Sunday, 29 September 2019

Stalin's Scribe: Mikhail Sholokhov by BRIAN BOECK

STALIN’S SCRIBE: Literature, Ambition and Survival – The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov


Pegasus Books, 2019, 388 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


Considering the terrors that Mikhail Sholokhov lived through, and nearly perished from, in Stalinist Russia, it is a wonder that the Soviet novelist retained any sense of humour, but he did.  Unrecognised in the exotic shadow of Nikita Khrushchev, the first post-Stalinist leader of the Soviet Union, during a 1959 tour of the US, Sholokhov was only paid any real attention once, at a Hollywood reception, where Charlton Heston announced that he had once read excerpts from one of Sholokhov’s novels - Sholokhov expressed his gratitude and quipped that he promised to watch excerpts of Heston’s next movie.

As Brian Boeck, history teacher at America’s DePaul University, recounts, however, such wry humour was a rarity in the dangerously fraught life of Sholokhov as he navigated the treacherous shoals of Stalinist literary culture.
Sholokhov’s detractors claim that he failed to steer clear of literary shipwreck.  He is routinely dismissed by conservatives, and by many liberals, as just a cultural mouthpiece for Stalinist totalitarianism - Salman Rushdie, for example, reviled Sholokhov as a ‘patsy of the regime’.

Yet, there are compelling exhibits in Sholokhov’s defence.  Despite the attentions of the Censor-in-Chief, Stalin himself, Sholokhov, in his epic Quiet Don, a many-perspectived saga of a tragic anti-Soviet Cossack rebellion, stuck, for the most part, to his guns.

He could have turned his two main characters into conventional Stalinist tropes, making the politically wavering Cossack, Grigorii, a Red Army hero in the end, and his lover, Aksiniia, a decorated Stalinist milkmaid, but he chose literary integrity over political compliance.

Away from his writing desk, Sholokhov at times displayed considerable political boldness.  As a teenaged Soviet tax collector in the Don region during the 1921 famine, he falsified tax records to assist starving Cossack peasants (an act which almost earned Sholokhov a date with a firing squad).

Later, Sholokhov became the nearest thing to a public ombudsman in Stalin’s Russia, receiving hundreds of letters a month seeking assistance from the victims of Stalin’s economic and political policies.  Sholokhov took up the cause of the peasantry who were on the receiving end of ‘rapid collectivisation’ (a program meant to boost grain exports to finance industrial modernisation) and who were subjected to savage grain requisitions (flimsily justified by Stalin as an ‘anti-kulakisation’ drive against rich peasants) when harvests predictably failed to reach unrealistic quotas.  Sholokhov’s pleas to Stalin for emergency food aid saved the fifty thousand people at risk of famine in Sholokhov’s district.

Sholokhov also courageously criticised Stalin’s party purges and the Great Terror of 1936-1938, a program to annihilate all political opposition to the dictator’s rule, starting with the Trotskyists, in which a million were murdered.  Sholokhov, cleverly using as leverage a deliberate go-slow on finishing the novel that Stalin was desperate to see completed, successfully argued the cases of his close friends and party colleagues who were caught up in the paranoia, resulting in their release and rehabilitation. 

Sholokhov was permitted to thus act as private critic and advocate only because Stalin cynically valued Sholokhov, touted by the regime as the Red Tolstoy, for his cultural capital.  So, Stalin would defend Sholokhov to preserve his prize cultural asset, no more so than when the menace of the Terror came for Sholokhov himself, after Sholokhov had named those in the secret police (the NKVD) who were responsible for the Terror in his region.

This made Sholokhov some powerful local enemies.  The NKVD tried to implicate Sholokhov in plots, with Cossacks, to assassinate Stalin and, in league with foreign intelligence agents, to foment armed uprisings.  Sholokhov got word of this NKVD stitch-up and he grimly awaited his doom, spiralling into depression and alcohol abuse, and abandoning any further work on Quiet Don.

An investigator sent by Stalin reported that Sholokhov was on the verge of suicide.  Sholokhov was worth much more to Stalin alive than as a martyr to the Terror, and so Stalin quashed all allegations against his treasured writer.
Stalin also came to Sholokhov’s aid by rescuing his literary reputation.  A literary faction (‘Proletkult’) who thought they were being impeccably Stalinist in accusing Sholokhov of humanism, pacifism, liberalism and of not being sufficiently oriented to the urban proletariat in his novels, was also put firmly back in its box by Stalin. 
Stalin also ensured that charges of plagiarism, which jealous rivals had unfairly levied against Sholokhov from the time he reworked a stash of Cossack memoirs and diaries into his creative epic, were denounced as fabrications of ‘rotten Trotskyist attempts to discredit the most significant Soviet writer’.

Only by the top bully in the schoolyard taking Sholokhov under his protection could all Sholokhov’s lesser bullies be kept at bay.  The quid pro quo, however, was that Sholokhov would be expected to return political favours to Stalin.
The compromises demanded, and delivered, were ugly.  Sholokhov added a chapter extolling Stalin’s ‘anti-kulakisation’ program to Quiet Don, and made it the theme of his quickie novel, Virgin Soil Upturned.  Sholokhov also reluctantly accepted over a thousand edits requested by Stalin to Quiet Don to make it better conform to Stalinist political and literary fashion.

