Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also a UCU branch rep.

Red Traces: A Marxist history of  culture and class struggle
Friday, 03 May 2024 08:06

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.

Monday, 17 July 2023 12:40

Bradman: A Dialectical View of the Don

Published in Sport

As England and Australia continue the age-old clashes for the Ashes this summer, one name always hovers over the collective psyche of both teams as they take the field. Don Bradman is indubitably the greatest Australian cricketer of all time and, in the eyes of many, also the greatest cricketer of any nationality. The most famous statistic in a sport permeated by data is Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 which is unlikely to be ever matched and is nearly forty runs ahead of the next name on the list of all-time great batters.

His twenty-year Test career is dotted with many other barely believable achievements. Bradman, or ‘The Don’ as he is still deferentially referred to within the game, scored twenty-nine centuries, including a then world record score of 334 against England at Leeds in 1930 (309 of those coming on the first day). That innings was one of three 200+ scores Bradman posted in that Ashes contest, giving him a series average of 139.14 which remains unequalled in Tests. In the same season he made the highest score in Australian first-class cricket of 452 not out – an innings which also stood as a world record for thirty years.

Behind the statistics, however, Bradman the man came to personify both his country and the era in intriguingly contradictory ways. As the great Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James noted in Beyond the Boundary, his classic 1963 analysis of cricket, ‘Beyond the Boundary’:

'Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period.'

When Bradman was at his peak in the 1930s he became the cultural lynchpin of a country enduring the worst economic downturn in living memory, and one starting to loosen its hitherto unquestioned loyalty to the British colonial power. Bradman’s prowess made him an icon not just to Australians but to cricket fans around the world, even among the English on the other side of the great Ashes divide.

The image the Don consciously cultivated was of a clean-cut, unproblematic and apolitical figure whose sole sources of pleasure were his cricket and his family. There is no doubt that the phenomenal achievement of the Australian run-machine was valued by millions around the world in a particularly dark period of the twentieth century. When the PM of Australia visited Nelson Mandela in prison in 1986, the first question from the great anti-apartheid leader was ‘tell me Mr Fraser, is Don Bradman alive?

A right wing, bigoted businessman?

There is another side to the legend of the Don, however, that is worth examining in the 21st century, especially as his home country is evolving into a quite different, more multicultural society to the WASP-dominated one that elevated him to the summit of its cultural pantheon. Revelations last year about Bradman’s political views led a former Mayor of Brisbane to note:

'He was the best chairman of any organisation I’ve had anything to do with, absolutely outstanding. But he was a bigoted, right-wing politician. People say he wasn’t political — he was, and very much so.'

Apart from his near-supernatural batting ability, the other aspect of Bradman’s early career that displays remarkable precocity is his awareness of the commercial possibilities of sporting success. His careful manipulation of what now we would call his ‘brand’ is more fitting of a 21st century sports icon such as Beckham or Messi in our neoliberal era of capitalism than what would be expected of a sports figure from the seemingly quainter 1930s. As his first-class career with New South Wales was taking off in the late twenties, young Bradman was already managing a real estate office in his home town of Bowral and became a shareholder in a Sydney property development company.

In 1929, the same season he made his Test debut, Bradman took a job as a promoter for Mick Simmons Ltd, a sports equipment supplier. This commercial nous, supplemented by on the field success inevitably made Bradman richer than any of his team-mates. After his record-breaking success on the first tour of England in 1930, he was gifted a custom-built Chevrolet car which, of course, was deployed by the car manufacturer for promotional appearances by Bradman around Australia.

In an age of austerity, however, when most other players would have to survive on a fraction of Bradman’s income, this exceptional remuneration became a source of rancour within the Australian team. When he received a bonus cheque after the innings of 334 for today’s equivalent of £75,000, it was noted Bradman did not even buy his fellow players a round of drinks! He was unapologetic about this conspicuous lack of solidarity:

If I gave you fellows dinner every night from now on until we got home to Australia you would only say what a fool I am.

Envy of a unique sporting genius no doubt played a part, but Bradman was never the most popular member of the team and resentment of his financial wheeler-dealing must also have been a factor. Vice-captain Vic Armstrong was among those who were sceptical of  Bradmania:

We could have played any team without Bradman but we could not have played the Blind School without Clarrie Grimmett (a spin bowler).

Bradman’s commercial activities were the prelude to the greatest controversy of his career – his central role in the great ‘Bodyline’ affair associated with England’s tour in 1932-33. He had previously exploited the literary possibilities of his fame by penning a serialised account of the 1930 series, a technical breach of contract for which the Australian Board of Control had fined him. Shortly after, Bradman signed deals with Associated Newspapers and Radio 2UE to provide reports from inside the dressing room on the upcoming Ashes series.

The ACB threatened to bar Bradman from playing as their rules at the time stipulated that only professional journalists were permitted to provide such coverage. Bradman was a sharp business operator, however, and his retaliatory threat to defect to the professional leagues in England sent the ACB into panic mode as they understood that an Ashes series minus Bradman would be a financial disaster. A deal was eventually struck which suited all parties but not before a convenient injury had befallen Bradman as the confrontation peaked and which forced him to miss the first Test of the series.

Bodyline bowling 

The 1932-33 series has gone down in history as the most controversial in history, and one of those rare occasions when cricket makes the jump from the back pages to the front. English captain Douglas Jardine paid Bradman the back-handed compliment of devising a bowling attack that was specifically tasked with containing Bradman’s free scoring. Spearheaded by Nottinghamshire’s Harold Larwood, the English bowlers remorselessly sent down short-pitched, fast deliveries targeting leg stump in a strategy labelled by the Australian media as ‘Bodyline.’

In a moment of incredible sporting drama, Bradman returned to the side after the contractual wrangle for the second Test at Melbourne. Taking strike before a hushed capacity crowd of 70,000, however, he was bowled for a first-ball duck! Bodyline did succeed in curtailing Bradman but his series average of 56 would still be impressive for any other player.

Observing from the other side of the world, CLR James in ‘Beyond the Boundary’ drew an intriguing parallel between the ruthlessness of the English tactics with the contemporary rise of fascism in Europe:

Bodyline was not an incident, it was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket…But there is no need to despair of cricket. Much, much more than cricket is at stake, in fact everything is at stake. If and when society regenerates itself, cricket will do the same.

Bodyline also produced one of the iconic quotes in the history of the game when English tour manager Plum Warner tried to apologise for the tactic to Australian captain Bill Woodfull. The latter retorted:

‘I do not want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not. It is too great a game to spoil. It is time for some people get out of the game. The matter is in your hands. Good afternoon.

Controversy still rages over who was the source of this infamous leaked dressing-room exchange. Bradman’s team-mate Jack Fingleton always contended that the Don himself was responsible. The argument caused the two men to fall out but there were other undercurrents at play in their fractious relationship. When Fingleton was surprisingly dropped from the 1948 tour squad they never spoke to each other again – despite playing together as openers before WW2.

Sectarianism, the square, and the Springboks

Australian society in the 1930s was blighted by sectarianism and the Test team was not exempt. On the one hand were the WASPs such as Bradman, many of whom also happened to be freemasons. On the other side of the divide were the Catholics of Irish descent such as Fingleton, Bill O’ Reilly and Stan McCabe. Bradman’s squeaky-clean image might indicate he would never indulge in sectarian rivalry, but Fingleton claimed that the great man could be as petty as anyone else at the time.

Fingleton tells a story of how Bradman reacted to the revelation that his Catholic team-mate had requested his bat be sprinkled with holy water by a bishop. As the latter walked to the wicket during a match in Sydney, he turned to Fingleton and derisively commented: ‘We’ll see what a dry bat will do out there.’ Similarly, O’ Reilly noted that the public unity of the great sides captained by Bradman did not necessarily reflect the reality inside the dressing room: 'You have to play under a Protestant to know what’s it’s like.' Noticeably, when Bradman was famously bowled for a duck in his last Test innings at the Oval in 1948, Fingleton and O’ Reilly were both observed to be laughing hysterically in the commentary box!

Following his retirement from playing the game, Bradman inevitably became a powerful administrative voice in Australian cricket and performed a central role in two of the most contentious issues affecting the game in the modern era.

In 1970, South Africa’s apartheid policy threatened to split the game down the middle as establishment figures in the global game sought to retain that country’s status as a Test-playing nation, while anti-racist activists campaigned to have the Springboks expelled. Nelson Mandela, as mentioned above, regarded the Don as a sympathetic figure and it is certainly true that, as Chair of the ACB, Bradman approved South Africa’s ultimate exclusion from Tests. According to one of his biographers however, this was a decision that was made reluctantly and also one Bradman sought to overturn a few years later. Roland Perry notes:

Bradman’s first reaction was no reaction. Bradman’s attitude was with the 75 per cent of polling who said ‘we shouldn’t do anything. It’s South Africa’s problem over there.’ He didn’t want to interfere in their politics because they were not getting involved in Australia’s.’

In the mid-70s, Bradman reversed his commitment to the sporting isolation of the apartheid state and attempted to organise boycott-busting tours by Australian sides. He was only thwarted by the insistence of the Labour government of that period that the policy remain in place. Before his death in 2001, Bradman commented that his role in implementing the boycott was one of the biggest regrets of his career.

Cricket gets commercialised

Bradman also played a conservative role in the next major controversy that affected the global game in the 1970s – the Packer revolution. In 1977, Australian media mogul Kerry Packer set up World Series Cricket as a rival to the ACB with all the accoutrements that have now become an accepted part of the game in the 21st century – white balls, coloured clothing, floodlights and showbiz-style presentation.

More importantly, Packer aimed to professionalise the sport with players receiving wages more commensurate with their equivalents in football, rugby and other high profile sports. Bradman, however, was so incensed by the prospect of modernisation that he stepped down as chairman of the board. Ian Chappell was one of the Australian players who spearheaded the Packer revolution and was critical of Bradman’s agenda to block the changes:

Once you'd put your case he countered with the perennial, 'No son, we can't do that,' delivered in his distinctive high-pitched tone, as was the harangue that followed and then the meeting was over.

One of the ironies of this situation was that Packer’s grandfather was the key person who defused the crisis of 1932 when Bradman’s commercial commitments threatened to rule him out of the Bodyline tour.

Last year, private correspondence between Bradman and former Conservative PM Malcolm Fraser surfaced which confirmed the right-wing politics which the great batsman had carefully kept out of the spotlight for his whole life. Bradman spoke approvingly of the removal of Labour PM Gough Whitlam in 1975 and warned Fraser of the necessity of sticking to what we would now call a clear neoliberal agenda:

What the people need are clearly defined rules which they can read and understand so that they can get on with their affairs. The public must be re-educated to believe that private enterprise is entitled to rewards as long as it obeys fair and reasonable rules laid down by government. Maybe you can influence leaders of the press to a better understanding of this necessity of presentation.

