Castro & the Police State Left

•November 29, 2016 • 2 Comments


[This essay can also be read in conjunction with my previous critique of double standards on the Left, posted February 2014.]

Castro & the Police State Left

Fidel Castro has died. His enemies and his sympathizers are framing their predictable responses. I am addressing the latter. I have read many glowing eulogies from the Left in the last few days, some hagiographic, some more carefully worded, but all quite problematic in what they say, imply, and more especially, in what they do not say about ‘Fidel’ and the Cuban system.

I come not to demonise nor to idolize. He was not my friend or comrade, and just as I do not talk about Barack or Hilary or Donald, so I will not call him ‘Fidel’.

I come not to deny the violence and many atrocities of US imperialism, including those perpetrated against Cuba. I come not to deny that such external violence and pressure always exacerbates all internal tensions, problems and conflicts in any social system.

I come not to deny that the terror, suffering and obscene levels of inequality and poverty in most US client-states in Latin America were much worse than in Cuba.

I come not to equate Castro with Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Pinochet. Cuba knows no killing fields, death squads or outright gulag system. Castro was the son of a wealthy landowner, taught by Jesuits, a lawyer, an avowed Jacobin fan of Robespierre and Napoleon who let himself be called The Maximum Leader and did not sing and dance like other Cubans but loved to harangue and preach to them for five to seven hours at a stretch. Despite all this Cuban ‘communism’ was of course culturally tempered by heat, cigars, guitars and a certain erotic sultriness.

I come not to ask about good subjective intentions but about objective social facts.

In fact, I come to ask ‘the Left’ what it really stands for.

I ask whether the Left wishes to be an authoritarian Police State Left or a radically democratic and libertarian one that eschews all double standards when it comes to evaluating oppression and suffering, no matter where.

I ask the Left whether it is always on the side of the victims, the common people, the workers, the suffering people, the dissenters from authority or whether it is as often on the side of the new ‘revolutionary’ oppressors and ruling classes who are responsible for the massive suffering of those common people, those victims and dissenters.

I come to stand by those thousands executed without due process after the Cuban revolution. I stand by the persecuted anarchists, liberals and non-political dissenters. I stand by the thousands sent to forced labour camps and prisons where conditions are so abysmal that both Amnesty International and the International Red Cross are denied access. I stand by the dissidents, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, conscientious objectors who were sent to do their military service to be ‘re-educated’ for their ‘deviations’ at such forced labour camps during the 1960s under appalling conditions, malnourishment and maltreatment.

I stand by the workers who have no right to strike or form their own unions but must, as in all Communist ‘worker-oriented’ states, join state-controlled unions and sign pledges of loyalty to the Communist Party. I stand by labour activists harassed and imprisoned for trying to form independent worker-controlled unions.

I stand by the victims of the state terror that puts informers on every block and sends Rapid Response Brigade mobs to engage in public ‘acts of repudiation’ (verbal and physical abuse, stone-throwing) against the homes of alleged dissenters and ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Even when I may not share their ‘politics’, I stand by the more than a million Cubans who have, often at risk of their lives, voted with their feet and fled the country in disgust (there was no freedom of travel until 2013).

I stand by the citizens, dissenters and human rights activists who are harassed, intimidated, sometimes beaten and prevented from free association, free assembly and free speech. I stand by all Cuban citizens who wish to have free access to information of their own choosing instead of living under total state and Communist Party control of the media (TV, press, books, internet). Cuba has found itself at the bottom of the global press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders and is one of the ten most censored countries in the world.

But is this fair? What of the other side of the ledger, what of Castro’s achievements? What about Cuban education, health care, Third World medical aid?

Yes, education is universal and free. It is also a state propaganda and conformity machine demanding devotion and loyalty to Castro and the state without the teaching of critical thinking. It once strongly encouraged students to ‘denounce to the militia anyone who threatened the Revolution, including friends in the neighbourhood with long hair, cousins who listened secretly to the Beatles, and boys who were said to kiss other boys’ (Luis M. Garcia, ‘How the Maximum Leader made my family leave home’, Sydney Morning Herald 28/11/2016, p, 17). A file is kept on children’s ‘revolutionary integration’ and this file accompanies the child for life. University options depend on how well the person conforms to Marxist ideology. The Code for Children, Youth and Family states that a parent who teaches ideas contrary to communism can be sentenced to three years in prison.

