Saturday, 10 November 2012

I am 'ignorant' and an 'ideological fanatic'

Apparently, according to one visitor to this site I am 'an ignorant' and an 'ideological fanatic'. Why? Because I referred to the 'Spanish Revolution' instead of the 'Spanish Civil War'.

I admit it, I'm ignorant and an ideological fanatic, just like the people who compiled the Wikipedia entry on the Spanish Revolution, I am an ignorant and an ideological fanatic just like Gaston Leval who wrote:

In Spain during almost three years, despite a civil war that took a million lives, despite the opposition of the political parties (republicans, left and right Catalan separatists, socialists, Communists, Basque and Valencian regionalists, petty bourgeoisie, etc.), this idea of libertarian communism was put into effect. Very quickly more than 60% of the land was collectively cultivated by the peasants themselves, without landlords, without bosses, and without instituting capitalist competition to spur production. In almost all the industries, factories, mills, workshops, transportation services, public services, and utilities, the rank and file workers, their revolutionary committees, and their syndicates reorganized and administered production, distribution, and public services without capitalists, high salaried managers, or the authority of the state. 

Even more: the various agrarian and industrial collectives immediately instituted economic equality in accordance with the essential principle of communism, 'From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs.' They coordinated their efforts through free association in whole regions, created new wealth, increased production (especially in agriculture), built more schools, and bettered public services. They instituted not bourgeois formal democracy but genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganization of social life. They replaced the war between men, 'survival of the fittest,' by the universal practice of mutual aid, and replaced rivalry by the principle of solidarity.... 

This experience, in which about eight million people directly or indirectly participated, opened a new way of life to those who sought an alternative to anti-social capitalism on the one hand, and totalitarian state bogus socialism on the other.

and I'm proud to be ignorant and an ideological fanatic just like him. I'm ignorant and an ideological fanatic like Franklin Rosemont at the University of Pennsylvania, and like the authors of Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Vernon Richards, 1972), The Spanish revolution: the left and the struggle for power during the Civil War (Burnett Bolloten, 1979), The Spanish Revolution (Stanley Payne, 1970), Women in the Spanish revolution (Liz Willis, 1975) - the list goes on and on.

If it is ignorant to subscribe to the established growing trend amongst historians and serious authors that the 1930s saw a revolutionary situation in Spain, then I'm ignorant. If it is ideologically fanatical to want to recover a period of forgotten and suppressed history, then I'm an ideological fanatic. And do you know what? I don't give a damn! Whatever. Guilty as charged.

Emma Goldman dances!

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it mean that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant  that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world – prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal
         from Living My Life, vol.1 p.56

This is why I love this woman and honour her memory.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Perth: chipping away at a little freedom.

