Red Traces: A Marxist history of  culture and class struggle
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46

Red Traces: A Marxist history of culture and class struggle

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith introduces his new book

The past is never dead. It's not even past. - William Faulkner

The essays are written in the spirit of Leon Trotsky’s writings in the 1920s on art, culture and science. Amid the turmoil of playing a leading role in governing the world’s first workers’ state, Trotsky believed it was also important to demonstrate that Marxism - the presiding ideology of the new regime - has persuasive explanatory power when it comes to analysing the full spectrum of human activities. In two books, Problems of Everyday Life and Literature and Revolution, he brilliantly addressed a range of questions not normally associated with the concerns of historical materialism.

In the latter, for example, Trotsky discusses both the historical forces in thirteenth century Italy that led Dante the poet to create The Divine Comedy and the reasons such a cultural artefact would still resonate centuries later. In the former, he explains how it can be illuminating to consider that the year 1871 witnessed both the Paris Commune and Mendeleyev’s prediction that there would be new elements to be added to the Periodic Table. Trotsky’s materialist method to culture in the widest sense is also encapsulated in a discussion of how a full comprehension of ecclesiastical buildings in the Middle Ages requires more than observation of their physical characteristics:

‘The architectural scheme of the Cologne cathedral can be established by measuring the base and the height of its arches, by determining the three dimensions of its naves, the
dimensions and the placement of the columns, etc. But without knowing what a mediaeval city was like, what a guild was, or what was the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Cologne cathedral will never be understood.’

Trotsky posits that the greatest creations of the human intellect - across the range of disciplines - cannot be comprehended apart from their social and historical context; but nor are they mechanically reducible to the conditions of that context. They are the products of a crucially dialectical interaction between individual genius and the collective values of a particular epoch. In his words, the type of cultural achievements mentioned above, are:

‘the organic sum of knowledge and capacity which characterises the entire society, or at least its ruling class. It embraces and penetrates all fields of human work and unifies them into a system. Individual achievements rise above this level and elevate it gradually.’

The reason these intellectual peaks still inspire awe and wonder, sometimes millennia later, is that they are the products of human communities battling to survive and articulate their mental conceptions of the world in the face of environmental and social obstacles not dissimilar to those that confront us today. Trotsky writes:

‘in a class society, in spite of all its changeability, there are certain common features…these feelings and moods shall have received such broad, intense, powerful expression as to have raised them above the limitations of the life of those days.’

Similarly, regarding the cultural artefacts considered in the following pages, there is an attempt to explain that an awareness of the social conditions that produced The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Analects, The Aeneid and other intellectual monuments of antiquity in no way detracts from the genius of their creators. In fact, it enhances our appreciation and empathy for the human beings who have contributed to what the great Italian Marxist Gramsci refers to as the cultural unification of the human race which will occur in a future beyond class society.

The book also aims to demonstrate that the study of the ancient world is not remote from the concerns of the present. The ‘Red Traces’ outlined in the chapters refer to the numerous occasions news headlines from the 21st century can be related in an informative way to the class conflicts and crises of antiquity. Two stories, for instance, have dominated the global political agenda in recent months. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has developed into a power struggle between Putin and Nato, with the Zelensky regime essentially acting as a proxy force for the latter. Strategic control of the Black Sea and maritime access to the Mediterranean is one aspect of this contest; the same motives that likely lay at the root of the semi-historical Trojan war around 1200 BCE. Similarly, the ruthless assault by the Israeli army on innocent civilians in Gaza mirrors, with tragic irony, the decimation of Jewish resistance in the same location by Rome in the first century CE.

One other aspiration of the book is to draw attention to some great Marxist historians whose works are perhaps not as well known today as they deserve to be. The studies of Max Raphael, Gordon Childe and Dirk Struik on aspects of the ancient world are neglected even in left-wing circles and merit a wider readership. All three of these figures, and others mentioned in the book, strove to integrate a radical conception of how the struggles of the oppressed for a better world in the past can inspire the same type of struggles in the present.

