Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Arsenal FC collude in state terrorism

Well, perhaps not quite, but this brings a whole new meaning to the term 'the Gunners'.

'Under the deal, Israel will become Arsenal's "official and exclusive travel destination". Israeli tourist bosses will also be able to use the Arsenal team logo and have the right to use photos of the team and its players in its ads. A spokesman for the Israeli tourism ministry said: "The purpose is to broaden Israel's appeal to sun and fun-seekers". It hopes the new deal will bring an extra 2m tourists to the country.'

'Sun and fun'?

'The two-year, £350,000 agreement will see Israel being promoted on pitch-side billboards and TV screens at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium in London.'

Glad I'm not an Arsenal fan anyway...

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Red Professors

Scott McLemee has analysed neo-con David Horowitz's new book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, which incidently includes English Professor James Holstun, whose work on Class Struggle in the English Revolution I have mentioned on this blog. Apparently Holstun is objectively 'Islamofascist' like most of the other Professors on the list. Just as Stalinists attacked 'Trotsky-Fascists' in the 1930s, now the big bogey man of apologists for imperial power is 'Islamofascism'.*

In other news, Maps has kindly replied to my 'top ten current favourite revolutions', highlighting ten revolutions in the twentieth century that I missed but were pretty damn important/sexy. Far more interesting to read about than my efforts.

*I was once described as being in favour of 'Islamo-Trot-Fascism' by a drunk Welsh ex-Stalinist neo con because I was a member of Respect. Has anyone else been called this - or do I get some sort of reward for being called it first?

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The revenge of History

David Irving speaking at a rally of neo-Nazis in Germany several years ago. The banner behind I think reads 'The Truth will set you Free'. How apt - if Irving had not told lies about the Holocaust and about Hitler he would still be free and possibly still considered an historian. As it is, he became a Nazi sympathiser, a 'falsifier of history' and a Holocaust denier. Never mind jail, this Hitler worshipper deserves to rot in hell.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Glorifying Terror

This week, British MPs voted for a new law against "glorifying terror". In response, I thought I would start a post to put up quotes from people who historically have 'glorified terror' who, according to Blair and New Labour, would now be convicted criminals. Feel free to send in quotes etc., but I thought I would start the ball rolling with this one from one of the 'founding fathers' of the United States and indeed author of the 'Declaration of Independence'.

'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'
- Thomas Jefferson, 1787, glorying in the role violence played in America's national liberation. Jefferson later became the Third President of the United States.

'Accept my congratulations on this splendid act of conquest. Convey my regards to all the commanders and soldiers. We shake your hands. We are all proud of the excellent leadership and the fighting spirit in this great attack ... Tell the soldiers: you have made history in Israel with your attack and your conquest. Continue this until victory. As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, Thou has chosen us for conquest.'

Menachem Begin member of the Zionist Irgun organisation after the bloody attack on Deir Yassin, an Arab village of about 750 residents located on high ground in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in 1948, which left 100 dead. In 1946, Begin had been involved in the King David Hotel bombing, which left 91 people dead. Begin became Prime Minister of Israel in 1977.

'Neither Jewish morality nor Jewish tradition can negate the use of terror as a means of battle...We are quite far from moral hesitations on the national battlefield. We see before us the command of the Torah, the most moral teaching in the world: Obliterate - until destruction. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all...But primarily terror is part of our political battle under present conditions and its role is large and great...It demonstrates, in clear language, to those who listen throughout the world and to our despondent brothers outside the gates of this country of our battle against the true terrorist who hides behind his piles of papers and the laws he has legislated...It is not directed against people, it is directed against representatives. Therefore it is effective...If it also shakes the Jews in Israel from their complacency, good and well...Only so will the battle for liberation begin.'

Statements from the Stern Gang, a 1940s Zionist organisation whose members included Yitzhak Shamir, who became Prime Minister of Israel in 1983.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

10,000 things...and my top ten Revolutions.

