Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, April 29, 2006

On the origins of democracy.

With the European Social Forum meeting in Athens, it is perhaps timely to consider an article by Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard (not the Mary Beard, socialist historian of Charles and Mary Beard fame), on 'the origins of democracy' in ancient Greece. Mary Beard argues this constitutes 'a poor model for re-creating the virtues of government in the 21st century' and so she attempts to debunk what she calls the 'glorious myth' that surrounds ancient Athenian democracy:

'This fetish casts ancient democratic Athens as the foundation of modern political virtues: one man one vote, freedom of expression, communal decision-making, the sovereignty of the law and equality before it, and so on. At the same time, it deftly airbrushes out the less appealing aspects of Athenian democratic culture. The well-known exclusion of women and slaves from any form of political action is one factor, but not the only one. And to be honest, even if Athens operated a more thoroughgoing repression of its female population than any other Greek state we know, no ancient culture would score highly here.

The Athenian democracy which we so admire was, in reality, a short-lived and violent political experiment; it lasted 50 or so years in its most radical form, a half-century that saw the assassination of one of the most influential democratic reformers and numerous attempts by the enemy within to betray the city to the undemocratic Persians or Spartans. During its almost equally short-lived empire in the fifth century BCE, it imposed democratic government on its satellites with as much ruthlessness (and probably as little understanding) as George Bush and his allies. It was also a tiny community, with perhaps some 30,000 full male citizens, making its political nucleus roughly the same size as the student population of the modern University of Manchester, or, to put it another way, half the size of Kidderminster. And their citizen rights were fiercely guarded. With a strategy that would endear it to the BNP, it made sure that only those born of both Athenian mothers and Athenian fathers would qualify to be part of the exclusive club of citizens. No political integration of migrants or asylum seekers here.'

She goes on to argue that 'the big problem for the 21st century is surely how to redefine the notion of "people power" (Greek demokratia) so that it can work for vast political conglomerates from which almost everyone feels alienated, and in which power has moved decidedly away from the "people" in any meaningful sense. There is also, as Paul Cartledge hinted in some recent discussions of Greece on Radio 4's Westminster Hour, the need to reconfigure ideas of the rights and obligations of citizenship in the new context of a global political economy that transcends the boundaries of the nation state. In projects of this kind, the founding myth of a small city, the size of a large student union - and with a decidedly unglobal and unmulticultural agenda - is more of a hindrance than a help.'

Is Mary Beard right to dismiss this small scale and short lived 'experiment' as of no use today? I am no classicist, but I have always had a soft spot for Every Cook Can Govern, 'A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece and Its Meaning for Today' by the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. In it James did not dismiss the fact that there were limits and problems with classical democracy in Athens but defended in the most vigorous terms the experiment in direct democracy, the fact that it was the people - rightly or wrongly - who made all the decisions:

'The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek Democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Now the average CIO [trade union] bureaucrat or Labour Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.'

Beard's hostility to this experiment should not be that surprising, as it is not new. James noted in 1956 that 'intellectuals like Plato and Aristotle detested the system. And Socrates thought that government should be by experts and not by the common people. For centuries, philosophers and political writers, bewildered by these Greeks who when they said equality meant it, have either abused this democracy or tried to explain that this direct democracy was suitable only for the city-state. Large modern communities, they say, are unsuitable for such a form of government.' Yet 'the larger the modern community, the more imperative it is for it to govern itself by the principle of direct democracy (it need not be a mere copy of the Greek). Otherwise we face a vast and ever-growing bureaucracy.'

As James put it, 'we make a colossal mistake if we believe that all this is past history. For Plato’s best known book, The Republic, is his description of an ideal society to replace the democracy, and it is a perfect example of a totalitarian state, governed by an elite. And what is worse. Plato started and brilliantly expounded a practice which has lasted to this day among intellectuals — a constant speculation about different and possible methods of government, all based on a refusal to accept the fact that the common man can actually govern. It must be said for Plato that, in the end, he came to the conclusion that the radical democracy was the best type of government for Athens. Many intellectuals today do not do as well. They not only support but they join bureaucratic and even sometimes totalitarian forms of government.

The intellectuals who through the centuries preoccupied themselves with Plato and his speculations undoubtedly had a certain justification for so doing. Today there is none. What all should study first is the way in which the Greeks translated into active concrete life their conception of human equality. The Greeks did not arrive at their democracy by reading the books of philosophers. The common people won it only after generations of struggle.'
Because of this struggle, the Greeks who took part in the democracy were so vigorous in their defence of it against tyrannical usurpers. It strikes me, that faced with tyrants like Bush and Blair who wage war without democractic mandate, who are happy to undermine what democratic control of society remains through privatisation, we could learn a thing or two from thinking about the principle of 'direct democracy' today. If the decision to wage a war on Iraq had been put to a vote of all the people in the world - Bush and Blair would not have had a mandate. Those who attack such democratic experiments - whether in the past or in the present - it seems to me reveal only their fear that those at the very bottom of society are incapable of deciding democratically how their lives should be run.

Lenin made this argument very persuasively in 1917, during the Russian Revolution, when there was a similar fear among many intellectuals of what might happen if power slipped into the hands of ordinary workers and peasants, who were insultingly referred to as 'the dark masses'. Lenin was absolutely insistent that power should be in the hands of the people - that 'every cook can govern' and he called for 'All Power to the Soviets [Worker's Councils]'. His defence of revolutionary democracy was put forward in both The State and Revolution and Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? . The Bolsheviks argued that a future workers' state - run by those who produce all the wealth of society for those who produce all the wealth of society would not only 'work' effectively - it would also be infinitely more democractic a society than anything possible under class society. It would unleash the stifled creative human potential of millions of people for the first time in their lives. To those who feared that a insurrection led by the Bolsheviks and working class in a backward country such as Tsarist Russia would be overwhelmed by a wave of counter-revolution, Lenin argued that 'We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes, that the state is helping the poor to fight the landowners and capitalists, is breaking their resistance. Only then shall we see what untapped forces of resistance to the capitalists are latent among the people; only then will what Engels called "latent socialism" manifest itself. Only then, for every ten thousand overt and concealed enemies of working-class rule, manifesting themselves actively or by passive resistance, there will arise a million new fighters who have been politically dormant, suffering in the torments of poverty and despair, having ceased to believe that they are human, that they have the right to live, that they too can be served by the entire might of the modern centralised state, that their contingents of the proletarian militia can, with the fullest confidence, also be called upon to take a direct, immediate, daily part in state administration.' This is not the place to discuss how the hopes of the October Revolution in 1917 were eventually to be smashed on the rocks of Stalinism. What is vital to hold onto however is the idea that those of us who want a vastly more democratic system than that on offer under capitalism should not let liberal intellectuals casually dismiss the Greek city state experiment of 'direct democracy' as a 'hinderance' for progressives today. On the contrary, for all its limitations, what took place in the city states of ancient Greece should be seen as a struggle against oligarchy that led to a flourishing in new ideas and new experiments in running society. Indeed, arguably, like the Russian Revolution, we should see this radical experiment in democracy as an inspiration.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Euston, we have a problem...

Comrades and friends, I feel I ought to inform you that I have decided not to sign the Euston Manifesto. This was a really difficult decision, as you can imagine, and I had a 'long dark night of the soul' pondering it, during which I thought back to how impressed I had been by the size of the turnout of London's March for Freedom of Expression, which many of the Euston people had been busy building. I had read how a leading neo-conservative mandarin of the American Empire - William Kristol - had signed up as well - and well, I really thought there might well have been something in the Manifesto's commitment to building 'a new democratic progressive alliance'. But then my brain finally kicked in and I came to my senses.

