Ideological Statistics: Inflated Death Rates of China’s Famine, the Russian one Ignored

“The figure of 30 million deaths during China’s famine has no scholarly basis whatsoever but passed into popular folklore. The demographic collapse in Russia in the first half of the 1990s has been met with a deafening silence”.

An extract from Patnaik’s lecture The Republic of Hunger (2004)

(With thanks to the author, Utsa Patnaik, for permission to reprint her article here. It was originally published at Socialist Economics).

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The alleged massive famine in China during the Great Leap, 1958-61, and the internationally unrecognized famine in Russia in the first half of the 1990s.

When we look at these cases it becomes clear enough that the entire field of the discussion of hunger and famine is a highly ideological one, and has been routinely characterized by the abandoning of the minimum academic criteria with respect to evidence and estimation.

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First, let us consider the allegation that 27 to 30 million people died in China during the ‘Great Leap’ period. This allegation is contained in the books of two US demographers Ansley J Coale (1984), and Judith Banister (1987). Few in the developing world however would have bothered to read the discussion of these demographers, couched in technical language. The main popularizer and ardently uncritical supporter of the conclusions of these US demographers, has been Amartya K. Sen and it is through Sen’s writings first in the New York Review of Books and subsequently in his many lectures and books including Development as Freedom (1999) that the world, and the reading public in this country has been informed that “China has had what is almost certainly the largest recorded famine in history (when thirty million people died in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward) in 1958-61) whereas India has not had a famine since independence in 1947 ” (Sen, 1999, 43). The figure of 30 million has passed into popular folklore. However, a study of how it has been arrived at shows that this estimate has no scholarly basis whatsoever.

The facts are that there was a run of three bad harvests and a steep 30% drop in foodgrains output took place in China in 1960, while the government’s procurement from the villages did not decline, lowering availability per head. The official death rate, which had been falling up to 1958 owing to public health and sanitation measures, registered a rise to 25.4 per thousand in 1960. (This peak ‘famine’ death rate in China was however little different from India’s actual, ‘normal’ death rate, 24.6, in the same year). The birth rate also fell steeply in 1958, mainly owing to labour mobilisation for collective work.

Two alternative routes have been used to estimate ‘famine deaths’, both of very dubious validity. In the first, the ‘missing millions’ totalling 27 millions in the population pyramid during 1958 to 1961, have been identified with ‘famine deaths’. The problem with this is that not only the people who were actually living and who died in excess of normal numbers are included in the missing millions, but so are all those hypothetical persons included, who were never born at all and who ‘should’ have been born if the birth rate had not fallen. This is not a common-sense definition nor is it a logical definition of famine deaths: for, to ‘die’ in a famine, a minimum necessary condition is to be born in the first place. The Chinese are a highly talented people but even they cannot achieve the feat of dying without being born. If a person is told that 30 million people died, then quite correctly she would infer that those 30 million were alive and then died. The fact that 19 million of them never existed because they were never born in the first place, is not conveyed by the formulation. Hence, there is disingenuousness involved in saying that 30 million people ‘died’: it is an untrue proposition.

The fact that 19 million of them never existed because they were never born in the first place, is not conveyed by the formulation.

The second route, followed by the demographers Coale and Banister, is perhaps even more dubious. They take the population totals yielded by the official 1953 and 1964 Censuses in China to be correct, but dispute the official fertility rate even though it was based on a very large sample of 30 million persons or 5% of the then population, especially canvassed along with the 1953 Census as Nai- Ruenn Chen (1966) had informed us. Instead, they use the much later, Census 1982 study to project back very high fertility rates to the past, thus constructing an entirely hypothetical larger total of births between 1953 and 1964.

 

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1958 People’s commune free for all canteen, where members were supposed to be able to eat all they can eat. The slogan: Eating meal don’t cost money, working hard to production. (Wikimedia Commons).

 

If more people were born over the inter-censal period 1953 to 1964, correspondingly these extra people must also have died over the same period: for both authors despite rejecting every official vital rate, display a touching faith in the absolute Census population totals at these two dates. Hence the official increase in population is kept unchanged, enabling them to assume exactly as many extra deaths as they assume extra births. With this procedure the official figure of total deaths over the inter-censal period, was raised by a heroic 60 percent. Both authors then arbitrarily allocated the assumed higher numbers of deaths over the individual inter-censal years, by assuming varying rates by which deaths were allegedly ‘under-reported’ during each of these years. In short it was entirely up to the demographer how many extra deaths he or she assigned to the Great Leap years, and the totally arbitrary nature of the procedure can be gauged by the fact that Coale raised the 1960 death rate to nearly 39 while Banister raised it to 44.6 (compared to the official death rate of 25.4). There is no reasonable basis for either figure.

