Review: Brand takes the side of the oppressed

Revolution- Russell Brand, Random House 2014, 372pp, £20

Russell Brand rocketed to public attention far beyond his usual fan base after a BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman during which he called for ‘no vote’ at elections. Brand’s personal life and his politics came under immediate and hostile attention from media commenters. There was outrage that an argument for a ‘no vote’ position should be presented on a major BBC platform. However, as Brand himself says in Revolution, he is neither leading nor following: ‘I think it unlikely that people aren’t voting because I told them not to; it is more likely that they’re not voting because they are subject to the same conditions that led me not to vote. The realisation that it’s bloody hopeless’ (p78).

For successive general elections Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has adopted the slogan Don’t Vote! Organise!, sharing Brand’s view that none of the parties standing for election represent what is needed for the poorest people, the vast majority of the world. Moreover, the election machine itself feeds into a discredited pretence of democracy which sidelines and kills off real political engagement. At the last British General Election in 2010, the turnout of registered electors (which excludes prisoners and homeless people) was 65.09%. The turnout in the May 2014 European elections was 35.05% of those eligible. These figures signify a deep and widespread contempt for career politicians and distrust of their electoral promises and institutions. Growing anger about rapidly increasing poverty, privatisation of the public sector and cuts in public spending is deepened by the charade of parliamentary politics. As Brand says, exploitation has now ‘reached a pitch where the disenfranchised and exploited can look to a culpable minority with vengeful eyes’ (p79).

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Assata: an autobiography

Assata Shakur, (first published 1988), reprinted by Zed Books July 2014, £8.99pbk, 416pp ISBN: 9781783601783

‘No oppressed people ever won their freedom, by hoping their oppressors would change their minds’ Assata Shakur

This book promises an ‘intensely personal and political autobiography’ and ‘a major contribution to the history of black liberation’, and it more than delivers on its promise. This account of the life of Assata Shakur, in her own words, gives us a completely different view of this brave, strong and proud woman so often simply described as the ‘most wanted’ US terrorist.

Black communist Angela Davis has written a brief foreword to this new edition of Assata Shakur’s autobiography along with Shakur’s lawyer Lennox Hinds. The book is enriched by both for different reasons. Angela Davis offers a straightforward account of some of the activities in the 1970s surrounding Assata Shakur. Along with her views on institutional racism this places the book firmly in a political context. A detailed account of one of her own experiences of police racism, abuse of police powers and police intimidation sets the tone, immediately making it clear that this book is not just another story, but one of definite political importance.

Lennox Hinds, as a black lawyer, teacher and student of history, elaborates on the legal cases against Shakur, detailing the inaccuracies of evidence, and the painstaking lengths the state will, can and did go to in order to prosecute black activists who were deemed politically dangerous. He sifts through the masses of evidence to pick out the important facts from many acquittals and her single conviction, raising the question immediately of her innocence and the state’s desperation to contain the black liberation movement at any cost. He describes her story as a struggle for self-determination and for freedom. These forewords prepare you for the intense, personal and moving story of a political activist, black woman, mother, lover and revolutionary, who to this day remains the worst-treated female prisoner in the US prison system.

The book is gripping from the first paragraph, beginning with Shakur’s memories of the shooting on the New Jersey turnpike, in which she is left critically wounded. The first chapter details her hospital ordeal, where instead of receiving decent treatment for her gunshot wounds, Shakur is instead forced to withstand violence, interrogation and systematic abuse as she determinedly fights to stay alive.

The following chapters skip between two timelines, the first from that moment at the turnpike onwards, the other from her childhood up to that point, showing clearly the conditions and racism that drove her actions towards that moment. It is a very personal account written with great honesty.

Her life is detailed simply and without pretention. The book takes you on a journey of the life of a working-class black woman in the US and describes the racism that permeated every sphere of her life. She describes simply but powerfully that journey down a political route, drawing out the issues at the heart of racism and the imperialist US state.

