Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

E P Thompson on the nuclear nightmare

'We must protest if we are to survive', urged the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in 1980, stopping his own research work to throw himself into campaigning for peace and nuclear disarmament. He spoke frequently for years on end, from local public meetings to huge Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies. Even his British Library card lapsed. As opposed to many of his former comrades in the dwindling Communist Party of Great Britain, for whom the right of the Soviet Union to nuclear weapons for self defence was sacrosanct and it was only the Western imperialists who needed to disarm, Thompson stood for a 'double exposure' of East and West.

In 'Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilisation' in New Left Review 121, (1980), Thompson addressed 'the immobilism of the Marxist Left' in the face of 'exterminism', which was the irrational product of Cold War inter-imperialist rivalry but now took on a chilling dynamic and momentum of its own. 'For, increasingly, what is being produced by both the United States and the USSR is the means of war, just as, increasingly, what is being exported, with competitive rivalry, by both powers to the Third World are war materials and attendant militarist systems, infrastructures and technologies. There is an internal dynamic and reciprocal logic here which requires a new category for analysis. If "the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist", what are we given by those Satanic mills which are now at work, grinding out the means of human extermination?'

If there was a strand of millenarian apocalypticism about the future in Thompson's writings (he once began a speech at a peace rally in Trafalgar Square with William Blake - "Against the Kingdom of the beast, we witnesses shall rise"), he conceded it. 'To my generation, which had witnesses the first annunciation of exterminist technology at Hiroshima, its perfection in the hydrogen bomb, and the inconcievably-absolute ideological fracture of the first Cold War...we had become, at a very deep place in our consciousness, habituated to the expectation that the very continuation of civilisation was problematic...I would only too gladly read the arguments which show, conclusively, that my analysis of the gathering determinism of exterminist process is wrong'.

'Yet the arguments have substance, and the technology of the apocalypse exists. Nor have all apocalyptic visions in this century always been wrong. Few of those who prophesied World War I prophesied the devastating sum total of the event; no-one envisaged the full ferocity of World War II. And the apocalyptic prophets of World War III do not match the kind of persons we encounter in our social history: eccentric vicars, zealous artisan sectarians conning Revelation, trance-struck serving-maids. Some emerge, with strategic war-plans in their hands, from the weapons-system complex itself...It was not Joanna Southcott who summoned the first Pugwash Conference, but Einstein and Russell. It was not Thomas Tany but Robert Oppenheimer who said, in 1947, "the world is moving in the direction of hell with a high velocity, a positive acceleration and probably a postive rate of change of acceleration."'

Thompson concluded with this thought: 'If one has come to live with this expectation, then it must modify, in profound and subtle ways, one's whole stance. Class struggle continues, in many forms, accross the globe. But exterminism itself is not a "class issue": it is a human issue. Certain kinds of "revolutionary" posturing and rhetoric, which inflame exterminist ideology and which carry divisions into the necessary alliances of human resistance, are luxuries which we can do without...exterminism can only be confronted by the broadest possible alliance: that is, by every affirmative resource in our culture. Secondary differences must be subordinated to the human ecological imperative. The immobilism sometimes found on the Marxist Left is founded on a great error: that theoretical rigour, or throwing oneself into a "revolutionary" posture, is the end of politics. The end of politics is to act, and to act with effect.'

Six years after that article was written, in 1986 we saw Chernobyl. Now twenty years on, Blair hopes we have forgotten the nuclear nightmare, and wants to embark on building a new generation of nuclear reactors as well as replacing Britain's 'nuclear deterrent' in the form of Trident submarines (at the cost of £20 billion). Can we still save the planet? If we can, then it seems Thompson's insistance that we must 'act, and to act with effect' is even more critical today than it was twenty five years ago. Fortunately, December 3rd sees an international day of protest against climate change - the first of its kind but almost certainly the first of many such protests in the future. The iron logic of exterminism may still yet be broken.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hegemony or Survival: The politics of System of a Down

'We fought your wars with all our hearts,
You sent us back in body parts,
You took our wills with the truth you stole,
We offer prayers for your long lost soul.

The remainder is,
An unjustifiable, egotistical, power struggle
At the expense of the American Dream,
Of the American Dream, of the American.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.

There is no flag that is large enough,
To hide the shame of a man in cuffs,
You switched the signs then you closed our blinds,
You changed the channel then you changed our minds.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.

No flag large enough,
Shame on a man in cuffs,
You closed your blinds.

The remainder is,
An unjustifiable, egotistical, power struggle,
At the expense of the American Dream,
Of the American Dream, of the American,
Of the American.

We don't give a damn about your world,
With all your global profits, and all your jeweled pearls,
We don't give a damn about your world,
Right now, right now.'

The lyrics of 'American Dream Denial' (A.D.D.) (2002) really do tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the politics of American metal band System of a Down - they are not just 'anti-Bush' like say, Green Day - they want to see the overthrow of global capitalism and then some. One reviewer of their 2001 breakthrough album Toxicity in Rolling Stone nevertheless felt that their political outlook was 'simplistic' with 'black-and-white divisions', before remarking that it 'ain't Noam Chomsky'. Given Chomsky was recently voted 'top public intellectual' and has been declared 'arguably the most important intellectual alive', one wonders how many political theorists, let alone metal bands, he can be seriously compared to. However, that aside, I want to try and argue that SOAD's politics deserve to be taken more seriously than they currently have been for two reasons.

Firstly, SOAD's politics were not 'new found', the result of fashion as mass movements based on anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism emerged towards the end of the 20th century, as the Rolling Stone critic hinted that they might be. All the band members are from Armenian descent, and therefore know from bitter family experience about how brutal imperial power can be. Their eponymous debut album (1998) was therefore not just 'meandering impressionism' but included a song, "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying Unholy Cowardly Killers)", and stated that "System Of A Down would like to dedicate this song to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish Government in 1915."