Sholokhov, the public intellectual, also signed a letter by leading Stalinist writers demanding the death penalty for eight senior Red Army officers framed in the purges whilst, from his platform as a member of the Supreme Soviet (Stalin’s sham parliament), he dutifully intoned that purging ‘a few thousand vile individuals, people who have prostituted themselves politically, all of that Trotskyite-Zinovievite-Bukharinite scum’, had been warranted.

Sholokhov’s political obedience was also reinforced through material means.  There were tangible benefits to being an officially-approved writer in Stalin's Russia.  Politically-licensed writers made, on average, ten times as much as ordinary workers, with elite writers such as Sholokhov making 25 times as much from their state salary and private royalties.  A gilded cage had its compensations for those writers trapped in it.

Only after Stalin’s death, in 1953, could Sholokhov spread his wings.  Breathing politically freer air, Sholokhov reinstated Trotsky, a minor  character in the early editions of Quiet Don who had been censored out of the novel by Stalin, whilst undoing all of Stalin’s other edits to the novel.

Sholokhov could now also denounce the Great Terror as a program of political extermination based on allegations that were, as he put it, ‘monstrous make-believe and wild nonsense’.

In 1966, Sholokhov also passionately raised the issues of deforestation and industrial pollution of Russia’s rivers, speaking up for, in Boeck’s words, “nature as something more than a resource for immediate economic exploitation”.
Sholokhov’s “deep Stalinist programming”, however, was not so easily undone.  Whilst he lacerated the mediocre and unreadable output from the politically-sanctioned 3,773 members of the Writers’ Union whom Sholokhov called ‘dead souls’ luxuriating in their literary sinecures, he spurned writerly solidarity with jailed dissident writers.  He also spoke positively of ‘the unity of party and literature’, and he was a supportive voice of Moscow’s armed suppression of the 1956 revolt in Hungary.

Whilst Western anti-communists put the boot into Sholokhov over these compromises, some succour was provided by the judging panel for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1965.  Less beholden to anti-communist Cold War pieties, the Swedish committee recognised the immense pressures facing Sholokhov, if he wanted to survive as a writer, or at all, to operate under stern political masters and noted his assertion of literary integrity in refusing to fully go along with all the political demands made of him in his art.

Sholokhov’s Nobel award honoured the high literary merit of Sholokhov, his ability to skilfully combine realism, romance, cliff-hanger plot, psychological depth and political ambiguity.  In doing so, they recognised, too, the Sholokhov who was, like his fictional characters, the flawed hero in his own troubled life.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

DENIS DIDEROT - Freethinker!



Other Press, 2019, 520 pages.


CATHERINE & DIDEROT: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment


Harvard University Press, 2019, 258 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


Denis Diderot is now remembered, if at all, only as the name of a Metro railway station in an unfashionable neighbourhood of Paris.  In his day, however, the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher was quite the subversive intellectual who parted the ideological fog of religious, moral and political backwardness for a view of the sunnier uplands of today’s society.


The biography of Diderot by Andrew Curran (Wesleyan University Humanities professor) vibrantly displays the radical arc of the life of the effervescent polymath, the son of a skilled cutler who, rather than take to honing knife blades for a livelihood, took to sharpening his mind on the whetstone of Reason instead.


As with many revolutionaries of that era, it all started with questioning Christianity as Diderot abandoned a Jesuit priesthood apprenticeship for sceptical writings on religion and society.  A youthful poem in which Diderot looked forward to the day when the last king would be strangled with the intestines of the last priest was emblematic of the trouble Diderot was storing up.


Three months in prison duly came his way in 1749, with the threat of worse to come if he continued his freethinking ways –‘the next time you find yourself here, you will never leave’, threatened the Parisian chief of police.  Prudently, Diderot heeded the warning but continued to write ‘for the bottom drawer’, with one big exception – his co-editorship of, and prodigious writing for, the “supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment”, as Curran rightly calls the 28-volume Encyclopédie, which, much more than being just a comprehensive dictionary of all knowledge, was a “triumph of secularism and freedom of thought”.


In his article on Political Authority, for example, Diderot advanced the perilous idea that government legitimacy stems from the people, not from God or dynastic succession.  As well as challenging political aristocracy, the Encyclopédie also opened an ideological front against the aristocracy of knowledge by treating the labour and skills of trades and craft workers in the same breath as religious dogma and superstition.


Although the Encyclopédie’s incendiary political properties were veiled in an allusive and indirect style to foil the vigilant but dim-witted censors, the project was shut down mid-alphabet by Versailles in 1759.  The Public Prosecutor couldn’t quite pin it down but he denounced the Encyclopédie anyway as a ‘conspiracy to propagate materialism, to destroy religion, to inspire a spirit of independence and to nourish the corruption of morals’.  Religious and royal harassment continued to dog the enterprise and some contributors consequently found a new urgency in tending their gardens instead of their intellects, but the Encyclopédie soldiered on semi-clandestinely.


