The Last Days of Kenneth Williams and the SWP

by Harry on April 15, 2008

The first parts of two rather mournful pieces on Radio 4 this week. A sad account of the last few years of Kenneth Williams (they all had it in for him, especially, apparently, Philip Larkin who, cruelly, managed to convince him out of his faith in God in his last years, an act which confirms the suspicion that his moral character was as bad as his poetry was good) presented by Rob Brydon. And a much kinder, so far, discussion of the SWP presented by Geoffrey Wall who says that, as an ex-member he can “ask the awkward questions” which, in part 1, he singularly refrains from doing. One can only presume that part 2, in which he asks how they managed to provoke the Euston Manifesto, things will get more exciting.

Oh, and if you want cheering up, and have reached a certain age (about 20 years older than my chronological age, which, culturally, is about where I belong), the Saturday Play was fabulous. David Jacobs got a promotion!



christian h. 04.15.08 at 1:29 am

The SWP “provoked” the Euston Manifesto? So should socialists just shut up so insane liberals don’t lose it and write nonsensical crap manifestos? Please. Those decents don’t need any provocation. In fact, it’s to be welcomed that they have shown their true faces.


Anthony 04.15.08 at 7:53 am

In fact, it’s to be welcomed that they have shown their true faces

Yes, those decents and their commitment to democracy and universal rights. Shocking stuff.

1 For democracy.
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures—freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion.

2 No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy—regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so.

3 Human rights for all.
We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context.


bert 04.15.08 at 8:44 am

Both the SWP segments were dull. The issues around Respect were dodged, and the Decent critique wasn’t even mentioned, let alone dismissed.

The overall tone was rueful. When Alex Callinicos talked in part 2 about his “revolutionary socialist organisation”, he did so with a weird sigh which conveyed weariness mixed with mild embarassment.
If there’s any energy in the Respect coalition, it’s not coming from these knackered old Sparts.


john b 04.15.08 at 9:05 am

I believe the Decents also support apple pie (motherhood is up for debate at the next meeting, due to concerns about gender stereotyping).

Why is convincing someone not to believe in God cruel? I mean, if Larkin had been some kind of demonic Jack Chick tract figure, persuading Williams out of religion in order to condemn him to an eternity in hell, then that would’ve been v. v. bad – but surely convincing a friend to reject [what you see as] his fantastic delusions in favour of reality is a good thing to do for them…?


Iorwerth Thomas 04.15.08 at 9:31 am

“Why is convincing someone not to believe in God cruel?”

If, as in this case, one’s friend is a deeply unhappy person, and his faith in God is one of the few things in life that keeps him going, then I would say that it is cruel to take it from him.

This has nothing to do with whether it’s always cruel to do so — context matters.


ejh 04.15.08 at 9:36 am

But did the newsreader crack up this week?


Chris Bertram 04.15.08 at 10:19 am

#2 Anthony, you don’t appear to have received the memo from Decent-central. Human rights for all is so last year (or the year before), as Alan “not the minister” Johnson “explains”: .


harry b 04.15.08 at 12:30 pm

christian — I didn’t mean to imply that anyone should shut up. My observation (a bit unlike Daniel’s) is that the euston people are a bit obsessed with the SWP in particular — I can’t give chapter and verse but often when I read their hostility to the left, the only people I can think of who really fit their criteria are the SWP. On the other hand, although I’ve never been a fan of the SWP’s politics, the Respect adventure is an adventure too far.

john b — iowerth took the words out of my mouth. On the one hand you deprive someone of something that helps them to achieve some semblance of peace with the world and replace it with nothing. On the other you get rid of (what seems to you to be) a false belief. This is no kindness.


christian h. 04.15.08 at 12:51 pm

knackered old Sparts.

Old? And Sparts? News to me.

I am a fan of the SWP’s politics, but I do have to agree that, sadly, the decents’ obsession with them is out of proportion to their actual influence.


