the last few weeks a lot of heat, but not much light, has been generated by those who would like to tell the story of Jews, Zionists and Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s in the most simplistic terms of good and evil, and wish away or dismiss any contradictions. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters ought to be told for other reasons, above all to restore names and dignity to those who fought in the most unequal of battles. In telling their history we should embrace the contradictions rather than dismiss them, but also recognise how and why that memory continues to be fought over.

The first moments of the Uprising were described during the 1961 trial in Israel of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

The resistance had organised itself into small units in different locations: “I was standing in an attic on 31 Nalewcki street when I saw thousands of Germans armed with machine guns surrounding the ghetto. Suddenly they entered… and we, some 20 young men and women (with) a revolver, a grenade, some bombs, happily standing up against the heavily armed enemy. Happy because we knew their end would come. We knew that ultimately they would conquer us. But we knew… they would pay heavily for our lives… When… we threw our hand grenades and bombs and saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw where so much Jewish blood had poured, we rejoiced. The future did not worry us. It was a joy… to behold the wonder of those Germans retreating… they had enough… ammunition, bread and water, which we did not have. Reinforced with tanks they came back on the same day, and we, with our Molotov cocktails set fire to a tank… And when we met in the evening… the number of our dead was small, two men, while hundreds of Germans had fallen either dead or wounded.”


Tsivye Lubetkin

That powerful testimony was given by Tsivye Lubetkin, the only woman in the command group, and a left-wing Zionist. Before this trial, Israeli schools had become used to teaching that during the Holocaust, Jews had gone, “like lambs to the slaughter”. The narrative incorporated these heroic stories of Zionist involvement in the resistance and drew a direct line from resistance fighters in Warsaw to the fighters for a Jewish state.


Marek Edelman

Inconveniently disrupting that narrative was Marek Edelman, who wrote the most comprehensive memoir of the Ghetto Uprising, in Polish, in 1945. It was translated into Yiddish and English in 1946. Second-in-command during the Uprising, and the last surviving member of the command group until his death in Poland in 2009, he wasn’t even called to give testimony at the Eichmann trial. Despite his own heroism, Edelman was persona non grata in Israel, a country which leaned on the terrible experiences of the Holocaust to underpin its necessity and legitimacy. That was because he insisted on maintaining his pre-war Bundist ideological beliefs: He was a socialist, an anti-Zionist, an internationalist and anti-nationalist until his dying day. He spoke out in support of justice for the Palestinians. Disgracefully, Edelman’s ghetto memoir remained untranslated into Hebrew until 2001.

Having successfully linked resistance in Warsaw to fighting for Israel, Zionist ideologues drew a sharp distinction between those who fought and those who “passively” and “cowardly” submitted, emphasising brave Zionist fighters, and downplaying or even air-brushing out the Bundists and Communists. Edelman challenged this narrative and could stretch the line of resistance further back in time than the Zionists could. In 1930s Poland the anti-Zionist Bund led the fightback against fascist and antisemitic tendencies in Polish society, whether in the form of Government-backed economic discrimination, street violence or attempted pogroms. In this fight, the Bund could not rely on any support from Zionists except from the small “Left Poale Zion” faction. The communists  were too busy engaging in sectarian political wars against the Bund to help. But the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party worked closely with the Bund.

In Poland’s last municipal elections before the war the Bundists swept the Jewish vote. Many historians attribute that to their leadership in the daily fight against antisemitism. It also enabled the Bund to play a pivotal role inside the ghetto resistance, well before an armed battle command was formed. The first underground  resistance newspapers that were distributed in the ghetto flew off underground Bundist presses. It was Zalman Frydrych, a Bundist “courier” (the term for those who smuggled themselves in and out of the ghetto on various dangerous missions) who, with assistance from a non-Jewish Polish socialist railway worker, made a gruesome discovery: that deportation trains leaving the ghetto were not transporting Jews in their thousands for “work in the east” but sending them instead to a death camp at Treblinka.

I was fortunate to briefly meet Edelman, whom I regard as a hero, in Warsaw in 1997. But he preferred to be an anti-hero. He did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. He spoke of the courage of those Jews who stayed with their families rather than fight; the strong accompanying the weak to a certain death. Edelman said:  “These people went quietly and with dignity… Humanity had decided that dying with a gun is more beautiful.” He described the armed rebellion, though, as “the logical sequel to four years of resistance by a population incarcerated in inhuman conditions, a humiliated, degraded population treated as sub-human”, but who had nevertheless established clandestine universities, schools, welfare institutions, orchestras, theater groups and newspapers. For Edelman it was these acts, resisting to whatever threatened their right to a dignified life, that culminated in rebellion.


Mikhal Klepf

A significant number of the arms used by the Warsaw ghetto fighters were manufactured by hand by another Bundist called Mikhal Klepfisz who was being hidden by Polish Catholics in a flat a short distance beyond the ghetto wall. He was 30 years old at the time. That family also hid an 11-year-old called Wlodka, smuggled out of the ghetto  – who survived and lives in London today. Wlodka has told me that Klepfisz showed her exactly what he was making and how. He delivered his last consignment after the battle had begun knowing he would not come out.

In sharp contrast with the retrospective Zionist narrative regarding the ghetto fighters, Edelman insisted: “We fought for dignity and freedom, not for territory or a national identity.” He upset the Israeli establishment by declaring that there were no nationalist lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, only general lessons for humanity, adding that, in his view, the memory of the Holocaust did not belong solely to the Jews but to everybody.

One of the most stirring documents smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto was a “Manifesto to the Poles” – directed to the underground non-Jewish Polish resistance. It had the slogan “For our and your freedom” – also the motto of one of the Bund’s underground ghetto newspapers.

There was courageous resistance in many ghettoes. In Vilna (Vilnius), after the ghetto was destroyed, survivors formed a United Partisan Organisation led by an anti-Zionist Communist, Itsik Wittenberg. Both Bundists and left-wing Zionists took part in its operations.

Despite some of the wilder claims aired recently, deeper investigations of the experiences in Poland and in other countries under Nazi occupation reveal that the dividing line between those who fought and those who didn’t cannot be mapped by attitudes to Zionism. A Hungarian survivor, Louis Marton, who was a Zionist in his youth and became an opponent of Zionism in later life, made this point, and also argued that those who went into the ghetto with an idealistic political background, dreaming of a better world, and with a commitment to a politics of change, whether Bundist, Communist or Zionist, were best placed to lead resistance activities.

The recent controversies have focused on the heart of the Nazi beast – Germany – and the actions of some among the (significant) minority of German Jews who were Zionists, but German Jews (largely middle class and more assimilated) were not that representative of Jewish communities in Europe, especially of the larger East European ones which were much more working class and generally more impervious to Zionism, which they saw as a pipe-dream totally divorced from the realistic aspirations of ordinary people..

The Polish Jewish population was more than five times bigger than Germany’s and the fight within Jewish life over attitudes to Zionism and antisemitism was acted out much more sharply there in the 1930s. Bundist leaders in Poland were incandescent about the complacent and defeatist attitude that Polish Zionist leaders had towards antisemitism, and their public statements, echoed gleefully by antisemitic Polish politicians, that there were “100,000 superfluous Jews in Poland” and that “Jews pollute the air of Poland”.