Whilst Diderot was keeping his powder dry, however, he found support from a surprising source - Catherine 11, Empress of All the Russias, the reigning Tsarist autocrat.  As Robert Zaretsky (University of Houston Humanities professor) recounts, Catherine invited the sixty-year-old Enlightenment icon to St. Petersburg for philosophical discussions in 1773.


Diderot accepted because he believed Catherine was a different kind of ruler.  As far as despots go, Catherine was, as she immodestly specified for her future tombstone inscription, ‘good-natured, easygoing, tolerant, broad-minded … with a republican spirit and a kind heart’.  She was culturally accomplished (she wrote two dozen plays) and relatively humane (she disapproved of torture and corporal punishment).  Her censorship regime was relatively relaxed and she regarded the slave-like serfdom of Russia’s ten million peasants as morally undesirable.


There were, however, red flags aplenty to question Catherine’s progressive bona fides.  She used tens of thousands of serfs as payment to reward her loyal courtiers who supported her murderous coup against her husband, Tsar Peter the Great.  When serfs in the Russian Urals took liberation into their own hands in a peasant uprising under the leadership of the Don Cossack, Emelyan Pugachev, Catherine then took a page out of the despotism manual and ordered her Generals to crush it.  Pugachev was drawn-and-quartered and other leaders hanged or sent into Siberian exile.  The liberal humanist in Catherine was agitated only enough to fret that her violent suppression of the revolt might play badly with enlightened ‘European opinion’.


Nevertheless, to the practical question of how the goals of the Enlightenment could be delivered in a pre-democratic era of monarchy, Diderot turned to Catherine as the best bet.  So, the provocatively wigless Diderot, whose plain black coat stood out ominously amongst the assembled Royal bling in the Winter Palace, rolled the dice on Catherine as the agent of change, advancing proposals for progressive social and political reforms that the Empress should undertake.


Nothing, however, came of Diderot’s political courtship of Catherine.  The Empress did not adopt any of the ‘great innovations’ Diderot had proposed, including a more representative form of government.  Diderot concluded that the fruitful cohabitation of Reason and Power was a naïve dream and that to pursue it risked turning philosophers into pampered pets in the parlours of the powerful - ‘men of letters are so easily corrupted: lots of warmth and attention, and a bit of money, does the trick’, he warned.  Diderot was personally aware of the co-option trap – he appreciated the $700,000 subsidy (in today’s money) he received over his lifetime from his royal patron but he valued Truth higher.

Diderot finally declared that ‘enlightened despotism’ is an oxymoron because, no matter how well-intentioned or high-minded the individual ruler, the institution of elite rule necessarily violates the liberty, and political agency, of the ruled.  Political sovereignty, he summed up, lies with the people and any right to govern can only be delegated by, or revoked by, the people:  ‘there is no true sovereign except the nation; there can be no true legislator except the people’, he declared, quite radically for the times.

Even more out there for a member of the privileged intelligentsia, Diderot advocated economic as well as political democracy.  A politically powerful elite ‘wallowing in wealth’ only do so at the expense of the labouring classes, he wrote.  Wealth, too, derives from the people and they have every right to ‘revoke’ the material inequality between the ‘two classes of citizens’, he reasoned.    

Diderot’s philosophical, political and economic ideas helped to galvanise the subsequent French and American revolutions, and, unsurprisingly, the democratic socialist Karl Marx, who cited Diderot as his favourite writer.  Marx grasped the revolutionary nub of Diderot’s philosophy, as, in her own, and opposite, way did Catherine, who, after she and Diderot had split, sourly told the French ambassador that if the philosopher’s ideas were to become political practice ‘to suit Diderot’s taste, it would have meant turning the world upside down’.  Quite so, whether that be the antique despotism of Crown or the thoroughly modern version of the despotism of Capital.

Monday, 25 February 2019

THE CLUB: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport


John Murray Publishing, 2019, 338 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


If football is a simple game (get the ball, pass the ball), then the football business is even simpler (buy the best players, bank the profits).  As the sports journalists, Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, note in The Club, for Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League (EPL), there is a near perfect correlation between a football club’s total player wages bill on day one of a season and their club’s ladder position at the end of it.  As the University of Michigan economics professor behind this finding has demonstrated, money buys success.


EPL footballing success has been bought by the world’s super-rich who have added historic, working-class English football clubs to their asset portfolio.  A Gulf oil sheik, a Russian oligarch, Asian Tiger titans, a professional poker player, an advertising executive, an ‘adult’ entertainment businessman, real estate developers, commodity traders, hedge-fund managers, an Icelandic banker, the owner of Harrods department store, an Indian poultry tycoon, a number of Chinese businessmen, and a whole phalanx of American corporate tycoons have all gotten in on the act.


It doesn’t matter if they aren’t personally passionate about football but they have to be passionate about making money from football.  Spending hundreds of millions of pounds on English football clubs is a rational business investment.  Newly cash-rich clubs can now buy serious footballing talent from across the globe.  This can purchase silverware plus the annual £150 million income from the EPL’s broadcasting rights revenue.


Clubs that had yo-yoed up and down the old Football League Divisions can suddenly countenance EPL success under their new mega-wealthy bosses.  Wealthy EPL owners have opened the title door to Chelsea who won their first championship title in sixty years, Blackburn their first ever.  Manchester City lifted their first major trophy in 35 years.  The unfashionable Leicester City’s 2015-16 championship win ended a 152 year title drought courtesy of a Thai duty-free retail baron’s fortune.


