27 March 2013

The two errors of Ultra-Leftism

Marxism is a powerful explanatory tool, but it can be abused by its own supporters.

Classical Marxism teaches us the most important lesson in macro-political analysis, a lesson which can be simply stated through the following chain of argument. The ownership of capital (in production, distribution and exchange) is concentrated in a few hands and is used for private enrichment. Those who own capital (plus those who earn high salaries in the service to capital, e.g. some lawyers, accountants, etc) have a vested class interest in the existing state of political and economic affairs; and, on account of their wealth, capital owners and their supporters are in a powerful position to get what they want, both economically and politically.

The macro-analysis of politics centrally concerns power; and, as argued above, power relations are determined by the operation of capitalism Thus, any serious socialist project must focus on capitalism and its political power system. And it is precisely because New Labour embraces, rather than challenges, that system that we stand opposed to Labour on its left flank.

However, in the history of Marxist socialist politics, there have been two recurring errors, and it worth looking at these. We can call them the two errors of ultra-leftism.

First, ultra-leftists argue that those political issues which do not bear on anti-capitalist struggle are irrelevant. So long as capitalism is in existence, they argue, it makes little difference what kind of political, legal and other institutional arrangements exist. Politics, they say, should only be judged by the revolutionary calculus of how capitalism can be overthrown. In an extreme version of this view, reforms benefiting working people under capitalism can even be seen as counter-productive as they ‘patch up’ the system and delay its overthrow.

Second, ultra-leftists tend to believe that the overthrow of capitalism and the existing state and legal system will, of itself, herald in a better world. To that end, all political action is subordinated to this almost magical act of revolution, thus creating a politics which is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, who see such revolutionary politics as both undesirable and unrealistic. The ‘phoenix out of the ashes’ Marxists of this kind seem to me akin to the prophets of a religious cult in which the “promised land” emerges after a period of maximum suffering.

The philosopher, Karl Popper, undertook the task of ‘strengthening’ Marxian propositions with the purpose of rendering them suitable for refutation. The ultra-leftists seem to be helping him along.

21 March 2013

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

A lengthy sequel which attempts to popularise and normalise the Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

The novel is long, at over three hundred pages, and is a sequel to Potok’s earlier My Name is Asher Lev.

The previous book introduced us to the character of Asher Lev’s and his childhood in the Ladover Hasidic Community in New York, focusing on Asher’s developing skill and interest in art and ending with the young man’s social exclusion from the community and his semi-voluntary exile in France. The sequel tells the story of the return of Asher, now in his mid forties, married with a son and daughter, to New York for his Uncle's funeral and his family’s initially unplanned extended stay in the Community.

The earlier part of the book is the more engaging. Here the focus is on Asher’s family as they enter - or in Asher’s case, re-enter - Ladover community life. Potok describes the reactions of Asher’s wife, Devorah, and his two children who hitherto have been living observant lives in a secular France as they now enter the all-embracing Brooklyn Hasidic community. Conversely, we see the reactions of Asher’s parents, relatives and the wider community to the return of the black sheep, Asher Lev.

The story takes off when we learn that Asher’s uncle has bequeathed his valuable art collection into Asher’s trust, throwing him into conflict with his pious and business-oriented cousins.

The second part of the novel is slow moving. Asher returns to France alone on business and we are introduced to his non-observant Jewish friends and colleagues. At the same time Asher;s wife and family are increasingly drawn into Ladover life in New York. Gradually, we are made to realise that the elderly rabbe, the theological and charismatic leader of the Brooklyn community, intends Asher’s five-year old son to be schooled into becoming the future leader of the community.

Overall the book has a powerful conservative message. Asher, the artist, is rebellious, but remains an observant Hasidic Jew. The ordinary members of the Brooklyn community are portrayed as both highly conservative and of limited intelligence; all insight and progressive intelligence emanate from the eighty-nine year old rebbe, who speaks in mystical riddles to clarify his meaning. Potok, though not himself a Hasidic Jew, seems to want to present what amounts to a segregationist sect, managed by a charismatic leader, as an acceptable and normal state of affairs.

The book keeps one's interest, but only just.

POTOK, Chaim, The Gift of Asher Lev, Fawcett Books 1990.


1 March 2013

The Perversions of Eastleigh

The Eastleigh by-election shows that the British electoral system is becoming increasingly perverse.