Yep, at least 10,000 people have apparently read my blog (according to my statcounter thing). Most don't stay around very long to be honest, but there are a few regulars who seem to keep popping back, which is nice. While, of course, there are more important things one could be celebrating just now, I think reaching 10,000 things is worth posting about.

To celebrate, here are my current top ten Revolutions:

10. Germany 1918-1923 - though this revolution was defeated, it gives the lie to the idea that general revolution was not possible in Europe after the October Revolution. Check out Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution for a good overview in English.

9. Iraq 1945-59 'The last time the imperialist powers installed a loyal regime in Baghdad, it was overthrown by a massive revolt from below...This is the real tradition of anti-imperialism and democracy in the Middle East against the fake radicalism of the dictators and the false freedoms of US 'liberation'. The role of the organised working class in smashing apart the old colonial order has long been hidden from history, but it should inspire a new generation of socialists...Despite the failure of their leaders, the history of the national liberation movements show that change does come from below.' Part of a wave of revolt across the Middle East, see for example in Algeria

8. Slave revolts against the Roman Empire, 73-71 BC Slaves revolting led by Spartacus - what more could you want? Check out Lewis Grassic Gibbon's historical novel Spartacus (1933).

7. The Great French Revolution, 1789 - 1799 The 'daddy' of revolutions. Inspirational stuff. Good collection of material online here. Perhaps read Mark Steel's Vive La Revolution! for a simple accessible and humourous introduction.

6. The Spanish Revolution, 1936 - The seventieth anniversary this year! You want peasant collectives and workers power? Check. You want dead fascists? Check. Tragically betrayed by one J.V. Stalin of course, but still inspiring. Read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1937), while Anthony Beevor's history of the Spanish Civil War is supposed to be very good.

5. The English Revolution, 1640s - Levellers, ranters and diggers - and a dead King. Check out James Holstun's Ehud's Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution for the latest Marxist analysis of this great rebellion.

4. The Haitian Revolution, 1791-1803 - Part race-war, part class struggle, but an inspiration to anyone interested in anti-imperialist politics. Good collection of online stuff here, while John Newsinger reviews Madison Smartt Bell's literary trilogy about the revolt here

3. The Paris Commune, 1871

Good collection of material about this heroic (but bloodily suppressed) first worker's government ever see here

2. The Hungarian Revolution, 1956

The fiftieth anniversary this October! Workers councils against Soviet tanks - which side are you on? 1956 was a crucial turning point in history, particularly for the Left - see here

1. Russia, October 1917.
Some online stuff here, and of course Trotsky is your man to read for the overview and background. For what it was like at the time, you could do worse than check out the American journalist John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World, which was banned under Stalin's regime - as it only mentioned the Great Leader in passing. This is John Reed describing the immediate aftermath of October:

'I went back to Petrograd riding on the front seat of an auto truck, driven by a workman and filled with Red Guards. We had no kerosene, so our lights were not burning. The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves pouring out to take their places. Immense trucks like ours, columns of artillery, wagons, loomed up in the night, without lights, as we were. We hurtled furiously on, wrenched right and left to avoid collisions that seemed inevitable, scraping wheels, followed by the epithets of pedestrians. Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels heaped on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture. "Mine!" he cried, his face all alight. "All mine now! My Petrograd!"'

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

'A few bad apples'...

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Oh, what a lovely war!

You may not realise it but there is one war going on that looks like it may be nearing its end. I call it a war, but really the sides are so unequal it has been a bit of a full scale massacre. Now a report has come out and suggested that it could all be over in a matter of years and those on the losing side are 'unlikely to survive'. The winning side are subsequently congratulating themselves on what they see now as an inevitable victory, gloating that anyone who still tries to stand in their way are 'trying to turn the clock back'.

I am talking generally about the war waged by the multinational supermarket giants on the British petit bourgeoisie in general, and that section of it engaged in retail in particular. My, those boys have taken one hell of a beating! By 2015, on current trends, they will be completely wiped out - and British High Streets will be simply chains of trendy wine bars and fast food outlets.