Short of a title, however, the realistic prize for most clubs’ owners is the highly-coveted EPL golden pass to continued membership of the elite competition through avoiding relegation by just being less worse than three other teams.


There are side-benefits, too.  For the image-conscious billionaire (particularly those with political links and dodgy human rights records), an EPL franchise is a must-have PR accessory.  For those owners who actually like football, they can purchase their very own late-life toy - a former Blackburn player said that his club had become a very expensive ‘train set’ for its steel business owner.


Established more than a century ago in 1888 by local labourers and factory workers, the football clubs that made up Britain’s old Football League have since been transformed into EPL “trophy investments” as their new owners have figured out how to monetise the people’s game by turning it into a commodity, treating its players as human production units up for trade, and reducing its fans to eyeball-counts for TV networks.


Huge satellite television broadcasting deals were the decisive factor in the transformation of English football.  Wary of live television coverage lest it harm match-day attendance and revenue, English clubs had historically not courted broadcasters – in 1964, for example, the sole television coverage was the BBC’s edited highlights show, Match of the Day, for which the Beeb paid just £5,000.


The top half dozen clubs at the time were not happy with this monetary return and successfully chivvied the Football League to make more from broadcast rights.  A combination of the big clubs’ business ambitions and Rupert Murdoch’s eye for a quid saw the media mogul pay £304 million for a five-year broadcast contract so he could sit back and watch the advertising dollars and satellite TV subscriptions pour in as a twenty-team (down from forty in the old top flight tier) EPL kicked off in 1992.  The EPL is now “the world’s most popular league in the world’s most popular sport”, a global entertainment product marketed to 185 countries and generating revenue of £5.6 billion pounds a season. 


The costs of turning the EPL clubs into London Stock Exchange-listed commercial enterprises, on the other hand, have been borne by you know who.  Pricey season tickets (ranging from almost £1,000 to over £2,000 for premium seats) and corporate luxury boxes have crowded out the great unwashed, and match-day atmosphere has suffered as a result.  As Roy Keane, the former captain of Manchester United, said of the corporate guests chloroforming the once-proletarian terraces – ‘I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell football, never mind understand it’.


Football in the EPL era is “a game increasingly divorced from its working class roots”, say the authors.  The discontents of capitalist globalisation as played out in the EPL have seen the organic connections between club, community and nation continuing to fray.


Now, driven by profit-maximising global outreach, English football risks “changing its very identity, perhaps irrevocably”.  With two out of every three EPL footballers from overseas, what is so English about the English Premier League? the authors ask.  How much ‘real’ Chelsea was there about Chelsea Football Club when it held the dubious distinction in 1997 of being “the first club to field a team without a single British player in 111 years of English professional football”?  How likely is the English national team’s 1966 World Cup victory to be repeated, now that overseas marquee players galore deprive potential English nationals of weekly selection and valuable experience playing against high-quality opposition?


The new EPL football ‘product’ may have scored with the world’s super-rich and TV broadcasters and advertisers but the authors regret the passing of what they call the old “socialist model” of English football (egalitarian revenue distribution, salary caps, restrictions on overseas players).  They mourn the closed chapter of ‘competitive balance’ when all clubs stood some sort of meritocratic chance of success, not just the usual EPL financial elite (Arsenal, Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham).


There is, however, discontent amongst these Big Six that footballing ‘socialism’ has not been fully expunged.  Their sense of entitlement is gargantuan.  Offended by the Leicester insurgents, they ratcheted up already insane levels of player transfer spending and have since reasserted financial, and score-sheet, hegemony.  These apex predator-clubs also want to grab a greater share of the multi-billion pound television rights for themselves, arguing that overseas viewers are only getting up early or going to bed late in order to watch the glamour teams, not “bloody Bournemouth”.


Robinson and Clegg disapprove of how Big Money has soiled the working class integrity of English football but, like so many fans, they are resigned to it.  Coupled with a certain admiration for the principal, and very rich, new disruptors starring in a blockbuster “business and entertainment saga”, they rationalise the new money-mad direction of football as necessary to drag “the quaint and tribal world of football into the 21st Century”.


But that’s capitalism for you – if the goal is to put profit and prestige ahead of people and their football passion, then capitalism is in a most unattractive league of its own.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

CONSUMING ANZAC: The History of Australia’s Most Powerful Brand by JO HAWKINS

CONSUMING ANZAC: The History of Australia’s Most Powerful Brand


University of Western Australia Publishing, 2018, 173 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


It can be hard sometimes to give a monkey’s if forced to choose between the obligatory, sombre commemoration of war in Australia and the more grubbily commercial profit-making from it, as CONSUMING ANZAC, by Dr Jo Hawkins (University of Western Australia), demonstrates to those who may feel that neither war nor consumer capitalism have all that much going for them.  

Australia’s secular worship of war is centred around Anzac Day, that most endlessly hyped day of patriotic-militarist sentiment, the day the not-long-federated country had its “martial baptism” as a ‘true nation’ when thousands of its soldiers were butchered (or, in the authorised version, ‘engaged in heroic self-sacrifice’) during the failed First World War invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey, on April 25th, 1915. 

