Michael Rosen on the East London street where his father lived. Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon/New Statesman
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Michael Rosen: Confessions of an accidental communist

The author on his childhood, his parents' life in the East End and where he parted from Christopher Hitchens in talking about his identity.

My parents were what the Nazis called Jewish Communists. I think it’s what in some circumstances they called themselves but it always feels different when someone who doesn’t like you calls you that. I had the same problem when I opened Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22 and found him, too, calling me that when writing about our time together at Oxford University. I must say, there were echoes of McCarthyism in there, not least in my note to Hitchens reminding him of something he knew full well; that I was not a member of the party and never had been. If he wanted to call my dead father a Stalinist, I suppose that was his prerogative but Hitchens also knew that my father, Harold, had left the CP some ten years before Hitchens and I were non-Communist comrades in 1968, on the barricades of some very old university buildings, at the big anti-Vietnam war demo in Grosvenor Square and at an anti-racist sit-in on the floor of a hairdresser’s that refused to cut black people’s hair.

I tell this story because of the awkwardness and sensitivity here. I am the child of two people who joined the Young Communist League around 1935, when they were 16. They were both the grandchildren of eastern European Jewish families that migrated to France, Britain and the US from places that I find listed on censuses as Russified Poland or Austria but that we now call Poland and Bukovina. The trades they brought with them were mostly in how we cover our bodies: hats, caps, suits, dresses, boots and shoes – though one of them seems to have tried to sell dairy goods and another tried a bit of glazing.

Playing table tennis at the YCL HQ in White­chapel doesn’t pose much of a problem in my mind in terms of how my father found his way there, but I must admit I can only guess when it comes to my mother. My father’s Zeyde (grandfather) seems to have been some kind of Jewish socialist who berated the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, H M Hyndman, who in his eyes was guilty of two crimes: being anti-Semitic and leading socialist workers into the trenches in the First World War. I think that this sweatshop worker, Joseph Hyams, whose ­English was too shaky for him to read the Daily Worker to himself – my father aged ten would read it to him – must have had links in his life to the university of the eastern Jewish left: the Bund. Founded in Vilna (now Vilnius) in 1897, this league of Jewish workers was an outward-looking, secular, militant organisation trying to overcome low wages and discrimination. As Jews spread westwards, they brought with them branches of the Bund and its fraternal ­organisation the Arbeter Ring – the Workers’ Circle or, in the US, Workmen’s Circle.

My father didn’t know his own father. Morris Rosen was too busy organising the Boot and Shoe Workers Union in Brockton, Massachusetts, and, indeed, speaking at their national congress in 1921 in St Louis. I have the transcript. Morris wanted the union to congratulate the Bolsheviks on their revolution. He and my father’s mother, Rose, and their five children lived in a “row house” in Brockton but they split in 1922, Rose taking her three American-born children with her and leaving the two British-born boys with Morris.

The legend in the family, which I have never been able to confirm, is that Morris stood for the Socialist Party of America in the 1928 elections for the Pennsylvania senate and won more local votes than the SPA’s presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. I have a picture of him with his brother and their family at what looks like a Seder night (first night of Passover) from some time in the 1940s. His nephew told me that Morris wore nice clothes – he had five suits that he kept in a trunk – but when he turned up in his convertible he didn’t give his sister-in-law a ride. I don’t know how that figures, given that everyone said he was blacklisted in every boot and shoe factory on the eastern seaboard.

Morris and his brother Max and Max’s wife (who didn’t ever get that ride in the convertible) are buried in the Jewish Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Melrose, Boston. The letters “AB” for Arbeter Ring are engraved on their stones; each has his branch number engraved there, too.

Back in London, Rose joined the Communist Party. I notice on the census she is listed variously as a milliner or secretary but my father’s story was that she couldn’t work as she had been paralysed by polio. Indeed, he has written of the time Rose and he went begging to various boards for boots, only for him to be told that, as Rose was still married, the boy wasn’t entitled. In 2012, I hear that story in my head every time the Old Etonian talks of the “big society”. People like my parents worked hard to rid themselves of begging boards of guardians to release a pair of boots to children in poverty.

I remember Rose when she was old and not very coherent but it was clear that she was someone whom people wanted to see. My father
described their house behind the London Hospital, on Whitechapel Road, as somewhere that seamen from Russia and Jamaica would come but also how she seemed to know some posh Communists, such as the bohemian Beatrice Hastings, once the model for Modigliani.

