Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Do you hear the people sing?

Posted on: December 7, 2022

When I was a schoolgirl in the International Socialism group, later called SWP, there were certain doctrinal principles, some of which now seem to me counter-intuitive, but half a century has passed and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge.

Always support a strike

Even in the event of the strike having a racist impetus as sometimes happened when the work force opposed immigrant labour, one should join the picket line and argue the case against racism then and there.

Always support the armed struggle against imperialism

If the insurgent movement is autocratic and tyrannical, one should nevertheless give it full support and then wage revolution against the leadership when they come to power. ‘Permanent revolution’ may be mentioned here.

Participate in local tenants’ associations, colleges, workplaces and clubs

Make recruits

Join the Labour Party

The parliamentary Labour Party is counter revolutionary. One joins in order to recruit for the revolutionary cause.

Expose the failures of Parliamentary social democracy

Expose the failures of State Capitalism

The Soviet Union

Expose the doctrinal errors of rival Trotskyist groups

SLL/WRP, IMG, Militant

Tea or coffee to be prepared by the women in the group

This was fifty-five years ago. Women’s liberation had not quite penetrated the left, although Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. I am willing to be corrected on the chronology of feminist consciousness in the UK left.

Anti monarchism

Obviously

Unilateral nuclear disarmament

Obviously

Temporary support for North Vietnam

Revolution against Ho Chi Minh to occur after the Americans had been seen off

Against South African Apartheid

Against the National Front

Against racism, literally in all its forms

It was not until the Six Day War that Israel received significant negative attention.

VIETNAM – OUR SPAIN!‘ flashed a headline on the SWP paper, then called Labour Worker. My generation wanted a cause that would resemble the Spanish Civil War, although Orwell had shown the mortal fracturing of the left in the fight against Franco.

On the demos, some chanted ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,’ like a mantra. ‘Wilson: Johnson’s poodle’ was crayoned on many placards. It was thought that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson colluded with Lyndon B Johnson, implicitly supporting his war in South East Asia.

Thirty-five years later, in February 2003, there was what was said to be the biggest ever demo in London, against war with Iraq. I did not attend, but I knew many who did. In the Gulf War of 1991, Iraq’s reaction to a large coalition of nations responding to their aggression in Kuwait was to bomb Israel with eighty-eight scud missiles over a period of seven weeks. I did not know what to think about Blair and Bush’s proposed war on Saddam Hussein but I had no doubt that Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant..

I attended innumerable demos when I was young, the last that I recall being against the all white South African Springboks – the rugby team, I think it was – when I was an undergraduate in Manchester.

Later on, I noticed that all demos involved some unpalatable slogans, however progressive the cause.

‘Khaybar, khaybar ya Yahud’ is now heard, threatening death to Jews.

‘From the river to the sea,’ threatening death to Israelis, is a staple of progressive demos in the UK.

Stop the War UK, which organized so effectively in 2003 against war with Iraq now opposes what they regard as Ukrainian militarism. Are they as emphatically against Russian militarism? Possibly but it is a false equivalence.

For a while they headlined a Richard Falk article, advocating war with Israel. This was taken down eventually as it was seen as compromising their anti-war ethos; likewise a headline suggesting that the western powers were to blame for the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015.

So long ago that it seems like another life, my sister marched from Aldermaston to London with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, joined on the third day by my parents and me, still a child. When the time came, I too marched with CND from High Wycombe to London, Easter after Easter.

My marching days have long been over. It isn’t a question of septuagenarian debility. It’s a question of the slogans, the left’s answer to tabloid headlines. Slogans of left and right, peace and war, can speak with peleucid simplicity to a multitude and send them down the road looking for trouble.

Ça ira, ça ira was an exhortation to terror which followed the French Revolution.

Beware the catchy slogan and the rousing song. I like anthems as much as anyone, at the Proms or the Olympics or on the football pitch, but when they are accompanied by marching feet and bloodlust, I generally prefer to cast a cold eye.

Post script. I forgot that I attended two demos in 2018, in Westminster, against Labour Party antisemitism. Desperate needs cause desperate measures and indeed, this is why people resort to demonstrations and rallies. After what was called the Enough is Enough demo or the Dayenu (an allusion to the Passover seder) demo, I painted an impression of the event.

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4 Responses to "Do you hear the people sing?"

The one thing in common all these demonstrations have is their simplistic, binary outlook on complex issues. And as such are so easily hijacked by fringe/extremists that make the cause “theirs” as a weapon against others. Depressing. And as for modern demonstrations, the tactics are counterproductive and alienating. People unable to attend their parents’ funeral as a result of blocking of motorways. Damaging priceless art. It’s all very childish.

I agree James. I don’t want to write off the value of demonstrations but they can be compromising in the sense of who you’re sharing them with. However, I’ve forgotten that I was on a demo in 2018 and will add it to the post, as a post script.

That’s a beautiful painting Gillian

Thanks. The bearded man in the foreground was Rabbi Avrohom Pinter who died during the covid pandemic but the others are not portraits of particular people.

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