Ultimately, all these criticisms of Bradman the man are perhaps a necessary corrective to decades of idolatry. However, a dialectical view of the Don would not lose sight of the fact that he brought immeasurable amounts of pleasure to millions of working-class people as the Great Depression hit home and the shadows of fascism and war lengthened over the Western world. Michael Parkinson expressed this sentiment perfectly when describing his father’s return from a thirty mile walk to watch Bradman in a Test match at Leeds:

‘Upon his return he faced a family who clearly believed he had a slate loose. Who, in their right mind, would waste that much precious shoe-leather to see a cricket match? My father went to his grave unrepentant. Retelling the story – as he did many times – he'd say, "But I saw HIM bat and they didn't.

Of Empires and Umpires: Cricket and Politics in Pakistan
Wednesday, 02 September 2020 09:17

Of Empires and Umpires: Cricket and Politics in Pakistan

Published in Sport

Sean Ledwith writes about how colonialism and racism has conditioned the history of Test cricket between Pakistan and England

This summer’s Test series between England and Pakistan was marked by high quality cricket from both sides, with the emergence of a new generation of fast bowlers being the factor that will have especially encouraged fans of the latter. However the biosecurity measures we are now becoming accustomed to ensured the series lacked the high-octane atmosphere and passion frequently associated with contests between the two sides in the modern era. For Pakistan supporters living in the UK, these matches have become an essential opportunity not just to watch their heroes in action but also to express a sense of collective pride in establishing a social and cultural tradition in the face of persistent racism and Islamophobia from sections of British society.

Test series involving Pakistan and the other cricket-playing nations have frequently become a prism for the playing out of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and partition, ever since the creation of the state in 1947. For the Pakistani state, cricket in the postwar era became a key outlet for nationalist sentiment, in a similar way to how the sport enabled the fragmented islands of the Caribbean to construct a shared identity. In the post 9/11 era, Pakistan’s troubled position on one of the fault lines of the US state’s War on Terror entangled the country in the destructive consequences of another empire’s agenda, and tragically led to the suspension of Test cricket in the country - a hiatus which thankfully ended last year.

Two recent studies have enhanced our understanding of the dialectical interplay between cricket and politics in Pakistan. Surprisingly one is by the Tory Party-supporting columnist Peter Oborne. Despite his right-wing credentials, Oborne is an independently minded type of conservative who has spoken out impressively, for example, against Boris Johnson’s suitability for the premiership and the West’s demonisation of Iran. In Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, published in 2014, he brilliantly recounts how Tests between England and Pakistan, in particular, have become a forum for the lingering arrogance of the colonising power and the nationalist aspirations of the colonised. Although politically Oborne is a million miles away from CLR James who famously chronicled how cricket helped configure West Indian nationalism, he shares an understanding with the great Trinidadian Trotskyist of how sport, in certain circumstances, can provide an indispensable channel for the oppressed:

Cricket came to fill the same role in Pakistan society as football does in Brazil. It represented, in an untrammelled way, the national personality. A new generation emerged in the 1970s which played the game with a compelling and instinctive genius. Many of these new players came from poor backgrounds, and some from remote areas….they imposed their own personalities, with the result that cricket went through a period of inventiveness and brilliance comparable to the so-called Golden Age before World War One.

Coincidentally published in the same year as Oborne’s study, Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket similarly displays an insightful appreciation of the overlap between the game and the social and political context that exists beyond the boundary. As a native Pakistani, Samiuddin brings more of an insider’s appreciation of the regional and class dynamics that operate within the sub-continental society but, like Oborne, powerfully argues how its approach to cricket has been crassly caricatured by many British commentators, as irrevocably alien. Samiuddin notes:

What makes it what it is? Pakistan and England ostensibly provide cricket's affirmation of Samuel Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilisations. Huntington's treatise of the same name, which examines potential ideological and cultural conflict post-Communism, serves to explain, superficially at least, the incendiary nature of this rivalry.

In some ways, the cricket relationship between the two can be interpreted as a manifestation of the misconceptions and prejudices that Edward Said famously identified in his 1947 study of Orientalism. Players and officials from Pakistan have often being stereotyped by English commentators as conniving cheats, fearless warriors or exotic wizards. In the modern era, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan and Abdul Qadir respectively have been framed as iterations of these caricatures. Samiuddin observes:

Pakistan's heroes are portrayed as geniuses - sometimes mystical as in the case of Abdul Qadir, and sometimes warrior-like, as in that of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. Imran, aware of this flimsy characterisation, prompted Qadir to grow his hair and a goatee to further heighten his numinous aura. Pakistan's villains have been devious, conspiratorial and antagonistic, as Javed was deemed.

Both authors identify Pakistan’s first tour of England in 1954 as a seminal moment in relations between the two cricket powers. Just a few years after its blood-soaked creation at the hands of the former colonial power, the country was largely dismissed by the hierarchy of the hosts as irrelevant and unstable compared to India, its bigger and apparently more strategically valuable neighbour. Pakistan’s players were regarded by many influential commentators in the home camp as unworthy of Test status. Neville Cardus, the doyen of English cricket reporters at the time observed that a mistake was made by those authorities who decided the time was now ripe for Test matches between England and Pakistan. The satisfaction among the tourists must have been substantial therefore when, at the Oval in the Fourth Test, Pakistan became the first international team to win a match on its debut tour of England at the Oval. Not for the last time, it was searing fast bowling that won the day for the South Asian side, with Fazal Mahmood achieving match figures of 12 wickets for 99.

Fazal’s captain on the tour was Abdul Kardar. The latter was a crucial figure in the early history of Pakistan cricket whose membership of the nationalist People’s Party, firstly as an anti-colonial activist against the British and then as leading figure in post-independence cricket, fertilised the conscious use of the game as a means to generate the sense of a viable nation-state. The Kardar-Fazal partnership also foreshadowed an ongoing trope of Pakistani Test cricket as the Lahore-based captain and the Karachi-based bowler personified a synthesis of the upper-class elite and the poorer, immigrant communities that the founding fathers of the state hoped would be the bedrock of the new state. In a later era, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad would supply a similar duopoly of backgrounds.

Hubris and high-handedness

The hubris and high-handedess that has often characterised English attitudes to Pakistan were most shamefully apparent in the return series on the sub-continent in 1955-56. Touring captain, Donald Carr, bizarrely decided it would be amusing to kidnap Idris Baig, one of the Pakistani umpires for the series. With six of his teammates, Carr broke into Baig’s hotel in Peshawar, forcibly carried the stunned umpire down a back staircase, threw him into a horse-drawn carriage and took him back to their hotel where they forced the devout Muslim to take alcohol.

Baig understandably failed to see the funny side of this dim-witted stunt and was only persuaded against prosecuting the MCC by a deal between two senior figures from the respective management teams who happened to have served together in the colonial army. Only a well-timed downpour in Lahore prevented the British High Commission there being burned to the ground by an irate crowd of home supporters. This barely-believable episode encapsulates the appalling ignorance and insensitivity that characterised the mentality of influential members of the MCC towards their new opponent in the Test arena. Although virtually erased from the cricket memory of the English cricket establishment, this incident set the scene for later and better-known umpire-related controversies, such as those involving David Constant and Shakoor Rana. Describing the episode, Peter Oborne rightly notes:

Carr’s team, like many England sides to follow, was locked into too narrow a set of social and moral parameters to be able to fully respond to Pakistan.

Contests between the sides were relatively incident -ree through the next decade but from the 1970s onwards there were played out against a rising backdrop of Islamophobic racism .South Asians in the UK increasingly became the target of ‘Paki bashing’ as the forces of the far right, particularly the National Front, emerged to exploit the end of the boom years of postwar Western capitalism. Thatcher’s elevation to Number 10 in 1979 provided further cover for the racist right, and cricket between the two countries became the stage for multiple unpleasant incidents of casual racism and hate crime. In this era, one of the most hated politicians of the Thatcherite cabal devised an eponymous challenge known as The Tebbit Test, implicitly attacking second-generation Pakistanis for not supporting England.

Institutional racism in the cricket establishment

Around the same time, Ian Botham managed to be both sexist and racist in a single sentence with his notorious remark that Pakistan is the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid  (perhaps this is the real reason Boris Johnson has recently elevated Botham to the House of Lords?). In the 1982 series, the tourists objected to what they perceived as home bias by the English umpire, David Constant, but their protestations were brushed aside by most pundits as sour grapes. Astonishingly, however, when India made precisely the same complaint later in the same summer, Constant was removed from the roster of umpires! To further rub salt in the wound, when Pakistan returned five years later, their request that he should not officiate was turned down.

Off the field, on the rancorous 1987 tour, a Pakistani fan had his throat slashed at Trent Bridge and at Headingley a pig’s head was thrown into the main section of Asian supporters. That was also the year, of course, of the notorious Shakoor Rana affair, when England captain Mike Gatting exchanged expletives and aggressive gestures with one of the home umpires in the return series on the sub-continent. The hysterical coverage that ensued frequently failed to point out Shakoor was right to stop play, as Gatting was surreptiously moving a fielder as the bowler approached the wicket. The British press, both tabloid and broadsheet, covered the incident in ways that would be unacceptable today. The Sun superimposed a dartboard over the face of Shakoor as a supplement for its readers. The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer claimed no team has more merited the opprobrium of the international cricket community.

The coverage was predictably one-sided and glossed over the fact that in the previous match, England batsman Chris Broad had disgracefully refused to leave the crease when given out, thereby breaking one of the most fundamental conventions of the game. Needless to say, nor was  the British press interested in explaining to  readers how the episodes involving Idris Baig and David Constant shaped  Pakistani frustration with the hypocrisy of the English management team. On their return from the sub-continent, rather than be reprimanded for inappropriate conduct, the England players were awarded a hardship bonus by the MCC, a tacit gesture of approval for their refusal to adhere to standards of behaviour.

The escalating tension in the contests could also be explained by Pakistan’s changing role on the global stage. Initially overshadowed by its giant neighbour, the country became strategically more important to the US as Washington became nervous over New Delhi’s positioning as a non-aligned power in the Cold War stand-off. Over time, Pakistan increasingly became the focus of American political and military backing, as US Presidents sought to reinforce the state as reliable ally in case India should flip right over into a pro-Moscow orbit. The country’s rising profile in international diplomacy seeped through to the ambition of the players on the pitch and gave them the confidence to take on and beat their former colonial master. One of the greatest Pakistani players, Javed Miandad, has explicitly commented on how his game was affected by this political context:

For years, Pakistani teams on foreign tours found it difficult to shake a sense of inferiority. Perhaps we were embarrassed to be from a Third World country that not too long ago had been ruled by white colonialists.

In The Unquiet Ones Osman Samiuddin recounts a seminal moment in a 1986 white-ball game between India and Pakistan when a last-ball six from Miandad to secure victory encapsulated the country’s arrival on the global stage as a nuclear-weapon possessing power: that one shot was like a mince grinder in reverse. Into that burst went every strand of the transformation Pakistan had undergone over the preceding decade and half… and on the other side came out one solid lump of a golden age, the most golden age, in fact, Pakistan has ever had.

