Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, October 31, 2005

Marxism and domestic duties

Presumably for socialist women like Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, the question of whether or not to do things like the washing up did not really arise. However, I am interested in collecting together a file on what other leading Marxists did or did not do to help out around the house. I am aware this is not a burning issue of historical materialism, still less of the movement, but hey, I am allowed to indulge in trivialities and irrelevancies if I like. I will put up the references I have found so far (limited to Trotsky and his followers I am afraid) but if anyone knows anything about anyone else then send em in and I'll put em up. Quite what this will achieve I do not know, but here goes.

Leon Trotsky in France - Summer, 1933:

'There was the chore each evening of washing the dishes. One evening Trotsky decided to give us a hand. He wiped each plate or glass with such extreme care that the operation went on late into the night, and everybody was much more tired than if he had not helped us'.

From Jean Van Heijenoort, With Trotsky in Exile, (London, 1978), p. 28.

Max Shachtman, American Trotskyist leader, 1944:

'At the end of the meal Jessie Glaberman proposed that he [Shachtman] wash the dishes. Max, with much posturing with his arms, intoned, "I think, you wash dishes."'

C.L.R. James, Trinidadian Marxist, 1940s America:

'On another occasion the same proposition was put to CLR James. He simply got up and washed the dishes. Some time later when Raya Dunayevskaya found out about this she berated us for making James do the dishes. He, however, took it all in stride.'

Both from Marty Glaberman's 'Introduction' to Glaberman (ed.), Marxism for Our Times. CLR James on Revolutionary Organisation (Mississipi, 1999), p. xv.

New entry! George Galloway MP, 2006, British Celebrity Big Brother.

'If George is a leader, he should try doing some washing up' - Michael Barrymore.

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Anti-Bush Halloween special

All thanks to here


Friday, October 28, 2005

Denis Macshane cries wolf...

Denis MacShane MP for Rotheram and a former Foreign Office minister has compared George Galloway to infamous British Nazi sympathiser Lord Haw Law. Galloway apparently "employs very expensive libel lawyers to stop any press investigation into his role as Lord Haw-Haw for one of the worst tyrants in the world's history" - Saddam Hussain. Macshane called for a joint committee of the Commons and the US Congress to investigate the claims against him.

Leave aside the fact that the recent smears against Galloway coincide rather too conveniently with the fact that the number of US troops dead in Iraq has now reached 2,000. Leave aside Galloway's record of opposition to Saddam Hussain. Even leave aside previous New Labour comparisons of Galloway to British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley during the General Election campaign - because, er, he had a moustache and was a former Labour MP...

No, what interests me is the way that Denis Macshane seems unable to comment on anything without bringing up Nazis and Fascists. After the appalling Al Qaida bombings in Madrid, Macshane
that 'the time has come to unite against terrorism - the new fascism of the 21st century'. Of course, 'uniting against terrorism' meant supporting Bush and Blair's disasterous wars on Afghanistan and Iraq - something Macshane has been to the fore in doing. The notion that the reason Spain might have got bombed was less to do with fascism and more to do with then President Aznar's warmongering escaped Macshane.

To recap then - in Macshane's world - Saddam Hussain is now Adolf Hitler and Al Qaida are fascists - and we all need to unite behind Bush and Blair because they are fighting fascism. Anyone who doesn't agree - like George Galloway - is therefore 'objectively pro-fascist' and can be smeared accordingly.

Macshane's hatred of Galloway stems back at least as far as the General Election in May this year - which saw Respect make its breakthrough onto the political landscape. Respect's success in Britain was part of the birth of a new Left in Europe. Yet for Macshane, this New Left, as he put it in an article for the New Statesman in June, was not a healthy development. Indeed, the rejection of the neo-liberalism seen in recent Euro referendums in France and Holland means - you guessed it - 'we may be witnessing the slow "Weimar-isation" of Europe, a slide back towards the fatal interwar years when fascism was given its opportunity.'

'In France today, an alliance of populists and protectionists has just shattered the Socialist Party of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors. In Germany, the former Social Democratic leader Oskar Lafontaine has formed a breakaway group in a clear echo of the disastrous splits in the 1920s. In Italy, too, the left is hopelessly at odds with itself, with Francesco Rutelli's Margherita (Daisy Party) refusing to submit to the renamed Partito dei Comunisti Italiani in the Ulivo coalition, and the Rifondazione Comunista denouncing its erstwhile comrades as reformists...The European left today is as incoherent as it was during the Weimar years...unless the democratic left starts to think and act together, it risks ushering in a long period of right-wing domination, ugly nationalism and the disintegration of the EU - a new Weimar Europe.'