In 2001, their breakthrough album Toxicity came out with its outstanding track 'Chop Suey!' The moment it came out, the terrible terrorist attacks on September 11th happened, and Chop Suey! was criticised as it had a chorus with the lyric "Trust in my self-righteous suicide". Nevertheless, incredibly it still went straight to #1 in the US album charts, though many thought 'Chop Suey!' was simply 'meandering palaver'. However, according to SOAD the lyrics came from a quote from Father Armeni after the Armenian genocide. 'He was asking why have you forsaken me in your eyes and also saying in his speech self righteous suicide has taken place'. Yet just as SOAD were concerned to raise awareness about the past injustices of the Ottoman Empire, so after September 11th they did not remain silent about the current injustices of the American Empire. On September 13, 2001, Serj Tankian penned an essay, which he posted on the official System of a Down website, titled 'Understanding Oil', which was promptly removed by Sony. This is an extract:

'People in Serbia, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan to name a few have seen bombs fall, not always at military targets and kill innocent civilians, as the scene in New York city yesterday. The wars waged by our government in our names has landed smack in the middle of our living room. The half hour of destruction closed down all world financial markets, struck the central headquarters of our military, and had our leaders running into bunkers, and our citizens into fear and frenzy. What scares me more than what has occurred is what our reactions to the occurrences may cause. President Bush belongs to a long generation of Republican Presidents who love war economies. The media has only concentrated on the bombings, if you will, and what type of retaliations are looming for the perpetrators. What everyone fails to realize is that the bombings are a reaction to existing injustices around the world, generally unseen to most Americans. To react to a reaction would be to further sponsor the reaction. In other words, my belief is that the terror will multiply if concrete steps are not taken to sponsor peace in the middle east, NOW. This does not mean that we should not find the guilty party(s), Bin Laden, or whoever they may be, and not try them. Put simply, as long as a major injustice remains, violence precipitates to the surface of life.'

That an American band with mass appeal put out such a statement when they did was an incredibly brave act, and gives the lie to the idea that their political stance is merely for show or fashion. Toxicity itself was a very timely album indeed for the climate created by Bush's 'war on terror'. 'Prison Song' attacked the way in which US 'global policy' saw the US 'police the globe' with the help of 'brutal corporate sponsored dictators'. 'All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich.' One could almost smell the tear gas of US anti-war protests in 'Deer Dance'. 'Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality, Of plastic existence. Pushing little children, With their fully automatics, they like to push the weak around'. The title of the album, 'Toxicity', stressed the way in which Bush cared about profit, not the planet.

Yet since 2001, SOAD have got even more political and even more radical - and this provides I think the second reason why it is important to critically examine where they are at now. With Bush now trying to justify war and bloodshed through hearing 'voices from God', SOAD seem to have retreated from some of their more mystical religious songs (see 'Science' from Toxicity, with its lyric 'Science has failed our Mother Earth'). In 'Tentative', on the latest album, Hypnotize, SOAD examine the ways in which much organised religion upholds the power structure of the rich. This is a marked step forward. The lyrics of the title track of their latest album reveal much about their new concerns:

'Why don’t you ask the kids at Tiananmen Square
Was fashion the reason why they were there
They disguise it hypnotize it
Television made you buy it
I’m just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl
She’s scared that I will take her away from there
Her dreams and her country left with no one there
Mezmerize the simple minded
Propaganda leaves us blinded
I’m just sitting in my car
And waiting for my girl...'

To me one of the overriding themes of their 2005 double album Mezmorize/Hypnotize is this focus on the power of the mass media to control and manipulate. If obviously not as detailed as the densely argued monographs of Noam Chomsky, SOAD are in essence now 'Chomskyian'. The massive influence of Chomsky can be seen even in the lyrics to A.D.D. I printed at the start, in the line 'You changed the channel then you changed our minds,' which is essentially Chomsky's 'propaganda model' of the 'free media' under corporate control. That song's attack on the power struggles waged by the American ruling class are also in keeping with Chomsky, an 'elite theorist' at heart. In their song 'BOOM', an explicit attack on Bush and Blair's looming war on Iraq, SOAD explicitly noted that 'Manufacturing consent, Is the name of the game, The bottom line is money, Nobody gives a fuck.'

That their songs are so imbued with Chomskyian attacks on corporate power and the American Empire is to be celebrated - SOAD are probably the biggest anti-capitalist band in the world and that they are also such conscious anti-imperialists is a huge strength. Mezmorize/Hypnotize has songs like 'Sad Statue' ( "You and me/We’ll all go down in history/With a sad Statue of Liberty/And a generation that didn’t agree") and the powerful 'B.Y.O.B.[Bring Your Own Bombs]' ("Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?") System of a Down have arguably picked up the mantle left by Rage Against the Machine and helped to inspire a whole new generation internationally to fight back against capitalism and war - and this makes them currently possibly the most important band in the world today. That is in itself justification for a Marxist analysis of the band, but it should not be forgotten that musically they don't just rock but also break boundaries and transcend genres. I like them, anyway.

Yet despite all this, there remains a problem, and it is one that afflicts Chomsky as well - the question 'What is to be done?' When asked recently about this, Serj Tankian had little in the way of an answer:

'Q:I think many Americans feel frustrated with the way our country is being run right now. But feel helpless as to what they could possibly do? What would you say to them?
Serj: I wouldn't say anything to them. I want to hear what they would say to me.'

One one level, this humility is welcome - and far better than a stance which pretends to have all the answers written down in some 'little red book' or something. However, Tankian like Chomsky is someone that people look to for political leadership at the present time. What they suggest and put forward is important - these people are leading figures in the movement. Therefore, when Tankian, like Chomsky, decides to endorse John Kerry for President ("We need someone with a high degree of both intelligence and compassion in the White House, someone deserving of the good will of the American people. Bush and Co. do not deserve us as their public"), there is a problem.