It is not yet quite clear what sin the good people of Euston in central London must have committed to deserve being associated with the 'pro-war "Left"' or, as the signers of the Euston Manifesto call themselves, 'a new group' arguing for 'a new left'. If you regularly read blogs, you are doubtless bored rigid by now by these human loud hailers for Bush and Blair's war drive, these megaphones of the neo-conservative movement, the likes of 'Stormin' Norman Geras, Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm, etc etc and those who praise them like Will Hutton does here. I still tend to call them the 'pro-war "Left"', and though there are former 'Leftists' among them, I really ought to start calling them by their proper name - 'the pro-war Right'.

Mike Marqusee has done quite a good job of hammering these liberal apologists for imperialism here - while I also recommend reading Lenin's Tomb on the Euston Manifesto as well as Maps on the pecularities of the pro-war Left. Lenin's Tomb noted the statement 'certainly mimics a certain strand of Fabian imperialism' - and while I have drawn attention to Fabian imperialism before on my blog, it is this I briefly want to explore in more detail.

You see, while the Euston Manifesto group claims to be creating something new, it is actually rehashing the ideas of a group around in Britain 100 years ago - the 'Empire Socialists' and more particularly the Coefficients Club, which was organised by the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb (their 'partnership' is surely equal in intensity to the new 'partnership' of Geras and Cohen) and held dinners from 1902 -1908. It also included:

Leopold Stennett Amery (statesman and Conservative politician).
Richard Burdon Haldane, (Liberal politician, lawyer, and philosopher) Halford John Mackinder, (geographer and geopolitician).
Leopold Maxse, (editor, National Review)
Alfred Milner, (statesman and colonial administrator as Lord High Commissioner of South Africa).
Henry Newbolt, (author and poet)
Carlyon Bellairs, (naval commander and M.P.)
James Louis Garvin, (journalist and editor) -
William Pember Reeves, (New Zealand statesman, historian and poet)
Bertrand Russell, (philosopher, and mathematician)
Sir Clinton Edward Dawkins, businessman and civil servant.
Sir Edward Grey, Liberal politician
H. G. Wells, novelist.

There is a quite illuminating article about them here, in the [right wing] Journal for Libertarian Studies . Basically, the Fabians wanted a new world imperial order spreading out from a militarised and newly efficient British state that would spread universal suffrage internationally. While the bit about 'universal suffrage' was not accepted by the non-socialist members of the Coefficients Club, these conservative and liberals who attended saluted the idea of remilitarising British society as they felt British parliamentarism had gone soft. Lord Alfred Milner had been withdrawn from service as British High Commissioner in South Africa in 1905 when news about the concentration camps he was running in the Boer War became common knowledge. Milner joined the Coefficients Club on his return and was pleased to find others who wanted to make imperialism a mass popular national movement again. He even spoke of a 'noble socialism' that was not about class internationalism but about making the nation 'one body-politic'.

By 1908, the Coefficient Club's dream of creating a new party of social imperialism and national efficiency had been lost and the group dissolved. The Webbs had been snobs and dismissive of the new Labour Party (it was full of militant workers after all) but after Labour had revealed its uselessness to enact social reform when given a sniff of power they embraced it as the best party for progress. The Webbs enthusiasm for collectivism and state planning - socialism from above - famously led them to praise Mussolini and then Stalin - describing Stalinist Russia in the 1930s as a 'new civilisation' after declaring their hostility to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Still, the Webbs were right about one thing - when it comes to supporting British imperialism, the Labour Party were the way to go. The Euston Manifesto group in its condemnation of Respect and the Stop the War movement in Britain and their support for Tony Blair understand this very well. Their vision of imposing 'democracy' internationally from above through military action is a chilling totalitarian one, and their talk of 'new progressive politics' echoes Lord Alfred Milner's 'noble socialism', and Stalin's concentration camp universe. Still, the Coefficients Club of 'Empire Socialists' only lasted six years, and there are good reasons to think the demise of the Euston group of 'socialists for war' will be even more shortlived. To quote David Aaronovitch talking about something else in 2004: "I give 'em a year".

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Triple trouble

Firstly a brief but necessary apology to readers of Histomat outside the UK - I did promise at one point to try to discuss more international history and politics but now, after discussing the English Local Council elections and King Ethelred the Unready I am now going to do an even more localised post about the city of Leeds. At one point to attempt to correct the anomoly I did employ a 'Latin American correspondent', Paddington, but he has gone and got his own blog now which currently has a nice story about er, the coastlines of Suffolk. However, there is perhaps a general message of warning about Green politics in general in the upcoming post which may be of some wider interest. I know what you are thinking - stop burbling and just get on with it, man - so ok, here goes.

Monday's Guardian had a little story about Leeds City Council, currently run by a 'triple alliance' of Conservatives, Liberals and er, Greens. 'The Lib Dem leader, Mark Harris (26 seats), and his Tory counterpart, Andrew Carter (24), take it in turns to be council leader, swapping every six months. David Blackburn of the Greens (three) chairs the all-party cabinet. Forty Labour and six independents oppose. Luck and political geography will also affect the polls on May 4, when almost all the main battles in local wards are between the three coalition parties and Labour. Only four of the 33 see serious clashes between Tories and LibDems. "There is no electoral pact," said Mr Harris. " But we're agreed that it's senseless having a go at one another. We share the same record in power. There's no point in us saying the Tories have made a mess of things, or vice-versa."'

To its defenders, this is a beautiful 'rainbow coalition' - but it does raise rather some interesting questions about where the Green Party in Britain is going. While the Green Party in Germany famously lost pretty much all of its radical credentials by going into Government and then joining NATO's war on Serbia in 1999, the British Green Party has by contrast continued to make much of its roots in pacifism and radical environmentalism, and is an important part of the British anti-war movement. However, in Leeds they are now in alliance with Tories, whom the Welsh socialist Nye Bevan memorably described as 'lower than vermin', and yet presumably also feel it is 'senseless having a go' at them as they 'share the same record in power'. Surely some mistake?

New Labour in Leeds are not alone in thinking so - and in their local election literature point out the cuts imposed and wasted money spent by the Tories, Liberals and Greens while in power. These include:

- Cutting wardens and home care visits for older people.
- Cutting hostels for the homeless.
- Shutting day centres for older people at weekends.
- Introduce charges for charities to use Council buildings.
- Increased charges for burials, cremations and memorial trees.
- Cutting the Night Rider Bus service for women.
- Cutting services for refuge women suffering from domestic violence.

What have they spent the money saved on?
- Spending £2 million on a new Council newspaper, redoing the Councillors Civic Hall Lounge, rebranding the city with 'Leeds, Live it, Love it', and giving bonuses of £10,000 each to senior Council managers. Brilliant.

Moreover, Leeds City Council are now wanting to privatise the local refuse service and cut refuse collection down to once a fortnight rather than once a week, so they can improve the 'Green bin collection' service. This will lead to rubbish being left uncollected in the streets.

As Labour leaflets say 'Is this what you voted for in 2004? At least with Labour, what you vote for is what you get! Vote Labour - Get a Labour Council.'

Ahem. If only. The problem is we have a Labour Government running Britain, which is closing and privatising schools and hospitals - and the last time Labour were in power in Leeds Council they also imposed cuts of this sort and wasted money on managers and bureaucracy. In Leeds, ordinary working people are being attacked by neoliberal policies being pushed by all parties - New Labour, the Tories, Liberals and even the Greens.

So what is the alternative? It is time for a genuine 'Rainbow Alliance' in Leeds - of the poor, the powerless, and those who are being left behind by Parties which only cater for yuppies and big business. It is time for Respect.

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Fascism and Big Business

Daniel Guerin would not have be surprised by the following story I saw in today's Metro paper, also reported here in more detail:

'NatWest branch hit by swastika row.
NatWest Bank yesterday refused to get rid of two swastikas from a branch. Bosses said the symbols, in the tiled floor of a branch in Bolton, Greater Manchester, were commonly used in architecture when it was built in 1927, six years before Adolf Hitler rose to power. But NatWest customer Mohammed Patel, 37, said: "The swastika is an offensive symbol synonymous with fascism. Jewish customers would be upset to see it." The NatWest said the symbols were an original feature of the branch, built for the Manchester and County Bank. A spokesperson said: "In all these years this is the first complaint. We have no intention of removing them."'

