Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Congress of the Victors

"Britain doesn't need a ruling class today. The rulers are the people."-
Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 2005.

"Take, for example, the question of building a classless socialist society. The Seventeenth Party Conference declared that we are advancing towards the formation of a classless socialist society. Naturally, a classless society cannot come of its own accord, as it were. It has to be achieved and built by the efforts of all the working people, by strengthening the organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat, by intensifying the class struggle, by abolishing classes, by eliminating the remnants of the capitalist classes, and in battles with enemies, both internal and external."

- Josef Stalin, Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1934.

And so it was necessary for the Party to bring Walter Wolfgang to justice.

Our enemies lie within the Party as well as outside it!

Intensify the struggle!

Smash the counter-revolutionary pacifist-Trotskyite Bloc!

Long Live the Labour Party, Party of Democratic Socialism!

Long Live Our Great Leader, Tony Blair!

Party members are also to be aware that the enemy may try to circulate terrorist material disguised as material produced by Party members.

This document has been recently recovered by the Serious and Organised Crimes Unit and its writers, suspected of being Trotskyite wreckers, are currently facing prosecution under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Document A.

You may have seen on TV an elderly man being evicted from Labour conference this afternoon. This was Walter Wolfgang, a CND Vice President, Labour CND Vice Chair, and one of the organisers of the first Aldermaston March.

Walter heckled from the visitor’s balcony during a Jack Straw speech on Iraq. Despite his age (82) and frailty (he has great difficulty walking), and despite being a long-time and well known visitor at Labour annual conferences, Walter was physically hauled out of the Brighton conference centre. He was then detained by the police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and held until the Deputy General Secretary of the Labour Party arrived to revoke his conference pass.

This is truly a Big Brother response to a veteran peace campaigner’s attempt to draw attention to the Labour Party leadership’s anti-democratic behaviour in blocking any debate on Iraq taking place on the conference floor. Britain’s involvement in this American military adventure has resulted in the deaths of many thousands of innocent civilians as well as a growing number of British troops. Imagine what Tony Blair and his government would have to say about such an occurrence had it happened in Iraq under Saddam, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or any other country on their ‘bad guy’ list.

Please circulate this among colleagues and friends and encourage them to contact their local MP, Labour Party HQ, and the Foreign Secretary to protest.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Vanguards and Vanguardism

I highly recommend reading almost anything by Victor Serge, a forgotten communist hero. His novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, is in my opinion perhaps the greatest novel of the twentieth century and his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary also essential reading if you want to understand the history of that century.

I am also very happy to recommend a couple of excellent posts on the subject of the relationship between a revolutionary socialist organisation, the movement and the working class by his name sake on And your little dog too... here and here. In short, the idea of a 'vanguard' is worth defending - even though it sounds a bit outdated as a term, the whole history of revolutionary struggle from Cromwell's New Model Army to Robespierre's Jacobins to Lenin's Bolsheviks demonstrates the needs for the most far sighted and militant people to form collective democratic organisations in order to smash the political power of the old order - but there are quite a few problems with 'vanguardism'. That's where dialectical thinking gets you...

Anyway, Victor Serge II quotes Duncan Hallas on 'bourgeois ideology'.

'The assumptions convenient to the ruling class are the daily diet of all of us. Individuals, whether bus drivers or lecturers in aesthetics, can resist the conditioning process to a point. Only a collective can develop a systematic alternative world-view, can overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work that imposes on everyone, on workers and intellectuals alike, a partial and fragmented view of reality.'

Which I think is worth bearing in mind when it comes to evaluating blogs and blogging. All of us are just individuals - no blogger can single handedly develop a systematic alternative world view - all bloggers have strengths and weaknesses. In my case - rather more weaknesses than strengths - as is apparent. However, discussion between Marxist bloggers can 'overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work' and help us all to better understand the world.

The point, however, is to change it - and that is why I am going to act like a vanguard for a bit and mention September 24th.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dead King Watch: James the Shit

James II (1633-1701) died on the 16th September, which makes this the 304th anniversary of his death.

It is quite a common view to think that the monarchy has ruled Britain without interruption for thousands of years, presiding over social harmony. Well James II would be one person who might not have seen things that way, and given he was a monarch himself, that probably says something. When he was still a boy, a revolution broke out in England. In 1645 he was ordered to retake Hull from the rebels back for the King - but he failed - he was only twelve at the time. Quite what the monarchists were doing sending him off to lead an army when he was still a child is a little bit puzzling. More puzzling for the young boy came when he was 16, when his dad Charles I had his head chopped off. This was not common practice for Kings - indeed given their power allegedly stemmed from God, it was a fucking incredible thing to happen. Britain became a republic under Oliver Cromwell. The young James and his brother Charles had to flee England for France and then Spain, where they trained as soldiers in the French and Spanish armies, in order to fight the English at some point. So much for patriotism - Prince Harry 'I want to fight for my country' would be doubtless horrified.