The problem stems from the Chomskyian focus on the huge power wielded by the elite, and the idea that they can 'mezmorize' and 'hypnotise' the rest of us through the corporate media. This perspective robs the rest of us of any agency, leaving us as passive spectators trying to work out which rich politician would be better than which other rich politician come election time. It rules out the idea that it might be possible for working people to build an independent political organisation for themselves in the here and now - that can break through the 'power spectacle'. If it really was the case that this was an impossible task because such a party would inevitably get corrupted by power, then there is little point in being political at all. Everybody may as well just go out 'to the party and have a real good time' while American soldiers are 'dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine'. American hegemony would be triumphant.

Yet there is a rich but hidden history of working class struggle which attests precisely to the fact that ordinary people can take control of their own destiny and make history themselves, from the Chartists in Britain to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Soviets of 1905 in Russia and then the Russian Revolution itself and beyond. The American working class in particular has an incredibly militant history of struggle and self-organisation. Classical Marxism is nothing more and nothing less than the theory that arises from the experience of working class people in struggle for their own liberation. As such it does have something to say about the strategic and tactical questions of the movement, and arguably therefore deserves critical attention from all who are concerned with the survival of humankind in the twenty-first century.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

No Logo

A strong corporate identity is vital in the blogosphere, and after extensive market research, 'Adventures in Historical Materialism' was deemed to be too long and windy. This blog has therefore been rebranded, but we hope that we will continue to serve up socialist history in a form that meets with our customers approval.
Thank you.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

History is a weapon

Apologies for not writing more just now, but I will quickly just share the following:

There is a website about radical American history, with a blog attached, called History is a weapon, which looks facinating.
Also, after a small struggle, the red plaque of early socialist and trade unionist Tom Maguire is back up in Leeds bus station - I took a picture on my mobile - so if anyone knows how to put picures from phones onto blogs, then feel free to let me know and I will try to put it up. Finally, Alex Callinicos, who has written a fair bit about the modern American Empire, takes a brief look at the ancient Roman Empire here.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dispatches from Latin America # 1: Argentina

Regular readers of this blog will have been eagerly awaiting the first report from Latin America by a friend of mine, 'Paddington', who is currently visiting the continent - for background see here. With the World Social Forum preparing to meet in among other places Caracas in Venezuela in January next year, Histomat is very happy to have a correspondent in the continent where opposition to US capitalism and neo-liberalism is at its greatest - and even happier that he has now managed to find an internet cafe to send us this report:

'My first post as Histomatist´s Latin America
correspondent comes to you from a park in Buenos
Aires, Argentina. It is saturday afternoon, I have a
cold beer by my side, am surrounded by beautiful
people in various states of undress, and it is 33ºC in
the sun. Sorry - I´m not making you jealous am I?

So, my first week in South America has gone something
like this. I arrived in BsAs on Sunday morning and
was taken by cab to my residence. Apparently STA
should have told me the address of the house before I
left the UK, but they didn´t so neither I nor the
cab-driver knew where I was supposed to be delivered
to. After much pidgin English from him and pidgin
Spanish from me, we eventually found it: 1081 Medrano
in the barrio of Almagro, a ten-minute subway ride
from the centre of the city. I am living there with a
mixture of students and travellers, but I am the only
person whose Spanish is not fluido - in fact, it is
pretty lousy. My first evening meal with the
household is completely incomprehensible, even when I
ask them to slow down. I´m also quickly learning that
the Spanish that porteños speak is quite different to
the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. So those
pre-trip verb flashcards were a bit of a waste of

Enough of my Spanish, except to say that I have not
yet fulfilled my objective of chatting anyone up in
Spanish (though my attempts in English have been
unusually successful). My grasp of it is improving
though, and I am definitely teacher´s pet in Spanish
class. I go to class every day from 9 until 1, except
last Friday when I had too much of hangover, and my
class consists of one fellow Londoner, an Irish guy, a
Swede, an Icelandic *gril* [girl?] and an American. Our
teacher, by the way, has two cats called Lacan and
Freud and a dog called Trotsky: so-called, she
explained, because he is Russian and because he often
gets into a bad mood and buggers off for a day or two
in a huff. My hours means that I have plenty of time
each day to explore the city with mis compañeros. But
before I give you my impressions of BsAs, here´s a
quick (and no doubt hopelessly inadequate) history
lesson. I should add that this is pretty much all
sourced from my Lonely Planet - I would be very
grateful for others to clarify or amend any bits that
I have got wrong.

The overall pattern of South American history is one
of colonialism and post-colonialism. The Spanish (or,
in the case of Brazil, the Portuguese) first invaded
the continent in the 16th century and, after a strong
rebuttal from the indigenous people, conquered it.
They hung around for around 300 years, exploiting its
abundant resources and killing its people, until one
by one independent republics were formed in the early
1800s. After a while, social movements get off the
ground, though Indians continue to be repressed to
this day. The continent sways to the left for much of
the twentieth century, until the 70s when a series of
military dictatorships come to power. These are
eventually replaced by a new form of colonialism:
neoliberalism, which has mostly been welcomed by
governments and strongly opposed by the general
public. In some places, particularly Venezuela and to
a lesser extent (if the Left is as successful as is
anticipated next month) in Bolivia, neoliberalism
appears to be on the wane. Indeed, even where
governments do follow neoliberal policies (Brazil, for
example), it does not look likely that their voters
will put up with it for long.