William Burns 04.15.08 at 1:55 pm

Harry b–

What if someone’s last years were tormented by fears of judgement and damnation? Would convincing them of the non-existence of God be doing them a kindness then?


john b 04.15.08 at 1:58 pm

On the one hand you deprive someone of something that helps them to achieve some semblance of peace with the world and replace it with nothing.

Presumably you’re also opposed to heroin rehabilitation programmes?


Matt 04.15.08 at 2:23 pm

Gilad Atzmon, anyone?


bert 04.15.08 at 6:08 pm

News to me

If your paper’s the Worker, most things will be.

Seriously, I posted a comment because Harry was recommending some radio listening. The best recommendation regarding those SWP programmes: avoid. I think knackered old Sparts captures it. At one point “youngsters” are discussed (Respect is glossed as antiwar-based youth outreach). If you’re telling me this is a distortion of reality, I’ll take your word for it. And add it to the many other reasons why nobody should waste their time looking this out on Listen Again.

By contrast, the Kenneth Williams thing was terrific. Thanks Harry. They’re rerunning the Michael Sheen tv play on freeview tonight. It covers much of the same ground, is depressing as hell, and well worth watching.


christian h. 04.15.08 at 6:35 pm

bert, it’s the BBC. Making a program on a radical left group, as part of a series on ’68 (I believe). Of course they’re going to play up the “knackered old Spart” angle. (I haven’t heard the program, so who knows – maybe “knackered old spart” for you means “person who hasn’t repudiated his or her radical views.”)

And matt, what else do you want me to condemn? It’s a bit rich to quote an outright racist website like Engage in order to blast a violation of “no platform.”


Matt 04.15.08 at 7:28 pm

“an outright racist website like Engage”

That’s really just bizarre.


abb1 04.15.08 at 8:33 pm

This Gilad Atzmon sounds like a decent fella, actually. A bit too polemical, but how can you blame him, considering. It really is maddening, after all.


christian h. 04.15.08 at 10:44 pm

matt, what’s bizarre is Engage. But I guess I was wrong to say they are “outright racist[s]”. They are more circumspect about it, decent-style.

Kind of like Atzmon about his antisemitism, which is buried under layers and layers of regurgitated, half-digested po-mo speak.


matt 04.16.08 at 3:46 am

Well, I rather disagree that Engage are racists at all, or that Atzmon isn’t blatant about it. Calling Jews, “Christ Killer,” isn’t subtle – even when one merely intends to bait.

And when it comes to the “Decents” or the people they criticized, such as the SWP, that’s what I don’t get. It isn’t that someone might fail to condemn Atzmon (though I do think most of the commentors here would argue that public racism ought generally to be challenged?), but the SWP openly embraced him and defended him from critics, even critics like Tony Greenstein.

The argument seems to routinely go that an opposition to antisemitism or some other ugliness can be taken for granted. There is indeed a problem (as a Jew in New York, I wouldn’t be surprised if my judgments on what is significant in UK politics are a bit odd, but still) when such an argument is used to actively deny, in such an obviously ridiculous way, that such ugliness is present.


Chris Bertram 04.16.08 at 5:17 am

Yes, I take it that abb1 is merely being provocative here and doesn’t know that much about Atzmon. (At least I hope so.) As for Engage, yes, not racist, but their comments threads certainly attract some unsavoury characters (ditto HP Sauce).


abb1 04.16.08 at 6:35 am

I read one of his interviews. He says that he is against Zionism and Jewish ethnic supremacism and that he is not antisemitic. I didn’t find any reason to doubt it. Yes, there’s a lot of nonsense there too, but so what. I didn’t get the impression that the guy is a racist. He is not.

Now, this was written when The Passion Of The Christ was about to come out, a huge, gigantic controversy – remember?

