Housing: foreign investors head to Birmingham

seven capital birmingham

An abandoned old tesco at ground and derelict offices above are transformed into “Birmingham’s hottest property” by SevenCapital

A report in The Times on July 8 described the rush of foreign capital into Birmingham’s housing market. With cheap, cramped and ugly apartments flying up across the city, it is clear that there is money to be made.

Birmingham reportedly has the youngest population of any city in Europe, is now the most popular destination for those escaping from London and stands to benefit from even better rail links to the Capital once HS2 is completed (journey times of 1hr 15mins are already available on some services). Furthermore, with house prices a fraction of those in London it is easy to understand why workers from the south are looking to cash in and buy in Birmingham, and other poorer workers merely escape to cheaper rents in the West Midlands.

“While London and Manchester were previously the prime targets for foreign investors there has been a surge in interest in Birmingham, with overseas buyers snapping up as many as 100 flats each in new developments.

As well as the promise of huge yields renting to young people, investors are being lured by glossy brochures boasting that Birmingham is “one of the greenest [cities] in the UK” has “more miles of canals than Venice” and is home to the “iconic” Bullring. Another developer, whose conversion of a factory in the trendy Digbeth area is being marketed in Hong Kong, promises almost guaranteed rental income.

Seven Capital, which is behind numerous developments in the city, is telling investors that demand from tenants is so high that some properties are being let on the same day they are purchased.”[i]

The Times, which is not well known for being concerned with the prospects of ordinary working-class people reported that,

“Chloe Thorn, 26, has been saving for a deposit to buy a flat in Birmingham since she was 16. But when she began putting offers in she found that minimum deposits were either out of reach or flats were marked as investment-only. “It’s like being priced out of the city I’ve grown up in,” she added. “I remember when I first started looking in 2017 and seeing all these new buildings being built and thinking I may stand a chance of buying somewhere in the city once they are done. But once they went online to buy it was all investors-only on the majority.””

Capitalism only builds for profit

What Chloe failed to realise is that houses are not built so that working people can have a nice place to live, to bring up children and start a family. Under capitalism flats and houses are built so that they can be sold for a profit. Under capitalism, commodities (houses, cars, food, video games) are produced so that they can be sold on the market, they are not sold at their value, they will be sold for as much as the seller can persuade somebody to part with. Capitalism does not work for ordinary working people.

Housing under capitalism has become a vehicle for the wealthy to invest money in. The influx of foreign capital into housing in Birmingham is a consequence of the lack of better (more lucrative) schemes for the wealthy to invest in, and despite the claims of estate agents in Hong Kong and elsewhere, it is far from certain that investment like this can return the rents which these landlords hope for. Birmingham is a working-class city, more than 100,000 children live in poverty and one in five workers earn less than the Living Wage (£8.25p/h), recent accounts from the city council show that many workers cannot afford to pay their council tax with Birmingham owing £115m in outstanding arrears – not a cast-iron guarantee for great rental incomes.[ii]

Whilst estate agents will say anything to shift overpriced, poor quality housing, it is surprising that there are so many gullible enough to fall for it. Even in London the property bubble is due to pop, and there are already signs that in the highest end of the market the glory days are already over,

“Viewed from Bangalore, the purchase of a newly built three-bedroom apartment in London for more than £1.4m seemed like a safe investment bet. The top-floor three-bedroom home under construction in Keybridge House south of the Thames boasted views of the City of London and the Shard skyscraper. As Shonu Bhandari considered the purchase two years ago, agents told him he could expect the value to rise 15 per cent before the property had even been finished. The Indian entrepreneur, who runs a medical products company, happily signed up to buy. But his purchase soured quickly. When Bhandari approached a mortgage lender, it valued the property not at 15 per cent more than he had agreed to pay — but at 20 per cent less. With completion of the building looming, he signed over the property to a new buyer in March this year for £1.2m, losing more than £200,000 of his deposit.

…One new-build brochure from the estate agent Savills in 2016 said price growth in prime central London was expected to average 21.5 per cent by the end of 2020. Prices have so far fallen 10.4 per cent since that date, according to LonRes, a data provider.

“Global capital entering local real estate markets is not particularly new, but what was new was the intensity with which it entered places like Vancouver, New York, London, Melbourne and Sydney,” says Andy Yan, a planner and academic in Vancouver.”

“…In London, research by Savills shows construction continues to be out of step with demand. The London market over the next five years will need 42,500 new homes a year for sale or rent at cheaper than market rates, the property agency found — but only about 3,500 a year will be built.

Demand also far exceeds supply in the “lower” and “mid” markets, up to £700 per square foot. But above that, planned supply starts to exceed demand. In the £700 to £1,000 a sq ft category, annual demand for 7,000 homes a year will be catered for by almost 10,500.  Prices at the top end are falling, but the median London house price remains more than 12 times average earnings. “What we don’t need in London are more £1m-plus apartments with swimming pools, spas, cinema suites and service charges of £7 or £8 a sq ft [per year]. Those are not for normal Londoners,””[iii]

Socialism the only answer

Houses should be homes for people, shelter and a secure family life is a right for every worker. Houses should not, as they are under capitalism, be commodities, sold only to those who can afford to buy or rent them, rather than provided for those who need them. By its utter inability to solve the housing question and meet this basic need of working people, the capitalist system is providing yet more proof that it is well past its use-by date and due for demolition.