I said this history lesson would be pretty amateurish,
and I can see I am proving myself correct. However,

Argentina roughly follows this pattern. The Spanish
first tried to invade present-day Argentina in 1536,
but were driven back to Asuncion in present-day
Paraguay by Querandi natives. The Spanish returned in
1580 and founded Buenos Aires. Its growht was
hampered by trade restrictions, but in spite of this
and British attempts to take over trading power in the
region, it remained in Spanish hands until 1816.
After a fairly bloody civil war between the
powers-that-be in the city and the powers-that-be in
the country, Juan Manuel de Rosas became governer of
Buenos Aires and subsequently took charge of the

Rosas was what you might call a bit of a shit. Like
lots of great military butchers, his success lay in
his populism. He touted himself as a man of the
people, and the people put their trust in him. This
pretty much paid off, unless you belonged to an
indigenous group in Southern Argentina, in which case
you had your land appropriated and your family killed.
Nice. Rosas hung around until 1852, when he was
overthrown. He spent his last days as a farmer in

After 1852, Argentina became liberalised - socially,
but more importantly economically. Free trade meant
that Argentina (now populated predominantly by
European immigrants) became an extremely rich country.
Not that you´d know this if you weren´t a member of
the tiny wealthy minority - the gap between rich and
poor grew and grew until a left wing colonel turned
social democrat called Juan Peron became President in
1946. Peron pursued a "third way" style of politics
and economics - a third way, that is, between
capitalism and communism (much in the same way as
Chavez is doing at the moment, though I suspect the
similarity ends there). Peron and his wife, who later
had hits with "Like a Prayer" and "Vogue", were a
great hit with workers and capitalists, which somehow
makes me distrust them enormously. The
Peron-dominated Congress legislated against opponents
of the government in 1949 - this meant jail for anyone
(including newspapers) who showed disrespect to the

Fast forward to the late 60s and early 70s. Peron´s
star has waned in the last 20 years, and a group of
left-wing Peronists try to bring his "third way"
politics back into the political fray. Their tactics
are often violent, but it is the right-wing terrorists
who win the day, and in 1976 the army takes power.
The years that follow are known as the Dirty War. Up
to 30,000 left-wingers, liberals and intellectuals
"disappear," and when democracy is restored in 1983,
the military are given an amnesty which prevents the
perpetrators of human rights abuses in the Dirty War
being brought to justice. The Mothers of the
Disappeared have kept a vigil ever since in Buenos
Aires, and the current President, Nestor Kircher, is
the first to address this issue in a meaningful way.

The last twenty years have seen disastrous economic
and political fluctuations in Argentina. Partly this
is a hangover from the military regime of the late 70s
and early 80s, during which the ecnomony foundered,
and the subsequent failures of democratic governments
to sort the economy out. President Carlos Menem´s
solution to this was to privatise everything during
the 90s - just like in Britain, the private companies
has utterly failed to make utilities more efficient,
and these policies are still very unpopular 10 years

In 2001, Argentina´s economic balloon finally burst.
Before the collapse, the peso was tied to the dollar.
There are now three pesos to the dollar. Half the
population were left in poverty, and after Menem left
office, Argentina had $114 billion of public debt.

In 2003, Nestor Kircher, a Peronist, became President,
and remains President to this day. Wikipedia says he
"started implementing new policies based on
re-industrialisation, import substitution, increased
exports, consistent fiscal surplus, and high exchange
rate." I have no idea if that´s true or not, but he
joined forces with Chavez in the war of words against
Bush and Vincente Fox recently, so he can´t be all

So that´s Argentina in a nutshell. I have a hot date
tonight, so I don´t really have time to write any more
today. Besides, I have probably bored you all into
submission. But coming up in a couple of days: a
Paddington´s eye view of Buenos Aires.

¡Hasta luego!'

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Blogging: New Commentariat or New Grub Street?

The Guardian on Thursday had an article on the rise of political blogging -in particular on how prominant 'pro-war Left' bloggers seem to be - indeed apparently forming a 'New Commentariat'.

'But what has emerged here is a fully fledged alternative wing of the opinion industry, challenging the primacy of newspaper commentators. All political viewpoints thrive within it, but one has become notably prevalent: the stance generally identified as "pro-war left", of which Harry's Place is an example. It is a line of argument that seems not to have diminished, in stridency or popularity, as the Iraq debacle has worsened.'

As a result most Marxists looking at the 'blogosphere' from outside understandably tend to take the view that bloggers are a bunch of sad, deluded bitter ex-Lefties who sit around on the internet ranting away at the world but doing nothing constructive whatsoever to try and change it. Typical of this viewpoint was this letter in response the next day from Paul Flewers, a Marxist who among other things has edited a collection of essays about the 'Enigmatic Socialist' George Orwell, (which I bought but then infuriatingly almost immediately lost and am as a result still rather bitter about):

'One key feature of internet discussion is just how much of it consists of ignorant and intemperate saloon-bar ranting, as each blogger and respondent rambles on as if he (and it usually is a he) is an expert on the subject and that anyone else's views count for nothing. The weblog phenomenon has done very little to raise the tone of political debate and plenty to lower it.'

Whatever the merits of this argument, and there is a kernal of truth to it, I think it rather misses the main point about blogging - which is that blogging undoubtedly is part of a wider and still ongoing communications revolution. We do not know the consequences of this yet. It is not unfeasible that in the not too distant future almost everyone (in the 'advanced' capitalist countries at least) will have their own blog just as almost everyone has a mobile phone or email address today. Why not? Marxists therefore should not cut themselves off from this wider revolution - just as revolutionaries today do not say, boycott mobile phones - indeed mobiles are essential for the modern revolutionary. How on earth did Lenin and Trotsky manage to organise the storming of the Winter Palace without mobiles?

To me blogging today resembles less a 'new commentariat' (which hints of a new orthodoxy dominated by experts from above) but rather a bottom up led phenomenon which is about the creative use of new technology. A better comparison it seems to me would be to the print revolution that developed in late eighteenth-century Paris and which created what the historian Robert Darnton has called 'Grub Street', the literary underground of the Enlightenment.

