Camus, Pilger and Bush

The Outsider may be the only adult work that both Pilger and Bush have read but The Plague is Camus'

John Pilger uses our Red Reads feature as a chance to name some of his favourite radical works this week and concludes with Albert Camus's The Outsider.

The Outsider has the distinction of possibly being the only adult work that both Pilger and his bête noire George W Bush have devoured.

No doubt Bush was attracted to the novel by its slimness (128 pages) or perhaps he empathised with the lead character, Meursault, who shoots an Arab on the beach after being irritated by the sun.

The then White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "He found it an interesting book and a quick read."

"I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

Yet I must take issue with Pilger and Bush's selection from Camus's oeuvre. I have always found The Outsider to be a rather tepid and underwhelming work.

A far better choice would be Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he introduces his philosophy of the absurd. (Camus, an absurdist, was consistently frustrated by those who erroneously described him as an existentialist.)

An equally fine suggestion would be Reflections on the Guillotine, his masterful polemic against the death penalty.

But at a time when swine flu has officially become the fastest growing pandemic ever, the definitive Camus work surely remains The Plague.

A novel which tells the tale of the devastating plague visited on the Algerian town of Oran, it is also an allegory of France's suffering under the Nazi occupation.

The haunting final passage, in which Dr Rieux reflects on the town's apparent recovery, is worth quoting at length:

He (Dr Rieux) knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Camus is referring to the plague but he could equally be referring to fascism.

At a time when the Conservative Party has aligned itself with some of the most reactionary forces in Europe and Britain has sent two openly fascist MEPs to Europe it is worth recalling that we have by no means escaped the reach of atavistic and totalitarian ideas.

I now find that I'm rather ashamed by the absence of Camus from our list of 50 Red Reads. Let us know of any other omissions here.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.