Fortunately for James the monarchy was restored in 1660, the result of a counter-revolution. His brother became King, and James, at this time the Duke of York, became Lord High Admiral of the English Fleet. Yet such a job was probably a bit of a bore, especially when your brother is King and has all the power. What to do? He did what Tony Blair thinks any ambitious young man should do with their life - use your head and go and make lots of money. He set up a company, originally called the 'Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa'. Basically what they did was went over to West Africa, rounded up Africans as slaves and then shipped them over to the West Indies. They had an advantage over other companies as well - they had a Royal Charter which allowed them to stop any other slave trading ships and gave them a monopoly of this new slave trade. By the 1680s the Royal African Company as it was now known was transporting about 5000 slaves per year. Many were branded with the letters 'DY', after James, the Duke of York, who made huge profits from the whole barbaric practise. By 1689 it had transported around 90,000-100,000 slaves in total. Perhaps Prince 'Nazi' Harry might have approved of James II after all...

In 1688, finally, after a long wait James got his hands of real power - he became James II - King of England, Scotland and Ireland. However, he was a Catholic and within a year he was ousted by another 'Revolution' - the 'Glorious Revolution' which sadly only put two new (Protestant) monarchs on the throne and did not increase democracy at all. James fought a few battles to try and hold onto power, but he was hardly one to 'lead from the front', as Prince Harry says he wants to do, and he soon had to flee to France again. After the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690, his speedy exit from the battleground, leaving Irish Catholics alone to fight on, meant he earnt the nickname Seamus a' chaca — "James the excrement".

When he was not killing peasants or profiting from trading Africans branded with his initials, James liked to hunt and 'get to know' women in the biblical sense. Lots of women. As a result he contracted venereal disease quite early on and then had an attack of syphilus after sleeping with Anne, Countess of Southesk. Syphlitic cerebral vascular disease led to a general decline in his health and his eventual death in France. His son tried to lead forces devoted to getting himself on the throne ('Jacobitism') in 1715 and 1745, but these were defeated.


Dance like a butterfly...

"What Mr Hitchens has done is unique in natural history; the first-ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug. I mention 'slug' purposefully, because the one thing a slug does leave behind it is a trial of slime".

...sting like a bee.

Edited to add: Gary Younge watched the big fight between the indefatigable George Galloway and the popinjay Christopher Hitchens from the ringside here, and says Galloway won 'on points'. I agree.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

The decline and fall of the English Murder

'It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions and soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.'

So began George Orwell's 1946 essay, Decline of the English Murder. He went on to draw a rather strange distinction between the 'good murders' of old, and the rather random killings one read about in the News of the World of the day. The 'old domestic poisoning dramas' like that of Dr Crippen were the 'product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them'. However, since the 'war period', characterised by fear of death from above by 'the doodle-bugs', 'the readers of Sunday papers...say fretfully that "you never seem to get a good murder nowadays"'.

Orwell was certainly right to note than if you a living under a world system where thousands of innocent people die during war every year then life is cheapened somewhat. But arguably the 'decline of the English murder' was taking place, albeit in another way to that envisaged by Orwell.

The inter-war period in England was the golden age of the detective story. The way to success had already of course been paved by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective Sherlock Holmes (1880s-1890s). This was all about using what Doyle called 'the science of Deduction and Analysis' to outwit criminal masterminds. Ironically, in lauding a brainy, Bohemian violin playing drug addict like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was hardly saying very much for his own law abiding Victorian bourgeois values. However, it is the likes of Agatha Christie with Poirot and Miss Marple (1920s-30s), and GK Chesterton's Father Brown stories (1930s) that stand as the classics of the genre. In general, they had a rather strict formula which they followed. Murder at the start, a small number of characters who were all in the vicinity and so are 'suspects' and more importantly do not leave the crime scene, a short timespan, and no arch villains (as in Conan Doyle). The motives were limited to greed, revenge, jealousy etc and in general are not of interest. The drama is about solving the mystery, and the stage now shifted from the foggy streets of London and Paris to more refined surroundings such as the drawing room of an English country house, or aboad an Oriental express train or Egyptian river cruise. Upper class settings and values dominate these novels. Their success in large part rested on their ability to tap into middle class nostalgia for the pre-First World War world, which appealed after the dislocation and bloodshed of the 'Great War'.