The Eighth Congress of the Communist Party (CPGB-ML), held in September 2018, passed a resolution on housing which put forward the basic demands of the Communist Party on the housing question. These demands form the basis of the party work on housing, and should be taken up by all advanced workers:

  1. Scrap the 2016-17 housing bill:the immediate scrapping of the 2016-17 housing bill, which threatens hundreds of thousands with poverty and homelessness.
  2. Build council houses not ‘affordable homes’:the provision of at least 300,000 new council houses per year to end the crisis.
  3. Guarantee secure social housing:guaranteed, secure and well-maintained social housing for all who want it, close to people’s work and families, and the abolition of divisive allocation criteria.
  4. Council ownership not ALMOs:the return of housing association and ‘non-profit’ properties to council ownership.
  5. Abolish housing charities:the abolition of housing charities and the reintroduction of the legal right to decent, secure housing for all; slums, overcrowding and homelessness are an indictment on capitalism and a crime against humanity.
  6. Set a rent cap: the introduction of a rent cap at 20 percent of minimum wage for all privately rented accommodation, and the scrapping of housing benefit (a subsidy to landlords that has helped to fuel rent rises).
  7. Protect existing council housing:the scrapping of all schemes that fuel prices, create shortages and offer subsidies to landlords and developers.
  8. Use existing surplus housing stock:the confiscation of all surplus homes and unfinished developments and their transformation into council housing.
  9. Provide decent homes for all:the establishment of residents’ management committees to oversee planning and maintenance and ensure that all workers have access to adequate space, necessary amenities and decent facilities, including having usable and pleasant outdoor spaces and community halls.

 

Some links

[i] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/birmingham-housing-foreign-buy-to-let-investors-pricing-out-locals-bkdfb2ws5

[ii] https://birminghamworker.org/2019/06/13/birmingham-council-cash-reserves-increase-by-736/ & https://birminghamworker.org/2019/07/03/thousands-of-birmingham-workers-too-poor-to-pay-their-council-tax/

[iii] https://www.ft.com/content/ea9c9abc-943d-11e9-aea1-2b1d33ac3271

Thousands of Birmingham workers too poor to pay their council tax

council tax rise 2019

a poster issued by Birmingham Worker in April this year when council tax for many households rose by £70+

In May Birmingham Worker reported on the crisis in council tax and its anti-working class character hitting many of the poorest in our cities. A publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) into council tax inequality focused on London but taking into account some statistical evidence for the whole of Britain concluded that council tax was beginning to look a lot like the ill-fated Poll Tax.

The Birmingham Mail on 2 July carried the story that council tax arrears in Birmingham have soared to their highest levels on record with workers in Birmingham owing a total of £115.6million in outstanding council tax. Non-payments in 2018/19 totalled £21.4million – an overall collection rate of 94.4%.

This was a rise from £111million in 2017/18, and up by almost a fifth compared to £98.5million in 2012/13 (the figures are cumulative and include arrears that stretch back many years).

The UK is ranked by the OECD as having, after France, the greatest reliance on property taxation of all OECD country respondents as a proportion of GDP. For 2017, property taxes accounted for around 4.2 per cent of GDP, more than twice the OECD average.

Today’s system of council tax leaves those living in the lowest-value homes paying a higher proportion of council tax with regard to property value, than those living in the highest value homes. This is particularly acute in London where property investment has taken house price prices to ludicrous levels. The poorest Londoners pay 8.1% of household income in council tax, whilst those in the top income decile contribute just 1.3% of their declared earnings.

Council tax

No tinkering with the present system of taxation will be enough to stop the steady slide of hundreds of thousands of workers and middle classes into absolute destitution and misery. The crisis of overproduction, its consequent lay-offs and redundancies destroy the purchasing power of the masses who are also crushed under the weight of rising prices and taxation which they can no longer afford. Millions of workers today are a pay cheque away from ruination. Raising taxation of empty homes in London does nothing to undermine the financial power of the landlord and capitalist class, it does nothing to alleviate the underlying cause of the people’s misery – capitalism. Only under socialism, where the private ownership of the land by a tiny few is replaced with a socialist system of land ownership and taxation, where the recurrent crisis of capitalism is done away with and replaced by planned production can the working man and woman finally find themselves liberated.

Join the communists

If you want to fight for a better life for yourself, your class and your children, get in touch with the communist party in Birmingham:

Thousands of Birmingham children are taught in classes which are too big

children in class

According to figures released by the Department for Education, 11,503 children in Birmingham are being taught in classes of more than 30 pupils (as of January this year). This means one in nine primary pupils in Birmingham (11%) are now being taught in a large class, up from 10.9% a year before.

Across England, there were 558,658 pupils in primary schools being taught in classes of 31 or more.

The Birmingham Mail reported Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, as saying: “Today’s figures expose the consequences of the Tory cuts to our schools, with more and more pupils crammed in to super-sized classes that can only make it harder for them to learn.”

What Angela Rayner and other Labour MPs/councillors etc want to hide from the public is that the commercialisation of schools began under Tony Blair’s Labour party with the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Successive Labour governments, and then the Liberal Democrats and Tory coalition (and in more recent times the Conservative governments of Cameron and May) have consolidated and deepened this process.

The academies, which began to replace LEA-funded schools brought private finance into the running of schools, and are a part and parcel of move towards full-scale privatisation in primary and secondary education. Along with the increase in religious, private and grammar schools, academies paved the way for the re-establishment of the two-tier system in state education, abolishing comprehensive schooling.

What do communists say?