One Bundist leader, Henryk Erlich, described Zionist ideology as “a Siamese twin of antisemitism and every kind of national chauvinism” and characterised the Zionist movement in Poland as the “open ally of our deadly enemy – antisemitism”.

In 1938, Erlich wrote these chilling words: “…if the future of humanity really belongs to fascism… then what truly awaits us… is death and destruction. But death and destruction will be the destiny of all human civilisation and culture. Would Zionism be capable of saving us alone from the fascist deluge. It is ridiculous to even think about it.”

Of course, the relatively small numbers of Jews of Palestine did survive, not because of Zionism though, but because the allies defeated the Nazis at El Alamein.  Those polemicists who have been waving around the Ha’avarah Agreement to score a political point against Zionism today, need to ask themselves what would have happened had the Nazis reached Palestine? Would they have tracked down the 60,000 Jews who got there under the Ha’avarah agreement, separated them out and said, “we’ll exterminate the others, not you”? Of course not.

They also need to acknowledge that most German Zionists stayed in Germany and shared the fate of nearly all German Jews there and elsewhere under Nazi occupation, whether Zionist, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Reduced to ashes. Cremated equally.

Unfortunately, many people who have justifiably critiqued Livingstone’s half-baked history, and poured scorn on those who unthinkingly defend him, don’t apply the same critical scrutiny to Zionist ideologues and the Israeli political establishment, who have cynically tried to appropriate the history of the Holocaust, and episodes within it, and harness it to their ultra-nationalist and revanchist political outlook today.

The fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, whether Bundists, Communists or Zionists, who took up arms on April 19th 1943, and were still defiantly fighting against the might of the Nazis in the second week of May, deserve better. Koved zayer ondenk! (Yiddish). Honour their memory!

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial

Memorial in Warsaw to the Ghetto fighters

Making the best of a balls up

This time last week I was in Nottingham, feeling incredibly relaxed, happy and at one with the world. I was at the annual British Juggling Convention for the first time in 16 years.  Back in the 1990s not just me, but our family, had discovered the joy of juggling. Between 1995 in Norwich and 2001 in Cardiff we only missed one national convention, and took in quite a few local conventions along the way. We packed the car full of juggling equipment and usually came back with more. It is addictive. I thought I could handle the addiction, but came back this time as well with new equipment.

So what does a juggling convention look like? Hundreds, sometimes more than a 1,000 jugglers of all ages and sizes sharing a 24/7 practice hall, usually in a purpose-built sports centre; people practicing and practicing by themselves, or with a partner or small group with all kinds of equipment not just balls: hula hoops, diabolos, rings of all sizes, silk scarves, flower sticks and devil sticks (look them up!); smaller groups gathering for workshops in studio spaces or squash courts – in Nottingham’s case – or in small circus tents at some previous conventions.

IMG_1755People generously offer workshops to freely share their skills with learners. Late in the evening the “Renegade Show” offers anyone attending the chance to do a little turn in front of an always friendly and supportive audience. There is also one professional show put on at a proper theatre in the town where the convention is happening. The skills on show are breathtaking, but there is also something very pleasing when you suddenly see on stage that person who has just been practicing very quietly and seriously near you in the 24/7 hall space.

Also there are the “juggling games” when we take over a place in the town. In Nottingham’s case it was a large green within the grounds of Nottingham Castle. At previous conventions it has been a pedestrianised city centre. All manner of strange collective games and endurance tests follow, mainly using juggling balls, clubs, diabolos, and human balancing skills. Sometimes there is a carnival style procession to the games venue.

IMG_1776.jpgAlthough I was completely fascinated with circus since I was a child, my story as a juggler started in the early 1990’s (shortly before I trained as a primary school teacher). With three bean bags and a small instruction sheet – a present just before a family holiday in Cornwall – I practiced for half an hour a day, until I got the hang of it. When we came back I progressed to balls, and then in subsequent months and years to rings, clubs, knives, and I’ve since dabbled a bit with fire clubs too.

People ask me whether juggling is meditative. I don’t think so, but what does happen is that all inhibitions and anxieties temporarily drop out of your head and disappear. That is a state that those of us who are political activists really need to build into our lives to maintain our sanity in these very fraught times. I guess other people do it by playing music, going jogging or climbing a mountain.

Juggling turned out to be a very useful skill in my 22-year career as a primary teacher in inner-London. I resorted to it at moments when I really needed to calm situations down in the class, and I also regularly visited each classes’ annual Christmas party to do a brief entertainment slot. For around 10 years from the mid-1990s, I ran a weekly  after-school Juggling Club for 7-11 year olds  which gave me insights on the question of “natural” talent and also on the negative cultural changes our children have lived through and are still living through.

My first five or six years of running the club were the most creative and enjoyable. The club was populated by children who fully bought in to the non-competitive spirit I tried to establish. They appreciated each other’s efforts and supported each other. Juggling came more easily to some children than others, but those who were willing to persevere with something they found hard, and who could cope with others around them progressing at a faster pace would succeed too. I usually had up to 12 children in the class. We would play some games then I would demonstrate some techniques and leave them to practice. While they practiced, I went from child to child giving individual help. We closed the sessions with children volunteering to show the others what they had improved on that week.

IMG_1767I had one child, P, who started in the club when he was nine. Despite the fact that in other spheres he was well coordinated – he played guitar with considerable proficiency – he had terrible coordination problems with juggling. The first exercise I gave him was to hold a ball in his favoured hand (his right) and throw it in a loop reaching just over head height to catch it as it fell into his left. I told him to hold his hands low palm upwards and placed a ball in his right hand. As he tried to throw it, it just stayed there. the first limb that moved was actually his left arm; then his left leg; then his right leg, then finally his right arm. And the ball didn’t really land anywhere near his left hand.

Some children got the hang of it quickly as I progressed them through the basic exercises for the “cascade” – the most basic 3-ball pattern. Within two or three weeks most of them could keep the balls in the air in that pattern for 5-10 throws. P showed fantastic perseverance – aided by the support of others in the club. By the time he was 11 – he could finally keep a three ball cascade going for at least 10 throws.  He proved to me that it didn’t matter how uncoordinated you were, you could get there. I hope he is still juggling.

But the last few years of the club were more challenging. This was a period when two simultaneous processes were happening. Children were getting sucked more and more into the passive culture of electronic games which provided instant gratification with very little physical skill/agility involved; and a competitive spirit was being insinuated by Blair’s New Labour into almost every aspect of the education system, setting borough against borough, school against school and ultimately child against child. Children imbibed it unconsciously. They were harsher not only towards other children but also towards themselves.

With children leaving for secondaries at 11 there was a natural turnover in the club each year, but many of the new recruits simply gave up if they couldn’t succeed at it really quickly, especially if they saw others proving more adept. I tried to maintain the collaborative, mutually supportive atmosphere, and to see themselves only in competition with themselves and their previous achievements but I couldn’t compete strongly enough against the other cultural pressures they had internalised.