Nor is this all: a linear time trend was then fitted by both, to deaths derived from a variable – the death rate – which always behaves non-linearly, and the extent to which the (arbitrarily constructed) death rate was above this declining trend, was then used to derive total ‘excess deaths’, the figure being 27 million for Coale and 30 million for Banister. We know that deaths in a population can never reach zero, so fitting linear trends makes no sense. The linear trend procedure implies that the Chinese population would have reached zero deaths and attained immortality in a few years – a remarkable achievement indeed, an impossible achievement outside the nonsensical statistical procedures followed by the US demographers.

It is a travesty of the norms of academic integrity, that grossly exaggerated estimates of ‘famine’ deaths derived in this arbitrary manner have been uncritically quoted and promoted and that they enjoy so much currency. In my detailed critique (Patnaik 2002) I have also shown the inconsistency of the peak death rates constructed by Coale and Banister, with the foodgrains output and availability figures in China. My calculations also show that the lowest possible availability figures we can get for China after taking into account government procurement, is still higher than in India, and it is a puzzle why, given a much more egalitarian distribution, the death rate should have risen even to the officially declared level. Because the internal political developments in China after 1978 were in the direction of attacking Maoist egalitarianism and the commune system, no repudiation from Chinese sources of the US estimates are to be seen.

 

Related: In a more detailed essay Patnaik estimates that the actual “excess deaths during 1959-61” were not 30 million as Coale and Banister say, but around 11.6 million.

Patnaik’s essay is available here and titled: “On famine and measuring famine death”, in S. Patel, J. Bagchi and Krishna Raj (eds.), Thinking Social Science in India, Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, Sage, New Delhi, 2002c.

 

In sharp contrast to the retrospective, patently ideological construction of hypothetical large famine deaths in China’s Great Leap period and the publicizing of these figures, we find that the demographic collapse in Russia in the first half of the 1990s has been met with a deafening silence from the same academics. The estimation methods which they applied to China are not applied by them to Russia. The facts are that so-called ‘shock therapy’ to usher in capitalism, under the advice of Western experts, led to a catastrophic collapse of GDP in the former socialist states between 1990 and 1996. As Table 1 summarizing United Nations data shows, the GDP level was half or less in Russia and Ukraine by 1996 compared to a decade earlier and collapsed to only one-fifth of the mid-eighties level in Georgia, which was the worst affected. Never in peacetime have we ever seen such a comprehensive destruction of productive capacities and outputs, entirely owing to the wrong macro-economic policies advised by foreign experts and followed by the local policy makers. The human effects have been devastating, with a sharp reversal of the decades of improvement in all human development indicators. The death rate among the able-bodied rose from nearly 49 to 58 (per thousand) comparing 1992 with 1990, and rose further to 84 per thousand by 1994.1  The male expectation of life declined by nearly 6 years in Russia. With the steep rise in the death rate, the total population of Russia showed absolute decline – again, an unprecedented situation in peacetime.

‟The Russian famine is neither internationally recognized nor publicized, for the very good reason that Russia was making a transition to capitalism”.

Where were those academics who profess to be concerned with hunger and famine, when it came to analyzing the economic and demographic collapse in Russia? It can hardly be argued that journalists and the media had no access to the country after 1990. I have said earlier that it is not reasonable to count the effects of the decline in the birth rate if any, to estimate ‘famine deaths’. If we apply a reasonable method of simply taking the 1990 death rate in Russia as the bench mark and calculate the cumulated extra deaths among the able-bodied by 1996 owing to the observed rise in the death rate, we get a figure of more than 4 million excess deaths in Russia alone. Expressed in relation to Russia’s population, this famine was three times larger than the great Bengal famine in India in 1943-44 and twice as large as the Chinese excess mortality – accepting the official figures – during the Great Leap years. The Russian famine is neither internationally recognized nor publicized, for the very good reason that Russia was making a transition to capitalism and it is this process which gave rise to the famine. Those who are eager to try to discredit socialism even at the cost of indefensible statistical procedures, appear to be less than willing to recognize the existence of famine or estimate famine deaths in a ‘transitional’ society like Russia even though the case is a contemporary one and is well documented.

* * * *

The text above is an extract from a lecture from Utsa Patnaik given in 2004 titled The Republic of Hunger, focussed on malnourishment problems in India. This extract, on China and Russia, was included in the lecture as ‘international context of the discussion’. Read a more detailed critique by Patnaik of the estimates of Coale and Banister on China’s death rates here.

 

NOTES

 

1 These death rates were presented in a paper on poverty in Russia, by Prof. P. Gregory, at an international workshop on country studies in poverty held at UNDP, New York on September 20, 1997 and attended by the author.

Bolsheviks got the imperialist war right

 

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The first world war resulted in 40 million casualties: 15 to 19 million deaths and 23 million wounded. (Population of the world was less than two billion – so, in today’s terms, think 150 million casualties). 

It’s one of the major things on which it can be said ‘the Bolsheviks got it right’. They opposed the war as an imperialist one. 