At the 8th Congress of the Communist Party (CPGB-ML) held in Birmingham last year, a motion on education declared:

“This congress notes that today in Britain, rather than education and vocational training being viewed as a social necessity and individual necessity required for the full flourishing of society as a whole as well as the individuals within it, education and training are treated as a commodity, which is sold to the working class as a product that will provide a higher income to them as individuals, irrespective of its social utility or its ability to enhance the individual life.

Congress believes that all education and training from creche and kindergarten through school, university, vocational college and on to adult lifelong learning and retraining should be provided free, along with full maintenance grants to full-time pupils and students, that sufficient teachers should educated, trained and provided, and that vocational training should be awarded equal respect to academic education, since the plumber is as useful and as necessary as the sanitation engineer.

Recognising the above, congress resolves that the party’s demands regarding education are:

1. The expulsion of all private interests in education, including the abolition of academies and their return to the state school system and the end of private provision of goods and services to educational institutions, with all staff brought in-house with realistic wages and full employment rights.

2. The abolition of private, religious and ethnically-divided schools.

3. The abolition of tuition fees in all institutions at all levels of education.

4. The provision of maintenance grants to cover living expenses of working-class students and their families, from creche and kindergarten through nursery, to school, undergraduate and higher-degree level.

5. Changes in the syllabuses and teaching methods should reflect the scientific, historical and artistic needs and interests of working-class people, including the teaching of materialist philosophy, science and working-class history and politics.”

If you’d like to find out more, get in touch:

Birmingham Councils £2.7bn PFI deal with Amey ends in divorce

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The infamous £50m pair of bollards

After eight years the £2.7bn PFI deal which Birmingham city council made with private contractor Amey has come to an end.

Amey have agreed to pay the council £160 million to exit early from the contract  to look after the highways for 25 years, which was at the time the largest PFI contract for highways, covering the management and maintenance of more than 2,500km of highways, 96,000 street lights, 1,000 traffic signals and more than 850 bridges, structures and tunnels.

In a joint statement agreed after a hearing in the Court of Appeal, the contractor and council announced that:

“The full retendering of the project to find a permanent replacement contractor will take place during 2020-21.”

Workers and ratepayers in Birmingham deserve much better than another hashed PFI outsourcing nightmare. PFI has been proven to be unable to deliver public services time and again. Contractors assume that they will be able to deliver the promised services on a shoestring, happy to cut staff numbers, slash pay, pensions, work breaks, travel time and other rights of employees in their quest to make a profit. Workers must demand that these services are taken back in house.

Politically the lesson for workers is that the Labour party which nationally and locally championed PFI and continues to support big business interests is no friend of the working class. The fight for socialism cannot be taken forward by those who hide this truth from the workers.

 

 

Czech comrade speaks in Birmingham and London

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Comrade Josef Skala from the Prague branch of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) gave two insightful talks this weekend, the first in Birmingham on Saturday evening, and the second in central London on Sunday.

In his talks to members of the CPGB-ML, Dr Skala recalled his youth in socialist Czechoslovakia and described the vast social and cultural progress which the Czech people made under socialism. A huge growth in the Czech economy, a twelve fold increase in production in the years following the Nazi occupation, the building up of the Czech machine tool industry and the fraternal assistance rendered by the Soviet Union in the post-war years were topics of interest and lively discussion. It was notable, said Dr Skala that meat consumption in the Czech Republic has yet to return to the levels before the ‘Velvet revolution’ and the GDP of the country took 15 years to recover to the levels it attained before the counter revolution.

Josef Skala joined the Communist party a few days after turning 18 in the fateful year of 1968. His talk on the ‘Prague Spring’ delivered in London will be made available on the party youtube account in due course. In a long and distinguished political life Dr Skala acted as the President of the International Union of Students, in which capacity he met Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi amongst other revolutionary leaders, as well as traitors such as Mikhail Gorbachev. A well read, multi-lingual worker-theoretician, he continues to write, teach and play an active role defending the honour of his homeland and the revolutionary teachings of Marxism-Leninism.

Birmingham council cash reserves increase by 736%

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100,000 children in Birmingham live in poverty according to the Children’s Society.  Birmingham is a young city with almost half its 1.1 million residents aged under 30. Birmingham’s parents earn very little with one in five workers in Birmingham earning less than the Living Wage of £8.25 per hour.

From the above its clear to anybody that the services provided by the city council to meet the pressing needs of Birmingham’s poorest are absolutely essential. Any reader will know that Birmingham city council, under a Labour administration, has waged a ruthless campaign of cuts to services and attacks on the working conditions of council employees, with bin strikes and care worker disputes making regional and national news.

The Labour party career councillors blame it all on Tory cuts, they say there is simply no money. The same excuse is used by their acolytes in the Socialist Party and other Trotskyite groupings.

It’s a similar picture up and down the country, where two-faced councillors squeeze the poor while building up cash reserves, handing the assets over to private contractors and wasting millions in short sighted projects and on overblown salaries for top executives.

In a lengthy report published in The Times, it is alleged that Birmingham council like many others has built up huge cash reserves in the last ten years whilst drastically reducing spending on services. The piece details hundreds of local authorities with Birmingham city council topping the table for having increased its cash reserves by £411 million in eight years.

“English councils have amassed huge cash reserves while blaming budget cuts for reduced spending on services, official figures suggest.

Local authorities, excluding police or fire and rescue authorities, were sitting on £21.8 billion of non-ringfenced reserves last year, £5 billion more than they had in 2017 and £11 billion more than they had at the start of the decade.

