Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Friday, April 29, 2011

Some thoughts on monarchy on this historic day

As something of an authority on the British royal family, you can imagined how busy I have been over the past few days, weeks and months, as an advisor to innumerable number of TV programmes with the interchangeable titles featuring the words 'William and Kate' and 'Royal Romance', and I apologise that this blog has been somewhat neglected. Today I am going to be as busy as ever with appearances on Sky and BBC News and so on, but in order to mark this 'happy and historic day' properly, I thought I would leave you with some fitting quotes to remind us of the wonders of the British royal family - helpfully compiled from here.

'Certainly that people needs be mad or strangely infatuated that build the chief hope of their common happiness or safety on a single person; who, if he happen to be good, can do no more than another man; if he happen to be bad, hath in his hands to do more evil without check than millions of other men.'
John Milton, 1660

'Of the various forms of government that have prevailed in the world, a hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule'. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,(1776-1788)

'This boy [the future Edward VIII] will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over.'
Keir Hardie, 28 June 1894

This romancing about the royal family is, I fear, only a minor symptom of the softening of the brain of socialists enervated by affluence, social prestige and political power'
Beatrice Webb on the 1929 Labour government

'He, too, is going the dictator way, and is pro-German, against Russia, and against too much slipshod democracy. I shouldn't be surprised if he aimed at making himself a mild dictator.'
Chips Channon on Edward VIII, 1936

'It would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler was overthrown'. Edward VIII as Duke of Windsor to Liberty magazine, 1941

'She would have made a good Queen.'
Adolf Hitler on the Duchess of Windsor, September 1939

[The royal family] often drink a toast at the end of the dinner to Mrs Thatcher. She [the Queen Mother] adores Mrs Thatcher.
Woodrow Wyatt Diaries, 1986


Monday, April 25, 2011

Stuff the Wedding - Fight the Cuts

Sorry, I just felt I should make some kind of republican statement on this blog against Royal Weddings past and present, if only to suggest that Ed Miliband may have not got it quite right when he says that 'the whole country will be wishing them every happiness'.

Edited to add: Socialist Worker's Royal Wedding Special Issue

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Terry Eagleton on The Communist Manifesto

From a review of Eric Hobsbawm's How to Change the World

Few works have sung the praises of the middle classes with such embarrassing zest as The Communist Manifesto. In Marx’s view, they have been by far the most revolutionary force in human history, and without harnessing for its own ends the material and spiritual wealth they have accumulated, socialism will prove bankrupt. This, needless to say, was one of his shrewder prognostications. Socialism in the 20th century turned out to be most necessary where it was least possible: in socially devastated, politically benighted, economically backward regions of the globe where no Marxist thinker before Stalin had ever dreamed that it could take root. Or at least, take root without massive assistance from more well-heeled nations. In such dismal conditions, the socialist project is almost bound to turn into a monstrous parody of itself. All the same, the idea that Marxism leads inevitably to such monstrosities, as Hobsbawm observes, ‘has about as much justification as the thesis that all Christianity must logically and necessarily always lead to papal absolutism, or all Darwinism to the glorification of free capitalist competition’. (He does not consider the possibility of Darwinism leading to a kind of papal absolutism, which some might see as a reasonable description of Richard Dawkins.)

Hobsbawm, however, points out that Marx was actually too generous to the bourgeoisie, a fault of which he is not commonly accused. At the time of The Communist Manifesto, their economic achievements were a good deal more modest than he imagined. In a curious garbling of tenses, the Manifesto described not the world capitalism had created in 1848, but the world as it was destined to be transformed by capitalism. What Marx had to say was not exactly true, but it would become true by, say, the year 2000, and it was capitalism that would make it so. Even his comments on the abolition of the family have proved prophetic: about half of the children in advanced Western countries today are born to or brought up by single mothers, and half of all households in large cities consist of single persons.

Hobsbawm’s essay on the Manifesto speaks of its ‘dark, laconic eloquence’, and notes that as political rhetoric it has ‘an almost biblical force’. ‘The new reader,’ he writes, ‘can hardly fail to be swept away by the passionate conviction, the concentrated brevity, the intellectual and stylistic force of this astonishing pamphlet.’ The Manifesto initiated a whole genre of such declarations, most of them from avant-garde artists such as the Futurists and the Surrealists, whose outrageous wordplay and scandalous hyperbole turn these broadsides into avant-garde artworks in themselves. The manifesto genre represents a mixture of theory and rhetoric, fact and fiction, the programmatic and the performative, which has never been taken seriously enough as an object of study.