Here’s (excerpts from) what Lenin had to say in a lecture ‘War and Revolution’, May 1917:

 

From the point of view of Marxism, that is, of modern scientific socialism, the main issue in any discussion by socialists on how to assess the war and what attitude to adopt towards it is this: what is the war being waged for, and what classes staged and directed it. We Marxists do not belong to that category of people who are unqualified opponents of all war. We say: our aim is to achieve a socialist   system of society, which, by eliminating the division of mankind into classes, by eliminating all exploitation of man by man and nation by nation, will inevitably eliminate the very possibility of war. But in the war to win that socialist system of society we are bound to encounter conditions under which the class struggle within each given nation may come up against a war between the different nations, a war conditioned by this very class struggle. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility of revolutionary wars, i.e., wars arising from the class struggle, wars waged by revolutionary classes, wars which are of direct and immediate revolutionary significance. Still less can we rule this out when we remember that though the history of European revolutions during the last century, in the course of 125–135 years, say, gave us wars which were mostly reactionary, it also gave us revolutionary wars, such as the war of the French revolutionary masses against a united monarchist, backward, feudal and semi-feudal Europe. No deception of the masses is more widespread today in Western Europe, and latterly here in Russia, too, than that which is practised by citing the example of revolutionary wars. There are wars and wars. We must be clear as to what historical conditions have given rise to the war, what classes are waging it, and for what ends. Unless we grasp this, all our talk about the war will necessarily be utterly futile, engendering more heat than light.

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We say: if you have not studied the policies of both belligerent groups over a period of decades so as to avoid accidental factors and the quoting of random examples if you have not shown what bearing this war has on preceding policies, then you don’t understand what this war is all about.

These policies show us just one thing continuous economic rivalry between the world’s two greatest giants, capitalist   economies. On the one hand we have Britain, a country which owns the greater part of the globe, a country which ranks first in wealth, which has created this wealth not so much by the labour of its workers as by the exploitation of innumerable colonies, by the vast power of its banks which have developed at the head of all the others into an insignificantly small group of some four or five super-banks handling billions of rubles, and handling them in such a way that it can he said without exaggeration that there is not a patch of land in the world today on which this capital has not laid its heavy hand, not a patch of land which British capital has not enmeshed by a thousand threads. This capital grew to such dimensions by the turn of the century that its activities extended far beyond the borders of individual states and formed a group of giant banks possessed of fabulous wealth. Having begotten this tiny group of banks, it has caught the whole world in the net of its billions. This is the sum and substance of Britain’s economic policy and of the economic policy of France, of which even French writers, some of them contributors to L’Humanité,[5] a paper now controlled by ex-socialists (in fact, no less a man than Lysis, the well-known financial writer), stated several years before the war: “France is a financial monarchy, France is a financial oligarchy, France is the world’s money-lender.”

On the other hand, opposed to this, mainly Anglo-French group, we have another group of capitalists, an even more rapacious, even more predatory one, a group who came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the seats were occupied, but who introduced into the struggle new methods for developing capitalist production, improved techniques, and superior organisation, which turned the old capitalism, the capitalism of the free-competition age, into the capitalism of giant trusts, syndicates, and cartels. This group introduced the beginnings of state-controlled capitalist production, combining the colossal power of capitalism with the colossal power of the state into a single mechanism and bringing tens of millions of people within the single organisation of state capitalism. Here is economic history, here is diplomatic history, covering several decades, from which no one can get away. It is the one and only guide-post to a proper solution of the problem of war; it leads you to the conclusion that the present war, too, is the outcome of the policies of the classes who have come to grips in it, of the two supreme giants, who, long before the war, had caught the whole world, all countries, in the net of financial exploitation and economically divided the globe up among themselves. They were bound to clash, because a redivision of this supremacy, from the point of view of capitalism, had become inevitable.

 

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The present war is a continuation of the policy of conquest, of the shooting down of whole nationalities, of unbelievable atrocities committed by the Germans and the British in Africa, and by the British and the Russians in Persia which of them committed most it is difficult to say. It was for this reason that the German capitalists looked upon them as their enemies. Ah, they said, you are strong because you are rich? But we are stronger, therefore we have the same “sacred” right to plunder. That is what the real history of British and German finance capital in the course of several decades preceding the war amounts to. That is what the history of Russo-German, Russo-British, and German-British relations amounts to. There you have the clue to an understanding of what the war is about. That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back! The logical thing, following this line of argument, would be to close down all newspapers, burn all books and ban all mention of annexations in the newspapers. In this way such a view of annexations could be justified. They can’t tell the truth about annexations because the whole history of Russia,   Britain, and Germany has been one of continuous, ruthless and sanguinary war over annexations. Ruthless wars were waged in Persia and Africa by the Liberals, who flogged political offenders in India for daring to put forward demands which were being fought for here in Russia. The French colonial troops oppressed peoples too. There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation. That is why, on the question of annexations, they cannot give the reply that we give, when we say that any nation joined to another one, not by the voluntary choice of its majority but by a decision of a king or government, is an annexed nation. To renounce annexation is to give each nation the right to form a separate state or to live in union with whomsoever it chooses. An answer like that is perfectly clear to every worker who is at all class-conscious.

