“A hell of a performance”—Warren Ellis reviews No Less Than Mystic

We were delighted to discover this wonderful review of John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic in the newsletter of  Warren Ellis (graphic novelist, writer, author of Normal, Gun Machine, Transmetropolitan, Red and much more). He’s kindly given us permission to reprint the section here. You can sign up to his newsletter, Orbital Operations, hereNo Less Than Mystic is out now. 

 

I have many fine-looking books by many excellent authors waiting to be read, and I’m desperate to read them, but I have a confession. When NO LESS THAN MYSTIC by John Medhurst arrived, I dropped everything to start it. And it hasn’t let go.

It’s a history of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.

I feel like I need to yell HEAR ME OUT.

The brilliance of Medhurst’s political histories — and some of you will remember me praising his previous THAT OPTION NO LONGER EXISTS — is his sharp eye for the pivot points and the alternative routes history could have taken. Or, put another way – alternate histories are buried in his actual histories. He will lead you to fly off into fascinating could-have-beens, big ones that start with small corrected missteps or slightly different arrangements of personalities. There are wonders compressed in his books.

The additional pleasure of NO LESS THAN MYSTIC is that he looks back from a 21st Century perspective, with no interest in being chained to the previous moment. From the blurb, in fact, he:

continually examines the Leninist experiment through the lens of a 21st century, de-centralised, ecological, anti-productivist and feminist socialism. Throughout its narrative it interweaves and draws parallels with contemporary anti-capitalist struggles such as those of the Zapatistas, the Kurds, the Argentinean “Recovered Factories”, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Intersectional feminists, attempting to open up the past to the present and points in between.

This fills out the book in remarkable ways, and, frankly, allows Medhurst to put the boot into Lenin from a number of different angles.

(It could be usefully read in tandem with Catherine Merridale’s LENIN ON THE TRAIN, which was not nearly as soft and romantic a book as some idiot reviewers would have you believe.)

This is a big, energetic, ambitious book that deserves every success. A hell of a performance.

NO LESS THAN MYSTIC, John Medhurst (UK) (US)

(Nice to see Repeater Books building out its list so skilfully, too.)

Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, FELL, MINISTRY OF SPACE and PLANETARY, and the author of the NYT-bestselling GUN MACHINE and the “underground classic” novel CROOKED LITTLE VEIN. The movie RED is based on his graphic novel of the same name.

A new novella, NORMAL is released November 29 2016.

Might the “worlds saddest right-wing protest” have a point about Lenin, asks John Medhurst?

If Confederate statues are coming down across the US, should statues of figures like Lenin come down too, as demanded by a small group of Trump supporters this week in Seattle, dubbed the “worlds saddest right-wing protest”? No, says John Medhurst….

In reaction to the events in Charlottesville and across the American South, where statues of Confederate war leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are now being taken down, a small group of right-wing protestors have demonstrated in front of a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in Seattle (purchased and transported to America when the Soviet Union fell, and erected in a bohemian area of the city). Their point was that Lenin was responsible for far more deaths than Lee etc, and also in the name of a defeated, discredited cause. Should not, therefore, this statue also be removed?
 
As the author of a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that condemns Lenin and the one-party state he introduced (No Less Than Mystic, out now from Repeater), do I sympathise and agree with these protestors? Basically, no. If the statue was of Stalin, sure. One cannot rationalise and defend Stalin’s record. He was literally and directly responsible for programmes of mass murder such as the collectivisation of the Russian peasantry in 1929-33 and the “Holodomor”, the hunger-extermination of 7 million Ukraninan peasant-nationalists in the the 1930s, not to mention the Great Terror of 1936-38, which executed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people.
 
Why not, then, take down the Lenin statue?  Because there is no equivalence at all to the Confederate statues. Firstly, there is no historical or cultural context to the placement of, and response to, the Lenin statue. Seattle did not go through the Russian Civil War or its aftermath, and does not argue about its symbols to this day. Absent that history, the statue is essentially an ironic cultural artifact, an indulgence in armchair revolutionism by a trendy middle-class. It has no direct relevance to the contemporary American political scene. The statues of Lee etc are a permanant and deliberate reminder and endorsement of a war fought to protect slavery, of the Jim Crow system that survived until the 1960s that was only defeated by a mass black civil rights movement, and of continuing white supremacism. In a country where 27% of African-Americans live in poverty compared to 11% of whites, where black males have six times the incaceration rate of whites, and where black men between 15-35 are nine times more likely to be killed by the police than are other Americans, these staues are not an ahistoric post-modernist statement.
 
Secondly, Lenin’s record, whilst open to severe censure and criticism, cannot be equated, as one of the protestors’ placards has it, with that of Hitler (or Stalin). He unforgivably destroyed the fragile flowers of Russian democracy in 1917, including those of the grass-roots “soviets” or workers councils, denied politcal opponents including socialist ones the right to free expression, and laid the foundation of a system that would eventually mutate into Stalinism. But his crimes, whilst real, were small in comparison to those of Hitler and Stalin, and arose more from a culpable inability to foresee the consequences of his actions rather than a set intent to establish tyranny.
 
I hold no brief for Lenin, as my book makes very clear. Leninism was a disaster for the international socialist movement and for the prospects of establishing a durable, democratic socialist society across the world. But the protest in Seattle is disingenous and insincere, designed to give cover to white supremacists now revealed as violent neo-nazis. It should be ignored.
 
The author, John Medhurst, at the Seattle Lenin statue
No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left, is out now from Repeater. More info/links to buy online here.  

John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76. He has written for Novara Media, the Morning Star, Red Pepper, Green Left and the Journal of Contemporary European Research. He is married with two daughters and lives in Brighton, England.