Yet where did this New Left come from? A decade ago, weren't most people happy to see the election of Labour and Social Democratic parties across the heartland of Europe after years of Conservative Governments? The New Left did not come out of the blue - it was born out of the failures of those traditional social democratic parties in power to represent the interests of the labour movement against the steady rise of corporate power ('Globalisation') - coupled with most of those Governments craven support for Bush's 'war on terror'. In short they were born out of the massive anti-war and anti-capitalist movements of the last few years.

However, social democratic betrayals do not automatically lead people to look to the Left and socialist ideas. Indeed those Governments relentless attack on the rights of asylum ('Fortress Europe')and demonisation of Muslims has boosted racism. In Britain, for example, New Labour's betrayal of millions of working class people that has created a political vacuum that has allowed the real British Nazi Party to start to have the confidence to think about taking to the streets again for the first time in a decade. Given the menace of real fascists in our midst - for Macshane to start comparing others on the Left to Nazis is surely the thing that threatens to split 'left unity' against fascism? It is as irresponsible as his attacks on the British Muslim community after the July 7th bombings - where he criticised Muslim leaders for failing to condemn terrorism enough, as if they had done little else since September 11th.

Lets all unite against [real] fascism in Britain in November, but then work to give people a real decent alternative to New Labour's war-mongering and profit-mongering to vote for in the local council elections next May. Macshane will doubtless carry on crying wolf - comparing George Galloway and Muslims - and anyone else he doesn't like - to fascists - but I doubt if many people will continue to listen.

Edited to add SW article on 'Coleman-balls' v. Galloway.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Blogging for revolution in Zimbabwe

Just found this, the blog of the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe. I have no idea if there are any other African anti-capitalist bloggers out there, but they must exist...

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A welcome to new readers...

This weeks Monday's Guardian (24 October) apparently kindly recommended a post of mine about The Battle of Trafalgar in its section 'Today on the web', while discussing Nelson. As 'Today on the Web' is, ironically, not freely available online, Bat generously transcribed what they said:


Not everyone was celebrating [the Battle of Trafalgar]:

"Perhaps never before in the field of human conflict has so much imperial propaganda about a past battle been forced upon so many by so few. For socialists, our response should arguably be to recall the Haitian Revolution which defeated not just the tyrannical French and Spanish empires but also the murderous British empire as well. To hear the sound of liberty ringing down through the centuries, let us listen to Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution and a military genius at least the equal of Nelson."



Anyway, Guardian readers - as well as others - are more than welcome to Histomat - which kind of aims to help in the development of an understanding of the past that is of use to us in the present - as opposed to the myths about how society changes that are propagated by ruling elites. Unfortunately, my 'Dead King Watch' (DKW) feature has of late rather encouraged a tendency for this blogger to focus overwhelmingly on British, indeed English, history. This is a problem - we need more global people's history on the world wide web - but one I hope to rectify at some point in the future. Fortunately, there are other bloggers out there who are far better historians than me on hand to help in this task - which it would be futile and arrogant in any case to think that one could pursue singlehandedly. History should be a collaborative intellectual discipline anyway - but for socialist historians, who tend to go against the grain of conventional fashion and recieved 'wisdom', co-operation should be second nature.

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October 1965 - 'A little shooting in Indonesia'

For the generation of socialists in Britain like myself who have grown up campaigning under (and against) the Blair regime, there is sometimes a temptation to paint previous Labour Governments red, or at least in a good light. So while we can understand why the 1968 veterans saw Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his tongue up the arse of President Lyndon B Johnson because of his support for the Vietnam war, we also (secretly) admired Wilson's tactical nouse in avoiding sending British troops to join that bloody American war. If only Blair had done the same over Iraq!

However, anyone who seriously looks at the reality of previous Labour Governments, especially with respect to Foreign Policy, is soon dispelled of any romantic notions they may once have had - or start to have. In the first Labour Government in 1924, the new Colonial Secretary J.H. Thomas was said to have introduced himself to the heads of departments at the Colonial Office with the statement, “I am here to see that there is no such mucking about with the British Empire". The second Labour Government (1929-31) continued this policy - doing nothing to fulfil previous electoral pledges with respect to what was then called 'the Colonial Question' - not least in India. The sorry story after the Second World War has been well told by among others John Saville and Mark Curtis. It is from Mark Curtis's excellent Web of Deceit; Britain's real role in the world that I ruthlessly plagiarise from for this post.

Imagine the scene. It is October 1965. Forty years ago. A hated Tory Government that lasted for thirteen years had been removed the year before and now under the young Harold Wilson, Labour was promising a new 'techonological revolution' to modernise Britain. The future looks bright.

Then reports start to come out about some violence erupting in Indonesia, then under President Sukarno. Army officers fearing a coup against Sukarno assassinate some Generals who are opposed to his rule, which then leads to others in the Army led by General Suharto to start to round up members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in revenge.

