‘True Spies’

‘Honest, Guv – we ain’t no subversives’

Sadly, that’s the truth.

Last night [written 28 October 2002] on BBC2, True Spies, the first in a series on the extent of the infiltration by state agencies of organised labour and the Left from the late 1960s. We were told that the State realised in 1968 that its intelligence was inadequate as a result of the ferocity of the demos outside the American embassy against the Vietnam War. One response was to establish a special unit whose members went into deep cover for years on end, with new IDs – they were known as the ‘hairies’ because they would grow their hair long in order to ‘go native’. The programme consisted of contemporary news footage and interviews with activists, ex-infiltrators and an ex-Special Branch senior officer.

Tariq Ali – then leader of the International Marxist Group, a leading force in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – was told that someone who must have been a close friend had copied his keys to burgle the offices of the IMG. His comment was:
‘A form of fundamentalism – you are prepared to use all your energy to further your political aims .. This is amazing, I just felt betrayed.’
This struck me as a stunningly naïve remark, as at that time Ali was a proponent of Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary party, whose cadres would behave in precisely that way. A common term for an infiltrator is ‘mole’ – the name of the IMG’s paper was The Red Mole. I wonder how the name-change from earlier The Black Dwarf came about, I wonder if the infiltrator had a sense of humour.

We were told that Ford motor company had agreed to establish a new factory in Liverpool because of a deal with MI5 and the Special Branch to vet all applicants for employment in order to exclude militants. It was put to the ex- Brancher that this was ‘blacklisting’. He replied:
‘No other word for it. But done for what, to my way of thinking, was for the right reasons.’
‘Why did you blacklist Tom [a Liverpool worker, who was also being interviewed] ?’
‘He had a record of disruption. I’m sorry for him, but in any sort of war there are going to be casualties.’
Tom’s comment was :
‘You were blacklisted for fighting for your rights. Yes I was a member of the Communist Party, but your political views should have nothing to do with this [i.e. employability]’

George Matthews, then Chief Press Officer for the Communist Party of Great Britain commented on the discovery of bugging devices in the Covent Garden HQ of the CPGB:
‘If the State wants to fight us, let it fight us on the legal field, not by interfering with our legal democratic rights.’ This reminded of a discussion in the Guardian letters page some years ago on state surveillance of the CPGB. Its industrial organiser wrote that this was ‘unfair’. Matthew’s wife, Betty, whinged that the CPGB was actually not at all a revolutionary organisation, but a ginger group to the left of the Labour Party (which, in fact was true, but the state never quite grasped this)

This theme was continued by Jack Dromey, a leader of the support for the Grunwick strikers in 1976. He referred to the surveillance of the picket leaders as:
‘This anti-democratic activity .. The idea that you blacklist people because of their politics is crazy… Anyone would have thought I was an IRA member or a Soviet spy, rather than standing up for workers’ rights’

This was put to the ex-Brancher.
‘What right has the Special Branch to vet?’
‘In the real world this has to be so’

What astonished me about this was the naivety of these militants re the role of the bourgeois state. Their complaints only make sense if one holds a pluralist view of the state as in essence a neutral mediator between competing interests. From that position it makes sense to see the State consistently being on the side of the business-class as a perversion of its true role. But for the avowed politics of many of these people it makes no sense at all, it is precisely what is expected from a marxist view of the State. Indeed no-one took the opportunity to cite this history as evidence for that theory of the State.

None of this history was hugely surprising. What was surprising was the revelation that the SB’s Industrial Section had cultivated friendships with top trade unionists who informed on their mates. One of these was Joe Gormley, President of the National Union of Mineworkers during the strikes of ’72 and ’74. As to why he did this, the ex-Brancher replied:
‘Because he loved his country, he was a patriot’.

It was claimed that 22 or 23 top union leaders had also been snitching to the SB. When Arthur Scargill was asked if he was surprised his reply was that his only surprise was that the figure was not much higher.

What was remarkable was that when the SB passed onto MI5 the information about the likelihood of a miners’ strike in 1972 it was discounted and the Conservative Government was told that such a strike was unlikely. The explanation given for this was status rivalry between the two security services: MI5 being public school (i.e. where the parents pay) and the SB ‘grammar school or lower’(grammar schools being the then top rung of the state system). There was no discussion of another explanation, namely that elements in MI5 wanted a miners’ strike in order to provoke class confrontation sooner rather than later and prepare the ground for a military coup.

All in all, it was very depressing in terms of the competency of the State and the naivity and stupidity of those who were the leaders of industrial and protest militancy.

Currently there is the possibility of a firefighters’ strike. Much is being made about the likelihood of deaths as a result of this. Imagine the fuss if one of the strikers quoted the words of the ex-Brancher above that: ‘in any sort of war there are going to be casualties’.