The Scottish city of Perth has many small passageways and thoroughfares called vennels. This is a Scots word, etymologically akin to the word ginnel in dialects of Northern English, which has the same meaning of a narrow alleyway between town streets. One of Perth’s vennels, Meal Vennel, will not exist much longer if vested interest had its way. It’s disappearance will erode and show general contempt for a particular freedom. Let me explain.
Meal Vennel still exists, though not as it once was – a not very salubrious passage between South Street and High Street, too narrow for a car, and where in places the buildings met above. Now one approaches it from South Street via a wide, rather dark, paved space about the size of a shop*. At the top of a ramp one can either branch right through the back door of HMV, a retailer of DVDs and CDs, or left through the River Island clothing store, the route which follows more directly the historical line of the vennel. Once through the men’s department of River Island, one emerges via their front door into St John’s Precinct, an indoor shopping ‘mall’. Dodging the seats and tables of BB’s café, one then carries on through the Precinct, and out through automatic doors into the High Street.
I walked this route yesterday on several errands. People’s passing along this route is tolerated because it may bring passing trade to the various retail premises – even I have occasionally bought a DVD from HMV, a milk shake from BBs, or a birthday card from Clintons.
St John’s Precinct replaced Meal Vennel and a 1960s development comparatively recently: “[the vennel] was destroyed courtesy of Perth Town Council. A property developer wished to flatten the area between High St and South St to build a shopping mall. Local people protested as Meal Vennel – a public road and right of way – was to be flattened and was to disappear. The wishes of the populace were ignored with the explanation that access on the line of Meal Vennel [would] still be available by progressing from High Street via the Mall's main entrance, and then via the front and rear doors of a certain gent's outfitter. The Mall was built! Local people still exercise their right to walk between High St and South St via the gent's outfitter - an ongoing protest.”**
According to a headline in yesterday’s local newspaper, now even the virtual existence of Meal Vennel as a thoroughfare is threatened. The paved space between the Post Office and the Royal Bank of Scotland is due to be filled with yet another retail unit, and one which will not share a back door with River Island. No doubt the Local Authority will approve this, and say that access between the High Street and South Street will still be possible via a dog-leg route between the High Street entrance of St John’s Precinct and an entrance further down South Street; any protest would made to appear petty.
However, the principle here is that corporate and commercial interest will have won, at the expense of a freedom which is not public, not individual, but communal. The right to pass unimpeded between two places is something we share, though it is protected by no law and by no legal ‘ownership’, it is a societal thing, it is something in which we are a community. It is a long time since any such concept was at the forefront of legal or political thinking – if it ever was!
Everything in Western, capitalist, statist society is owned. If it is not in private hands it is in public hands, and ‘public’ ownership is just another kind of private ownership. The ‘Occupy’ movement(s) found this out when they tried to exercise the right to peaceful assembly. Oh yes you are free to assemble, until the moment until you try to make decisions about things, then someone in authority will find a law which says you must be moved on.***
It is important that we realise the corrosive nature of things like the blotting out of Meal Vennel. It is only a small matter, but until we begin to recognize things which are of communal value we will allow our freedom, which is already severely curtailed, to dissolve in the acid of corporate and commercial power.****
I would like to be able to address the Planning Committee of Perth and Kinross Council (I have no legal right to do so – after all, I only work in Perth, I’m not a constituent), I’d like to be able to address a board meeting of the developers (impossible – all corporate and commercial decisions are made in private with no public right of access – freedom? Ha!). I’d like to ask if any of them go to church on Sundays, and if they have ever heard of the concept of having all things in common.***** I’d like to stand up, point my finger, and shout “Thief!”. You can bet if I tried to do any of this it wouldn’t be long before I was strongarmed out of their presence by security personnel or police.
I would like to believe that if you are reading this you are starting to think about these principles.
* The paved space, by the way, does not even look as open as in the photo. It is currently full of boxed-off scaffolding as work of some nature is being done, though it is still possible to walk through the middle of the space.
** Perth History
*** I am sure that the Occupy movement still exists and still functions in some way, but I forgot to mention another more subtle way of combating communal action – drop it from the headlines and from the nightly TV news.
**** Yes, I know we believe that we live in a free society, and indeed there is a remarkable amount of personal license granted. I deliberately say ‘granted’, because the people who hold the reins of political and commercial power are interested not in our freedom, beyond the exercise of choosing what to buy, but our acquiescence in their vision of ‘order’. Argue if you wish, you’ll find yourself on quicksand.
***** Acts 4:32 (King James Version). Look it up, it’s interesting, particularly if you are one of these people who thinks that Christianity and conservative politics are joined at the hip.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Referendum on Scottish Independence

The BBC reported the following yesterday:

A panel of experts set up by Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems has come up with a question to be asked in the referendum on Scottish independence. The main pro-union parties have accused the SNP of selecting a biased form of words with its preferred question. The panel has suggested the words "Scotland should become an independent state", with voters being asked to "agree" or "disagree".

To my mind, the question asks whether I would prefer to have my throat cut with a sword or a knife. The operative word in the question is 'state'. Both a preserved Union and an independent Scotland would continue to be states - and therefore statist - and governed by an abrogatory system, a system whereby the citizenry are expected to sign away their democratic autonomy to the professional politicians every four years or so, by putting an X on a piece of paper, and the professional politicians then massage and blow in the ear of capitalism. Oh great.

The question asks no one how they want to be governed. Instead of independence, how about self-determination? I want to see self-determination for the Scottish people and, for that matter, for the English, Northern Irish, and Welsh people - indeed for all people. I want to see the grass roots at the heart of politics, at the heart of everyday democracy, not the professional political class.

Why won't that be on the referendum?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Vicente Aranda’s ‘Libertarias’ reviewed.