Spending on local services, including libraries, parks, bus services and bin collections, has fallen by about 21 per cent since 2010, when the government began slashing the central grant it gives to local authorities. Many councils have also been raising council tax bills.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, which campaigns for lower tax, said that some authorities were making questionable decisions with their budgets that meant residents ‘paying more for less’.”

Midlands local authorities change in non-ringfenced reserves since 2010

Birmingham £411m 736%
Nuneaton & Bedworth £9m 338%
Worcester £8m 265%
Warwickshire £96m 259%
Daventry £19m 238%
Coventry £69m 236%
Rugby £6m 221%
Stratford-on-Avon £8m 208%
Warwick £5m 38
Worcestershire £20m 32%
North Warwickshire £1m 21%
Redditch £0m 12%
Dudley £5m 10%
Wolverhampton £-3m -5%

According to the report Coventry city council said it could no longer afford to provide free school buses for disabled children whilst “holding £97.6 million in usable reserves, up 76 per cent on 2017.” Coventry is planning a further £11 million of cuts.

“In its annual accounts the council accepted that it was difficult to explain the need for such high levels of reserves but said that the financial challenges it faced and projects it had established provided a ‘strong justification’.”

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink

All this cash floating about without a penny for the workers pay, nor services for working class families reminds us of the tale of the ancient mariner,  ‘water water everywhere nor any drop to drink’. In that poem the ancient mariner brought a curse upon his shipmates by shooting an albatross and he is forced to wear the albatross around his neck as his shipmates suffer from thirst.

The working class prolongs its suffering in the continued support of the imperialist Labour party. The Labour party and its deeds hang on our necks, never has it been clearer that workers need to build a Communist Party to lead the fight for socialism and rid ourselves of the curse of class collaboration, fake socialism and opportunism in the ranks of the labour movement. Get in touch:

A worker visits the Symphony Hall

Stalin at Bolshoi

J V Stalin and close comrades at the Bolshoi in 1937

Saturday 16 March I saw a performance by the city of Birmingham symphony orchestra (CBSO) of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5. The symphony took up the second half of the performance, with the period before the interval dedicated to a mixed bag from Shostakovich’s ‘the Limpid Stream’ and his Piano Concerto No 1.

Workers are entitled to ask – why should I care?  Whilst classical music in Britain enjoys broad popularity, it is by no means accessible to the vast majority of workers and has a decidedly unfashionable image amongst large swathes of the population. A typical assumption would be that price excludes large numbers of workers, though hundreds of thousands of British workers are quite prepared to pay far in excess of the price for a mid-range ticket in a symphony hall (£35) to see some dreadful performance at the O2 or watch South Americans kick a ball about for Manchester City. Classical music, so long dominated by the intelligentsia and the ruling class appears to millions of workers as aloof, long-winded, high-brow and political, and who could blame them? For those not accustomed to its special laws; to the etiquette of clapping in the right places and holding in every cough until an interval, the entire proceedings can be as incomprehensible as they are inconvenient.

Marx on music

Workers are exposed to all sorts of musical influences, and many workers are exposed to classical music without even realising it, even if it is just Zadok the Priest prior to a Champions League football match. This music has mass appeal, but it is not the music that is always the easiest to comprehend. Depth and content are too readily discarded in modern society in favour of shallow meaningless forgettable music.

Marx, writing in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) had this to say when discussing music and beauty,

“…only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear… the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object) – for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.”

It is from such a position that communist workers should learn to enjoy classical music, and perhaps also begin to comprehend our distaste (often instinctive) towards those clattering, boastful, monotonous and ugly genres such as jazz and soul or the more modern (and even more commercial) rap and grime to name but four molesting musical rackets.

Mirga conducts ShostakovichMirga

The outstanding feature of the pre-concert atmosphere was the naked and extreme hostility to the USSR. The advertisement and programme was explicitly political, as is often the case with Shostakovich. The bourgeoisie, who dominate classical music (as with all the arts, even those which appear to be dominated by us) never ceases to draw political, cultural and historical allegory from music old and new. Art for them has to serve their class interests, and the music at times is little more than an avenue by which to foist upon the audience their interpretation of historical events and political prejudice.

The CBSO performance was conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. Mirga is the CBSO Music Director. She is a Lithuanian, a rising star in the world of classical music, though she cannot play any instrument to the level of a virtuoso. This writer could find no display of blatant anti-sovietism in her interviews, although every journalist who interviews her is sure to note that she is Lithuanian, a witness to the Soviet ‘occupation’ etc. In fact in every interview you can be sure that some remarks, in addition to the comments that she is a woman sticking it out in a man’s world, will be made along the lines of these in the FT:

“she lived through the collapse of the Soviet regime in her country and experienced at first hand the “positive, unifying force” of the mass singing that played such an important role during the Baltic republics’ liberation” (FT July 28, 2017)

 

Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich is of importance and interest to advanced workers for three

Shostakovich

Shostakovich

reasons. Firstly he is universally recognised as a great composer of music, secondly, he was a Soviet artist with enduring worldwide fame, and thirdly, he represented a revisionist tendency in soviet music being a recognised leader of the ‘formalist tendency’. With regards to his position as a formalist, Shostakovich has been very useful to anti-soviet musicologists, sociologists and historians, for whom he is an ‘innovator’ and ‘individual’ which contributes towards his ongoing popularity in the West.