What might you expect the reaction of a British Labour Government to be? Shrug their shoulders - after all, its a far off country and of little business to us what they get up to? Perhaps criticise the brutal crackdown on the PKI by Generals as undemocratic? Sadly not.

'I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change', the British Ambassador in Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office on the 5th October 1965. The Foreign Office agreed, noting the next day that 'the crucial question still remains whether the Generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKI.' On the 16th October, the Foreign Office noted that:

'we must surely prefer an army to a Communist regime...the Generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendency over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the Generals.'

Amid the 'confusion,' the Generals did indeed pluck up the courage to take 'decisive action' against the Communists - and started a 'little shooting'. On the 25th November, a British Official could report, presumably with satisfaction, that 'PKI men and women are being executed in very large numbers'. Some victims are 'given a knife and invited to kill themselves. Most refuse and are told to turn around and are shot in the back'.

On the 16th December 1965, a British official reported to the British Ambassador that the US, which was also backing the Generals against 'Communism', were right to be estimating over 100,000 dead so far. By February 1966, the British Ambassador himself was estimating the numbers dead as 400,000 - though the Swedish Ambassador thought this a 'gross under-estimate.' By March, one British official wondered 'how much of the PKI is left, after six months of killing'. Curtis finds nothing in any of the files to show that British officials, under a Labour Government remember, were unduly concerned by the bloodbath taking place. Indeed one British official, referring to over 10,000 people arrested by the army, noted 'I hope they do not throw the 10,005 into the sea...otherwise it will cause quite a shipping hazard'.

The British indeed did have tens of thousands troops in Borneo at the time - and the US were worried the British may intervene in order to get control over Indonesia's natural resources (including rubber, copra and chromium ore) for British companies. To reassure the US, the British Ambassador insisted that 'we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them while they are chasing the PKI'. This was well recieved by the Indonesian Generals - an aide to the Defence Minister noted that 'this was just what was needed...as we moved to straighten things out'. While the US armed the Generals, the British were happy that the US would not take over the area for itself having got a confirmation from the US State Department that they had 'undertaken to consult with us before they do anything to support the Generals'.

General Suharto's regime, established on the back of an estimated million deaths, ruled for the next thirty years in Indonesia. In 1966, once this new dictatorship was established, the British Foreign Office noted that 'it was very necessary to demonstrate to the Indonesians that we regarded relations with them as rapidly returning to normal'.

In 1964, President Sukarno had made himself an enemy of the British when he decided to nationalise some of Indonesia's industry - which meant taking it off British companies. In 1956, when Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser had done the same to the Suez Canal - the resulting fiasco caused by the British, French and Israelis to oust him through war had been condemned by many in the Labour Party. Labour learnt from the Tories in Suez - far better to support a military coup discretely rather than openly invade to defend corporate power. When the new Suharto regime was safely installed, the British Foreign Secretary told one Indonesian General that 'we are...glad that your Government has decided to hand back the control of British estates to their original owners'. Forty years on from their complicity in General Suharto's bloody coup, it seems that Labour Government's have not yet forgotten the usefulness of 'a little shooting'. Blair's imperial adventure in Iraq is merely the latest part of a longstanding British Labour tradition.

Edited to add a recent brilliant article by John Pilger on this and its relevance to Iraq now here.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

DKW: Stephen and feudal Anarchy in the UK

Stephen ruled England from 1135 to his death in 1154, almost exactly 851 years ago. I say 'ruled' - but infact his claim to the throne was disputed, and most of his reign was characterised by civil war and chaos known as the Anarchy, as barons fought among themselves for either Stephen or the daughter of Henry I, Matilda. AL Morton says of this period the following:

'Twenty years of war followed, neither side being able to win a complete victory. It was a time that left a lasting impression on the minds of the people. All the worst tendencies of feudalism, which had been suppressed under the Norman kings, now had free play. Private wars and private castles sprang up everywhere. Hundreds of local tyrants massacred, tortured and plundered the unfortunate peasantry and chaos reigned everywhere.'

Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael novels were set in this period - though it is debatable if they 'left a lasting impression on the minds of the people', despite the fact they spawned a TV series starring Sir Derek Jacobi. The Peterborough Chronicle, an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, leaves a description of what happened as barons opposing Stephen were captured but let free (to take up arms again) if they just swore an oath of allegiance:

"Ða ðe suikes undergæton that he milde man was, and softe and god, and no iustice ne dide, ða diden hi alle wunder"
("When these men understood that he (Stephen) was a gentle man, and soft and good, and did not execute justice, then they all wondered (at him).")

