Classics for today: Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7

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SCENE VII. MacRees’s castle.

Hautboys and torches. Enter a Sewer, and divers Servants with dishes and service, and pass over the stage. Then enter MACREES

MACREES

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Gallows
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

Enter LADY MACREES
How now! what news?

LADY MACREES

He has almost supp’d: why have you left the chamber?

MACREES

Hath he ask’d for me?

LADY MACREES

Know you not he has?

MACREES

We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

LADY MACREES

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

MACREES

Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACREES

What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

MACREES

If we should fail?

LADY MACREES

We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. When Gallows is asleep–
Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him–his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Gallows? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

MACREES

Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. Will it not be received,
When we have mark’d with blood those sleepy two
Of his own chamber and used their very daggers,
That they have done’t?

LADY MACREES

Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar
Upon his death?

MACREES

I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Exeunt.

The war of Kylie’s arse

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Sergeant Sheridan stands at the window of the castle. He watches with mounting horror the cavortings around the bonfire. Suddenly, a voice booms from behind him.

Lord Galloway (for it is he): I trust you find the sight of the young ladies invigorating, sergeant?

Sheridan: Invigorating? No sir, I do not! It is an offence against public decency and an abomination before the Lord! I as a family man should not have to witness such lewdness!

Galloway: Come, come, sergeant. The young ladies are simply expressing a natural joy in their sexuality and their ripe young bodies.

Sheridan: But – but they are in their knickers!

Galloway: Not any old knickers, sergeant. Not your cheapo knickers from Primark. No, these are Kylie’s knickers. A fine product, if I may say so. Indeed, I myself have procured a pair for my woman…

Right, that’s enough of The Wicker Man. But really, I find it difficult to take seriously all the sound and fury over Galloway’s daft little piece about Kylie in the Daily Record. Really, from what some people are saying, you’d think he’d invaded Iraq or something. For some intelligent commentary, I refer readers to Piers’ thoughts over at Liam’s blog.

Here’s what I think. There is of course a thin line, when commenting on matters sexual, between what you can get away with and outright sexism. A lot of this depends on tone, context and who is saying what to whom. Even as a humble blogger, I at least am aware there’s a line to be walked, and take care to stay on the right side of it even if I’ve arguably strayed over once or twice. But I don’t lead public opinion and don’t aspire to. George, as an elected representative and party leader, has to be careful of what he says and hold himself to a high standard.

And this is the occupational hazard of working with Galloway. He says an awful lot – often very good, sometimes terrible, and sometimes just plain daft. He has a tendency to let his wit and eloquence run away with him. Even though this can be his strength, it’s also been his downfall more than once. The man is, I have to say, a bit of a menace and you never know what you’re going to get from him next.

But we know all this. We know George blows hot and cold. We know too that he has a tendency to play to his audience – in this case, I presume, Glasgow barflies. A lot depends on who he’s talking to and what reception he thinks he’s going to get.

As a regular listener to Radio Galloway, I can confirm that he does have a tendency to veer from one extreme to the other. Sometimes he can be quite censorious. For instance, several weeks ago George was waxing wroth over the media’s ongoing obsession with Jacqui Smith’s cleavage – this story having run for months thanks to the parliamentary sketchwriters, a gang of public schoolboys who apparently think it’s hilarious that a female politician has big boobs. For the record, I agree with George (and Jacqui) that the Home Secretary should be judged on her policies and her performance in the job, not on the size of her breasts.

On the other hand, George does lapse into phwoar territory much more often than I would like. And while you can argue that, yes, Kylie uses her sexuality to market herself, I’m afraid George’s comments come under the category of phwoaring.

So what of the gauntlet thrown down to Respect Renewal supporters? This is dead simple. Nobody except George is under any obligation to defend George’s dafter utterances. In fact, it’s perfectly all right for anyone challenged on this to say politely that, in their opinion, George was out of order. Indeed, if someone sent in a letter to the new Respect paper saying that George was out of order, I’m sure it would get printed. This would underline that Renewal is not a personality cult and is rather different from the old Respect. God knows, George is thick-skinned enough to take it.

