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Monday, April 16, 2012

Historian Eric Hobsbawm interviewed by Simon Schama BBC Radio

 Hobsbawn is one of my hero historians. I didn't know he was still alive It's a great interview of him by Schama. Hobsbawm is so sharp at 94. Nor did I know he wrote another book that was published last year. 
John Tognolini

Eric Hobsbawm is interviewed by Simon Schama to discuss his work and his extraordinary life.
Professor Eric Hobsbawm is one of our most eminent historians. His four-volume history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, starting with 'The Age of Revolution' and ending with 'The Age of Extremes', is considered a masterpiece, an accessible classic which is still read by students today.

Click to access interview. 

"Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917, months before the Russian Revolution. He grew up in Vienna and Berlin, before moving to England, where he studied history at Cambridge. At 94 years old, he is President of Birkbeck College, and is still writing. His most recent book, published in 2011 is 'How to Change the World', in the light of the global financial crisis, it is a timely collection of essays reassessing Marx and Marxism.

Simon Schama meets Eric at his home in Hampstead to discuss his turbulent childhood, orphaned at 14, he moves to Berlin to stay with relatives who are too concerned with scratching a living in the collapsing Weimar Republic to notice that the teenage Eric is hiding a Communist Party printing press in his bedroom.

In 1933 he moved to England, a country he found incredibly boring after the excitement of Berlin, however, it is the English education system that makes him a historian, when he wins a scholarship to Cambridge, later founding Communist Party Historians Group, and the journal Past and Present, which influenced a whole generation, including a young Simon Schama.

Eric Hobsbawm is an unrepentant Marxist, whilst acknowledging the failure of twentieth century Communism, he has not given up on Marxist ideals. As he tells Simon Schama, he would like to be remembered as 'somebody who not only who kept the flag flying, but who showed that by waving it you can actually achieve something, if only good and readable books'."

Friday, April 06, 2012

Mark Steel: Galloway and Aung San Suu Kyi – so alike

His win has proved that people, including the young, can be reconnected with politics

Britain is different now, since George Galloway was elected in Bradford. Partly this is because he's splendidly unpredictable, so it's possible he'll resign to compete in the Olympics at weightlifting, or discover he's fourth in line to the throne. He's also baffled the politicians and commentators who think they know how politics works. 

So the suggestion is made that the outcome was a result of Galloway unfairly courting the Muslim vote. Because as anyone knows, if you want to trick a Muslim to vote for you, it's best to be a Scottish Catholic standing against a Labour Muslim. That's why the entire Pakistani parliament is made up of Celtic fans, and the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh is Andy McDowell, from Falkirk. 

One example of this logic was an interview with Galloway on Radio 5 Live the day after the election. The interviewer kept asking: "Why did you choose Bradford West?" Galloway stomped off, but I wonder whether the answer might be because that's where the election was. So if he'd gone to Exeter instead, when he asked, "Are you voting for me today", he'd have been told, "Well, much as I like some of your policies, I'm afraid I'm not going to vote for you as there's no election. They're having one in Bradford, why don't you try there?"

Then we heard a "political analyst" downplay the result by saying: "It's hard to see he could have achieved this outcome in Plymouth or Norwich." Presumably then, if a Tory wins an election in the Cotswolds he says, "Yes he won, but he wouldn't have if the election had been in Sunderland so it doesn't really count." Today he'll tell us, "Aung San Suu Kyi claims the results are a success, but it's hard to see she could have achieved this outcome in Belgium, where Burma is only of minor interest."

So then they sneer that he won votes by opposing the war in Afghanistan, as if this is cheating. Because the rules are you have to agree with cuts and wars, so on every issue the Tories have to say, "We've cut this", the Liberal Democrats say, "We helped, and it's a good job we were there or the Tories wouldn't have spelt the thing they're cutting properly", then Labour say, "We WOULD have cut it, but we'd have waited until the afternoon".

But the main issue was the cuts, and one ward in which Galloway won a large majority was the student area, probably because he opposes the tuition fees. And the campaign didn't just win votes; one meeting attracted 1,200 people. 

So maybe the main thing that's changed is it's proved that people, including the young, can be reconnected with politics. But it helps to be against pointless wars, and making the poor poorer, and to go about it like Galloway, quietly and with humility and never making yourself the centre of attention. 