Australia’s capitalists were quick to see the tremendous marketing potential of Anzac Day by aligning their civilian consumer brand with the officially revered military brand of Anzac.  As early as 1916, the “commercial appeal” of the word ‘Anzac’ was being used to flog various foodstuffs, beverages, soaps, toys, all sorts of apparel, Rexona healing ointment (tested in the trenches!), watches, matches, jewellery, cafés and restaurants. 

‘Sacrilege’, declared the war-time government as it promptly passed a law against the practice of appropriating the word ‘Anzac’ for commercial purposes.  For many decades, the community guardians of the Anzac tradition, the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL), would dob in offenders to the government for prosecution or public shaming. 

It wasn’t until an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War had begun to marginalise the conservative RSL and its precious Anzac tradition that the RSL was forced to relax its stern hold over a commerce-free Anzac Day.  The up-side for the RSL was that its shrinking coffers would be replenished by extracting a tithe on approved commercial activity.  An added bonus was that the public legitimacy of war in general could be rekindled. 

A mutually beneficial symbiosis between commerce and commemoration gathered pace from the 1990s with a range of lucrative, RSL-approved, and Government-blessed, Anzac-branded cultural commodities.  Books led the way - in 2003, for example, Australians bought 130 million books on Anzac, most of them “politically anaesthetising” tomes, “celebratory page-turners” which sentimentally acclaimed “the triumph of the human spirit” against extreme adversity.  These were essentially redemptive ‘Misery Lit’ stories which did not deepen the reader’s historical understanding of the war and its structural geo-political-economic drivers. 

Mass market tourist operators and associated merchandise peddlers were also coining it, as tens of thousands of young Australian and New Zealander backpackers annually trek to the sacred site of Gallipoli for a mystical Dawn Service, the search for nationalist epiphany accompanied by the sale of (made-in-China) tourist tat and the opportunity for the ‘war pilgrims’ to cross off yet another destination from the backpacker’s ‘To Do’ list, up there with “bull running in Pamplona or the Munich Oktoberfest”. 

Modern sporting/entertainment corporate behemoths (the Australian Football League [AFL], Rugby League and Rugby Union) are some other prominent heads of the capitalist Hydra to find war profiteering during peacetime to be richly remunerative. 

The AFL’s annual ‘Anzac Day Clash’ (Essendon v Collingwood), for example, includes an official RSL commemorative pre-match extravaganza, whilst the whole fixture is saturated with military symbolism and ritual.  The event has since expanded to involve all clubs in an AFL ‘Anzac Day Round’, further boosting income for the AFL and, for the RSL, the proceeds from the cut of the weekend’s takings. 

This is a far cry from the past, more ‘purist’, era when it was illegal to play or watch sport, or even train, on Anzac Day, and it is even more distant from the First World War itself when the largely middle class (and Protestant) Essendon was one of six clubs to sit out the war whilst working class (and Catholic) Collingwood was one of the four that kept on playing. 

Since corporate sameness has ridden roughshod over grass roots tradition and sociological diversity, however, the more socially homogenised professional football clubs of today lend a more pronounced ‘national unity’ theme to the pro-war “politics of remembrance” as enacted on the football field, playing a significant role in normalising war as a core part of Australian nationalism.

Other corporates to enrol in the RSL-licensed Anzac ranks have included biscuit-makers (Unibic produce the humble ‘Anzac Biscuit’), telecommunications companies (discounted Telstra call rates on Anzac Day), McDonalds, Crown Casino, airlines (Qantas and Virgin Blue discount flights), beer-makers (Carlton & United Breweries’ ‘Raise A Glass Appeal’ is a classic of the ‘cause marketing’ genre, as it is known in ad-land), whilst for just $2.25, you could download a mobile app for the mandatory ‘One Minute’s Silence’ which, in concept and price, is a bigger scam than bottled water. 

Not to be outdone, NewsCorp used the 2002 death of the last surviving Gallipoli veteran, Alec Campbell, to launch a sales promotion through a commemorative medallion available with the purchase of its newspapers.  This scheme was, however, potentially embarrassing because, Campbell, the last original Anzac, on his deathbed, said ‘for God’s sake don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten’.  This doesn’t fit the official historical Anzac narrative at all. 

Neither does it sentimentally venerate Anzac Day, and, without the emotional propaganda pumped out by the Anzac Day industry, the militarist flame could sputter and dim and this would never do because you never know when and where Australia and its allies may need to invade next in the quest for territory, resources and markets, or to counter (in Noam Chomsky’s words) the ‘threat of a good example’ from countries seeking independence or, worse, socialism. 

For this is what ‘Anzac’ is really all about – the use of war, in all its brutal rottenness, to stake out a piece of the global consumer capitalist action.  Despite the sometimes awkward Anzac Day dance between military commemoration and commerce, the truth is that war and capitalism were made for each other.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

MUTINY ON THE WESTERN FRONT: 1918 by Greg raffin


Big Sky Publishing, 2018, 216 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


For those who may have been living in a cave without electricity for a while, it may need pointing out that the Australian establishment likes to conduct extravagant khaki-and-slouch-hat festivals to annually celebrate the gore-filled Australian invasion of Gallipoli on April 25th in 1915.