Marx, too, was an artist of sorts. It is often forgotten how staggeringly well read he was, and what painstaking labour he invested in the literary style of his works. He was eager, he remarked, to get shot of the ‘economic crap’ of Capital and get down to his big book on Balzac. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. It is a project that should be eagerly supported by all those who dislike having to work. It holds that the most precious activities are those done simply for the hell of it, and that art is in this sense the paradigm of authentic human activity. It also holds that the material resources that would make such a society possible already exist in principle, but are generated in a way that compels the great majority to work as hard as our Neolithic ancestors did. We have thus made astounding progress, and no progress at all.

In the 1840s, Hobsbawm argues, it was by no means improbable to conclude that society was on the verge of revolution. What was improbable was the idea that within a handful of decades the politics of capitalist Europe would be transformed by the rise of organised working-class parties and movements. Yet this is what came to pass. It was at this point that commentary on Marx, at least in Britain, began to shift from the cautiously admiring to the near hysterical. In 1885, no less devout a non-revolutionary than Balfour commended Marx’s writings for their intellectual force, and for their economic reasoning in particular. A whole raft of liberal or conservative commentators took his economic ideas with intense seriousness. Once those ideas took the form of a political force, however, a number of ferociously anti-Marxist works began to appear. Their apotheosis was Hugh Trevor-Roper’s stunning revelation that Marx had made no original contribution to the history of ideas. Most of these critics, I take it, would have rejected the Marxist view that human thought is sometimes bent out of shape by the pressure of political interests, a phenomenon commonly known as ideology. Only recently has Marxism been back on the agenda, placed there, ironically enough, by an ailing capitalism. ‘Capitalism in Convulsion’, a Financial Times headline read in 2008. When capitalists begin to speak of capitalism, you know the system is in dire trouble. They have still not dared to do so in the United States.

Terry Eagleton has a new book out entitled simply Why Marx was right and is speaking at Marxism 2011

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Mehdi Hasan on the Tories myths about immigration

The very first question of the first televised leader's debate in British political history was on the subject of immigration. Last April, in front of a live audience of 9.4 million viewers, toxicologist Gerard Oliver asked Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg to outline the "key elements for a fair, workable immigration policy".

So I tire of the lazy argument, advanced by Tory and Labour politicians alike, that "we don't talk about immigration". Announcing his candidacy for the Labour leadership last May, Andy Burnham claimed: "There's still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration." Rival candidate Ed Balls said he warned Gordon Brown not to "brush it under the carpet". A year on, "Blue Labour" thinkers are pushing a similar line of thought.

David Cameron has been quick to pounce. "[T]here were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist," he said this week, adding: "[I]t is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it."

This is nonsense. There is no conspiracy of silence on immigration. We talk of little else. Only two months ago, in Munich, the prime minister demanded that immigrants "speak the language of their new home". On Thursday, he repeated the same message: "We're making sure that anyone studying a degree-level course has a proper grasp of the English language."

In fact, if it were true that we never talk about immigration, why am I constantly bombarded by BBC producers asking me to discuss the subject on their various outlets? Why, indeed, am I writing this piece for the Guardian?

Don't get me wrong. I want to talk about immigration; I like talking about it. As the son of (Indian) immigrants and the husband of an (American) immigrant, there's nothing else I'd rather do.

So here we go. Can we talk about immigration and its economic impact? A government study in 2007 estimated that migrants contributed about £6bn to output growth the previous year. That's equivalent to a 1.5% cut in the basic rate of income tax. Can we talk about this?

Can we talk about how immigrants, contrary to myth and legend, boost wages in the UK? A report for the Low Pay Commission found that between 1997 and 2005, immigration to the UK made a positive contribution to the average wage-increase experienced by non-immigrant workers. In the words of the report's author, Professor Christian Dustmann of UCL's Department of Economics: "Economic theory shows us that immigration can provide a net boost to wages." Is this worth a discussion?
Read the full article here

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

700,000 workers could strike together in June

There has never been a more urgent need for a serious fightback by the British working class movement to the current Tory assault being waged on it- and on the back of the glorious demonstration on March 26th it looks like it could at long last be slowly getting underway

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Once again on revolutionary discipline

'A revolutionary party is an instrument for making a revolution. If it is blunted or broken another must be built.'

