Red Traces: A Marxist history of  culture and class struggle
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Red Traces: A Marxist history of culture and class struggle

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith introduces his new book

The past is never dead. It's not even past. - William Faulkner

The essays are written in the spirit of Leon Trotsky’s writings in the 1920s on art, culture and science. Amid the turmoil of playing a leading role in governing the world’s first workers’ state, Trotsky believed it was also important to demonstrate that Marxism - the presiding ideology of the new regime - has persuasive explanatory power when it comes to analysing the full spectrum of human activities. In two books, Problems of Everyday Life and Literature and Revolution, he brilliantly addressed a range of questions not normally associated with the concerns of historical materialism.

In the latter, for example, Trotsky discusses both the historical forces in thirteenth century Italy that led Dante the poet to create The Divine Comedy and the reasons such a cultural artefact would still resonate centuries later. In the former, he explains how it can be illuminating to consider that the year 1871 witnessed both the Paris Commune and Mendeleyev’s prediction that there would be new elements to be added to the Periodic Table. Trotsky’s materialist method to culture in the widest sense is also encapsulated in a discussion of how a full comprehension of ecclesiastical buildings in the Middle Ages requires more than observation of their physical characteristics:

‘The architectural scheme of the Cologne cathedral can be established by measuring the base and the height of its arches, by determining the three dimensions of its naves, the
dimensions and the placement of the columns, etc. But without knowing what a mediaeval city was like, what a guild was, or what was the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Cologne cathedral will never be understood.’

Trotsky posits that the greatest creations of the human intellect - across the range of disciplines - cannot be comprehended apart from their social and historical context; but nor are they mechanically reducible to the conditions of that context. They are the products of a crucially dialectical interaction between individual genius and the collective values of a particular epoch. In his words, the type of cultural achievements mentioned above, are:

‘the organic sum of knowledge and capacity which characterises the entire society, or at least its ruling class. It embraces and penetrates all fields of human work and unifies them into a system. Individual achievements rise above this level and elevate it gradually.’

The reason these intellectual peaks still inspire awe and wonder, sometimes millennia later, is that they are the products of human communities battling to survive and articulate their mental conceptions of the world in the face of environmental and social obstacles not dissimilar to those that confront us today. Trotsky writes:

‘in a class society, in spite of all its changeability, there are certain common features…these feelings and moods shall have received such broad, intense, powerful expression as to have raised them above the limitations of the life of those days.’

Similarly, regarding the cultural artefacts considered in the following pages, there is an attempt to explain that an awareness of the social conditions that produced The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Analects, The Aeneid and other intellectual monuments of antiquity in no way detracts from the genius of their creators. In fact, it enhances our appreciation and empathy for the human beings who have contributed to what the great Italian Marxist Gramsci refers to as the cultural unification of the human race which will occur in a future beyond class society.

The book also aims to demonstrate that the study of the ancient world is not remote from the concerns of the present. The ‘Red Traces’ outlined in the chapters refer to the numerous occasions news headlines from the 21st century can be related in an informative way to the class conflicts and crises of antiquity. Two stories, for instance, have dominated the global political agenda in recent months. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has developed into a power struggle between Putin and Nato, with the Zelensky regime essentially acting as a proxy force for the latter. Strategic control of the Black Sea and maritime access to the Mediterranean is one aspect of this contest; the same motives that likely lay at the root of the semi-historical Trojan war around 1200 BCE. Similarly, the ruthless assault by the Israeli army on innocent civilians in Gaza mirrors, with tragic irony, the decimation of Jewish resistance in the same location by Rome in the first century CE.

One other aspiration of the book is to draw attention to some great Marxist historians whose works are perhaps not as well known today as they deserve to be. The studies of Max Raphael, Gordon Childe and Dirk Struik on aspects of the ancient world are neglected even in left-wing circles and merit a wider readership. All three of these figures, and others mentioned in the book, strove to integrate a radical conception of how the struggles of the oppressed for a better world in the past can inspire the same type of struggles in the present.

Ghazal: no surviving family
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Ghazal: no surviving family

Published in Poetry

Ghazal: no surviving family

by Janet Hatherley

It’s a new acronym, the medic says,
WCNSF. Wounded child, no surviving family.

The three-year-old in her rescuer’s arms, chatters,
glances at the sky, eyes wild, no surviving family.