"ævric rice man his castles maked and agenes him heolden; and fylden the land ful of castles. Hi suencten suythe the uurecce men of the land mid castelweorces; tha the castles uuaren maked, tha fylden hi mid deovles and yvele men. Tha namen hi tha men the hi wendan that any god hefden, bathe be nihtes and be dæies, carlmen and wimmen, and diden heom in prison and pined heom efter gold and sylver untellendlice pining; for ne uuaerern naevre mas martyrs swa pined alse hi waeron."
("Every chieftain made castles and held them against the king; and they filled the land full of castles. They viciously oppressed the poor men of the land with castle-building work; when the castles were made, then they filled the land with devils and evil men. Then they seized those who had any goods, both by night and day, working men and women, and threw them into prison and tortured them for gold and silver with uncountable tortures, for never was there a martyr so tortured as these men were.")

"Me henged up bi the fet and smoked heom mid full smoke. Me henged bi the þumbes other bi the hefed and hengen bryniges on her fet. Me dide cnotted strenges abuton here hæued and wrythen it ðat it gæde to þe haernes.... I ne can nelne mai tellen alle ðe wunder ne all ðe pines that he diden wrecce men on ðis land."
("One they hung by his feet and filled his lungs with smoke. One was hung up by the thumbs and another by the head and had coats of mail hung on his feet. One they put a knotted cord about his head and twisted it so that it went into the brains.... I neither can nor may recount all the atrocities nor all the tortures that they did on the wretched men of this land.")

'Yet', Morton notes, 'what is significant about the events of Stephen's reign is not its misery but its uniqueness, the fact that such conditions, normal in many parts of Europe, only arose in England under the special circumstances of a disputed succession and a crown to weak to enforce order. This taste of the evils of unrestrained feudal anarchy was sharp enough to make the masses welcome a renewed attempt of the Crown to diminish the power of the nobles but not long enough for disorder to win a permanent hold. In 1153 the two parties met at Wallingford and a compromise was reached. Stephen was to reign during his life and Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, was to succeed him. In the next year Stephen died. Henry, adding England and Normandy to his own large domains, became unquestionably the most powerful monarch in Western Europe.'


Thursday, October 20, 2005

You win some, you lose some...

A stroke of good luck happened to me today - a Library near me was relocating and selling off books it did not need - and I knew about it!

My housemates will not be particularly pleased that I have got more books (they like to keep the place neat and tidy) - but I have to share the good news with someone and so here, in no particular order, is what I brought home today:

Betty D Vernon - Ellen Wilkinson (1982)
AL Morton (ed) - Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings (1975)
Victor Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1963)*
C. Rosberg/J. Nottingham -The myth of 'Mau-Mau'; Nationalism in Kenya(1966)
L Schaefer (ed) - The Ethiopian Crisis - Touchstone of Appeasement? (1965)
Michael Foot - Aneurin Bevan, Vol 1 (1962)
T Ryle Dwyer - Eamon de Valera (1980)
Wal Hannington - Unemployed Struggles, 1919-1936 (1977)
Nan Milton - John Maclean (1973)
Victor Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution (1972)*
Lawrence Stone - The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (1967)
David Jones - Chartism and the Chartists (1975)
J.P. Nettl - Rosa Luxemburg, Vol 1 (1966)
GDH Cole and R Postgate - The Common People, 1746-1946 (1971)**
Gwen Jones - A History of the Vikings (1968)
Martin Albrow - Bureaucracy (1970)
Richard N Hunt - German Social Democracy, 1918-1933 (1970)
James Curran and Jean Seaton - Power without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (1985)
R K Hunt - The British Working Class Reader, 1790-1848 (1955)
V Haynes and O Semyonova (ed) Workers Against the Gulag; The New Opposition in the Soviet Union (1978)
David Howell - British Social Democracy; A Study in Development and Decay (1976)
Ray Challinor - The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977)

* I already had copies of these, but you can never have too much Serge.
** I had bought this once before - thought it crap, took it back to the second hand shop, then later regretted taking it back.

The bad news is I returned home to find I have picked up an offensive Right wing troll called 'noserubber' on my blog - who sadly seems not to have read a single book in the whole of his life.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Robert Capa.

Just watched a facinating documentary 'Robert Capa: In Love and War' about Robert Capa (1913-1954), possibly the most famous war photographer of the twentieth century - but someone I have only just found out about. He made his name with this powerful photograph above of exiled Leon Trotsky lecturing to an audience of Danish Social Democratic students in Copenhagen in 1932 on the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. A few months later Hitler's Nazis took power - and Capa, a Hungarian Jew who grew up in Germany, chose to leave there. He became an intransigent anti-fascist, and went into journalism in order to fight fascism. When the Spanish Revolution erupted in 1936 against Franco, Capa - aged only 23 remember - went to cover the conflict. He later exposed the horrors of the Second World War, again braving fire from fascists. After the war, he lived in America but got bored of Tinseltown - calling Hollywood 'the biggest load of shit I ever stepped in'. He left to cover more international conflicts - and died covering the French war against Vietnam in 1954.