Yes, health care is universal and free. Cuban Third World medical aid has been spectacular. However, there is no right to privacy or a patient’s informed consent or the right to protest, refuse treatment or sue for malpractice. Doctors are expected to keep records of patients’ ‘political integration’. There are many complaints about empty pharmacy shelves and ‘politics’ in medical treatment and health care decision-making. Like Mao’s food exports during Chinese famines and shortages, it may not be too far-fetched to speculate that Castro’s generous medical help to Third World countries may to some extent also have been a form of ‘soft power’ geopolitical influence-seeking bought at the expense of Cubans’ health care.

If ‘socialism’ is to be simply equated with decent education, health care, adequate food and housing for all, then a social democratic welfare state as in Germany or Sweden, the US New Deal and even Hitler’s Third Reich also come fairly close to being ‘socialism’.

If ‘socialism’, in contrast, means a radically participatory society and economy in which the people democratically decide all major political and economic issues, then Castro’s Cuba, like all ‘Communist’ systems, is much further from ‘socialism’ than are social democratic capitalist systems. Socialism, if it is still to mean anything at all, is not the abolition of democracy but its deepening by extending democracy to economic decision-making, both in workplaces and regionally/nationally.

To conclude. Instead of hagiography or ‘balanced’ praise, a Left worthy of the name would be applying critical analysis to a Cuba in transition. Central to this might be Cuba’s ruling class of apparatchiki and its various factions after Fidel Castro. For example, 40% of the Cuban economy belongs to the holding company Gaesa that controls the Cuban military’s business interests. Its president Lopez-Callejas is thus one of Cuban ‘socialism’s’ most powerful men; another is Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s son and coordinator of the military’s and Interior Ministry’s intelligence services. Old Communist hardliners like Ventura seem pitted against younger liberals like Mariela Castro Espin and Bermudez.

As in Russia and China, one can from a rigorously Marxist perspective fairly comfortably predict that the opening of Cuban state capitalism to the power of market capitalism will most likely be accompanied by the usual in-fighting, jockeying and shifts within the ruling elites from being communist apparatchiki to being the new capitalist oligarchs. Their wealth and privileges will increase, as will inequality, and a rising middle class will finally get cable TV, flash cars, Chinese consumer goods and holidays in Miami and Las Vegas.

Vale Dave Dowsett

•November 28, 2016 • 2 Comments


[Fellow Bundanoon poet Dave Dowsett died last month. Dave and I met back in the early 90s when we first got some of our poems published together in a local competition. For the last two years we had been meeting twice a month together with a few other people in a local poetry appreciation group and also in a discussion/bring a plate get-together we call the ‘convivium’. I had the honour of launching his outstanding first poetry book From Butter to Ice last winter. He will be sorely missed. Below one of Dave’s poems (one I’d strangely chosen for discussion in the poetry group 10 days before his death and then read out again at his funeral), followed by my elegy dedicated to his memory. The photo of Dave is by my friend Chris Donaldson, also a member of the poetry group and convivium.]

D.J. Dowsett: At the Funeral of a Scarcely Known Man

When images are enclosed in that box with him,
what memories are being removed from the world?
In those last moments, when low sunlight
slides across the pale walls,
while a dog is barking in the distance
and somewhere a motor mower starts,
there is a scene from half a century before:
a dirt road beside a wide cold field,
the hiss of dry grass blowing,
and a lone horse far up the side of a hill
is lifting its head towards the wind.

Peter Lach-Newinsky: Out of the Blue

i.m. Dave Dowsett (1951-2016)


The last time we talked
you mentioned your first presentation
at our monthly convivium
next year. I asked what
your topic would be and you said:
Blue. Two weeks later you died.


It wasn’t something you first noticed
reading your poems, that colour blue.
Then again, if it was one thing
your poems admonished, it was:
look again, more closely, you might
be surprised, always the familiar
becoming unfamiliar, the unfamiliar
familiar, the dream real, the real
infused with all the unbearable clarity
of dream, ‘in the dim colonnades
defining its/turquoise precincts
which contained unhurried pools’.
There is too ‘the accustomed weather:/
a north-easter, small brown clouds/
and that lifetime blue sky’, even
an ant within a landscape where
‘a bottle top like a pressed flower/
lies beside a bluestone chip.’ And
then there is Drifting, a poem drifting
between anaesthesia and dying:
‘It seems like drifting slowly out to sea/
those on the shore becoming indistinct…
all the lovely faces smiling/quietly,
a long way off./ Everything seems blue.
So blue.’