For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like things can only get worse—Juliet Jacques

Unlike many London left friends, who’ve been better than me at going to demonstrations, I’ve never met Jeremy Corbyn. To my shame – and perhaps because my anxiety and depression stopped me travelling from Manchester to London for the anti-war demo in February 2003  – I’d never even heard of him before he ran for Labour leader two years ago.

I had met John McDonnell though – at a People’s Parliament event that he organised with (the old) Zero Books at the House of Commons in March 2014. McDonnell explained that he put on the sessions to get different voices into Parliament, where MPs might hear them. He held monthly panels on various subjects; while many were for workers and trade unionists, he often brought in writers and activists. This time, those writers were Mark Fisher, Rhian Jones and Alex Niven – all people I’d met in London, and considered friends, after spending two years moving through writing and journalistic circles until finding the one that excited me the most, centred around Zero (now Repeater) and Verso Books. (J. D. Taylor, whom I hadn’t encountered, was the final panellist.) Continue reading For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like things can only get worse—Juliet Jacques

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus” — Huw Lemmey

The first mistake in analysing the travel ban is thinking its primary aim is to ban travel. It won’t work. It isn’t intended to work. The Trump administration is not aiming to institute effective policy. It’s aiming to communicate. If you understand communication as the primary aim of the ban, it has worked and will continue to work. If you try to counter it by proving it’s inefficient, unjust and unconstitutional, you’re not addressing it, as it’s not intended to be any of those things.

To tackle it, you have to understand it as communication and out-communicate it. This is a culture war and a meme war. You establish a narrative about immigration. Within that narrative you lay down a solution that you know you can meet. You reach power, you implement the “solution” you’ve seeded over the previous decades. The resolution is extremely satisfying to those who are emotionally invested in the narrative. The issue is not about policy; it’s about storytelling. Continue reading “Fiat ars – pereat mundus” — Huw Lemmey

A lot of libido, but no women—Eli Davies reviews Supersonic, the new Oasis documentary

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of bombast in the new Oasis documentary Supersonic. Everybody’s busy going mad for it and making history and being the biggest and the best. In a lot of the interview footage there’s a kind of coked-up scattergun quality to both Noel and Liam’s speech; their answers often go on for too long, they’re seduced by their own hype, and can quickly descend into hyperbole and cliche.

supersonicThere are, however, moments which cut through all this nonsense and which show something of what was good and interesting about the band. One such moment of insight comes during a 1994 TV interview that Noel and Liam are doing to promote Definitely Maybe. A journalist asks the brothers what fans can expect from the album and Noel answers, “Twelve songs about being alive and having fun.” There’s nothing earth-shattering about that description, of course, but its simplicity shows, at that moment, a pop star perfectly attuned to the role of his music. My friends and I loved that album when it came out and, while we knew that the songs as a whole made less sense than those by the more cerebral bands we listened to, but we could pick out the bits and pieces we did understand and use them to give voice to our fun, our boredom, our yearnings.

There’s not much about people like me and my friends in Supersonic, though (or in many discussions of Oasis, for that matter). For all the casual references to birds and girls that litter the film, women almost don’t exist at all as a reference point in the band’s world. I give them a free pass on this sometimes, telling myself that women are so basically absent in Oasis’s music that it can’t even really be counted as sexism, and I think there is some truth to this. On Definitely Maybe there are a couple of songs you could describe as love songs if you really wanted to, but there’s something non-specific about the desire, unattached to any particular person. The film’s footage from the early days fits in with this picture; you see the lads horsing around, recording demos, larking about as they watch the footy, and what’s obviously important to them all is having a good time with their mates. I was reminded of the boys that I used to hang around with as a teen, boys who were all too interested in their guitars/weed/box-fresh Adidas/each other to pay much attention to us girls (all of which was perversely part of their attraction). Continue reading A lot of libido, but no women—Eli Davies reviews Supersonic, the new Oasis documentary

Always the Ramsay MacDonalds: lessons from 1931 for Labour today

Guest post by John Medhurst:

On September 13th 2015 at a packed TUC fringe event at the Brighton Corn Exchange, ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis delivered a stirring speech on how the Syriza government had been undermined by the EU’s financial institutions and what this portended for a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. At its close he finished with one last warning to the British left, born from his own experience in office, – “The enemy is always within. The enemy is always the Ramsay MacDonalds”.

Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn no-one would claim Labour is now led by a second Ramsay MacDonald (a role already perfectly filled by Neil Kinnock, who managed to betray his class and his party without even getting elected first). But although Corbyn’s mandate for a real socialist alternative is undeniable and impressive the Labour Party machine and most of its MPs remain unreformed. Too many local Labour parties – like my own in Brighton – are led by midget-Blairs whose response to the election of Corbyn and the subsequent inrush of enthusiastic new members is fear and distrust. Their strategy for the next four years will be to ignore, suppress and defuse their own members who wish to turn the party into a radical anti-austerity opposition. Nor are the unions Corbyn’s automatic allies. One need only see the grotesque Sir Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB, who after accepting his “honour” from the Tories for selling out public sector pensions condemned Corbyn’s stance on Trident as a threat to the “defence of the realm”. Continue reading Always the Ramsay MacDonalds: lessons from 1931 for Labour today

What do Lenin & the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st century left?—John Medhurst

This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017 

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The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism. Continue reading What do Lenin & the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st century left?—John Medhurst

Materialistic arseholes and suburban dreamers: Bowie and the 1960s—Chris O’Leary

As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating. 
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites. 
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here  – TS 

 

Cygnet Committee

Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first. Continue reading Materialistic arseholes and suburban dreamers: Bowie and the 1960s—Chris O’Leary