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dead King Watch: Ethelred the Unready

Ethlered or perhaps 'Aethelred', died on April 23 1016, which I reckon makes today the 990th anniversary of his death. While little is known about him - and I really should be talking about the current King in Nepal instead of some English King from almost a thousand years back with a ridiculous name - I decided the Unready one deserved a place on Dead King Watch.

Ethelred was born in Wessex in 968. Wikipedia notes that 'According to William of Malmesbury, Ethelred defecated in the baptismal font as a child, which led St. Dunstan to prophesy that the English monarchy would be overthrown during Ethelred's reign.' However Wikipedia then note that this story is 'almost certainly a fabrication' - but it is quite funny nonetheless. If I was a Saint around this time and witnessed the baby king shitting in a font I'd feel compelled to make some sort of prediction from it. And you could hardly come up with 'Well, this shows the English monarchy is going to shit on everyone for the next 1,000 years, doesn't it?' That sort of talk would not make you stay a 'saint' for very long I imagine, though it was sadly closer to the truth than the prediction he made.

Ethelred succeeded to the throne aged about 10 following the death of his father King Edgar and subsequent murder of his half-brother Edward the Martyr. Apparently, his nickname "The Unready" does not mean that he was ill-prepared, but derives from the Anglo-Saxon unræd meaning "without counsel" or "indecisive". This could also be interpreted as a pun on his name, Æðelred, which may be understood to mean "noble counsel". So his full name possibly meant 'Noble Council Without Council'. Don't mock this - this was possibly the first ever instance of satire in the English langauge - and it ain't that bad as a joke really. Actually it works quite well today - think of Ethelred the Unready and you smile and think - what a useless King he must have been - even though its original meaning has been lost somewhere along the way.

Actually, it seems a good job old Ethelred wasn't 'unready' as in 991 the 23 year old Ethelred was faced with a Viking fleet larger than any since Guthrum's "Summer Army" a century earlier. This fleet was led by Olaf Trygvasson, a Norwegian - who just sounds hard to be honest. After initial military setbacks including the defeat of his Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon, Ethelred was able to come to terms with Olaf, who returned to Norway. While this arrangement won him some respite, England faced further depredations from Viking raids. Ethelred fought these off, but in many cases followed the practice of earlier kings including Alfred the Great in buying them off by payment of what was to become known as Danegeld.

Ethelred ordered the massacre of the Danes living in England on St Brice's Day (November 13) 1002 (as described in the chronicles of John of Wallingford), in response to which Sweyn Haraldsson started a series of determined campaigns to conquer England. In this Sweyn finally succeeded, but after his victory, he lived for only another five weeks. Which must have been quite gutting for him.

While Sweyn's Viking hordes overran England in 1013, Ethelred fled to Normandy, seeking protection by his brother-in-law, Robert of Normandy. He returned in February, 1014, following the death of Sweyn Haraldsson. Despite the steady stream of Viking attacks, Ethelred's reign was far from the disaster described by chroniclers writing well after the event. Ethelred introduced major reforms to the machinery of government in Anglo-Saxon England, in particular turning London into a major centre of Government, and is responsible for the introduction of Shire Reeves or Sheriffs. The quality of the coinage, always a good indicator of the prevailing economic conditions, remained very high during his reign.


Friday, April 21, 2006


Exclusive - Histomat's Print Out and Keep Guide to Voting in the English Local Council Elections 2006!

So the local council election campaign has begun, and many regular 'Histomat' readers have contacted me over the last few days, asking for my advice about how they should vote on May 4th. While it is impossible to really give too many general guidelines, and much will depend on local circumstances and candidates, a few rules can, I think, be drawn up.

1. Don't Vote Nazi. If you have the British Nazi Party standing in your area, then you really have to go and vote against them. Vote for who you like to register a vote against them, but really lots of people voting against them really is the only language these fuckers understand. Fascists tend to be as thick as shit, you see, and can't really do rational arguments. However, fortunately for them, the national media and Barking MPs like Margeret Hodge are usually on hand to make the BNP sound somewhat intellectually coherent - and as if there is a point to their existence in Britain in 2006. The media tend to get all excited when there is a poll showing one in five people in Britain might consider voting BNP and express their utter amazement at the fact. This gives the BNP - which is by European fascist standards a fucking miniscule outfit (21 councillors out of a possible 22,000 councillors) - the sort of publicity that is thoroughly unjustified. If there was a poll asking people say, 'Would you consider voting Green?' then I expect far more than 1/5 people would say 'Yes'. But the media is not interested in even mentioning the existence of decent alternatives to the BNP which poll far more votes than the BNP and have not only more councillors but MEPs, etc. As a result, decent alternatives to the mainstream parties do well to get any mention at all while the corporate media after spending the year routinely demonising Muslims and asylum seekers asks us to think about why people might consider voting for the BNP. Like, doh! Actually, really you have to do more than simply turn out and vote against the BNP if they are standing in your area - join the Unite Against Fascism campaign against them.

2. Vote Respect. If you are lucky enough to have a Respect candidate in your constituency, then Histomat calls for an unconditional vote for them. This is not just because Respect are internationalists and committed to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movement, out of which they emerged out of. A vote for Respect will send the clearest message to Blair that he cannot treat ordinary people in this country with contempt and get away with it. Labour's support is in meltdown because of lies and sleaze and their relentless committment to the corporate takeover of Britain at the expense of ordinary working people - but it has to be the Left and not the BNP who benefit from this. In fact, if Respect make a victorious breakthrough in this election - as looks likely in East London - then Blair will be in real trouble and could be forced to go. Labour's shift to the Right under Blair has only been possible because they assumed 'Old Labour' voters had nowhere else to go - if Respect are successful then New Labour is as good as finished as a political project. See Respect for more.

3. Vote Anti-War. If there is no Respect candidate, but there is perhaps a good anti-war local Labour councillor, or a Green candidate or some other sort of independent socialist type then Histomat urges a vote for this candidate. We need to keep strengthening the anti-war movement in this country, not only because Bush and Blair are still in power and troops are in Iraq, but also because the US wants to use nuclear weapons on Iran. See the Stop the War Coalition for more.

4. Got The Blues?. If you are stuck with just the three main parties standing and none of the local candidates is particularly inspiring then I guess you are a bit screwed. It is not surprising that Tory Boy Cameron announced the slogan 'Vote Blue, Go Green' - he couldn't exactly say 'Vote Blue, Go Blue' could he? After all, adopting Tory policies is what Labour and the Lib Dems are doing at the moment. 'Vote Red, Go Blue' would be the honest Labour slogan - and 'Vote Yellow, Go Blue' is what Sir Ming is offering. Democracy under Capitalism is essentially only ever going to be democratic if you are a Tory - and the sooner people who are not rich and powerful realise that 'bourgeois democracy' is always going to be shit the better. I am not going to say 'Vote Labour' if your local candidate is a careerist fuckwit and while Labour are betraying the values of the labour movement. And I am not going to pretend the Lib Dems are some sort of 'ethical anti-war alternative' who deserve the support of socialists.

5. Small mercies. There is next to no chance of coming across Robert Kilroy-Sick (sic) or the Veritas Party of which he is a member out campaigning in this election. However, if you do spot him, Histomat in no way condones the following sort of action which you may instinctively feel compelled to undertake:


Dead King Watch: Henry VII - Scrooge

Anyone slightly sickened by the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's 80th Birthday this week (which included headlines such as 'Elizabeth the Great' and lots of discussion about 'the burdens of monarchy') might be comforted by the news that Henry VII died on 21 April 1509, which makes today the 497th anniversary of his death.

