Nelson Mandela 1918-2013


Gauging the practical effectiveness of a protest song is a far more slippery task than assessing its quality, but the Special AKA’s 1984 hit, Nelson Mandela, is one of the few records that can be said to have helped move mountains.

Although it is almost inconceivable now, at the dawn of the 1980s Mandela’s name was not widely known outside South Africa. By the time he was released from prison a decade later, his name, face and story were synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle, and pop music played a major role in that transformation.

Read more at the Guardian

Dallas 22/11/63

“I watched it at my manager’s office. The next night, Saturday, I had a concert upstate, in Ithaca or Buffalo. There was a really down feeling in the air. I had to go on stage, I couldn’t cancel. I went to the hall and to my amazement the hall was filled. Everybody turned out for the concert. The song I was opening with was The Times They Are A-Changin’ and I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ That song was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there.

I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping or why I wrote that song, even. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.” — Bob Dylan to writer Anthony Scaduto







In praise of Dave Van Ronk


I’ve been reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street (Da Capo Press), on account of it being the loose inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, one of the best films about music and thwarted ambition that I’ve ever seen. Some incidents reappear in the film although Van Ronk was never quite as unlucky as Llewyn. It left me wishing that I’d read it before I wrote the folk chapters in 33 Revolutions Per Minute, and that I’d had the chance to interview him before his death in 2002. Frankly, the book is so funny, candid, insightful and unpretentious that it’s impossible to read it without wishing you could meet the guy. Here are my nine favourite passages, some of which are still relevant in different contexts in 2013, in order to encourage you to read it. (That said, dear publishers, if I quote too much here let me know and I’ll take it down asap.) Oh, and see the movie too.

On the 1950s jazz wars

The modernists were aesthetic Darwinists, arguing that jazz has to progress and that later forms must necessarily be superior to earlier ones. The traditionalists were Platonists, insisting that early jazz was “pure” and that all subsequent developments and dilutions and degenerations. This comic donnybrook dominated jazz criticism for ten or fifteen years, with neither side capable of seeing the strengths of the other, until it finally subsided and died, probably from sheer boredom. Before that point, though, a lot of otherwise sensible people had made asses of themselves.

On playing the banjo

So I switched over and quickly became one of the worst tenor banjo players on the trad scene. And to be the worst at tenor banjo, you’re really competing, because that’s a fast track.

On protest songs

For myself, I was always ready to go to a rally or a demonstration or a benefit for this, that, or the other cause, and to sing my songs, but I did very little political material. It did not suit my style, and I never did it that convincingly. I just did not have that kind of voice or that kind of presence. Also, although I am a singer and have always had strong political views, I felt that my politics were no more relevant to my music than they would have been to the work of any other craftsman. Just because you are a cabinet maker and a leftist, are you supposed to make left-wing cabinets?

On working for free (late 50s article)

I know several folksingers who have taken jobs without pay, not quite understanding that aside from its artistic nature, singing in front of an audience is work like any other job and that even if they do not need or want pay a great many of their colleagues do and that in any other line of endeavor their practices are referred to as scabbing and its practitioners are known as scabs.

On the young Bob Dylan

He had a lot of stories about who he was and where he came from, and he never seemed to be able to keep them straight. I think that’s one reason Bobby never gave good interviews: his thinking is so convoluted that he simply does not know how to level, because he’s always thinking of the effect that he’s having on whoever he’s talking to.

On drugs

The Cambridge drugs scene was actually a lot like the Cambridge folk scene, in that everything was intellectualized. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert had created this enormous theoretical structure based on “expanding your mind,” and it was all a crock of pseudomystical horseshit and petit bourgeois rationalization to justify getting stoned.

On the New Left

Most of those people were not really radicals, just a bunch of very pissed-off liberals. They had no grounding, and indeed no interest, in theory, and their disdain for studying history and learning economics infuriated me. The core problem with the New Left was that it wasn’t an ideology, it was a mood—and if you are susceptible to one mood, you are susceptible to another.

On the issue of whether white singers should cover material by black artists

The whole debate was a tempest in a teapot, generated by critics who needed something to write about… Forty years later, on somber reflection, having fully studied the arguments on both sides, I have reached what I believe to be a measured and definitive judgment on the matter: Who cares?

On purists

It is like the old socialist I knew who was an editor of a newspaper in the early 1960s: A bunch of New Leftists marched into his office and presented him with a set of nonnegotiable demands, insisting that he change this, that, and the other thing about what he was printing. He listened to them as long as he could stand it and then just said, “I’ve been a socialist for fifty years. Do you know what you’re going to be ten years from now? You’re going to be dentists.”