Now what do Marxists have to say about this brutal and bloody class war?

Arguably, we can point out that this is what Marx said would happen over 150 years ago. Capitalism is all about competition for the accumulation of profits, and as Marx said, this tends to lead to the concentration and centralisation of capital. Big capitalists wipe out smaller capitalists, and then themselves get gobbled up by giant multinational firms. Shit happens, basically. Marxists do not celebrate the destruction of small capitalists. The MPs report notes that 'the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the social glue that binds communities together...ethnic minorities, immigrants, the elderly and those living in deprived areas are expected to be the worst affected'. It will hit rural areas in particular hard.

So what should Marxists advocate doing about this?

Firstly, I don't think the solution to 'globalisation' lies in 'localisation' - the uncritical championing of small High Street traders as some sort of alternative to supermarkets. Chris Harman has noted that such a strategy 'does nothing to confront the destructive behaviour of medium and small locally-oriented businesses. There is no evidence that such businesses care any more about the welfare of the population as a whole or about the effects of their actions on the environment than do big businesses. In fact, they have often been in the forefront of right wing political movements and of anti-union drives. Occasional hostility to big business interests is all-too-often a prelude to doing lucrative deals with these interests.'

Secondly, we have to recognise that supermarkets are in many ways a more advanced and superior way of organising production than what went previously. To quote Harman again, 'We are told that planning is no longer possible. But all these great companies have intricate mechanisms for planning their own production at the moment – but they do so in order to compete with each other. So for instance, there are now just four great supermarket chains that dominate the sale of foodstuffs in Britain, and through their domination of the markets, also have a stranglehold over most of British agriculture and much of the food processing industry. They literally plan, months or even years ahead, the production of certain types of food in certain quantities, but from the point of view of profit making not the welfare of the consumers. We have to conceive of a revolutionary transformation, in which the control of the supermarket chains and their planning mechanisms passes from the top of society to the bottom, is democratised, so as to enable co-ordination across the whole industry instead of competition within it.' Under a democratically controlled system, we would be able to organise food distribution so that the needs of say the elderly and those in rural areas were met in a way that they are currently not.

Finally, I think Marxists should remember something Lenin noted in 1916:
'The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not "demand" such development, we do not "support" it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!'

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Dead King Watch: Richard II

Richard II died in Pontyfract on February 14 1400, which makes this the 606th anniversary of his death. He was born in 1367, and when only ten, in 1377, his grandfather Edward III died leaving him as King of England (his father had died the year before).

As is usual with monarchs that come to power when only kids, real power tends to lie elsewhere - in Richard II's case with his uncle John of Gaunt, who was a typical representative of what AL Morton called 'a greedy and corrupt nobility'. England at this time had been involved in a long and disasterous war (hmm, sounds familiar) and to avoid bankrupcy was forced to tax the peasants and poor harsher than ever before. In 1380, a poll tax was imposed to screw even more money out of those least able to afford it - thus precipitating the English Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Interesting, one of the leaders of this revolt was someone called Jack Straw.

I have written before on this blog about how King Richard - aged only 14 at the time - managed to fool the leaders of this revolt through devious cunning - promising the peasants what they wanted and then not delivering on it. Mind you, it is a bit unfair to blame him for the bloody state repression which followed - the nobility were still the driving force behind the throne.

The next year, in 1382, Richard bought himself a wife - Anne of Bohemia - through paying a substantial amount of money to her father, Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Richard was very devoted to Anne and according to Brewer, 'displayed a violent grief at her early death in 1394, very characteristic of the excessive emotional reactions of the Platagenet dynasty'. I thought I would include this, it being Valentine's day and all.