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DKW: John and the Great Charter

King John died on this day in 1216, which I reckon makes this the 789th anniversary of his death.

There is quite a lot one could say about King John, but I want to focus on the time he attempted to break out of the feudal contract that previously existed, before being forced by the barons to sign Magna Carta in 1215. The Magna Carta did not make England into a democratic country - far from it. As A.L. Morton noted in A People's History of England:

'it was not a constitutional document. It did not embody the principle of no taxation without representation. It did not guarantee parliamentary government, since Parliament did not then exist. It did not establish the right to trial by jury, since, in fact, the jury was a piece of royal machinery to which the barons had the strongest objections...while its most famous clause declared that "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or dissesised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him or send upon him except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land", the second word excluded from any possible benefit the overwhelming mass of the people who were still in villeinage.'

However, that said, what it did do was 'to set out in detail the ways in which John had gone beyond his rights as a feudal overlord and to demand that his unlawful practises should stop. It marked the alliance between the barons and the citizens of London by insisting on the rights of merchants from arbitrary taxation'. The establishment of a permanent committee of barons to hold the King to account was the 'greatest victory' of the barons but it only came 'at the price of acting in a way which was not strictly feudal, of forming new kinds of combinations both among themselves and with other classes'.

Moreover, rather than Magna Carta passing down the generations of concerned English democrats, 'as feudalism declined it ceased to have any clear practical application and passed out of memory. The Tudor bourgeoisie were too closely allied to the monarchy to wish to place any check upon it, while the power of the nobles was broken in the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare, writing his play King John, never mentions Magna Carta and quite possibly had never heard of it.' Only later was it dressed up and misinterpreted and seen as some great founding document of Democracy - before it was critically reinterpreted again as a document of feudalism.

Yet why does this matter? Apparently there are some in the anti-capitalist movement today who manage to see the Charter as particularly inspiring. As Alex Callinicos reported, in 2004, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, authors of Empire, one of the most influential texts of the anti-capitalist movement, called for "a new global Magna Carta" to reign back US Power. In an article published in the journal of the big business World Economic Forum, they argued that the US, as the "global monarch", should "abandon a strictly unilateralist position and collaborate actively with the aristocracy". By this they mean "the multinational corporations, the supranational institutions and the other dominant nation-states".

While they do not think the anti-capitalist movement should join up with the "imperial aristocracies", they note that "it might be in the aristocracies’ interest, however, to consider the movements as potential allies and resources for formulating today’s global policies. Some version of the reforms that these movements demand, and some means to incorporate the global multitudes as active forces, are undeniably indispensable for the production of wealth and security."

As Callinicos notes, 'Hardt has responded to criticisms of this article by comparing it to Machiavelli's famous handbook for princes. But the world's ruling classes have their own Machiavellis when they need advice on how to exploit us better. There's no need for Hardt and Negri to volunteer for this role.' Indeed not.

However, there is something about the Magna Carta that does still carry down the centuries today. Out of its feudal context, the clause that "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or dissesised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him or send upon him except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land" strikes a timely note in a world run by barbarians like Bush and Blair. For them, tearing up ancient civil liberties such as the prohibition of torture, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law are part and parcel of the 'New World Order'. Anyone who disagrees can be sent to Guantanamo Bay.

After the Magna Carta was passed, King John 'denounced the Charter and gathered an army,' plunging the country into civil war. It is not too hard to see which side the Bush and Blairs of this world would have taken in that struggle.

For those who want something slightly more inspiring to read about than dead Kings and ancient Charters, might like to read more about someone who also tends to come to mind when thinking of 'bad' King John - Robin Hood. Judy Cox has written about the legend who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and why he makes an excellent icon for the modern anti-capitalist movement today.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Paul Robeson on Liberty.

Given it is Black History Month, I thought it timely to pay a quick tribute to one of the most inspiring figures from the 20th century - singer and actor Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Well, it makes a very welcome break from Kings of England. There are many great stories one could tell about the life of this heroic tribune of the oppressed, but I recently came across this, recalled by Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine in his 1954 book, Colour Bar:

It is well known that when coloured people rise to fame, they are obsessed with the desire to do something to help the less fortunate of their race, and to improve conditions for coloured people and try to give them more equality in an unequal world. Thus undesirable attention is drawn to the star, and such attention, will-he nill-he, often carries him and his affairs into the bitter and savage world of politics.
I am sure you have read in some newspaper or other than Paul Robeson has associated himself with the Communists. Perhaps this tale began because Paul, whom I am proud to number among my friends, sent his son to Soviet Russia to be educated. That was done not because of any political creed but because the boy was educated there in a freedom from discrimination that simply could not have been the case in England or the U.S.A. But Paul Robeson has suffered endless worries and professional drawbacks, not because he is or is not a Communist, but because the Red stick is so convenient at the moment to beat a black back.
So grave has his position become, because of political smears, that when he was over here [in London] in 1949 and he came home with me to dinner, I said: "A Paul Robeson with a bullet in his head or 'accidently' run over won't help the Negro cause; why don't you keep out of the political limelight for a time?" I remember him looking at me seriously and answering in his glorious voice: "Someone has got to make the sacrifice, Connie. I will. To hell with all Americans, and all English people, and all Negroes, who mean to break Liberty."