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On the question of America entering the war I shall say this. People argue that America is a democracy, America   has the White House. I say: slavery was abolished there half a century ago. The anti-slave war ended in 1865. Since then multimillionaires have mushroomed. They have the whole of America in their financial grip. They are making ready to subdue Mexico and will inevitably come to war with Japan over a carve-up of the Pacific. This war has been brewing for several decades. All literature speaks about it. America’s real aim in entering the war is to prepare for this future war with Japan. The American people do enjoy considerable freedom and it is difficult to conceive them standing for compulsory military service, for the setting up of an army pursuing any aims of conquest a struggle with Japan, for instance. The Americans have the example of Europe to show them what this leads to. The American capitalists have stepped into this war in order to have an excuse, behind a smoke-screen of lofty ideals championing the rights of small nations, for building up a strong standing army

 

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Those interested in the socialist movement should read the Basle Manifesto of 1912 adopted unanimously by all the socialist parties of the world, a manifesto that was published in our newspaper Pravda, a manifesto that can be published now in none of the belligerent countries, neither in “free” Britain nor in republican France, because it said the truth about war before the war. It said that there would be war between Britain and Germany as a result of capitalist competition. It said that so much powder had accumulated that the guns would start shooting of their own accord. It told us what the war would be fought for, and said that the war would lead to a proletarian revolution. Therefore, we tell those socialists who signed this Manifesto and then went over to the side of their capitalist governments that they have betrayed socialism. There has been a split among the socialists all over the world. Some are in ministerial cabinets, others in prison. All over the world some socialists are preaching a war build-up, while others, like Eugene Debs, the American Bebel, who enjoys immense popularity among the American workers, say: “I’d rather be shot than give a cent towards the war. I’m willing to fight only the proletariat’s war against the capitalists all over the world.” That is how the socialists have split throughout the world. The world’s social-patriots think they are defending their country. They are mistaken they are defending the interests of one band of capitalists against another. We preach proletarian revolution the only true cause, for which scores of people have gone to the scaffold, and hundreds and thousands have been thrown into prison. These imprisoned socialists are a minority, but the working class is for them, the whole course of economic development is for them. All this tells us that there is no other way out. The only way to end this war is by a workers’ revolution in several countries. In the meantime we should make preparations for that revolution, we should assist it. For all its hatred of war and desire for peace, the Russian people could do nothing against the war, so long as it was being waged by the tsar, except work for a revolution   against the tsar and for the tsar’s overthrow. And that is what happened. History proved this to you yesterday and will prove it to you tomorrow. We said long ago that the mounting Russian revolution must be assisted. We said that at the end of 1914. Our Duma deputies were deported to Siberia for this, and we were told: “You are giving no answer. You talk about revolution when the strikes are off, when the deputies are doing hard labour, and when you haven’t a single newspaper!” And we were accused of evading an answer. We heard those accusations for a number of years. We answered: You can be indignant about it, but so long as the tsar has not been overthrown we can do nothing against the war. And our prediction was justified. It is not fully justified yet, but it has already begun to receive justification. The revolution is beginning to change the war on Russia’s part. The capitalists are still continuing the war, and we say: Until there is a workers’ revolution in several countries the war cannot be stopped, because the people who want that war are still in power. We are told: “In a number of countries everything seems to be asleep. In Germany all the socialists to a man are for the war, and Liebknecht is the only one against it.” To this I say: This only one, Liebknecht, represents the working class. The hopes of all are in him alone, in his supporters, in the German proletariat. You don’t believe this? Carry on with the war then! There is no other way. If you don’t believe in Liebknecht, if you don’t believe in the workers’ revolution, a revolution that is coming to a head if you don’t believe this then believe the capitalists!

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Also worth checking out is Lenin in July 1915 on ‘The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war‘. He gives Trotsky a serving for being a ‘social chauvinist’.

Lest we forget.

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The politics of the House and of the City… New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

‘… an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face”. And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes’.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this contribution.

* * * *

New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

And the rest goes…

 

New York, New York, all the scandal and the vice …

I love it.

New York New York, now isn’t it a pity

What they say about New York City?

 

I loved this song when it came out, its cheek, irreverence and capacity to laugh at itself. And I couldn’t help being reminded of it as I was reading the late Marshall Berman’s On The Town, One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. Both seemed to be singing from the same song sheet.