This was a world of 'pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies' that emerged as 'ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters... instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street - victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these "Rousseaus of the gutter" desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France.'

In short, there was a profusion of pamphleteering in the run up to the Great French Revolution. There were plenty of dodgy characters around, much of it apolitical and about sex and so on, and most of it was about people trying to just make a living and survive. The comparison with the world of blogging seems to me to be compelling. There are plenty of dodgy bloggers out there, many bloggers seem only too happy to prostitute their blogspace to advertisers and try and make money out of it. Of course, just as there was a lot of money made by publishers out of the explosion in print technology in France at this time - so corporations today are eager to make as much money out of the phenomenon as they can.

Yet, - and this is the point I am trying to make - the new printing technology of eighteenth-century France was used by radical activists to expose and attack the ruling elites of France at the time - just as there are many anti-capitalist bloggers trying to do the same today amid the dross and 'saloon bar ranting'. Marxists should not be afraid of engaging with the rise of blogging - just as radicals in France before the Revolution did not just ignore the potential power of the new print technology. More people reading and writing blogs can only be a good thing in general - particularly if it allows the corporate media to be challenged. In short, the 'pro-war Left' bloggers may well be a new Stalinist style Commentariat. However revolutionary socialist bloggers should see ourselves as following in a different tradition - we should proudly declare ourselves the modern "Rousseaus of the gutter".

For more on Robert Darnton and 'Grub Street', see here, here and here. Edited to add Lenin's Tomb's take on the 'new Commentariat', which is well worth a look.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dead Queen Watch: Bloody Mary

Mary I died in 1558 around this time - about 447 years ago. When she died, many people celebrated, even though she had only been on the throne five years. This was largely because of her attempts to spread the power of the corrupt Catholic Church by force. Wikipedia explains:

'Although Mary enjoyed tremendous popular support and sympathy for her mistreatment during the earliest parts of her reign, she lost almost all of it after marrying Philip [of Spain]. The English viewed the marriage as a breach of English independence; they felt that it would make England a mere dependency of Spain. The marriage treaty clearly specified that England was not to be drawn into any Spanish wars, but this guarantee proved meaningless. Philip spent most of his time governing his Spanish and European territories, and little of it with his wife in England. After Mary's death, Philip became a suitor for Elizabeth's hand, but Elizabeth refused.

During the five-year long reign, 283 [Protestant] individuals were burnt at the stake, twice as many as had suffered the same fate during the previous century and a half of English history, and at a greater rate than under the contemporary Spanish Inquisition...John Foxe vilified her in a book entitled The Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous Dayes, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great Persecution and horrible Troubles that have been wrought and practised by the Romishe Prelates, Epeciallye in this Realme of England and Scotland, from the yeare of our Lorde a thousande to the time now present [which has to be the best title for a book ever], commonly called The Book of Martyrs. The persecution of Protestants earned Mary the appellation "Bloody Mary" and led the English people to revile her. It is said that the Spanish ambassadors were aghast at the jubilation and celebration of the people upon her death.'


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Churchill on Gandhi

"It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer...this malignant subversive fanatic...striding half-naked up to the steps of the Viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor...The truth is that Gandhiism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed. It is no use trying to satisfy a tiger by feeding him cats meat...it must be made plain that the British nation has no intention of reliquishing its mission in India...we have no intention of casting away the most truly bright and precious jewel in the Crown of the King, which more than all our other Dominions and Dependencies constitutes the glory and strength of the British Empire" - Winston Churchill, 1932. [See Eric Williams, British historians and the West Indies, p. 150-1]

Fifteen years after this racist Churchillian vitriol, in 1947, India won its independence.

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Dead King Watch: Henry III - The Quiet Man

Henry III of England reigned for quite some time until his death about 733 years ago on 16th November 1272. In fact he is one of the longest reigning monarchs - coming to throne age only 9 in 1216 and then ruling until his death - though today he remains comparatively forgotten about.

In part he is generally forgotten about in the list of Kings because he was eminently forgettable as an individual. Rather like Iain Duncan Smith (a former Tory leader, for those who have already forgotten), Henry was 'a quiet man' - with much to be quiet about. Like most kings, 'he was extravagant and avaricious; when his first child, Prince Edward was born, Henry demanded the Londoners bring him rich gifts to celebrate, and even sent back gifts that did not please him. Matthew Paris reports that some said, "God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us."'

He was also really rather incompetent, as monarchs go. After Magna Carta in 1215, the power of the barons could no longer really be ignored by Kings, but once Henry had grown to maturity he wanted to run England in the French style (his wife was French) with absolute power (and favours for his mates). This unsurprisingly pissed off quite a few English barons who allied themselves around the apparently quite dashing Simon de Montfort. When Henry tried to raise money from the people to fund a little war to capture Sicily, of all places, matters reached a head. 'In 1258 seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of fifteen barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a three yearly meeting of parliament to monitor their performance.' This really was the birth of Parliament in Britain - though it was still very far from Parliamentary democracy - unless you count 15 rather rich landlords as 'the rule of the people'.

You would think Henry would now just learn his lesson - sit back and quietly get on with living his life of luxury like a good king. He had an interest in architecture - York Minster as we know it was built in his reign as were ecclesiastical edifices at Wells and Lincoln - perhaps he could have got stuck into that. However, as Prince Charles could tell you, architecture and talking to trees does not a man make - and so Henry went and started...a Civil War.