The downside of this elevation to the high table of global politics has been that Pakistan now finds itself in the cockpit of a massively destabilised world order following America’s calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Regional conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, intersecting with the wider reverberations of the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS,culminated with a terrorist attack on the touring Sri Lankans in Lahore and the consequent loss of a decade of home Tests. Cricket’s importance in the country can be clearly gauged by the fact that Imran Khan, as undoubtedly Pakistan’s greatest ever player, now finds himself as the Prime Minister, grappling with the challenges facing the country in the 21st century. Tariq Ali, the renowned Pakistani leftist and friend of the current Prime Minister, is sceptical of Imran’s ability to repeat his epic achievements on the pitch in the political arena:

He goes into the filthy waters of Pakistani politics, and all these little monsters and worms who lurk below the surface rise, seeing that this could be the new thing, and join the party. There's no ideology at all, except initially a vague liberalism, then liberalism coupled with so-called progressive Islamism. So if you operate like that, you prolong the old system, do nothing to alter it, not even in the minimal way

Cricket has obviously played a major role in expressing resistance to racism and imperialism among Pakistani people at home and among the country’s diaspora. These two plagues of the global system are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon so, despite the perhaps inevitable failure of Imran’s reformist agenda, the political dimension of the game will undoubtedly continue to inspire future generations on the sub-continent.

Black Cricketers Matter: Racism, Resistance and the West Indies
Friday, 24 July 2020 10:58

Black Cricketers Matter: Racism, Resistance and the West Indies

Published in Sport

Sean Ledwith shows how cricket can be a site and a symbol of political liberation as well as of racist, imperialist oppression

The First Test between England and West Indies this summer was memorable for a number of reasons. It was the first Test match played in the post-lockdown, new normal that requires players, officials, coaching staff and journalists to exist in a biosecure bubble for weeks in advance. Apart from this limited group, there were no spectators in Southampton’s Ageas Bowl to witness a fine win for the touring team. Far more significant however, were two episodes on the first day, which both occurred before a ball was bowled.

In a pre-recorded segment for Sky Sports, two black former cricketers reflected powerfully on what the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year meant to them personally and, more broadly, what should be the response of the cricket world to the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Michael Holding, fast bowling legend from the 70s and 80s, is already a hugely respected figure in the game but his status will have been enhanced even more by his contribution on that day. As well as recounting his personal experiences of racism in England and South Africa, Holding referred to the recent case of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York who infamously reported a black man to the cops with no justification apart from her spurious paranoia:

She threatened this black man with her whiteness, saying that she was going to call the police and tell them there was a black man threatening her. If the society in which she was living did not empower her or get her to think that she had that power of being white and being able to call the police on a black man, she would not have done it.

Alongside Holding, former Surrey and England woman cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent tearfully described the prejudice and racial profiling she has had to endure in her career:

I have been in team environments dealing with people constantly referring to 'your lot'. When things would happen, like Barack Obama becoming president of the USA, having a paper thrown down in front of my face and saying, 'your lot must be happy'. The constant drip-drip was tough.

Following the broadcast of these moving contributions from Holding and Rainsford, the players from both sides appeared on the field and took the knee in the now universally recognised gesture of solidarity with the victims of racism. Jason Holder, the West Indies captain, took his public protest to the next level by wearing a black glove and raising his fist in a clenched salute, echoing the iconic image of black US athletes at the 1968 Olympics. It is a remarkable indicator of a massive leftward shift in public consciousness that none of these overtly political moments were contested or controversial.

The white England players should also be commended for their unhesitating willingness to participate in the uplifting display of anti-racist sentiment. All involved were deservedly lauded by the media and received many high profile messages of support. Former England captain and Sky commentator, Nasser Hussain, spoke for millions who appreciated the courage of the black cricketers involved:

First, there was the emotion and conviction of Ebony Rainsford-Brent, who has been through it all herself and brilliantly conveyed some of the painful experiences she has endured down the years. Then there was Holding, who spoke calmly and intelligently about the cancer that is racism. He's such a passionate man and it was a privilege to be standing next to him while we carried on the conversation in front of the cameras.

These powerful assertions of cricket’s progressive agenda are particularly striking as in previous eras the game was virtually synonymous with empire and racism, and was perceived as part of the essential cultural baggage of the British ruling class, at home and abroad.

West Indian cricket

The history of West Indian Test cricket, however, has been marked by comparable expressions of resistance, both on and off the field, to the sporting hegemony of the colonial elite. The pioneer of a Marxist analysis of cricket, of course, was the great Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James in his groundbreaking book, Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963. Another seminal radical thinker from the Caribbean, Stuart Hall, identified the crucial insight developed by his mentor regarding the dialectical interplay of sport and politics in the region:

James often remarked that the British said that the Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton and would be lost on the playing fields of Lord’s cricket ground. Just as the British had trained themselves to create the Empire on the playing fields, so on the playing fields they would symbolically lose their Empire.   

The white plantation owners of the Caribbean imported cricket from the mother country in the eighteenth century. Inevitably, their bigotry and prejudice blighted the early development of the game there. Batting and bowling were perceived as exclusively white pastimes and black slaves were permitted to participate only to the extent of retrieving the ball from the dense fields of sugar cane when necessary.

Over time, the physical strength that black men reluctantly derived from backbreaking labour turned them into obvious candidates for fast bowling and they were promoted to the central arena of the game. When Tests between the West Indies and England commenced in the early twentieth century, however, sides from the former were composed of predominantly white players with a white captain being a shibboleth of the squad. Team photos from this era bizarrely show the two teams as barely distinguishable in terms of ethnicity.

The battle for equality on the pitch in the post-WW1 era would revolve around two outstanding figures, George Headley from Jamaica and Learie Constantine from Trinidad. The former was nicknamed the Black Bradman due to his prodigious accomplishments with the bat.

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George Headley

Headley scored 176 on his Test debut against England in 1930 and in the same series became the first West Indian to score centuries in both innings of a match. In 1935 he racked up 270 against England in Kingston, and four years later became the first man to score centuries in both innings of a Lord’s Test match. Headley’s significance is that he shattered once and for all the stereotype that black cricketers possessed the physical strength for fast bowling but lacked the patience and stamina to construct big scores with the bat. He was blatantly the most suitable man to captain the side in the 1930s due to his evidently advanced reading of the game, but the racism of the era ensured the position was reserved for a white player. Headley was belatedly awarded the captaincy, but absurdly for just one Test in 1948.

Headley’s teammate in the same Test side, Learie Constantine, commented on the injustice of his friend being passed over for the leadership role in the 1930s:

Cricket in the West Indies is the most glaring example of the black man being kept in his place... The heart of our cricket is rotted by racist politics. I only hope that before I die, I see a West Indian cricket team chosen on merit alone, and captained by a black man, win a rubber against England.

Constantine himself combined all-round brilliance on the field with anti-racist activism off it. CLR James’ journalistic career in England was largely based on reporting Constantine’s exploits in the famous Lancashire League that used to draw huge crowds on Saturday afternoons. The two men would frequently speak together on Labour Party platforms in the North West and lead demonstrations to improve the situation of black immigrants. Constantine was probably the best all-rounder in the world in the 1930s and demonstrated that there was no aspect of the game that West Indian players could not master. James wrote of him:

Constantine’s leg-glance from outside the off-stump to long-leg was a classical stroke. It was not due to his marvellous West Indian eyes and marvellous West Indian wrists. It was due, if you must have it, to his marvellous West Indian brains.

Constantine’s status in the game was illustrated in a match at the end of WW2 between England and a Dominions side. Constantine was the only black player among the later but the rest of the team insisted that he should captain them. His modest Test average of 30 runs does not reflect the wider significance of his contribution to promoting the popularity of West Indian cricketers among the northern white working class, and consequently undermining racist attitudes in England.

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Learie Constantine

Despite Constantine’s evident brilliance and first-class cricket brain, the growing demand for a black captain for the West Indies continued to be ignored by the colonial satraps who governed the Caribbean game in the immediate postwar era.

Calypso cricket and the blackwash series

Nevertheless, three black batsmen, memorably nicknamed the Three Ws sustained the legacy of George Headley and showed that Caribbean players were as capable of building big innings as any Englishman or Australian. Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes and Frank Worrell scored heavily throughout the 50s and participated in the first series win in England at the start of the decade. The stereotype of West Indians as being fit only for intense but short spells of fast bowling was conclusively demolished.

The notion that a black player lacked the strategic ability to captain the side remained intact. By the dawn of the 1960s, however, the pressure for change from below became irresistible. A synergy of rising class struggle by industrial workers in the Caribbean, regional aspirations for political unity among the islands and the campaigning journalism by CLR James intersected to force the white-dominated West Indies board to submit and appoint Frank Worrell as captain for a tour of Australia at the start of the decade.

The subsequent 1960-61 series was such  a triumph of attacking, high-quality cricket on both sides (including the first ever tied Test) that the board had no choice but to extend Worrell’s initially provisional captaincy. From that point onward, a white captain of the West Indies became unthinkable.

One of the stars of the Australia tour was upcoming all-rounder Gary Sobers. The young Bajan had already hit a record individual Test innings of 365 against Pakistan two years earlier and over the following decade would ascend to becoming indubitably the world’s best player. His evident love of the game and carefree, free-hitting style were an integral part of the final acceptance of the West Indies at the top table of world cricket. As a captain in the late 60s, however, Sobers’ commendable instinct to gamble on potential defeat in pursuit of possible victory backfired occasionally and unwittingly encouraged the ongoing quasi-racist trope of calypso cricket - that is to say, the belief that teams from the Caribbean still lacked the required organisation and resilience to finish off opponents.

This lingering prejudice from the colonial era was the context for the rise of the much vaunted, four-man pace attack of the 1970s and 80s. Clive Lloyd, one of Sobers’ successors as captain, was determined to nail the myth of calypso cricket once and for all. Having been pulverised 5-1 by Australia’s equivalent in the form of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975-6, Lloyd jettisoned spin and medium pace options and brought a tranche of exclusively fast bowlers on the tour to England the following summer. Andy Roberts, Wayne Daniel and Vanburn Holder joined Michael Holding in a four-pronged attack that unleashed a torrent of raw pace on a shell-shocked England team that wilted in the long, hot summer of ‘76.

The political dimension to the series was Tony Grieg’s hubristic comment beforehand that he would make the tourists ‘grovel’. Lloyd and his team needed no further incentive to terrorise the home team after hearing a white South African-born England captain make such a misjudged remark. The spectacle of black fast bowlers terrorising English batsmen with a relentless cannonade of bouncers in the same year as the Battle of Lewisham and the Soweto uprising made for some potent images. Britain’s black community, harassed by both the National Front and the Special Patrol Group, were further inspired to resistance by the sight of West Indian batsmen such as Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge smashing the hapless English attack out of the ground.