What blue might your milky blue eyes
have yet seen for us, Dave? The detail
in the under-feathers of a Pacific
Black Duck as it lifts from black water,
that incandescent blue blotch
on a Fairy Wren’s throat as it gyrates
like a first-time public speaker on its twig
eyeing out friend or foe, the screeching lights
on a police car at 3 am rotating through
the trembling eye of a puddle, the spikes
on a punk in Hyde Park or the strobe-lit
hair of the young girl at the blue light disco,
that black blue note rooted in the blood
and sweat of cotton plantations, the dream-
thieving light of ubiquitous screens,
the blue-chemical feast of Aussie birthday cakes,
even the absence of blue in some languages
on this mirror sky planet, a bright water drop
silently singing in black-velvet space?

Enzensberger, Titanic 12

•November 10, 2016 • 1 Comment


[Follows on from last post. This is Canto 12 of the suite. ‘This is the captain speaking…’]

Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: The Sinking of the Titanic (Twelfth Canto)

Translated by Peter Lach-Newinsky

From this point on everything goes according to plan.
The steel hull is no longer throbbing,
the engines lie still, the fires have long been put out.
What’s the matter? Why aren’t we making headway? Everyone
is listening. Outside in the gangways rosaries are being mumbled.
The sea is smooth, black, glassy. The night moonless.
Oh, it’s nothing really. Nothing has been broken on board,
not a vase, not a single champagne glass. People are waiting
in small groups, wordless, walk up and down,
in furs, dressing gowns, overalls. Obedient.
Ropes are being rolled up, tarpaulins pulled back
from the boats, davits swung out. It is as if
the passengers had swallowed pills. This man for example
dragging his cello behind him over the endless deck,
you can hear the endpin scraping away at the planks,
scraping, scraping, and yet you think: how
is that possible? – Ah, look! An emergency flare! –
But it’s only a feeble hiss, already fizzling out
in the sky, and in its reflection faces, bluish and blank.
Silently a line of lift boys, masseuses and bakers stands to attention.
Aboard the California, an old tramp twelve miles away,
the radio operator turns in his bunk and falls asleep.
Attention attention! Women and children first! – Actually, why?
Answer: We are prepared to go down like gentlemen.
Roger. – Sixteen hundred are left behind. The calm on board
is incredible. – This is the captain speaking. It is now exactly
two o’clock and my order is: every man for himself! – Music!
The bandleader raises his baton for the last number.

Enzensberger, Titanic I

•November 8, 2016 • 1 Comment


[My contribution to the US elections tomorrow. ‘The beginning of the end/is always discreet’. A translation of the great German poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s The Sinking of the Titanic, a long poem he started writing while staying in Havana in the late 1960s, as a then leftist becoming disillusioned with the Cuban reality under Castro. This is the first Canto of the suite.]

Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: The Sinking of the Titanic (First Canto)

Translated by Peter Lach-Newinsky

Someone is listening. He is waiting. He is holding
his breath, very close by,
here. He says: the person speaking there, that’s me.

Never again, he says,
will it be as quiet,
as dry and warm as now.

He hears himself
in his droning head.
There is no one there except for him

who says: that must be me.
I wait, hold my breath.
Listen. The distant noise

in my ears, these antennae
of soft flesh, means nothing.
It’s only the blood

beating in my veins.
I have been waiting a long time,
breath held.

White noise in the earphones
of my time machine.
Mute cosmic static.

No knocking on the wall. No scream for help.
No radio signal, nothing.
Either it’s all over,

I tell myself, or it has
not yet begun.
But now! Now

a scraping sound. A creaking. A crack.
This is it. An icy fingernail
scratching at the door, stalling.

Something is tearing.
An endless length of canvas,
a snow white strip of linen

first slowly,
then faster and ever faster,
is rent in two, hissing.

This is the beginning.
Listen. Don’t you hear it?
Hang on tight!

Then it’s quiet again.
Only in the cupboards
a thin tinkle

a trembling of crystal
becoming weaker,
dying away.

That was it.
Was that it? Yes,
that must have been it.

That was the beginning.
The beginning of the end
is always discreet.

It is eleven forty
on board. The steel skin
under the waterline gapes

two hundred metres long
slit open
by an unimaginable knife.

The water is shooting into the bulkheads.
Past the glittering hull
glides, thirty metres

above sea level, black
and silent, the iceberg,
and is left behind in the dark.

Wild Apple

•October 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment


[Wrote this in 2000 about a wild apple tree I saw from the train window. The shot is of a cafe roof in Bundanoon, the village near which I live.]