But, and I have to say this, this doesn’t change the fact that a great deal of the criticism of Galloway has been in transparently bad faith. I will leave aside the members and fellow travellers of the AWL, who just hate Galloway and will use any stick to beat him. What is much more entertaining has been the great outpouring of synthetic outrage from the Swops. Remember, these were the guys who defended George to the hilt over the Big Brother fiasco and prevented him being censured in Respect. The Gorgeous One’s cringeworthy GQ interview, when he regaled us with the arresting image of him waking up with a broomhandle every morning, passed them by. And now they are outraged over this? If George really is the sexist monster they would have us believe, doesn’t it raise at least a question mark over their past relations with him?

And don’t even get me started on institutional sexism in the SWP. Some of the carryings on in the party hierarchy – which the grunts in the branches may be only dimly aware of – would make even George’s hair stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine. Mote and beam alert, I think.

Poetry corner: Excelsior (1841), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
Excelsior!

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
Excelsior!

“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
Excelsior!

“O stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But steel he answered with a sigh,
Excelsior!

“Beware the pine tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
Excelsior!

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
Excelsior!

A traveler, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Sill grasping in his hand of ice
The banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,
Excelsior!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

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Yes, time to take a break from Respect (cue resounding cheers from the broad masses) and look at what’s new in the realm of popular culture.

Most of us go through life with fond hopes that on some level we know we may never see realised in our lifetimes. World peace, the socialist revolution, an end to hunger in the Third World, the BBC repeating The Goodies… you know the form. Of course I have a few of my own, like holding out the possibility that Buckley might relaunch Power Man & Iron Fist before I die. Actually, I’m not so much in a hurry to see that happen at the moment, as Ed Brubaker has been doing an excellent job on Immortal Iron Fist.

Which brings me to this jaw-dropping story about the Orange Order’s latest attempt to get down wit da yoof. No, this does not involve Bobby Saulters, George Patton et al zipping around on skateboards while exclaiming “Booyakasha!” Unfortunately not, for us connoisseurs of the absurd. No, the Orangemen are muscling in on the box-office success of Spider-Man and chums by launching their own comic-book superhero. This is gearing towards young people who don’t quite feel that King Billy is “cool”. Indeed, many of the wee mites seem to view William of Orange as being, like, so 1690.

The arresting figure above, who is still nameless at this point, represents Orangeism’s pitch to the Wii generation. Suggestions for names will be gratefully received.

Actually, this reminds me a little of the Hole In The Wall Gang when they were still on the wireless. Some readers will recall with affection the occasional skit they did on “The Amazing Sectarian Adventures of Orangeman”, who with his Super Paranoid No Surrender Vision could see a fenian plot from miles away. Perhaps Hollywood’s top scriptwriters could come up with something even more entertaining?

The wacky world of revolutionary mathematics

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While making his legendary speeches on state capitalism, the late Tony Cliff had a good joke that always got a chuckle from the assembled faithful. This was in dealing with the Five Year Plans, when the bureaucracy would announce (and I don’t have my copy of State Capitalism handy, so I’m plucking a figure out of my left ear) that they would aim to produce 21 millions tons of steel. Then when it came to the next plan, the target would be raised to 16 million tons. Your average Soviet punter, of course, was so starved of information that he couldn’t do a quick compare and contrast.

This joke of Cliff’s comes to mind when reading the SWP Central Committee’s “state of the party” reports in the pre-conference bulletins. We shall skip tactfully over the “World economy – back to the abyss” perspective that opens IB #1, and turn to the membership figures. The CC (and presumably this is Martin talkin’ now) says that “Today there are 5,938 registered SWP members and about 1,700 unregistered members (registered membership is up by over 200 on last year).” This calls for a little deconstruction.

In the first place, this recent innovation of the “unregistered member” is more than a little fishy. These are people who have effectively dropped out, but are kept on the books. They aren’t active and don’t pay subs, which means that they aren’t members in the sense that we always used to understand. I can think of no reason for keeping members who have been inactive for up to two years on the books, except to puff up the numbers. By the way, when the Yanks were excommunicated, one of the proofs of the ISO’s incurable sectarianism was its insistence that branches regularly weed their membership lists.

But is the registered membership a useful guide to anything? I suggest not. Readers with long memories will recall that in the 1970s Cliff had the novel idea of introducing the rigours of the competitive market into party recruitment, by setting up a league table of regional organisers, with the hotshot recruiters at the top and the slackers at the bottom. This did not noticeably speed up recruitment to the party, but it did give an unfortunate boost to what Ahmed Shawki pithily describes as “organiser’s bullshit syndrome”. Of course, the more outrageous spoofers would be found out eventually, and would feel the wrath of Cliff, but the precedent set was not a happy one.