Henry Tudor was born in Wales in 1457, just as the Wars of the Roses were beginning. Yet his side - the Lancastrians - were more or less out of it by 1471, and so aged just 14 he was forced to flee to Brittany in France. His mother was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt - but that is hardly much of a claim to the throne at all to be brutally honest. Yet by 1483, when Edward IV copped it, Henry Tudor found himself the leading Lancastrian figure.

With money and supplies borrowed from his host, Francis II, Duke of Brittany, Henry made an attempt to land in England but turned back after encountering the new King Richard III's forces on the Dorset coast. Seeing what he was up against, he made sure he got more supplies from the French, and won the support of some of the in-laws of the late Yorkist King Edward IV. He then landed with a largely French and Scottish force in Mill Bay, Pembrokeshire, and marched into England picking up some support from the Welsh - (he had after all been born in Wales and some family contacts he could utilise).

Fortunately for Henry, at this point, as AL Morton notes, 'the treason and desertion which had been a constant feature of the age reasserted itself and Richard found himself almost without supporters. The Battle of Bosworth field, fought on August 22nd, 1485, by a mere handful of men on either side, ended the Wars of the Roses and with them a whole historic epoch in England.' Helped by the fact that all the other contenters for the throne were either dead or in no position to challenge him, after victory at Bosworth, Henry Tudor became King. He married Elizabeth of York, daughter and heir of King Edward IV in 1486 which unified the warring houses, and gave him a greater claim to the throne.

Firstly, Henry needed to accumulate a huge amount of capital as to make the monarchy independent from the nobility - which had dragged England into the Wars of the Roses. Henry's methods of taxing the nobles were ruthless but brilliant. His chancellor, Archbishop John Morton, argued that "if the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure" - an argument which became known as 'Morton's Fork'. It was very successful and by the end of his reign Henry had accumulated a personal fortune of a million and a half pounds - quite unheard of. This meant that he only had to summon seven parliaments in his 24 year long reign - with only two of these in his last 13 years. This is how kings like to rule! Just about the only thing he did seem to like to spend money on was ship building - as this helped boost trade - and so bring in even more money.

Henry's second task was to destroy the power of the nobility as there were still too many powerful noblemen each with what amounted to a private army of indentured retainers (contracted men-at-arms masquerading as servants). Henry therefore passed a law against the keeping of retainers while creating the Court of the Star Chamber. This revived an earlier practice of using a small (and trusted) group of the Privy Council as a personal or Prerogative Court, able to cut through the cumbersome legal system and act swiftly. Serious disputes involving the use of personal power, or threats to royal authority, were thus dealt with. Generally he built up a system of Justices of Peace, local gentry who were his key enforcers of law and order. They were unpaid, which, helped keep their costs down but local gentry saw the office as one of local influence and prestige and were therefore willing to serve.

AL Morton argued that 'the new monarchy founded by Henry VII was of a totally new kind, based upon a new relation of class forces...Winning his kingdom by force of arms he consolidated it by the homespun qualities of thrift, cunning, diplomacy and double-dealing. A capable soldier, he hated and avoided wars because war cost money. A capable business man, he administered and exploited his kingdom as scientifically and thoroughly as the new capitalist landowners did their estates. He was the living embodiment of all the virtues and vices of the thrusting bourgeoisie who prospered under the protection of the Tudor regime and to whose support it owed its stability.' The merchants, clothiers and town artisans - not yet rich and powerful enough themselves to want political power - supported Henry as he allowed them to get rich and so they helped him lay the foundations of the Tudor dynasty - an absolutism that would last a century.

Yet there was one problematic consequence of his policy. The huge growth of population at this time put enormous pressure on land, which wasn't helped by either the Enclosures which increasingly took place or the fact that nobles were no longer employing gangs of thugs simply as retainers. Morton notes that 'the quantitative transfer of land from open field to enclosure and from arable to pasture, proceeding continously up to this time, assumes the qualitative character of a widespread dispossession of the peasantry. The change coincided with the growth of population to perhaps five million, which may be regarded as the maximum which the land would support under the hitherto mode of production. Under these circumstances enclosures of an extent which earlier might have passed almost unnoticed were bound to involve sweeping social changes'.

A veritable army of landless, propertyless unemployed men was created and there was little work for them to do. The Tudor State was forced to pass harsh laws against begging on the one hand and also legislation to try and limit the number of Enclosures. Morton notes that 'as early as 1489 an Act forbade the destruction of houses to which at least 20 acres belonged. Other Acts attempted to fix a proportion between corn and pasture land or limit the number of sheep that a single farmer might keep. All were ignored or evaded for the excellent reason that the men who were charged with enforcing them, the Justices of the Peace, were the actual landlords who benefitted by the enclosures. In any case, what the nascent capitalism required, consciously or otherwise, was not a free and prosperous peasantry - "the plough in the hands of the owners" in Bacon's phrase - but "a degraded and servile condition of the mass of the people, the transformation of them into mercenaries, and of their means of labour into capital!" (Marx, Capital, I, p 744.)'.

Yet this is to run somewhat ahead of Henry VII - who died in 1509 leaving only one surviving heir, who would become Henry VIII. If Henry VIII is remembered as fat and greedy, then it was only possible because of his scrooge like father. 'It was this meagre, thin-faced, calculating man far more than his spectacular successors who established the Tudor monarchy on a firm basis and brought England into line with the general consolidation of centralised nation States going on throughout Europe.'


Sunday, April 16, 2006

The American Empire's civilising missionaries

It being Easter and everything, Saturday's Telegraph magasine had a heartwarming article by Andrew Marshall on the half a million or so Christian missionaries currently spreading God's word around the world in what he describes as 'the greatest missionary push since the 19th century'. I am not sure if it is online, so I will type out some of it for you:

'It [missionary work] is driven by America's rich and influential evangelical community, now thought to number 50 million people, and by technologies such as the internet. There were 62,000 missionaries in 1900 and 420,000 a century later...the number of missionaries working among Muslims has almost doubled between 1982 and 2001, from about 15,000 to 27,000. About half of these are American and a third are evangelical.'

'The chief target of this evangelical onslaught is the so-called "10/40 window". For missionaries, this is the final frontier. It refers to a vast area lying between 10 and 40 degrees northern latitudes, and includes: Muslim North Africa and the Middle East; Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Islamic republics of Central Asia; Hindu-majority India; and the Buddhists and Taoists of Southeast Asia and China. These "unreached megapeoples", as they are called, make up most of humanity.'

'A bellicose George W Bush made "crusade" a dirty word after September 11, yet mission literature retains strong militaristic overtones. Missionaries are "Christ's warriors", non-Christian countries are "enemy-held territory", God is the "commander-in-chief", and Islam, inevitably, is a "weapon of mass destruction".' Yet tooled up with 'satallite phones and global-positioning systems' to fight "God's war against sin", 'many evangelical groups take on the structure of aid agencies to obscure their primary objective of spreading the gospel'.

Many of them are trained at 'faith factories', megachurches in the US, in courses devised for would-be missionaries. 'An excitable local pastor called Todd outlines his campaign to evangelise the Muslim Somali refugees living in Louisville...there's a prayer to thank God for leading this Muslim community "out of slavery and out of Islam". Tonight's main speaker is Bill Weber, a former missionary in apartheid era South Africa. He begins by discussing the inspirational figures of the 19th century - what missionaries call the "Great Century". The Great Century belonged to British missionaries who, like their American counterparts in Iraq in 2003, often advanced in the wake of imperial conflicts. But the 20th-century missions moment was overwhelmingly American, and turned its evangelical gaze upon the "unreached" tribal peoples - and, later, upon the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists of the "10/40 window".'

Among American missionaries, Muslims in particular are found 'spiritually lacking. According to one, Islam "does not lead one to eternal life and heaven...they [Muslims] are in a sense living a lie." "We teach our students here that not all Muslims are Shiite-AK47-aeroplane stealing Muslims. Some would make very good neighbours. They don't drink alcohol, they're very chaste in their appearance" but "that doesn't mean they're spiritually OK". A former Southern Baptist Convention president told applauding pastors in 2002 that Mohammed was a "demon-possessed paedophile".'