More Shit on Toast

Trying out Alfie’s Voice

… that’s not Lilly Allen’s little bro’ you understand. It’s Bill Naughton’s eponymous hero – handy word, that – of his book and movie. And, BTW if you know of anyone who needs to know what the world was like before the Womens’ Liberation Movement (OK, it’s been ‘feminism’ for so long that the first has gone done the Memory Hole … but don’t get me started on that one ! ) then give them a copy of that movie. But, though I’m not a one for the ‘Trigger Warnings’ that the young softies make so much of: It’s not at all a jolly ‘Swinging Sixties’ romp; 3/4 through is a gutwrenching abortion scene … and a good reminder of why Rees Mogg could do with his guts being wrenched …. right out, if you get my meaning.

Anyway ….

…. here’s a tip for you. If you’ve got a bit of the hump, do something a bit new. Not maybe completely new, as it might be hot-air balooning … now why did that pop up ? … oh yeah, but I’ll come to that later.

Well yesterday I fair had the hump, I did. To do with what’s coming up at a meeting this evening. More to the point, what I’m going to bring up … if I can be arsed. I swing from obsessing about it, to thinking: why give a fuck ? No-one else does. What’s it all for ?, kind of thing. I’m about as popular there as if I walked into the Cowley Road mosque chomping on a bacon sarnie and swigging a can of Kestrel. Which we’ll also return to.

But Cowley Road does come into this. What I did was I went to the ‘Oxford Arts Group’ from that Interweb thingy ‘Meetup’ that’s all the rage nowadays. Continue reading “More Shit on Toast”

On “Political Correctness”

Letter to a Friend who Bandies this Term

I think that you would strengthen your case (whichever one it happens to be) if you refrained from using the ridiculous phrase ‘political correctness’. I know that I’m not the only person whose first feeling on seeing this is that I will not bother to read whatever text contains it. Because the use of that phrase usually signals a voice which, comically, echoes that victim-stance of which it so often complains and whines that ‘white, het, middle-class  men can be victims too’. This usually boils down to the speaker pretending to feel  oppressed because of disapproval of sexist comments re women, and use of words like ‘nigger’ and ‘shirt-lifter’. Its use is so often prefaced by ‘I’m sorry, but …’; followed by something like ‘I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but there was slavery in Africa  long before Europeans got there’ – as if the speaker were being a brave heretic, whilst actually mouthing a commonplace (which also obscures the main point). I choose this example for you because of your odious apologetics for slavery. However, I do feel somewhat as you do regarding this sensibility which this phrase tries to capture –  what follows is a first attempt to try to work this out.

What seems not to be noticed by people who use the phrase is the bizarre fact that ‘politically correct’ is the only political label which is solely used pejoratively of someone else. All of the following may be used neutrally, pejoratively, or accepted as self-identity: liberal, socialist, communist, stalinist, trotskyist, nationalist, anarchist, fascist, national-socialist, racist, feminist, masculinist, conservative, reactionary, pacifist … and doubtless others which don’t come to mind at present. But no-one will say, except ironically:  ‘I’m Politically Correct’. There is surely something very strange about this asymmetry. Continue reading “On “Political Correctness””

Zikek on Lenin

Unpubl. Letter to The London Review of Books on Slavo Zizek.

‘Lenin and Lacan eh ? wot a pair – fnaar, fnaar!’: as a Viz character might say. Indeed, Slavo Zizek’s review of d’Encausse’s book on Lenin reads like a parody out of an upmarket Viz. He offers a classic hack defence of Lenin, spiced up with references to various bourgeois cultural dissidents whom Lenin himself would have despised (Bataille, Junger, Oshima, Lacan).

It is clear that, for Zizek, Lenin figures entirely as a symbol. He tells us, following d’Encausse, that Lenin destroyed the ideas of his opponents, but not the opponents themselves. The anarchists murdered by the Cheka, and the Kronstadt dissidents slaughtered by the Red Army might well disagree. Continue reading “Zikek on Lenin”

Parrots and Owls: Reflections on The Culture Studies Industry


Occasioned by Remembering the Nineties, conference at Birkbeck College, London 8 September ’00


What is the purpose of an event such as Remembering the Nineties ? It was called a ‘conference’. Yet there was was an implicit conspiracy to minimise conferring. Papers started late, people drifted in, papers were too long and mainly delivered with no sense of audience, there was very little time for questions and discussions. So, if not about conferring, what was it about ?

It struck me as odd that at the very beginning of the afternoon session the first speaker thanked the audience for still being there. Perhaps this was a recognition of the audience-blindness of the majority of speakers: papers delivered at breakneck speed, with a premium placed on cleverness and semi-ironic self-referentiality – all drenched in the obligatory references to Derrida, Lacan and so on. One of the few exceptions to this was a paper on the problem of memory in autobiographies. Its carefully nuanced empirical respect for primary texts showed up in glaring relief the wild speculations of the bulk of the contributions. Continue reading “Parrots and Owls: Reflections on The Culture Studies Industry”

The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist

E P Thompson, regarded as one of the greatest of the ‘British Marxist Historians’, argues that the model of base and superstructure is essentially inadequate:

This metaphor from constructional engineering .. must in any case be inadequate to describe the flux of conflict, the dialectic of a changing social process … The model [i.e. base/superstructure] has an inbuilt tendency to reductionism..( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79).

( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79.)

Marx and Engels did use the term ‘superstructure’ in The German Ideology (For example, MARX/ENG German, p 57). However the terminology of base/superstructure attained the status it had in the marxist tradition through its use in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This text itself attained its canonical status through Engel’s review of it in Das Volk, August 1859, there ‘Engels invented dialectics, the progenitor of unresolvable ambiguities within the Marxist tradition’. (CARVER Marx & Engels, p 117, and Ch 4.)

An immense load has been place upon this text, more than is justified by the remark in it that its propositions have been ‘a guiding thread’ (MARX 1859 Preface, p 181). For example, G A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History is almost entirely devoted to defending this text, and it quotes the ‘substantive’ portion of this, beginning with the words ‘In the social production of their life ..’ as a frontpiece. What is remarkable and important here is that this Preface was composed by Marx entirely for tactical purposes and, as such, cannot be taken as a serious statement of his position. Continue reading “The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist”

A Tradition We Must Renounce

A short while ago I came across a note in a socialist historians’ journal from a sixties student ‘radical’ reflecting on student politics then. It helped me to crystallize why I loathe everything about that tradition, whose pale embers are still all about us.

Here is a representative selection from that letter:

We protested; … we burnt an effigy of a British passport … We held discussion groups and Marxist theory classes … Many of the women at those meetings later made national contributions to the women’s movement and equal opportunity. … our generation carries a light .. for radicalism.

The actual – as opposed to the rhetorical – way in which sixties’ radicals related to workers was as manipulative and patronizing as that of the despised Fabians. They mouthed phrases about workers’ power, but this was never about real workers; it was about the tame pets of their own imaginations. Sixties’ student radicals were proud to be ‘vanguardists’. It was they who told people what they “really were” and where their interests “really lay”  Continue reading “A Tradition We Must Renounce”

Nerdz Nite Out

Shit on Toast

The entrance hall of the Victoria & Albert Museum on Friday 25 January 2002 was the venue for a musical and improvisational event organised by the Electronic Music Studio of Goldsmiths College. Its title was ‘MERZ NITE’. The handout for the event informed us that the word ‘MERZ’ was ‘how the dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ described all his work’. The word derives from the tearing of a poster for the Hanover Kommerz und Privat-Bank and was four letters salvaged from a list of that which the Dadaists hated. Does ‘merz’ in German have another meaning? Does it mean ‘shit’ ? I rather think it does.

There was a man walking about on crutches with a torch dangling between his legs, there was a lot of improvisational making of noise with musical instruments, there were several people sitting at a table, cutting up pictures and sticking them together. There was, in the words of the handout, unconstrained spontaneous expression – was there ? Like fuck there was! Continue reading “Nerdz Nite Out”

Has Roth Lost The Plot ?

The Plot Against America,Philip Roth, Vintage 2005

Philip Roth is one of modern America’s best-known novelists, famed for his comic Portnoy’s Complaint and his Pullitzer Prize trilogy beginning with American Pastoral. The Plot Against America was inspired by a remark in Arthur Schlesinger’s autobiography that in 1940 isolationist Republicans had considered inviting Charles Lindbergh to put himself forward as a presidential candidate. Roth asks ‘What if ?’

This novel is his answer.After Lindberg arrived at Paris following the first solo flight across the Atlantic he became ‘the most famous man alive’. His achievement and his person became an icon which expressed the fantasies both of conservatives (he was a teetotal nonsmoker who did not dance, was a ‘real gent’) and of modernists (the Nietzschean hero incarnating his will in technology to perform an act whose meaning was itself) (1). This fusion of contraries renders it unsurprising that he became an admirer of that political movement, National Socialism, whose rhetoric and theatre fabricated that same fusion. Nothing is made of this cultural meaning of Lindbergh by Roth, who instead Roth does focusses on Lindbergh’s anti-semitism and admiration for Hitler. Continue reading “Has Roth Lost The Plot ?”

‘Two Days in Oxford – A View of the City in the Thirties’ by John Goto

Expo @ The Old Fire Station: Oxford, 15 Jan – 27 Feb, 2016

John Goto’s Two Days at Oxford – A View of the City in the Thirties (1938) has the admirable aim of subverting the cosy Brideshead view of Oxford as the city of dreaming spires and disinterested scholarship. This was inspired by his reading of John Betjeman’s An Oxford University Chest. Goto’s work is a reminder of the class-struggles which occurred at the time of Betjeman’s cosy evocation though, symptomatically, Goto writes not of class, but of status and privilege. Continue reading “‘Two Days in Oxford – A View of the City in the Thirties’ by John Goto”