The Liberal Democrats retained their seat in the Eastleigh by-election on 28 February 2013 because their diminishing electoral base still received tactical votes from the Left and because the protest and xenophobic rightwing vote (i.e. UKIP) was still slightly less.

The result was:

Liberal Democrat    13,342     32.06%   (-14.44%)
UKIP                       11,571     27.80%   (+24.00%)
Conservative            10,559    25.37%    (-13.93%)
Labour                      4,088       9.82%    (+0.22%)

Interestingly, had AV been in operation, as the Lib Dems wanted, then the Liberals would have picked up most of the transferred Labour vote, and UKIP most of the much higher Tory vote, handing the seat to UKIP.

I know this is a by-election, but the general point should still be made. Britain now has a complex multi-party system and the single seat constituencies, with no proportional top-ups, increasingly leads to perverse results.


A short tale of failed love


There is a right, fundamental to a free person, to which I wish to lay claim: the right not to suffer in silence. Each of us, man or woman, young or old, by virtue of being human has the ability to suffer.

My suffering is the most poetic of life, lost love. I am sitting here at my desk pen in hand now feeing a distinct pain because I have lost a relationship which I valued. For anyone who feels pain, there is suffering and that suffering saturates the whole of the body of the sufferer. And for those who suffer there is a need to create a voice to represent that suffering to a wider audience.


I had been a teacher in the small town for less than a year when I was first told about Sabina. I thought very little of it. Hans, one of the students in my evening class, had an elder sister called Sabina who would be teaching at my school the following year. It seemed to me that everyone in the town was related to someone else somehow.

I first met her outside the bank in the main street. The graduation photographs of students and teachers from my school were displayed in the window of the bank. I had stopped to examine my own picture.

‘Hello, Mr Otto,’ I turned around.

Hans, my student, walked up to me with a young woman at his side.

‘I’d like to introduce my sister, Sabina. She’ll be teaching at our school next year’

I formally returned the greeting and said that I looked forward to having her as colleague. She smiled; I shook hands with Hans; and we walked off in opposite directions.

Looking back now at that first meeting, I have few impressions. She was young, twenty-two, ten years younger than I was then. Her flowing fair hair, alluring blue eyes and attractive smile were what I remember. A long coat, more suited to a late middle-aged woman, hid the rest of her body. We parted and I didn’t see her again for six months.

Not long after the start of term there was a party for the whole staff of the school. I can’t remember why now. I was talking to Sabina. It was late. Most of the other teachers had left except for some male technology teachers who were getting increasingly drunk.

‘Sabina, do you want to come back to my flat.’


So she came.


Six months later spring had not yet started; it was cold outside. I was waiting for her to return with her brother from her father’s. It was Sunday evening. What did she tell me? She’d be back between four and seven. I look though a window as a car parks outside. No, it’s not her. Why is she late? Perhaps she’s gone to her flat instead? The car’s broken down? They’re not coming back till tomorrow. I really want to talk to her this evening and it’s getting late now. Perhaps I’ll drive round to her flat just to see if she’s there.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s not her. It’s a friend. At least I’ve got someone to talk to. It’ll calm my serves. If she comes now, she’ll come with Hans, so I won’t have the opportunity to talk to her alone anyway.

They’re here; they’re just late. She says she had a good time but there’s something the matter. I can’t talk about it. No privacy. Can I clear up my things? No time for a bath or to change clothes. Hans is pushing for her to go back to the flat. Can I suggest that she stays here? No, I don’t want a row with her in front of Hans. Anyway all their luggage is in the car, and I’m not tired. So I’ll go; I’ll sleep at her place, at the flat she shares with her brother.

At their flat I don’t want to talk to Hans now. If I want to be with her, we’ll have to go to bed in her tiny room. It’s late anyway. Christ, she’s cold with me. Have I done something to hurt her? No, it’s her father; he said something. I tell her I love her; she tells me that I’ll leave her. Yes, she wants to hurt me. She denies it. She is kinder, but still cold. I suggest we go to sleep.

The alarm clock rings. Do we have breakfast together? No, she’s still asleep. The other clock rings. No, she wants to sleep longer. I get up and get dressed. I kiss her; there’s no response. I feel hurt. I leave the flat. When will I see her? I don’t know. We haven’t been alone or intimate since last Thursday night. I’m lonely. Do I have the strength to go on? Of course I do. Do I love her? Yes, I do. I want to get nearer to her. But now I’m on my own and my strength comes from inside me. The morning is bright and cold. We have moved apart, just a little. I hope it’s only temporary.