'A Baton Rouge pastor called Larry Stockwell once claimed that the world's three and half billion "unreached people" could form 25 lines around the planet. "Can you picture 25 lines of Christless people, trampling endlessly towards hell?" Stockwell asks.' Personally, I am more worried by the thought of 500,000 Christian fundamentalist nutcases being financed by America's rich and powerful to go around the world spreading the ideals of George W Bush's Empire...

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Tractor Boys run out of diesel

I spent an hour and half today along with 23,963 other people watching Ipswich Town Football Club 'entertain' Brighton FC at home. Both teams are in the Championship - one division below the Premiership - though neither are really top teams. Ipswich Town's season has been a little disappointing overall, and while there was a period it looked like we might reach the playoffs, we have lost the last few games and are now sitting in mid-table, unable to go anywhere. Brighton meanwhile are trying to avoid relegation - which is staring them in the face.

Having lost 4-1 at home last time out, many Ipswich fans were hoping 'the Tractor Boys' could turn out a better performance this time round. Things started out ok - with both teams creating chances and it looked like it was going to be a decent game of football. If anything Ipswich were having the better of it - as we should (Brighton aren't anything special as a team) but just before the break - and after a key Ipswich player Richard Naylor had to go off injured - Brighton took the lead.

As I sat munching my slightly stale chocolate Aero at halftime, contemplating the probability of Ipswich coming back in the second half, the tannoy at Portman Road announced that it was the 25th anniversary this year of Ipswich winning the UEFA cup and lo and behold about six of the winning team of 1981 came onto the pitch - including such Town legends as Kevin Beattie and John Wark (star of hit football film 'Escape to Victory'). This was marvellous - normally the only thing to watch on the pitch at half time are the devoted groundsmen replacing the divets on the (excellent) pitch. Moreover they had the actual UEFA cup with them and they stood in a line for photos.

My mind - and doubtless that of many other Town fans - was drawn to the contrast between the glory days of that great side - and today's team, which is young and inexperienced in the main (Ipswich have no money). This contrast got even more glaring when - with the Ipswich legends of old standing in line holding the UEFA Cup- Queen's song 'We are the Champions' was blared out over the loudspeakers. Champions? This season we couldn't even get into the playoffs of the Championship and were currently trailing at home 1-0 to Brighton.

However, when the Second half got underway, Ipswich seemed to run out of ideas completely. Matt Richards had a very poor game in particular. Subs came and went, but Ipswich seemed to go to sleep - as though they were happy to be losing 1-0. I almost nodded off myself - and several other fans around me also yawned conspicously. A few fans tried chanting 'sort it out' at our manager Joe Royle, but most people's expectations of the side were suitably low by now. Apathy and resignation seemed to overcome both our players and the thousands of Ipswich fans.

Then disaster struck again - Brighton went two nil up - sending their fans into rapturous excitement and us into profound angst. 'Richards is shit' was a common refrain and when the referee stopped to have a word with Richards at one point, a few fans near me chanted 'off, off, off', which raised a smile. Though Ipswich got a consolation goal at the death, by then many fans had gone home. It was a very poor performance overall - and hardly any of the Ipswich players seemed to be really bothered. Will things improve for Ipswich next season? Hard to see how, really, especially after a perfomance like that - but a club with such a proud history like Ipswich one cannot help but imagine an alternative future to simply mid-table mediocrity from now til eternity.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ireland's Easter Rising 1916

Pat Stack has written far better than I could on the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish rebels rose up against British Imperialism and were bloodily repressed. They were led by the Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly, who made the following last statement to his daughter Nora Connolly, on the eve of his murder by the British in May 1916:

'We went out to break the connection between this country and the British Empire, and to establish an Irish Republic. We believed that the call we then issued to the people of Ireland, was a nobler call, in a holier cause, than any call issued to them during this war, having any connection with the war. We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British Government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium. As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.

Believing that the British Government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, ready to die to affirm that truth, makes that Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress.

I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives if need be.

Commandant-General, Dublin Division,
Army of the Irish Republic.'

Today, some socialists (including many anarchists) still argue that nationalist revolts - such as those taking place in Palestine and Iraq today - should not be supported by socialists as they are not simply 'class against class'. Yet this is what Lenin felt at the time about the Easter Rising:

'To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a "putsch". Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.'

Moreover, Lenin argued the role of nationalism and the national question in general is crucial for socialists: 'The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene'.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

In defence of the memory of a Revolution

'To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger...Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.'
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History.

I was struck by this quote of Benjamin's in the context of the looming threat of war on Iran. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said the idea that George Bush wants to bomb Iran, possibly with nuclear weapons, is 'completely nuts'. He is right - the consequences of such a strike would be disasterous - but the problem is that the US ruling class - George Bush aside - are not 'nuts' but know exactly what they are doing. They have 'unfinished business' in Iran they need to settle. This month's Socialist Review has a timely and excellent article by Chris Harman on how they need a future war on Iran to erase the memory of a past revolution which challenged their power:

'George Bush, wounded by his inability to crush resistance to the occupation of Iraq, wants to show that the might of the US can punish people anywhere in the world who disobey its orders - whether in the Middle East or in Latin America.

Many liberals and some of the left refuse to see this. They see the Islamic republic as a backward theocracy, steeped in medieval barbarism, and virtually fascist. The regime does have all sorts of reactionary attitudes and practices. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has an attitude to gays and women not a million miles away from that of the current pope, or the Christian fundamentalists in the US.

But Iran is neither medieval nor fascist. Ahmadinejad became president by getting the votes of some of the poorest people in an election which split the country's ruling layer. Iran is in fact a capitalist country, but with a state very much shaped by the struggles that convulsed it in the wake of the revolution of 1979.'

Though the revolutionary struggle of the working class in Iran was lost - the wave of reaction that followed had an important difference from most other waves of reaction which follow:

'Sections of the bazaar capitalists and the clergy around Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to maintain their independence from the US while smashing the left. They were also afraid of cutting themselves off from masses, who still expected to gain from the revolution. So in 1980 the Khomeini group backed students occupying the US embassy, and moved against their previous "moderate" bourgeois allies.

Anti-imperialist language won them the popular support to hit out at opponents of all sorts, using a bombing campaign from the then left inclined Islamist organisation Mojahedin-e Khalq (which went on to support Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and is now an ally of the US) as an excuse for massive repression.

This sealed the Khomeini group's domination of the post-revolutionary state, allowing it to establish a constitution in which there are elections, but vetoes on what elected politicians can do. But it also earned Iran the undying hatred of US imperialism, which will no more forgive what it did to the US embassy in 1979 than it will forgive Castro's Cuba for taking over US-owned sugar plantations in 1959.'
Anyone who stands up against US power is not safe from Bush and Blair's 'war on terror', even those past fighters who are already dead.

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Dead King Watch: Edward IV

It was the 523rd anniversary of the death of King Edward IV yesterday, not that many people seem to have noticed. Indeed, it is doubtful if many people really took that much notice at the time of his death, for reasons which might become clearer after a brief look at his life.

Edward of York was born on April 28, 1442, at Rouen in France, the eldest son of Richard Mortimer, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. Richard's challenge to the ruling family, the Lancastrian King Henry VI, came after he won a battle at St Albans in 1455, a battle that marked the beginning of the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses resulted from the inherently violent and anarchic rule of the nobles in England, many of whom had just returned defeated from fighting the 'Hundred Years War' in France, and many of whom - like Richard - claimed some right to the throne through being descendents of Edward III. As AL Morton notes 'immense lands and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a small group of men all connected with the royal house and all politically ambitious'. When Richard, Edward's father was killed in 1460, at the Battle of Wakefield, the 18 year old Edward inherited his claim.

