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The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect

If we can no longer recognise our surroundings as a shared home it becomes easier to contemplate their destruction.

The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect by Marwa al-Sabouni is a profound, understated meditation on architecture’s capacity both to civilise and destroy, written while the author witnessed first-hand the destruction of her native city of Homs.

Al-Sabouni argues that years of misguided and corrupt urban planning have ripped apart the delicate urban and social fabric of Syria’s ancient cities, facilitating the conditions for violence between segregated communities living as strangers in fractured landscapes they can no longer recognise as their own.

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Roch Winds and the illusions of Civic Nationalism

Of the many new voices that emerged during the independence referendum one of the most compelling was the Mair Noch A Roch Wind blog run by three young Labour and trade union activists.

The blog takes its name from the gale blowing through Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come-All-Ye signifying the radical possibilities that open only at times of political crisis.

For the blog’s authors, Cailean Gallagher, Rory Scothorne and Amy Westwell, the storm that shook Scotland during 2014 carried the distant seeds of a transformation more radical even than independence: that of socialist revolution. The trio supported and even worked for the Yes campaign, but only in so far as it might serve to destabilise the current political and social order, to illuminate and widen cracks and fissures that might be exploited at some future revolutionary moment.

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Defining Labour: socialist or social democratic?

Abstract arguments about political philosophy don’t usually have much bearing on the pragmatic day-to-day business of British politics.

Britain’s reputation for political stability, current difficulties notwithstanding, is often attributed to the suspicion with which its decision-makers, commentariat and electorate habitually regard dangerous things like ideas.

But sometimes, as with the Labour Party’s present agonies, repressed differences over fundamental matters of political ideology surge to the surface. For all the personal venom that has attended it this is one of those rare British political crises that, in the end, is about ideology. What does Labour want to do and why? What is Labour actually for?

Among the many words the party’s warring factions use to describe each other – some of them printable – the most interesting are ‘socialist’ and ‘social democrat’. Though often used without much precision, and sometimes interchangeably, these terms refer to distinct political traditions with different visions of the good society. Understanding how they have usually been defined by historians and philosophers since they first entered the political lexicon helps illuminate the deep-seated political differences that make Labour’s ongoing crisis so peculiarly bitter.

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Qumran horizons

For me the ancient site of Qumran is arguably the most remarkable landscape in the world.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, written by the Essenes, were found here some 70 years ago. The Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab are immediately ahead. Herod’s fortress of Masada is a few miles to the south, overlooking the – perhaps legendary – sites of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jericho, possibly the world’s oldest city, is to the north. This region is the lowest place on Earth, the ‘wilderness’ spoken of in the Bible.

I first visited Qumran five years ago and was fortunate to be able to return a few days ago. The ruins here are very probably those of the Essene sect, which wrote the scrolls some 2000 years ago before the site was cleared by the Romans during the 66-70AD Jewish War.

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The dreamworlds of the Paris Commune

145 years ago this month, the Paris Commune, a bold, brief and ultimately tragic attempt to realise a political utopia in a major European city, was at its peak.

A precarious coalition of tradesmen, labourers, feminists, artists and intellectuals seized control of the French capital on 18 March 1871, fenced the city centre with barricades, and hoisted the red flag over the Hôtel de Ville.

During their momentary ascendancy the Communards sought to implement a radical participative democracy, replacing the established institutions of the state with a federation of neighbourhood councils, and private commerce with a network of co-operatively managed producer associations.

After just 72 days it was all over. The French government retook the city in May after a bloody siege in which some 30,000 revolutionaries were massacred.

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