My mother talked of herself and her background in disparaging terms, as if her parents were trapped in some kind of superstitious 19th-century place. Certainly, her mother seemed to me, as a child, permanently worried, permanently complaining, inward-looking, but her father was an amiable, more open person, worn down by work in a boys’ cap factory. He would take me to Hackney Downs for walks where he met up with men in suits talking in Yiddish to each other. I’m almost certain these were his friends from the Workers’ Circle and once my mother said, in her CP voice, that when she was a girl he would go to “Trotskyist meetings”. I suspect it was the party line on Bundists.

So, my parents as teenagers met up by a table-tennis table at the YCL. My father got there via his Zeyde’s and his mother’s radicalism. My mother, I think, got there through the company she kept at Central Foundation Girls’ School in Spital Square, where her group of very close friends included a woman who would later lead the huge East End rent strike of the late 1930s, Bertha Sokoloff. My father talked of this group with awe and respect as readers, writers, politically sophisticated people who, he thought, put him and his friend Moishe Kaufman to shame.

In the crucible of the East End, my parents engaged simultaneously and passionately with collecting for the Spanish Republicans, telling the world of the dangers of German Nazism, defending themselves against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, Shakespeare, Picasso, W H Au­den, Christopher Isherwood, rent strikes, elec­tions and more. My mother left school and went to work as a secretary at the Daily Worker, where she came across CP journalists and organisers such as Sam Russell, who in an earlier life was called Mannassah Lesser, William Rust and, at a distance, Harry Pollitt. (As “Pollitt”, he led the Communist Party for more than 20 years.) My father stayed on at school but moved out of the East End Davenant Foundation School, whose arch still sits on the White­cha­pel Road, and went to what used to be called the Polytechnic, or “the Poly”, on Regent’s Street.

He often described this as a cultural and political shock, sitting side by side in school for the first time with boys who were not Jewish, who came from places on the Metropolitan Line with names such as Preston Park and Harrow. He would have been horrified if he had known then that that was where he and my mother would bring up my brother and me, ten years later.

The 1930s had a particular hold over us. It was both a mythic place and a mythic time in our house as our parents traced and retraced the leafleting, the public speaking, the fascists on street corners, the camping holidays, the competing pulls on their allegiance from Habonim, the Zionist youth group, the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. At the heart of these stories was Cable Street, when Jewish and non-Jewish anti-fascists faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and prevented them marching through the East End. A day which, in comparison to the defeats and terrors of the Second World War (yes: I never thought “we” won a war), was a glorious success and victory.

One irony of the day for them was that they found themselves on the wrong side of the barricades – literally – in a side alley off Cable Street and were only saved from having their heads cracked with a mountie’s baton by a kind stranger pulling them indoors.

In our flat over a shop in Pinner, Middlesex, in the 1950s, these events seemed centuries ago and the place they talked of didn’t exist either. The Jews, they said, had all gone. They all lived in Stoke Newington, Golders Green and Stanmore now, they said, gone on the “North-West Passage”, as they called it.

My parents ran a CP branch from our flat and though, cruelly, I tell it that the branch had only two members, Harold and his wife, Connie, in truth I can remember leaning over the bannister and watching at least ten people coming in. My dad told me that some of them worked in a plane factory on the North Circular.

They campaigned for comprehensive education and equal pay for teachers, which came in in increments over seven years. “Look!” my mother would cry when the increment envelope would arrive. “I’m four-sevenths of your father.” In 1957, they took my brother and me on a teachers’ delegation to East Germany where we were shown the great humanist achievements (or houses) of Frederick the Great, Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Mozart, Lu­ther’s prison, Carl Zeiss optics and the towers of Stalinallee, where my parents bought some posh smoky wine glasses.

They came back ashen-faced from a visit to Buchenwald and my brother snapped away as we were driven past Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, and my mother suddenly announced that she could understand everything that was being said. “Why?” we asked. “Because I was brought up speaking Yiddish,” she said. Even as an 11-year-old I could feel in that comment the tensions running to and fro across Europe and through my mother’s head. That year, they left the Communist Party.

I can remember standing in Trafalgar Square a year earlier to protest against the invasion of Suez when their friend John Flower arrived, tight-lipped and drawn. “The tanks have gone in,” he announced to the Harrow and Muswell Hill CP-ers. I could hear Nye Bevan’s voice rising and falling and saw in my mind British tanks driving past the pyramids. Our hero Nasser was going to die. “Budapest,” said John – “the tanks have gone in.”

I don’t think my parents were too bothered at the time. They had learned that backs-to-the-wall, defend-the-revolution, defend-the-Soviet-Union, anything-they-say-against-us-is-the-bourgeoisie’s-lies way of thinking and talking. They talked of western agents skulking round the streets of Budapest; and when Hungarian refugees came to Britain they scoured the papers for evidence that they were “lumpen” pickpockets and bank robbers.