I know that some of my early recruits to the club eventually became much more proficient, fluent and skilled than myself. I even bumped into some at juggling conventions. I hope that juggling is still a part of their lives. I’ve come back from Nottingham determined to build on what I can already do with my juggling equipment and determined to make the space in my life for the serenity and pure pleasure it brings. And for those of you who haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too early or too late to learn to juggle.

Hero or villain? The Livingstone question

My favourite political image among the protests and street activism that has marked the first three months of 2017 is a banner held on the St Patrick’s Day parade. It proclaimed:”More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” – mocking the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs rejecting applicants from these categories. The first Race Relations Act of 1968 finally knocked that appalling behaviour on the head, but not the sentiments behind it. It took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, finally aided by another layer of government, to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.


GLC leader Ken Livingstone addressing  GLC London Against Racism rally 1984.

That layer of government was the Greater London Council (GLC). Under a visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981 it railed against continuing inequalities and discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them – whether it was racist, sexist, homophobic or disablist. Through a generous grants programme it gave grassroots  campaigners including Caribbean, African, South Asian, Irish and Jewish groups, the resources to make their voices count. The GLC also brought those groups and campaigns together through its Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose activities dovetailed with those of the GLC’s Women’s Committee. These policies were denounced at the time as “loony left” by the right-wing press. Maggie Thatcher felt so threatened by this equalities agenda that she dictatorially closed down the GLC.

The imagination and determination to push this agenda through was rightly identified very strongly with the GLC’s leader – one Ken Livingstone. In place of the old paternalistic grants policy which mainly favoured rather conservative existing groups, the GLC under Livingstone developed a grassroots strategy whereby innovative groups without resources were encouraged to identify a need in London, make a plan for addressing it and ask the GLC to fund it.

I  was a beneficiary, appointed as sole worker for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group initiative funded by the GLC.  Our two years of funding came to an end through Maggie’s act of destruction. But I remember a delicious moment one year in, when our project grant came up for renewal. Alongside other groups we were invited to the public gallery. Labour had a solid majority on the council, so at the meeting confirming renewal Ken Livingstone read through a list of groups that the grants committee had approved. The Tories could express their objection but they had no power to stop any of the approved grants going through. Most did so without objection but every so often – a lesbian project, or an Irish project –  the Tory would say “We object!”. Livingstone read out “Jewish Socialists’ Group” in a manner which suggested he enjoyed the particular combination of those words as much as we did. The Tory rose: “We object”. Livingstone retorted, smiling, “You don’t like the name!”

How can it be that three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in the fight for equality came within a hairsbreadth of expulsion by the Labour Party for bringing the party in to disrepute over the issue of anti-Jewish racism, having made dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism; and for defending another MP’s comments, which she herself apologised for, after she recognised they had crossed a line into antisemitism?

The knee-jerk reaction of many left wingers, tired of cynical, manufactured and distorted accusations of antisemitism was to leap to his defence,  Others who harboured doubts about the veracity of Livingstone’s comments and his tact were more reticent. He claimed that the real reasons he was threatened with expulsion were his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn.  As someone who admired his earlier work, I’m not convinced. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention – based on a very poor quality source – undermined Jeremy Corbyn and was detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It was also a free gift to right wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties, and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do Labour and Corbyn down.

They have been having a field day denouncing Labour for not expelling him, claiming that it proves that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling antisemitism, that the Jewish community has been let down by Labour’s disciplinary process and so on. Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, who rushed to congratulate Trump on winning the US election, or Chief Rabbi Mirvis who penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election while saying nothing about the Tories openly Islamopbhobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, feel they have the right to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.

The bad blood between Livingstone  and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back a long way. It is nothing to do with Israel/Palestine or Nazis, and it shows those “leaders” in a poor light. I will say more on that further down.

But those of us in the left and centre left of the Labour Party, who certainly do have the right to comment on those procedures, have every reason to be cynical about those individuals put in place under Tony Blair who still dominate the bodies enacting these disciplinary  procedures. While they act against loose cannons such as Livingstone, who unfortunately has form when it comes to speaking first and engaging his brain second, they completely ignore the daily acts of Labour right-wingers, which bring the party into disrepute and harm its electoral chances. I am talking here of the likes of tblair_mandelson_36092bMandelson, Blair, Wes Streeting, Michael Dugher and Ruth Smeeth, who deliberately and repeatedly insult, demean and seek to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice to lead the party by its members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so. They are surely the people who deserve to be at the front of any queue of those who might be legitimately charged with bringing the party into disrepute. In that context I am glad Livingstone was not expelled. And, indeed, rather than suspend him for a further year, maybe, as other Jewish left-wingers have suggested, he should be challenged to go for a year without mentioning Hitler.

But what is the real story with Livingstone and the Jewish community? What are the merits of what he has said, and the “academic” source he based them on? Did the timing of his intervention help or undermine Jeremy Corbyn at a time when Labour was being assailed with charges of antisemitism? Has it helped or hindered the Palestinian cause?

Livingstone took power in the GLC in 1981 at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was increasingly falling in with Thatcher’s government and its reactionary norms. Thatcher  was extremely hostile to the GLC’s anti-racist agenda. Nevertheless the BoD initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.

As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of  politically independent groups among both secular and religious Jews, including dissident and marginalised groups, applied for funding for their projects. The BoD, which saw itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain, wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications to the GLC for funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone quite rightly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven. As well as being involved with the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) application, I was also part of a small group of four people called the Jewish Employment Action Group, which was taking up cases of antisemitism in the workplace. One of the four was a maverick member of the Board of Deputies. We asked for and received a grant of £220 (that’s all!). That maverick BoD member was hauled over the coals by the BoD’s paranoid leaders. Whenever the BoD got a hint that a particular Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them. I was shown the unsolicited “reference ” on the JSG, by the Grants Officer dealing with our application. It was a filthy document, full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist”. Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.

In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity  that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism in London and actively promoting multiculturalism. I have a leaked copy of the internal minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee which agreed this action. It sets out five charges against the GLC, listed a to e, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-PLO factions and by terrorist representative groups”.


Avnery and Sartawi at GLC County Hall

In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall had indeed hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi. I was among the organisers of the meeting. Also in the early 1980s the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of direct links withe IRA.

However the leaked minutes explained that the BoD’s decision to break off relations  with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken because of (e), “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”.

Following the initial skirmishes which were about the GLC being able to function democratically without unwanted and unwarranted interference for the BoD, there were further clashes which related also to pro-Palestinian comments that Livingstone made in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.

In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which does link directly to much more recent controversies. He was one of the editors of a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published very crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its very right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism.  It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration. This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. I was co-writer of a letter from the JSG, showing how this line had been crossed, and how it also served to diminish Nazi responsiblity for the Holocaust. Our letter demanded an apology from Labour Herald for publishing this review. The letter was published but no apology was made. In a private letter Livingstone remarked that Harry Mullin was a respected labour movement writer. It was no great surprise to me to learn that a few years down the line Harry Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party, through which he increasingly peddled Holocaust denial. Perhaps this was an early hint of – at best – Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgement in this area.