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s

Dennis Broe discusses the opposition between corporate and alternative media, now and in the 1950s. Image above: Charlotta Bass, editor of The California Eagle

Today with the wars on Gaza, in the Ukraine, and the possible coming war on China, there is a huge gap between what is being said in the mainstream media and what is being said on alternative sites on the internet.

Recently, for example, on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the New York Times ran a Pentagon and State Department account of the war. In this account, the war was started by Russia on February 24, 2022. It included its reasons for being (Putin’s aggressiveness which now threatens all Europe) and its possible outcome (there is none, just continual fighting).

This contrasted sharply on every point with political organizer Brian Becker and Global South scholar Vijay Prashad’s view on the podcast, YouTube, and streaming show The Socialist Program. Prajad and Becker noted that what they called “The Ukrainian Civil War” started nearly a decade earlier in 2014, after a U.S.-backed coup aided by Ukrainian Nazis overthrew the elected head of the country and started bombing the Russian majority Donetsk region killing 14,000 people.

Russia’s “Special Military Operation” then was the response to NATO threatening to absorb Ukraine and put missiles on Russia’s border, with the Russians, almost since the beginning of the SMO, suing for peace in an agreement that was sabotaged by Boris Johnson and the West.

The line of demarcation between on the one hand corporate media and the political class, led by the nose by the arms and fossil fuel industries and by powerful lobbying groups such as Israel’s AIPEC, and on the other hand the legion of podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers and online publications that are every day standing against this deadly barrage, is more sharply drawn than ever. It’s social media versus what seems more and more like antisocial, bellicose and belligerent media.

Interestingly, these lines can also be traced beyond today’s internet alternative media explosion to an earlier period where, with the outlawing and excising of many of the ideas and social practices of the more collectivist and worker-oriented New Deal, there was an equally momentous battle between the corporate media – in this case the dominant newspapers – and newspapers which spoke to and represented audiences left out of the corporate consensus.

Nowhere was this difference starker than in Los Angeles between the high-circulation Los Angeles Times, which had also launched a second paper and its own television station, and the African-American paper The California Eagle, which began in the 1920s and championed the rights of Negroes to own property where they wanted in a heavily segregated city.

The former was run by the Chandler family, who were rabidly anti-union champions of an Anglo Los Angeles, spread out across the county in suburban, individual, single-family homes with a system of freeways and building projects that benefitted Chandler real estate interests. The Times utilized and promoted “anti-communism” as a way of smearing its opponents.

The Eagle’s editor Charlotta Bass stood instead for the vision of an integrated and equal Los Angeles, defending public transit and community institutions, and welcoming peaceful and harmonious intercourse with the socialist world of Russia and China.

 Boo cover

The House That Buff Built 

These differences are also sharply illustrated in my latest Harry Palmer detective novel The House That Buff Built where Harry, in the course of helping his Chinese client to integrate the town of Torrance, encounters both Charlotta and the Chandlers and is stunned by the difference between “The Eagle, [Charlotta’s] modest paper, and the gigantic, but for her monstrous, L.A. Times.

While The Eagle was supported by its African-American community, the Times was the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in the country’s most booming region in the post war period, read and advertised in by the city’s elite. In 1950, the paper, though improving, was still opposed to original unbiased reporting and according to David Halberstam in The Powers That Be was filled with wire service briefs, dispatches from city corporations that it partially controlled and “slanted political coverage that read more like memos from and to the Republican Central Committee than journalism.”

To Segregate or Not to Segregate: Housing in Los Angeles

A primary area of disagreement between the two newspapers was segregation versus inclusion, in the battle over Los Angeles housing. The Chandlers’ vision was of an Anglo Los Angeles with white flight peopling the suburbs and its new inhabitants manoeuvering through a system of freeways with the land, the building materials for the roadways and even the rubber for the automobiles coming from Chandler companies.