Such a statement is only half-correct from the standpoint of classical Bolshevism. If a revolutionary party is 'broken' then it is indeed the duty of revolutionaries inside such an organisation to try and join with whatever healthy elements still exist inside that organisation and try and build another such organisation. But how to judge when an allegedly revolutionary organisation is broken? Let us take perhaps the most extreme but also one of the clearest cases from revolutionary history - Leon Trotsky's 1933 break with the Communist International after the rise of Hitler's Nazis to power in Germany and his declaration of the need the need 'To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew'. Trotsky broke with the Communist International as it had been taken over by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and first created and then continued with its disastrous strategy of equivocating the 'social fascist' German Social Democratic Party with Hitler's Nazis, and so failed to build a united front against fascism in the run-up to the fateful year of 1933. In July 1933, after Hitler had come to power, Trotsky noted that:

The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated, nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussions at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty toward the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.

This is, as I say, an extreme case of a revolutionary party being 'broken' as it had shown no sign of changing course or direction after the rise of fascism to power in a country that hitherto had the strongest working class movement in history. There are other, less extreme examples, of course. As I wrote on this blog just over a year ago, it would be 'absolutely justified' for a revolutionary to leave one's party 'if one's party had made a betrayal of the principles of socialism and the class struggle itself (eg supported an imperialist war/not supported a strike by workers, etc etc)'.

'If the party had made such a betrayal - and showed no signs of correction after one had put the opposing arguments in the democratic forums of the party - then one would have a duty to form a faction within the party to fight for the correct position - and if that did not work - then to resign from the party, form a new revolutionary Marxist grouping and call on the members of your old party to join your new organisation because the old was irredeemably bankrupt and had become 'social-imperialist/class collaborationist/ etc etc'

The failure to break organisationally with the formally 'Marxist' but actually social-imperialist and class-collorationist German Social Democratic Party before the First World War (which the SPD supported) and form a new revolutionary organisation then was perhaps the most serious failing of Rosa Luxemburg, an otherwise outstanding revolutionary, for example.

Yet what if a revolutionary party is not 'broken' but is only 'blunted'? Is it correct for a revolutionary to leave their revolutionary organisation if they think it is 'blunted' as an instrument for making a revolution? Here again, for those who stand in the tradition of classical Bolshevism, matters are very clear - and once again it is worth quoting Trotsky, this time from 1923:

A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.

For Trotsky, the Communist International in 1923 was not yet the Communist International in 1933, and while it was perhaps distinctly blunted as a revolutionary instrument - hence the German Communist Party's failure to follow the example of the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917 and lead a successful revolution in the 'German October' of 1923 - see Trotsky's The Lessons of October - it was clear that he therefore had a revolutionary duty to try and win the Communist International back for revolutionary politics. As I put it before:

In other words, were one say a revolutionary socialist inside a revolutionary socialist organisation who disagreed with the strategy and tactics of that organisation, one would have a revolutionary duty to persistently raise one's opinion inside of that organisation, even if one was still in a minority. One would critically defend one's independent position within the framework of democratic centralism - within the democratic frameworks of the party - e.g. a national conference - and then 'submit, because it is your party' outside of such times to what was agreed by the majority of the party at that conference - even if one did not agree with the majority. What one does not do, if one is serious about revolutionary politics, is to resign with a whimper from one's revolutionary socialist organisation just because one has lost an argument over strategy and tactics and is in a minority.

The question is one of revolutionary discipline. To quote from Chris Harman's excellent article on 'Party and Class':

"Discipline” means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but a necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is also why “discipline” for Lenin does not mean hiding differences that exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the full light of day so as to argue them out. Only in this way can the mass of members make scientific evaluations.

Yet what of the argument that allowing such disagreement means the revolutionary party will be 'afflicted by factionalism'? It is true that it is a problem if 'factionalism' and internal arguments over strategy and tactics become preponderant and mean that a revolutionary organisation spends most of its time looking inwards rather than outwards to the wider working class movement. This is, for example, what happened to the International Marxist Group around Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn in Britain during the 1970s. Yet the idea that therefore in order to avoid the danger of 'factionalism' a revolutionary who thinks that their own organisation is 'blunted' would just resign from that organisation without arguing for their position is even more problematic from the perspective of classical Bolshevism. As Tony Cliff noted in the first volume of his biography of Lenin, Building the Party:

'Once while walking, Leo Tolstoy spotted in the distance the figure of a man squatting and gesturing strangely; a madman, he thought – but on drawing nearer he was satisfied that the man was attending to necessary work, sharpening a knife on a stone. Lenin was fond of citing this example.’