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Quick salute

Speaking of Harolds, Histomat would like to salute Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a worthy winner in his own right - as well as being an outstandingly courageous critic of imperialism. Christopher Hitchens gives a sense of the anger of the rulers of the world to this: 'The award to someone who gave up literature for politics decades ago, and whose politics are primitive and hysterically anti-American and pro-dictatorial, is part of the almost complete degradation of the Nobel racket.' That shows how important Pinter is today.

Edited to add: Pilger on Pinter

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DKW: Harold Godwinson - the People's King?

Harold Godwinson is probably the most famous King of England - who was killed on 14th October 1066 at the Battle of Hastings - making this the 939th anniversary of his death.

He was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England - and therefore can be seen as the last 'true' King before the country got conquered by the Normans. Given during his short period on the throne he fought and died resisting foreign invaders - should English socialists give him critical support, and see him as the exception to the rule - the one good monarch, the people's King?

He was certainly seen that way by many chroniclers after his death - and from reading Wikipedia - admittedly not the most reliable source in the world - he sounds kind of cool. When King Harald Hardrada ("Hard Reign") of Norway claimed that he had the right to the throne and invaded England, Harold's brother asked him what land Harold was going to offer the king of Norway to placate him. "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men," was Harold's response. You have to respect macho talk like that sometimes.

Harold didn't just talk the talk either. When Hardrada proceeded to invade what is now Yorkshire in September, 1066, he defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York (September 20). However, Harold sent his army up there and defeated them in turn five days later at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25), before famously getting killed at the Battle of Hastings fighting the Normans.

So what do we think? Personally, I have caught whatever it was Ed Rooksby had a while back, some sort of flu thing - and am ill so I cannot really be bothered to do much thinking I am afraid. Also someone emailed me to tell me my comment boxes were not working - so feel free to test them by leaving a comment on Harold's 'objectively anti-imperialist' stance or whatever at the usual address. If you can't get the comment function to work - then email me if you like - but I doubt I will be able to fix it, so apologies in advance. I'll write about something other than Kings when I get the energy.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

DKW: George II: Flattery and Flatulence

George II died on 12 October 1760 ( I think Wikipedia has the date wrong) - which makes this the 245th anniversary of his death. I don't think the nation should mourn too much - at least not if the late great historian A.L. Morton's account of his life in A People's History of England (1938) is anything to go by:

'George I and II were petty, rather stupid German princes, more interested in Hanover than in England, ignorant of English affairs and of the English language and quite ready to let Walpole and the Whigs govern for them so long as they recieved their due amount of pickings and flattery.'

Wikipedia notes that he died 'from an aortic dissection whilst using his toilet'. A fuller account can be found in Brewer's The Death of Kings. 'As there had been throughout so much of his life, an element of farce existed then. He rose at six in the morning, as he was accustomed, drank his chocolate and went to his close-stool. His valet de chambre heard "a noise louder than the royal wind" accompanied by a groan, and went into the chamber.' Apologies for the Blackadder IIIish title, but I thought it was somewhat appropriate.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Blair tells truth shocker

"There is no justification for Iran or any other country interfering in Iraq."

- Tony Blair

As Tony Benn would say, work that one out.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

This Battle of Trafalgar nonsense

October 21st 2005 sees the 200th anniversary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the English ruling classes are doing their damn best to make sure we all know it. Perhaps never before in the field of human conflict has so much imperial propaganda about a past battle been forced upon so many by so few. Since about June there has been 'Trafalgar this' and 'Trafalgar that' and so on and so forth. I suspect there is a lot more to come.

Who is behind this wave of hype? The Royal Navy, of course, are centrally involved but many corporations are keen to wave the flag. The list of the sponsors of organisers 'Trafalgar 200' makes interesting reading. The arms company British Aerospace is always keen to stress exactly why it likes war. 'The Type 45 Anti-Air Warfare Destroyers will be the most advanced fighting ships of their kind in the world and BAE Systems is leading the team that will deliver them. BAE Systems is proud to be supporting Trafalgar 200 celebrations as a silver sponsor. Side by side with the Royal Navy - yesterday, today and tomorrow.'

Conservative commentators can hardly contain their excitement about the whole affair. Historian Andrew Roberts, who is updating Winston Churchill's 'History of the English-Speaking Peoples', writes about the commemoration of Trafalgar in the latest issue of Right wing journal The New Criterion.