Death of a BLF Stalwart:: VALE Neville Killer Kane1941-2012. By John Tognolini

Killer with the beanie & The Black Rat during their crane occupation in April 1986.

Picture this scene, late April 1986, a group of a dozen builders labourers on a cold Melbourne morning. The time is around 7.30am. Their picketing a building site where they’ve been sacked for refusing to resign from their union the Builders Labourers Federation, that has just been deregistered. A “nice term” for outlawed by Bob Hawke’s ALP federal government. Hawke is joined in this by the ALP premiers of New South Wales and Victoria, Neville Wran and John Cain. An army of police has been deployed to building sites in Melbourne, Geelong, Canberra, Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle to attack the right of freedom of association. The right of workers to be in a union of their choice, not the bosses or the state.

BLF organiser John ‘Cummo’ Cummins, has just driven up to the picket. I notice as he opens the boot of his car, a large steel chain and he shows it to Neville ‘Killer’ Kane and Jimmy ‘The Black Rat’ Wilson and third Builders Labourer. Within ten minutes, the three sacked BLF men have occupied a crane on a nearby building site. They’ve used the chain to lock the trap door of the crane to prevent police from removing them. They have no food or water and occupy the crane for over 72 hours and leave it on their terms after making a defiant protest and shutting a building site down. They have also endured three bitterly cold nights.

As Killer said,” It happened really fast. I was on the Market Street site and they [the cops] came down on the job... I was sacked because I refused to join the BWIU [Building Workers Industrial Union, now the CFMEU]. I could have been the shop steward on site for the BWIU. All I had to do was to change over. But I decided to stick with the BLs.” Other workers were locked on the jobs, surrounded by rows and rows of police and threatened with the sack, threatened that they couldn’t leave the site till they’d signed over to another building union.

So it’s not surprising that when Killer lost his fight with leukemia last week that a few days later, that 175 construction workers on a Melbourne CBD building site gave him a minutes silence. Or that the Red Flag flying over Melbourne Trades Hall was at half mast for him. That flag has been sent to Killer’s widow Margaret. Over 400 people attended Killer’s funeral on Monday April 2 which had Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams send a message to it, recognising Killer’s life long support of the Irish fight against British Imperialism.

In many ways Killer, reflected the staunch, militant working class traditions of the BLF. The union was a rank and file membership controlled organisation. It’s no wonder that Hawke and the ALP outlawed the BLF. Hawke did his best to criminalise militant unionism. It was he who created the Australian Billionaires with the greatest redistribution of wealth in Australian history and the working poor. Killer and men and women like him opposed that in the 1980’s. With being in the BLF, he and about 500 of us suffered for our militant dissent with being blacklisted and starved out of work.

Margaret, his lifelong wife and partner was actively involved in organising the wives and girlfriends of BLF men during the outlawing of the union. She once appeared on Ray Martin’s Midday Show,a national television show and Martin basically surrendered his show to her with her elegant defense of the BLF. This is interview is in my film The Deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation-The Victorian Story 1986-1992.

I would have made the 830 kilometer trip from Wellington in Central West NSW to attend Killer’s funeral in Melbourne, if it was not for my partner’s recovery from cancer. However, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Killer and Margaret last September after the Melbourne Climate Change/Social Change conference at their home in Longwarry. I played my guitar to them and sung my version of Roaring Jack’s Lads of the BLF that was played at Killer’s funeral. I also played them Back Home in Derry, that is the poem The Voyage written by Irish Hunger Striker Bobby Sands, and made famous as song by Christy Moore and played some Johnny Cash.

In remembrance of Killer but also for the other BLF Stalwarts who are no longer with us such as John ‘Cummo’ Cummins and Jimmy ‘The Black Rat’ Wilson. DARE TO STRUGGLE. DARE TO WIN. IF YOU DON’T FIGHT. YOU DON’T WIN.

John Pilger:East Timor: a lesson in why the poorest threaten the powerful

Milan Kundera's truism, "the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting", described East Timor. The day before I set out to film clandestinely there in 1993, I went to Stanfords map shop in London's Covent Garden. "Timor?" said a hesitant sales assistant. We stood staring at shelves marked South East Asia. "Forgive me, where exactly is it?" 