The city meanwhile would be remade, with the Times favoring a gutting of the low income habitats of Bunker Hill and Mexican-American villages in what is now Chavez Ravine and the buildup of the Northern part of downtown near the Times building with Norman Chandler, the heir to the fortune in the 1950s, being told when he took over the paper that the key to the editorial page was to “think of what is good for real estate.” The paper actively promoted these interests and this demolition. “Our future,” Dorothy Chandler tells Harry in a candid admission “was not in trying to be a paper for the black or the Latino populations or the low-income white population.”

The Eagle meanwhile was instrumental in furthering Negro expansion out of the tight quarters around Central Avenue where African-Americans had been confined, and instead moving into homes both north and south of this area. Prior to this period a method of enforcement of segregation was restrictive covenants, which forbid homeowners from selling to the “Negro or Mongolian” races, thus also limiting the Chinese to Chinatown. In 1948 the Supreme Court outlawed this use in a case argued by Eagle reporter Loren Miller who would succeed Bass in running the paper in 1951. 

Buffy norman 

Buffy and Norman Chandler

A major site where segregation was either fostered or contested was the society or women’s pages of each paper. Norman’s wife Dorothy Chandler, nicknamed Buffy or Buff, took over those pages in the Times and used them to blackmail wealthy donors to support her vision of “modern” Los Angeles built around what would become gleaming corporate skyscrapers and cultural centres, perched on a demolished Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Charlotta Bass used the back pages of The Eagle to fashion women’s groups which she called on for support when homeowners moving out of Central Avenue were beseiged by aggressive “neighbours” who attempted to drive them out of their homes, and this was after the Supreme Court decision which applied only to federal housing projects.

As Harry puts it in the novel, “I thought about the contrast between The California Eagle’s Charlotta Bass, who used the society pages of her publication to rally Negro ladies to defend the hard-won housing gains of her readers trying to secure a better place in Dorothy’s society, and Dorothy’s organizing of the rich [through the Times society pages] in a way that excluded everyone else and furthered their own power.”

Collectivist vs. Individualist Futures

There was also two different visions of the city professed by each publication. The Times was rabidly anti-union, going back to its founder General Otis, who called union leaders “corpse defacers” and unions “the poison of the American future,” and actively resisted unions at the paper. The Times instead favored dividing working people by breaking up urban neighbourhoods and housing them in more isolated, individual units in the suburbs.

 Who framed

Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the plot to sabotage public transportation in LA

The newspaper was against public transportation, instead promoting the individual in his or her own car and declaring on its editorial pages that "Southern California throbs in unison with the purring motors of its automobiles." The paper championed the building of the country’s first freeway which connected the ultra-rich old wealth community of Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles and was then followed by the Harbor, Hollywood, Long Beach and Santa Anna freeways.

The Eagle defended the cheap and environmentally effective mass transit trolleys and buses which ferried its readers to and from work, and was a champion of trade unions, many of which were integrated. They also had African-American women not only as members but also as leaders, in the factories that had sprung up as Southern California became the country’s main motor of production during the war.

When Harry visits Charlotta Bass at the office of The Eagle she lays out this difference:

“She described a city that on one side was made up of the Klan, the National Rifle Association and property restriction organizations, and on the other the labor movement, the Negro, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese minorities; ‘those people who do the work in the city and who are fighting against the threat of a new fascism at home.’”

Cold War vs. Enduring Peace

Following the lead of its founder General Otis, who led a slaughter against Filipino women and children in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, named his homes “The Bivouac” and “The Outpost,” and organized the Times staff in an anti-union “phalanx” armed with rifles and shotguns, the Times in the 1950s under Norman Chandler was a huge supporter of the Cold War and the anti-communism campaign.

Union busting 

Union Busting at the LA Times 

The Times pushed Richard Nixon in his successful run for the Senate in 1950, calling his red-baiting attack on Alger Hiss “heroic,” as well as being a firm backer of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid finding of communists next door to every American, lauding McCarthy’s bullying tactics as speaking softly and “carrying the big stick of logic.”