 

While this post has been prompted by my reading of Berman’s final book my point in doing so springs from my view of how important the city – urban life and experience – is in human development and how ‘missing the boat’ much of the left has been in accepting both the opportunities and challenges this development has thrown up.  The politics I will be drawing attention to (and where the left is, or should be in relation to it) can be summarised in the distinction to be made between the politics of the House and the politics of the Street. And let me be clear, I’m for the politics of the Street. I will give some space to the House further down, but first lets go for a walk because the modern city creates an essential link in providing individuals, in particular working class individuals, with opportunities for personal development and growth (they are individuals as well as members of a class, remember) opportunities for them to break free of the constraints imposed by the House.

 

What impressed me about Berman’s book – the spin Berman puts on the maelstrom that is the modern world generally and of which Times Square is a highly concentrated symbol – is its vitality and its liberating aspect. And in saying this I in no way wish to downplay or ignore the challenges that have accompanied this. Berman makes no claim to being the first to highlight this and makes reference to two French writers of past centuries to point out that the link between modernity and the Street, while an essential feature of modernity,  is not new. A key Enlightenment figure, Montesquieu wrote of it in his Persian Letters (1721), and over a century later the poet Baudelaire identified the modern urban centre as a space where old (pre modern) boundaries were broken down and new possibilities opened up, coining the term “the heroism of modern life’ in the process. Times Square, the flawed hero of Berman’s book has lived, or should I say enabled, Baudelaire’s heroism in concentrated form since the 1890’s.

 

Berman gets down to business straight away describing the modern city as a place that enables an individual to be both oneself and someone else. Being social animals we carry the seeds of curiosity, a desire for growth and an empathic sensibility within us and the possibilities described by Berman enables their germination and growth. What is made possible here is to expand beyond oneself, beyond formerly socially or family imposed boundaries and constraints, to be able to transcend these limits and grow.

 

In the early 21stC the Islamic fascists are acutely aware of and threatened by this possibility and this helps explain their violent hatred of modernizing influences that disrupt and transform social and family relations. Please note that social and family relations are not being spoken of here as abstract relations, but as relations that still have pre modern or medieval hooks embedded in the flesh of the men, women and children who are the real life players in those relations. Those who identify with the left should not be too smug about this because although what now passes for the left have never approached the loony killjoy levels of the Islamic fascists or Islamic fundamentalists generally, it  has historically contained a strong current of killjoyism of which the odd parallel can be drawn – that being the antipathy and mistrust felt about the unconstrained individual, let loose from the ‘safe’ bonds of the House where, historically, the teaching and maintenance of family and social hierarchy were enacted.

“One of the primary human rights is the right to the city” argues Berman, the right to a space and an opportunity for individual and social transformation. But how does the city enable this, what makes it happen? And, in any case, anticipating mutterings coming from the background, aren’t there casualties, I mean cities are hardly beds of thornless roses and many with progressive pretensions think thorns is about all they have or have come to have.

Enter Times square, what it represents and opens up.

Times Square as we know it – an entertainment and commercial centre – came into its own with electrification and by the 1890’s had already developed a ‘reputation’ that scandalized the morally precious of the day by giving them innumerable reasons to hyperventilate and complain about falling moral standards. It takes little imagination to write their script – the denunciation of public spaces like bars, theatres, dance halls, cafes and the like as “brothels” or to understand it as a voice belonging to the House.

Initially this group had, to rope in modern terminology, some diversity, being a collection of traditional moralists, including secular moralists and evangelicals. Low hanging fruit one might think. But by the early 20thC their number came to include secular intellectuals with left politics “who wanted the masses to be radical and militant and to struggle for their rights…” [just so long as these rights didn’t extend to expressions of individual and sexual freedom] “…who believed that commercial mass culture was corrupting their minds”. In spite of the cultural shift in social attitudes to sexual mores this whinge remains a very contemporary trope. And it wasn’t just (or even, if we are to be honest) commercial mass culture that was the main corrupting element, it was sex. No surprises here of course.

Both men and women had good reason to be drawn to the Square’s promise, to be able to break free of the rigid stereotypes and expectations of the House, stereotypes and expectations that had been particularly constraining on women. A good way of looking at the complaints of the moralists (of whatever hue) – the Mary Whitehouse set and the Iranian and Saudi  moral police being more contemporary equivalents – was that they were complaining about the breakdown between the rigid separation of the House and Street and the power relations between the sexes that were reflected in this. This distinction rang bells for me in two ways. Most importantly (and most recently) it summed up a lot of what I have seen in the work I have been doing in the family violence arena and the refugee/new settlers arena where individuals and families have come from regions where the transition from the traditional to the modern is unfinished business. Here women are supposed to belong in the House; it is not only their domain, it is where they belong and where they have been kept.