This admittedly was a rather extreme option - and it nearly got him killed - but sometimes a man has got to do what a man has got to do. Basically Henry bought off some of the barons and forced the rebel barons around de Montfort to try and raise an army among the other classes of English society to defend themselves. Unfortunately this is where things started to go rather wrong for Henry - as in 1264 Simon de Montfort defeated Henry's army at Lewes with the help of citizens of London. King Henry and his two sons were captured by the rebels. Leslie Morton in A People's History of England tells us what happened next:

'After Lewes, the desertions from the baronial ranks went on, and the movement began as a result to assume a really popular character. It included the town merchants, the lesser landowners, those of the clergy who were opposed to the growing power of the Papacy and the students of Oxford, who, drawn from the middle and lower middle classes, were throughout the Middle Ages strongly radical in temper. It was under these circumstances that de Montfort summoned to his Parliament of 1265 representatives of the burgesses of the chartered towns as well as two knights from each shire.'

This is really quite remarkable when you think about it - a split in the ruling class and the formation of an alliance with the new urban middle class - the successful overthrow of the King - and a new Parliamentary power forms.
Plus students in Oxford were radical as early as 1265!

As Morton continues, 'de Montfort's Parliament, though called together in accordance with strictly legal forms, has nevertheless been correctly described as a revolutionary party assembly. It contained only five earls and seventeen barons, and the burgesses were clearly intended as a makeweight against the barons who had deserted.'

All this reads almost like the great dress rehearsal for the English Civil War almost four hundred years later - no wonder our rulers keep fairly quiet about Henry III! Henry had lost his monarchical power to a (French born) bloke called Simon...its all rather embarrassing isn't it...

Unfortunately, Republicanism in England was not to be a thirteenth century phenonomenon. Henry's eldest son, Edward - you remember, the one that the poor in London had to give gifts to - decided not to repay his new captors with kindness and instead planned to escape. He challenged his captors to a horse race, and having the best stead managed not only to win but to ride off into the sunset into the bargain. Edward raised an army, returned before Simon could muster reinforcements, and began to massacre the rebel army.

Simon de Montfort had one last trick up his sleeve however. He dressed Henry III up as an ordinary soldier and put him at the front of the army - which meant he was very nearly killed by Edward's forces - only just succeeding in identifying himself in time. For this act, Edward was not feeling particularly merciful to Simon de Montfort after winning back control - and Simon was killed. Order was restored and Henry was back on the throne. After the excitement of 1265, Henry was more respectful towards the Barons and, when convenient to himself, would call Parliaments more regularly. However, while they were no longer a purely feudal institution, they were hardly democratic and were just there to help the King collect taxes.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

'All roads lead to Prescott'

"...rebels are calling for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to intervene in the row over the timing of Blair's departure from Downing Street.

'All roads lead to Prescott,' said one source close to last week's revolt. 'The question is what he's going to do, when he thinks it's the right time to make the move. It needs someone who doesn't have a personal agenda.'"

Yep, you read that right. Apparently anti-Blair rebels are hoping John Prescott will be Brutus and put Anthony Caesar Blair out of his misery. The question is, as Steve Bell has noted, does Prescott have the balls to do it?


Punish Blair - Vote Stop the War

Go vote!

My faith in the people of Britain remains high after an excellent selection of protests made it into the finals for the BBC poll - No Fathers for Justice bollocks made it into the top ten. Any of the protests selected would be worthy winners - but I think if the Stop the War protests made it #1 then that would be the most damaging for Blair at the moment...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Eugene Debs on War

"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.

They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace."

Eugene Debs, 1918

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Robert Ingersoll on War

"War destroys. Peace creates. War is decay and death. Peace is growth and life--sunlight and air. War kills men. Peace maintains them. Artillery does not reason; it asserts. A bayonet has point enough , but no logic. When the sword is drawn, reason remains in the scabbard."

Not bad for a member of the [American] Republicans I think you'd agree...

Robert G Ingersoll was considered by Eugene V Debs to be the greatest orator of all time, no small compliment coming from Debs.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Stalin on Cromwell

STALIN: 'The Communists base themselves on rich historical experience which teaches that obsolete classes do not voluntarily abandon the stage of history. Recall the history of England in the seventeenth century. Did not many say that the old social system had decayed? But did it not, nevertheless, require a Cromwell to crush it by force?'

HG WELLS: 'Cromwell operated on the basis of the constitution and in the name of constitutional order...'

STALIN: 'In the name of the constitution he resorted to violence, beheaded the king, dispersed Parliament, arrested some and beheaded others!'

HG Wells interviews Stalin in Moscow, 1934

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Terrorism of Counter-revolution

One of the oldest objections to the idea of socialist revolution in the modern world is that such events are inevitably bloody affairs - that whatever the good intentions behind them, they are predetermined to end up bloodbaths. No matter how bloody the capitalist system is - how many wars get waged, how many poor people starve to death - mention the idea of overthrowing this system and for most people instantly the image of a bloodthirsty dictatorship comes to mind. Common sense tells us: far better to constructively attempt piecemeal social reform than risk destroying everything we have gained so far through revolution.

Why is this? In England, for example, we have not experienced a revolution for over 350 years - street names and the odd statue can now safely be devoted to Oliver Cromwell. For many English (if not Irish) intellectuals, Cromwell is still held up as a democrat. Yet the spectre of the Great French Revolution - or rather of the Great Terror of Paris, 1793-4 - still hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living in the West. Thanks to the literary powers of Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, the image most people in England still have of 'revolution' is the guillotine. Few French intellectuals today would rally to Robespierre's defence - there are few streets or statues devoted to him, even more than two centuries after his 'reign of virtue'.

Yet as Mark Twain once pointed out, in France 'there were two reigns of terror; one lasted several months, the other 1,000 years'. Few remember the brutality and acts of terrorism waged against law breakers under the Ancien Regime of Louis XVI in France. There were no 'Scarlet Pimpernels' eager to save poor French peasants who were found stealing from being hung - after all, where is the excitement and drama in that?