This was made worse in the early 1990s when the “dash for growth” meant that membership criteria were massively relaxed. Many of those counted as members were effectively sympathisers, who might turn out for a big event (Marxism of course, but remember Healy used to regularly get 10,000 or so to his big jamborees) or put a few quid into the appeal if asked, but who weren’t active by any sensible criterion. As for the annual re-registration, it is well known that organisers would bust a gut getting the maximum number of signatures for the centre, whether or not it reflected the real membership in their districts. It has become painfully obvious that carding simply doesn’t take place any more, at least not in a systematic way. And that’s without the possibility of double bookkeeping at the centre itself.

So, five thousand, nine hundred and thirty eight. So how come the pre-split Respect had only 2,500 members, even on paper? And how come the loyalty oath circulated by the CC was signed by only a fifth of the party’s claimed membership, including people I know to have been inactive for years? Isn’t this stretching credibility just a little?

I also notice that the claimed circulation for Socialist Worker is 8,000 per week. Now, it isn’t many years ago that the paper was regularly shifting 30,000 per week. And, if we take the membership figures as accurate (which I don’t), that would mean that virtually nobody outside the party was taking the paper. I know the print newspaper is a dying medium, but it surely isn’t in that parlous a state.

I am therefore immensely cheered to find in IB #2 a long-time comrade who shall remain anonymous remarking that “on July 15, 2006 Socialist Worker reported that, ‘Some 4,100 activists gathered to discuss and debate a huge range of political issues’ at Marxism 2006. However, in the first IB a CC document reads, ‘Marxism 2007 was a great success. Over 4,100 people attended the event, up over 400 on last year.’ The size of Marxism is one indicator of the standing of the party and we are entitled to ask which is correct.”

A very good question, and one which party members deserve a straight answer to. I’m glad to see that the spirit of critical inquiry is not dead, although this comrade’s impersonation of the under-socialised child who pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothing may see a quick termination of membership in the pipeline.

Renewal, truth and reconciliation

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Further teasing out the implications of the Renewal project, I just want to ponder briefly on a question Andy had raised a little while back: that of truth and reconciliation.

This becomes quite important because, as Andy points out, some of those sharply criticising the current practice of the SWP had themselves been involved in these practices previously. Indeed, Dave Renton, someone I respect a great deal, has given this as one of his major reasons for taking the SWP side in the dispute.

Without wanting to rake over old disputes unnecessarily, I don’t think it’s a tenable proposition to say that we should, in Mr Tony Blair’s phrase, draw a line under the past and move on. There are too many bad memories, too many grudges – many of them quite justified – poisoning relations between people who could work together. I think this places a responsibility on people involved in Renewal, who are trying to build something better.

The point is that people can and do change. My mind goes back to 1985 and the collapse of the WRP. There was a genuine transformation on the part of many – of course not all – Healyites as they came to look at the shipwreck of their movement, and ponder what they had done. Even someone like Mike Banda – the thug’s thug, Gerry’s enforcer for thirty years – could do quite a searching self-criticism. And a lot of these guys were never the same again.

Now I’m not remotely suggesting that Renewal should institute a Maoist-style regime of “speaking bitterness” and compulsory self-flagellation. Far from it: it’s just a question of demonstrating practically that the bad old habits are being outgrown.

I think that in the first instance the victims of today should be thinking about building bridges with the victims of yesterday. I think of Steve Godward, a fine trade unionist who got fucked over by the machine for being too independent-minded and too popular for his own good. There are people – they know who they are – who owe Steve an apology. I think of Anna Chen, one of the best press officers the British left has had, getting fucked over by Rees for being too good at her job. An apology from the Rees camarilla is probably out of the question, but there are people out there who Anna helped and who didn’t stand by her when she could have done with the support. In these and many other cases, it’s my humble opinion that some modest gestures – and maybe private gestures would be more meaningful than public ones – would go an awful long way to building trust.

So much for reconciliation, where does truth come in? Simply that it’s important to realise that the behaviour of the SWP leadership is not just a question of them getting things badly wrong over Respect, on a whole number of levels. Rather, we are talking about a process of gradual degeneration going back thirty or so years. If the SWP is doing what Duncan Hallas warned against in the 1970s and becoming a kind of state capitalist WRP, that’s just the end of a long road.

