Karl Schlögel’s Moscow

There have been many books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about Stalin’s purges, but there is nothing quite like Karl Schlögel’s monumental Moscow 1937, which I’ve just finished.  As the title suggests, the book is a portrait of Moscow in the year in which the Stalinist terror reached a horrific pitch of self-destruction on the 20th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

That year the Stalinist tyranny arrested 2 million people, of whom just under 700,000 were murdered and 1.3 million deported to labour camps and forced labour projects, where tens of thousands of them died.   This horrific harvest was a consequence of the ‘mass operations’ carried out by the regime to eliminate a Trotskyist conspiracy that existed entirely in the imagination of the regime itself.

Taking his cue from Bulgakov’s hallucinatory allegory The Master and Margarita, Schlögel meticulously assembles a vast panoramic portrait of a city and a society locked into a ‘bacchanal of destruction’  in which ecstatic orchestrated pseudo-revolutionary spectacles, hyper-modernisation and the constant threat of extreme violence coincided with show trials, collective explosions of xenophobic hatred and the gratuitous mass murder of tens of thousands of entirely innocent people.

This was the world that the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss evoked in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, but Schlögel achieves his own ‘chronotope’ of Moscow in 1937 through an extraordinarily-detailed montage, brilliantly drawing on a vast range of mostly untouched material.

Literary and political diaries, maps of the city,  burial records at the Butovo shooting range where the NKVD murdered most of its victims, childrens literature,  utopian city plans, geological congresses,  architectural projects, eyewitness descriptions of gymnastic processions and sports parades,  accounts of polar expeditions, Central Committee plenums, censuses, jazz concerts – all these different activities coincided with the year of terror and all of them are part of Schlögel’s portrait.

These materials are brought to life through Schlögel’s own astute and consistently insightful analysis of a society that believed itself to be hurtling towards a brave new revolutionary future even as it annihilated its own citizens by the tens and thousands. The sheer scale of the killing and the range of the NKVD’s victims was staggering.  It included leading party members, veteran revolutionaries, film directors, writers, members of particular nationalities and ethnic groups. exiled members of the Comintern, peasants and workers, priests and ‘old believers’, mountaineers and members of the NKVD itself.

Much of this is already known,  but Schlögel brilliantly shows how this atmosphere of witchhunts and systematic mass murder coincided with mass political manipulation on an unprecedented scale, with orchestrated collective spectacles, and an endless flow of slogans and images that concealed the essential barbarity of what was taking place, under a regime that proclaimed the Soviet Union as the embodiment of the hopes of humanity even as it ripped itself to shreds. 

The result is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and remembrance of a dire period of Russian history in which human life became essentially worthless, and survival was entirely dependent on the maniacal whims of a paranoid and all-powerful regime that was able to murder its victims with absolute impunity.  A terrifying, illuminating, and absolutely essential book.

Fortress Europe Book Launch

Next week sees the publication of the UK paperback edition of Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration, and I’ve got a couple of events coming up in London to mark the occasion.  On  Wednesday evening, I’ll be participating in a round table discussion at the Institute of Race Relations with the author and legal expert on EU immigration and human rights law Frances Webber and Ali Ceesay, spokesperson for Children of Calais.  Details here:

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November 11, 2015

To celebrate the publication of the second edition of journalist Matthew Carr’s Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration the IRR is hosting a discussion on ‘Border Wars’.

  • Wednesday 11 November 2015, 6-8pm
  • Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, London WC1X 9HS

A conversation between:

  • Matthew Carr – writer and journalist
  • Frances Webber - legal expert on EU immigration and human rights law, author of Borderline Justice
  • Ali Ceesay - spokesperson, Children of Calais
  • moderated by Liz Fekete – IRR Director

The seminar is also a book launch. Copies of Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration (Hurst & Company) will be on sale at a discounted price of £8.00. (RRP £9.99)

This event is free. As the IRR has limited space, booking is essential. To book, email: [email protected]. Unfortunately the IRR is not wheelchair accessible.

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And on Thursday at 6.30 I’ll be at the Waterstones in Trafalgar Square  in conversation with the critic and journalist Maya Jaggi:

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Matthew Carr on ”Fortress Europe”

Thursday 12th November 18:30 at London – Trafalgar Square

Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration (Paperback)
Join us for an evening with Matthew Carr, speaking about his book Fortress Europe to journalist and critic Maya Jaggi. Please note:
This is a free event, but booking is essential.
Please phone 0207 839 4411 or email: [email protected]
Thank you!