Traditionally, liberal French historians proudly defended the Terror of the Jacobin Republic, noting the dire circumstances the Revolution faced in 1793 with war abroad and counter-revolution at home (especially revolt in the Vendee). Aristocrats were organising plots to try to restore the old monarchical order, and if sometimes the violence got a bit out of hand - well, it was the old regime's fault for not educating the 'multitude' of people - the 'mob' - before the revolution broke out. They pointed out that Robespierre was no bloodthirsty psychopath - but in fact a brilliant educated lawyer who had opposed the death penalty when it existed in 1789.

However, for the last twenty years or so it has been fashionable for liberals to portray the Terror of the Jacobin Republic as something irrational that stemmed from what Francois Furet has called the 'egalitarian fanaticism' of the French revolutionaries. This idea is not new - in the 1870s, the conservative Taine put the violence down to the Jacobins' 'pernicious doctrine of the sovereignty of the people'. Furet for example points out that the worst of the Terror took place after the most dangerous threat from royalist counter-revolution had been defeated. Leave aside the Terror in places like the Vendeee - which was in part a response to vicious White Terror - and lets look at Paris during the Great Terror of June - July 1794...

On the face of it - this period of Terror - the famous Great Terror- organised by Robespierre who was by now ruling essentially as a dictator was completely irrational. Over 800 people went to their deaths in this two month period in Paris - thats well over ten people getting guillotined as 'suspects', 'enemies of the people' every day - mostly without much by the way of a trial. The high standards of revolutionary justice which prevailed under most of the Jacobin's rule was sacrificed after the draconian Law of 22 Prairial.

Yet the current liberal explanation that stresses that this bloodbath took place because of Robespierre's ideological devotion to the 'people's will' above plurality of representation is inadequate. What is downplayed in this account is the awkward fact that many of the victims of this period of Robespierre's 'reign of terror' were not rich aristocrats but actually devout revolutionaries (like the Herbertistes) who also agreed with Rousseau's concept of the General Will, but wanted not just political equality like Robespierre but also social and economic equality.

To understand why Robespierre sent so many other revolutionaries to their graves in this period, it is important to look at the material base as well as the discursive ideology of terrorism. While Robespierre spoke of how 'without virtue, terror is useless; without terror, virtue is powerless', the reality was that he was not prepared to let the virtuous poor of Paris take power themselves. He could not imagine a society structured without private property, without class - and so Robespierre crushed the democratic organisations of the urban poor of Paris (the sans-culottes), and murdered their leaders. Such violence was inevitable as the revolutionary wave subsided, and the middle class felt confident enough to want their old privileges back. As Chris Harman notes, 'the terror came to function not only to defend the revolution, but also to symbolise the way in which the state was being centralised by a political group balancing between the masses and the conciliatory elements in the bourgeoisie.' This clampdown was seen as a 'historical necessity' by liberals traditionally, - after all, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution and when the masses had been used to fight the old order, now needed to be reminded of their place in society.

Once 'the Great Terror' was over - and Robespierre himself guillotined as Thermidorean reactionaries took control, a new white terror was therefore unleashed on former revolutionaries of all stripe. Such violence is inevitable when a tiny minority of society have to preserve their power and property from the majority.

A few things stand out:

1) 'No ruling class hands over its power without a fight' (Karl Marx). Revolutions begin with flowers - overwhelmingly peacefully. The storming of the Bastille for example saw the Parisien masses make their forcible entrace onto the stage of history but left only a handful dead. Real violence in revolutions only comes later, when the old order try to restore what they have lost. It was the aristocracy of France who made alliances with regimes across Europe after 1789 to plunge France into bloody civil war which made the Terror inevitable for national defence. The worst instances of terror only took place where the old order made their most serious violent challenge to the new order - in the South West of France for example. Marx's point is also true of the new bourgeois ruling elites who used force to make sure that the sans-culottes did not get 'ideas above their station'.

2) 'Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave' (St Just). The old order are prepared to use more violence and exact brutal revenge if they are given the opportunity. The bourgeois leaders of the French Revolution (including Robespierre and St Just himself) found this out to their cost - clamping down on the democratic organisations to their Left only to then be left unable to call upon the masses when faced with the return of old enemies to their Right.

3)We need to keep the violence of the terror in perspective. Donald Greer estimated that overall 16,600 people were killed in the whole of France (including a total of just over 2,000 in Paris) after being sentenced to death by revolutionary courts of justice over two years from 1793-4. While the aristocracy and clergy were hit hard, victims came from all sections of the population. Yet eighty years later, in 1871, more than double that total were killed in Paris alone in a far shorter time as the Paris Commune was drowned in blood by counter-revolution.

Edit: To add this, a reminder to myself to read a lot more about bourgeois revolutions and historical materialism...

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Announcement: Histomat goes to Latin America!

As people in the UK have probably noticed, the nights are getting in and winter is now almost upon us. However, some lucky bastards are able to avoid the cold and the wet and Blair's new attacks on civil liberties and go on holiday at this time of year - and a good friend of mine happens to be doing just that. I have been discussing protest in my last two posts (I've been a bit busy lately to be able to write anything original - apologies) - and it is therefore appropriate that my friend has decided to visit the continent of Latin America - which has seen huge mass movements emerge and struggle against neo-liberalism. Lenin's Tomb has covered the latest developments here far better than I could - just as it brilliantly deals with just about everything else from riots in Paris to war crimes in Iraq. Anyway, I am very happy to introduce my (still as yet anonymous) guest writer who is about to depart for warmer climes, on what I like to call his 'Che Guevara tour' - not that I am jealous or anything:

'Hello. I am Histomatist's new foreign correspondent -
a kind of John Simpson for the radical blogosphere,
though I'm not intending to liberate any cities I
visit. I have, however, been allowed by Snowball to
write a few posts about a two month trip I am making.
The trip will begin in Argentina in mid-November, end
on New Year's Eve in Rio, and may take in Chile,
Bolivia and Paraguay en route.