Whilst Anzac Day thus receives high-rotation airplay, we hear nothing, however, of a day - September 21st in 1918 – that, of all the days of Australians at war, is actually worth acclaiming, the day when Australian soldiers did something very unwarlike - disobeying orders, resisting authority and walking away from their assigned role of killing and dying on the corpse-strewn stage.  As the amateur historian and military boffin, Greg Raffin, writes in Mutiny on the Western Front, such ‘combat refusal’ was the rebellious recourse of over a hundred Australian soldiers on that day.


After continuous front-line service for months, and after a protracted and vicious battle immediately prior to the mutiny, soldiers of the 1st Battalion were suffering from extreme battle fatigue and a stupefying war-weariness.  Near the village of Hargicourt in France, after being promised relief in the rear, they were informed that their well-deserved rest had been abruptly cancelled and that they were to be called back to the front immediately.


Enough is bloody enough, they said, refusing their new combat orders.  This constituted mutiny, that refusal of orders which threatens the hierarchical command-and-obey foundation of the entire military system, and its political-economic war-fighting aims.


It was, therefore, intolerable to military authorities, and so the 115 soldiers involved were duly court-martialled and charged with mutiny (punishable by firing squad) - but convicted on the lesser charge of desertion (thus avoiding the bad PR that executing over a hundred Australian men would have had on military recruitment back home).  They were gaoled (in England), with the privates getting three years hard yakka in prison and their Sergeants and other NCOs copping 5-10 years.


Their mutiny was atypical for the Australian Army although the mutineers conformed to the standard military template for Australian soldiers: they were not especially troublesome (78% of them had no, or just one, disciplinary black mark), they were often heroic (they had the usual haul of bravery medals and ‘citations for gallantry’), and they were committed to performing well  and supporting their comrades (many earned military promotion).  They were prepared to question orders that promised nothing but useless sacrifice for pointless objectives but they invariably got on with the business at hand.


With their civilian, working class backgrounds (most were manual urban or rural workers, with 63% coming from the ‘tradesman’, ‘labourer’ or ‘industrial and manufacturing’ occupations), they saw soldiering as a ‘job of work’ to be done well.  If anything, these particular mutineers had done their soldiering job too well – the penalty of such diligence being to get more work like it, such as being thrown back into the frontline at the first opportunity. 


In return for all this, the soldiers expected to be given a ‘fair deal’ in their new military-employment setting.  Thus, when their long-overdue rest break was rescinded, the soldiers took what was essentially industrial action over being denied a fair go.


The mutineers were, after all, workers-in-uniform, and, although Raffin avoids the issue, they would have brought strong trade union values and principles from their civilian workplace into the army.  Trade unionism was widespread in Australia at he time, with the overall union membership rate for male workers the highest in the world, at around 50%, and much higher for the blue-collar industries most of the men came from.


Raffin also avoids the potentially revolutionary dimension to the soldiers’ response to egregious exploitation.  He finds mitigating circumstances in the purported confusion attendant on poor communication of the order to urgently reassemble for the trenches (which was, acceptably, the mutineers’ legal defense) but the mutineers knew what they were doing – taking, in solid unionist style, an unauthorised smoko, away from the mud and sleeplessness and artillery and bullets and dismembered bodies.  They knowingly contravened orders.  They engaged in mutiny.


This is to their credit, but Raffin, a heavy user of cliché in the service of military-patriotic orthodoxy, is reluctant to see the Anzac legend too sullied by mass eruptions of anti-militarist insubordination, and his historical treatment of the mutiny denies the mutineers full conscious agency of their act, and the implicit revolutionary challenge to authority it contained: Russia’s Bolsheviks, after all, encouraged mutiny, and desertion, and absence-without-leave, and fraternisation, and truces-from-below, and soldier unions, for very good, political, reasons).


Anzac Day (25th April) or Mutiny Day (21st September): the choice of the former says a great deal about just who is on the side of killing and dying in the cause of conquest (in this inter-imperialist scrap, the first blood taken and shed by Australian troops was the invasion of German [now Papua] New Guinea, and Germany’s other Pacific colonies, on behalf of the British Empire); the latter says much more praiseworthy things about who isn’t on that side but who, with exemplary exceptions, get to be bossed around to do the dirty work of the militarists.

Friday, 28 December 2018

The Race To Save The Romanovs by Helen Rappaport

THE RACE TO SAVE THE ROMANOVS: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia’s Imperial Family


Hutchinson, 2018, 372 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


Who would be the first to save the Romanovs (Tsar Nicholas and family) from the newly triumphant Reds in Russia?  Would salvation come from extreme right groups such as the ‘Union of the Russian People’ with their thirty Tsarist military officers armed with poisoned darts to pick off the guards before hurling diversionary grenades as they made their escape via getaway cars, engines gunning? 


Or perhaps the British army officer had the right plan by getting his Nicholas-look-a-like manservant to enter the Romanov’s palace of detention as the Tsar’s barber, shave off the emperor’s beard, stick some false whiskers on himself, swap uniforms (the Tsar usually wore military officer duds, even under house arrest) and escape in a waiting field-ambulance?


