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