Another kind of patriotism: why the Mail is wrong about Britain


It might seem that there’s not much more to be said about the Daily Mail’s week of horror after the embarrassing flailing of its staff and supporters in various media outlets and Mehdi Hasan’s bravura monologue on Question Time. But one thread that’s worth pursuing is the Mail’s persistent defence of its smear on the grounds that if you are a socialist you must de facto hate Britain.

I am not convinced that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I am sure that claiming patriotism for a single political ideology is. The Mail insists that because Ralph Miliband criticised such institutions as public schools and the House of Lords he hated Britain, whereas showing contempt for another set of British institutions (the BBC, the welfare state, trade unions) and values (tolerance, generosity) is the noblest form of national pride. The absurdity should be obvious but I’m not sure the people at the heart of the Mail realise that their hardline Manichean view is profoundly out of step with the public it claims to represent.

Polls suggest that around 20% of the electorate is instinctively very conservative. These voters support Ukip or the Tory right-wing represented by the likes of Daniel Hannan. They are not concerned with political theory so much as with being left bloody well alone: pub garden libertarians. They resent red tape, taxes, political correctness, do-gooders, vegetarians, feminists, environmentalists, foreigners and speed limits. A friend suggested to me that most Ukip supporters are essentially more bothered about parking restrictions than they are about immigration or Europe.

Within that cohort is a much smaller percentage, spiritually aligned with Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society and the dark corners of the Establishment that considered mounting a military coup against Labour in the 1970s (I recommend Andy Beckett’s brilliant Pinochet in Piccadilly for more on that weird episode). They include Paul Dacre, Melanie Phillips and the tormented souls who haunt the Telegraph comment section. They are prey to paranoid, apocalyptic visions of a communist takeover, obsessed with the Cold War and the 70s (when many of them were great admirers of General Pinochet), terrified about reds under the bed and the imminent collapse of western civilisation. But what keeps them up at night is comically irrelevant to most Britons: most Mail readers come for the gossip and voyeurism, not the Cold Warrior hysteria. Dacre believes he represents the heart of Middle England, when in fact he represents a single artery, clogged with rage and fear.

Most voters hold a mixed bag of beliefs. On immigration, crime and welfare they swing to the right, so much so that the majority view bears little relation to the facts. On taxes, the minimum wage, trade unions and privatisation, as the New Statesman’s George Eaton illustrates, they favour the left. Naturally, the Mail and its allies venerate the great British public when it toes the line but as soon as it swings the other way it is a “mob”, seduced by crude “populism”. Hence Quentin Letts’ fantastical Question Time vision of the Mail as a gang of anti-establishment guerrilla idealists, defending the underdog against the powers that be. I’d like to think he was just improvising wildly, but I’m scared that he truly believes it.

The Miliband story will fade as the news cycle moves on. I can’t quite believe Gavin Haynes’ eloquent argument that it will bring down Dacre, although my fingers are crossed. What’s important, after this week, is to insist on two things: that the Mail’s core values, laid bare this week, are alien to all but a small, embittered corner of Britain; and that progressive patriotism not only exists but has broad support.

A nation is a marvellously plastic thing, constantly changing, forever fought over, shifting this way and that, accommodating all kinds of contradictions while remaining fundamentally true to itself. At heart I love Britain but I want to change aspects of it for the better, just like Ralph Miliband or Paul Dacre or just about anyone else who lives here. The Mail tried to insist this week that only one vision was valid and it was a lie defended by more lies. In Alastair Campbell’s pungent phrase, it is “the worst of Britain posing as the best,” and that has never been clearer.



The Daily Mail’s Ralph Miliband editorial: annotated version

For those who don’t want to visit the Daily Mail website but want to know what all the fuss about, here is a helpfully annotated version.

Red Ed’s in a strop with the Mail. Doubtless, he’s miffed that his conference was overshadowed by the revelations of his former friend, the spin doctor Damian McBride, serialised in this paper, which exposed the poisonous heart of the Labour Party.

Ed Miliband is annoyed by something else.

or did he see the funny side when we ridiculed the yucky, lovey-dovey photographs of him and his wife, behaving like a pair of hormonal teenagers in need of a private room.

And something else.

But what has made him vent his spleen — indeed, he has stamped his feet and demanded a right of reply — is a Mail article by Geoffrey Levy on Saturday about the Labour leader’s late father, Ralph, under the arresting headline ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’.