In 1389, Richard executed a military coup against the hated nobility to try and establish a dictatorship on the French model and he seems to have picked up support from sections of the City of London for this. Wikipedia notes that 'Richard seems to have developed a passionate devotion to the old ideal of the Divine Right of Kings, feeling that he should be unquestioned and unfettered in the way he ran the kingdom. He became a stickler for tradition, insisting on being addressed as ‘majesty’ and ‘highness’ and sitting alone for hours wearing his crown; those addressing him were required to direct their eyes downwards in deference.' He had genteel interests like fine food, insisting spoons be used at his court. He wore a lot of jewellery and fine clothes and Brewer notes Richard 'was responsible for the extravagant fashion in footwear with a very elongated toepiece and he also used what was known as a 'kerchief' - thus inventing the handkerchief. What a remarkable guy - inventing another use for a bit of square cloth! Yet in some ways he was quite enlightened as a despot. 'He was a keen and cultured patron of the arts, architecture and literature - sponsoring Geoffrey Chaucer. In this sense, he can be seen as an early example of what was later held up as a model Renaissance prince.' Richard saw that ceaseless war against France benefitted some rich bastards like John of Gaunt but few others - and in 1396 he signed a 28-year truce with France.

He now tried to make a bid for total power. In 1397 Richard decided to rid himself of the Lords Appellant who were the last people confining his power, on the pretext of an aristocratic plot. 'Richard had the Earl of Arundel executed and Warwick exiled, while Gloucester died in captivity. Finally able to exert his autocratic authority over the kingdom, he purged all those he saw as not totally committed to him, fulfilling his own idea of becoming God’s chosen prince.' Yet Richard had a problem - no heir. Fearing John of Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke, Richard had him banished for ten years on a spurious pretext in 1399. After Gaunt himself died that year, Richard also confiscated Bolingbroke's lands on the basis of his open disloyalty, distributing them among his own followers.

However, at this moment of theoretical total power, Richard made a fatal blunder - invading Ireland. Bolingbroke returned, landing in Yorkshire with an army provided by the King of France to reclaim his father's lands. Richard's autocratic ways had already worried many nobles and were deeply unpopular, facilitating Bolingbroke soon gaining control of most of southern and eastern England. Bolingbroke had originally just wanted his inheritance and a reimposition of the power of the Lords Appellant, accepting Richard's right to be king and March's right to succeed him. But by the time Richard finally arrived back on the mainland in Wales, a tide of discontent had swept England. In the King's absence, Bolingbroke, who was generally well-liked, was being urged to take the crown himself. Richard was captured at Conway Castle in Wales and taken to London, where crowds pelted him with rubbish. He was held in the Tower of London and eventually forced to abdicate. He was brought, on his request, before parliament, where he officially renounced his crown and thirty-three official charges (including ‘vengeful sentences given against lords’) were made against him. He was not permitted to answer the charges. Parliament then accepted Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) as the new king.

The next year, 1400, the imprisoned former King seems to have been poisoned. Richard's body was displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral for all to see that he was really dead, and he was then buried in Kings Langley Church. His coffin was badly designed, however, and it proved easy for disrespectful visitors to place their hands through several openings in the coffin and interfere with what was inside. It is said that a schoolboy walked off with Richard's jawbone. Rumours that Richard was still alive persisted well into the reign of Henry V, who decided to have his body moved to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey with much ceremony in 1413.


Monday, February 13, 2006

'Once more unto the breach...'

The late great Peter Cook as seen in Blackadder - I got bored of pictures of EP Thompson

Following our earlier exchange about 'the problem of nationalism' in the members of the British Communist Party Historians Group (1946-1956), Maps has replied with 'A couple of quick comments on "History from Below"', to which I am grateful, though I remain unconvinced.