Lenni Brenner

During the recent controversy, when Livingstone was pressed for the source of his claims that Hitler “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he told the Evening Standard, “Everything I said… was true and I will be presenting the academic book about that to the Labour Party inquiry.”. That “academic” source was Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an American freelance journalist.  Brenner’s book reads much more like tabloid journalism than any serious academic study. It makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.

In truth, there were attempts by some Jews in Germany to make deals with the Nazi dictatorship that was hostile and repressive towards all Jews. In Germany’s case these were Zionists (an ideological minority among German Jews), who were criticised by other Zionists and other Jews for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with Nazi rulers were made by some Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple Zionist/anti-Zionist lines. Some bourgeois Jews who were not Zionists also attempted to extract concessions from their oppressors, to save some lives through such deals. On the other hand, many left-wing Zionists participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes. But, whatever deals were attempted in Germany after Hitler came to power, Hitler had already made crystal clear his absolutely poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second edition in 1926.

When Lenni Brenner came to London in 1983/84 to promote his book the Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak to one of our meetings about it. He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin pre-ordained theories. When he was challenged on his “analysis” he reacted with aggression. When audience members argued that his comments were antisemitic he flew into a further rage and told us that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. That, I’m afraid, is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.

Of course, if you do serious research you can find many examples that would show that in terms of combating antisemitism and fascism, whether in Germany or, for example, in Poland Europe’s largest Jewish community pre-war, the 1930s and ’40s were not Zionism’s finest hour. And the willingness of Zionists to seek cooperation with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a long pedigree that stretches as far back as Theodor Herzl’s meeting with Plehve, a minister in Tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries.  Herzl promised  Plehve, on no authority at all, that Jewish radicals and revolutionaries would cease their struggles against Tsarism for 15 years if he would give a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying.

However, this whole effort to try to find evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is such a poor way of supporting the Palestinians and their just demands. It rests on too many crude generalisations. You do not have to go back to Hitler and the 1930s in order to expose and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by Zionist ideology and practice today. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly pointed out in her report, from the Inquiry that followed in the weeks after Livingstone’s remarks, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”. I agree with her wholeheartedly. The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Trying to base that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the 1930s will always end up diverting the argument towards accusations of antisemitism, and ultimately lets both the Israeli government and the Zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.


Bradford MP Naz Shah

Livingstone was also apprehended for his defence of tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which were considered by Jewish “leaders” such as  the BoD as offensive. The BoD  apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right. One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and American governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well.  My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says in his shows, “I think Israel should give back the Occupied territories… but keep New York!” That is edgy but not antisemitic.

The only actually offensive, indeed antisemitic, tweet by Shah was in relation to an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, when she tweeted that “the Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”, not “supporters of Israel”, but “Jews”. That is antisemitic, and she rightly apologised.

The day after she did so, Ken Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s  radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter. The timing is crucial and tells us much again about Livingstone’s lack of judgment and his apparent desire for notoriety, whatever the cost to those whose causes he claims to be promoting. The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. If  Livingstone had had the nous, he would have simply noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his background in anti-racism in London to utterly condemn the Tories for their thoroughly racist campaign against Khan. That could,  and should, have been the story. Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not antisemitic”. Immediately after this came his infamous remarks about Hitler and Zionism.

Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted partly because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up well. Corbyn was under massive pressure on this issue from an unholy alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories. A spokesperson for Corbyn had already welcomed Shah’s apology. Livingstone’s intervention further undermined Corbyn. And some who know him well have suggested that this was deliberate – whether for reasons of jealousy or some petty sectarianism.

I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews. I respect the integrity of the longstanding socialist and Labour Jewish activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally. However  I do believe that Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, that his judgement on these issues is very poor, that he has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership.

I hope that those of us fighting for justice for the Palestinians, fighting racism in all its forms, including antisemitism, and fighting to strengthen Labour’s progressive leadership will reflect on this episode and ensure that we are directing our fire on our enemies in ways that are both principled and effective.

Comic Relief – what would Emma Goldman say?

Yesterday afternoon I stood with a small tour group of young activists outside tsedokohChristchurch Hall off Brick Lane, where the unstoppable force that was the international anarchist celebrity, Emma Goldman, gave three lectures when she was visiting London in late 1899. The Yiddish poster for one of those lectures survives. it announces that she will speak about Tsedokeh (charity). In the 1899 version of clickbait, the poster entices the audience with some questions:
“Vilt ir visn vos is dos azoyns tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know what is this thing charity?
“Vilt ir visn varum un ver es git tsedokeh?”
Do you want to know who gives charity and why?


These are, of course, contemporary questions, and every two years when Red Nose Day comes around, I wish Emma Goldman was around to deconstruct Comic Relief and chart an alternative. I don’t know the exact words she said at this particular meeting in 1899 but in her writings on charity a few years later she described it as a function of capitalism – an economic system that “robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self respect.”

Another forceful woman speaker who spoke at the same venue a decade earlier was Annie Besant. Having once been a very enthusiastic Christian, she later became a leading secularist and atheist. In that phase of her life, her pet hate was Christian charity which, she said, “plunders the workers of the wealth they make, and then flings back at them a thousandth part of their own product as charity. It builds hospitals for the poor whom it has poisoned in filthy courts and alleys.”

In both these descriptions the recipients of charity are seen not as equals whom the giver of charity is helping to empower and access their rights but as objects of pity, always below and always inferior to the person giving the charity. The charity they receive might relieve some stresses temporarily but it is like a tiny plaster, that eventually comes off, and the wound hasn’t really healed. The givers don’t see that bit – they focus, often very sanctimoniously, on the moment of giving.

Red Nose Day brings my negative feelings about charity very close to the surface not just because I am familiar with the radical critiques of charity of people like Goldman and Besant, but because I have seen its work at first hand, which undoubtedly benefited a community – at least in the short term – in some significant respects. Though I also know about those crucial questions it does not and will not address, and I recognise the harmful ideology that it keeps in place.


Children at a reclaimed Katakwi school, 2010

In summer 2010 I was in Uganda doing some work for Link Community Development (LCD), an NGO which I had a close connection with for more than 10 years . On that trip I spent some time meeting and interviewing people who were part of a Comic Relief-funded project in an area called Katakwi, just starting to recover from three decades of conflict. During many of those years, people used school compounds not as places of education but as Displaced Persons’ camps to collectively protect themselves from those who were frequently raiding and attacking and sometimes kidnapping them. The children got very little education and communities couldn’t work on their farms very much. As a result people were extremely poor and there was very little food. Gradually, after long-demanded and long-awaited government action to give more protection to the threatend communities, things have become more peaceful and schools are returning to thier more normal function. Comic Relief has channeled some of the huge amounts of money raised through  charitable donations to give several schools in this district equipment and seeds for developing school gardens in which they can grow their own food.  The local organisation they are working through is LCD , who as their name implies sees school development going hand in hand with community participation. In each of these schools there is a group of 30 adults from the community who work with the children and teachers growing food together.