As the historian, Romanov-buff and all-round royalty nut, Dr. Helen Rappaport, writes in The Race to Save the Romanovs, all such rescue plots were naïve, hare-brained, B-grade movie fantasies.  None were credible logistically: the armed guards were plentiful, their machine-guns deadly, the distances to evacuation through Russia’s ports were vast, and the Russian populace were hostile to any attempt to flee by autocrats who were “widely reviled” for the economic distresses, military miseries and political indignities they had endured for decades under Tsarism.


The Tsar’s would-be Russian rescuers did not help their own cause – they were all boastful talk, much of it loose and therefore easy to nip in the bud.  They were riven with rivalries and infested with glory-seeking adventurers and opportunists “intent on siphoning off money from the rescue funds”.  The plotters had no leadership, organisational skills nor aptitude for the technical details of rescue.  If implemented, their schemes would have risked the lives of the Romanovs in deadly shootouts.


That left only diplomatic intervention as the means of deliverance.  This was the aim of Alexander Kerensky, the Prime Minister of the moderate, pro-war, pro-capitalist Provisional Government of landowners and industrialists that had assumed formal political power in the February revolution of 1917 after the Tsar was forced to abdicate by mass protests and crippling strikes.


To placate the real power in the land - the makers of the revolution, the Russian people as represented through the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies – Kerensky had assured the Soviets that his government was not about to let the Romanovs scarper.  He was, at the same time, however, “talking with England about precisely that”.


Kerensky wanted to transport the Romanovs 846 miles by train to the northern city of Murmansk where they would be spirited to refuge by a British Navy cruiser.  This idea, however, was dead in the water, as would have been the royal passengers, from German submarines and mines but it was Russian political reality that effectively sunk the proposition.  Because the unions, soviets and Red Guards controlled the railways, there would, conceded Kerensky later, ‘have been a strike the moment the Tsar was entrained for Murmansk and the train would never have left the station’.


British political reality was also against offering safe haven in England for the Romanovs.  The natural class instincts of the British political elite had initially kicked in with an offer of asylum but it came with the caveats that the Romanovs must not become a ‘public charge’ (Russia must pay for their upkeep in Britain), and that there was a shortage in the royals housing market.


These were, however, excuses, not reasons - the British government had no in-principle objection to supporting a large, expensive, taxpayer-funded royal family (they willingly stumped up for their own) whilst there were more than enough royal palaces available (Sandringham, Windsor, Buckingham and Balmoral) for both monarchies.


The real reason the conservative Liberal government and the British King (George V – Nicholas’ cousin) did not want to receive ‘Nicholas the bloody’, ‘Nicholas the hangman’, Nicholas the ‘bloodstained vampire’, as a house-guest was for fear of the ‘undesirable agitation’ that the Tsar’s presence may trigger in England where Romanov asylum was being discussed ‘not only in [gentlemen’s] clubs’ but (gasped an alarmed King’s Private Secretary) ‘by working men’.


Political pragmatism won the day, with Whitehall withdrawing its offer of asylum.  Supping from the poisoned chalice of the Romanov cup wasn’t worth the opportunity cost of opening up the Russian market, even under the dreaded Bolsheviks, to “British commercial, financial and industrial objectives”.


The rest of Europe’s elites were of a similar view.  As much as Kaiser Wilhelm, for example, detested the Bolshevik ‘swine’ and ‘Jew boys’, he ruled out including the Romanovs’ release in the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations with Soviet Russia to end the war on the eastern front, preferring to consolidate the considerable “German industrial and economic interests” in the Russian territory the Germans had extracted under the treaty.


Nevertheless, the British government kept a watching brief on the Romanovs but although its spies pitched various rescue schemes, all of them were impractical and thus stillborn, especially after the Bolshevik-led Soviets took full power from the grandly disappointing Provisional Government in the October revolution and moved the Romanovs to detention in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ekaterinburg in the Urals.

Two final rescue prospects did open up, however, in July 1918.  Seventy monarchist officers planned a night raid to spring the Romanovs just ahead of the advance of the counter-revolutionary White Army consisting of former Czech prisoners-of-war who had declared they were ‘fighting for and in the name of the Czar’.  The Bolshevik leadership had favoured a public trial of the Romanovs but extreme military urgency forced the local Bolsheviks’ hand and the “magnets for counter-revolution” were executed prior to the Bolsheviks’ hurried retreat from Ekaterinburg.

The Romanovs’ extended family throughout Europe was distraught at this outcome but, as the US ambassador in Russia noted, the Romanovs’ deaths ‘aroused no resentment whatever’ amongst the Russian people.

Europe’s antique monarchies were all now on notice in the wake of the Romanovs’ demise - “socialism and democracy were the new watchwords everywhere”, writes Rappaport, as Sweden’s King Gustav led a monarchist retreat, capitulating to a centre-left government, followed by the Kings of Denmark, Belgium and Norway ceding their constitutional powers to civilian governments (the latter declaring with faux democratic sensibility that ‘I am also King of the Communists’ now).  After a Republican and socialist landslide in the Spanish municipal elections in 1931, Spain’s Catholic King Alfonso was chased from his Madrid palace to refuge in Rome.