His first comment is a response to my argument that, as he puts it, 'the nationalism which was part and parcel of Popular Frontism is offset by the efforts of some (alleged) members of the History from Below school to study non-British subject matter, and subjects that show the dark side of British behaviour abroad. Snowball mentions Eric Hobsbawm, who is famous for his global history of the twentieth century, and John Saville, who has studied the effects of British imperialism.' Maps argues that 'I don't understand the logic of this point, because I don't see how the mere fact that a historian has studied a non-British subject, or a darker side of British history, can make his or her method and conclusions immune from British chauvinism. To use one of an enormous number of possible examples: EP Thompson's father wrote extensively about Indian culture and history, and about the darker side of of British colonialism in India, but that has not stopped many Indian scholars from considering him the purveyor of a patronising, Anglophile view of their world.'

This is all very true, but whatever the merits of this argument with respect to say, Thompson's father, I don't think it fits for the Communist historians in question themselves. Indeed, the Communist historians often themselves drew attention to this problem of a 'patronising, Anglophile view'. Maps may like to ignore the work of Victor Kiernan, but in 1969 Kiernan devoted a whole book, The Lords of Human Kind, to tracking the historical development of such very views.

Maps makes his second point after quoting from EP Thompson's 1963 Preface to The Making of the English Working Class:

"[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialisation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or
Africa, yet be won."

Maps argues that 'Thompson seems in danger here of presenting English economic and social development as the model for the history of the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century. While he hopes for a different outcome to political conflicts in the developing world, he sees the type of development going on there as fundamentally similar to that taking place in the world of his book. The problem with such a view is that it takes the contingencies of one country's history and makes them into a schema for other countries...What was ignored was the fact that countries like Egypt and Guinea had developed in a very different way, thanks to the weight of the imperialist exploitation imposed on them by 'old' bourgeois countries like France and Britain. What had been possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was no longer possible in the twentieth.'

I think Maps is guilty of trying to read too much into one passage in the Preface here. What Thompson is arguing in the Preface strikes me as fundamentally true - much of the Third World is going though industrialisation that while of course in many ways different does share certain similarities with the English experience - and moreover all Thompson notes is that it is 'analogous in many ways'.

Maps's final idea is therefore that Thompson was guilty of implicit support when 'the Soviet Union and its allies were busy scouring the Third World for 'national-bourgeois revolutions', like the one France enjoyed in 1789 and Britain could have enjoyed in 1832. Communists in Western colonies were being urged to fight for independence by forging alliances with a motley mixture of opportunist military leaders and disaffected members of local comprador bourgeoisies. The likes of Nasser and Sekou Toure were being hailed as revolutionaries on Pravda's World News pages'. Yet Thompson's focus seems to me to be directing us towards looking for 'the making of the working class' as an independent force in those countries, which seems to lead in the opposite direction to a Stalinist schema. This may be a utopian strategy, 'not possible in the twentieth century' as Maps seems to suggest - but it is a lot closer to Marx with his insistence that 'workers of all countries, unite!' than to Josef Stalin.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dead 'Queen' Watch: Lady Jane Grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (by the French Romantic painter, Paul Delaroche, 1833, for the uncultured among you)

On the 12th February 1554, 452 years ago, a 16 year old, Lady Jane Grey was beheaded in the Tower of London as a traitor to the Crown. What did the Crown have to fear from one so young?

Well, to understand this one has to go back to the year of her birth 1537 - when another baby called Edward was also born. When he was ten, Edward became King of England after the death of his father Henry VIII but as he was so young England was really ruled by a series of 'Lord Protectors' - the last of whom was Lord Warwick - later the Duke of Northumberland. However Edward was a sickly boy and in 1553 - aged only 15 he began to fall very ill. Northumberland was a Protestant - and so was Edward - and so the search was on for a Protestant ruler to succeed Edward. The Duke of Northumberland, not wanting anyone old who might be capable of ruling without the help of a 'Lord Protector' forced Edward to pick his fifteen year old cousin - Jane - to be his successor. Jane, who was the grand-daughter of Henry VIII's youngest sister, Mary, had been brought up in the piously Protestant circle of Katherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife. To make sure he would still retain his hands on real power, Northumberland hastily arranged for his son Guilford Dudley to marry Jane, hoping through him to gain control over his daughter-in-law and the reins of England. When informed by her parents of her betrothal, Jane refused point-blank to obey because Guildford was ugly and stupid. Good for her! However, her refusal was ineffective, as her parents forced her into submission. This is a good example of why arranged marriages suck.