”Fortress Europe”When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, a euphoric continent hailed the advent of a new ‘borderless’ Europe in which such barriers would become obsolete. More than twenty-five years later, in the midst of the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, European governments have enacted the most sustained and far-reaching border enforcement programme in history. Detention and deportation, physical and bureaucratic barriers, naval patrols and satellite technologies: all these have been part of Europe’s undeclared ‘war’ against undocumented immigration.

These efforts have generated a tragic confrontation between some of the richest countries in the world and a stateless population from the poorest. The human consequences of that confrontation have become impossible to ignore, as migrants drown in unprecedented numbers in the Mediterranean or find themselves trapped in chokepoints like Calais, Hungary and Greece.

Fortress Europe, published here in a revised and updated edition, is an urgent investigation into Europe’s militarised borders. In a series of searing dispatches, Carr speaks to border officers and police, officials, migrants, asylum-seekers and activists from across the continent. The result is a unique and ground-breaking critique of Europe’s exclusionary borders, and an essential guide to the wider drama of migration that will dominate politics for years ahead.Matthew Carr is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times and on BBC Radio. He is the author of The Infernal Machine and Blood and Faith.

Maya Jaggi is an award-winning cultural journalist and critic who has reported from five continents and been described as ‘one of Britain’s most respected arts journalists’ by the Open University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2012. She writes for publications including Financial Times andGuardian Review. Educated at Oxford and the LSE, she was a DAAD fellow in Berlin in 2014.

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Drop by if you’re in the area!

 

Snobbery is Good for You

Today, while waiting to have my hair cut, I happened to come across a Howard Jacobson article in the weekly Independent about Germaine Greer.   This wasn’t an unexpected or a guilty pleasure.  I rarely find reading Jacobson a pleasure at all, and I don’t really care too much to hear about what he thinks about anything.  For one thing I don’t  find him nearly as funny or as witty or incisive as he seems to regard himself, and he also exudes a certain supercilious sense of his own cleverness that is characteristic of too many contemporary British writers.

The article did nothing to make me change my mind.   Jacobson’s 1,000 words were at first sight a Brendan O’Neill-ish ‘defend the right to be offended’ take on Greer’s transphobic comments, which then segued into a defense of Martin Amis’s much-noted comments regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed educational shortcomings.

For those who have forgotten or who never knew,  Amis described Corbyn as a ‘fluky beneficiary of a drastic elevation’ whose two E-grade A-levels confirmed that he was ‘undereducated’ and ‘humourless’,  and whose ‘ intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity; and he seems essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere.’

Like most of Amis’s media interventions, these comments were based on prejudice rather than judicious analysis, and seemed essentially intended to draw attention to Amis himself.   But the fact that he chose to make these observations in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times suggests that his puerile snobbery also had a more calculated political purpose.

None of this matters to Jacobson however, for whom Amis’s comments belong to a tradition of ‘snobbish derision…of noble ancestry, going back to Hamlet twitting Polonius, Pope, Swift, Wilde, Waugh: a line of scurrilous mirth whose slithering ambiguities make a Charlie of whoever can’t keep up.’

So that was what was coming out of Amis’s mouth: slithering ambiguities and scurrilous mirth.  Had these comments come from Austin Mitchell say, I would have thought that I was dealing with yet another sour British prig gazing downwards at yet another unwashed plebeian pretender.  But now, thanks to Jacobson, I understand the deep moral purpose behind Amis’s less-than-forensic dissection of Corbyn’s limitations:

‘It is a strange, cabbalistic world out there in the celibate darkness of digital resentment forums, where people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight, froth in envious rage, share one another’s small and bitter diatribes and as a matter of principle find nothing funny, not even when it patently is – as for example, Amis’s really rather fond description of “weedy, nervy, thrifty” Corbynites each “with a little folded purse full of humid coins”. It’s that word “humid” that does the trick and marks the writer his detractors will never be.’

My goodness there are some clever words in this bundle readers, or words that sound clever anyway, which for Jacobson – and Amis – is the same thing.   Cabbalistic.   Celibate darkness…this is a writer talking.   Of course some of you out there frothing with envious rage in your digital resentment forums might be thinking that Amis is merely the pompous, bitter pseud that many of his detractors would never want to be, but that’s only because you are jealous that you’re not a writer. 

This ‘envy’ charge is often aimed at people who think that Amis is an overrated jerk. But as my lubricious fingers uncurdle across the humid keyboard in the comfort of my celibate darkness, I can’t help wondering whether Jacobson’s attempt to transform Amis’s dank snobbery into a vital expression of ‘liberty’ reflects something more unpleasant than a playful desire to invigorate British society with infectious scurrilous mirth.

Jacobson despises Corbyn, as he has already made clear. But his defense of Amis isn’t just about Amis himself – it’s all a defense of elitism and the right to be elitist.   After all, this is a man who recently argued that men who read books at Cambridge were incapable of raping ‘totty’ because of the imaginative empathy produced by prolonged exposure to the literary canon.