Stevan Reilly, director of a brilliant 2010 documentary on this series noted its political significance:

What emerged was a story of West Indian emancipation through sport. The WI team carried the ambitions of the Third World and the entire black diaspora. Their success was a wonderfully defiant response to prejudice and racial injustice in the Seventies and Eighties and remains one of the great sporting and political epics of the twentieth century.

Although the 3-0 series victory that year was a much-needed morale-boost for the second generation of West Indian immigrants, just three years later the rising tide of racism in British society would achieve its apotheosis with Thatcher’s elevation to power. West Indian cricketers, however, would continue to provide some degree of sporting solace to Britain’s increasingly besieged black minority in the last two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the so-called blackwash series of 1984 and 1985-86 in which England sides were comprehensively crushed.

Despite the impressive actions of Holding, Rainford-Brent and the players of both sides before this summer’s first Test, bigotry has once again reared its ugly head in the game. England fast bowler Jofra Archer has recently been subjected to online racist abuse following his omission from the second Test for a breach of biosecurity. Cricket’s capacity to act as a vehicle for emancipatory agendas will obviously need to be called upon many more times in the future.

Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art
Monday, 06 July 2020 08:42

Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Tony McKenna's latest book, Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art

This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.

McKenna’s achievement in his previous collections has been to persuasively argue that a dialectical method, rigorously but deftly applied, can explain the potency of many of the pre-eminent cultural products of our time. He has analysed how the successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Hunger Games to name but a few are explicable in terms of the peculiar anxieties and tensions of the post-2008 crash world.

McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump. 

The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.

He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.  

Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.

A historical materialist approach to culture

The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:

The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)

McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.

In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:

Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)

The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.

The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it

Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.  

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Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.

So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems.  Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.

The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.

The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of  two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.

At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.

McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:

It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and history erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)

This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.

Three Billboards 1147x326 

After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.

McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.

Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:

This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)

Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.

In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.

circe madeline miller 

Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song of Achilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:

Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)   

Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.

McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:

Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)

In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:

in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)

As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.

Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 11:04

Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race

Published in Fiction

Sean Ledwith shows how Finnegans Wake, far from being an incomprehensible waste of Joyce's genius, is an anti-fascist masterwork, uniting and celebrating the wholeness, richness and vibrancy of human culture

80 years ago, as the clouds of war darkened over Europe, one of the most notoriously baffling books of all time was published in Paris. From the moment of its release, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake acquired the reputation in many quarters of being not only baffling in content but also utterly unreadable in form. The first sentence alone often proves an insurmountable hurdle for many readers inclined to attempt to conquer this Himalayan peak of modern literature:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Another 600 or so pages jammed with the same apparently random smorgasbord of portmanteau words, puns, incomprehensible allusions and dearth of narrative signposts is understandably unappealing on first inspection. The book was dismissed even by some of Joyce’s most loyal supporters who had hailed Ulysses in the 1920s as the masterpiece of the century.

Three of the most important advocates of that work denounced its follow-up as a criminal waste of Joyce’s undoubted genius. The poet Ezra Pound, publisher Harriet Weaver and Joyce’s brother Stanislaus all played key roles in securing the tortuous passage of Ulysses through the publication process, often in the teeth of aggressive opposition from the literary and social establishment of the day. All three, however, ultimately became estranged from the author due to their negative reactions to the Wake. HG Wells was another prominent supporter of Joyce left nonplussed by Finnegans Wake and who expressed his reservations directly to the author:

I don't think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence... What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? ... No.

As a man of the left, Wells’ criticism also suggests that any social and political critique that might have been contained in Joyce’s previous oeuvre was entirely absent from the Wake and therefore the book has nothing meaningful to say about politics or society and represented pure self-indulgence on the part of the author. Wells’ judgement probably still reflects the consensus for most as Joyce’s final work is often cited as one of the greatest novels most people will never read.

Radical and subversive traditions

However, the 80th anniversary of Finnegans Wake is a suitable time to revisit the book and question both the notions that it is unreadable and that it has nothing to say about the world. In fact, a small number of commentators over the years have indicated that not only should the Wake be viewed alongside Ulysses as an indispensable part of the modernist canon, but the book actually draws its creative impulses from some of the most radical and subversive traditions in the West. One of the best commentators on the Wake, Bernard Benstock even goes as far as to suggest:

The political climate of ‘Finnegans Wake’ owes as much to fundamental Marxian dialectics as its psychological climate is dependent upon Freud and Jung and its evolutionary structure determined by Darwin. There is no reason to assume that Joyce was a Marxist but it is important to realise that Joyce was aware of the various political aspects of contemporary society spotlighted by Marx’s sociological perspective.

Benstock also draws attention to the fact that the Wake’s publication on the eve of WW2 is not incidental and that Joyce wished, in his own idiosyncratic style, to express his views on the rise of fascism that he had witnessed in Italy and France at close-quarters as part as long-term exile from his native Ireland. One year after completion of the work, Joyce was forced to flee France as the Wehrmacht launched its devastating blitzkrieg across the country, culminating with Panzers rolling through the streets of Paris that Joyce had regarded as home for almost twenty years. His record of helping Jewish families escape from Austria and Germany before the war is little known but dispels the myth that he was an apolitical figure in the 1930s, disinterested in the course of European politics. Using his contacts in the French and Irish ministries, Joyce arranged life-saving visas for scores of refugees fleeing the Nazi menace.

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James Joyce and Paul Léon

Paul Leon, one of Joyce’s closest supporters who defended the Wake, was arrested by the Gestapo due to his Jewish heritage and perished in Auschwitz in 1942. In his last months, Joyce fretted over the fate of his daughter Lucia, who due to chronic mental health problems was languishing in a sanatorium in Brittany. He would have known all too well the grim consequences that awaited such patients in the event of Nazi occupation. Even the muted welcome of the Wake itself was partly affected by Joyce’s revulsion against fascism. The American poet Ezra Pound, although a great advocate of Ulysses in the 1920s, was an unashamed supporter of Mussolini and Hitler by the time Joyce commenced work on the Wake. The differences between the two authors were not purely artistic.  

It would be an absurd case of reductionism, of course, to present the Wake as primarily an anti-fascist tract, but Bernard Benstock persuasively makes the case that Joyce regarded himself as the equivalent of the Irish monks who, at the onset of the Dark Ages of the early medieval period, sought to preserve the culture of the classical world as the forces of barbarism and darkness, in their eyes, closed in on civilisation. The astonishing breadth of allusions and references from the cultures of the world that Joyce draws on in the Wake is testament to his conviction that diversity and pluralism are essential to the flourishing of human beings and, implicitly, that the intolerance and racism of the far right represent a modern barbarism which must be resisted. One of the most celebrated (and accessible) sections of the book, the Anna Livia Plurabelle passage, rhapsodises on the richness and vibrancy of the tapestry of human societies over millennia:

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!

A clarion call for multiculturalism

Incredibly, phrases and vocabulary from some seventy languages have been identified in the book, along with a cornucopia of references to virtually all the major world religions, including Confucianism, Hinduism, Taoism and the Eddas of Scandinavia. Joyce had memorably chronicled his own loss of religious faith in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1902,but he never lost an appreciation of the importance of ritual and spirituality for millions around the world and would have been keenly aware of how the Nazis aspired to eradicate supposedly non-Aryan forms of belief.

Another one of the great scholars of the Wake, James Atherton, contends Joyce used the Koran, for example, as ubiquitously as a telephone directory, and incorporated the suras, or chapters, of Islam’s holy book throughout the text. As a major European writer in the first half of the twentieth century researching and utilising in depth a plethora of non-Western culture, Joyce has no equal. Even in our time, as Islamophobia permeates the ideology of the far right, Joyce’s willingness to absorb the vitality of other cultures stands out as exemplary. The fact that Joyce, who was practically blind by 1939, chose to deploy his encyclopaedic and labyrinthine knowledge of the varieties of human belief in such a gargantuan exercise can be seen as a heroic act of defiance in the face of an oncoming nightmare. It is not unreasonable to argue that Finnegans Wake is the ultimate literary clarion call for what we now call multiculturalism.

Benstock’s case that the left-wing credentials of the Wake have been neglected for too long also rests on Joyce’s use of two philosophers who can be seen as progenitors of the tradition of historical materialism and antecedents of Hegel and Marx. The ideas of the eighteenth century Italian thinker, Giambattisto Vico, are integral to the Wake – as evident in the book’s first sentence. He was one of the first philosophers to work towards a materialist philosophy of history, which did not perceive events as the unfolding of some form of plan based on the will of unseen but all-seeing deities. Vico devised a cyclical version of history, comprising of three epochs – the divine, the heroic and the human, climaxing with what he termed a ricorso, or reversion back to the beginning. Famously, the last sentence of the Wake links back to the first in a satisfying completion of the Viconian cycle: A way a lone a last a loved a long the.....


Giambattisto Vico

Contrary to the view that the Wake is an incoherent and rambling mess, the four sections of the work loosely follow this scheme – albeit, with typical Joycean mischief, in reverse! Samuel Beckett, friend and collaborator of Joyce, in one of the earliest interpretations of the Wake argued the author’s appropriation of Vico symbolises an individual’s journey through belief, marriage and burial. Benstock, however, makes the case that Vico’s four stages are a historic first draft of Marx’s outline that humanity progresses through modes of production, climaxing with communism. The great author of Capital himself was not unaware of the role Vico played in paving the way for historical materialism:

Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter?

Trotsky also begins his epic history of the Russian Revolution with a reference to Vico’s ideas.

The other major conceptual underpinning of the Wake is provided by Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century Italian astronomer and philosopher who was executed by the Catholic Church for his heretical ideas on heliocentrism. More important for Joyce, however, was Bruno’s radical views on the unity of opposites and the limitations of dualism, which are impossible to study now without being reminded of similar ideas in the Hegelian dialectic. In a work from 1584, Bruno writes:

...even in the two extremes of the scale of nature, we contemplate two principles which are one; two beings which are one; two contraries which are harmonious and the same. Therefore height is depth, the abyss is light unvisited, darkness is brilliant, the large is small, the confused is distinct, dispute is friendship, the dividend is united, the atom is immensity.... Here are the signs and proofs whereby we see that contraries do truly concur; they are from a single origin and are in truth and substance one.

The emphasis on the importance of assimilation and synthesis in the thought of Bruno is adapted in the Wake in the form of numerous dualistic personality clashes between archetypes broadly representing the artistic and scientific mentalities. The dialogues between the brothers Shem and Shaun, St. Patrick and the Arch Druid, Mutt and Jutte, the Ant and the Grasshopper and many others throughout the book play out the contests between ideologies, nations and classes which have driven human history forwards. The dialectical power of these discussions, which Hegel and Marx would have appreciated, is revealed as no participant decisively emerges victorious and that, in the unfolding spiral of social development, everyone and everything contributes in some form. Alternatively, as Joyce in his inimitable way puts in the Wake:

a clappercoupling smeltingworks exprogressive process, (for the farmer, his son and their homely codes, known as eggburst, eggblend, eggburial and hatch-as-hatch can) receives through a portal vein the dialytically separated elements of prededent decomposition for the verypet-purpose of subsequent recombination so that the heroticisms, catastrophes and eccentricities transmitted by the ancient legacy of the past….