One orange a day from their only tree,
no other food, no stockpiles. No surviving family.

People leaving, a second nakba.
Once more exiled, no surviving family.

Gaza’s a prison between land, sea and desert,
it’s apartheid. No surviving family.

I’m twenty-four, the journalist said, never let out
of Gaza, never seen a mountainside
. No surviving family.

Hospitals collapsed weeks ago,
everywhere bodies piled, no surviving family.

It’s been seventy-five years, the Palestinian said.
Time up, the West replied, no surviving family.

Israel has a right to defend itself, it says.
The world’s been lied to, no surviving family.

Drive them out the settler calls,
a Zionist brainchild, no surviving family.

We didn’t do anything wrong, we didn’t do anything wrong,
a greatgrandchild and no surviving family.

Dar Al-Shifa
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Dar Al-Shifa

Published in Poetry

Dar Al-Shifa

by Nick Moss

'Genocide enablers: Gaza and the corporate media'

Like a war scripted by Asimov on crystal meth
Squads of quadcopter drones
Shooting children in the head,
Patrolling the wreckage of the hospital.
The shrill scream of the blades,
Waiting to target anyone left.

Dar al-Shifa. House of healing.
Hopital. Shelter for the needy.
Just more debris now.
Concrete dust
Blown-out windows
Blood on the walls.
Blood on the floor
Bodies of surgeons
Piled on bodies of patients
Piled on bodies of parents
With the bodies of their dead kids
All meat now
For the feral dogs.

If the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health
Is one of the fundamental rights of every human being
And if the IDF “follows international law”
When it turns a hospital
Into a boneyard
Tell me the one-drop rule
That makes Palestinians
Then, all somehow
Not-quite human

And you wait for condemnation
From the elected guardians
Of “international law”
And their lockstep oppositions
Who nod through the arms sales
And the Horizon Europe tech funds
That put legions of quadcopters
Up high in Gaza skies,
And democracy shrivels and fails,
And little by little it dies.

Lenny Bruce has hit the crystal meth.
Satire is tragedy plus time.
There is a bunker and tunnel network
Under al-Shifa
At Building Number 2
But it wasn’t hard to find
As it was built by Israeli architects
In 1983.

Lenny said in ’67
That if they killed Christ today
Catholic kids would be wearing
Electric chairs around their necks
Instead of crosses.
Anyone know how to make
A quadcopter pendant?

Good Friday
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Good Friday

Published in Poetry

Good Friday

by Steven Taylor

When you’ve climbed up on the roof
of the last remaining house in Gaza
throw away the ladder and dare them
to demolish you, safe in the knowledge

that Keir Starmer will do nothing

not even mention you were standing
in solidarity and defiance with
all those other people buried beneath
the rubble, or knowingly being starved

by the Labour Friends of Israel

I am ashamed of Labour,

their contribution to the genocide
but it’s pretty much as expected
from Starmer and his supporters

Jesus has been suspended

prior to his expulsion. He’s
certainly not a candidate
or Party representative. We
don’t go in for (futile) gestures

Because Labour

under Starmer
is serious about government

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction

Published in Films

Jonathan Glazer is the Academy Award and BAFTA winning director of Zone of Interest, a film that highlights the “dehumanization” going on outside the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, where the carnage only appears on the off-screen soundtrack.

He has come under attack not for anything in the film but for daring to insinuate in his Academy acceptance speech that there is an echo of the film in the “dehumanizing” way the genocide in Gaza is being routinely fostered, facilitated and ignored in the West.

Glazer’s film is about the callousness of the family of the German commandant of the death camp, whose job it is to oversee extermination. The film’s perspective, in some ways all the more chilling, is that of an intimate glimpse of the family as it goes about its daily activities, surrounded by offscreen cries, screams and orders to shoot and drown the victims just beyond the family garden, as the commandant’s wife claims that in their privilege, with lush vegetation and swimming pool, guaranteed by Jewish slavery, they have fulfilled the Fuhrer’s dream of a living space in the east for Germans.

The most incendiary part of Glazer’s speech is not the claim about his Jewishness not being hijacked by the Israeli occupation of Gaza, which is what his now over 1000 Hollywood critics have focused on in a letter denouncing the speech, but rather that he had the audacity to state that his film is not just about the past but also about the present.