I would suggest that perhaps we should face it once and for all: the Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus who, by the way, was himself a Palestinian Jew. But then two questions should be asked:

1. How is it that people living today feel accountable or chased for a crime committed by their great great great ancestors almost 2,000 years ago?[…]

2. Why is it that the Jews who repeatedly demand that the Christian world should apologise for its involvement in previous persecutions, have never thought that it is about time that they apologised for killing Jesus? I wouldn’t ask the Italians to apologise on behalf of the Romans for their part in Christ’s killing simply because Italians do not feel remotely offended when Romans are blamed for it. I merely suggest that if a Jew feels offended when accused, this reveals attachment to the perpetrators. It might be the right time for the Jewish state to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people for their immoral behaviour.

What – is there something terrible he is saying here – or just slightly adolescent? You are trying to demonize the guy for this? Why?


Chris Bertram 04.16.08 at 9:21 am

Abb1: I don’t intend to get into a ping pong match with you about this one, especially not on a thread initiated by another CT member, but you really do need to inform yourself better about Atzmon if that’s what you believe.

(Since this is Harry’s thread on another topic, I’ll simply delete any continuation of this one.)


herr doktor bimler 04.16.08 at 10:04 am

they all had it in for him
I now expect further Carry On references as a regular event.


ejh 04.16.08 at 10:50 am

Well, I rather disagree that Engage are racists at all

So do I, but they are a bunch of crazies whose major purpose in life is to demonstrate by inference that people who are not in fact anti-Semitic are in fact anti-Semitic.


Matt 04.16.08 at 2:26 pm

Still disagree with that, ejh. (Would you hold to this sort of view of racism?) I would go more for Chris’s focus on the comments (more so for Harry’s Place, which barely or doesn’t moderate comments, than Engage).

But even this conversation confirms for me that there was something the Eustonites were addressing that really did (does still) need to be addressed. And something about the SWP and others that got downplayed too much.


ejh 04.16.08 at 2:35 pm

Your link appears to say “this is a long post” at the top, so you might have to precis. And perhaps expand on this: But even this conversation confirms for me that there was something the Eustonites were addressing that really did (does still) need to be addressed as your meaning is unclear to me.


abb1 04.16.08 at 3:07 pm

Yeah, why don’t you just address that thing you feel needs to be addressed, Matt? Spit it out.


Matt 04.16.08 at 4:22 pm

Fair enough, ejh. The post, while good (for a general audience), is probably is too long for me to have referenced in a parenthetical like that. It discusses the Vogue “King Kong” cover you can see by scrolling down, arguing that talking about such things is worthwhile. It’s a different standard than the one you seem to set when you claim that Engage are “crazies whose major purpose in life is to demonstrate by inference that people who are not in fact anti-Semitic are in fact anti-Semitic.”

Daniel wrote, “it’s not an original insight of Paul Berman’s that Islam[3] is racist, sexist and homophobic, or that this is bad.” What was confirmed for me is that too many people are content to merely say such a thing.


ejh 04.16.08 at 4:57 pm

Well, that’s a model of clarity.


ejh 04.16.08 at 5:08 pm

I’ll speculate that what you’re trying to say is that we don’t just find racism in statemkents that are overtly racist and that we may take a similar approach to the examination of anti-Semitism.

Well, if that’s your argument – and if it is your argument it would not have been so very hard for you to say that – that’s so to a degree, insofar as we are talking about simlar situations.

But it is not true to the extent that we are not talking about similar situations. We cannot simply transfer a model whereby we examine racism in one society, aware that it is often hidden and disguised and even unconscious, and simply transfer it to another situation and by inferece discover all sort of hidden and disguised and unconscious anti-Semitism. And especially not if our method and our goal is to take opposition to Zionism and paint it as anti-Semitism, which is what Engage do, to an obsessive and extremely unpleasant degree.