That is a stunningly dumb observation in itself, but he isn’t the only to believe that a certain kind of elite education creates morally and intellectually superior people, and that those who aren’t exposed to such an education are likely to be morally and intellectually inferior or defective.

There was a similar assumption behind Tristram Hunt’s speech to the Cambridge University Labour Club today, in which the former shadow education secretary told his audience’ You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.’

Leaving aside Hunt’s analysis of the Labour Party, what is striking about this statement is a) the notion that Cambridge University students belong to the top one percent and that b) their membership makes them more suited to lead the Labour Party than those who don’t belong to it..  

Personally,  I’ve got nothing against Oxbridge students per se.  Inverted snobbery is no more socially valuable than the top-down version.  I have known lots of intelligent, talented and sensitive people who have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, but having lived in both cities I can also testify to the fact that both universities also have their fair share of out and out tools, who are no smarter or more sensitive than anyone else, yet nevertheless take it for granted that they have the right to rule and the right to dominate society.

At present we are ruled by men who seem to have nurtured that sense of entitlement for a long time, who appear to have spent much of their time at Oxford attending drunken parties in which they cursed the poor, competed to out-vomit each other,  destroyed pubs and restaurants,  and engaged in weird initiation rites in which they had sex with pigs heads.

No one can be too surprised to find such men upholding the interests of their class against the interests of everyone else,  but their existence is further proof that the mere fact of attending Oxbridge does not confer some unique ability to represent steelworkers losing their jobs, or understand the lives of men and women who go to foodbanks, or get their benefits cut.  Nor does it entitle you to lead the Labour Party.

It might seem kind of obvious to point out that just because you have been educated at an elite university does not mean that you are intelligent, anymore than the fact that you haven’t attended one means that you are stupid.

And it should also be obvious that people like Amis, who argue otherwise, are elitist snobs, who belong to the category that the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once called ‘educated fools’.

And contrary to what Jacobson and others may think, such snobbery has no redeeming social value whatsoever.

Eduardo Galeano 1940-2015: Presente

I was sorry to hear of the death of Eduardo Galeano  this week.    There was a time when he had a big impact on my own political formation and my own understanding of history.   I first read Open Veins of Latin America sometime in the late 70s when I was reading a lot of Latin American writers, pretty much anything I could find in fact.    Marquez, Carpentier, Cortázar, Roa Bastos, Asturias, I gobbled them all up.

Open Veins was a history book not a novel, but it was not like any history book I had ever read.   It combined a furious and remorseless indictment of the impact of colonialism and neocolonialism on Latin America with a sweeping historical narrative, illuminated by compelling storytelling that brought the historical events and processes Galeano described vividly and unforgettably to life.

It was a book about political economy, about silver, coffee, copper, petroleum and agriculture, without any of the dry desiccated language that so many historians and economists use when they write about such things.  It was not a book written for university seminars, but a call to arms, which reached out to a readership in a continent that was just beginning to speak with its own voice through literature, but whose voices were being muzzled across the continent by the dictatorships and national security states that Galeano saw as the natural descendants of the conquistadors.

And there is no doubt that he found that audience.  One reader was too poor to buy it so he read the whole book by visiting bookshops and reading it standing up.   Another woman stood up in a bus and began reading it aloud to the passengers.  I like to imagine that unknown reader, stunning a crowded bus with these stirring first lines:

‘The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.  Our part of the world, known today as Latin American, was precocious; it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. ‘

In the early 80s I studied Third World History at the School of African Studies. In those days SOAS was a very different place to what it is today, with a fusty post-imperial feel that I felt distinctly uncomfortable with.  Galeano was not a name to get much traction in such surroundings.   His book was essentially a populist variant of the ‘dependency theory’ school of economics, most famously put forward by Walter Rodney, Andre Gunder Frank and others, which argued that Europe had systematically ‘under-developed’ the Third World as well as enriching itself through the exploitation of its people and resources.

When I was at SOAS these ideas were coming under sustained and sometimes contemptuous criticism.  They were regarded as crude, reductionist, and over-simplistic, and their proponents were accused of making ideological rather than historical judgements and over-emphasising the impact of colonialism and neglecting the importance of domestic and indigenous factors in driving or inhibiting development etc, etc.

Some of these criticisms were undoubtedly warranted, and some of them can be applied to Galeano’s book.  ‘Plunder’ is a word that features a great deal in Open Veins, and there are times when it becomes a crude shorthand to describe more complicated economic processes.   But the ‘domestic factors’ argument also left out a great deal, and led far too easily to the smug assumption that some countries ‘developed’ because they were more politically and culturally able to do so, and that imperialism wasn’t really too bad when you thought about it and might even have been beneficial to the countries it supposedly exploited.