The parallel then in the present would be in the West with those who watch this new holocaust, for that is what it is being called in the Arab world, being livestreamed and not just ignore it but actively deny that it is happening.

By suggesting that it is not “look what we did then” but “look what we do now,” Glazer is in fact placing American and Western complacency, and in some cases active cheering on of the genocide in Gaza, in line with the commandant and his privileged family in the film.

In this case, benefitting from the carnage, as Israel remains the key to American dominance of Middle East oil oil necessary for fuelling its allies in Europe, and proving the U.S. and its puppet Israel remain the hegemon in the region.

Picture16

The Zionist reaction

The attack on Glazer gives credence to this identification of the West as situating itself just outside of what has been called the concentration camp of Gaza. His attackers simply cannot stand the accusation that they are complicit in genocide. Instead they resort to Zionist arguments and talking points to refute his accusation, speaking of “an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination,” an “indigenous Jewish people defending a homeland” and a “distortion of history.”

The “extermination” is not being carried out by the Palestinians, but by the Zionists against the actual indigenous people of the region, who 75 years ago saw their homeland usurped by the creation of the apartheid state.

This was perhaps a new homeland but also, as members of the U.S. military have often described it, an “American aircraft carrier in the Middle East.” Each day we, in our privileged position outside the camp in the garden where life goes on as usual, hear the sounds and watch as the terror increases, now at the point with way more than the official number of 30,000 Palestinians dead and with Al Jazeera reporting that 25,000 of them are women and children.

Israel is of course worried that the gunshots are too noisy and might disturb us in our gardens, so now they have decided on the more “humane” method of mass starvation, though they are not above mowing down Palestinians who when one of the few food aid trucks gets through the clamour for the food.

images original

The Zone of Interest: Languishing by the pool 

If any voices are raised to challenge this carnage, as Glazer’s was, the attempt is to quickly silence them. Then, we can all go back to our finely manicured front lawns and backyards as we join Commandant Rolf, his wife, and their children at the pool.    

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024 

“Palestinian poetry, including from within Gaza and outside it, but engaging with the plight of Gaza and the Palestinians more widely, stands as voices of resistance , remembrance and commemoration of lives lost and humanity repeatedly targeted.” 

In his introduction to this extraordinary collection, Atef Alshaer reminds us of what ought to be an almost banal point. However, the simple humanity of Palestinians appears still to be a matter of dispute.

When in October 2023 Israel stated that it intended to cut off water, food, fuel and medicines to Gaza, its right to do so was not immediately challenged, despite Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stating that he had ordered the complete siege of Gaza because Palestinians are “human animals and we are acting accordingly.” At the time of writing, the death toll of ‘human animals’ in Gaza following Israel’s incursion stands at 31,988, with 74,188 injured.

This volume of responses by fifteen Palestinian poets to the current crisis is thus necessary, because it seems we still need to be told what it feels like to live under the constant threat of death, to live in a set of circumstances where your sovereignty is curtailed by the brutality of those who control the borders of your pseudo-state, and your personhood is equally curtailed by their bullets, gun butts and the bombing of your hospitals, mosques, churches and schools. All of the poems here speak urgently of the existential experience of watching your homeland become a graveyard, of how that feels, what it does to you.

It is not possible in the space of a short review to do justice to the work of all the poets assembled in this collection. What I want to do here is simply draw out some of the themes common to most of the poems and try to let them give voice to the suffering that is the essence now of the Palestinian experience.

Two of the poets anthologised – Refaat Alareer and Hiba Abu Nada-have been killed in the Fifth Gaza War. Refat Alareer was killed on 6 December 2023 in a targeted bomb attack by the IDF. As Alan Morrison notes in his Introduction, this is part of an ongoing cultural genocide. As a result, most of the poets are of the Palestinian diaspora.

Ali Abukhattab gets to the heart of it when he writes of being “bigger than an illusion/And smaller than a fact.” That is, essentially, the crux of Palestinian existence – to be Palestinian, to desire the restoration of statehood, is not an illusion – but Palestine is not either any longer a fact, and “facts” are written now only with the pen of the powerful.

Refaat Alareer said that he would “throw my pen in the faces of the soldiers”. At issue here always is whether art can be resistance enough – can it overcome, or help in the overcoming of, the facts on the ground that are written by tanks and bombs? A further question is whether art produced in solidarity can serve a purpose beyond the self-sanctification of those who produce it.