On the death of the young Edward in July 1553, Jane therefore became Queen. However, Northumberland had to move fast as the succession of Jane was a bit of a stitch up and really Edward's Catholic half-sister Mary had a better claim to the throne as set out in the will of Henry VIII. Jane was proclaimed Queen of England while staying at the New Inn, Gloucester on July 10, 1553, just four days after Edward's death. Jane did not want to be Crowned Queen - she must have seen through Northumberland as the scheming bastard he was - and according to some accounts, she was tricked into putting on the crown. However, in order to try and screw up the Northumberlands' plans for power, she refused to name her husband Guilford Dudley as King, titling him instead the Duke of Clarence. Genius! This insult infuriated the Dudleys, and Guilford was counseled by his mother to refuse to share Jane's bed and to leave her castle. She had the castle guard stop him, and told him what he did at night did not concern her, but during the day, his place was by her side. In order to consolidate power, Northumberland tried to capture and isolate Mary in order to prevent her from gathering support around her. Mary, however, was advised of his intentions and took flight, sequestering herself in Framlingham Castle in Suffolk.

Mary however proved to have more popular support than Jane, partly because of the continuing sympathy for the treatment her mother, Catherine of Aragon, had received at the hands of Henry VIII, and partly because Jane was only sixteen. Mary amassed a support of 20,000 men at Framlingham Castle and marched to London where Jane was deposed. Jane had 'reigned' for only nine days. After she was deposed, there seemed some likelihood that her life would be spared by Mary I, who had now taken the throne. She sent John de Feckenham to Lady Jane (as she was now called), in an attempt to convert her to Catholicism.

Mary I now prepared to marry the Catholic Philip II of Spain (1556–98), which sparked a Protestant rebellion under Sir Thomas Wyatt, in the first months of 1554. Jane's father, the Duke of Suffolk, and other nobles joined the rebellion, calling for Jane's restoration as Queen. Jane must have been well made up by this - being a pawn in a power game which she wanted no part of. Phillip of Spain and his councillors pressed Mary to execute Jane to put an end to any future focus for unrest. Nice guys. Mary offered Jane a pardon if she would convert to Catholicism, but all Jane really knew was the Protestant faith she had been brought up in and so she refused. Five days after Wyatt's arrest, on February 12 1554, Jane and Guilford were executed.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Labour Party centenary

Labour leader Keir Hardie - airbrushed out of New Labour's official history

'Drawing on this week's Labour party centenary, Mr Blair said the party's goal of liberating people's potential "never changes".

"In 1906, those 29 [Labour MPs] entered parliament saying that parliament was supposed to represent the people and it didn't, and they were there to change it. They made a radical assault on the status quo ... Today our task is the same. To change what needs to be changed, to lift people up and break down what holds them back."'

The 1906 Labour Party General Election Manifesto makes interesting reading:

'This election is to decide whether or not Labour is to be fairly represented in Parliament.

The House of Commons is supposed to be the people's House, and yet the people are not there.

Landlords, employers, lawyers, brewers, and financiers are there in force. Why not Labour?

The Trade Unions ask the same liberty as capital enjoys. They are refused.

The aged poor are neglected.

The slums remain; overcrowding continues, whilst the land goes to waste.

Shopkeepers and traders are overburdened with rates and taxation, whilst the increasing land values, which should relieve the ratepayers, go to people who have not earned them.

Wars are fought to make the rich richer, and underfed schoolchildren are still neglected.

Chinese Labour [in British colonial controlled South Africa] is defended because it enriches the mine owners.

The unemployed ask for work, the Government gave them a worthless Act, and now, when you are beginning to understand the causes of your poverty, the red herring of Protection is drawn across your path.