Joyce’s desire in the Wake to conserve the best elements of human civilisation is focused not only on identifying the cultural artefacts that have evolved over centuries, such as languages and religions, but also on those fields of enquiry that were emerging in his own lifetime. In the 1930s, relativity and quantum theory represented the most trailblazing branches of scientific discovery, and sections of the book clearly indicate that Joyce appreciated the revolutionary implications of these areas in terms of our understanding of the world. Einstein’s seminal notion that space and time are not separate categories but form a unified space-time continuum that shapes the universe is one of the other dualities that Joyce undermines. The author’s awareness of the transformative nature of Einstein’s view, of course, is in stark contrast to that of the Nazis who drove the great physicist, along with many of his Jewish colleagues, out of Germany:

And let every crisscouple be so crosscomplimentary, little eggons, youlk and meek, in a farbiger pancosmos.

Joyce’s appreciation of Theoretical Physics was famously reciprocated in 1963 when Murray Gell-Man turned to the Wake to name a newly discovered elementary particle of matter that is smaller than a proton or a neutron. Hence the ‘quark’ was born!

Barely any aspect of human activity is overlooked in the Wake. In one memorable passage, Joyce utilises the names of some of the finest cricketers of the age, alongside some of that sport’s distinctive jargon. The book incorporates numerous devices and techniques that were being pioneered in the contemporary worlds of advertising, cinema and television, such as montage and sloganeering. Joyce’s disdain for the elitist differentiation between high and low culture, and his preference for emerging ‘democratic’ art forms, is even apparent in the book’s title, which is taken from a popular American ballad.

A rallying call for revolution

In the light of all these elements being conjoined in a single text, it is difficult to think of any other artistic enterprise created by one person that so spectacularly illustrates the concept of totality, as understood by Marxist philosophers such as Gramsci and Lukacs. Benstock and other left-wing commentators have interpreted the climax of the book as a rallying call for revolution as HCE, the key protagonist, experiences a personal paradigm-shift that mirrors the transfigurative nature of political upheaval. Typically, Joyce utilises the vocabulary of Asiatic mythology to articulate this leap into the future:

Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayneArraySurrec-tion! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally! To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be.

The supposedly unreadable nature of the work is partly a linguistic consequence of this attempt to compress the essence of humanity into a single document that acknowledges the multitudinous achievements, failures and ideas of our collective experience as a species. For potential readers who have avoided the Wake so far, it might be worth considering that in the age of the internet, the book is actually far more accessible now than it was at the time of first publication.

Joyce’s breath-taking erudition can now be followed and tracked much more conveniently than for the first generation of readers. In that sense, it is a work for the 21st century even more than the 20th. Similarly, it could be argued that only in the globalised and hybrid era of late capitalism in which we are now situated is it possible to fully appreciate the grandeur and scope of Finnegans Wake. The book is a remarkable instancing of the emerging spirit of cosmopolitanism and a powerful riposte to narrow nationalism and chauvinism, both in Joyce’s time and ours.

The author himself also demonstrated the best way to approach the Wake is to read it aloud, as a lot of the subterranean allusions and nuances of the text emerge more noticeably in arguably the original art form of human beings – oral story-telling.

There is no evidence that Joyce was aware of Gramsci’s work (perhaps unsurprising in light of the latter’s incarceration in the 1930s) but Finnegans Wake is an unwitting monument to the great Italian Marxist‘s belief that our historical development, if permitted by a suitable course of events, will facilitate the cultural unification of the human race. Not in the sense of imposing uniformity but in the sense of recognising the commonality of experiences and beliefs that have driven men and women over millennia, and culminating in a new age of universal tolerance.

To conclude: an understanding of the historical and ideological ingredients of the Wake indicates that early sceptics such as Wells and Pound could not have been more wrong. As fascism rears in hideous head again in our time, with its visceral politics of hate, the message of the Wake about the essential unity of the human race is emphatically worth another look.

Don’t just stop the wheel, break it! Feudalism, capitalism and revolution in Game of Thrones
Friday, 12 April 2019 16:13

Don’t just stop the wheel, break it! Feudalism, capitalism and revolution in Game of Thrones

Sean Ledwith reviews Game of Thrones

The trailers have been scrutinised down to every second of footage. The stars have conducted their interviews in the form of an elaborate dance in which no significant plot element is revealed. The online theories have exhausted every possible twist. We are now only days away from the climactic eighth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

The scale of what is about to be unveiled can be judged by the fact the producers chose to forego new episodes in 2017 and concentrate their dramatic and financial muscle on maximising the impact for this year. We have been promised production values that will be unprecedented in the history of television. GOT has attained a status in popular culture that spans the globe and arguably makes it the biggest show of all time.

How should the left respond to this phenomenon? Stewart Lee, doyen of radical comedians in the UK, has dismissed it as ‘Peter Stringfellow’s Lord Of The Rings’. Other influential voices on the left, however, have persuasively made a case that the show offers an imaginative commentary not just on the evolution of capitalism up to this point, but also on what the system might have in store for humanity in the future.

Based on a sequence of novels by the American author, George RR Martin, the show has turned into one of the most popular television shows of all time since its debut in 2011. With an innovative mix of medieval-style power plays and other-worldly elements such as dragons and zombies, Game of Thrones has somehow tapped into an early 21st century zeitgeist of a world falling apart on the eve of a massive, if uncertain, transformation. The characters and situations featured in the series have intruded into popular consciousness at an increasing rate, as its audience has grown.


In 2012, the producers mischievously displayed in one scene a replica of George Bush’s head skewered on the end of a pike! They subsequently asserted that this was not a judgement on Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War but few were convinced by their denial. When Jeremy Corbyn spectacularly won the Labour leadership in 2015, one of the most popular memes that circulated likened his triumph to that of the show’s most heroic character.

Channel 4’s best-known news anchorman played on the catchphrase associated with the same character and his namesake to highlight the failure of the commentariat to comprehend the post-Brexit political tumult of our times: You know nothing, Jon Snow. Less amusingly, last year the unctuous Michael Gove appeared in a cringe-inducing video claiming to be inspired by another character from the show. Unfortunately for Gove, many interpreted his assessment of Tyrion Lannister as an unwitting self-criticism: You see this misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxic figure.

Earlier this year, with characteristic crassness, Trump tried to climb on the GOT bandwagon, tweeting that his proposed border between the US and Mexico is a variation of the 700 ft. high one made from ice featured in the series. Some sceptics might observe that the fictional wall is a more credible concept than the one in Trump’s head.

Contemporary resonances in the storyline and characterisations have been numerous and indubitably have played a role in the show’s phenomenal success. Arguably, the defining political issue of our time – deepening inequality between those at the top and bottom of capitalist societies – has been referenced on numerous occasions.

SL2 high sparrow

The High Sparrow, leader of a militant religious order that briefly takes control of the capital city of Westeros, explicitly regards himself as acting in the name of the downtrodden and against the interests of the venal elite. He warns one of the latter that there will be a reckoning to pay, with words that might easily have come from Corbyn’s speechwriter:

Have you ever sowed the field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped the grain? Has anyone in House Tyrrel? A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many…strip away the gold and the ornaments, knock down the statues and the pillars, and this is what remains… Something simple, solid, true. The Tyrells’ finery will be stripped away … what will we find when we strip away your finery?

SL 3 bwB 

Another faction with a radical political agenda in the series is the Brotherhood Without Banners. They are the survivors of brutal dynastic wars who have become disillusioned with their aristocratic masters and dedicated themselves instead to protecting the exploited and punishing members of the elite, wherever they find them. Their leader, Beric Dondarrion, spells out their new mission in a voice that drips with class hatred:

That’s what we are: ghosts. Waiting for you in the dark. You can’t see us but we see you. No matter whose cloak you wear, Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, you prey on the weak; the Brotherhood Without Banners will hunt you down.

The hatred of the elite that underpins the mentalities of the High Sparrow and the Brotherhood Without Banners is informed in our world by the duplicity and machinations of a generation of Western leaders who have prostrated themselves to the neoliberal agenda. The disillusionment with politicians that is now endemic in capitalist societies is the consequence of the hollowing-out of democratic processes by insidious corporate power. The mindset of the ‘career politician’, dedicated only to personal advancement through the mechanisms of focus groups and triangulation is memorably expressed by wily palace intriguer, Petyr Baelish:

Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

In contrast to the shallow ambition of Littlefinger, Jon Snow has emerged as the moral centre of the series due to his capacity for self-sacrifice and his willingness to look beyond traditional divisions and forge new alliances. His appeal to the Wildlings to join him is based on a strategic vision that only a united front of erstwhile enemies offers any hope in the face of an overwhelming threat to both. He tells them bluntly:

The long night is coming, and the dead come with it. No clan can stop them, the free folk can’t stop them, the Night’s Watch can’t stop them and all the southern kings can’t stop them. Only together, all of us, and even then it might not be enough but at least we’ll give the fuckers a fight.

Snow repeated his call for collective action in the last season, similarly imploring his deadliest foe to see the big picture:

If we don't win this fight, then that (points to wight) is the fate of every person in the world. There is only one war that matters... the Great War. And it is here.

Snow’s most important quality as a leader, it might be said, is his ability to comprehend the threat facing the peoples of Westeros as a totality. He perceives that the feuds and enmities that have bedevilled the Seven Kingdoms for generations need to be set aside to confront a force that could annihilate them all. The multi-level crisis we are enduring in this decade – with its volatile symptoms of revanchist racism, sexism, imperialism and austerity – needs to be comprehended as the manifestations of a systemic crisis rooted in the immanent nature of capitalism. Only the unified actions of the oppressed across the world, fighting on multiple fronts but with a common goal, may be enough to avert catastrophe in our world.

Aside from these thematic incursions of the preoccupations of our time, GOT has attracted a number of interesting attempts by writers on the left to analyse the nature of the show’s appeal and what it tells us about the contemporary state of capitalist culture. An alternative option, of course, would be to dismiss the series, like Stewart Lee, as nothing more than a re-heated version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with added soft porn and graphic violence to pull in an adult audience. The fact that the series has attracted a number of compelling analyses with a leftist agenda would indicate that there is more substance here than Lee and other sceptics allow.

The popularity of the show in an era of climate change, political turbulence and demands for change surely cannot be coincidental. The tools of a Marxist aesthetic can perhaps equip us to look beneath the decapitations and dragons and identify the roots of the show’s appeal in the peculiar concerns of the second decade of the 21st century. As Trotsky observes in his writings on culture:

Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.