Abukhattab tells us that the Palestinian experience is the building of “the kingdom of crying.” Hala Alyan, in Heirloom, captures the relentless sense of insecurity and dread that comes from knowing that the simple fact of a home is always contested space: “The abandoned buildings had black graffiti in Hebrew I couldn't read . Shoshanna asked what it meant, memorised we will come back you cannot keep us out we will return this is ours.”  

Vengeance is their calling

The obvious reading is that this is graffiti left by IDF soldiers in the ruins of someone’s trashed home. The opening lines of the poem though tell us that “My grandfather learned Hebrew because they learn Arabic.” The possibility that the graffiti might have been authored by a Palestinian in Hebrew as a message to those who would deny the right to return is left open –the possibility then of language as a means of resistance alongside  other  means of resistance.

Learning Hebrew as a learning of the language of the occupier also opens a possibility of hospitality in a different set of circumstances, a meeting of equals, however lost to the future that might seem to be. The optimism that runs through all these pages, at a time which feels to an onlooker as a time of utmost despair, is in the flicker of ambiguities that pass through the pages, that there is always another possibility, a way forward, another reading, albeit a barbed one: “The newspaper says truce and C-Mart /is selling pomegranate seeds again. Dumb metaphor./I’ve ruined the dinner party. I was given a life. Is it frivolous?” (Naturalised - Hala Alyan.) 

Misery, though, remains the unrelenting norm – whether the misery of war or the turgid misery of poverty, shortages, reliance on UNRWA, a kind of internationally-facilitated beggary. As Farid Bitar puts it “I keep screaming for the bombs to stop dropping...And when I awake/Everything/From the previous day/Is just the same.” (- Unexplained Misery)  

The importance of the poems in this collection is that they do not flinch from using poetry as a means of raising the most uncomfortable questions – the ones we are supposed to avoid raising in polite company for fear of a kind of excommunication .Farid Bitar puts it succinctly:-

Watching hundreds of naked men
Ordered to kneel down blindfolded
In the carnage of destroyed streets
Stripped of their dignity
This enemy is insisting to relive
Days of Warsaw ghettos of WW11
Vengeance is their calling.

(- The Journalist)

And this is what has become unsayable. Because to condemn the Zionist project as a bloody settler-colonialist enterprise stuck on repeat is not to condemn the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that the people without a land took a land which was already  the homeland of a (Palestinian) people, and sought to wash those people away with blood. That what was done to one people does not give them a permanent excuse to ignore the rights of others. No one would argue that the brutality of German colonialism, or their enrolment of Tutsis to maintain order over the Hutu, gave the Hutu any justification for the genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994.

The world can’t seem to stop this “moral army”
Till they are satisfied of spilling so much blood
Till they keep killing the children of the future.

(- The Journalist.)

Refaat  Alareer (targeted for death) states that

The victim has evolved, backward
Into a victimizer.

(- I Am You.)

There is a terrible irony to this situation – that the army of a people mocked as “rootless cosmopolitans” and “passportless wanderers” has reduced another people to the condition that Zionism sought to overcome.

To quote Alareer again:

I am just you
I am your past haunting
Your present and your future.
I strive like you did
I fight like you did
I resist like you  resisted
And for a moment,
I’d take your tenacity
As a model
Were you not holding
The barrel of the gun
Between my bleeding eyes.

(- ibid)

Dareen Tatour tells us that the essence of the Palestinian experience is this:

We live our lives, our nights and our days, in a prison
And in a graveyard
Weddings die, funerals take place:
There is nothing new in the news
Other than the lack of bread.

(- When Gaza Was Killed.)

Deema K Shehabi despairs that “nothing is ever limned/a baby on top/of the mother’s dried up/corpse in broad daylight.” (- Gaza Renga)

Perhaps these poems are renga with the second stanzas written by the daily brutality of occupation? We should pause and focus on that “limned” though – because all of these poems do in fact illuminate a particular lived horror, and there should be a due recognition of the courage and clear sightedness needed to be able to do that.

For those of us who march and write in solidarity, it is a reminder that such art represents a duty for us to live up to. These are not easy times. The sheer size of the demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and their repeated presence on the streets have clearly caught the British establishment by surprise – hence the evermore shrill descriptions of “hate marches”, “extremist disruption”, and calls by the Prime Minister to “not merely manage these protests but police them”.