It explores the prison system, the state and institutions like the police and legal system, posing questions on ethnicity, freedom, economic enslavement and justice. This is therefore just a good read and an interesting life of a revolutionary, but has an overtly political message. It leads the reader to the questions that Assata herself faced in her political awakening, as she describes herself as having originally held an anti-communist position formed by the propaganda surrounding her as she grew up. Over time she becomes more and more politically aware and her position changes when questioning the motives of the Vietnam War with other black activists.

This book does not just engage the reader to realise the legal system’s flaws and its institutional racism, or the state’s power, but paints a picture of police brutality, inequality, state control and political repression with every passage leading you to question more and more the charges against Assata and the picture of a violent terrorist that the media would have you believe. By highlighting the lengths the state went to to ensure a conviction and paint her as guilty in the eyes of the public through mass media manipulation.

Every activist living in an imperialist country should read this this book, not just for its lessons on the nature of the state but also on how to organise against it. It inspires the reader to change society, as you see how despite all the hardship and persecution this revolutionary woman remains hopeful that change is possible through the collective action of the people. As she says, ‘a wall is just a wall, it can be broken’.

The book wraps up this inspiring woman in socialist Cuba, where she escaped to and now lives in political exile. She describes Cuba not in an idealist way, ignoring racism or sexism there; but acknowledging it exists, and critically observing it. In 1996, FRFI interviewed Assata Shakur in Havana and she explained how socialism made it possible to tackle racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination:

‘When I came to Cuba I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea. It was clear that a revolution was not a magic wand that you wave and all of a sudden everything is transformed. The first lesson I learned was that a revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.’ (see full interview at www.tinyurl.com/q6qltsu)

She therefore describes Cuba however as ‘the most progressive place on the planet’ because it actually does have the means and the will to tackle these issues and not ignore or hide them.

It is amazing to think that through all the pain, heartache of separation from her family, loss of loved ones and memories of years of abuse, that she is now is somewhere she considers a progressive home finally safe from the persecution of the US institutions; there is a place in the sun, where there is hope for everyone, and its name is Cuba.

Hands off Assata Shakur!

By D Spencer

Pan-Africanism and Communism/ FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939

Hakim Adi, Africa World Press, Trenton, 2013, 444pp, £28.99.

At 5am on 3 October 1935 Mussolini’s fascist army marched across the Mareb River into Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), opening a war that would see Africa’s oldest independent country turned into an Italian colony. The invasion sparked mass protests across the globe, in many places led by the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), a member organisation of the Communist International (Comintern) which for several years had fought to organise and unify ‘the wide mass of Negro workers on the basis of the class struggle’. In this book, the fruit of a decade of research, historian Hakim Adi provides a detailed exploration of the origins, politics and role played by the ITUCNW and Comintern in the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles of black people throughout the early 20th century.

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Look back in anger / FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Look Back in Anger – the miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire, 30 years on

Harry Paterson, Five Leaves Press 2014, 288 pages, £9.99

Harry Paterson’s book is written with class consciousness and engagement. It has a political shrewdness which distinguishes it from some of the more sentimentalised accounts of the struggle of 1984-85. A focus on the Notts miners, in an area where a better-off workforce largely refused to back the strike, evokes the passions and anguish of this huge industrial and political battle. The defeat of the miners, despite their courage, signified a huge blow for the British working class as a whole.

In Nottinghamshire the majority of miners scabbed on the strike. One important reason for this was the Area Incentives Scheme (AIS), promoted by the National Coal Board (NCB) with the deliberate aim of sowing divisions between miners. This scheme was pushed through under the Labour government in 1977, against the wishes of two thirds of miners, but it had the support of right wing NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) president Joe Gormley. The militant Arthur Scargill replaced Gormley in 1982, too late to stop the AIS. Crucially, many miners in the most productive coalfields, such as Notts and South Derbyshire, supported the AIS as it could raise their incomes above the mass of miners in Britain (a short-sighted view, given Thatcher's later plans to shut most pits, including in Notts).

The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, set about destroying much of Britain’s industrial base. Ultra-right-wing director ‘Sir’ Ian McGregor was first appointed to smash the British steel industry, reduced in the early 1980s from 166,000 jobs to just 71,000. Before McGregor’s appointment as coal board chief in March 1983, the miners had repelled an early threat of pit closures in 1981. By late 1983 an overtime ban was enforced all over the British coalfields, to reduce stocks in anticipation of a fight for jobs. Even the Notts area supported this ban until almost the end of the strike.