One of the best Marxist deconstructions of the series comes from Tony McKenna, who eloquently explains why such a peremptory verdict is misplaced: 

For though Game of Thrones is ostensibly about a fantasy feudal realm governed by ancient blood lineages and autocratic decadence, the sense of foreboding – the awareness that a tangible and stable reality is ever more in danger of melting away – is something that a viewership living in the shadow of a vast global economic crisis can increasingly identify with.

Likewise, Laurie Penny of the New Statesman detects a resonance in the series with our crisis-wracked world that partly explains its impact:

What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

SL 4 Familia Lannister

Paul Mason, Guardian columnist and champion of Corbynism, is probably the best-known figure to have tried his hand at a leftist critique of the series. Mason perceives GOT to be dramatising a version of the transition from feudalism to capitalism that unfolded in Europe from the early medieval period. Mason argues that the Lannister family represent a parasitical feudal elite that has tenuously clung onto state power in the fragmented realm of Westeros, thanks to their monopoly of the gold supply from their redoubt at Casterly Rock.

Unfortunately, for them, it is now apparent that the supply is practically exhausted. Consequently, they are in debt to the unsentimental and coldly calculating financiers of Bravos. Mason detects a parallel not just between this scenario and an epochal transformation in the past, but also with one of the crucial political battlegrounds of our time:

If this sounds a lot like Greece and the European Central Bank, that’s only because their current stand-off replicates the essential power shift that happened towards the end of feudalism: debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up and destroyed the system in the end.

Mason integrates the concept of thinning into his analysis of the series. This is a common theme in modern fantasy literature that concerns gradual disenchantment and the decline of supernatural influence in a particular alternative universe. Mason claims that the growing influence of the bankers of Braavos at the expense of the royal family points to an imminent bourgeois revolution in the Seven Kingdoms that will inaugurate a new era of capitalist development.

In contrast, the Marxist critic Sam Kriss has countered that Mason misunderstands both the nature of the transition from one mode of production to the other, and the shifting balance of power in the series. In his article Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory, Kriss argues that the decisive factor in Europe’s medieval transition to early capitalism was not a build-up of debt by monarchies, but the recurrent outbreaks of class struggle in the form of agrarian uprisings, such as England’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

He argues the Brotherhood Without Banners that has featured in the series represent a version of this oppositional force within Westeros that is preparing to sweep away all the ruling dynasties in the name of revolution from below.

SL 5 WhiteWalkersHorseback

On the theme of thinning, Kriss points out that Mason could not be more wrong: the reality of the show’s narrative arc is that magic and otherworldly powers are being re-energised in its alternative universe in the form of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, and the White Walkers from beyond the Wall in the North.

He also notes that Marx himself utilised quasi-magical language to explain the grip that capitalism has on our lives:

Capitalism is a monster more uncontrollable than any mere dragon, and a succession of bourgeois economists have tried and failed to rein it in. In Capital, Marx spends some time discussing the properly supernatural elements of the capitalist system: the bodiless phantasm that is exchange value, the topsy-turvy nightmare of the autonomous commodity.

Kriss believes that, in some form, the three forces of the Brothers, Walkers and dragons will collide at the climax of the series in a rupture of the status quo that promises to be far more transformational than simply a bourgeois revolution.

The most coherent and persuasive analysis of GOT from a Marxist perspective comes from Tony McKenna. He shares some of the views outlined by Paul Mason but expresses them with a more informed grasp of historical materialism and more insight into the probable story arc that the author is working with. McKenna cautions that those viewers, such as Sam Kriss, who are hoping for an emancipatory and upbeat conclusion that sees white hats installed in power and black hats dispatched into oblivion are likely to be disappointed. In 2016 Martin warned fans: Winter is the time when things die, and cold and ice and darkness fill the world, so this is not going to be the happy feel-good that people may be hoping for.

McKenna persuasively argues that such a sobering conclusion might not be what most viewers are hoping for, but would be consistent with both the internal logic of the series and the historical era he believes it parallels. McKenna shares Mason’s view that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is essentially the backdrop to the unfolding drama. He observes how the two characters who most viewers probably identify with at this point in the series, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, display characteristics of the feudal order that was ultimately supplanted by the emerging ethos of capitalism.

The former is the adopted son of Ned Stark and has been raised in a family that is admirable but historically obsolete:

The Starks….represent a more benevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism. 

The grisly fate of Jon’s adopted parents and brother in previous episodes might indicate that McKenna is right to be fearful of what lies in store for the current King in the North. Likewise, he argues readers and viewers who assume Daenerys Targaryen is destined to ascend to the Iron Throne are failing to note her record of securing political power is ambivalent at best. The Mother of Dragons has succeeded in overthrowing tyrannical slave-owning states in Essos but in many cases the erstwhile elites have re-asserted their influence and undermined her authority.

McKenna perceptively argues this is consistent with a Marxist understanding of how change has occurred in pre-capitalist societies:

When slave rebellions did take place in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization. 

McKenna concurs with Mason that the narrative logic of the series is heading towards the installation of a bourgeois-style regime that will suppress forever the influence of supernatural forces of either the fiery or the wintry variety. His choice of which character will end up on top of the pile at the end of next year’s eighth and final series will surprise and probably disappoint many viewers, but there is a compelling logic behind his theory that Sansa Stark will accede to the Iron Throne at the expense of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow or any other rival claimant.

The eldest daughter of the Stark dynasty personifies the diminution of enchantment, and its eclipse by a steely ruthlessness that characterised the rise to power of the embryonic capitalist class in the womb of the feudal order. In series one, Sansa was naively besotted by a royal prince who turned out to be a psychopath; at the end of Season 6 she was feeding an equally deranged despot to his own rabid dogs. She has now acquired the cold-eyed and unsentimental resolve of a Cromwell or Robespierre, determined to dispatch the ancien regime to the dustbin of history

Such a conclusion might fit an orthodox Marxist historical schema but would it fit the defining political quality of this second decade of the 21st century? That is to say, the stunning volatility and unpredictability of events. The post-2008 crash world has seen a sequence of shocks and surprises few would have predicted: the rise of Corbyn to the Labour leadership and to the brink of Number Ten; Britain voting to jump off the EU juggernaut; Bernie Sanders only being denied the Democrat nomination thanks to Clintonite skulduggery; and the still barely believable elevation to the Presidency of Donald Trump. The author’s narrative trajectory is gloriously impossible to predict, but if the show is to continue to tune into the turbulence of our time, something equally jaw-dropping surely has to be on the cards.

Some of its most memorable moments have involved characters and armies coming together to create improbable new alliances, such as Jon Snow's merging of the Night's Watch and the Wildlings, or Daenerys Targaryen linking up with Tyrion, outcast scion of the hated Lannisters who massacred her family. As the final season looms, most are expecting the spectral White Walkers to represent the darkest threat to civilisation in Westeros. However, as these icy warriors were revealed in Season 5 to have been originally men who were turned into a super-weapon that went wrong, perhaps some means of returning them to their original state to actually assist in the liberation of the Seven Kingdoms will be discovered.

Season 6 saw Bran Stark acquire time-travelling capability so perhaps he will avert the rise of the Walkers in the first place. Even if Dany is denied her apparent destiny, it is to be hoped her clarion cry for revolution is fulfilled in some form, both in her world and ours:

Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel.  This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

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Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.


Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

Ride of the Red Valkyries: Wagner, Marxism and ‘The Ring’
Saturday, 17 November 2018 18:29

Ride of the Red Valkyries: Wagner, Marxism and ‘The Ring’

Published in Music

Sean Ledwith examines how a dialectical approach that recognises the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.

In May 1876, as part of his search for spa-based treatments for his carbuncles, Karl Marx found himself in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. The atmosphere in the town, commented Marx in a letter to his daughter, was dominated by the imminent premiere of a long-awaited operatic cycle by the most controversial German musician of the day: ‘Wherever one goes, one is plagued with the question: what do you think of Richard Wagner?’ Marx’s curiosity regarding this burning question was piqued to the extent that he unsuccessfully tried to purchase one of the much sought-after tickets for the first performance.

In the decades following this unveiling of Wagner’s four-part ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ other notable figures on the left have found themselves enticed by the cycle’s titanic concatenation of mythology, romance, revenge and redemption not simply because of its dramatic power but also due to a political subtext which they believe is compatible with the emancipatory agenda of the left. This long-running thread of radical leftist critique of Wagner has attracted figures as diverse as Bernard Shaw, Theodor Adorno, Frederic Jameson and, most recently, the French critic Alain Badiou.


Not the least surprising aspect of this remarkable trend is that, for most people, if Wagner is associated with any form of politics it is most likely to be that of the most destructive and heinous form of the political right – the Nazi leadership of the Third Reich which adopted him as their official composer of choice. Scenes from Wagner’s’ ‘Meistersingers of Nuremberg’ were the dramatic inspiration for the torch-lit parades in the eponymous city in the 1930s and Hitler made numerous high-profile visits to the Wagner family at Bayreuth to pay homage at the grave of his favourite composer.

Add to this, the documented examples of Wagner’s own virulent strand of antisemitism and the stories of his music being used as the anthems of the Nazi concentration camps in WW2, and it becomes even more surprising that thinkers on the left believe that he can be reclaimed for the left. An examination of their views however, alongside an understanding of the roots of the ‘The Ring’ in nineteenth-century revolutionary politics provides ample justification for the notion that there can be a ‘Wagner for the left’.

Although first premiered in 1876, the first stirrings of the tetralogy in Wagner’s imagination significantly occurred in 1848, the year a wave of anti-feudal uprisings swept Europe. Despite being court conductor to the King of Saxony, the twenty-five year old Wagner had no qualms about throwing himself into an insurrection against the monarchy and joining demonstrations calling for a democratic and unified Germany.

Some of his writings from that period have titles such as ‘Republican Ideals versus the Monarchy’ and ‘Art and Revolution’. Their contents reveal a man who was fully committed to challenging the sclerotic despotism of King Friedrich August, a monarch who had turned his face against even the mildest reforms:

Dynastic rule is on its last legs and the privileges of birth must yield to the free rights of honest labour…fifty years from now royalty will be reduced to mere symbolism or else be relegated to waxworks and museums. The dawn of social conscience is approaching.....

Wagner found himself building barricades and organising supplies of grenades with that most legendary of contemporary disrupters of the status quo, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The composer volunteered for lookout duty at the top of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche watchtower, but was unable to avert the arrival of Prussian troops who provided the counter-revolutionary weight to smash the uprising in May 1849.

Wagner was forced to flee Germany and would not return for thirteen years. Others in the revolutionary leadership received death sentences and there is little doubt he would have faced the same if he had been apprehended. Wagner’s high-profile participation in the vanguard of progressive politics in the 1840s inevitably provokes the question of how he mutated into the appalling reactionary who in later decades penned hate-filled tracts such as Judaism in Music.