Wild Apple

the way the eye flows with the rhythm
of the many-variegated hills and hollowings
on the landscape’s stretched out skin, sky-
open, breathing light….

yet each stretched and rounded paddock
so full of hidden secrets that not a thousand
thousand years of patient pacing,
all wits alert as landmines,
could know the slow and filigree detail
of this land’s ignored embrace

each chord a cosmos, each tree a singing universe
of nested homes for creatures invisible
to our median eye: see there now,
that spreading tree on Ringwood Road,
core-tossed from some passing car and groaning
under its rejected gifts, all free bounty around us

as we speed away, all grace, green song
and that light that constructs the willing eye
called home


•October 19, 2016 • 2 Comments


[This is part of the draft introduction to a work-in-progress called You Are Here. A Travelogue. The whole work is attempting to map deep time, big history, evolution, our common story since the Big Bang through the three big realms of the cosmos/matter, the planet/life and human history/mind. Not sure I’ll ever finish this project. Anyway, it all starts, or startles, in the meditative Now. The photo is of our farm dam at dusk, two shores of light and dark, yang and yin, beginning and end, above and below…held together by, one with, an expanse of aqueous emptiness…]


Here. Here now. Just sitting. Within the wordless, stillness, awareness, there is: breathing, rising, falling…There is change/no change, no inside/outside, no thought, no time. Emptiness. ‘The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return’.

There is, quietly, a shift, a ‘startle’, a distraction: thoughts, change, memory, sequence. Perhaps a bird call, then named, catalogued, a bird imagined. There is still intermittent awareness of sensations, thoughts, forming and passing like clouds in the boundless sky, waves on the boundless ocean. Clouds and sky, waves and ocean, thoughts and awareness, birdcall and sitting, forms and emptiness, both and neither.

Then, watching, awareness ends.

Is there a ‘cause’, a ‘reason’ for this ending? One does not know, unaware of why one ceases to be aware. Conditions have changed. There seems to have been a wave, a movement arising, a movement away from watching and awareness, a severing or dis-traction, a pulling into and away, a grasping (‘greed’) or rejecting (‘fear’), an identification with a sensation or thought. A ‘fall’ into ‘world’ and word.

So now there is an ‘I’, and this ‘I’ is what has merged with, has apparently become, these fleeting sensations, memories, thoughts. I have become ‘clouded’, become the rapidly expanding and interconnecting networks-of-networks of associations-and-responses, a network of apparently discrete ‘things’, a temporal self with memories, feelings, words and the ‘ten thousand things’ crowding in. A universe has arisen.

There has been a subtle ‘big bang’: together with everything else, I am the universe birthing and dying itself out of itself, the beginning of branching and exfoliating, changing, matter-body-mind and space-time self-organizing and self-evolving from and to some awareness, some ‘void-and-energy’, beyond time-and-space, beyond thought.

And now I am an apparently individual form of space-time bending back on itself, self-reflecting, thinking, writing, and my living body-mind doing all this is stardust born in the first stars a mere cosmic breath of 550 million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago or in later exploding supernovas.

I now remember that the calcium in the bone of my finger typing the keyboard was forged in the furnace of early stars ten, a hundred, even a thousand times bigger than our sun. The water in my cells may have originally come from inside comets and asteroids that rained on the earth four billion years ago and produced the oceans, the source of life.

My brain began many millions of years ago in that ocean in some cellular or amoebic sensation that evolved further up into an invertebrate nervous system or a new vertebrate’s spinal column, moved all this up in the dance of evolution through the reptilian territorial brain, formed a lovingly hierarchical mammalian limbic system, blossomed out the abstracting bud of a primate cortex and self-reflective neocortex perhaps already in the first hominins just three or four million years ago or else the first homo species just two million years ago. Interiority has grown deeper, differentiating, integrating, encompassing more and more of the previous differentiations and developments.

However, my body-brain – including its thinking here written onto this screen ‒ is in truth not ‘mine’ but a collective artefact and expression of the universe, one even literally still informed by all previous evolution and history, still nourished and influenced by the first archaic bacteria living in my gut (the ‘microbiome’ and ‘enteric nervous system’).

I am a human being. I am a human individual born in the middle of the twentieth century, about 13.8 billion years after what we currently call the beginning of the universe in the Big Bang, about five billion years after the formation of our solar system and four and half billion years after the origin of planet Earth.

Now this individual is sitting at a computer writing this text. Three concepts in that sentence: individual, computer, writing text. Three concepts that each embody overlapping, over-determining, interdependent deep-time histories: cosmic, planetary, socio-historical, embody the majestic evolution of inorganic matter into life into mind/spirit.