The strike began suddenly in March 1984, when the NCB made an official announcement to close 20 pits, with 20,000 job losses. An early disappointment however was the ballot against strike action in Notts, promoted by right-wing union activists such as Clarke and Liptrott who had links with the British state. Significantly the NCB did not announce any pit closures in Notts until after the strike was defeated. Paterson recalls the visits of Yorkshire pickets to Notts and their astonishment at their high living standards, often living in substantial private houses of a kind not seen in most mining areas. A minority of Notts miners did strike, including about 2,000 until the very end. Paterson’s father-in-law was a striker and picket, and his wife joined Women Against Pit Closures. Women became even more important to the struggle after harsh laws banned their husbands from picketing. The Notts ‘NUM loyalists’ were like partisans fighting behind enemy lines, with their home county sealed off by cops operating checkpoints.

Wider working class support is a crucial factor in any strike. As the government moved to cut welfare payments from miners’ families, which Paterson notes had been planned before the strike began, the question of their subsistence was raised. Donations came from sympathetic unions, such as the firefighters and railworkers and from street collections in working class areas. These were often done by miners’ wives, as in Notts, and by leftist political groups. The author recalls a mostly generous response to these, except in areas like Notts where opinions were influenced by the working miners.

Solidarity strike action could have won the dispute easily, given the possibility of paralysing the capitalist economy. Opportunities were lost, such as the dockers strike in July 1984, when their leaders quickly agreed a temporary deal with a government secretly committed to smashing their union. A basic pact with the railworkers banned the movement of coal by scab labour to build up stocks. The government responded by organising private lorries to carry it. Paterson shows why there couldn’t be a much wider general strike, as had happened in 1926. In 1926 the miners were betrayed by the TUC and left to fight alone and in 1984 the same forces were responsible for the lack of anything broader. The TUC had earlier pledged to oppose the new anti-union laws which outlawed solidarity strikes, by any means necessary, but in 1984, faced with further laws enacted by Tory minister Norman Tebbit, the TUC and the largest unions backed down through fear of having their funds ‘sequestrated’. Widespread support for the miners among the working class meant that TUC treachery had to be disguised with verbal solidarity and cash payments. Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party also played a key role in destroying the strike. Like the TUC’s Norman Willis, Kinnock complained about miners using violence, while faking sympathy for their cause.

Paterson refers in detail to the media distortion of the struggle. The biggest flashpoint was at Orgreave, a coking plant in Yorkshire, where 95 pickets were arrested in July 1984. The BBC showed miners stoning the cops, who were then shown ‘defending’ themselves – the exact opposite of what actually took place. The Daily Mirror became openly hostile to the miners after it was bought by the Robert Maxwell, a man with MI5, MI6 and Mossad links. Media interest switched off after the struggle ended in March 1985 – the decimation of jobs was not newsworthy. In 1984 there were 228,440 NUM members, but by 1994, when the Coal Industry Act paved the way for privatisation, only a few thousand mining jobs remained. Not even the ‘privileged’ Notts miners had been spared.

In concluding his book, Paterson details new information that has come to light since the struggle. This confirms what Scargill and other activists said at the time – the Tories had a secret closure plan; Thatcher did intervene to increase cops’ harassment on picket lines; she did plan to involve the army and declare a state of emergency; and the government was seriously worried about a miners’ victory, especially during the July 1984 dock strike. As Paterson puts it, ‘Arthur Scargill, the most maligned and vilified trade union leader in British history, had been right all along and his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, had consistently lied and misled both Parliament and the public before, during and after the strike.’

Martin Hope

Dead Prez interview with Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

After a storming performance in Manchester on 10 February 2014, revolutionary US rappers Dead Prez met with young supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

M1 and Sticman answered questions about their radical political approach, touching on ideas about racism, capitalism, socialism and the need for solidarity with the people of Palestine. In the first instalment of our interview, Dead Prez discuss how they became interested in political action.

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