Incidentally, it’s a characteristic of the attempt to uncover and expose things that are hidden that the people who do this tend to discover and expose it everywhere. It’s perhaps this which gives Engage, and the posters on HP, their particular denunciatory and obsessive tone and character. Always searching, always finding, always looking for more.


abb1 04.16.08 at 5:14 pm

Ah, I see jsf’s Mark Elf saying that this Atzmon guy (of whom I never heard before reading this thread) is indeed an antisemite, so it’s probably true. Sorry about that, although I still feel that automatic assumption that whoever these Engage fellas and their ilk accuse of antisemitism is not an antisemite is a good rule of thumb. One of those exceptions confirming the rule, I guess…


Matt 04.16.08 at 5:21 pm

I disagree with you on a number of points there (including that Engage unfairly conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism), but let’s remind ourselves that the context here is Atzmon and the SWP’s embrace of Atzmon.


ejh 04.16.08 at 5:56 pm

Not really, no. Indeed if I read #21 properly, it certainly is not.


christian h. 04.16.08 at 6:27 pm

The SWP doesn’t “embrace” Atzmon, that’s simply bull. Martin Smith (chair of the SWP) has an unfortunate blind spot because he apparently likes Atzmon’s music (and that makes sense, as it happens to be amazing). It is, as I wrote, a problem of “no platform”.

At no point has anything Atzmon wrote ever been published by the SWP; at no point have they “embraced” his views. Instead, the SWP has always fought, and continues to fight, all kinds of racism, including anti-semitism, vigorously.

Engage, on the other hand, exists simply to defend Zionism. It is therefore racist just as much as a site whose raison d’etre was opposition to the boycott of South Africa would have been racist.

What the engageniks object to in the SWP is precisely the party’s opposition to all racism.


Matt 04.16.08 at 6:44 pm

Excuse me. You’re right, Christian. They didn’t embrace him. Merely provided him with a platform repeatedly while defending his most outrageous behavior against perfectly accurate attacks with some small print.

As for bizarre and twisted accusations of racism, well..


christian h. 04.16.08 at 8:26 pm

matt, maybe you could actually make a point some time? If you want to use condescension as an argumentative tool, you better be somewhat smart and well-informed. Otherwise you only come across as a failed bully.


john b 04.16.08 at 9:51 pm

This is like a weird parallel universe version of Commentisfree, where instead of the thread regressing to “you’re a Zionist conspiracy and I need hospital treatment for my paranoid delusions”, it regresses to “you’re an antisemitic conspiracy…” etc. Careful, or we’ll be up for the Yglesias award for most demented loonies infesting the comment section of a sensible post.

[oh, and Matt, fuck right off you despicable bigot]


harry b 04.16.08 at 10:13 pm

No, no, no, this is great — a post about Kenneth Williams and Journey into Space followed by all this. I can hear Kenneth Williams’s snidey character laughing away…


matt 04.17.08 at 12:56 am

Sometimes intemperate, perhaps, but a despicable bigot, john? I guess it must have something to do with this comedian above.

I’ve generally found that the view that Zionism is racism among Westerners is an exaggerated display of antiracism to make up for an impoverished understanding of what antiracism is or ought to be. That despite the roots of the claim in Stalinist propaganda. Indeed, that’s what made it good propaganda. Anti-racist movements have dealt with conflicting agendas of different worthy groups, and this is not the way to do it. Indeed, anti-racist allies, even without conflicts of interest or competing oppressed groups, found all sorts of problems inherent in putting themselves at the front of anti-racist movements, and one might think the SWP could learn from such mistakes. Instead, you seem perfectly content to recreate systems of privilege and oppression within the SWP.

The claim that Engage is a bunch of racists is nothing but a way to ignore the voices of the Jewish community, and anyone ought to be ashamed to relegate Jews as Jews to the sidelines like that. (Of course, you will point out a few Jews you like.) It’s one thing to disagree with Zionism, but you go quite a few steps further, Christian. Perhaps, ironically, I could suggest Said’s Orientalism.