Well OK, he’s mainly annoyed that we accused his late father of hating Britain. Weird.

Of course, it was not the Mail that first drew the prominent Marxist sociologist Professor Ralph Miliband — a man who was not averse to publicity — into the public arena. This was the decision of his son who, for two years running, has told Labour conferences how his refugee father fled Nazi persecution to Britain.

But he asked for it really, banging on about his Jewish father fleeing the Nazi invasion of Belgium.

More pertinent still, McBride argues that Miliband Jnr is obsessed with maintaining Ralph’s legacy.

Winning the leadership, he writes, was Ed’s ‘ultimate tribute’ to his father — an attempt to ‘achieve his father’s vision’.

Although we recently described McBride as “destroyed by his own malign tactics” and “spreading a series of mendacious allegations about prominent Tories”, he is clearly a man of integrity whose insights should be taken as fact.

With this testimony before us, from a former Labour spin doctor who knew Mr Miliband inside out, the Mail felt a duty to lay before our readers the father’s vision that is said to have inspired our would-be next Prime Minister.


How can Ralph Miliband’s vision be declared out of bounds for public discussion — particularly since he spent his entire life attempting to convert the impressionable young to his poisonous creed?

Today, we stand by every word we published on Saturday, from the headline to our assertion that the beliefs of Miliband Snr ‘should disturb everyone who loves this country’.

In his tetchy and menacing response, which we publish in full on these pages, the Labour leader expresses just pride in his father’s war record as a volunteer in the Royal Navy.

We granted him the right to reply but fuck his right to reply, basically.

But he cites this, and his father’s affection for his shipmates (which, as shown on these pages, was riven by class hatred), as if it were conclusive proof that he loved this country.

So how is it that shortly after his arrival in Britain, the 17-year-old Miliband senior had confided to his diary: ‘The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world . . . you sometimes want them almost to lose [the war] to show them how things are’?

Isn’t it permissible to surmise that a man who had expressed such views joined the Royal Navy not so much to fight for Britain as to fight, like the Soviet Union, against the Nazis?

Despite having just arrived in Britain, Miliband Snr did not love his adopted country as much as he hated the people who would have rounded up him and his family and sent them to concentration camps. There is no chance that his feelings about Britain may have changed one iota during his three years in the Royal Navy, therefore it is fine to discredit his military service. Tragically, all this bloodshed could have been avoided if the British government had heeded the wise words of the Mail’s former proprietor, the 1st Viscount Rothermere, who wrote to Hitler in 1938, congratulating him on his annexation of the Sudetenland: “Frederick the Great was a great popular figure in England. May not Adolf the Great become an equally popular figure? I salute Your Excellency’s star which rises higher and higher.” And to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, on July 7 1939: “Our two great Nordic countries should pursue resolutely a policy of appeasement for, whatever anyone may say, our two great countries should be the leaders of the world.” Here he is doing his bit for Britain.

Yes, as his son argues, Mr Miliband Snr may have felt gratitude for the security, freedom and comfort he enjoyed in Britain. But what is blindingly clear from everything he wrote throughout his life is that he had nothing but hatred for the values, traditions and institutions — including our great schools, the Church, the Army and even the Sunday papers — that made Britain the safe and free nation in which he and his family flourished.

Loving these institutions is synonymous with loving Britain. Please don’t think it’s different. It’s not. It’s exactly the same.

The constitutional monarchy, the bicameral legislature, property rights, common law . . . even ‘respectability’ and ‘good taste’ — all were anathema to this lifelong, unreconstructed Marxist who craved a workers’ revolution.

To repeat, you cannot be left-wing and love Britain. It’s not possible. That’s just scientific fact.

Significantly, when he defended students for silencing a visiting speaker with whom they disagreed, he wrote: ‘Freedom of speech is not always the overriding criterion.’

Unfortunately we can’t explain the context because this is the only citation of this phrase on the entire internet.

As for the Falklands war, our defence of British sovereignty so appalled him that it moved him to four-letter words of disgust.

He was the only person in Britain to oppose the Falklands War. Why didn’t he just hand the keys to Number 10 to General Galtieri and have done with it? As for the foul language, we believe our editor has made his position perfectly clear.

At the London School of Economics, he was taught and heavily influenced by the extremist Left-winger Harold Laski, who said the use of violence was legitimate in British elections. One of his closest friends was Eric Hobsbawm

He was friends with another left-winger – one whom the Mail trashed as a “traitor” the day after he died. Normally the Mail believes that “bilious hatred and lack of respect for the dead is a disturbing new low in British life” but come on, he was a Marxist. That’s different.