What is needed here is to show that people can reflect on their experiences and draw meaningful lessons from them. This could actually be a valuable learning experience for a lot of people. I would love to see a serious article on the decline of the SWP from someone like Rob Hoveman – not that I’m particularly singling out Rob, but he just comes to mind as someone with the intelligence, insider experience and ability to produce something really good and insightful.

Truth and reconciliation? If handled correctly, yes, it could improve matters no end.

Classics for today: Julius Caesar

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I hear somebody has already done this on one of the comments sections (if you can think where, I’d be grateful for the link), and a big shout out to whoever had the idea. But it’s a great idea, and one worth doing twice. Apologies if you’ve seen this before – enjoy if you haven’t. 

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury George, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with George. The noble Rees
Hath told you George was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath George answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Rees and the rest—
For Rees is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in George’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Rees says he was ambitious;
And Rees is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in George seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, George hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Rees says he was ambitious;
And Rees is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Rees says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Rees spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with George,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

There ain’t no party like a George Galloway party!

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Having written so extensively about the Respect crisis and nailed my colours as firmly to the mast as they’re likely to get at this stage, it was only natural I would want to toddle along to the conference and see what was going on. But which one? Hmm… well, even assuming that I would have been let into the Swoppie conference, I had a fair idea what was going to be said there in advance. The Renewal conference seemed a much better bet – that side has made a far more attractive case. Would it live up to expectations?

 By and large, yes. It was lively. It was unpredictable. It was at times a bit chaotic, but that’s only to be expected – it’s a sign of life. And the signs were that Respect was very much alive and kicking. Certainly morale was extremely high.

George was on his normal barnstorming form, of course. Love him or hate him, there’s no political entertainer quite like him. I especially liked his comment that he wouldn’t be stooping to personal attacks on former friends, as it’s undignified (not something that worries me as much as George) and, besides which, calling somebody a great man for several years and then calling him the devil tends to put your honesty in question. You said it George.

A good thoughtful contribution from Salma, who’s getting to be a more and more impressive operator. Nick Wrack’s rallying call was brilliant if I may say so; Ken Loach raised some of the most pertinent points about how we got where we are and where we go next.

The Swops of course did come in for some stick, which is in no way surprising when you consider their behaviour of late. Perhaps not surprisingly, the harshest criticism of the SWP came from a series of SWP cadre with, I would estimate, well over a century of membership between them, who clearly know what they are talking about. Best of all was the contribution from the wonderful Jerry Hicks, a man the SWP should be thoroughly ashamed of losing.

After all the spin about the Bengali contingent, I was extremely impressed by the contributions from East End councillors Abjol and Hanif, neither of whom I had ever seen before but both of whom were first-class speakers. Both laid heavy stress on their Old Labour credentials, which was pleasing for people who have been represented as “Muslim communalists” of late. Abjol in particular is someone who, if he was just out for a political career, could walk into the Labour Party and be handed a berth – that he hasn’t speaks well of him.

The general tone was very much leftwing and socialist – not quite as clearly socialist and class-struggle as I would have liked, but then that’s an occupational hazard of attempts at building a broad party. Certainly this didn’t look like a right wing to me, not in any meaningful sense.

As I say, morale was high. Upwards of 300 people at a conference organised at 10 days’ notice is not bad going at all – that the SWP rally attracted a roughly equivalent number (almost exclusively Swops and fellow travellers, from what my spies tell me) gives you some idea of the balance of forces. The attendees were firm in the conviction that they are here to stay and will go forward. More than one speaker mentioned a feeling of liberation, a relief at having got rid of the millstone around their neck. This is not of course the SWP as a whole, which everyone agreed contains many great activists, but the rotten methods of its permanent leadership clique. Amen to that.

So that’s a preliminary assessment. As for how things pan out for the renewed Respect, whether it can pick up lost momentum, and what becomes of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Respect, only time will tell. The May elections and the conference scheduled to follow will of course be crucial. But this wasn’t a bad start, not bad at all. Quite promising in fact.

Thou varlet! Thou serf! Thou buggering knave!

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I’ve been reading the SWP pre-conference bulletins, and a most fascinating read they are too. I’ll probably come back to them at greater length once I get the time.