There are obviously a multitude of complex factors that explain how a person can shift from a revolutionary consciousness to a reactionary one but, in Wagner’s case, the specific nature of the 1848 revolutions must clearly have played a role. This wave of thwarted uprisings is commonly comprehended within the Marxist schema by deploying the concept of permanent revolution, first posited by Marx and then most fully developed by Trotsky in the twentieth century. The rising bourgeois classes of the nation-states of Western Europe found themselves initially challenging the decaying feudal oligarchies above them but then drew back from a decisive political engagement due to fear of the power of the embryonic working class that was stirring beneath them. Wagner’s intellectual journey from left to right in the aftermath of 1848 mirrored the receding optimism of Europe’s bourgeoisie regarding their ability to transform the continent with the pure ideals of the French Revolution of the eighteenth-century.

Although Wagner initiated work on ‘The Ring’ in Europe’s year of revolutions, it would take him almost three decades to complete; by which time the emancipatory impulse of 1848 had dissipated into disillusionment and reaction. In Wagner’s case, the retreat from the politics of liberation would take the ugly form of antisemitism, in which responsibility for the counter-revolution would be transferred from the capitalist class as a whole to primarily its Jewish section. A nascent anti-capitalist critique became distorted by the prism of antisemitism, possibly due to the influence of Bakunin who also suffered from this intellectual blight.

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‘The Ring’ would retain the revolutionary ardour of the young composer who had marched alongside Bakunin in 1848 with characters such as Brunnhilde and Siegfried defying the commands of Wotan, the king of the gods in parts 2 and 3. The politics of defeat, however, would also be visible, in the ultimate demise of these challenges in the climactic part 4. According to Wagner scholar, Paul Lawrence, the composer displaced his youthful scorn for the bourgeoisie onto the Jewish people in a particularly twisted case of false consciousness:

Jews are the agent of law, inhibiting the freedom to be human; they're the agents of capitalism, reinforcing repression; and domination, that's seen as a Jewish thing – the Ring gives the holder power over the world.

The first leftist figure to actively engage with the Wagnerian project prioritised the link with Bakunin and the proto-socialist rebels of 1848 as the key to the cycle. Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’, first published in 1897 is still widely regarded as one of the best commentaries on ‘The Ring’, even by critics who do not share the author’s central claim that the tetralogy is essentially a political attack on the excesses of nineteenth-century capitalism.

Although Shaw’s personal politics never really strayed beyond tame Fabianism, this slim but powerfully written volume positively drips with class hatred, aimed at the hubris of the ruling class and what he takes to be their mythical avatars in the saga. For Shaw, ‘The Ring’ is a straightforward allegory in which the main classifications of characters represent the class structure of capitalist society. Alberic, his brother Mime and son Hagen, whose ruthless pursuit of the Rhinegold at the expense of human love, mirror the all-consuming pursuit of profit of the bourgeoisie. The dwarves of Nibelheim, who are enslaved by Alberic, take on the function of the proletariat, which toils away in darkness and degradation. The doomed gods, such as Wotan and Loge, are symbols of the declining power of religious leadership in a secular age. Shaw even interprets Siegfried, the ultimate iconoclast and challenger to the gods, as the dramatic incarnation of none other than Bakunin, Wagner’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms. This forceful reminder of the composer’s roots in a progressive revolutionary movement is a valuable antidote to the caricature of Wagner as a progenitor of fascism:

He was proclaimed as wanted by the police; that he wrote revolutionary pamphlets; and that his picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic is a poetic vision of unregulated capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by Engels’ Condition of the Labouring Classes in England .

Shaw’s analysis, however, is obviously the product of a pre-Holocaust era and therefore for a modern reader lacks the subtlety required to engage with the problematic presence of antisemitism in not only the cultural origins of Wagner’s version of the cycle, but also according to some critics, in its actual dramatic core. This was the theoretical challenge that exercised the figure who produced what is probably the most stimulating radical critique of ‘The Ring’ from the left.

Theodor Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ was originally written in 1938, as the terror of the Nazi regime was unfolding and finally published in 1952 when the depths of its barbarity had been fully revealed. Unlike Shaw, Adorno is able to ask perhaps the fundamental Wagnerian question for socialists, of how any viewer with radical sympathies can watch and appreciate the operas in light of the catastrophe anti-Wagnerians argue the composer was partially responsible for. The purpose of this study was to explicitly reclaim Wagner for the project of the left and save the composer’s reputation, which was inevitably in tatters after WW2.

The progressive dimension of ‘The Ring’, according to Adorno, was in Wagner’s deployment of the concept of ‘phantasmagoria’, a variation on Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. The latter is capitalism’s ability to conceal the exploitative relationships that lie at the heart of all production and to create the illusion that our lives primarily revolve around products. In Adorno’s analysis of ‘The Ring’, Wagner effected a similar deception in the theatrical sphere by generating the illusion that the astonishing range of musical, dramatic, audio-visual and narrative ingredients of the tetralogy was the work of his own unique genius. The actual musicians, actors, back-stage operators and assorted others who converge to deliver the Wagnerian spectacle are pushed to the back of the viewers’ mind as we sit in awe at the composer’s stunning edifice of the imagination. The overwhelming effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) is to temporarily lift us emotionally out of the deleterious effects of alienation on our fragmentary everyday experience. This euphoria is short-lived but according to Adorno, creates a yearning for a social order that sustains a more durable sensation of coherence and purpose in our lives. In his words:

Because it does not, in the end, realise what it has promised, it is therefore fallible, given into our hands incomplete, as something to be advanced. It awaits the influence that will advance it to self-realisation. This would seem to be its true relevance for our time.

Adorno perhaps perceives here an aspect of ‘The Ring’ that was not present in the composer’s own conceptualisation, but the critic’s influential attempt to salvage Wagner from appropriation by the right played a major role in the postwar productions sanctioned by his grandson, Wieland Wagner, that redefined the cycle in a manner that was assimilable to the democratic and secular ethos of the post-Nazi West German state.


In this century, the American Marxist critic, Frederic Jameson, has constructed a reading of ‘The Ring’ that assesses the pivotal character of Siegfried in parts 3 and 4 as symbolic of the transformational nature of bourgeois revolutions that rip apart pre-industrial modes of thinking. In ‘Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist’ (2013), Jameson notes that Siegfried is brashly contemptuous of the power of gods and dwarves, despite both playing a formative role in his development. For Jameson, Siegfried‘s ultimate demise in the climactic Gotterdammerung is a portent of the fiery destruction that awaits capitalism-and perhaps the whole of humanity if its ruthless pursuit of profit is not curtailed. Jameson writes:

We must now confront the character of Siegfried directly, inasmuch as he is positioned to bear the meaning of hope for the future and for the resolution of the baleful effects of the ring and its curse. First, he is the boy who, like the eponymous Grimm character, fails to learn fear. Then, and perhaps as a result of this youthful innocence, he embodies a more general ignorance about the world and about his own genealogy, something that could also be taken to signify his nascent individualism (as a bourgeois subject, for instance).

The innovations introduced by postwar productions of ‘The Ring’ are also the crux of another significant intervention by a major figure on the contemporary left, the French critic, Alain Badiou. In ‘Five Lessons from Wagner’ (2010), Badiou focuses on the highly influential French staging of ‘The Ring’ in 1968, Europe’s other year of revolutions. Perhaps affected by the revolutionary tumult of that era, the director Patrice Chereau and conductor Pierre Boulez devised a memorable finale in which the cast turn and face the audience and implicitly throw down the fundamental challenge that faces all generations on the left: ‘What is to be done?’

Like Wieland Wagner in the previous decade, Badiou contends that Chereau and Boulez successfully elided the fascistic overtones of prewar stagings in Nazi Germany and restored the universalistic and emancipatory core of ‘The Ring’. Like Jameson, Badiou perceives a residue of the revolutionary Wagner who had participated in the 1848 uprisings as being present in the cataclysmic downfall of the gods that leaves the world left for humanity to inherit:

In fact, I’m inclined to say that this ending consists in the fate of the world being handed over to generic humanity, stripped of all transcendence and left to its own devices, which will have to take responsibility for its own fate. This hypothesis is put forward in Gotterdammerung only after much trial and error and many partial revisions, and it ultimately boils down to this: after the gods comes humanity, regarded in a revolutionary sense, an utterly generic, not specific, sense.

Interestingly, the spectacular conclusion to ‘The Ring’ cycle also forms the core of Slavoj Zizek’s case that the political ramifications of Wagner should not be seen as the monopoly of the right. In ‘Why Wagner is Worth Saving’ (2004) , the self-styled post-Marxist constructs a characteristically idiosyncratic but stimulating analysis which, like the aforementioned thinkers, aims to encourage us to reject the conventional reading of Wagner as the musical godfather of fascism. Zizek notes that during the annus mirabilis of 1848, young Wagner was reading the works of the nineteenth-century pioneer of atheism, Ludwig Feuerbach, who would also prove to be a crucial influence on the development of the thought of Karl Marx.

The destruction of the gods in Gotterdammerung can be traced back, argues Zizek, to Feuerbach’s seminal notion in ‘The Essence of Christianity’ that the divinities of the world’s religions are nothing more than elaborate projections of human potentiality and that our progress as a species will come from perceiving them as such. He also focuses on the historical fact that Wagner famously worked on numerous versions of the denouement and struggled to construct a final sequence that would leave the viewer satisfied after fifteen hours of surging drama. The solution, according to Zizek,was a call-back to the revolutionary Wagner of the barricades in which Brunnhilde’s apparent betrayal of her lover, Siegfired, is in fact an act of death-defying courage in the name of a higher love – that of the cause of the people. Zizek notes:

Not sure about the final twist that should stabilize and guarantee the meaning of it all, he took recourse to a beautiful melody whose effect is something like "whatever all this may mean, let us make it sure that the concluding impression will be that of something triumphant and upbeating in its redemptive beauty …” The underlying paradox is that love, precisely as the Absolute, should not be posited as a direct goal - it should retain the status of a by-product, of something we get as an undeserved grace. Perhaps, there is no greater love than that of a revolutionary couple, where each of the two lovers is ready to abandon the other at any moment if revolution demands it.


When part 2 ,’The Valkyrie’, was broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in October this year, it is unlikely this interpretation – or any of the others outlined above – was paramount in the minds of many viewers. However, that staging was watched by probably the biggest ever audience for a Wagner production as it was simultaneously transmitted to 800 cinemas in 23 countries. There is clearly a growing audience for the composer’s essential vision of a decaying world desperate to be cleansed of fear and oppression. The interpretations of Adorno, Badiou and others are not always wholly convincing but illustrate how a dialectical approach that underlines the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who
Monday, 01 October 2018 15:47

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who

As we get ready for the next series of Doctor Who, Sean Ledwith praises a show which regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression.