And I’m sure you see no contradiction, either, in claiming that SWP fights antisemitism “vigorously” while noting that “Martin Smith (chair of the SWP) has an unfortunate blind spot.” (You didn’t seem willing to acknowledge that the SWP really did further claim Atzom is neither a racist nor fascist.) Yes, you oppose antisemitism vigorously when it can be used as a weapon against fascist, anarchists, Fabians or political opponents. I think any “radical” organization ought be able to go a bit further than that.


ejh 04.17.08 at 7:35 am

The claim that Engage is a bunch of racists is nothing but a way to ignore the voices of the Jewish community

If Evel Kneivel had been able to make leaps of those dimensions he’d have broken rather fewer bones than actually he did.


abb1 04.17.08 at 8:53 am

Zionism that exists in Matt’s head may very well be a quite benign (or, I suppose, even admirable) phenomenon, but in real life actually existing Zionism is undeniably racist, colonialist and a total disgrace all around.

And the apologetics are so strong, so vicious and so grotesque that it drives people crazy. That’s how you get Gilad Atzmon. What goes around comes around.


johng 04.17.08 at 12:36 pm

The decents are obsessed with the SWP because of their central role in the anti-war movement. A role that I would suggest could hardly have been played by clapped out old sparts…

mildly disgruntled in the shires.


Matt 04.17.08 at 2:08 pm

Yes, abb1, antisemitism is an understandable reaction to those awful Jews. Indeed.


ejh 04.17.08 at 2:25 pm

I don’t think it’s necessary to agree with #40 to observe that #42 does, in fact, characterise a reaction to Zionism as a reaction to Jews.


abb1 04.17.08 at 3:46 pm

Classical redneck-antisemitism has little to do with Zionism; in fact Zionism probably reduces it somewhat.

But Atzmon-antisemitism – the guy apparently feels that for Zionism to exist and to be so vigorously defended there must be something seriously wrong with Jewish identity itself – this sort of antisemitism certainly is a reaction to Zionism.

You know, I’d met people in Israel who hate Germans – all Germans, no exception. Would never travel to Germany, would never talk to a German, something’s wrong with being German. Do you think these people are inexplicably evil or it might be a reaction to something?


PHB 04.19.08 at 1:09 am

I find these theological disputes between extremist organization to be tedious in the extreme. Debating whether the Socialist Workers Party guy is or is not racist or anti-semitic seems to imply that these are the only evils in the world that cause death and misery. Lenin and Trotsky were neither but still managed to cause death and misery on an epic scale and make Stalin’s reign of terror possible to boot.

Acquitting him of the charge of antisemitism does not make him one of the good guys.

Equally, the Euston manifesto group seem to be one of those cliques that thinks you can get away with moral relativism if you loudly accuse others of the same.

The problem is not the first three unobjectionable helpings of pablum, its what happens further down the list. Starting at entry 6 which employs the familiar right wing trope of attacking any complaint directed at a US administration (i.e. that of George W. Bush) as motivated by irrational anti-American hatred rather than disgust for the man himself and his criminal activities.

Section 7. is obsolete. Neither Hamas nor Likud want a two state solution so why attempt to insist on one? Instead insist that on a genuinely equal state that recognizes the right of return equally for Jewish or Palestinians and equal citizenship for all current occupants. Oops looks like the Zionist project just fell off the table there.

Section 8 uses a jujitsu trope which uses the fact that some people make unjustified accusations of antisemitism against those who raise the legitimate complaints of the Palestinians to justify effectively equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Section 14 sounds like they found six people from an FSF meeting at the next table over who were willing to sign up if they got a shout.

Actually the same can pretty much be said of most of the rest. Its not so much a coherent platform as a series of niche appeals to the pet causes of everyone there present. The only thing they really agreed on was that they did not want to be thought of as supporting the terrorists.

As Reg said, “What have the Romans ever done for us…


abb1 04.19.08 at 1:32 pm

I’ve generally found that the view that Zionism is racism among Westerners is an exaggerated display of antiracism to make up for an impoverished understanding of what antiracism is or ought to be.

Here, Matt.

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