Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Anyone for England? Cricket, New Labour and the Ashes of Empire

I have just finished reading Mike Marqusee's entertaining history of cricket Anyone but England, which has just been republished. The title comes from a particularly gruff quote of Dennis Skinner MP, when asked once by Marqusee who he was supporting in the cricket World Cup. Marqusee's latest thoughts on the Ashes are here, but for a bit of background a piece he wrote before the Ashes started - here provides a better context in my opinion about the state of the game today.

The central theme that emerges is this. Ever since the late Trinidadian intellectual CLR James's classic work Beyond a Boundary in 1963, many Marxists have seen cricket with new eyes. As a leading member of the Trotskyist movement, James met Leon Trotsky in April 1939 in Mexico to discuss 'the Negro question' in America. But in the week he spent in Coyacan, James also had time to discuss his beloved game of cricket with the 'Old Man'. 'Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports. With my past I simply could not accept that...' Growing up in a British Crown colonial dictatorship, the democratic 'British' notion of 'fair play' that epitomises cricket (or rather, defines what is 'not cricket') meant that for James as well as many other Trinidadian fans, cricket matches between the teams of the rich white colonial elite and those of the poor black working class were intrinsically endowed with wider political significances.

By the time James came to write Beyond a Boundary in 1963, he had broken with orthodox Trotskyism and took sport to be a crucial part of popular culture, which in itself he insisted deserved serious study from Marxists. Cricket was about more than a game, it was an art form to be wondered at, and James argued that what happened on the pitch was intrinisically linked to the wider context of society and nation, what happened 'Beyond the Boundary'. James paraphrased Rudyard Kipling's cry 'What do they know of England who only England know?' and asked 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?'

James's theory was refined and updated by Marqusee, (just as say, Robin Blackburn in his works on The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery updated CLR James's panoramic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938)) in 1995. Marqusee pointed to the crisis of English cricket in the early 1990s and linked it to, among other things, the crisis-ridden and hated Tory Major Government. Moreover, he argued that the roots of the crisis of English cricket not only lay in the fact that it remained under the control of an Old Boys network of elitist 'gentlemen' but also in the crisis of English nationalism that followed the 'End of Empire' by the 1960s. English nationalism as an ideology has been so embued with the British Empire and justifying an essentially white supremacist colonial order that the radical democratic strains of English nationalism had been irreplaceably lost. England as a nation is in decline - globalisation is making us increasingly weak as a world power in economic terms and, under capitalism, as a people we are forever doomed to look backwards and inwards - so therefore English cricket is terminally fucked. That is basically the James - Marqusee thesis laid out - and at least in my lifetime of following the game (from a distance) - it has fitted reality well.

The fact that the 2005 Ashes Test is seeing a revival of sorts in the fortunes of English cricket makes these interesting times indeed. Are we as a nation doing well under Tony Blair? Is Blair's Britain moving us as a people forward? That is the heretical thought that is lying at the back of many English socialist's minds at the moment. It should not stay there long. New Labour don't like cricket and have done nothing to be seen as associated with it - unlike Blair's craven support for Beckham and the English football team. Cricket is hardly 'Cool Britannia' - in fact the long Test matches bring to mind a time when life was slower. This is not surprising - cricket as Marqusee shows has some of its roots in pre-capitalist English society, the 'Merrie England' of legend. I suspect it is this aspect of the Test matches that has made cricket appeal to so many people discovering it for the first time at the moment, in a country with a brutalising culture of long working hours.

Yet there is a more fundamental point here that Marxists should make. The James - Marqusee cricket thesis, for all the brilliant insights into the game it gives, is arguably ultimately flawed. This is not just because it sets itself up to be defeated should England actually be doing well internationally at cricket at a time when socialism in England is not making equally dramatic breakthroughs (though Marqusee rightly points in his article linked to above that growing corporate control of the game will make it very hard going for cricket ever to seriously take off at a popular level). It is that its division of the world up into nations with separate 'national cultures' ultimately confuses more than it explains.

Marqusee argues in Anyone but England that there was a 'democratic', progressive and radical English nationalism associated with the English Revolution and the Chartists that once existed but once the British Empire came along this was lost forever as racist and statist ideological constructs became hegemonic. This is better than the Billy Bragg view which sees English nationalism as something that progressives can and should 'reclaim' today. At least Marqusee does not argue that the Left should try to 'reclaim' the St George's Cross.