In other words, if one thinks a revolutionary party is 'blunt' - and no revolutionary would ever be so complacent to think that there are not areas where a revolutionary party could be 'sharper', then one does not just go and 'build another organisation' - one devotes themselves to 'sharpening' up that organisation. It may look 'mad' or 'factional' to do this to outsiders - but in fact as anyone who has as much as glanced at the Collected Works of Lenin knows, internal disagreement and argument is central to Bolshevism (which is why internal party democracy is so fundamental). All this should not really need stating - but it is worth re-stating here and now quite simply because it is critical if 'Leninism in the 21st century' is to have any meaning whatsoever.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

International Socialism #130

The new issue of International Socialism leads with Alex Callinicos on 'The return of the Arab Revolution' with features on Tunisia and Egypt, but seems to have gone to press before the Libyan Revolution was hijacked by Western imperialism. Speaking of Libya, it seems Tony Blair has answered the question vexing some about whether the war in Libya can be seen as a 'humanitarian intervention' or not. As Blair told Danish TV,

'The thing about Libya is that potentially it is a goldmine of a country – it has got fantastic financial resources, it has got amazing tourist sites...If it opened up its economy and opened up its society and takes that route of reform once they change government, then Libya will be a phenomenally successful country but we need to be there to partner them to do that.'

Blair did however warn that some anti-Gaddafi rebels may not be totally happy about seeing their oil and natural resources asset stripped by neo-liberalism to boost the profit margins of Western multinational capital if they are victorious.

‘I know quite a lot about what makes up the different compositions of the rebel groups – some will be people we would want fully to support, others would have a somewhat different view as to how Libya develops’

Ah, the difficulties of find local allies when waging neo-colonial warfare. Still, I suppose we should be grateful to Blair for being honest for once about what this latest imperialist adventure is all about. Anyway, back to International Socialism journal - which among other things has a detailed analysis of social media and social movements by Jonny Jones, the British student movement, John Riddell on the United Front, and pieces on 'The Tories, Eton and public schools' and 'The London Crowd, 1760-2010' by Dave Renton and Keith Flett respectively, members of the London Socialist Historians Group.

Incidentally, speaking of the London Crowd, it made a glorious return to the streets on March 26th at the TUC demo a couple of weeks ago. I am sorry not to have got round to blogging about that day - but it was a truly great demonstration which was a fantastic response to the myth that the organised working class movement in Britain is somehow defeated and can never rise again. My personal highlight was talking to a Tunisian socialist who had come down from Newcastle with a homemade banner which declared 'It all started with us!'

The American Marxist Christopher Phelps, now based in the UK, despaired of the way the media coverage was hijacked by 'a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, [who] trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square. The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who'd travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.' I sympathise with his despair at the way the media focussed their attention on 'a tiny violent minority', but I think that his critique of anarchists is a little on the 'vulgar Marxist' side. When I popped down to Trafalgar Square, what I saw was basically just young people trying to occupy/liberate Trafalgar Square because they were inspired by the events in Egypt's Tahrir Square. They may have thought their actions alone could help bring about revolutionary change - yet the banner I saw that summed up what I guess most of these school and college students were thinking was 'Give Us Back Our Future You Bastards' - a reference to the grotesquely high levels of youth unemployment currently in the UK and the commodification of higher education by the Con-Dems through tuition fees. If Marxists join with the Tories, Liberals, Labour leaders and the trade union bureaucracy in attacking the 'violence' of anarchists instead of the violence of the state (why doesn't Ed Miliband stop supporting the Con-Dem government casually lobbing £30,000 pound cruise missiles into Libya if he is so concerned about violence?), then Marxism is hardly going to be taken seriously as a revolutionary theory by such young kids.

The arguments about Marxism and autonomism and anarchism are not going to go away anytime soon - but the more pressing question is what next after March 26th? How can we bring down the Con-Dem Government? As my good friend Paddington - who I sadly failed to meet up with on the march itself as it was so huge - noted:

A march or demonstration that is reasonably well-attended can lull you into a false sense of security. I’ve been on plenty which, however well-organised, have hardly set the world on fire and, surrounded by people with the same unshakeable faith, I have come away feeling ever so slightly complacent. We came, we protested, we conquered, we went home with a fuzzy glow.