In western societies women have been on the Street and fighting for their right to be there for a considerable period as the examples of Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Jacques Brel (see below), amongst others and Times Square indicate, but for many coming from backward or relatively undeveloped regions this fight is in its early stages. By way of example a former colleague had recorded a series of interviews with three former refugees from Africa dealing with family based violence and “upside down families”. The female interviewee, entering middle age and with dependent children, had likened traditional marriage in Africa to “a prison” where she was obliged to obey her mother in law and submit to the overall authority of the men of her husband’s family. She initially found the situation in Australia so different and confusing that, she explained, “for two years we go mad”. She meant by this that the breakdown of the rigid and hierarchical boundaries between the House and the Street was so exhilarating and discombobulating that it took, in her experience, two years for the penny to drop that with this new freedom came the opportunity for personal growth and, contained in this package, personal responsibility. That being said, she was under no illusions that upside down was the right way up.

 

Baudelaire’s ‘heroism of the street’ spoke of this development in the mid 19th century, but over a century earlier Montesquieu had noticed that the cat was already coming out of the bag in his Persian Letters. Montesquieu and I go back a long way, to my first year at university and we parted company soon after (read almost immediately) and too soon for me to really get was he was on about when it came to urban life and modernity. Time, Berman and an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face,”” And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes.

And this brings me to the second bell ringing aspect of the distinction between the House and the Street and that is the overtly political aspect, that which should be the bread and butter of those holding revolutionary or radical pretensions. Here I found Berman’s take on Times Square (and by implication its equivalents elsewhere) refreshing, thought provoking and speaking directly to the synthesising sensibility that sits at the analytic heart of Marxism – or, rather, should sit at its heart. Above I had touched upon the modern cities transformative qualities, qualities that enable growth and that throw up new challenges. Berman describes Broadway street culture as being created by the sons of migrants, especially from the more backward areas of Europe, who had come to America seeking a better life. With them they not only brought aspirations that challenged the old ways, but constraints that contained them, a cultural drag from the old times, representing the mores of the traditional House. One of the aspirations of the sons was for this street culture to include women. Women also wanted that space and stepped in, although not yet as equals. It was a task of the daughters (and granddaughters …) to begin to renegotiate the rules of the dance.

But from the word go the daughters were part of the action and as early as 1892, a mere eight years before the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Union in New York, a writer wrote of working class women, lonely after a working day venturing out of their hall bedroom, cold and lonely ”to lose herself in the unending procession on Broadway.” Berman points out that “there may never have been such a vast variety of women thrown together in any one place before.”

The square emerged as a place where men, women, kids from all over the world dreamed of ‘making spectacles of themselves’, of being unveiled. Picking up the same theme late Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel, in his song Timid Frieda picked up in the mid 20thC where Montesquieu and Baudelaire had left off in the preceding two. And in doing so he was able to highlight the tensions and challenges of the politics of the Street that had now fully matured. Timid Frieda:

Will they greet her

On the street where

Young strangers travel

On magic carpets

Floating lightly

In beaded caravans

Who can know if

They will free her

On the street where

She comes to join them

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Will life seize her

On the street where

The new dreams gather

Like fearless robins

Joined together

In high-flying bands

She feels taller

Troubles smaller

On the street where

She’s lost in wonder

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Won’t return now

To the home where

They do not need her

But always feed her

Little lessons

And platitudes from cans

She is free now

She will be now

On the street where

The beat’s electric

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Who will lead her

On the street where

The cops all perish

For they can’t break her

And she can take her

Brave new fuck you stand

Yet she’s frightened

Her senses heightened

On the street where

The darkness brightens

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

If you see her

On the street where

The future gathers

Just let her be her

Let her play in

The broken times of sand

There she goes now

Down the sidewalk

On the street where

The world is bursting

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands.

 

It is a fabulous song. As one would anticipate after 200 plus years Brel’s lyrics picks up Montesquieu’s identification of early promise and Baudelaire’s more developed 19thC depiction and exposes a fully developed dialectic. The left I identify with walk with Timid Frieda offering encouragement if asked for – although she seems to be doing pretty well under her own steam. The square, the Street simultaneously liberated women and presented them (and the guys) with new challenges. But there was no turning back. If the rules of the dance were to be renegotiated you needed to be on the dance floor.

As touched upon above revolutionary parties or organisations (or those with pretensions), have a pretty chequered history when it comes to jumping onto the dance floor, letting their hair down and encouraging others to join in. And when it comes to understanding the transformative possibilities inherent in this they didn’t even make it onto the dance floor. The irony here is that the proverbial masses – and most were working class remember – were showing us the way and embracing “the street where the future gathers.” In doing so they ignored the cautionary, if not disapproving tones coming from comrade central about bourgeois frivolity and self indulgence undermining class solidarity and commitment to ‘the struggle’.