Sunset in Katakwi

The climate in Katakwi makes life difficult, and undoubtedly played a part in the conflicts, which had an ethnic dimension too, but were essentially about access and control of scarce resource. In the Katakwi region, if you add the dry seasons together they take up more than half the year. So, Katakwi provides the kinds of images that abound in Comic Relief videos – starved, emaciated children, little food growing, very poor living conditions. Fortunately when I was there I didn’t bump into any super-rich tax-avoiding western pop stars looking devastated and tearful.

But I spent two other periods in Uganda – through the same NGO – in 2001 and 2005 in the much more fertile areas around Masindi and Kiryandongo. There the rain falls in buckets for nine months of the year. So many crops grow there, and so quickly: coffee, sugar, tobacco, bananas,  mangoes, pineapples, beans, maize, cassava, and many more,  but the people there – mainly subsistence farmers –  also suffer grinding poverty. Is it because they don’t get the same kind of attention from Comic Relief?


Fruit-seller in Kigumba Market, Kiryandongo

The problem is more basic. Farmers there cannot get a decent price for their excess produce, beyond their subsistence needs, on the world market. The questions of why there are richer and poorer countries, whether it was chance or through conquest and massive transfers of wealth; or the questions about which companies control food prices globally are the questions that Comic relief cannot and will not ask. Fair Trade projects are spreading  to more districts in Uganda and that is making some difference for local communities but Ugandans need trade justice for any real economic shift.

My own observations and conversations in Uganda were undertaken in summer breaks when I was working as a primary school teacher in inner London. When Red Nose Day came round it was probably quite confusing for the children at our school. One of the other teachers was a great enthusiast for Red Nose Day, would order in all the packs to popularise it among the children. The school would have a “fun day” in which children would come up with some very inventive ways of raising money and would collect a decent amount for Comic Relief. But I would take the opportunity to do an assembly for the school that would acknowledge the children’s genuine desire to “make a difference” but also subvert and challenge the charity mindset in the spirit of Emma Goldman .

Being generous to others, giving help to those who need it, showing that you care for someone else, not just yourself, wanting the world to be a fairer place, I said, were all good things. I congratulated them on the money they raised through their efforts. But I would then give them give them two very important messages about charity.

The first one was that  what you do is much, much, more important than what you give, and at school, at home, within your community, they could make a positive difference by what they do every day, not just once every two years on Red Nose Day. I explained that if you become aware of what makes some things in the world unjust and then change the way they live your lives and the actions you take, you can impact on the world.

The second message was about how they conceive of the recipients of charity: Do we see them as people we feel sorry for because they can’t help themselves or do we see them as people who have a right to live with dignity – equal to everyone else, in a fairer world, and through actions we take we are helping them to do so? I encouraged them to to look at the world in terms of rights and recognise that people who are poor have a right not to be poor; people who don’t have clean water have a right to clean water to drink and to use; people who are living in a place of war have a right to live in peace; people who are homeless have a right to have shelter. And that people are already fighting for these things themselves but we can support them.

In terms of practical things that they could do I suggested some small things: that they and their families buy a bigger proportion of fair trade products when they are shopping ; that they look out for situations of injustice near to them and try to do something about it – to stand up for their own rights and for the rights of others. I talked about making the world a more comfortable place for everyone where they live, to recognise that some of their neighbours might be refugees new to the area, and think about how they could offer friendship and support.

I talked about how many problems in the world are to do with people in positions of power discriminating in one way or the other – whether on the basis of someone’s skin colour, beliefs, or gender. I suggested that when they grow up, if they find themselves in a position to make decisions that affect the lives of others, that they choose not to discriminate. I talked also about how they could campaign for peace; how wars can’t be made without weapons, and just how many weapons are built by richer countries and sold to poorer countries.  I would usually end with what they can do to make their own opinions and their own voice heard. I acknowledged that they couldn’t vote until they were 18 but I told them they didn’t have to wait until they were 18, or even at secondary school to write a letter to a newspaper, or to their MP, or to the Prime Minister. And they didn’t have to wait until they were 18 to join a campaign about something they cared about.

IMG_1143I have left the world of work in primary education now – these days I am teaching adults  – though occasionally taking primary age children on radical guided walks. But I hope some of these messages got through, and that some of those young people I spoke to a few years ago are part of the generation giving energy to the large protests against Trump and against racism that we have seen here in the first three months of 2017. I’ve spoken at two of those large rallies and it is really heartening from the platform to see a sea of young faces from many backgrounds making up a large proportion of the crowds. Perhaps the most heartening movement for me in this respect is that on the Stand up to Trump rally a few weeks ago I bumped into two teachers I used to  work with and one of them told me about her pride that her teenage daughter was also there that day,having organised herself and a multicultural friendship group, to come together to participate in the march on their own terms and in their own way.

So, to Emma Goldman’s still pertinent questions about what this thing charity is, and who gives it and why, let’s add a few more for 2017: what are the alternatives to charity for changing the world? How do we organise ourselves to do it? How can we make every day Red?

Just saying racism is bad or wrong is not good enough

This is the text of a platform speech I made in Parliament Square at the UN Anti-Racism Day march and rally, organised by Stand Up to Racism on Saturday 18th March 2017

IMG_1697.JPGA great anti-fascist, Marek Edelman, said “to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”. His words echoed for me two days ago when I took two American “Black Lives Matter” activists to Cable Street, scene of the victory over Mosley’s fascists in 1936. They wanted to learn what happened to Jews then. And I learnt about their struggles against another filthy rich, populist, racist, demagogue – Donald Trump

I told them that a grassroots movement – the Jewish People’s Council – understood that you defeat antisemitism and fascism by building an anti-fascist majority. By turning by-standers into up-standers. By convincing even those starting to fall for racist ideas.

We need to take our ideas into every arena – work, college, our neighbours,– to build that anti-racist majority today.

On the day that Paul Nuttall became leader of UKIP he said: “We are now the patriotic party of the working class”. If Mosley was alive he could have done him for copyright. He said the exact same words in 1936.

Labour crushed UKIP in Stoke. But UKIP are not finished yet. They still win protest votes among people, struggling economically, clutching at racist explanations. Saying to them racism is bad, or wrong, is not good enough. We have to show how a multicultural society and immigration benefit us all, and make the fight against racism a fight for proper jobs, better housing, better education, for all communities

Antisemitism is rising again alongside daily Islamophobic attacks. It has been decades since Britain’s Far Right publicly displayed banners saying “Hitler was Right”. That happened here last year.

The Daily Mail, which supported Hitler all through the 1930s, falsely accuses Corbyn of antisemitism, but Jewish socialists knows who the real antisemites are and who our allies are.

Our allies are in every minority community that is a victim of race hate and among everyone, like Jeremy Corbyn, who unites against race hate, mysoginy and homophobia.

Racists accumulate and switch targets easily – from Muslims, to Polish workers, to Jews. We have to defend all communities under attack. Unconditionally. With solidarity we will win. No Pasaran!