I think travel is an odd one. On the one hand, what
could be more enlightening than exploring a different
country? It is an opportunity to learn more about
other cultures, to meet interesting an adventurous
people, and to digest life without the oppressive
cloud of work hanging over you.

And yet I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who
returned from travelling any more free-thinking or
open-minded than they were before they left. Travel
has been fetishised to such an extent that it is now
just a standard rite of passage for the average
middle-class youth. The Western liberal version of
multi-culturalism, whereby all cultures are tolerated
so long as they adopt Western customs and renounce
rituals which might offend Western sensibilities,
means that we are even more closed to experiences
which might challenge our innate sense of cultural and
civil superiority.

I don't pretend to be the most adventurous traveller
in the world, but hopefully I may be able to find out
a few scraps of interest about Latin America. Parts
of the continent are currently something of a lone
voice in left-wing politics, with a handful of
countries openly challenging the neo-liberal system
which has been foisted on so much of South America. I
go there knowing little about Latin American culture,
politics or history, so hopefully my observations
won't be too ignorant or trite.

Overall though, my objectives for this trip are fairly
- to learn to tango (not such a modest objective, as
anybody who has seen me dance will testify, but I saw
it on Strictly Come Dancing the other night and it
looked like a piece of piss);
- to successfully chat someone up in Spanish;
- to find a Bush supporter and call him "un pendejo"
(the insult President Chavez fired at Bush at a recent
UN summit meeting - it literally means "a pubic hair
caught in a man's foreskin");
- to avoid getting dengue fever / altitude sickness /
addicted to cocaine;
- to read my five allotted books: Hasek, "The Good
Soldier Svejk"; Nabokov, "Bend Sinister"; Twain,
"Pudd'nhead Wilson"; Lorca, "Poet in New York";
"Zizek, "The Metastases of Enjoyment". A rum
selection if ever I saw one.

Since I'm a guest blogger, I guess I'd better have a
nickname. Any suggestions would be gratefully
received, as would any recommendations from
Histomatist readers on where I should go in South
America. Hasta luego!'

Edit: to add an article by John Pilger on Latin America here


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Raging Against the Machine

'On June 16, 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon. Quang Duc was actually protesting religious persecution under the Diem regime, not the war. However, the case could be made that Diem would not have been in power had it not been for U.S. intervention in Vietnam'. Respect.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

The power of protest

The BBC Politics Show is asking people to nominate their top ten political protests in the light of the death of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger in Alabama in 1955 galvanised the American civil rights movement. Political protest I think has to be seen as something distinct from riots and revolutions, though it may inspire such mass collective actions of rebellion. The problem with any form of 'lists' of political protests is that only symobolic actions, normally undertaken by individuals, have any chance of making the top ten - despite the fact that real change comes when millions of ordinary people undertake lots of extraordinary little actions that simply do not get recorded. But that taken into account, here are ten inspiring protests for you - in chronological order. Not all of the ten below are 'protests that shook the world' - but I think all are quite timely ones to remember in the current climate - though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others that could easily make such a list.

1. Martin Luther's 95 Theses in 1517 'On October 31, 1517, according to traditional accounts, Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them. The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant.'This arguably helped to kick off the Protestant Reformation, which split the Church, up to then the key ideological buttress of European feudalism.
2. Emily Davison, Suffragette who threw herself under the King's Horse 1913
3. Gandhi's Salt March, 1930, against the British Empire.
4. Battle of Cable Street, East London, 1936, which smashed Mosley's British Union of Fascists.
5. Rosa Parks, Alabama, 1955 - sparked the Civil Rights movement.
6. Black Power at the Mexico Olympic Games, 1968.
7. Tiananmen Square, China, 1989 - inspiring pro-democracy protest.
8. Poll Tax riots, London, 1990 - brought down Thatcher.
9.The 'Battle of Seattle', 1999, which shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organisation, and brought the anti-capitalist movement into the front rooms of people across the world.
10. Global Day of Protest against the Iraq War, February 15th, 2003. Thirty million demonstrate globally - will ultimately be the thing that brings down Blair.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The new Ethiopia

Forget Blair's 'difficulty' now he has lost Blunkett, what is Our Dear Leader going to say about this?

'Riot police shot dead at least 23 people, including several women, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa during a second day of demonstrations over disputed elections. The continued violence is a deep embarrassment for Tony Blair, who has championed the Ethiopian Prime Minister as belonging to a "new breed" of reformist African leaders. Ethiopia is one of Britain’s biggest aid recipients. As scores of wounded were taken to ramshackle hospitals across the capital, gangs of youths shouted anti-Blair slogans at Britons living in the city. One British resident working for the United Nations told The Times: "They were not threatening, but there is a lot of anger over Britain’s support of this government. They shouted things like: ‘Tell Blair to open his eyes’ and ‘Tell your government what is happening here’." "When is the West going to realise this government is a bunch of morons"?'

With friends like the Ethiopian regime, who needs enemies like Iran or Syria?

At the moment, Blair's Ambassador to Ethiopia has issued a 'note of protest' to its ally about what is going on. Issuing a mild 'protest note', of course, was all that the British Government could muster in 1935, seventy years ago, when Fascist Italy began its bloody colonial conquest of Ethiopia. Then again, in 1935, the British Government was itself in control of huge swathes of Africa and so was hardly best placed to take the moral high ground against Mussolini when he tried to take a piece of what was left for himself. I am sure that the Blair regime today, even after its war crimes in Iraq, will be sure to claim for itself the moral high ground and denounce Ethiopia's authoritarian turn and illegal murder of innocent people.

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