Everyone connected with classical music likes to quote from the words of Shostakovich, usually the words (published second hand) at the end of his life, the period of his decline, the 20 years he lived with the political ‘freedoms’ Khruschevite revisionism won for the remnants of the vanquished exploiting classes and in particular, for the sections of soviet society which clung onto the habits and ways of thinking associated with the epoch of exploitation. Shostakovich was one of these men. A formalist in the twenties he was part of the ‘avant guard’.

Historians and fans tend to dismiss all Shostakovich’s words which don’t fit the narrative of the ‘oppressed creative genius’, especially his articles in Pravda (which demonstrate his own fierce polemics against his contemporaries and worse still even praise soviet music) by saying that these were forced words, that he was often ‘contradictory’ and they even go so far as to say he was an outright liar when they find something reflecting too positively upon soviet life.

 

Politics and the CBSO

The programme notes for the CBSO evening entertainment are there to tell the audience

CSO

McBurney – anti-soviet one dimensional money chaser

exactly what to think, exactly how to interpret the music they are about to hear. Gerard McBurney gave the pre-concert talk for members and supporters of the CBSO and he was responsible for a large part of the printed programme, giving his ludicrous and anti-communist reflections on all manner of aspects of the music. McBurney is viciously anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin. He is the son of an American archaeologist who ended up teaching at Cambridge. His grandparents on his mother’s side were British army officers, as were his great-grandparents on that side. The archaeologist father took an interest in the USSR and produced a book entitled “Early man in the Soviet Union”. His position at Cambridge University may have helped to get his children in, and after early schooling at Winchester College Gerard McBurney, our British composer and critic entered Corpus Christi Cambridge along with his brother  Simon McBurney OBE (who you may have seen in Harry Potter or the Vicar of Dibley and all manner of other silly things).

 

McBurney’s ludicrous concert notes leave the audience in no doubt whatsoever that Shostakovich was a persecuted artist, like all good Soviet artists (the rest being mere tools of Stalinist tyranny), that he was in fear of his life and that he mixed with writers and artists who for no good reason whatsoever were executed by a tyrannical regime in the Kremlin.

“The extent of violent repression in the USSR in the 1930’s was, by any standards, shocking. This was the period of Stalins most ruthless consolidation of absolute power (no less!), beginning in 1928 with the Five-Year Plans [those awful things] and the monstrous project of the Collectivisation of agriculture…”

“It’s an oft-told story – one of the nightmares of the 20th century history – and certainly one factor in why Shostakovich’s music sounds the way it does”

“At the very start of this period, Shostakovich’s supreme compositional achievement was undoubtedly his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District… The composer began it in the autumn of 1930, at the age of only 24, and finished it two years later…

“A year or so later, around the time of the first performance of his opera, he completed his ballet The Limpid Stream. To begin with, this piece, like the opera, was successful; its first staging in Leningrad in the spring of 1935 was followed by a second one in Moscow in the autumn.”

“From then on, it was not only Shostakovich’s career that was threatened, but – as we know from memoirs of his friends and family – his personal safety.”

Limpid Stream

a gay scene from the Limpid Stream

Shostakovich’s Limpid Stream (meaning Bright Stream) is set on a collective farm. The concert notes think Shostakovich was poking fun at the name of the workers holiday villages which the Soviet Union had set up. Only an entitled middle class snob could imagine such a pun. Our own country, with its Sandy Bay’s and Sunny Heights, its Naples of the North (Morecombe) and English Riviera (Devon) are decidedly untrendy holiday resorts for mobile middle class aesthetes like McBurney. He can only imagine that Shostakovich, like himself would have scoffed at those Soviet workers forced to take holidays in such wretched places. Indeed they may well have scoffed (though to their credit they didn’t) at the proletariat in the capitalist world who far from being able to take free holidays in resorts like the Bright Stream were permanently on holiday from the world of work and suffering the acute crisis of capitalism which destroyed millions of workers at this time (20% unemployment in Britain and 25% in the USA).

 

Shostakovich wrote the music for the ballet but not the entire story, and it is foremost the story which is criticised by Pravda in an article entitled ‘Ballet Falsity’. The Limpid Stream follows a troupe of musicians and dancers sent to perform for agricultural workers in the provinces. The scriptwriter, Adrian Piotrovsky who in 1937 was shot for espionage (58-6 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR), tells the story of the antics of the troupe, who essentially frolic, wife swop (unknowingly) and make games down on the farm. Shostakovich’s music accompanies these antics, especially the frolicking; it even led the New York Sun to label the music pornophony which is a far harsher criticism of the music than Shostakovich received from the Soviets! Indeed, a recurring theme in Pravda’s criticism is that soviet art criticism is decidedly lacking in criticism and most often takes on the role of lavishing praise on favourite artists.

Pravda’s criticism in 1936 of the Limpid Stream was essentially directed at the fact that the ballet had not bothered to investigate in any way the life and problems of a real collective farm, nor had it made even the slightest effort to depict the costume, folk dance and traditions of the people it was purporting to represent (from the Kuban). In our modern, touchy idPol dominated times it would be the most distressing to see such brazen ignorance of the cultural traditions and values of ethnic minorities, and it is surprising that McBurney is so insensitive to this. When it came to the musical score of Shostakovich, Pravda said:

“From the libretto, we learn that it has been partially transferred to the collective farm ballet “Bolt” which failed [a previous work by Shostakovich, he essentially reused his old tunes]. It is clear what happens when the same music should express different phenomena. In fact, it expresses only the composer’s indifferent attitude to the topic.

The authors of the ballet — both the directors and the composer — seem to expect that our public is undemanding, that she will accept everything, that she is crammed together by nimble and unceremonious people.