But it is still wrong. The vision of a radical progressive democratic 'English' tradition stretching all the way from the Peasants Revolt through the English Revolution to the Chartists as a continuous thread is historically deeply problematic - despite Tony Benn's eloquent insistence otherwise. Of course there have been revolts against oppression and exploitation, and inspiring English radicals and revolutionaries, but they have to be seen in their own specific contexts. Neil Davidson, author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution, in a recent SW article convincingly rejects the idea that 'the left needs to create an alternative national history to counter that of the right — the people’s story as a counter to our island story. This is a strategy that has always proved disastrous in that it remains fixated on the nation'.

Davidson continues:

The definition of a national culture as “a whole way of life” was introduced by the brilliant but deeply reactionary poet and critic, T S Eliot. It was taken up by the socialist writer Raymond Williams. It is, however, an incredibly dangerous idea for the left to embrace... cultures have never been purely national, less so than ever today. Why should they be anyway?

In conclusion, international socialists should not judge Blair's Britain today from the sixes 'Freddie' Flintoff hits. Unless, of course, England go onto to lose the remaining Test matches to Australia - at which point I will declare the James thesis infallible and join in the chorus of those arguing that English cricket is fatally doomed to eternal defeat unless we make a socialist revolution...

Edited to add a link to a recent article on English cricket by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who, while not a Marxist, also predicts its death here, and also this article by a Marxist cricket lover who reserves particular hatred for the WG Grace impersonator used by Channel Four to advertise the Ashes.

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At 7:54 a.m., Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Interesting article and it makes me want to read CLR James.

At 8:39 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 4:52 p.m., Blogger Snowball said...

Anything by CLR James usually repays reading, in my opinion.

In particular check out the following:

World Revolution; The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (1937)
The Black Jacobins (1938)
American Civilisation (1949)
Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (about Hermann Melville, author of Moby Dick) (1953)
Beyond a Boundary (1963)

The Marxist Internet Archive has quite a decent and useful selection of James stuff as well.

At 5:18 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 7:10 p.m., Blogger Snowball said...

Corporate spam sucks.

At 8:02 p.m., Blogger Ed said...


That's a really interesting post. I'll try to search out Marqusee's book.

At 10:17 a.m., Blogger Alister said...

A fascinating debate which I have followed for years. If the radical and democratic traditions of English 'nationalism' have been subsumed by imperialist racism then what of other 'nationalisms'? Can Irish, Scottish or Welsh 'nationalism' which sets itself up in opposition to the imperialist tradition (for the most part a few tartan tory SNP types notwithstanding) have a progressive character? If there is no more Britain then isn't there a duty by English socialists to recreate a new tradition of Englishness based on solidarity, anti-racism etc.
I was in Brixton during the last world cup and saw young black men wearing their St.George Crosses quite happily. Should we tell them they should not desire to be 'English' or 'British' because nationalism is a bad thing? Neil is right about cultures being international but I am not sure where that leaves us because it is more complex than that. Cultures can be national, international, ethnic, inter-ethnic, global, local etc etc. Our response can only be to take class based positions that fully engage with democratic questions in a progressive way.

At 4:25 p.m., Blogger Snowball said...

Alister, thanks for your post. Getting a Scottish perspective on notions of 'British' nationalism and 'English' cricket is always a healthy thing.

Whether nationalism can be a progressive force or a reactionary force depends I think largely on whether your country is under imperialist occupation. Palestine, Iraq, Ireland - yes, to wave a flag around is, to more or less a degree, to put two fingers up to the oppressors.
But in Scotland and Wales? I can see Scottish workers fighting and dying in Iraq - but I can't see 'British' troops shooting Scottish workers. Surely Scottish and Welsh workers are oppressed by their own bosses (and multinational capital more generally)?

As for young black people waving around St George's Crosses in Brixton - if that is what they want to do then I don't think socialists should lecture them otherwise. Indeed, it might help them avoid getting shot when they get on the tube. But arguably neither should we see it as a particularly progressive thing in itself, or try and 'reclaim' a socialist 'new England', Billy Bragg style. I think 'internationalism' does mean recognising that we are (a quite small) part of an international working class movement - and that waving the St George's Cross is not going to help us bring down British Imperialism. Our flag, after all, is red.

At 2:49 p.m., Blogger Alister said...

I'm not one for flag-waving or patriotism myself and I certainly agree that working class people are oppressed by their bosses, in all countries. But as for progressive nationalism it is a question of degree. Probably fairer to say that all nationalism and indeed all oppression is relative. So the national question in Scotland became enlivened as a left wing cause during the Thatcher period. There was a democratic deficit. We voted Labour and got Tory. The poll-tax was the clincher. So there was the creation of a left-wing national consciousness in that period which socialists had to interact with although they didn't create it. So it is a matter of fact that you can have this kind of consciousness without being occupied.
Good luck with the cricket, nothing wrong with a game where you can drink all day in the stadium!


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