A review of a thought-provoking book which engages with Malta’s social anxieties such as its ambiguous contemporary history, and racial and class discrimination.
by Sammy Meilaq
Collage by Isles of the Left
Jottings and Reflections, published in 2015 by Faraxa, stands out as a collection of progressive ideas and arguments by Michael Grech and other authors on some of the most controversial themes on the public agenda. These include racism, religious fanaticism, peace and neutrality, and the way democracy is done (pun intended) in Malta, and various other subjects. Actually, Grech recollects from his previously published articles, but the reader gets more, as the publication includes contributions by John Baldacchino, Giovanni Franzioni, Peter Mayo, Emanuel Scicluna, Meinrad Calleja, Joseph Gravina, Justin Schembri and Yosanne Vella—all professionals in their respective fields.
The topics discussed are very relevant and intelligently analyzed. Grech’s stated intention of a non-academic publication, though, was only partially attained as his original articles may be fairly easily digested by any reader possessing an average political awareness, but the arguments of the professionals are not just highly intellectual but also expressed in academic terms. Of course this does not reduce the value of the publication; it only decreases the extent of the potential engagement by the readers.
On Democracy and Malta’s Ambiguous History
Focusing on some particular themes, Grech, Joe Gravina and Peter Mayo are very critical, precise and factual about the current state of democracy, arguing that it is not really representative as it is meant to be.
I would add that their arguments could be strengthened by explaining the political tools that were used to get Maltese society in this situation. These include the conditions accepted by Malta for EU entry and also the Lisbon Treaty. Today our elected representatives may only parrot Junker and Merkel, irrespective of the democratic rights of the people.
The current state of democracy is not as representative as it is meant to be.
Another topic Grech considers is history. He criticizes the Nationalist Party version of the history of the Mintoff years, which has been informally yet broadly accepted as the history whereby “1987 marked the end of a dictatorial and violent regime.” But then, to my mind, he goes on to accept it.
He opposes the PN version only quantitatively, namely that it excludes all positive aspects of the Mintoff years, but otherwise accepts the version. Here I entirely disagree with Grech as the whole truth is very different. It is true that the political conflict had spread into extra-parliamentary territory more than it normally does, but the volleys and the broadsides came from both sides.
Grech opposes the PN version only quantitatively, namely that it excludes all positive aspects of the Mintoff years, but otherwise accepts the version.
Grech seems to have forgotten about “Tal-Ġakketta Blu” (a group of PN activists and enforcers who declared their designation by wearing blue jackets during the 1981 General Elections), the murder of Karin Grech, the murder of Fusellu, the Front Freedom Fighters, and much more. The Front Freedom Fighters were an organisation linked to the Nationalist Party and allegedly centered around Josie Muscat, a Nationalist MP at the time, whose ideas were more to the right compared to the rest of the parties and who favoured a more militant opposition to Mintoff’s administration.
Concerning history, Yosanne Vella’s article wherein she distinguishes between history and the past also prompts thinking outside the box. It is true that history may be interpreted subjectively in different ways, honestly or maliciously. (Once upon a time, in the House of Commons, Hilary Benn equated the bombing of Syria with the fighting of the International Brigades against Spanish fascism, and was actually applauded). But I think that the passage of time that is called history is always necessary to judge mankind’s activity and behaviour. In politics it certainly distinguishes between real and false prophets.
On Racism and Discrimination
Another subject that the book investigates is racism, and I consider all the arguments listed as sound.
Yet, like most local anti-racists Grech misses a very strategic point. In reality he only considers “colour” racism, if I may loosely define anti-immigrant racism. But in Malta (and Europe), increasing social inequality, unemployment and poverty, side by side with tax havens and the lifestyles and privileges of the rich is a form of class “racism”.
Now “colour” racism spreads among the people in magnitude proportional to the escalation of class “racism”. It is therefore futile to consider them separately as they are two sides of the same problem, not two separate accidents.
“Colour” racism spreads among the people in magnitude proportional to the escalation of class “racism”.
The classic teacher on this matter is Martin Luther King. King fought for some two decades against racism in the USA, winning some concessions on the way. Obviously, he also learned a lot from his experiences. After all the years of struggle, his latest ideological synthesis was that winning against racism is impossible if the struggle is carried out separately from class struggle. Before he was assassinated, his latest project was a great march on Washington by all the poor of America. He was in fact organizing not only the black poor but also the Irish, First Nations, Latinos and Puerto Ricans.
Thus, I also consider Michael Grech’s comment that “the local public needs to be educated regarding diversity and inclusion” to be true but one-sided. Anti-racists also need to be educated on the necessity of unifying race and class struggles.
In his piece, Meinrad Calleja laments that the “working and middle classes surrender their identities as members of the working class”. He correctly considers this as a reactionary pseudo-cultural change that is being brought about by the institutional dominance of the bourgeoisie and its control over the media. Finally, Calleja seems to accept that this phenomenon is here to stay. Now anybody who comes from the industrial background, as I do, will find his piece the saddest read of all because of the very bleak scenario it prospects, and the sound argument he brings to sustain this vision.
The future leader of the workers movement in Malta might have an African surname, a university degree and a garbage collector father or grandfather.
Yet, if I may add, I believe that all is not lost. The very lowest strata of society in Malta is doing very well—as a disadvantaged underclass, that is. The future leader of the workers movement in Malta, one in the Dimech-Mintoff tradition, might have an African surname, a university degree and have had a garbage collector father or grandfather who would have reared him into hating the dominant classes.
My critical engagement with some themes in the book, which contains a lot more material than I have treated, should be taken as a testimony to the excellent contribution of ideas and ideals towards a better society that Jottings and Reflections makes. It is definitely engaged, thought-provoking and articulate.
Sammy Meilaq is a former Dockyards employee and Chairman (elected by his fellow workers) between 1985 and 1997. He militated in the GWU and the MLP, advocating leftist stands and policies. His autobiography, Biċċiet Minnhi, was published in 2013.
Editor’s note: Jottings … and Reflections was published in 2015 and this review was originally written for the mainstream national newspaper which intended to publish it later that year. However, it never did. Isles of the Left features this review as a gesture of gratitude to both Michael Grech, who is the founding member of this publication, and Sammy Meilaq, a veteran workers’ rights activist.