In reality, only our musical and art criticism is undemanding. She often commends works that do not deserve it.

In our book such criticism hardly amounts to a death threat.

Muddle Instead of Music

The Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk is perhaps the most infamous of all Shostakovich’s works, and is undergoing a revival in the West where it is used repeatedly to push the lie that Stalin personally launched an attack on Shostakovich, the great innovator, and had this masterpiece censored. In Birmingham in March the celebrated Birmingham Opera Company performed this very piece, just another example of their innovative (i.e., very dull, predictable, liberal and PC) trajectory.

The story of Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk originated with Nikolay Leskov. Leskov wrote a sordid tale in which Katerina Ismailova, the wife of a provincial merchant has an affair with a clerk in her husbands office. She poisons her father-in-law who is unsurprisingly unimpressed, then joins her lover in strangling her husband and finally murders her little nephew. Leskov wrote Katerina as a depraved criminal, but Shostakovich attempted to present her as a tribute to women’s liberation. So effective was Shostakovich, that the Guardian (remarking upon a recent performance of the Opera in London) said, “we get to marvel at the way in which in this opera Shostakovich so brazenly and lovingly hands the moral high ground to a murderer, and keeps you rooting for her until the very last note.”

Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, received the praise of many a soviet ‘critic’ at the time of the first performance in Leningrad. Particular fawning praise came from Ivan Sollertinsky who was a professor at the Leningrad conservatoire as well as the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, an impartial ear if ever there was one. It can be of no surprise that when Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth debuted in Leningrad it was well received by such good friendly critics and that it was not until it had a thorough inspection in Moscow that any independent criticism was given. It is unsurprising that the artistic director of the philharmonic would praise his own work, but it is a surprise that an artistic director could be considered a suitable critic for his own chosen performances! And Soviet publications, including Pravda don’t fail to capture the sense that nepotism and the old boys club operated just as well in certain circles of Soviet artistic production as they had done under capitalism. McBurney see’s it somewhat differently of course, in his notes he says,

“…in January 1936, the composer’s life was turned inside out by a devastating public attack on his Lady Macbeth, a now notorious article entitled Muddle Instead of Music, published prominently in Pravda [on page 3], the official newspaper of the Communist Party.”

McBurney, like Sollertinsky thinks Shostakovich should be above criticism, not criticism in general but most certainly Soviet criticism. Soviet criticism has as its aim the ‘extermination of the artist’, his ‘incarceration and physical annihilation’ etc etc. For McBurney, Shostakovich was certainly above criticism from the workers and their Communist Party, from those foul people who holiday in Sunny Heights and Fawlty Towers. McBurney fails to mention that Shostakovich, to his credit, like many Soviet artists had a completely different attitude to criticism, and self-criticism, even if it left a bitter taste years after the experience. In those times of open class struggle, many artists were as happy writing criticism of their contemporaries as they were composing new works, and only weeks before his rebuke Shostakovich had been published in Pravda describing as “weak” his contemporary Ivan Dzerzinsky’s ballet ‘The Quiet Don’ based on the world famous Sholokov story!

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk still draws in the crowds: here the Finnish OOppera Baletti give a visual rendering of Shostakovich’s lauded ‘Pornophony’

Stalin goes to the opera

It is said that Stalin, Zhdanov and a handful of politburo members went to the Moscow showing of the Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and were decidedly unimpressed. Their opinions were shared by others such as Kerzhentsev, the Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs. ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ was their response, it was published by Pravda without an author:

“With the general cultural development of our country there grew also the necessity for good music. At no time and in no other place has the composer had a more appreciative audience. The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas.

Certain theatres are presenting to the new culturally mature Soviet public Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth as an innovation and achievement. Musical criticism, always ready to serve, has praised the opera to the skies, and given it resounding glory. The young composer, instead of hearing serious criticism, which could have helped him in his future work, hears only enthusiastic compliments.

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.

Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera – the same basis on which “Leftist” Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word – which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied. Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.

The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science. Petty-bourgeois “innovations” lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.

The composer of Lady Macbeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend “passion” to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. He reveals the merchants and the people monotonously and bestially. The predatory merchant woman who scrambles into the possession of wealth through murder is pictured as some kind of “victim” of bourgeois society. Leskov’s story has been given a significance which it does not possess.

And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner. The merchant’s double bed occupies the central position on the stage. On this bed all “problems” are solved. In the same coarse, naturalistic style is shown the death from poisoning and the flogging – both practically on stage.

The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behaviour of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova.

Lady Macbeth is having great success with bourgeois audiences abroad. Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?

Our theatres have expended a great deal of energy on giving Shostakovich’s opera a thorough presentation. The actors have shown exceptional talent in dominating the noise, the screaming, and the roar of the orchestra. With their dramatic action, they have tried to reinforce the weakness of the melodic content. Unfortunately, this has served only to bring out the opera’s vulgar features more vividly. The talented acting deserves gratitude, the wasted efforts – regret.”

Shostakovich Fifth Symphony

Following the Pravda article Shostakovich met with Kerzhentsev, the Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs, and carried on his work, having expressed his willingness to comprehend the criticism and to alter his work. In his meeting with Kerzhentsev he was reportedly told that he should reject his formalist errors, work to attain in his art something that could be comprehended by the masses and that the authorities did not want a ‘public declaration’ that was insincere or formulaic. It was suggested to him that he should tour the USSR and listen and record the folk songs and music of its peoples, acquaint himself with the best 100 and synthesise his experience. Such an approach was in the best traditions of the greatest of Russian artists, not least the poet Pushkin who had set out on a similar journey a century before writing his best works.