The mainstream newspaper used the generalized attack on what amounted to the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal to eventually install their own candidate for mayor, Norman Poulson, in 1952, who would veto what the paper saw as the eyesore of public housing and apply the Cold War policy of “containment” on the home front to keep minority communities bottled up and limit expansion.

On the other hand, The Eagle in its pages constantly favored peace and understanding with both the established socialist republic of Russia and the emerging socialist state of China. The paper covered a global conference on women’s rights in Beijing in 1949 which promoted a transnational anti-colonial platform for women fighting imperial oppression, covered a speech by Paul Robeson’s wife in China, and reported positively on the gains of the revolution as distributing land “so now everyone has a home, a chance to go to school and a job with women treated as equals.”

womens conference 

Women’s anti-colonial conference in Beijing in 1949 

The paper also had a diametrically opposed view of containment, terming the reinstitution of personal homeowner restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision “re-covenanting,” supporting activists who “made it clear that they had not fought to destroy fascism abroad only to have it camping on their doorsteps at home.”

As for the real post-war menace and threat, in the novel Charlotta Bass, who has just been assaulted by a gang of white teens, tells Harry that “They always talk about Negro and Mexican violence, but in reality, and it’s true in your case with the Chinese as well, the real fear is white violence.”

The past as mirror into the future

Today, the mainstream media is more adamantly than ever pushing for war at every opportunity, operating to confuse their audience and make unclear what is crystal clear. Thus a recent example was how Israel’s massacre of starving Palestinians as they clamoured for food was presented in the Western press, not a mass killing of defenceless people, but as a chaotic riot by a stampeding mob. The 1950s example of both the strident self-aggrandizing and bellicose Los Angeles Times and the courageous, resistant California Eagle tirelessly campaigning for equality and peace is more trenchant than ever.

The New York Times was recently the recipient of the prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the assault on Gaza, a coverage that for the most part was distinguished by its shallowness, lacking any background coverage or treatment of the conflict pre-October 7, 2023. In this light,  Harry’s verdict on the Chandler’s imposing their will in the creation of modern Los Angeles stands as a warning of a too powerful media operating in a vacuum:

“The paper was everywhere. Buff’s ‘civilizing mission’ was part of remaking a town that, when it resisted that mission, might be compelled by whatever means necessary to accept it.”

A small man sits at a very long table telling very big lies and staring like a doll  
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46

A small man sits at a very long table telling very big lies and staring like a doll  

Published in Poetry

A small man sits at a very long table telling very big lies and staring like a doll  

by Claudia Court, with image by Alix Emery

Russian dolls are built to shrink

     wrap around the next size down

         stream bursting its banks

         invest your money

     can’t buy you love

is like a merry-go-round

table discussions will take place

     names to be written in capitals

          Paris Rome or Kyiv

          patrolled by soldiers

     made of toast

masters raising their glass

ceiling for the fairer sex

     bomb explodes without warning

          flares are so seventies

          music was uniquely good

     gracious is that the time

zone in on your target

practise what you preach

     to the converted

          barn owls screech all night  

          sirens wail in wartime

     rations are never enough

to satisfy a small man

Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46


Published in Poetry


by Lisa Kelly

The man who confronted the tank captured
by drone footage. His hands held up.
His wife in the front seat, his child in the back.
What’s next is blurred, what’s later is burned.
The evidence remains. Pepper holes
of bullets in car doors. Shot after shot.

A body lies in the street. A camera shot
of hands tied behind a back. Another victim captured,
wrists bound with white cloth. Bullet holes
fired in backs of heads. Who would stand up
to their oppressor? Images of war crimes burned
in the mind – revealed once the occupiers drew back.

Calling a war, a special military operation takes us back
to calling a publicity stunt a wildlife campaign: a tiger shot
with a tranquiliser gun, a Siberian tiger that burned
brightly for a photo opportunity – captured
and over-sedated. It died for this. Its time up
when he got what he wanted. Amber eyes darkening holes.