(though, as we reported, at least Miliband wouldn’t join his fellow Marxist in refusing to condemn Stalinism’s mass murders or the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956).

Miliband Snr didn’t defend Stalin. In fact, his biographer Michael Newman writes: “you see signs of his shift away from [seeing] the Soviet Union as a kind of beacon early, in the 1940s. A long time before Hungary, in other words. He was someone who never had uncritical enthusiasms.” But let’s just throw it in there to make it seem like he almost did.

It is all too easy today to forget that Marxism supplied the philosophical underpinning to a monstrously evil regime.

Under Stalin’s Communism, countless millions were murdered, tortured, starved to death, executed or sent to endure a sub-human existence in the gulags.

Religion, the family and the very spirit of the individual were brutally crushed. The arts, newspapers — justice itself — were ruthlessly controlled by the commissars.

Freedom of expression was purged. Even as late as the Seventies, dissidents were locked in mental asylums, while the Press was controlled by the State for another two decades.

Not to be confused with the regime of General Pinochet, of whom the Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson said: “I regard the demonisation of General Pinochet as the most successful, mendacious propaganda exercise ever carried out in the 20th century.” Nor indeed with that of Mr Hitler in 1939, to whom the 1st Viscount Rothermere wrote: “My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country.”

Truly, Ralph Miliband and Hobsbawm were, in the withering phrase often attributed to Lenin, the ‘useful idiots’ who validated this most pernicious doctrine, which has spread poverty and misery wherever it has triumphed.

That’s why the Mail — which is not Pravda

Just clearing that up

— said that readers who love this country would be truly disturbed if they understood about Miliband’s father’s views.

To be absolutely clear, you cannot love your country if you’re a Marxist, only if you’re a fascist.

We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons.

On no account are we to be confused with the jealous God of Deuteronomy. Not even sure why we brought that up to be honest.

But when a son with prime ministerial ambitions swallows his father’s teachings, as the younger Miliband appears to have done, the case is different.

True, Ed Miliband has said: “My father’s strongly Left-wing views are well known, as is the fact that I have pursued a different path and I have a different vision.” But he’s probably lying.

Indeed, his son’s own Marxist values can be seen all too clearly in his plans for state seizures of private land held by builders and for fixing energy prices by government diktat.

Fixing energy prices today, building gulags tomorrow.

More chillingly, the father’s disdain for freedom of expression can be seen in his son’s determination to place the British Press under statutory control.

Getting to the gist here.

Next week the Privy Council, itself an arm of the state, will meet to discuss plans — following a stitch-up with Hacked Off over late-night pizzas in Mr Miliband’s office

Filthy Italian grub. Someone who loved his country would have served roast beef with all the trimmings.

— for what will ultimately be a politically controlled body to oversee what papers are allowed to publish.

Put to one side that Mr Miliband’s close involvement with degenerates such as Damian McBride gives him scant right to claim the moral high ground on anything.

[Is this the same “degenerate” whose word we took as bond when he was sticking it to Ed Miliband earlier on? Subs to check.]

If he crushes the freedom of the Press, no doubt his father will be proud of him from beyond the grave, where he lies 12 yards from the remains of Karl Marx.


But he will have driven a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us genuinely love.

You can’t drive a hammer through a heart but come on, that’s good stuff.

Update: Lots of good responses to the Mail’s smear out there, including Ralph Miliband’s biographer Michael Newman, who puts the angry teenage diary entry in context, insights from Miliband’s old friends and colleagues, and the LSE’s Bart Cammaerts who quotes Miliband on the subject of the British press.

The L***-W*** Word



On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Justin Webb was interviewing Ed Miliband about his party conference speech. “When you see the headlines saying Red Ed is back, back to the 70s, etcetera, you don’t mind that do you? You don’t mind people saying it’s left-wing. It is,” goaded Webb.

“I don’t see it that way, I see it as a truly One Nation approach,” stammered Miliband, running a mile from the l***-w*** word.

It’s testament to Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, subsequently absorbed and entrenched by New Labour, that “left-wing”, not even the more loaded “socialist”, has the power of a slur as opposed to an obvious truth about a party that originated in the labour movement. Stigmatising an entire wing of political thought is quite an achievement: There Is No Alternative indeed.