Far from destruction, from Muddle Instead of Music arose Shostakovich’s greatest triumph, his Fifth Symphony, nearly universally recognised as his best. It was often referred to as “the practical creative answer of a soviet artist to just criticism”. Made up of four parts (movements), Moderato (moderate pace), Allegretto (brisk), Largo (slow and dignified) and Allegro non troppo (meaning fast, but not too much!) his work is comprehensible to the ear, has an easy to follow melody for the most part, and an incredibly distinctive and memorable finale which feels as though it will bring the roof in. The Birmingham CBSO, ending on this monumental piece, were clearly having a lot more fun than they had played the jarring and ugly parts of the first half of the evenings concert, and it was the only piece to bring truly rapturous applause from the Birmingham audience. It was the finale of the Fifth which caused such a sensation at the time as well, and is the source of controversy today. Bourgeois critics cannot possibly ignore the greatness of the piece, and so have to find a way to explain its existence, especially as the composer was at risk of losing his life, was reviled by the people and harassed at every turn. They turn to the old tune that yes it is a work of genius, with special hidden meaning only discernable to them. They are aided in this by Shostakovich’s ‘smuggled memoirs’ in which he says “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth… its as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” At the time, in his published writings Shostakovich said

“The idea behind my symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the centre of the work, which is lyrical from beginning to end…”

Writer Alexei Tolstoy witnessed that “the audience understood Shostakovich’s unshakable optimism… We were faced with the realistic, great art of our epoch…” The four movements of the symphony were likened to the psychological stages in the formation of a personality, in which “the Finale brings an optimistic solution to the tragic parts of the first movement…”

Formalism in music

Pravda’s criticism became known as criticism of the formalist trend in music. Formalism, as in the arts and literature, attempted to foist on soviet society art which could only be appreciated by ‘the chosen few’, those enrolled into its secret meanings, a small self-appreciation circle. These days we are so used to this ludicrous attitude to art and social life that we think nothing of it. Incomprehensible garbled words spat out so fast or sang so annoyingly slow they cannot be understood by most people, animal faeces on canvas and in sculpture which is open to ‘interpretation’, and a world of idPol acronyms and alphabetty spaghetti to describe sexuality and race; it is the stranglehold of political correctness enforced by imperialist-funded thought police in universities and art gallery’s, a world under the pernicious influence of toothless vegetarianism in art, literature and philosophy.

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The great Marxist-Leninist Andrei Zhdanov led the campaign against formalism in music, here he is painted giving his talk to an assembly of philosophical workers in 1948

In the post war period, the CPSU(b) led a campaign against this trend. In its struggle to overcome the formalists in music it was necessary to overcome Dmitri Shostakovich, amongst others. Speaking to a Conference of Soviet Music Workers in 1948, the great Marxist-Leninist Andrei Zhdanov said,

“There is in fact, then, a sharp though hidden struggle between two trends taking place in Soviet music. One trend represents the healthy, progressive principles in Soviet music, based on the acceptance of the immense role to be played by the classical heritage, and in particular by the Russian school, in the creation of a music which is realist and of truthful content and is closely and organically linked with the people and their folk music and folk song — all this combined with a high degree of professional mastery. The other trend represents a formalism alien to Soviet art, a rejection of the classical heritage under the banner of innovation, a rejection of the idea of the popular origin of music, and of service to the people, in order to gratify the individualistic emotions of a small group of select aesthetes.

The formalist trend brings about the substitution of a music which is false, vulgar and often purely pathological, for natural, beautiful, human music. Furthermore, it is characteristic of this trend to avoid a frontal attack and to screen its revisionist activities by formally agreeing with the basic principles of socialist realism. This sort of underhand method is, of course, nothing new. History can show many instances of revisionism behind the label of sham agreement with a given teaching. This makes it all the more necessary to reveal the real essence of the formalist trend and the damage it has done to the development of Soviet music.

As an example, there is the attitude towards the classical heritage. There is no indication whatever that the supporters of the formalist school are carrying on and developing the traditions of classical music, however much they may protest to the contrary. Any listener will tell you that the works of Soviet composers of the formalist type differ fundamentally from classical music. Classical music is marked by its truthfulness and realism, its ability to blend brilliant artistic form with profound content, and to combine the highest technical achievement with simplicity and intelligibility. Formalism and crude naturalism are alien to classical music in general and to Russian classical music in particular. The high level of the idea content in classical music springs from the recognition of the fact that classical music has its sources in the musical creative powers of the people, in a deep respect and love for the people, their music and song….

Let us recall how Serov [Alexander Serov 1820-1871 – Ed.] described his attitude to folk music. I have in mind his article ‘The Music of South Russian Song’ in which he says:

“Folk songs are musical organisms which are in no way the work of individual creative talent but compositions of the whole people, and by all their attributes far removed from artificial music. These flowers break through the soil into the light quite of their own, as it were, and grow to full resplendence without the slightest thought about authorship and composers’ rights and therefore little resemble the hothouse products of the learned composers’ activity. So it is that, above all, in folk song we find unaffected creative genius and the wisdom of simplicity, as Gogol puts it so aptly in Dead Souls, which is the supreme charm and secret of any work of art.

As a lily in its magnificent raiment of purity puts to shame the glitter of brocade and precious stones, so is folk music, in its childlike simplicity, a thousand times richer and stronger than all the complexities of scholastic invention taught by pedants in conservatoires and music academies.”