This October Jodie Whittaker will make her debut in one of the most eagerly awaited British television seasons of the decade. For the first time the role of the time-travelling Doctor will be played by a female. When Whittaker’s selection as the ‘Thirteenth’ was announced last year it was predictably received by political troglodytes as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

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For the more enlightened majority, it was a welcome symbol of the growing acceptance of trans rights in British social attitudes. Not for the first time, the world’s long-running sci-fi series has reflected the social and political concerns of the wider population in creative and innovative ways. The series foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of a female Doctor in 2014 by regenerating the hitherto male villain of the Master into Missy, brilliantly played by Michelle Gomez. That inspired piece of casting proved hugely popular with critics and ordinary viewers alike, so the canonical formbook is already in place for Whitaker to be a success in the leading role.

Her predecessor as the Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation had also set the scene for a female iteration in his final episode by explaining how the Time Lords of Gallifrey have transcended the hang-ups of human sexuality:

We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We are billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a show that has endured in the public’s affection for over 50 years has been shrewd enough to tune into evolving social norms. What is less well known, however, is how on a significant number of occasions, writers and producers of a distictinctly left-wing hue have affected the trajectory of the show and taken it into the territory of radical and even revolutionary politics.

From its very first episode (inauspiciously broadcast the day after the JFK assassination in 1963) the makers of Doctor Who sought to carve out a niche for the show rooted in the democratic and populist instincts of a mass audience that was still being patronised by the hidebound patricians running the postwar BBC. Canadian-born Sydney Newman, as the new Head of Drama at the corporation in that year, explicitly viewed the show as part of his agenda to reflect the emerging values of a decade that would become synonymous with radicalism:

It was still the attitude that BBC drama was still catering to the highly educated, cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such. But above all, I felt that the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things.

Newman the made the bold step for the time of appointing a woman, Verity Lambert, as producer and an Asian, Waris Hussain, as scriptwriter for the early episodes. The latter explained how the show was partly fuelled by the presence of outsiders at its heart:

I was the first Indian-born director in the drama department. We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realised at the time.”

The initial brief was to create a programme that was both educational and entertaining by dispatching the Doctor and his companions backwards in time to historical locales such as the Aztec Empire or the Crusades in which they would confront hazardous situations but also, hopefully, pique the curiosity of a young audience and encourage them to find out more about such eras.

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The early episodes were mixed in terms of fulfilling these criteria but then the show’s status was transformed by writer Terry Nation’s introduction of its most iconic villains – the Daleks. These genocidal pepperpots have long since secured their status in the national psyche as almost figures of affection. Less than twenty years after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, however, the appearance on British television screens of mobile machines, chanting ‘Exterminate’ and ‘I Obey’ and with an obsession for racial exclusivity, understandably had an unnerving effect on millions of all ages. Memorable images of Daleks patrolling the streets outside Parliament acted as sober reminders of what might have befallen the UK if the forces of fascism had prevailed only two decades earlier.

The parallels between the metallic militarists and their real-world inspiration was made even more evident in the 1975 serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in which the human progenitors of the race known as the Kaleds wore SS-style black uniforms, saluted each other and were led by a Himmler-like fanatic named Nyder. The chief scientist of the Kaleds and ‘father’ of the Daleks, Davros, is another of the show’s greatest villains and resembles nothing so much as the ranting figure of Hitler, ensconced in a bunker in the last days of the Third Reich.

The era of the Second Doctor (1966-69) played by Patrick Troughton steered clear of political parallels for the most part, and was content to prioritise – at the expense of any educational element – the growing popularity of the bug-eyed monsters that Sydney Newman had hoped to downplay.

 SL Third Doctor Main

It was with the arrival of Jon Pertwee in the title role in 1970 that the first of the great eras of ‘political Doctor Who’ came about. The Third Doctor is sometimes interpreted as an establishment figure who was happy to be employed by a quasi-government military force known as UNIT, and tasked with conducting extra-terrestrial interactions mainly in the form of high explosives.

In fact, Pertwee’s Doctor was in the vanguard of ecological politics and was frequently to be found having heated exchanges with impersonal, corporate types who were impervious to any agenda that did not involve making profits. The 1973 serial, ‘The Green Death’, is probably most fondly remembered for the giant maggots that menace the Doctor but also deserves a place in cultural history as probably the first primetime television viewing to feature an unambiguous pro-environmental and ant-capitalist message.

Labour MP, Tom Harris recognised the significance of that moment:

They were extremely scary, but not only was it about environmental issues, it was also the first time that a corporate entity, a corporate company became the Big Bad. So it was all about how big companies manipulate communities, which was the first time that was done.”

Two remarkable figures behind the scenes were the inspiration for this pioneering phase of Whovian radicalism. Writer Malcolm Hulke was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was deemed sufficiently subversive to be worthy of MI5 opening a file on him!

Hulke was no uncritical Tankie, however, and clashed with the pro-Moscow party leadership with his support for Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Hungarian rebels of 1956. Hulke was first recruited to Doctor Who by Sydney Newman during the Troughton era, but it was during the tenure of the Third Doctor that he was given the opportunity to script a number of stories that expressed his anti-establishment instincts.

In The Silurians (1970), Pertwee’s Doctor tries to broker peace between humanity and a subterranean race of intelligent reptiles but is thwarted by war-mongering militarists on both sides. In Colony in Space (1971), the Doctor joins forces with ecological freedom fighters to obstruct the rapacious greed of the Interplanetary Mining Company.

In Pertwee’s last season, Invasion of the Dinosaurs featured a high-level conspiracy by government generals and civil servants to use time travel to reverse what they regarded as the excessively democratic aspects of Seventies Britain. Again, the upper-class antagonists are portrayed as indulging in dubious preferences for crypto-fascist attire and mannerisms.

The serial was broadcast amid the political tumult of the 1974 miners’ strike, the three-day week and the ‘Who Governs?’ election called by Edward Heath. With hindsight, the conspiracy depicted onscreen has disturbing parallels with the real plot hatched by rogue elements of the British deep state that subsequently came to light, aimed at toppling the Labour government of Harold Wilson.

These and other similarly daring storylines of the Pertwee era were also the product of Malcolm Hulke’s collaboration with the other left-orientated figure closely involved with the show in the early Seventies - Barry Letts. As producer, the latter encouraged Hulke to create scrips with a distinctive anti-Establishment voice and to portray the Doctor as the bane of bumptious bureaucrats and trigger- happy generals.

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Letts’ radicalism was informed more by what might be described as ‘Left Buddhism’ but still led him to produce serials such as The Monster of Peladon which depicted the Third Doctor taking the side of striking miners on the eponymous planet (also broadcast in the year of Scargill’s showdown with Heath!).

Tom Baker’s iteration of the role from 1974-81 is often regarded by those who recall it – and even many who do not – as the definitive version. However, from a political perspective, the Fourth Doctor represented a retreat from the eco-radicalism of Pertwee. Hulke and Letts departed the show along with Pertwee and their successors were content to let Baker’s larger-than-life personality alone supply most of the dramatic thrust.

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However, one interesting feature of the Baker years was the controversial depiction of the Time Lords as a bickering bunch of over-grown public schoolboys. In The Deadly Assassin (1976), the portentous rulers of Gallery were stripped of their previously omniscient demeanour as featured in the Troughton and Pertwee years, and re-styled as grasping, out-of-touch aristocrats, clearly unsuited to the great responsibilities they had acquired over generations. it was the House of (Time) Lords, perhaps?

Robert Holmes, writer of this story, has spoken of the influence of the Watergate scandal and the Pinochet coup in Chile. The story even identifies the Doctor as a former agent of the CIA (the Celestial Intervention Agency, that is!). This pivotal story, and subsequent ones set on Gallifrey, make it apparent why the Doctor is a quintessentially anti-Establishment figure who rejected the class system and conservatism of his home planet.

In its third decade, Doctor Who began to run out of creative gas, partly because of glossy competition from multi-million dollar US sci-fi imports and also because the bosses at the BBC could not decide what to do with a programme that seemed out of place in the emerging era of satellite television.

Before its demise in 1989, the original run of the show enjoyed one last fleeting outburst of primetime subversion of the status quo. The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, was derided by many at the time for assuring the programme’s doom, thanks to laughable special effects and some dubious choices of companions.

In hindsight, however, McCoy’s portrayal looks like a valiant parting shot at the neoliberal philistines taking over, both at the Beeb and in wider society. The most celebrated political story from this twilight of the classic series was ‘The Happiness Patrol’ that featured a thinly veiled caricature of Thatcher, called Helen A and played with relish by Sheila Hancock. Script editor of the time, Andrew Cartmel, was explicit about his motivation while attached to the show:

John asked me: If there’s one thing you could do with the show, what would it be? And I said, ‘Overthrow the government!’ because I was young and I didn’t like the way things were going at the time.

The disdain for Tory policies by senior figures involved in the show probably did it no favours in the final days of its battle for survival.

Doctor Who’s triumphant resurrection in the 21st century was fuelled by a grassroots movement by hundreds and thousands of fans to refuse to allow it to disappear forever. For the fifteen years it was offscreen, devotees around the world kept the Whoniverse alive by creating novels, blogs, magazines and other forms of alternative media.

Fans such Russell Davies, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who would go on to become the driving forces of ‘Nu-Who,’ cut their artistic teeth penning Doctor Who novels in these wilderness years.

With Davies as showrunner, the stunningly successful reboot from 2005 quickly made it apparent that the show had not lost its subversive edge. In World War 3 (2005), an alien shape-shifter takes over as British PM and makes reckless claims about a non-existent enemy that has the potential to unleash WMD in 45 seconds. Tony Blair is also the target of John Simms inspired re-imagining of the Master as a cynical British politician who rises to the top with ruthless disregard for friends and enemies alike.

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The Labour-supporting Davies and Moffatt also developed the iconoclastic portrayal of the Time Lords, initiated in the 1970s. In the post-Iraq story End of Time (2010), the Doctor’s own race has become so bloated on their own rhetoric they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the universe in a demented scheme to save themselves. As symbols of the British Establishment, the Time Lords have degenerated from the respected patricians of the 1960s to the delusional neo-cons of the 21st century.

Peter Capaldi, Whitaker’s predecessor in the role, has added to the Doctor’s repertoire of anti-capitalist sentiments with some well-aimed jibes at the system that many in workplaces throughout the public sector will recognise. Commenting on defective spacesuits that are actually designed to reduce the oxygen supply, the Doctor notes cynically:

This is the end of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet, like every worker everywhere. We’re fighting the suits.

Obviously, it would be absurd to imply the Doctor is an unambiguously left-wing figure and there have indubitably been many occasions in the show’s history when reactionary messages have been prominent. Marxist critic Sasha Simic makes a persuasive case that the character promotes an essentially liberal ideology based on modifying injustices rather than overturning them.

Nevertheless, the perennial popularity of a primetime show that regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression should be something the left can continue to draw sustenance from for many years to come.

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