'...what celebrations there shall be! Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip will be dining with all the surviving First Sea Lords of her reign in the captain’s cabin of HMS Victory on Trafalgar Day itself, Friday, October 21, the same evening that literally hundreds of dinners, great and small, will be taking place up and down the country to toast the Immortal Memory of the greatest military hero of our long island history. That night there will hardly be a sober breath drawn by any Briton who has any patriotism in his soul, let alone any seafaring connections. Rum will be drunk by those who otherwise rarely touch the stuff.'

Prince Phillip (of Greece and Denmark) - well there is a man 'with patriotism in his soul' - though I doubt he can really be called a 'Briton'. Anyway, it is undeniable that many members of the English upper classes are indeed rolling out the barrel for the occasion. Here is Roberts again:

'...the auction industry has cashed in successfully on the bicentenary. Descendants of Trafalgar survivors, especially those of Nelson’s captains, have been waiting, in some cases for years, for this opportunity to sell off their Nelsonia. The results have been spectacular. In Edinburgh, a letter from Nelson referring to his perfect recovery after losing his right arm fetched £42,000, ten times its estimate. At Bonhams auction in London, in July, the lots fetched a total of £1.8 million, achieving five world-record prices. A cased Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund Trafalgar Sword that had been awarded to Charles Tyler, captain of HMS Tonnant, fetched £179,200, and the Naval Gold Medal awarded to Captain Eliab Harvey of HMS Temeraire fetched £95,200. A silver meat dish and a silver plate from Nelson’s dinner service at the Nile campaign fetched £60,000 and £26,400, respectively.'

Currently online, I have spotted a large chunk of wood - 'Oak & Copper Salvaged from HMS Victory' - going for a snip at £20,000.

The organisers, Trafalgar 200, despite their pretence at organising a truly 'national' celebration, is catering essentially for this layer of ridiculously rich people (and their hangers on who also have more money than sense). They are offering a unique opportunity - 'a private dinner for 22 in the Great Cabin of HMS VICTORY. The evening will be hosted by the Second Sea Lord but you can choose the menu as well as the format of the evening, music will be provided by the Royal Marines. A commemorative piece of Silver and a copy of the VIP version of the international Fleet Review Souvenir Brochure will also given to all your guests.'

The cost of this 'opportunity'? A mere £25,000.

I know what you are thinking - it is a bit more expensive than a meal out at Pizza Express. But remember - you get to spend the evening with the Second Sea Lord,
Vice Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent KCB CBE ADC
. Who could resist such sparkling conversation with a man who 'commanded the conventional submarine HMS Olympus 1979-80 and the nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror 1984-86, carrying out many Cold War patrols. In command of the frigate HMS Brilliant 1992-93, he was involved in the early stages of the Bosnia Crisis. He was in command of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible when she made two joint operational deployments to the Gulf for air operations over Iraq and then conducted further air operations during the Kosovo Crisis. As Commander UK Maritime Forces 2001-02, he was Maritime Commander of the UK Joint Force and the Deputy Maritime Commander of the Coalition for the first 6 months of the “War on Terror” – a force of 40,000 men and women in 104 ships.'

We can pick up some hints about the likely topics of discussion at such gatherings from Andrew Roberts, who has doubtless already booked his meal with Sir James 'Blunt' Burnell-Nugent.

'The many celebrations of the bicentenary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805 tell us much about how Britons view themselves in the early twenty-first century...Yet there is a tangible sense of atavism, yearning, and perhaps even sorrow about the anniversary, for the way it italicizes the contrast between Britain’s former naval greatness and national heroism and her present unprecedented maritime weakness...with the fleet being reduced from thirty-one frigates and destroyers to a mere twenty-five by New Labour, Britain is at her weakest in terms of relative sea power than at any time since the reign of Henry VIII, the monarch who built the modern Royal Navy...'

Yeah, Blair's regime are such a bunch of hippy pacifists aren't they?

Roberts detests those who try 'to decry all this veneration of Nelson and Trafalgar' and 'introduce such jarring notes into the festivities'. In June, an article in The Times by the historian Ben Macintyre noted that Nelson was guilty of a war crime in hanging ninety-nine Neapolitan rebels in 1799, after they had been given safe passage. Roberts calls this a 'substantial criticism' - but still clearly worships Nelson. As he notes, 'we are celebrating the moment when Britons knew for sure that the country was safe from invasion and subjugation by a murderous and tyrannical foreign empire: thus, festivities are wholly in order.'

Why then will I not be celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar? Surely Nelson is one of England's greatest heroes - and a hero of humanity as a whole? Why try to cast around for a tar of pit to spoil a barrel of honey? I suppose I find the hypocrisy of the whole spectacle just too overwhelming.