Breaking out and having fun, especially where sex is stirring the pot, has been more House than Street with communist parties and organisations stepping around the issue rather than embracing it. Class struggle and revolutionary politics were serious business (this aspect is true) and demanded a commitment that found the ‘letting one’s hair down’ side of things diversionary (read, with Russian Accent) petty bourgeois individualism. This aspect is not true and is a false antithesis; it is a voice coming from the House.

This is not to suggest that the tension between the serious aspect and being “on the street where the beats electric” is ever in abstract balance. Letting one’s hair down for those revolutionaries in occupied Europe during WW2 was not an option and needed to be put on ice while confusing right wing bourgeois democrats as ‘fascists’ and drawing parallels with Nazism is simply nutty and a sign of isolation. Please pass the bucket of cold water.

What the politics of the Street does, in effect, is ‘invite’ us to look forward, to grapple seriously with the contradictions inherent in its development, those affecting personal development, our place in the dance, in particular and to try and identify the synthesising processes that take us forward, that open up new possibilities and new challenges. But this remains an invitation; free will, choice and responsibility cannot be avoided whether we accept the invitation or not. While it would be drawing a long bow to say that the left’s collapse has been due to its inability to transcend the politics of the House and embrace that of the Street – its failure to get on top of economic challenges and present credible revolutionary alternatives having a bit to say about this collapse too – the left’s conflation of the development of individuality with bourgeois individualism has seen it trailing rather than leading.

This aspect has been a primary interest of mine since my work as a relational and group therapist has forced me to confront the place of choice and personal responsibility within the context of group and family dynamics and by implication social dynamics. This has taken a sharper form with the work I have done over the past 10-15 years with individuals and groups from within what is called new and emerging communities – primarily refugee communities – where the politics of the House, the traditional understandings or role and place, have been predominant. The link between this and the transformative possibilities of the Street became impossible to ignore. Nor was the link to the left’s ambivalence and its failure to confront and transcend its own assumptions regarding individual growth and development, especially as this related to the place of women. We need to get back onto the dance floor and formulate a few moves of our own.

* * * *

 

Man stupid, gorilla wise… Koko say so…

Social media can be good, as we saw with the Egyptian uprising, but it can also be dumb-arsed awful. The latest example of the latter is a clip mourning the death of a gorilla named Koko. The clip has gone viral.

 

 

Koko was a special type of gorilla, raised closely by a human. Koko learned hundreds of signs that meant she could communicate with humans far better than other gorillas.

Non-human animals can be taught to respond in particular ways through reward. It’s commonplace and known as operant conditioning. Koko was very good at it, and also displayed a capacity for affection outside her species. A youtube clip showing her caring for a kitten also went viral.

I feel sorry that an impressive beast like Koko has died. On the other hand, not being in her natural environment, not being in the wild, she lived to a long age for a gorilla – 46 years.

What is truly gob-smacking about the latest audio-visual mourning of Koko’s passing is the suggestion that somehow Koko had a wisdom that ‘Man’ does not possess. As Koko puts it, via her ‘sign language’ – of course, as interpreted by her long-time human trainer:

“Man stupid”…

“Fix Earth. Help Earth!”

“Koko love Earth”, “Hurry!” and, a not-so-subtle warning: “Nature sees you”. (The Three Stooges would have responded to the threat with nyaaaahhhh! )

Thus far, the clip has had twenty million views and ten thousand comments. Overwhelmingly, the comments are of the self-righteous, reactionary, Nature worshiping kind that belittles humanity and places the wisdom of the beast/Nature above humanity.

I wonder whether any of those posting such comments have reflected on the fact that they are doing so thanks to the Internet – something no beast could comprehend let alone create. (Not to mention the art of Leonardo or the music of Monk). Etc Etc.

It’s all very reminiscent of the Nazi philosophical commitment to a ‘religion of Nature’ and the ‘wisdom of the forests’. As German National Socialist propaganda put it:

Deep in the forest
Will be born the nation’s knowledge

In fundamental contrast to the ‘religion of Nature’ outlook, the social media commentary about Koko brought to my mind Karl Marx’s reference to another famous simian, Kanuman, in his article on the British rule in India in the New York Times in 1853.

Marx wrote that,

‘We must not forget that these little [Hindustan] communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution’.

* * * *

People, and people alone, are the motive force of History!

* * * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s DNA got to do with it? Senator Warren, tribalism and opposing the politics of ‘volk’…

US Democrat Senator, Elizabeth Warren, seems to think she has scored some kind of point against Trump by proving in a DNA test that she might have 1/64th or 1,024th Native American ancestry going back six to ten generations.  All she has achieved is making the Democrats look even sillier than they have thus far in taking every morsel of Trump bait in the absence of alternative practicable policies.

Something else she achieved was condemnation from the Cherokee Nation whose spokesman rightly saw the claim as patronizing.

But, really, for heaven’s sake, what does it matter? Has our political culture moved so far to the Right that it is now acceptable to believe that DNA is connected to culture? That one’s ‘race’ or ethnicity influences, in some organic way, one’s outlook? That there is a ‘white outlook’ and a ‘black outlook’? Etc. Etc.

