Olivier Assayas's film on the aftermath of May 1968 is infantile ultra-leftism
JOE GLENTON explains his need to respond to a world that is unsustainably divided
A new book about Phil Piratin, man of the people and communist parliamentarian, is an engaging read
Granite And Honey reconstructs the life of Phil Piratin, one of the most colourful and successful labour movement figures of the 1930s- 1950s. Written by Kevin Marsh and Robert Griffiths it charts his time as a communist MP, fighter for the people of the East End and internationalist.
Piratin preferred "doers" to "yackers" and "meeting people rather than meetings" and he lived what he preached. MI5 files contain records of 20 years of phone taps, mail interception and observation, which started when he became treasurer of the Stepney CP and continued until he left Parliament.
It's a book that will intrigue those who think they know the man as well as those who are reading about him for the first time. It comes laced with surprises and even a little mystery as, for the first time, the authors reveal his post-House of Commons activity.
Much of this involved raising funds for popular causes such as Umkhonte We Sizwe and the CP, for liberation fighters in Ghana and campaigns for justice for murdered Malayans and other opponents of imperialism.
Piratin was born in 1907 into a teeming and divided East End of London. His first 25 years were those of many poor, new Jewish immigrants, making sense of old and inherited traditions, acquiring and absorbing new customs, thoughts and even affectations and constantly changing address to keep a step ahead of money-grubbing landlords.
Piratin was blessed with a remarkable memory of the kind that often led to being earmarked to study in a Yeshiva - a rabbinical school - but he ended up as a local scholarship student.
By the time he was in his late twenties, the East End was waking up to the threat of Mosley and Hitler and after taking part in a protest in 1934 he joined the Communist Party. This began an affinity with Marxism and opposition to anti-semitism that lasted him a lifetime.
Piratin's combination of determination, zest for life and his sense of purpose and organisation led to a speedy ascendancy into the leadership of the London CP.
For him the aim of politics was not the taking part but the winning and he changed the entire way the CP campaigned.
In 1936, Piratin asked his branch literature secretary Sam Berks how sales were going. "Not so good" was the answer. "What do you expect. I can't read this shit, how do you expect anyone else to?" Piratin responded.
Under his leadership, involving the people also meant speaking their language. His approach was a kind of "gas and water" or even "municipal" communism.
According to Piratin, "everything starts from where you are." So, although the fascists had to be blocked, he would destroy their organisation by exposing the class interests at work and winning away those workers seduced by Mosley's policies.
He organised solidarity with fascist-supporting families facing eviction and sent anti-fascists into the sports and boxing clubs frequented by Mosleyites to take the arguments right into the heart of fascist areas.
Piratin's story of the Battle of Cable Street is different from revisionist accounts, some of which completely distort the role of the communists and promote that of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) but which are unable to account for the fact that it voted for Munich and later against Lend Lease when the Soviet Union was locked in a life and death struggle with fascism.
It was the struggle against bad housing conditions, high rents, poor lighting, dangerous and outdated heating systems and failure to conduct repairs, which put Piratin's mould of socialist politics into the town hall and later Parliament.
To this struggle Piratin brought his winning formula of clear analysis, polemical vigour and mastery of detail. He became an expert on planning laws and developed campaigns that mobilised the people collectively. He would then apply the pressure whenever necessary, directly, even picketing landlords' suburban homes.
Piratin supported the positions taken by the CP at the outbreak and in the early phases of the war, except for the People's Convention. Turned down for the forces and even barred from coal mining he was personally named on a Hitler hit-list.
His exclusion from the services was to the advantage of the citizens of Stepney as he spearheaded a campaign to open deep shelters for those seeking to escape the Blitz. Too often the communist contribution which saved the thousands of lives by campaigning for air raid precautions is forgotten, as well its stand against against war profiteering and its key role in mobilising the unions to demand the removal of the appeaser Neville Chamberlain.
Piratin's career as an MP shows what a communist can do in Parliament. He paid his MP's wage to his party and drew the average wage of a worker. He sat on the government benches and acted, not as a conscience, but as a constant source of positive and carefully thought through pro-people proposals.
Noted for his pithy and earthy cockney style of delivery, he sometimes had to make the customary apologies for offending sensitivities, usually of the mealy-mouthed minister for labour and national service George Isaacs.
Inside and outside Parliament Piratin took a key role in the housing occupations of 1946 that led to an acceleration of the government resettlement and house-building programmes. He locked horns with Bevan over broken promises on housing, argued the detail with Hugh Dalton over Treasury policy and found time repeatedly to cross swords with Churchill over nuclear policy.
He saved special venom for Bevin's foreign policy and his denunciation of "foreign troops occupying this country" laid the basis for so much future campaigning in opposition to US domination.
Readers can, for the first time, get to grips with the complex mix of US and Soviet foreign policy, their post-WWII fall out, Arab anti-imperialism and collaboration, zionist reaction and anti-semitism and the question of what to do with survivors of the Holocaust - all of which played a part in the formation of Israel. Piratin was an expert on all these elements and the authors excel in unpicking and explaining the interrelationship of all the factors.
But Piratin did not just oppose. As early as 1946, he was proposing legislation to outlaw race hatred and in 1947 to extend health and safety legislation to all workers. He called for a graduated profits tax, an annual levy on capital and unearned income. Yet despite making over 200 interventions in parliamentary business in his first 12 months, some party critics said he wasn't doing enough.
Piratin pursued an active life following his exit from Parliament in 1950 at the height of the cold war. He was a full-time district organiser and fundraiser for the CP and circulation manager of the Daily Worker during one of its most difficult periods during the mid-'50s. His business interests included trading with eastern European socialist countries and even directorship of a finance house. He died in 1995.
The authors conclude that Piratin was "widely respected rather than universally loved." But his harshest expressions were always reserved for the landlords, the exploiters and the imperialists.
This riveting book catalogues the transition of a working-class man from street organiser to internationally noted warrior for peace who always remained a man of the people.
You will not want to put it down.
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