The Wars of the Roses were, according to Morton, 'not feudal in character, that is, it was not waged by barons who wanted to enlarge their domains and make themselves independent of the central authority, but by rival groups of nobles fighting to gain control of the State machine. This is the main reason for its ferocity. In feudal war one of the main objects was to capture opponents and hold them to ransom and only those who were too poor to pay them were slaughtered. The Wars of the Roses were wars of extermination, every victory being followed by a crop of murders and by the confiscation of the lands of the defeated to the Crown. Hence they were extremely destructive to the participants even though they hardly affected the country as a whole. The numbers engaged were usually so small that the economic life of the time was little disturbed and the mass of people seem to have been generally indifferent as to the result.'

However, there was a slight difference of note between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists - like Edward. As Morton notes, 'supporting the Lancastrians were the wild nobles of the Scottish and Welsh borders, the most backward and feudal elements surviving in the country. The Yorkists drew most of their support from the progressive South, from East Anglia and from London, even if this support was not usually very active.' With the support of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, Edward, already showing great promise as a leader of men, defeated the Lancastrians in a succession of battles. While Henry and his militant queen, Margaret of Anjou, were campaigning in the north, Warwick gained control of the capital.

The Lancastrians in response advanced South with a great army of Northerners, plundering as they went. They reached St Albans but London closed its gates and prepared for siege. Edward now marched to London from Gloucester and entered the city. The Lancastrians retired and were caught in a violent snowstorm at Towton on March 29th, 1461. Edward's mainly Southern forces met them at Towton and decisively defeated them in a battle in the course of which the Lancastrian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, the nineteen year old Edward IV was declared King.

Edward was tall, strong, handsome, affable (even with subjects), and keen to maintain friendly and close links with the merchants of London, Bristol and other trading cities. Indeed, he more of less ignored the 'Lancastrian' House of Parliament - raising money instead through his merchant supporters. As a result he became incredibly rich, compared to previous Kings, and built up trading links overseas. He also tried to curb the power of the great nobles - such as Warwick, who had been a supporter and believed that he could continue to rule through Edward as King. This of course annoyed the likes of Warwick, understandably leading ultimately to the Earl of Warwick leading an dangerous uprising against Edward. This was finally bloodily suppressed ten years later, leaving Warwick dead, and the remaining Lancastrian resistance smashed after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. Henry VI, who was being held prisoner, was murdered in order to completely remove the Lancastrian opposition.

Edward did not face any further rebellions after his restoration, as the Lancastrian line had virtually been extinguished, and the only rival left was Henry Tudor, who was living in exile. Edward declared war on France in 1475, and came to terms with the Treaty of Picquigny which provided him with an immediate payment of 75,000 crowns and a yearly pension thereafter of 50,000 crowns. After this point, Edward seems to have become extremely greedy and corpulent through gorging himself on food - as well as womanising. Edward fell ill at Easter 1483, but lingered on long enough to add some codicils to his will, the most important being his naming of his brother Gloucester as Protector after his death. He died on 9 April 1483 and is buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Dead King Watch: Richard I

Richard I died on 6 April 1199, which made yesterday the 807th anniversary of his death. Richard 'the Lionheart' is quite well known, as Kings go, but for mainly myths and legends about him rather than hard facts. Thanks to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe we tend to think of the 'good king Richard' who was imprisoned abroad, with 'bad King John' as the illegitimate tyrant at home and only Robin Hood to uphold justice in 'Merrie England'. Even historians have tended to paint Richard in a rosy light - as Steven Runciman put it of Richard, 'he was a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.'

Richard was born in 1157, the third of King Henry II's legitimate sons, and was never expected to ascend to the throne. Though born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England, he grew up in France in the care of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He grew up learning the arts of military combat, but also obviously fitted in French lessons. When he was eleven he was given the Duchy of Aquitaine, and then later that of Poitiers. This was his consolation prize for the fact that his eldest surviving brother, Henry the Young King, was simultaneously crowned as his father's successor - and his other brother, Geoffrey, was given the Duke of Brittany. One wonders how the French peasants of Aquitaine, Poitiers and Brittany felt about being ruled by a couple of English rich kids, but I suspect we will never know.

Now a lot of families have quarrels and arguments, but Henry II's family took this to rather an extreme. Henry II's three sons were not particularly loyal to their father and in 1173, the three united to try and force him to give up his power, with the backing of King Louis VII of France. Understandably, for Henry this amounted to treason. Henry II gathered his army and invaded Aquitaine twice to maintain control. After holding out the longest out of the three sons, the 17 year old Richard refused to fight his father face to face and humbly begged his pardon. In 1174, after the end of the failed revolt, Richard gave a new oath of subservience to his father. Apparently, as King Henry gave the kiss of peace to his son Richard, he said softly, 'May the Lord never permit me to die until I have taken due vengeance upon you.'

Henry's vengeance was actually quite harsh - he effectively appropriated Princess Alys - the daughter of Louis VII of France and Richard's betrothed - for himself as his mistress. This made a marriage between Richard and Alys technically impossible – at least in the eyes of the church, but Henry, not wishing to cause a diplomatic incident, prevaricated and did not confess to his misdeed. As for Richard, he was discouraged from renouncing Alys because she was the sister of King Philip II of France, a close ally. This meant that a reconciliation between Richard and his Dad was always going to be unlikely.

Not that Richard was a particularly nice guy himself. After his failure to overthrow his father, Richard concentrated on brutally putting down internal revolts by the dissatisfied nobles of Aquitaine, especially the territory of Gascony. Richard had a terrible reputation, including reports of various rapes and murders. The rebels of Gascony hoped to dethrone Richard and asked his brothers Henry and Geoffrey to help them succeed. However, Henry II, fearing that the war between his three sons could lead to the destruction of his kingdom sent his army to help Richard suppress the rebels.

In June 1183, Henry the Young King, the chosen successor died leaving Richard next in line to the throne. Henry II wanted another son, the very young John to be the next king, but Eleanor favored Richard (poor Geoffrey was to be trampled to death by a horse in 1186). On 4 July 1189, Richard, with the assistance of Philip II Augustus of France, decided to settle this issue by force (we can see a pattern emerging here perhaps) and attacked and defeated Henry II in battle in France - and Henry II died a couple of days later. Richard was now King of England.

As King of England, one might have thought it traditional to like, rule over England. Yet on arriving in England, Richard took a dislike of the country. He couldn't speak English and was not inclined to learn. He spent only six months of his reign in England, claiming it was 'cold and always raining.' No shit. Richard thought 'sod this for a game of soldiers' - quite literally in fact. He wanted to build up a big army - an English Crusader army in fact - and then go on the rampage, fighting wars in the Middle East (hmm, this bit sounds kind of familiar).

The Crusades

The Crusades had began a century earlier, in 1096 and were initially about Barons getting more territory and so more money through conquest. English Barons tended to be happy doing this in Ireland and Wales as anywhere else. Of course, most of the time it was not the Barons themselves doing the fighting - but as AL Morton notes 'hordes of land hungry peasants who straggled across Europe plundering and being attacked until they perished miserably'. However, Richard's Crusade - the Third Crusade - was something new. Increasingly the crusades had taken on a religious character - and were essentially a counter-attack against Muslims organised by the Papacy to protect its political power and the business of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

However to recapture Jerusalem from the armies of Saladin required European rulers to build up massive military forces of their own. Richard needed money. He spent most of his father's treasury (filled with money raised by the Saladin tithe), raised taxes, and even agreed to free King William I of Scotland from his oath of subservience to Richard in exchange for 10,000 marks. To raise even more money he sold official positions, rights, and lands to those interested in them. Even those already appointed were forced to pay exorbitant sums to retain their posts. William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely and the King's Chancellor, made a show of bidding £3,000 to remain as Chancellor. He was apparently outbid by a man named Reginald the Italian, but his bid was refused. During this period when he was raising funds for his Crusade, Richard was heard to declare, 'If I could have found a buyer I would have sold London itself.'