Sabina was the perfect little girl, but when she was three years old her brother Hans was born and she became jealous. Mother father and granny all loved little Hans, and if Sabina did anything to hurt her little brother, she was punished. In time she learnt to win love by giving love to her little brother. Soon she loved him more than anybody else.

Sabina’s home was a theatre of conflict. Her mother remained the passive and dutiful daughter of grandmother. Sabina’s father resented the intrusion into his family unit. He was denied love and respect, so took to drink and stayed away from the family home more and more. His periodic return to the family dwelling signalled a night of raised voices with Sabina’s mother.

The little girl lay in bed terrified. She became her mother in each fight. She loved her mother, but hated her weakness. One day she told her father to stop hurting her mother. Her efforts were not rewarded; she was taken into the bedroom and spanked.

Just after Sabina had started school her father left; so apart from the little Hans, she lived in a community of women. Adult men were strong, violent sometimes, and a complete mystery. She longed to know men. It was not to be, however, as mother and grandmother – now themselves denied any other meaning in their lives – would live through Sabina. She would be the model schoolgirl untouched by male treachery. Her sexual longings for her father and men were to be frustrated and punished.

When Sabina went to university she sampled unparalleled sexual freedom. Nothing restricted the good-looking Sabina except the suppressed guilt instilled by mother and grandmother. She started relationships with older men, but they did not last. She found that she loved her father, but only at a distance; as men came close to her, she was haunted by her mother’s fear of her father. Sabina, failing to see into her own subconscious, moved from one older man to another, hoping to find one who would not generate that fear, but always without success.

The one man she loved without fear was, of course, little Hans. But he too soon grew older and began to resemble her father. Hans started drinking and smoking, and Sabina concluded that she had lost her little Hans to whom she had devoted her life through protecting him from her father’s influence. Her love was incestuous; she had to find another Hans to love, a ‘Hans’ who was so weak that he would not grow into her father. Thus as Sabina grew older and stronger, her search shifted from the older man who would protect her to the younger whom she could protect. She no longer wanted a father; she wanted a son.


Dear Sabina,

I am writing to you because I don’t want to suffer in silence. I love you, but I have lost you. It hurts a lot, Sabina. I get pains like knives cutting through my stomach. I dream about you; I can’t stop thinking about our separation. At heart I am a sentimental person who has not fallen in love very often. I can’t believe that the eight months we spent together are over. I can’t forget all the plans we made together. Why did you destroy everything? You’ve hurt me very deeply, but I love you with all my heart. I can’t help it.


One night she called at my flat. In such a small town our paths overlap, and complete separation would not be possible even if we both wanted it. We talked. I told her that I wanted her back, though by now our separation had continued for too long to make that seriously possible. I told her about my pain and that I still loved her.

Suddenly my doorbell rang. I was annoyed by the interruption. I went to answer it. In the shadows of the night in front of me on a bike with a back-turned baseball cap was a boy who looked about fifteen.

‘I’m looking for Sabina.’ I let him in.

Was he really her new boyfriend the one who understood her? I’m introduced to him. He is in fact eighteen. Something is funny. In my head I had created an image of a mature looking young man, who was confident in himself and who reached out in his personality to exceed his age. Instead, a young, nervous and insecure boy sat there fumbling as he picked up the tea which I had made him.


Sometimes life can descend into metatheatre, by which I mean we in our lives are propelled to act in a performance with neither plot nor audience.I am a thirty-three. My life has recently been taken over my mental agony. I love a twenty-three year old woman, and we enjoyed an intense eight-month affair together. She was beautiful, interesting, clever – and as I recall so well now – very skilled in bed. I wanted to keep her forever, but I lost her.

When she started an affair with another man I started to suffer. I couldn’t sleep well at night; I woke up after dreaming about her, only to find in the cold light of morning that she was with me no longer. I became distracted at work and would gaze into space thinking only of her. I romanticised her flat, her bed and all the places we had gone together. I bored my very tolerant friends by pouring out my feeling of pain.

All of us have the right to love. Love is not magical even though it is very pleasant to romanticise it in metaphor. Love is the human need to attach oneself to another mentally and physically. Mentally, we need recognition from the other that we are special, needed and important. Physically we need human sexual contact to take control of the other and to bring that other person, whom we have elevated into a part extension of ourselves, into our domain. With Sabina I failed..