How well and forcefully this is said! How true the formulation of the main issue: that the development of music must proceed on a foundation of interplay, that is by enriching ‘academic’ music from folk music. This theme has practically disappeared from our theoretical and critical articles today.”

Whatever Shostakovich’s merits and frailties as a man, his political weaknesses as an artist are discernable. Though he was a man lucky enough to have been born to witness the ascendency of the Russian proletariat and to record in music what he saw he could never shake off the elitism of his education and position. Toadying and nepotism are hang over’s from capitalism and exploitative society that socialism must overcome. As Zhdanov remarked “the crux of the matter is that the regime of the formalist sect in the musical organisations has not been entirely unpleasant, to put it mildly, for the leading group of our composers.” Shostakovich’s greatest musical work is a product of the most fantastic, and incredible era yet witnessed in the development of human culture, the period of socialist construction, and as such it should be of interest to all advanced workers, even if not to taste. His output is inextricably tied to the momentous achievements of the USSR, achievements never surpassed by any other socialist state in terms of the development of all round culture and the moulding of a new man. We must remember that the class struggle is fought across many battlefields, music being one very important front. Our job, as thinking workers and proletarian revolutionaries is to know our Soviet history so as to build the new world.

Sergei Gerasimov - A Collective-Farm Festival

Soviet workers built a better life, here realist painter S. Gerasimov depicts “A collective farm festival”

Council tax becoming the new Poll Tax claims IPPR

21st century socialism

The first premise of all human existence is … that man must be in a position to live in order to make history. But life involves before anything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things” (K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology (1846), International Publishers, New York, 1947, p.16).

A short column in the FT on Saturday 18th May notes the publication of a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) into council tax inequality. The report, focused on London but taking into account some statistical evidence for the whole of Britain concludes that council tax is beginning to look a lot like the ill-fated Poll Tax which caused Margaret Thatcher so many problems thirty years ago.

The UK is ranked by the OECD as having, after France, the greatest reliance on property taxation of all OECD country respondents as a proportion of GDP. For 2017, property taxes accounted for around 4.2 per cent of GDP, more than twice the OECD average.

The IPPR report states that today’s system of council tax leaves those living in the lowest-value homes paying a higher proportion of council tax with regard to property value, than those living in the highest value homes. This is particularly acute in London where property investment has taken house price prices to ludicrous levels. The study found that a household in a Band A property in London would on average pay nearly five times what a Band H household would pay as a proportion of property value. The poorest Londoners pay 8.1% of household income in council tax, whilst those in the top income decile contribute just 1.3% of their declared earnings.

“Those in the lowest-value homes in London are paying a higher proportion of council tax with regard to property value than those in higher-value homes… To the extent that the distribution of property values is a proxy for wealth, this is not fair… The regressive nature of the present council tax system is embedded in its design… The highest-value property in Band H will attract a maximum of three times the tax on the lowest-value homes, even though (based on the current banding system) the high-value home is worth at least eight times the low-value one in 1991 property prices. As a proportion of property value, lower-value properties pay a larger proportion than higher-value properties.”

Arrears

“Across England”, according to the report, “officially recognised annual total council tax arrears increased from £836 million in 2013/14 to £944 million in 2017/18. Moreover, the total arrears outstanding in 2017/18 were £3 billion, up from £2.5 billion in 2013/14. Research by the anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) has also found that a number of councils are using bailiffs, and claimants are being charged court costs on top of their arrears… At the most extreme, 305 people were given custodial prison sentences for non-payment of council tax between 2013/14 and 2017/18, with another 6,278 receiving suspended sentences…”

Council tax

No tinkering with the present system of taxation will be enough to stop the steady slide of hundreds of thousands of workers and middle classes into absolute destitution and misery. The crisis of overproduction, its consequent lay-offs and redundancies destroy the purchasing power of the masses who are also crushed under the weight of rising prices and taxation which they can no longer afford. Millions of workers today are a pay cheque away from ruination. Raising taxation of empty homes in London does nothing to undermine the financial power of the landlord and capitalist class, it does nothing to alleviate the underlying cause of the people’s misery – capitalism. Only under socialism, where the private ownership of the land by a tiny few is replaced with a socialist system of land ownership and taxation, where the recurrent crisis of capitalism is done away with and replaced by planned production can the working man and woman finally find themselves liberated.

Note

The IPPR is from a social democratic think-tank with a long history of providing Labour IPPR logoparty class collaborators with policy proposals designed to paper over the cracks of an increasingly divided and unequal society, its chair of trustees is Lord Adonis and in 2016 it appointed Tom Kibasi its Director. Mr Kibasi has worked for the Rockerfeller Foundation and the Bill Gates Foundation.

Statement on Twitter suspension by the Embassy of Venezuela


Embassy of Venezuela

Statement about the suspension of Twitter account / New account

On 1st May, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the United Kingdom, alleging “infractions” on the conditions of this social network.

This first suspension occurred one day after the attempted coup in Venezuela, and in parallel to the suspension of numerous Twitter accounts of the Bolivarian Government.

After the immediate appeal made by the Embassy, Twitter replied two days later informing that the suspension was permanent, and that there is no possibility of another appeal.

The permanent suspension of the official Twitter of the Embassy will not silence the voice of the Bolivarian Revolution in the United Kingdom. We have a new Twitter account, @EmbaVenezUk ; please socialize the account among your contacts, so we can multiply information about Venezuela as swiftly as possible. Venceremos!

Rocío Maneiro

Ambassador