The fact that Saturday’s march against the Coalition’s cuts was so well-attended – and for half a million people to travel the length and breadth of the country in order to walk uncomfortably slowly in the drizzle is a really extraordinary thing – means such complacency is impossible. I did not go home with a fuzzy glow (though two and a half pints in the Shakespeare at Victoria afterwards did give me a fuzzy head). In fact, we stayed up until late worrying and deliberating about where this protest should go next – such is the massive opposition to the cuts, a general strike is an absolute minimum.

But any such conversation inevitably proceeds from opposing the cuts to opposing the whole structural framework of society. A long and sorry saga tells of how the global economy got into this current mess, but while the politicians and business people still desperately cry “business as usual,” I really think that most people who were marching on Saturday – and many people across the country and the world who did not march – were marching for a new society.

The size and energy and spirit of optimism and unity on the demonstration certainly raised the question 'who governs?' - and a general strike would indeed pose such a question directly. Agitating for such co-ordinated strike action by trade unions in the coming days, weeks and months ahead in the face of the cuts is critical - even while socialists should seize on any other sparks of resistance and manifestations of dissent going in order to try and stop the cuts going through in the meantime. Finally, when it comes to debating what a new society would look like and how to get to it, one of the very best places to have such a debate is among 'the London Crowd' that will be gathered at Marxism 2011 from 30 June - 4 July.

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Mike Rosen on Interculturalism

With David Cameron's words on multiculturalism still reverberating round the gutters, now's a good time to take a second look at the word "culture".

The two main overlapping ways the word is used in everyday conversation are: (a) to cover artistic products we consume - plays, films, books, paintings and the like - and (b) to talk of "the way we do things in our everyday lives" - our kinship relations, what we eat, what kinds of dwellings, rituals, music, gestures we make and, significantly, what language(s), dialect(s) and accent(s) we speak with.

Underlying many discussions about the second usage is the notion that there is a "host" culture which is distinct, unified, ancient, virtuous and desirable and there are "other" cultures which at best are "interesting" or "lively" but should be made to "integrate" or be "assimilated".

As Marxists, we might reshape that and talk of a "dominant" or "hegemonic" culture and of "non-dominant" or "sub-cultures". Either way, this has its problems, because it presents cultures as if they are discrete, self-contained chunks. From the right, there has been an effort to claim some kind of pure English or British "way of life" or "set of values" which is "indigenous". Meanwhile, on our side, we quite rightly celebrate multicultural "diversity" and "minority cultures", claiming this as a form of cultural resistance. I think we have to go further and celebrate "interculturalism" - which is ultimately part of internationalism...

Read the rest of the article from this month's Socialist Review

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Homage to Manning Marable

'At Tuskegee [in 1976], I began to study the major works of Marxism. I gradually became convinced that racism by itself could not account for the oppressed conditions of black people in America and, for that matter, across the globe. Capitalism as an economic system was based on an unequal exchange between the owners of capital and those who worked for a wage. Capitalism as a social system fostered class stratification, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty and promoted race hatred as a means to divide workers. This basic analysis seemed to make sense, based on my own experiences growing up inside the United States, in the context of racial discrimination and social inequality. I came to Marxism not out of some abstract love for the white American working class, or out of faith in the power of the international proletariat, or out of respect for the models of Soviet and Chinese Communism, both of which I found equally problematic. I became a socialist because I believed in the struggles of black people, in their history and destiny, and because I believed that to eliminate racism and inequality decisively, a new democratic society would have to be constructed.'
Manning Marable, 'Introduction: Towards an Autobiography of the Politics of Race and Class', Speaking Truth to Power: Essays on Race, Resistance and Radicalism (1996)

Tragically, and at the age of only 60, the great black American Marxist intellectual Manning Marable (1950-2011), author of such pioneering works of black history such as How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America and W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, has died. This is a very sad loss - one gets a sense of the importance of his prolific writing and commentary on race and class in the US from his staff page at Columbia University, which lists his multiple works of scholarship and other accomplishments, and which culminated in his recent works Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics and a new biographical study of Malcolm X and The Malcolm X Project that he constructed online. To lose such a powerfully acute mind well before his time, and in a period when there are hopeful signs that the American working class is beginning to stir again, remains a terrible blow - my condolences to his friends and comrades. I will endeavour to add tributes and obituaries to this great thinker and activist whose many works will remain a tremendous resource of hope for the many struggles ahead.

Russell Rickford, A Eulogy for Manning Marable
Yuri Prasad on Manning Marable
Marable interviewed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by Kevin Ovenden
Manning Marable on Barack Obama
Marable interviewed in 2009 about Malcolm X

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