In England itself, one of the first consequences of the Crusade was a pogrom directed against the Jews, who at a time when money was being extracted for war, had the unfortunate business of being money lenders (they were banned from ordinary trading) and so took the blame of people instead of the King. In 1189, their special protection from the Crown was relaxed and they were exposed to massacre and pillage - in particular in York.

His army buillt up, Richard and King Philip (his French mate) set off for the Middle East - leaving Richard's bitter brother John at home scheming about how he could become King. This was the first time English ships had entered the Mediterranean - and you'd have thought they might have wanted to make a good impression. Nothing of the sort. After pillaging the city of Messina in Sicily, the war party swung by Cyprus, wiping out those who resisted him, looting it and turning it into a military base for themselves. Richard was also a bit of a womaniser - remember he was still officially betrothed to Alys - but now he apparently seduced Isaac of Cyprus's adolescent daughter as well as marrying Berengaria, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, a French province in 1191.

However, the crusade was not just all sweetness and light. In fact it was a bloody disaster, costly in lives and treasure. After storming the city of Acre, controlled by Saladin's forces, Richard's alliance with Philip of France collapsed as both of them wanted control of Cyprus. Philip, in ill health, returned to France - leaving Richard trapped in Acre. Richard feared his campaign could not advance with the prisoners they had picked up so far, and so in a fit of impatience, he ordered all the prisoners (2,600 people) killed. However, without the French King, Richard had little chance of capturing Jerusalem as he had set out to do, and so was forced to ultimately retreat. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to invade Egypt (a precursor to Suez 1956?), Richard finally realised that his return home could be postponed no longer, since both Philip and John were taking advantage of his absence to make themselves more powerful. He and Saladin finally came to a settlement of the conflict on September 2, 1192, with an agreement allowing Christian access to and presence in Jerusalem.

In fact, as AL Morton argues, the Crusade 'led to the establishment of direct and permanent connections between England and the trading cities of Italy, that is, to her entry into world as opposed to local trade'. Indeed, 'the adoption of St George by Richard as his patron saint was at once a symbol and a direct result of his alliance with the rising maritime republic of Genoa'.

However, it took two years for Richard to get back to England - as he had pissed off so many rulers and princes of Europe with his cavalier imperialism - and he was even captured and imprisoned for a period by the German Holy Roman Emperor. Sadly, the Germans did not imprison him for war crimes, but for killing the first cousin of King Leopold V of Austria. Raising the massive ransom needed for his release was slowgoing, as Richard wasn't really that popular back in England. So far from home, and with no means of return, Richard now wrote a song 'Ja nus hons pris' or 'Ja nuls om pres', in French and Occitan versions, expressing his feelings of abandonment by his people. It was of course a bit rich of him to claim he was abandoned by his people - given he had got the hell out of England as soon as he had become King...

To give you some idea of the man, here are the translated lyrics to 'No man who's jailed', by King Richard I:

'No man who's jailed can tell his purpose well
adroitly, as if he could feel no pain;
but to console him, he can write a song.
I've many friends, but all their gifts are poor;
they'd be ashamed to know for ransom now
two winters I've been jailed.

My men-at-arms and barons know full well;
the English, Normans, Gascons, Poitevins,
I've no companion, poor though he may be,
whom I'd abandon, leaving him in jail
and I don't say this merely to reproach
but still, I have been jailed.

Now I know well, and see with certainty,
that death holds neither friends nor relatives
when I'm released for silver or for gold
it's much for me and even more for mine,
for when I'm dead they'll greatly be reproached
if I for long am jailed.

It's no surprise if my heart's hurting me
because my father's torturing my land.
If he would but recall the oath we swore,
the one the two of us in common made
I know full well that in this place
I'd not so long be jailed.

While Angevin and Tourangeau are good,
these men-at-arms who now are well and rich,
but I am far from them, in other hands.
They loved me much, now love me not at all,
and now the plain is empty of their arms
and therefore I am jailed.

The company I loved añd still I love
all those of Caen and those of Percheraine,
tell me, O song, that they cannot be sure:
my heart is never false or vain to them.
If they make war on me, no villain would,
so long as I am jailed.

O countess, sister, your high price protects
and saves for you the one I claim against,
and by whom I am jailed.

Of her of Chartres, I say not a word,
the mother of Louis.'

Okay, we get the message mate - you are in jail and you don't like it.

On finally returning home in 1194, Richard made up with his brother John but now came into conflict with his former ally and friend, King Philip. When Philip attacked Richard's fortress, Chateau-Gaillard, he boasted that 'if its walls were iron, yet would I take it', to which Richard replied, 'If these walls were butter, yet would I hold them!' Ah, medieval humour, eh? You can't beat it. After several battles in France, it was a minor skirmish with the rebellious castle of Châlus-Charbrol in Limousin, France, on 26 March 1199 that would take Richard's life. Richard had laid siege to the castle in pursuit of a claim to treasure-trove. Pierre Basile, one of only two knights defending Châlus, saw Richard had removed some of his chainmail, and shot him in the shoulder with a crossbow. Gangrene set in and Richard, with his 77-year-old mother Eleanor at his side, died on 6 April 1199.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Karl Marx on the historic role of the working class

I am aware that the current debate raging in the blogosphere is all about the Enlightenment, but since when has this blog ever bothered to keep up with contemporary intellectual fashion? Anyway, one hundred and fifty years ago this month, on 14 April 1856, Karl Marx gave a speech in London to a banquet commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Chartist People’s Paper. So what, you might well ask? Well, in his speech Marx explained why it is Marxists bang on about the 'working class' the whole time - and he did so in a very clear and succinct fashion (he knew he was addressing mainly English people after all). Marx's speech was subsequently reported by a newspaper under the heading: 'Fourth Anniversary Banquet of The People’s Paper':

'On Monday last at the Bell Hotel, Strand, Ernest Jones entertained the compositors of The People’s Paper and the other gentlemen connected with its office, at a supper, which was joined by a large number of the leading Democrats of England, France and Germany now in London. The entertainment was of the choicest description, and reflected the greatest credit on the enterprising proprietor of the Hotel, Mr. Hunter; the choicest viands and condiments of the season being supplied in profusion. The tables were well filled with a numerous company of both sexes, Ernest Jones occupying the chair, and Mr. Fowley, manager of The People’s Paper office, the vice-chair. The banquet commenced at seven, and at nine o’clock the cloth was cleared, when a series of sentiments was given from the chair. The Chairman then proposed the toast: "The proletarians of Europe", which was responded to by Dr. Marx as follows:'

'The so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. However, they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock. Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the Proletarian, i.e. the secret of the 19th century, and of the revolution of that century.

That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848. Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbés, Raspail and Blanqui. But, although the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon every one with a 20,000 lb. force, do you feel it? No more than European society before 1848 felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides. There is one great fact, characteristic of this our 19th century, a fact which no party dares deny.

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.

At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.

This antagonism between modern industry and science on the one hand, modern misery and dissolution on the other hand; this antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted. Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts. Or they may imagine that so signal a progress in industry wants to be completed by as signal a regress in politics. On our part, we do not mistake the shape of the shrewd spirit that continues to mark all these contradictions. We know that to work well the newfangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.

In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, [1] the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution. The English working men are the firstborn sons of modern industry. They will then, certainly, not be the last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital-rule and wages-slavery. I know the heroic struggles the English working class have gone through since the middle of the last century — struggles less glorious, because they are shrouded in obscurity, and burked by the middleclass historian. To revenge the misdeeds of the ruling class, there existed in the middle ages, in Germany, a secret tribunal, called the “Vehmgericht.” [2] If a red cross was seen marked on a house, people knew that its owner was doomed by the “Vehm.” All the houses of Europe are now marked with the mysterious red cross.

History is the judge — its executioner, the proletarian.'

[1]. A character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
[2]. The Vehmgericht, derived from Vehme (judgment, punishment) and Gericht (court), was a secret tribunal which exercised great power in Westphalia from the end of the twelfth to the middle of the sixteenth century.