After a search he came up with an old aeronautical map with blank areas stamped, "Relief Data Incomplete."  He had never been asked for East Timor, which is just north of Australia. Such was the silence that enveloped the Portuguese colony following its invasion and occupation by Indonesia in 1975. Yet, not even Pol Pot succeeded in killing, proportionally, as many Cambodians as the Indonesian dictator Suharto killed or starved in East Timor.

In my film, Death of a Nation, there is a sequence shot on board an Australian aircraft flying over the island of Timor. A party is in progress, and two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. "This is an historically unique moment," babbles one of them, "that is truly uniquely historical." This is Gareth Evans, Australia's foreign minister. The other man is Ali Alatas, the principal mouthpiece of Suharto. It is 1989 and they are making a symbolic flight to celebrate the signing of a piratical treaty that allowed Australia and the international oil and gas companies to exploit the seabed off East Timor. Beneath them are valleys etched with black crosses where British and American-supplied fighter aircraft have blown people to bits. In 1993, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Australian Parliament reported that "at least 200,000", a third of the population, had perished under Suharto. Thanks largely to Evans, Australia was the only western country formally to recognise Suharto's genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus were trained in Australia. The prize, said Evans, was "zillions" of dollars.

Unlike Muammar al-Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Suharto died peacefully in 2008 surrounded by the best medical help his billions could buy. He was never at risk of prosecution by the "international community". Margaret Thatcher told him, "You are one of our very best and most valuable friends." The Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating regarded him as a father figure. A group of Australian newspaper editors, led by Rupert Murdoch's veteran retainer, Paul Kelly, flew to Jakarta to pay their tribute to the dictator; there is a picture of one of them bowing.

In 1991, Evans described the massacre of more than 200 people by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor's capital, as an "aberration". When protesters planted crosses outside the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, Evans ordered them torn up.

On 17 March, Evans was in Melbourne to address a seminar on the Middle East and the Arab Spring. Now immersed in the busy world of "think tanks", he expounds on great power strategies, notably the fashionable "Responsibility to Protect", which Nato uses to attack or threaten uppity or out-of-favour dictators on the false pretext of liberating their people. Libya is a recent example. Also attending the seminar was Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at San Francisco University, who reminded the audience of Evans's long and critical support for Suharto.

As the session ended, Evans, a man of limited fuse, stormed over to Zumes and yelled, "Who the fuck are you? Where the fuck are you from?" Zumes was told, Evans later confirmed, that such critical remarks deserved "a smack on the nose". The episode was timely. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of an independence Evans once denied, East Timor is in the throes of electing a new president; the second round of voting is on 21 April, followed by parliamentary elections.

For many Timorese, their children malnourished and stunted, the democracy is notional. Years of bloody occupation, backed by Australia, Britain and the US, were followed by a relentless campaign of bullying by the Australian government to manoeuvre the tiny new nation out of its proper share of the seabed's oil and gas revenue. Having refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the Law of the Sea, Australia unilaterally changed the maritime boundary.

In 2006, a deal was finally signed, largely on Australia's terms. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Mari Alkitiri, a nationalist who had stood up to Canberra and opposed foreign interference and indebtedness to the World Bank, was effectively deposed in what he called an "attempted coup" by "outsiders". Australia has "peace-keeping" troops based in East Timor and had trained his opponents. According to a leaked Australian Defence Department document, Australia's "first objective" in East Timor is for its military to "seek access" so that it can exercise "influence over East Timor's decision-making". Of the two current presidential candidates is Taur Matan Rauk, a general and Canberra's man who helped see off the troublesome Alkitiri.

One independent little country astride lucrative natural resources and strategic sea lanes is of serious concern to the United States and its  "deputy sheriff" in Canberra. (President George W. Bush actually promoted Australia to full sheriff). That largely explains why the Suharto regime required such devotion from its western sponsors. Washington's enduring obsession in Asia is China, which today offers developing countries investment, skills and infrastructure in return for resources.

Visiting Australia last November, President Barack Obama issued another of his veiled threats to China and announced the establishment of a US Marines' base in Darwin, just across the water from East Timor. He understands that small, impoverished countries can often present the greatest threat to predatory power, because if they cannot be intimidated and controlled, who can?

5 April 2012