This is ‘now’. In the transient form of this individual, the universe is stepping back a little and writing a text about itself on a sunny winter’s day in a house in a village in the southern highlands of New South Wales Australia on planet Earth on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy in what we, seeking orientation in the immense vistas of universal evolution, call winter 2016. To be able to do this, or for those bees to be still busy on the rosemary bush outside my study window, has taken the whole evolution of the universe. There is wonder, gratitude and joy in all this, in this tat tvam asi (That Art Thou), in the re-membering that is as normal as its forgetting:

And if I forget how many times I have been here, and in how many shapes, this forgetting is the necessary interval of darkness between every pulsation of light. I return in every baby born. (Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo about Knowing Who You Are)

So let us begin the mapping of the evolutionary process of deep time. The fluctuations within waves within larger successive waves within even larger successive waves, seemingly going on for ever, backwards, forwards, never clear and distinct and separate but always overlapping, reverberating, refracting, retracting, merging.

Can we attempt to see the ripple of the present moment ‒ in-formed by and with past waves and pregnant with even larger future waves perhaps already drawing it out, co-forming it, as ‘chaotic attractors’ ‒ ‘backwards’ and ‘forwards’, ‘down’ and ‘up’, within the great waves of human mind and socio-historical time which contain within themselves the wider waves of organic planetary time which contain the even wider waves of inorganic cosmic time, and all of them contained right here and now within an evolved mind writing and an evolved mind, dear reader, reading?

The mind may tremble a little at the immensity of the task. And yet, such is our basic premise, all these waves are mere fluctuations, shining ripples, fleeting illusions of what we call ‘time passing’, change and ‘evolution’, on or within, out of and into, the deep ocean of the inexpressible Timeless, the Form-and-Emptiness, the mystery of the dynamic eternal stillness and its ‘startle’, the sheer ‘thusness’, ‘isness’, the ‘nowever’, say, of a frog leaping:

Old pond:
frog leaps ‒
sound of water

– Matsuo Basho (1644–94)

But not too fast. First, I do not ‘have’ myself yet, and neither do we. The inner cannot know itself without the outer, the enfolded implicate without the unfolded explicate. You have to go away to come home, lose yourself to find yourself. So there is a bit of journeying to do, a be-coming, a going-out-of-oneself into the world that is itself in the process of becoming, e-volving, of coming or bending back into itself:

I am. But I don’t have myself. Thus we are in a process of becoming. The ‘am’ is inside. All of the internal is dark in itself. In order to see itself, not to mention the surrounds, the self must go out of itself. Must get up and go on its way to see anything at all, see itself among its peers, whereby an ‘I am’, no longer resting in itself, becomes a ‘we’. […] This learning takes place completely in the external, it journeys within it, experiences within it, and only experiences its interior by means of this external. Humans in particular are dependent on this continuous journey outwards in order to even be able to come back to themselves, and thus to find within themselves that depth which is not there in order to remain within itself, unexpressed. In order to just become sensitive to itself, the mere ‘am’ has to dress itself in something taken from outside. Literally as well as figuratively, a human being is born naked in its own skin and needs alien garments to warm itself in its own proximity, indeed even to emphasize its very own existence. (Ernst Bloch, Tuebinger Einleitung in die Philosophie)

The Four Ages 4 – Earth Time

•October 3, 2016 • 5 Comments


[Last poem of The Four Ages suite, on old age (earth, winter). Photo a simulation of filaments of galaxies and voids.]


Earth Time

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
– Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

Things are starting to sag.
I forget things that don’t matter –
pin numbers, names, manners.

The body hardens, loosens, begins to creak.
There’s clay in the stomach
and below is getting fishier.
It’s all starting to slide south.

I like small children
unless they’re neurotic.
I notice now the soothing power
around plants and trees,
the constant communication of cats.

I read the souls in people’s faces
like subtle palimpsests in old books.
Their bodies tell me sad stories.
I dislike mirrors, convoluted conversations.

Sometimes young ones come
to escape the adults and steal
puzzled glances at my eyes
burning out from crocodile flesh.

I know less and less.
There’s a frost on the soil
drawing down star force
into sleeping seeds. Sometimes,

there’s grace, and suddenly
a beautiful silence shimmers
like clear water
in which simple things breathe
and sway like seaweed
answering to some deeper current.

The glasses slide down the nose.
The spoon slips back into the soup.

Growing deafer, I’m now, at times,
surprised to hear, faintly,
the Source keening me home –
cold wires in the wind.

It is my last chance.