However, after the Second World War, things changed again and the decline of the English murder now took place. This was due to a number of factors, not least the rise of organised crime. Events like the St Valentine's Day massacre (1929) and bosses like Al Capone in the US had permeated into the consciousness of people internationally. As the late Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel noted in his 'social history of the crime story', Delightful Murder (1984), 'the coming of age of organised crime tolled the death knell of the drawing room detective story. It is impossible to imagine Hercule Poirot, not to mention Lord Peter Wimsey or Father Brown, battling against the Mafia.'

The turn to stories about professional cops as the new heroes around the time of the Second World War is described by Mandel as 'the first great revolution in the crime novel'. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe was still a traditional private eye, but in other ways epitomises the new turn back to the mean streets. As Mandel notes, 'social corruption, especially among the rich, now moves into the centre of the plots, along with brutality'. The leisurely pace of an Agatha Christie novel was replaced by direct hard hitting dialogue. The new heroes increasingly were not little old ladies like Miss Marple but spys and secret agents like Ian Fleming's James Bond. However, not all crime novels celebrate imperialist state power or the forces of 'law and order' - some highlight the contradictions and hypocrisies of capitalist society.

Take my favorite crime story, Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), an absolute classic. Mandel describes the background to the writing of this novel, noting Puzo had 'earlier demonstrated a critical social consciousness, in his efforts to stigmatise in an almost Swiftian manner - the resemblances between bourgeois society and the criminal environment in the United States. One of his first essays bore the title: "How crime keeps America healthy, wealthy, cleaner and more beautiful." In another, Puzo wrote "How are we to adjust to a society that drafts human beings to fight a war, yet permits its businessmen to make a profit from the shedding of blood? As society becomes more criminal, the well-adjusted citizen, by defintion, must become more and more criminal." His portrayal of the top American criminal 'Don Corleone' as the best adjusted American citizen took things to their logical conclusion.

My favorite bit of dialogue is when Michael Corleone is talking to his fiance, Kay. "My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay replies that "You know how naive you sound...senators and presidents don't have men killed." "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"

With the current state of permanent war, one hopes that we see more of such anti-capitalist crime novels.

Overall, it appears Orwell was right to note back in 1946 that there are just no 'good murders' anymore. We get random stabbings today to the tune of F16s overhead. As Mandel noted, 'growing militarisation on the one hand, and children screaming "I'll run a knife into you" at their mothers or school teachers on the other, are just two polar expressions of the same historical trend'. The next time you hear Blair talking about getting tough on 'anti-social behaviour' and 'yobs', remember who the real criminals are.

P.S. Karl Marx himself wrote about the relationship between bourgeois civilisation and crime, in for example, his Theories of Surplus Value, here

The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces. While crime takes a part of the superfluous population off the labour market and thus reduces competition among the labourers—up to a certain point preventing wages from falling below the minimum—the struggle against crime absorbs another part of this population. Thus the criminal comes in as one of those natural “counterweights” which bring about a correct balance and open up a whole perspective of “useful” occupations.
The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail. Would locks ever have reached their present degree of excellence had there been no thieves? Would the making of bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no 183 forgers? Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds? Doesn’t practical chemistry owe just as much to adulteration of commodities and the efforts to show it up as to the honest zeal for production? Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defence, and so is as productive as strikes for the invention of machines. And if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn’t the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

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Dead King Watch: William the Bastard

William I (1027-1087) was a bastard and also known as William the Conqueror, after the Norman Conquests. He died on 9th September 1087, which I reckon made yesterday the 918th anniversary of his death. He took ten days to die, after he fell off his horse while pillaging Mantes and suffered a ruptured urethra. Clifford Brewer in The Death of Kings notes that 'taking so long to die, William had adequate time to think about what should be done for the Anglo-Norman state which he had created with so much trouble. The writer Ordericus Vitalis gave a plausible account of the dying King, concerned with two matters: his own salvation and the future of his two domains. Of himself he confessed that he had been too fond of war and his life was "stained with rivers of blood". He attempted to excuse his actions as self defence, but admitted: "I am prey to cruel fears and anxieties when I reflect with what barbarities they were accompanied."'

Perhaps it was then fitting that after he actually died, his body was left naked on the floor by his followers who fled taking all his belongings fearing all hell would now be unleashed. By the time he came to be put in a coffin, his body was so bloated and fat that they could not get him in. 'Those who tried to force him in did so with the greatest difficulty, but to add to the horror, the body burst open and filled the church with such a stench of fearful corruption that the service was concluded with great haste.'