All these holes
impossible to piece together, to bring back
meaning. No let up
in uncovering mass graves, basements where citizens were tortured, shot.
What they did…so many people were killed…just for nothing. Have we captured
enough eye-witness accounts? A burned

swastika on a woman’s body. Raped, killed, and burned.
Another generation falling through holes.
More cities like Bucha, more cities captured
with the same horrors unfolding. We roll the film back
and forward to where the past and future show the same shot.
Yet, there are denials, claims this is all made up.

If only the far-right was not on the up:
Putin, Orban, Vucic, Le Pen, Trump, Johnson. Civil rights burned
as they stoke the flames of nationalism. The cheap shots
at immigrants; the illiberalism; the bribes; the gaping holes
in their accounts. Always the fight back.
Complacency is the route to being captured.

Bucha citizens did not give up their right to live whole
lives. After Bucha burned, they took their city back.
For every despot’s shot, the people’s spirit uncaptured.

Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46


Published in Poetry


by Rip Bulkeley

'Wars are fought to change the enemy’s mind'. - Liddell Hart

The grandchildren of the mass killers of Dresden,
Coventry, Tokyo, and Leningrad, leave alone
the atomic bombs, few of whom were ever
prosecuted, now bleat about Mariupol. From war
comes siege, and in siege, from Alesia to Sarajevo,
civilians, including poets, perish like autumn leaves.
From a safe distance our rulers, knowing
that thousands more will die, reinforce
the defence against the option of surrender;
then wash their hands in filthy water.
Most of their comfortable citizens, preoccupied
with economic doom, raise no objections.

Writing a poem bursting into tears having misheard deforestation for defenestration
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:46

Writing a poem bursting into tears having misheard deforestation for defenestration

Published in Poetry

Writing a poem bursting into tears having misheard deforestation for defenestration

by Lisa Kelly, in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Image above: Defenestrace, by Karel Svoboda

but before the mishearing and the frustration,
can we deal with

the bursting into tears, and whether the poem is
bursting into tears,

            those leaky, lachrymose drips, or tears,
those ripped up, papery bits,

propelled by frustration and closer to
deforestation, like felling trees

and chopping them into logs, little pieces of what
they once aspired to,

            a composite whole reaching up like
dreamy spires to inspire,

reaching past the highest window in the highest building,
where a general might resist, momentarily, against clear glass
someone tears away from the crowd

           and lifts the latch and everyone sees the

which might befall the general, the fate he
deserves, and surges forward,

             as if a valve has burst and liquid motion rushes
at the general who is stiff

as the trunk of a tall tree, whose bark is
bigger than his bite,

whose bite is a chunk taken out of his uniformed
arm by a black bear

which has stripped back bark for the sweet
sapwood, and uses every tool available

             from the sharpness of his incisors to the
tearing of his canines,

and naturally he is tearing up at the injustice of
his predicament for not giving

the right intelligence, for not speaking truth to
power, for not refusing the yacht,

            made of 40 cubic metres of mahogany,
50 cubic metres of cedar

and 50,000 hours of craftmanship, and now here
he is, framed, and about to

fall 40, maybe 50, maybe 50,000 feet to a landing
of broken glass and ransacked rubble

           with the unrelenting view of barren land
where once a forest grew,

where not even his bones nor blood will fertilise
the dirt, so what can he do

but scratch with his thumbnail in the
condensation on the glass a line about

            about tearing up or tearing up, and watch
the self-pitying rivulets

run down the pane, but of course he has no time
for any last words, all thought

evaporated, as he rushes towards his shadow,
leaving a snag of thread

           from his tearing uniform on the lintel as
proof he lived, as we consider

the venerable history of defenestration, Queen Jezebel,
who worshipped a nature god,

defenestrated by her eunuchs, her body eaten by
dogs, as we consider the irreversible

           history of deforestation, and write a poem
bursting into tears or tears having misheard
           deforestation for defenestration.