Firstly - lets look at the battle of Trafalgar. No, not the one in 1805 but the one fought near there on July 18, 711AD, when a Muslim army led by General Tariq defeated the superior forces of King Roderick near Cape Trafalgar, on the south of Spain. The name Trafalgar is from the Arabic taraf al-Ghar. Taraf means cape and ghar, as in Ghar-i-Hira, is cave. Hence, it means “Cape of the Cave”. An excellent little article here examines how British rulers see Arabs as 'the other' to be despised, yet swell with puffed up pride at the mention of Taraf al-Ghar.

Secondly, when Roberts asks us to imagine the French under Napoleon as 'a murderous and tyrannical empire' we can agree. However, forgotten amid all the self-congratulation is the awkward fact that the English were also a 'murderous and tyrannical empire'.

In 1805, slavery was still in full flow and the English and French were colonial rivals, fighting between themselves for, among other things, control of sugar rich colonies out in the West Indies. The story of this obscenity and how it was ended has been well set out by among others CLR James, Robin Blackburn and David Geggus, but I am going to quote from Paul Foot's eloquent summary of the story. Paul Foot gives us some idea of what the British were up to just ten years just before the Battle of Trafalgar:

A British expedition of 6,000 men, which was to grow into the greatest expedition ever to have left British shores, arrived, spoiling for a fight, in St Domingue. The British Prime Minister Pitt was on the record, as we have seen, against slavery. One reason was that the most profitable fruits of slavery – in St Domingue – were flowing only to France. Now Pitt and his class were looking at a different picture. There was a chance that the French might be dislodged from the island by a slave revolt; and that the British might seize St Domingue, restore slavery there and make good British profits from it.

The British war against Toussaint’s armies in St Domingue lasted four years – from 1794 to 1798. During this period the Abolition of Slavery Movement in Britain almost petered out. There were two more desultory attempts to get a bill through the Commons – in 1795 and 1796. In the three years after 1795 the Abolition Society met twice. From 1797 to 1804 it did not meet at all. During the eight years after 1792, moreover, a million slaves were carried from Africa to the ‘new world’ in British ships.'

The British did not reckon for the slaves on San Domingue, who organised themselves militarily into a fighting force that defeated the British and expelled them from their island. Seeing the British defeated, the French, that 'murderous and tyrannical empire' remember, decided to try and conquer San Domingue for itself. What was the reaction of the British to this? Here is Paul Foot again describing the Peace of Amiens between England and France in 1802:

'The British, united with their enemy Napoleon in their determination to put down the slave revolt, obliged with a short peace so that Napoleon could devote his full attention to Toussaint L’Ouverture. In charge of his huge expedition Napoleon appointed his son in law, Le Clerc, who predicted, ‘all the niggers when they see an army will lay down their arms.’

The story of the Haitian Revolution reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of those trying to glory in the Battle of Trafalgar. The Battle of Trafalgar was about dictatorial colonial power and which dictatorial colonial power would have naval supremacy. It was not about liberty or freedom in any sense of the word. Here Churchill may have understood something about the Battle of Trafalgar that his successor Andrew Roberts is unable to - when he noted 'Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash'.

For socialists, our response to our rulers celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar should arguably be to recall the Haitian Revolution which defeated not just the tyrannical French and Spanish empires but also the murderous British empire as well. If we want to hear the sound of liberty ringing down through the centuries, let us listen to Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution and a military genius at least the equal of Nelson. This is him in 1795, calling on all free slaves to resist the English trying to reimpose slavery on them all:

'The irons of the despot of England are not made for you...like all republicans, I am animated by the ardent desire to find only brothers and friends wherever I march the troops confided to my command. Humanity is one of the sacred obligations that will make us surpass all the other peoples. Saving brothers from their straying and lending them a helping hand also enters into our principles...In keeping with these words from the heart, I call upon you, in the name of the Republic, to rally to me within the hour.'

Instead of English school kids being force-fed the story of the Battle of Trafalgar this month, (in the hope that by teaching more British imperial history they will become more patriotic), let them instead read William Wordworth's 1802 tribute to Toussaint L'Ouverture, then languishing in a French prison.

TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den;
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

Edit: to add a recent article by Jonathan Neale on the Battle of Trafalgar

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Anti-capitalist students at Adam Smith College in Scotland have put two fingers up to the Establishment by disowning er, Adam Smith. The Scotsman comments 'could it be the first sign of a return to the spirit of 1968, when radical students took to the barricades? The red flag is fluttering proudly over - of all unlikely venues - the Adam Smith College in Fife, where the Students' Association has rejected the name of its entrepreneurial patron and opted instead to commemorate Jennie Lee, spouse of Aneurin Bevan. What makes their cause even more célèbre is the fact that Gordon Brown is chancellor of the college, as well as of the Exchequer.'

Gordon Brown apparently regards Smith as one of his heroes...

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