East is East and West is West

The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams had an interesting angle on the Tory budget. She noted that Phillip Hammond had set aside a small sum of money for commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Act of Parliament enfranchising women (well, more than 70% of them) which will be upon us in Early 2018. She wrote a searing critique of the impact on ordinary women of the cuts that the Tory budget entailed:   She asked what would the suffragette leader and activist Emmeline Pankhurst say about women in Theresa May’s Britain continuing to suffer such economic hardship so long after winning the vote.


Sylvia Pankhurst outside the organising centre of the East London Suffragettes

Good question, but to my mind Williams invokes the wrong Pankhurst. It was Emmeline’s middle daughter, Sylvia, who led and inspired a much more sustained attack on the economic injustices afflicting working class women, through her work alongside her sisters in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS).

When Rudyard Kipling wrote “East  is East and West is West” he may as well have pre-figured the political, economic and geographical chasm that separated these two vibrant sections of the Suffragette movement in London. The West End suffragettes were dominated by educated, very well to do, immaculately dressed women, a significant number of whom were willing to engage in individual, often dangerous, acts of serious trouble-making that risked imprisonment. And they were prepared to endure the horrors of doctors and prison staff attempting to force-feed them while they engaged in hunger strikes. They did not fear prison, though, since there would be no shortage of people to look after their children, and a good income would continue to flow into the household while they were getting some respite from round the clock activism behind bars (though a number of them found ways to continue to resist while imprisoned).

It was of course very different for the ELFS, whose typical members were factory workers, laundry workers, bar-maids, cleaners and others working long exhausting hours for low pay in sweated industries. A number of them would have been the sole breadwinners in their households. A prison sentence for something they could have avoided being caught up in would have been (and was) an unmitigated disaster for their families.

Their different circumstances coloured their attitudes towards the very demand they were both fighting for. Emmeline Pankhurst may have been satisfied to ask that women be granted the vote “on the same basis as men”. But at that time barely 60% of men had the vote, and it was on a property basis. If an equivalent franchise extended to women, many working class women would still be excluded.  The ELFS, though, saw themselves in the business of securing the vote for working class women and men. They campaigned for Universal Suffrage, and they were not content to reduce their efforts to a single issue campaign.


A copy of the ELFS weekly newspaper

They supported local women’s workplace struggles to form trade  unions, and built strong relationships of solidarity and struggle with male trade unionists, especially gas workers, railway workers and dockers. It was an ELFS delegation of working class women, describing their appalling daily economic realities, that shook Prime Minister Asquith from his complacency in June 1914. He finally agreed to meet them only after Sylvia had threatened a hunger strike on the steps of Parliament. Having been an opponent of women’s votes, but edging towards a partial suffrage, he was forced to acknowledge at the end of their meeting, “If the change has got to come we must face it boldly and make it thoroughly democratic in its  basis.” But before he could start to put the machinery in place to act on it the war began, and womenb’s votes remained on the backburner.

Emmeline’s mainstream suffragettes “patriotically” wound down much of their activity during World War 1. They changed the name of their newspaper to Britannia, and concentrated on recruiting women for munitions factories. Meanwhile, Sylvia and the ELFS were marching to Trafalgar Square alongside local trade unions, demanding no taxation on food and caps on food prices, an end to sweating, and equal pay and equal opportunities for women in their workplaces during the war, where they were increasingly taking on roles which had previously been reserved for men.


Emmeline’s  statue in Westminster that celebrates her eldest daughter Christabel too, but not Sylvia

I am sure that Zoe Williams is very familiar with Emmeline Pankhurst’s forthright and courageous political campaigning in the early years of the suffragette struggle. I wonder  how much she knows of Emmeline’s later trajectory. Emmeline Pankhurst’s last political act was to put herself for a Conservative candidacy.  In 1926, she was adopted as the Conservative – yes, Conservative – candidate for Whitechapel, though she died before she could contest the election. Emmeline had made her peace with the system that Sylvia was still battling against with every fibre of her body for all women’s economic as well as political rights.

A warrior who brought solidarity and hope

Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant, Emily Wilding Davison, the Pankhursts – these are the names  that spring to mind when you think about those who put women’s rights to equality on the map in Britain. Alongside them it was collective movements of striking workers, whether matchwomen at Bryant and May’s factory in the 1880s, or sewing machinists at Ford’s in  Dagenham in the 1960s, or South Asian immigrant workers picketing Grunwick’s  in the  1970s, who were surely in the front line of women’s fight for equality  in Britain.

IMG_1468.jpgNo doubt there are many other names to add, but, as we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we should be glad that one unsung heroine is finally getting recognised. Her name is Mary Macarthur. She features in Chapter 9 of my book Rebel Footprints, and turns up every so often in adult education classes I teach on London’s radical history.  To most people, including  social justice activists today, she remains an unknown or obscure figure. This afternoon I was privileged to be present as an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled on her home in Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where she lived at the height of her involvement in struggles for equality and justice.

She was born in 1880 to a middle class Glaswegian family, running a successful drapery business.  Her parents were Conservatives. And so was she. In her late teens, after the family moved to Ayr, she joined the party’s  Primrose League. Working as a bookkeeper in the family business she became keen on journalism too.  It was when she went to cover a meeting of shop assistants in Ayr, addressed by socialists and trade unionists, that she came face to face with stories of  misery and  exploitation of workers, especially  women, in the workplace. She rebelled against the family’s political tradition and within months  she was the secretary of the Ayr branch of that self-same union.  By her mid 20s she was living in London and forming an organisation – the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) –  that was to change the lives of so many women over a relatively short period.

_94950567_mediaitem94950564At the turn of the 20th century, many men were suspicious and fearful of women workers. They saw them as rivals who would undercut men’s wages, and then, having done so, go off and have babies. In many mixed workplaces men refused to let women join the unions. which is where Mary Macarthur’s organisation came in. There was already a Women’s Trade Union League through which Mary was starting to organise all-women workplaces, but the NFWW went further. It was a general union that all working women could join, but it specifically targeted workplaces in which men were keeping women out of the union. Mary  began to pressurise employers to recognise women’s demands through the NFWW. Around the same time she helped found the Anti-Sweating League which exposed the scandalous situation of many women, suffering appalling working conditions characterised by casualisation, piece-work, long hours, low pay and a hazardous working environment.

She involved herself in the  national political scene too through another body –  the Independent Labour Party (ILP). You might have anticipated I would  to say “suffragettes” there, but like other pioneering women trade unionist activists, she was suspicious of the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, who contradicted the suffragettes own slogan “Votes for Women” by adding the small print, “on the same basis as men”. At this stage only 60% of men had the vote – on a property basis. A similar enfranchisement of women would  add many middle and upper-class  women, and just a proportion of working class women, to the voting register. The majority of new voters  were more likely to vote Conservative. And Mary and close colleagues feared that enfanchising more Conservatives would act as a permanent barrier to a wider enfranchisement of working class women – and men. Mary’s own involvement with the suffrage campaigns was with those sections that stood for universal suffrage from the start. It was all or nothing.