I expect this when it comes from the racialist overt Right – like the Hansonites in Australia and ‘Proud Boys’ in the US – but it is just crazy when it comes from people who identify as being on the left. A core left-wing belief for at least 170 years has always been that humanity rises above the volk, and it is our common humanity that matters.

The left that I joined back in the Sixties argued that we were all one, ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ together, with a common class enemy, and that all outlooks are stamped with the brand of a class as the overriding factor, not by the brand of skin tone.

* * * *

Some comments on the above from comrades:

‘I was glad to see the Indian response was to tell Warren to go forth and multiply.
‘The disturbing and deeply reactionary undercurrent to all this is the defacto valorizing of and return to tribalism. My guess with the Cherokee position is that tribalism is a place we have come from – the Toronto piece was pretty explicit with this, speaking of Indigenous peoples as opposed to this or that tribe – not a place we wish to simply return to. Part of the synthesizing journey is to take pride in where you have come from, in other words. The current fetish with identity stuff promotes a stepping back. In the very old and tribal days other tribes people were regarded with mistrust and as not really human, meaning ‘not like us’ and were devalued accordingly. There are parts of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, describing his lengthy contact with remotely located hill tribes in New Guinea where he describes precisely this. And I seem to have heard of a time in the 30’s and 40’s of last century when identity politics became a big ‘thing for some Ayran mob…
‘Warren is an opportunist joke. What she is appealing to is as reactionary as all blazes’.
****
‘I agree but think the point is that the Democrats like the ALP are not left. Not sure if we can rescue the “left” or socialism and I prefer to focus on the ideas and drop the labels. The democrats are right wing but it doesn’t matter just that their policies, ideas are wrong and so are the Republicans. They represent the same people and want to focus on the real difference between them, their personalities. Think most people want change and unfortunately there seems no alternative.
‘Am not sure if they are taking the Trump bait or whether Trump is aware they have no option. They cant debate policy as most of their members have the same policies’.
****

‘The Wall Street Journal had an article pointing out that millions of American whites have a speck of African or Indian. So we are all oppressed minorities now.

‘I haven’t really been following “identity politics” closely, so I can’t say too much. It seems hard to counter without being given a nasty label.  And the right is having a field day. Great for class unity, not’.

****

 

 

 

 

Alternative ‘national anthem’ for Australia – Vale Peter Gelling (1960-2018)

One of my best friends, Peter Gelling, died at the end of September, aged 58. He was a brilliant musician across a range of styles and instruments but mainly blues and guitar and harmonica.

My obituary-feature for him was published in ‘The Canberra Times’.

At the wake for Peter, held at Tilley’s Devine Cafe in Canberra, a recording of his alternative national anthem, ‘Australia we don’t care’, was played – everyone stood for it. He would have loved that.

Peter was frequently annoyed by musicians who claimed to be blues artists yet invariably played rock. When I first saw him play, at a gig where he accompanied Wendy Saddington in August 1990, his subtlety, sophisticated syncopation and authentic blues sensibility jumped out at me, as it was so rare in Australia.

Perhaps for this reason, Peter was able to readily grasp the concept of ‘pseudo-left’, that a left position needs more than an individual or group adopting a label for its justification – just as it takes more than a ‘blues’ label to make one a genuine blues musician.

I’m not aware that he ever adopted an “ism” but he was a deep dialectical thinker and repudiated both the pseudo-left and the overt conservative/reactionary Right. He occasionally checked out C21st Left, and would be pleased for me to pay tribute to him here. He didn’t have formal university qualifications but was better than most academics I know, when it comes to literature and philosophy and critical thought.

A humanist, atheist, and gentle man who continued his service to others in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for decades after getting ‘clean’, he liked to quote an anecdote told by Buddy Guy about BB King, which relates to ‘cultural appropriation’:

BB King and I were in Memphis once and this lady ran up to him and said, ‘Hey man, these white people are taking the blues from us.’ BB said, No ma’am. They didn’t take it. You just quit listening to it.’

Peter wrote, performed and recorded his alternative national anthem, ‘Australia we don’t care’ around 2001.  It expresses his support for refugees and satirizes nationalism.

Please share it.

Vale Peter.

 

Here’s another of Peter’s songs – ‘Ought to be ashamed’ – about male chauvinism, reflecting his support for women’s empowerment.

 

(Pseudo) Lefty Boot Camp

This clip from the ABC’s recently axed, ‘Tonightly with Tom Ballard’ show, is further indication that a wider range of people, including a fairly smug ABC TV comedy show, are fed up with the pseudo-left. The critique is solid and works well as satire. Of course, it has nothing much to offer as an alternative beyond getting ‘out there’ – but still very good to see.

The comedian doing the routine is Jazz Twemlow.