As an obsessively fervent anti-Bolshevik and awe-struck royalist, Dr. Rappaport pines for “the last of the Tsars” but all those working people who want to see an end to a society divided inequitably into Royals and Commoners, into rulers and subjects, should be glad that the ‘race’ to save the Romanovs never really left the starting blocks.

Friday, 30 November 2018


WHEN FOOTBALLERS WERE SKINT: A Journey in Search of the Soul of Football


Biteback Publishing, 2018, 308 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

Bill Leivers (Manchester City, 1953-1964) wryly recalls to the British journalist, Jon Henderson, in When Footballers Were Skint, how the football club owner once rewarded the players on the train home from a successful away game, not with a fistful of sterling for a few drinks all round, but with a packet of Polo Mints.


His contemporary, Tom Finney (England regular and Preston North End), reflects tartly on the £50,000 gate-takings which the English Football Association received from one international fixture at Wembley Stadium – of which the eleven England players shared just £550.


The chasm between the earnings of football’s bosses and players was at its widest in the wage cap.  Instituted in 1901 at the urging of the smaller, poorer clubs who feared being unable to compete for high quality players against the bigger, richer clubs, the maximum wage had crawled from a modest £4 a week to a still-middling £20 by 1961, not much more than the national average male worker’s weekly wage.


Tight-fisted employers and modest wages were the norm for England’s professional footballers as they were for the working class from which the players came.  On humble wages, the machinists, sheet metal workers, plumbers, joiners, stonemasons, builders labourers and coal miners who found new careers on the football pitch shared the humble lives of their fans, using the same public transport to get to matches, and living in nondescript terraced housing right next door to their fans.


Trolley-bus conductors might waive the occasional fare but that was the extent of their perks, except for the bigger names who could eke out a little more from extra-curricular activities such as (ghosted) newspaper columns, advertising and endorsements.


The businessmen who owned the clubs were only too ready to exploit the players’ love of the game and their club bonds.  They airily dismissed wages gripes as unworthy compared to the ‘big honour’ of signing for a First Division club, or the ‘priceless honour’ of national team selection, or remaining a loyal one-club player by sacrificially turning down attractive offers from overseas clubs.


The footballers, however, had one traditional working class value they could call on to shake loose from the wage cap – withdrawal of their labour.  The players had carried their trade union principles into their new workplace, as members of the Professional Footballers’ Association.  Under the aggressive leadership of Fulham’s Jimmy Hill, the footballers’ union members voted to strike on Saturday, 21st January 1961 against the maximum wage.


The Trades Union Congress, Britain’s peak labour body, backed the strike by calling on the public (then largely unionised workers) to boycott any games that went ahead, and letting it be known that any footballer contemplating strike-breaking might find i hard (under no-ticket, no-start union principles) to find work once their playing days were over.


Just a few hours before the scheduled Saturday afternoon kick-off, the Football League caved and the clubs all agreed to abolish the wage cap.  This workers’ victory was, says Henderson, on a par with other labour struggles in Britain for fairer wages. 


Since then, adds Henderson however, “things have gone awry” in the descent of English football “towards the bloated monument to Mammon it would grow into by the close of the century”.  Henderson’s interviewees, all veterans from the wage-cap era, are unanimous that present day footballers’ wages are ‘immoral’, ‘barmy’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘outrageous’.  The average salary of an English Premier League (EPL) footballer has just topped £50,000 per week (with the superstars coining north of a quarter million each week), whilst transfer fees have reached obscene levels (Neymar’s record-breaking sale from Barcelona to Paris St-Germain for £198 million in 2017 is now an aspiration not an aberration).

Supersonic wage inflation was turbo-charged by the billion pound deluge of media money for television broadcasting rights for the EPL, following the revamping of the old competition structure in 1992.  TV money has made large financial rewards possible for all twenty EPL clubs, much of which goes to purchasing the most talented players from all corners of the globe to ensure top flight survival and it continuing monetary rewards. 

What the clubs have lost in this mad march of money, say Henderson’s interviewees, are the community bonds between the players and their working class supporters.  The EPL’s “plutocrats of today” are footballers who are “not close to the fans at all”.  They are an elite stratum of international round-ball mercenaries with more regard for their tax-dodging, off-shore accounts and luxurious lifestyles than for any economic egalitarianism or wealth-levelling that might benefit their fans.  In hindsight, the few dissenters in the players’ union in 1961 who argued for significantly raising, but not abolishing, the wage cap in 1961 were on to something.

The entire class of ’61, however, were on to something bigger, and still politically relevant – the power of trade union combination against the tiny few who profit from football, whether they did so in the past by keeping wages shackled or by overpaying today’s super-rich players to keep the TV-rights revenue in the stratosphere.  The 1961 wage cap struggle is the necessary reminder that it is only the skills of the working footballer which make the football industry possible. 

Henderson’s book, despite its page-padding self-indulgent nostalgia, shows that it is the remorseless logic of capitalism which drives the contest for the soul of football between working class community and the profit-seeking forces of commercialism, between those who truly love the game and those off (and increasingly on) the pitch who see it as just another path to get rich.  Football is a class game in more ways than one.