It was her crucial organising role in a strike by chain-makers in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire, that brought Mary Macarthur to prominence at the time. In a bitter 10-week strike, in which she showed her tenacity, her determination, and her ability to communicate the strikers’ message to the wider public, she won a fair and guaranteed minimum wage for employees previously on piece-work. The wider community support she and colleagues had built meant that at the end of the strike there was a considerable surplus in the strike fund.  This was used to create a local Workers’ Institute.

In my book I focus especially on Mary’s outstanding role a year later among thousands of super-exploited women workers in Bermondsey’s  food processing factories. Over the course of two days in the summer of 1911, some 14,000 women in 21 factories rose up against their employers and joined a spontaneous strike. Their demands were clear but short on detail, as one striker famously told a reporter who enquired: “We are striking for pay Mister, and we won’t go in till we get it.”


Strikers outside Pink’s jam factory

On the second day of the strike Mary Macarthur, descended on Bermondsey to support the striking women. She commandeered the  Labour Institute recently acquired by the local ILP branch and converted it into an organising and distribution centre for the strike. Donations of food came in and went out again together with strike pay to the women defying their employers. Together with the women’s representatives she planned the next steps to publicise their demands more widely and win.

Over the space of two weeks, striking women won better conditions in 18 of the 21 factories. In the three where they failed, the workers lost their nerve, worried that if they stayed out on strike they might find there was no job to  return to. Mary felt that had they stayed out a little longer they could have won there as well. But overall it was a remarkable success, and meant that several thousands of pounds of company profits would be redistributed to the women in the coming year. This meant that they could look after their families a little more comfortably and even buy the occasional piece of new clothing. Over that two weeks, around half of the women who were striking joined the NFWW. They were putting in place more permanent structures should they need to negotiate over their conditions at a future date.

For Mary Macarthur the victory was about something even more valuable than the material gain. The women she said had acquired “… a new sense of self-reliance, solidarity and comradeship… making it certain that whatever the dangers and difficulties of the future they will never again be… without hope.”

For Mary personally, the next few years were years of hope, happiness, hardship and tragedy. She married a highly respected fellow member of the Independent Labour Party , William Anderson, who stood for and won a parliamentary seat in Sheffield. But their first child was stillborn. Through the First World War, Mary organised women into the NFWW, as women eventually claimed many roles vacated by male factory workers conscripted for war. She fought with employers for equal, or at least more pay and won some battles, but as ILP members and pacifists, she and William felt the pain of a war that saw workers across Europe murdering each other in a scramble for empire and markets by those who were not workers and did not have workers’ interests at heart. Mary and William  had another child called Nancy in 1915. This child survived.

In the General Election shortly after the war, Mary also stood as a Labour candidate but all known pacifists fared badly in the immediate and temporarily euphoric post-war phase. Then in peacetime, shortly afterwards, her husband William died, struck down by the wave of influenza sweeping across Britain and other parts of Europe. In 1920 Mary herself, just 40 years old, was told that she was suffering from an aggressive cancer. She died in 1921 having achieved much  but undoubtedly she had so much more to offer to the causes of women, trade unionism and socialism.


Family members of Mary Macarthur and William Anderson

At the unveiling this afternoon there were moving tributes from James, a grandson she never knew, and members of the TUC Women’s Committee, one of whom described Mary as “a warrior of the class struggle”.

Nancy was orphaned but well looked after by friends, an extended family, and a new legal guardian, staying in the home where she was born, where the plaque was unveiled today. Nancy’s son, James – Mary’s grandson – recalled Mary Macarthur as a courageous and determined trade union fighter and also told us much about Nancy, his mother. Several members of James’ family and William Anderson’s family had travelled there for the unveiling. A leading sister of the movement was at last recognised for her great achievements. Let’s follow her example and take the fight for women’s rights and for socialism to the enemies of both.NFWW_eastend

Mythbusting in Copeland: what the “Quality Press” will not tell you

The narrative around Labour’s defeat in the democratic process at Copeland was written well before the day of the vote by those who have a determination to undo the democratic election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. It was scripted by editors across much of the mainstream media, with a supporting role being played by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and not least by Jamie Reed, the former Labour member for Copeland.  Having overseen a very significant drop in support for himself as the Labour incumbent in Copeland from the 2005 election to the one in 2015, he no doubt added to the cynicism of frustrated long-term supporters of Labour by abandoning his commitment to the constituency in difficult times and swanning off to a lucrative job within the Sellafield plant. Of course he also had an eye for the main chance as he knew – and this gets remarkably few mentions in the media – that the Copeland constituency is due to disappear in the proposed boundary changes before 2020.

But perhaps the main piece of mythbusting that needs to be brought into the open, and please don’t hold your breath waiting for the media to tell you this, is that the combined right wing anti-Labour vote went DOWN in the 2017 by-election that we have just witnessed. Yes, that by-election being hailed as such an historic, extraordinary victory for the Tories.

How so? The statistics are not difficult to find.

In 2010, the Labour vote, with Jamie Reed as the victorious MP dropped to 46%. The combined Tory/UKIP/BNP vote was 42.7%. So in simple Left versus Right terms this seat was already marginal seven years ago. The Lib-Dems, who did not fit so simply and easily into the Left/Right line, scored 10.2% and then took even many of their own supporters by surprise when they decided at a national level to go into coalition with the Tories. That is not what many Lib-Dems were voting for.

In 2015, Jamie Reed’s Labour vote dropped to 42.3%. Although he won the seat, his vote was easily outstripped by the combined right wing vote of 51.3% (Tories 35.8%; UKIP 15.5%). Meanwhile the Lib-Dem vote collapsed. Never mind marginal, the right wing already had the upper hand here by 2015.

In the by-election we have just endured, the Labour vote went down further, to 37.3 %, a process assisted by the intervention of Blair and Mandelson, but also by the selection of an uninspiring, media-averse candidate from the right of the party  who could not convincingly argue a radical alternative to the Tories. A more dynamic and inspiring local activist, who has worked particularly hard against homelessness, failed to win the local candidacy decided by the old guard, I suspect with encouragement from the national Labour hierarchy that has been working so hard to undermine Corbyn.

But what happened to the right wing vote? It DROPPED to 50.8%. But the re-alignment of votes within the right, with a fair degree of tactical voting I’m sure, saw the UKIP vote drop by 9% and the Tory vote rise by 8.5%. The relative revival of the Lib-Dems made it harder for Labour as well.

The statistics are troublesome aren’t they? They actually don’t support the theory of an anti-Labour avalanche because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but why let mere statistics get in the way of such a narrative? Oh, and decent result for Labour in Stoke by the way.

The east (of London) is red

A political earthquake shook the world 100 years ago: the Russian Revolution. Its tremors were felt in London’s East End which, from the early 1880s, was home to tens of thousands of  Jews who had fled discrimination, persecution, threats and violence in the Russian Empire, and were looking for safety, freedom and a better life. But the continuing oppression in the old country was still important for them.

great-assembly-hallIn 189o they held a huge protest meeting about the persecution of Jews in Russia, at the Great Assembly Hall at 31 Mile End Road, with Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Michael Davitt and Prince Peter Kropotkin among the star invitees. Joining them on the platform were Russian exiles such as Felix Volkhovsky and Sergei Stepniak, founders in London of the Free Russia newspaper.