But in 1957 they did leave, a wrench from my father’s old friends Roy Zemla, Moishe and Rene Kaufman, the Aprahamians, the Cooks, the Craigs, the Kayes, Dorothy Diamond, the Dunnings and many more, even though, some­how, unlike for many others who left, the friendships lasted.

My father’s university colleague Margaret Spencer once told me that she reckoned the reason why they left was that their liberal, child-centred attitudes to education ran into an unbridgeable schism with the party’s education committee. Or it was a schism in their own minds as they explored the thoughts of Dewey, Froebel, A S Neill, Margaret McMillan, Susan Isaacs and the Russells.

We all went on the Aldermaston marches and in the hurly-burly of those few days I would meet up with some of those CP and ex-CP parents and their children, but also with Quakers, Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-imperialists, Spar­tacists. I collected leaflets and pored over them back home, like young children study the Beano. My parents looked at them quizzically and were amused to find that my father’s university hero and our one-time lodger Brian Pearce, once the Stalinist hammer of the Trots, was now the Trot hammer of the Stalinists and was carrying a placard saying “Nationalise the Arms Industry”, while their old pal Francis was carrying one saying “Atoms for Peace”.

I was shown people such as the Communist former East End MP Phil Piratin; the Labour politicians Anthony Greenwood, Ian Mikardo and Fenner Brockway; this or that survivor of Dachau or Auschwitz; and such heroes of the anti-colonial struggle as the Indian nationalist Krishna Menon. Of course, we all waited for Bertrand Russell to speak.

By the late 1960s, I was immersed in what people were calling the New Left. The view that I felt most at home with was “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and one of its most articulate exponents was Christopher Hitchens. Holidays back from university often meant chats from midnight to three in the morning, discussions, memories and storytelling with my father. I would tell him about a sit-in; he would tell me about sitting in the University College London canteen in 1939. I would tell him about a Maoist. He would tell me about one of his students who had told him that he was part of the problem.

When I was arrested at Grosvenor Square, during the anti-Vietnam war demonstration outside the US embassy in March 1968, and kept in cells until four in the morning without charge, it was my father and my brother who were outside waiting to run me home from the police station on Savile Row.
Once, Adam, the son of their old CP friends the Westobys, sat on their front-room floor and berated them for having joined the CP and stayed in the CP. By this time, I think he was in the Trotskyist fragment the Workers’ Socialist League – the WSL or “Weasels”, as some of their ex-comrades called them. My mother, who usually left these kinds of conversations to my father, suddenly flipped and shouted at him, “Adam, who do you think was defending Jews in the East End? The Labour Party? The ILP? The synagogues? Where else could we go?” I seem to remember Adam didn’t answer. I suspect that this was not because he didn’t have an answer but because of some kind of residual respect for people who had struggled to understand, fight back and go beyond their tribe to find some kind of universalism.

In opposing the CP as much as he opposed the right and most of the left, Adam knew that his particular group was no nearer to locking horns with the bourgeoisie over the matter of who owns the means of production.

My parents were Jews. Neither of them ever denied it. They both learned how to deal with a posh, sneering kind of anti-Semitism from people who worked in rooms called “studies”. They both tried to understand and explain what had happened to their relatives in Poland and France who seemed to have disappeared without a trace simply because they were, like them, Jews. I never really had conversations with my mother about being a Jew before she died in 1976, cut off intentionally from her living relatives. My father brooded on what he wanted to keep from his family’s Jewishness and loved the memory of their multilingualism, their jokes, their stories. He regretted that they hadn’t at least done Seder nights and Hanukkah. He relished teaching me the Yiddish he knew.

Politically, he found a home in the company of the French marxisants Bourdieu, Barthes, Foucault, Gen­ette, Macherey and Althusser, along with some of the American radicals, Jameson and Bruner. He seemed saddened by how drawn he was to Russian thinkers such as Chukovsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Vygotsky and Luria and to Russian writers such as Babel, because it meant confronting the lost hopes of his youth. From the 1970s onwards, he never denied that it had been a disaster.

People arrive in the left for many different reasons. I remember having a strong feeling at university that there was a difference between people like Hitchens and people like me and it was something to do with culture. I admired him because he seemed to have arrived at this pure leftness, pure Marxism by dint of intel­lectual effort. I arrived at it because I hadn’t, I thought, worked very hard to do anything else. I would say now that we all bring with us who we are and where we come from, even if we ­react against them.

In a way, I did a bit of both: brought with me the stories and meanings from my family but also a reaction against its allegiance to the God that failed. When I saw that phrase “Jewish Communist” in Hitchens’s book, I thought, no, that doesn’t say who I was. I asked him to change it for the paperback. He did.

The poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen is the author of the memoirs “Carrying the Elephant” and “This Is Not My Nose” (both Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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