His reign did have one unforeseen consequence, as described in a wonderful essay by Christopher Hill. William's bloody reign meant that, among the poor and powerless of England, a myth of the 'Norman Yoke' arose, whereby all Kings of England after William the Conqueror (who was actually the Duke of Normandy before invading England) were illegitimate as their power came from this French warmongering 'bastard'. This folk tale portrayed England before William as a lost paradise, that could be regained if only the rightful 'English' King was restored to power. The myth of the Norman Yoke therefore - among other things - helped ideologically strengthen peasant revolts after William's time.


New feature: Dead King Watch

"Hail to the King"

I have decided to introduce another new feature for Histomat - 'Dead King Watch'.

I know what you are thinking. 'This guy is supposed to be a Marxist, and now he is talking about either a) Kings or b) Elvis. The last few cut and paste's he passed off as 'posts' were underwhelming, and the last time he tried to introduce a 'new feature' ('Quote me happy') it was distinctly unimpressive. When is he going to post something semi-original again? Or more to the point, when is he going to post something vaguely to do with er, historical materialism?'

But, the way I see it, if I want to talk about Dead Kings of England on this blog instead of discussing EP Thompson's brilliant critique of Althusser in The Poverty of Theory, then I can do that, right? Right. Okay.

What this new feature will try to do is to simply record the dates that Kings of England died, on the anniversary of the date that they died, so people can have the opportunity to comment on what they thought about this or that dead ruler of England. I apologise for the Anglo-centric bias in advance. I also apologise for posting when pissed.


Saturday, September 03, 2005

An open letter to George Bush...

Lenin's Tomb has had some very disturbing stuff about the disaster hit city of New Orleans, exposing how profit very clearly came before saving people's lives, but I thought I would post up this letter from Michael Moore. Because I think it hits Bush where it hurts quite effectively as well...

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

Dear Mr. Bush:

Any idea where all our helicopters are? It's Day 5 of Hurricane Katrina and thousands remain stranded in New Orleans and need to be airlifted. Where on earth could you have misplaced all our military choppers? Do you need help finding them? I once lost my car in a Sears parking lot. Man, was that a drag.

Also, any idea where all our national guard soldiers are? We could really use them right now for the type of thing they signed up to do like helping with national disasters. How come they weren't there to begin with?

Last Thursday I was in south Florida and sat outside while the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over my head. It was only a Category 1 then but it was pretty nasty. Eleven people died and, as of today, there were still homes without power. That night the weatherman said this storm was on its way to New Orleans. That was Thursday! Did anybody tell you? I know you didn't want to interrupt your vacation and I know how you don't like to get bad news. Plus, you had fundraisers to go to and mothers of dead soldiers to ignore and smear. You sure showed her!

I especially like how, the day after the hurricane, instead of flying to Louisiana, you flew to San Diego to party with your business peeps. Don't let people criticize you for this -- after all, the hurricane was over and what the heck could you do, put your finger in the dike?

And don't listen to those who, in the coming days, will reveal how you specifically reduced the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for New Orleans this summer for the third year in a row. You just tell them that even if you hadn't cut the money to fix those levees, there weren't going to be any Army engineers to fix them anyway because you had a much more important construction job for them -- BUILDING DEMOCRACY IN IRAQ!

On Day 3, when you finally left your vacation home, I have to say I was moved by how you had your Air Force One pilot descend from the clouds as you flew over New Orleans so you could catch a quick look of the disaster. Hey, I know you couldn't stop and grab a bullhorn and stand on some rubble and act like a commander in chief. Been there done that.

There will be those who will try to politicize this tragedy and try to use it against you. Just have your people keep pointing that out. Respond to nothing. Even those pesky scientists who predicted this would happen because the water in the Gulf of Mexico is getting hotter and hotter making a storm like this inevitable. Ignore them and all their global warming Chicken Littles. There is nothing unusual about a hurricane that was so wide it would be like having one F-4 tornado that stretched from New York to Cleveland.

No, Mr. Bush, you just stay the course. It's not your fault that 30 percent of New Orleans lives in poverty or that tens of thousands had no transportation to get out of town. C'mon, they're black! I mean, it's not like this happened to Kennebunkport. Can you imagine leaving white people on their roofs for five days? Don't make me laugh! Race has nothing -- NOTHING -- to do with this!

You hang in there, Mr. Bush. Just try to find a few of our Army helicopters and send them there. Pretend the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are near Tikrit.


Michael Moore

P.S. That annoying mother, Cindy Sheehan, is no longer at your ranch. She and dozens of other relatives of the Iraqi War dead are now driving across the country, stopping in many cities along the way. Maybe you can catch up with them before they get to DC on September 21st.