Libertarias (1996), directed by Vicente Aranda, produced by Andrés Vicente Gómez, starring Ariadna Gil, Ana Belén, Victoria Abril, and Blana Apilánez.

To celebrate International Women’s Day I watched Libertarias. Also known as Juegos de Guerra, though there are other films of that name, it is a difficult film to get hold of in the UK. That almost seems fitting, as the story of revolutionary Spain and the role of the anarchist movement in transforming eastern Iberia, in a tragically brief episode of history, into a place of ground-upwards, participatory democracy has been largely forgotten, conveniently displaced in the ‘communist v fascist’ mythos. The version that I watched was unencumbered by subtitles, which didn’t work too well for me as my knowledge of Spanish is limited, but on the other hand there was a kind of purity in the exercise.

The only film with which it can be compared is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995), which is loosely based on George Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia. Loach’s film is in English and Spanish, and there are no subtitles to the Spanish dialogue either. The effect in both films is a more authentic experience for the watcher.

Libertarias is more filmic, slightly less realistic than Land and Freedom. It focuses on the role of women at the time of the Spanish Revolution. The central character that carries the film along is Maria (Ariadna Gil), whom we first meet as a young nun in a convent. When milicianos (members of a revolutionary militia) enter the convent she flees. Encountering other wandering bands of revolutionaries in the street, she panics and seeks shelter in an apartment. This turns out to be a brothel, and the first thing the Madame does is put her in bed with a Catholic Monsignor. Before anything can happen, however, the apartment is entered by three milcianas – women of the anarchist Mujeres Libres (Free Women) movement – who part encourage and part force the prostitutes to join them. Maria is taken under the wing of Pilar (Ana Belén), the most militant and committed miliciana, who has recognized her innocence and the Catholic mind-set which has been ingrained in her by her convent life, and who protects her throughout the film. Maria never completely loses her bewilderment, her innocence, and her religion, and although she becomes in a way totally committed to her new life she never picks up a gun. Thus she is able to be almost an observer throughout the film. At one point she mounts a step to peer over the sandbags towards the Fascist lines, and launches into a speech through a megaphone; more than one of her comrades recognizes that she is quoting from a revolutionary book she has read, and it is as though the habit of catechism cannot be broken in her. By whatever process of rationalization, Maria conflates the ideals of a Christian paradise with the earthly principles and goals of anarchism. Indeed one of her comrades, a woman with spiritualist leanings, declares to her that Jesus was history’s first recorded anarchist – not an unreasonable claim when one considers that the early Church in Jerusalem was arguably a commune with no private property.

An over-arching theme of the film is feminism, or more specifically the role of wholly-liberated women in a revolutionary movement. Here Pilar is the mouthpiece, rising in a meeting where a rostrum speaker from the Mujeres Libres is putting forward the view that women should work in factories while men go to the front, and saying that women can die just as well as men can. The speaker at the rostrum is never stated to be Federica Montseny (a leading anarchist in 1936 who swallowed her principles and took a ministerial post in the Republican Government) but there is a physical resemblance. Pilar represents the anarchist puritan, the revolutionary who is wholly prepared to put ideals into practice.

Another theme is that of free love. Equality of the sexes in the matter of choosing sexual partners was a principle of the anarchist movement in the first half of the 20c. However, in the film there are only three memorable scenes where sexuality within the revolutionary context is expressed. The first is when one of the former prostitutes allows one of the milicianos to have intercourse with her. It is a loveless transaction, almost as cold-blooded as her erstwhile ‘business’. But in a way it is nonetheless ‘free’, being a matter of choice. The second is where Maria rejects the advances of a handsome revolutionary whom she knows to have been a former Catholic priest. His ‘advances’ amount only to the pressure of his hand on hers, but she pulls away. Maria, the carrier-along of the film, in fact remains a virgin until her brutal rape by Moroccan soldiers towards the end. The ex-priest plays a part in what is for me a pivotal moment in the film – similar to a pivotal moment in Land and Freedom – which happens during the brief period which I know as Els Fets de Maig, an ironic phrase in Catalan meaning May Day celebrations but referring to the suppression of the militias and the revolutionary movements by the communists. The ex-priest arrives in a lorry with what I take to be a member of the International Brigades, to demand that the militia unit submit to military discipline. They refuse – they are not soldiers but revolutionaries – one by one, even Maria who simply looks at the ex-priest and silently shakes her head. The moment is pivotal because it is when this young woman, whose life and thought has been rigidly guided up to then, appears to make a decision of her own volition. The third scene (by the way, these scenes are not in chronological order as I deal with them) with implications of sexuality and choice is less obvious. Pilar is about to go off with a young man but Maria makes her aware that she needs physical comfort and protection; Pilar puts Maria’s needs first.