However, a few quick observations are in order. Firstly, I was deeply unimpressed by the contributions from the CC. Their public statements haven’t inspired much confidence, but what the membership are being given – well, I’ll just say that, if you are inclined to take what Martin Smith says as gospel truth, then you’re almost certainly the kind of person BA Baracus would refer to as a foo. In fact, he might even be moved to call you a crazy sucka and pity your foolishness.

 There are, as one might expect, quite a number of sharp criticisms of the CC. Most of these raise extremely pertinent questions, hearteningly so in fact, and a couple cast serious doubt on the competence of the CC as evidenced by its record over the last few years. What is fascinating for me is the names appended to the articles. I had been on the lookout for several long-time cadre who I personally know to be critical of the CC, but they don’t appear, perhaps because they were obvious suspects. But some of those coming out of the closet as oppositionists now are people I would have categorised in the past as sycophants and apparatchiks – in fact, one of the CC’s harshest critics is a comrade I used to view as a Stalinoid maniac. Isn’t it wonderful what a faction fight can do for people?

 The competence question, though, is the great unanswered question. Unanswered because the answer might be a tricky one for the band of brothers and sisters on the CC. To put it another way, if Rees was working for a capitalist corporation, or even a contestant on The Apprentice, he would have been shown the door long ago.

This is where you feel the lack of Cliff. Whether Cliff would have allowed things to come to this pass is a moot question – what’s more to the point is that, even if he had, he’d have found a fall guy and Rees would have been busted down to the ranks ages ago. But of course, that isn’t how things work in the post-Cliff collegiate leadership. Look at Prof Callinicos. He probably can’t shoulder all the blame for the loss of most of the international tendency – the splits of the mid-90s owed much to Cliff’s brainstorms, and it was of course the old man himself who declared war on the ISO – but it’s instructive that Alex remains in situ.

The truth is that there is no one person with the authority to act as hatchet-man. Such is the balance of forces, and the federalisation of the CC into separate fiefdoms, that you would need a split down the middle of the CC for the Sheriff to be put in real jeopardy. Take Chris Harman, who I rate as easily the best brain in the SWP, and whose close acolytes have been keeping a very low profile of late. The problem is that Chris, after decades of being Cliff’s whipping boy on the CC, still has to show evidence that he has a spine to back up that brain. The more aggressive people on the CC, on the other hand, aren’t known as the sharpest political thinkers. And, whatever the undoubted talent there, not one of them has impressed me in recent years as a tactician of real substance.

Is it any wonder George has run rings around these bozos?

Alex Callinicos on masturbation

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As I’ve been doing regularly during the Respect crisis, today I took a look at the latest Socialist Worker to see what the comrades have to say for themselves. All we get, though, is a dull article from Commander Begbie about how the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Respect conference is going ahead swimmingly despite attempts (attempts?!) to foment a split, plus a couple of morale-boosting puff pieces from Tower Hamlets, Preston and elsewhere to show the troops that there is something still there.

But while scanning the paper, I noticed none other than my old friend Prof Callinicos putting in his two cents on Norman Mailer. I am glad that Alex shares the same broadly positive opinion of Norm that I have, but I was struck by his little compare-and-contrast at the end with Philip Roth. Alex writes that “In the 1960s, at the height of Mailer’s notoriety, Philip Roth was most famous, not for political engagement, but for the comic epic of masturbation Portnoy’s Complaint.” However, Roth has redeemed himself in recent years by writing explicitly political novels that take aim at the Bush regime.

Well, now. I hope that Alex isn’t attacking the humble pleasures of the J Arthur, which as Woody Allen quipped is at least sex with someone you love. My view is that, while Roth’s more recent work is generally excellent, it’s not a break with his early material so much as a return to form after a long fallow period.

I’ll admit that Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t my favourite Roth novel – that would be The Professor of Desire – but it does have an irresistible nervous energy that makes it a classic of its period. And, more to the point, it simply isn’t true to say that Roth wasn’t interested in politics. There is plenty there for the social critic who looks a little below the surface, as Roth’s exploration of the neuroses of Alex Portnoy touches on aspects of masculinity, Jewishness, class and the changing face of 1960s America.

Really, Alex, you can do better than this slice of neo-Lukácsian social-realist philistine boilerplate. If you want to write about masturbation from a Marxist perspective, first you should read the section on Apostrophe(‘) in Ben Watson’s The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Ask Martin if you don’t get the musical references.

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