In his speech, Marx, as he explained a few days later to his friend Frederick Engels, was trying to win round the Chartist movement (well, what was left of it) to understanding his thinking, about how capitalism created 'newfangled men...the working men...as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself'. As he reported to Engels, 'I alone of the whole emigration was invited, and the first toast also fell to me, i.e. I was asked to propose one to the souveraineté du prolétariat dans tous les pays. So I made a short speech in English, which, however, I shall not allow to appear in print. The end I sought has been achieved. Mr Talandier — who had to pay 2/6d for his ticket — is now convinced, like the rest of the French and other émigré crews, that we are the Chartists’ only ‘intimate’ allies and that, though we may hold aloof from public demonstrations and leave it to the Frenchmen to flirt openly with Chartism, it is always in our power to resume the position already allotted to us by history.'

For an accessible introduction to Marx, perhaps check out Mike Gonzalez's new short little Rebel's Guide to Marx, available here.

Edited to add: An article by Matt Perry, author of Marxism and History and a recent history of the Jarrow Crusade on Marx's theory of History.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lord Bragg and the Whig School of History

Lord Melvyn Bragg has come up with a list of 'The Twelve Books Which Changed the World' for a new TV series. Here they are:

Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (1687)
Married Love by Marie Stopes (1918)
Magna Carta by Members of the English Ruling Classes (1215)
The Rule Book of Association Football by a Group of Former English Public School Men (1863)
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
On the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in Parliament, immediately printed in several versions (1789)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
Experimental Researches in Electricity by Michael Faraday (3 volumes, 1839, 1844, 1855)
Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine by Richard Arkwright (1769)
The King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the King (1611)
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)
The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)

An eclectic list of world changing books at first sight - but there is a catch. Lord Bragg's 'Twelve Books which Changed the World' is actually only his top twelve British books. Initially the Honourable Lord had thought about looking beyond the English Channel for inspiration with respect to world-changing books:

'I thought, well, obviously the Koran, obviously Confucius, and I looked all over the world, and I thought it's going to end up with religious books and the Greeks; you'd perhaps throw in a Darwin, and that would be it, and I don't really want to do that.'

Indeed not. Lord Bragg is a member of New Labour and their objective is creating a new pride in 'Britishness' after all - not some sort of new internationalism. And in any case, we couldn't possibly have some Muslim, Greek or Chinese writers on the list could we? What on earth would say they know about Western Civilisation? Yet Lord Bragg is an intellectual, and tries to rationalise his patriotism intellectually:

'The great thing about narrowing it down to the British Isles was that I could then broaden it out. I thought I could introduce things like the women's movement, like leisure, which is why I brought football in, what happened in industry and manufacturing - the industrial revolution was arguably more important than the French revolution, and it started here, so what documents are there? Is there a book?'

The Honourable Lord of course was quite right in playing down the importance of the French Revolution, which merely did more than anything else to inspire the overthrow of the 'ancien regime' across feudal Europe. How could anything associated with that possibly compare with the publication of the 'Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine' (1769), which is still widely commemorated today across the world as being a truly historic event. By 'narrowing things down to Britain' and then 'broadening it out', Lord Bragg was able to include often overlooked minority groups of British society. These included the 'Members of the English Ruling Classes' and 'a Group of Former English Public School Men'. Writers representing 'narrow' groups in Britain, that always traditionally dominate these sort of lists, like say the working class movement, on the other hand were rightly omitted. Who needs the likes of radical Levellers pamphleteers, Tom Paine, William Godwin, William Morris or James Connolly when they are household names already?

Lord Bragg of course does not omit 'the industrial revolution' - and which British writer wrote better about that event than Adam Smith, Gordon Brown's favourite thinker, writing before it even really got going ? Victorians who pointed out the negative consequences of industrialisation after the event, such as say, Charles Dickens, hardly resonate in modern British society. Victorian Britain was characterised by deep wells of poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and Governments which moralised and divided the working class between those who were deemed 'deserving', 'respectable' and hard working and an 'anti-social' underclass who were fit only for exploitation or prison. The 'new Britain' of New Labour is truly a world away from that.

Certainly it is a relief that Bragg in compiling his list of books which changed the world made sure that did not 'end up with religious books' like the Koran, isn't it? Instead, the list is full of rigourously scientific and rationalist works like, er, the King James Bible (1611).

In keeping with this spirit of science, and as a keen supporter of New Labour, it is no surprise to read that Lord Bragg 'relied on the opinions and experiences of an invented focus group' to devise his top twelve. Quite how one organises 'an invented focus group' is a bit of a mystery, but Bragg fortunately explains how they work:

'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - Newton; electricity - Faraday. There would be women there as well as men - Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Stopes. Their ideas about where life came from would be coloured by Darwin. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves - Wilberforce. I thought well, it might not go down very well in the literary world, but it's a hard test.'

What a relief that 'a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' in the 21st century would 'not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves'. What an enlightened lot we are today! Perhaps even we might one day be able to imagine black people being part of the 'bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' as well - but then again, for the likes of Melvin Bragg, perhaps that is a step too far. They should be thankful they are not still slaves, and are able to get jobs as baggage handlers at international airports.

However the phenomenon of 'invented focus groups' does cast some light on how New Labour makes its policy. 'Listening' to the British public is always easier when the public in question exist only in the imagination of the Blair regime. Perhaps this is how the decision to go to war came about, with Tony Blair going:

'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - I thought of the Terrorist threat and the need to get cheap oil. There would be women there as well as men - I thought of how useful someone like Claire Short might be to try and sell the war for me. Their ideas about war would be coloured by the mass media - I thought of Rupert Murdoch. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate a war for oil - I thought of the idea of lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction. I thought well, it might not go down with the mothers of the soldiers who got killed fighting, but well, there is always a blood price to be paid for being best friends with George Bush.'

Ultimately, I suppose as a Marxist I should not be that surprised by an English Lord like Bragg thinking of Magna Carta, Wilberforce, and the King James Bible when picking the top twelve works which changed the world. After all, it fits into the world view of English Lords from Magna Carta onwards - the 'Whig School of History' - where progress always comes handed down from above by enlightened British Lords, like er, Lord Bragg himself. It would be more surprising if Lord Bragg saluted the real heroes of democracy in Britain, such as the radical preacher John Ball (leader of the English Peasants Revolt), or the real heroes of the anti-slavery campaign like Olaudah Equiano, or the real heroic writers of the English Revolution like John Milton or John Lilburne.

If we have to limit ourselves to twelve British books which changed the world, and it is a big if in any case, couldn't we do a lot better than some of those in Bragg's selection? Feel free to leave possible alternative suggestions below, but personally, I find George Orwell's novel 1984 tells us more about today's world than pretty much anything in Bragg's list. In selecting the Magna Carta writers, King James, Adam Smith and Tory MP William Wilberforce as 'world changing' authors, Lord Bragg reveals only the bankrupt historical philosophy of New Labour. Orwell's work, for all its pessimism, still gave us some sort of solution as well, when he noted that 'if there was hope, it lies in the proles'. For New Labour, hope no longer lies in the proles, if for them it ever did. Hope for them now lies only with Warlords, the oligarchs, the new rulers of the world.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Breaking News: Weapons of Mass Destruction found

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice last night declared a major breakthrough in the 'War Against Terror' after Weapons of Mass Destruction were at last discovered. It came as the pair visited a Lancashire plant of British Aerospace Systems, an arms company which manufactures parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was elated by the news and declared: 'We will not rest until all lethal Weapons of Mass Destruction are destroyed, and those responsible for their production and distribution brought to justice.' Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice added that 'those trying to manufacture WMD posed the biggest threat to humanity in the coming century'. Secretary of State Rice's tour of Britain continues.

In other news: The Chevron oil tanker named after Condoleeza Rice celebrates US Secretary of State's visit

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