You expect this kind of Red Ed guff from the Mail or Telegraph but it’s much more depressing coming from the BBC. People who accuse the corporation of left-wing or right-wing bias are both right and wrong. The BBC’s real bias, shared by most of the mainstream media, is towards certain key assumptions that take on the status of incontrovertible fact. In some cases, for example gay rights and climate change, the assumptions favour the left. In economics, however, they are generally conservative.

One example is that austerity is presented as painful but sensible and necessary while Keynesian economics is eccentric and even dangerous. What makes Keynesianism both brilliant and hard to sell is that is counter-intuitive to people who mistake national budgets for household budgets writ large. To families sat around the proverbial kitchen table the solution to debt is to spend less and the idea of borrowing your way out of a recession with stimulus spending can seem reckless. It’s instinctive but it’s also wrong and the media shouldn’t settle for accepting and reiterating the kitchen-table “commonsense” view.

Another assumption is that wealth matters more than equality, so rising house prices in the South East are instinctively celebrated despite the social damage they cause, intensifying the north-south imbalance and driving workers on modest incomes, let alone benefit claimants, out of the capital. And multinational corporations are depicted as a delicate flowers who might be driven out of the country every time a policy makes the tiniest dent in their profit margins. Some of the very rich have even convinced themselves that they are victims and the actual victims of the finance industry’s malfeasance are brutal bullies. AIG chief executive Bob Benmosche this week compared anger over bankers’ bonuses to racist lynching in the Deep South decades ago.

Yet another conservative assumption is the idea that the economic traumas of the 1970s (a period of unparalleled equality in Britain by the way) were caused by an excess of socialism instead of a number of different factors including oil shocks. This inaccurate bogeyman is revived unquestiongly any time Labour dares to suggest an even mildly left-wing policy. Justin Webb described Labour’s criticism of big businesses as “a throwback”, as if that side of the argument were as redundant as a Bay City Rollers scarf but much more scary. No matter how many businesses are fined by regulators for outrageous misbehaviour, criticism can only mean the dreaded 70s.

The truth is that most governments in most western countries in most decades have overwhelmingly sided with the interests of the rich. Taxes are relatively low, avoidance is rife and employers are courted more assiduously than workers. “Class war” is only ever invoked to describe the attitude of the have-nots, these resentful ingrates who criticise our beloved wealth creators, even though it has been waged consistently from the top down and every important worker’s right has been fought for, not willingly granted by employers. But of course that side of the war has been normalised; only the other side is deemed unreasonable.

These assumptions shape public opinion and therefore policy, which is why Miliband was too nervous to challenge Webb’s hostile use of “left-wing”. The longer they go unchallenged, the more they become absorbed into the bloodstream so that it becomes almost extremist to suggest otherwise: witness how even “liberal” has become a dirty word in US politics. If the Labour party cannot even admit that, however close to the centre it may be, it is left-wing then it is nothing.


UPDATE: I love this George Eaton blog for the New Statesman which uses survey stats to show that on many issues the public is at least as “socialist” as Miliband and sometimes moreso. Two days later, I think I underrated Miliband’s courage this week by focussing too much on the language he used. If his new policies continue to enrage so many conservative commentators then he must be doing something right.

Remembering the other 9/11: Chile, 1973

President Salvador Allende’s final speech during the coup led by General Pinochet, future friend of Margaret Thatcher and pioneer of the free market shock doctrine:

My friends,

Surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación.

My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May they be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath: soldiers of Chile, titular commanders in chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself Commander of the Navy, and Mr. Mendoza, the despicable general who only yesterday pledged his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has appointed himself Chief of the Carabineros [national police].

Given these facts, the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign! 

Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever.

They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.

Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty that you always had, the confidence that you deposited in a man who was only an interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who gave his word that he would respect the Constitution and the law and did just that. At this definitive moment, the last moment when I can address you, I wish you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the climate in which the Armed Forces broke their tradition, the tradition taught by General Schneider and reaffirmed by Commander Araya, victims of the same social sector which will today be in their homes hoping, with foreign assistance, to retake power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.

I address, above all, the modest woman of our land, the campesina who believed in us, the worker who labored more, the mother who knew our concern for children. I address professionals of Chile, patriotic professionals, those who days ago continued working against the sedition sponsored by professional associations, class-based associations that also defended the advantages which a capitalist society grants to a few.  

I address the youth, those who sang and gave us their joy and their spirit of struggle. I address the man of Chile, the worker, the farmer, the intellectual, those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has been already present for many hours — in terrorist attacks, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railroad tracks, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to protect them.  They were committed. History will judge them.

Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to [inaudible] the workers.

The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Santiago de Chile, 11 September 1973


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