Galeano’s book was an assault on such complacency.  When he wrote Open Veins he belonged firmly to the revolutionary left, and the optimistic hopes of the 1960s are stamped all over his earlier Guatemala: Occupied Country (1967), which I still have, in which he predicted that Guatemala would become the next Vietnam.

Galeano was wrong about that.   But so were a lot of people from his generation who rushed to the mountains and jungles all over the continent, or waged urban guerrilla warfare in Montevideo, Caracas and Buenos Aires, in the heady aftermath of the Cuban revolution.  Galeano was a witness to that struggle through his books and his work as a journalist with the Uruguayan Marcha and Crisis in Argentina.

He witnessed the continent-wide repression in which many of his comrades were killed, imprisoned or ‘disappeared’, and he was lucky to escape the same fate himself.  Exiled from Uruguay during the dictatorship, he could easily have been killed in Argentina, where he was reportedly on the Junta’s death list.

He brilliantly described those years in Dias y noches de amor y guerra ( Days and Nights of Love and War, 1978), which remains my favourite of his books.   It was in Dias y noches that Galeano first began to develop the short, aphoristic style that would characterize his later work, in a series of powerful and often lyrical vignettes that sounded like poetic dispatches banged out on a clandestine typewriter in an underground cellar with the police knocking on the front door.

Galeano survived those years.  Maybe it was the chastening impact of witnessing so many revolutionary dreams drowned in blood, or middle age, or the impact of the ‘post-utopian’ Latin American left, but his writing became mellower, shorter, less journalistic and more poetic and reflective.   That doesn’t mean that he ‘retreated into poetry’, as Camus put it, or that he went through the tedious trajectory from youthful radical to conservative followed by his contemporary Mario Vargas Llosa.

I saw him speak in Barcelona back in the ’90s and he was thoughtful, witty, and committed, and still very much a man of the left.  Even then, with Latin America bent under the neoliberal cudgel, Galeano was still cautiously optimistic about the continent’s ability to remake itself.   His writing had an influence over the Bolivaran revolution and the leftist surge.  In 2009 Hugo Chavez presented Barack Obama with a gift of Open Veins.

Yet ironically last year, Galeano appeared to disavow his most famous book, when he told a Brasilian book fair:

‘”Open Veins” tried to be a book of political economy, but I didn’t yet have the necessary training or preparation. I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.’

I quite admired him for that, because the things we think and believe when we are younger are not always the same when we are older, or at least our way of expressing what we think and believe may not be, and it was honest of Galeano to hold his youthful self up to critical scrutiny.  A number of newspapers, including the New York Times reported this statement with undisguised glee, sensing a repentant leftist ready to renounce his past ‘errors’.

But Galeano’s disavowal was not quite what it seemed.  Asked in an exchange with Dr Jorge Mafjud in Le Monde Diplomatique last May to elaborate on his self-criticism, Galeano replied.

‘The book, written ages ago, is still alive and kicking.  I am simply honest enough to admit that at this point in my life the old writing style seems rather stodgy, and that it’s hard for me to recognize myself in it since I now prefer to be increasingly brief and untrammeled.’

Mafjud asked him if his ‘otherwise useful self-criticism is being exploited for ideological purposes?  Or perhaps we’ve come to the end of history and we no longer see injustice or exploitation anywhere?’ To which Gabo replied:

‘Jorge, you can write down whatever you like.  I fully believe in your talent and honesty.  The other voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith.’

Indeed they were.  But Galeano was too hard on his youthful self.   Whatever its analytical shortcomings, Opens Veins was not ‘stodgy’.    For me, he was one of those all-too-rare leftist writers like Victor Serge and  C.L.R James, who didn’t talk in clichés or recite shopworn doctrines and ideological certainties, but was able to make you feel the moral force of the left.

Galeano once described socialism as ‘the greatest dream that humanity ever had.’ There is a touch of post-utopian wistfulness in that observation, as if he were describing something that was no longer possible.  But I don’t think that he ever abandoned his belief in the ability of the ignored and the voiceless to find a place in history and construct a better future.  Maybe that faith was a little more tenuous in his later years, but the light still burned.

After this is the man who once wrote ‘Always in all my books I’m trying to reveal or help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown – and the pettiness of the big.’   It would be difficult to choose an epitaph for this most aphoristic and quotable of writers, but he did say on one occasion that ‘Many small people, in small places, doing small things can change the world.’

Every word he wrote was steeped in that conviction.  I don’t think he ever lost it.