In 1898, immigrant Jewish workers donated  money to a trade union fund administered by a Mr Trushkowsky at 113 Brick Lane, who was transferring the money collected to Bialystok to support striking workers there. In 1903, when news came through of a terrible pogrom in Kishinev over two days which left 49 people dead, hundreds wounded, and 2,000 people homeless, 25,000 immigrant Jews marched from the East End to Hyde park to register their protest.

A well known gang of four – Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemberg – graced meeting halls and cafes of the East End in May and early June 1907. Luxemberg did not feel particularly inspired by Whitechapel’s special Cockney atmosphere. Having “travelled through the endless stations of the dark underground”, she emerged, she said, “both depressed and lost in a strange and wild part of the city.”

1906-rosa-luxemburg-in-warsaw-prison-iisg-high-res  “It’s dark and dirty here,” she added. “A dim street light is flickering and is reflected in puddles and pools… Groups of drunken people stagger with wild noise and shouting down the middle of the street, newspaper boys are also shouting, flower girls on the street corners, looking frightfully ugly and even depraved, as though they had been drawn by Pascin, are screeching and squealing”.

Luxemberg and her colleagues were among 336 delegates attending the 5th congress of the Russian Revolutionary party. The registration centre was in a radical Jewish club above a shop on Fulbourne Road, which faces London Hospital at Whitechapel.  For three days and nights before the congress began,the Bolshevik faction, comprising just under a third of the delegates, held its caucus there. Other large delegations included 99 Mensheviks, 57 Bundists (Jewish Socialists) and 44 Polish Social Democrats.

Most of the delegates were on a brief visit for the Congress but others were temporarily living in London longer. From their base here they agitated for change in Russia, speaking at meetings, writing and sharing literature, and producing revolutionary material to be smuggled back home.

Closer to the days of the revolution, the situation for male Russian Jewish immigrants of combat age suddenly became much more fraught. As conscription was enforced nationally, they were exempted from joining the war effort at first, as they were considered “friendly aliens”and conscription was restricted to British subjects. But as resentment spread among their neighbours, and riots broke out in Bethnal Green, the Government signed a convention with Russia compelling them to sign up. That meant allying with the  Empire they had fled from, in many cases in the face of threats of forced conscription. If they didn’t join the war effort they faced deportation back to Russia. They looked to new campaigning bodies that had formed such as the Foreign Jews’ Protection Committee and the Russian Anti-Conscription League to fight to uphold their right of asylum. In this struggle they could count of the support of prominent non-Jewish East End political figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury.

The words I’ve just written will sound familiar to the 31 adults, one 16 year old and one baby, who joined me for two and a half hours last Sunday morning as I launched my new walk, “The East End and the Russian Revolution”.

I had unprecedented demand for places on this walk and had to reluctantly turn down many bookings after I reached capacity. But I have just released a date for its second incarnation, which is Sunday 23rd April at 10.30am. Whether you are a Bolshevik, a Menshevik, an Anarchist or a Bundist, or indeed, none of the above, I promise to leave you at the end of the walk with much to think about! You can book online here


We know nothing about walls…

img_1157I spoke this afternoon as a representative of the Jewish Socialists’ Group and the bloc of Jewish organisations that marched together on the anti-Trump demonstration in London today. After the massive mobilisation for the women’s demo on 21 January and the huge emergency protest at Downing Street on Monday night, it was important to keep the pressure up on Trump and May. The Stop the War Coalition and Stand Up to Racism allied with several Muslim organisations in calling today’s demonstration.

img_1140It was a lively demo with a young demographic, despite poor weather at the start.  The mobilisation received a blow yesterday when one of the prominent organisers of last Monday’s demo, who has a significant media profile, (Owen Jones), tweeted that he wouldn’t be marching today, citing his strong political criticisms of the groups calling today’s protests  – groups he has been very happy to work with in recent years.

It was a deliberate, cynical, arrogant and egotistical attempt to sabotage the march. If he felt that strongly he could have stayed away and told us why on Monday. Or, alternatively, he could have come along to show solidarity with the victims of Trump’s policies and discussed his misgivings while protesting. I was not impressed, nor were any people I discussed it with.

IMG_1136.jpgThe movement against Trump is involving new forces who want to publicly show their revulsion at Trump’s aggressive actions so soon after he assumed the presidency, and they want to show their anger at our Prime Minister’s obsequious attitude to the new incumbent of what she keeps describing as “our most important ally”.  Of course the organisers of a demonstration influence the tone of it, but the people who come are not robots and will show if they do not appreciate how it is being run. It was very clear to me from the platform that what the diverse speakers were collectively saying was very enthusiastically received and touched the mood that many feel. It wasn’t as large as the earlier protests, and inflated claims of numbers are unhelpful, but it was young, it was lively, it was united  and it felt meaningful. Here was my speech:

“I bring greetings from the Jewish Socialists’ Group and from all the Jewish organisations who are here today. We live in a world where too many people would like Jews and Muslims to be enemies. We are here as Jews to express our complete solidarity with Muslims threatened and victimised by Donald Trump’s racism. You are our sisters and brothers, our friends and neighbours and as Jews we stand by you.

We stand also with the Mexican people – mainly catholic –  bearing the brunt of Trump’s racism. And, as Jews, who know something about being refugees, we give total solidarity to all refugees, of all nationalities, and of all faiths and none, who are being kept out of that tiny overcrowded country called the USA, and enduring humiliating and inhuman border controls.

We are proud that American Jews voted overwhelmingly against Trump. They recognised him, and the white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists he collected around him during his campaign, as anti-Semites. But this wasn’t just self-interest. American Jews were very prominent in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. When they reject Trump today, they are also rejecting his racism against others, his sexism, his attacks on the environment, and the naked greed of corporations that he will strengthen at the expense of the poor.

We know our history. When we heard what he was doing to Muslims we remembered the Jewish refugees during the holocaust turned away by America, and sent back to Europe to add to the funeral pyre. We also know  how few Jews were allowed to enter Britain after Hitler came to power in Germany. When they finally allowed some to enter in 1938/39 the Daily mail, and Daily Express were screaming and shouting about “Alien Jews pouring in, over-running the country”, and all that shit.

Before she became PM Theresa May spent six years as Home Secretary. Her appalling record towards refugees than was as bad as her predecessors in the 1930s towards Jews. Trump and May are made for each other.

We know from the brilliant demos over the last couple of weeks – the women’s march and the huge demo here on Monday, that Trump has very few friends in the world. And a lot of enemies. But one of his friends will be here on Monday, the prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, butcher of Palestinians, prime minister for the settlers, for the occupiers but not for the ordinary people of Israel and certainly not for the Jewish diaspora. Netanyahu is no friend of ours. This warmonger does not speak in our name. Be here to greet him on Monday!

Last point. May and Trump can talk about how to help rich corporations grown richer. Netanyahu and Trump can talk about building walls. We are the Jews who know nothing about walls but who know everything about barricades. And our message to Maggie May, to warmonger Netanyahu, to racist Trump, is No Pasaran! They Shall Not pass!”