One filmic device that struck me was the way that during the occasional appearances of Buenaventura Durruti, the real-life inspirational militia commander, he is either seen from behind or with his face in shadow. The rationale for this could well be that this is not his story. Durruti was charismatic and well-loved by the anarchists, so the angles and lighting remind us that the subjects of the film are the ordinary women of the movement, not the great figures of the era.

Another striking feature was the burning of religious artifacts early in the film. I was shocked at how uncomfortable it made me feel. Even though I am totally against idolatry and I know how much a part of the oppression the Catholic Church in Spain was, I could not shake from my mind a correlation with the Nazi burning of books. But these people I was watching would have been my own comrades, people most of whose ideals I would have shared and whose struggle I would have felt was my own! If that impression taught me anything it was that our own mind-sets are filters through which we see historical and contemporary issues.

However that does bring me to the subject of atrocities committed by these people whom I have just admitted would have been my comrades. We know it happened. What else could happen when an oppressed people – exploited workers and dirt-poor peasants – overturn a whole system, including its judicial process? Justice became summary, scores were settled. If you listen to the witnesses in Juan Gamero’s documentary Vivir la Utopia: anarchismo en España, you will hear them say how they had to be scrupulously virtuous, honest, doing everything out in the open. Thus nothing was hidden, and nothing should be hidden, least of all revolutionary justice and the course it took. In Libertarias Maria has to walk through streets where corpses lie on the pavements and in the gutters, though the corpses are mainly those of Nationalist soldiers or her own comrades who died in the fighting. Summary justice, on the other hand, is largely rushed over. There is a scene where Maria stumbles upon the execution of someone whom I assumed was the corpulent Catholic Monsignor with whom she had been put to bed; but the scene is there more as part of Maria’s ongoing trauma and her dissociation from the convent life. In Land and Freedom we see instant execution meted out to a priest who broke the Catholic ‘seal of the confessional’ and informed the Fascist soldiers where to find all of the anarchists in his village, which led to their murder. Each film is partisan, and we can grant the film-makers the liberty to be so.

I regret that Libertarias does not deal, as Land and Freedom does, with the subject of free, participatory democracy in action. Land and Freedom has a scene in which newly-liberated villagers thrash out the problem of collectivizing the land, Libertarias has no equivalent scene. It as though the structure of anarchism is totally ignored. There is only room for so much, however, and the film is over two hours long.

We all know how the Spanish Civil War turned out so Libertarias was never going to have a ‘happy ending’. In fact the ending is desperately unhappy. However there is something positive which glows in it, and that is the degree of Maria’s integrity that is left intact. She is ‘rescued’ from her rape at the hands of the Moroccan soldiers by a Fascist officer who hears her praying. But later, in the fascist-occupied town, she refuses to confess her ‘sins’ to a priest and is incarcerated with the other surviving revolutionaries. In her prison she tries to comfort the dying Pilar – a reversal of their roles – but is unable to do so.

As I wrote the preceding paragraph I realised that that made three significant rejections of the priesthood on Maria’s part. The first was the sexual rejection of the ex-priest (to whom, by the way, she had earlier knelt and begged for absolution when she first recognized his former office), the second was her declaration of political autonomy from the same ex-priest, and the third was her final rejection of institutional religion, though maybe not her inner faith.

At the end of the film the credits roll to the sound of the anthem A Las Barricadas. I admit that I got to my feet, made the clenched fist anti-Fascist salute, and tried to sing. I had tears in my eyes. I do not know whether the film-maker wanted to evoke such an emotional response in a partisan viewer – I suspect not. On the other hand good drama engages us, including our emotions, and on that basis I recommend the film. See it on International Women’s Day if you can.