For the sake of genocide

We are close to the proscription of particular forms of political speech, if a group such as CAGE, which offers support to prisoners of the “war on terror” can be described as “extremist.”

We are equally close to the possibility of a resurgent anti-imperialism.  In such circumstances we have a duty to speak out, to write against, to resist. The poets in Out of Gaza show us how, in far worse circumstances, this can be done. We can choose to follow our bootlicking Poet Laureate in penning purposeless verse, or retreat to obscurantism, or we can follow the lead given here.

Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism that the risk of nationalism is the swallowing up of civil society by political society, whose main form is the state. We should note that the poets here also represent that conflict between homogenization and liberation that is essential to an independent  critical space within any future Palestine and therefore deserve our support all the more.

As Tatour has it:

All the bullets they fire to silence language
To kill our memory, to kill
What is old and what is new
For the sake of genocide
Will stoke our resilience and our will
And therein will be salvation.

(- A Moment Before Death)

For those of us outside Palestine, we should be prepared to use our words to say, truthfully, what is. History will not thank us if we neglect to confront what is being done now because earlier generations failed to challenge what was being done by Europeans to the Jewish people in the name of fascism.

To turn away from what is being done, to bow to Netanyahu when he talks of blood libels, is to allow a moral relativism that means the Palestinian people will be left always to “cultivate life/Every single day/ Inside death’s cradle.” (Samah Sabawi - Questions the Media Should Ask the People of Gaza.)

Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024, is available here. A percentage of sales will be donated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Words
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Words

Published in Poetry

Words

by Anne Irwin

If the undead populated the world
would there be no poetry
no blue stream binding words
no soft flow of dreams
connecting.

Would words be hollow
unable to capture the twist and turns
of experience.
Would words only justify intent.

Could the undead commandeer
human land and homes
could they justify by saying
we’re fighting human animals
let’s see how they survive
without fuel, electricity or food.
they’ll get what they deserve.

if the undead bombed human cities
watched the buildings crumble
mothers and babies crying in the rubble,
famine spreading
and then called it self defense
would we as humans accept their story?

That is not what it is to be human.
Would we not reach deep into the cauldron
of our experience
and haul those words from the underworld to the surface
because our hearts revolts against the corruption of words

Our heart seeks truth in words.

Gaze on Gaza
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Gaze on Gaza

Published in Poetry

Gaze on Gaza

by Stuart McFarlane, with image above by Martin Gollan

Gaze on Gaza; and weep. See the child in A and E,
the child, alone, in A and E.
See the man who stares,
the man who only stares.
See the woman who screams,
the woman who only screams.

The bloody bandage, discarded limb, the blasted street, all rubble.
Thick smoke billowing; low down
a tepid sun that strains to shine.

See another bloodied child,
the mother who still screams, and a father who only stares.
See what may not be unseen.
Try, if you can, to avert you eyes. Gaze on Gaza.
Gaze on Gaza. And weep.

Poetry for Palestine: Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 19:12

Poetry for Palestine: Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar

Published in Poetry

Farid Bitar's Testament / Sajél, as its title suggests, is a testament to our tempestuous times, taking in the seismic events and vicissitudes of the past few years, including the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-22, and the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the current and agonisingly ongoing Israeli seige of Gaza, and mass displacement of Gazans, which some term the second Palestinian catastrophe or Nakba, dominates this collection.

Farid Bitar is one of many contemporary Palestinian poets who are bearing witness through their poetries to a second Nakba, and quite apart from artistic qualities the sheer emotional courage of such output at this time must be applauded. Bitar is a poet who has spoken out before in his work on the Palestinian plight, in collections such as Screaming Olives (Smokestack Books, 2021), and in Testament / Sajél there is a further cementing of this polemical resolve, but interweaving all is a verse of deliverance. Farid has also illustrated the book with 34 beautiful images, like this one:

FB image resized 

This is the poetry of trauma. But in spite of the bitterest of experiences, Bitar's is a spirited poetry, a poetry of hope, which Culture Matters is proud to publish, particularly at this catastrophic time for all Palestinians. 50% of sales proceeds will go to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Testament / Sajél by Farid Bitar, ISBN 978-1-912710-68-3, £12 inc. p. and p. in UK, £12 plus £5 p. and p. elsewhere. Please pay via the Donations button here, and send your name and address to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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