Protection, as experience shows, is no remedy for poverty and unemployment. It serves to keep you from dealing with the land, housing, old age, and other social problems!

You have it in your power to see that Parliament carries out your wishes. The Labour Representation-Executive appeals to you in the name of a million Trade Unionists to forget all the political differences which have kept you apart in the past, and vote for [candidate name].'

Blair argues that 'today our task is the same' - but one only has to look at what he thinks of those who argue against 'wars fought to make the rich richer' and for 'Trade Union liberty' to see how far the Labour Party has departed from representing 'Labour'. Indeed, over one hundred years, the Labour Party has proved itself utterly useless as an organisation for advancing that struggle. Those in Britain today who want to see a serious electoral fight for the interests of 'Labour' as opposed to 'Capital', for the 'neglected aged' and 'underfed schoolchildren' as opposed to 'landlords, lawyers, employers, brewers and financiers', should support either Respect or the SSP. That would allow a really 'radical assault on the status quo' worthy of the memory of the pioneers of independent working class representation.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Some new websites...

Check out the new Love Music Hate Racism site - apparently you can download banners, but I couldn't do it personally. For those in the UK, the 'festival of resistance', Marxism 2006, coming up in early July, has a site up now as well. Finally, anyone a bit confused about the whole issue of racist Danish cartoons needs to really read this...


On 'History from Below'

Last month, I did a countdown of my top ten works of classic Marxist history, one of which was Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Maps was provoked into the following response:

'I'll just respond to Histomat's characterisation of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class as an "absolute classic example of the tradition of 'History from Below'". After researching Thompson's life and work a bit, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the label of 'history from below' [HFB]...I think HFB as a label is essentially honorific and thus glosses over the origins of the school that Thompson et al belonged to. I think the defining characteristics of the 'HFB' school derive not from a new interest in the experience of ordinary people - I think Marxists were always interested in that - but from an agenda set by the turn towards Popular Frontism in the mid-30s. In Britain as elsewhere, the construction of a Popular Front required the rehabilitation of progressive or allegedly progressive aspects of national history and national cultural traditions. The British communists thus began discovering Coleridge as the English dialectician, the English Civil war as the English version of the French revolution, ye olde traditions like the Norman Yoke, and so on, and drawing deeply on a radical liberal intellectual tradition documented in Raymond Williams' 'Culture and Society'. This trend was reinforced by the adoption of the British Road to Socialism programme after the war. I think that Thompson's idealised working class tradition is thus ultimately the expression of a peculiarly British political and intellectual conjuncture, not some simple interest in a hitherto-neglected subject.'

In my opinion it is absolutely right to stress that the whole mental framework of Thompson etc was shaped by their experience in the Communist Party of Great Britain and its turn to the 'Popular Front' in the face of Fascism from about 1935 onwards. The historian Dave Renton has described this turn:

'In 1934, French Communists began to explore the idea of unity with the moderate left. Next this process was expanded to include even right-wing elements, the liberal parties and some conservative forces. Across Europe, the Popular Front was born. The broadest possible alliance was agreed - up to the fringes of fascism itself. For the critics of the Popular Front, the policy was an extraordinary step to the right. George Orwell, for one, condemned 'the nauseous spectacle of bishops, Communists, cocoa-magnates, publishers, duchesses and Labour MPs marching arm in arm to the tune of Rule Britannia'. Yet for its champions, the new line enabled Communists gained from this opportunity to reconnect to pre-Marxist socialist traditions, which had been unduly neglected. In France, the change of policy could be observed - neatly - in the choice of songs played at Communist rallies. The Internationale was now considered unplayable; in its place came the Republican Marseillaise. In Britain, the cultural politics of the Popular Front was expressed in the form of historical pageants. May Day parades were lead off by men and women carrying the symbols of Britain's folk-history - a story which might have had less 'progressive' meaning in other countries such as Ireland. Raphael Samuel reports that Communists 'set about deliberately fostering a sense of democratic heritage, and in these "March of History" pageants which the Party organised in 1936, Cromwell's portrait was borne proudly aloft along with those of John Ball and Wat Tyler.' Such politics continued, with further twists and turns, reaching its high-point in the wartime anti-fascist alliance of 1941-5. For most of the historians, the Second World War was a moment of validation. Previous political choices were proven to be correct. Afterwards, many members of this generation would return to this period, and find in it a set of lessons, which could guide their hand through later turmoil, of personal, political or historical origin. E. P. Thompson, a savage critic of the Communist Party's 'diabolical and hysterical' Marxism, never expressed anything but nostalgia and praise for the wartime conduct of the British Communists:

I recall a resolute and ingenious civilian army, increasingly hostile to the conventional military virtues, which became - far more than any of my younger friends will begin to credit - an anti-fascist and consciously anti-imperialist army. Its members voted Labour back in 1945: knowing why, as did the civilians back home. Many were infused with socialist ideas and expectations wildly in advance of the tepid rhetoric of today's Labour leaders ... Our expectations may have been shallow, but this was because we were overly utopian and ill-prepared for the betrayals at our backs.'

In short, I agree that perhaps 'HFB' does 'gloss over' this Popular Frontism. Yet the more pertinent question is: does this matter? Did this 'Popular Frontist' baggage undermine their historical work - or tarnish it?

In the case of Thompson, Renton seems to agree with 'Maps' that it was a problem, though he admits that 'one problem with marking E. P. Thompson down as a nationalist, is that so much of his politics were expressed in an internationalist form. The obvious example is his campaigning work for the international peace movement. By the mid-1980s, Thompson's preferred instrument was END, the European Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We could also cite his support for movements of the oppressed in the Third World, including above all India. Thompson was not a British nationalist. His politics were generous, egalitarian and sincere.' Yet as an historian he sees 'hints of a nationalist infection...which emerged because his history was expressed in part on that terrain' - the nation.

For Renton, and others, the Communist and ex-Communist historians like Thompson were involved in a dual project:

'On the one hand, the historians were dedicated to studying the lives of ordinary people. This determination brought them to the study of previous neglected peoples' lives. Yet many of these writers would not raise their heads (intellectually) above the parapets of the nation, and study experiences beyond the borders of their own state. Having limited their interests in this way, the majority of the British Marxist historians then demonstrated a linked tendency to search back into the past - looking for evidence of the continuous march of British labour - and ignoring evidence of social processes pointing towards a different egalitarian outcome, beyond their own time. There were of course, a few exceptions. But in order to understand the politics and the history writing of the British Marxist historians, then it is best to see that many members of the group were trained to believe that there was no contradiction between a socialist and left-wing national politics.'

Yet while there is much truth in this, I think it is not the total truth.

Firstly, the 'few exceptions' in the Communist Party Historians Group to those who 'would not raise their heads (intellectually) above the parapets of the nation, and study experiences beyond the borders of their own state' seem to me to such important exceptions as to almost undermine the whole hypothesis. So Eric Hobsbawm - whatever one thinks of his defence of the 'Popular Front' in Age of Extremes, has surveyed the globe in his historical researches - his great works on 'the long nineteenth century' and the 'short twentieth century' stand out here. To stick with Hobsbawm, he has also tried to rescue from 'the enormous condescension of posterity' (to use Thompson's phrase) various 'bandits' in Latin America and Spain, as well as all manner of Third World 'revolutionaries'. Other Communist historians who have written about the effects of British imperialism internationally include John Saville and Victor Kiernan.

Secondly, the Communist Party historians were always careful to locate each historical struggle in its own context at the time - with an accurate assessment of the class character of revolts and rebels - as opposed to some ahistorical 'march of history' which can slide over into forms of left nationalism.

Finally, 'History from Below' seems to me to be a fundamentally healthy tradition - even if one sticks within the boundaries of the nation state - providing one always takes care to locate the national within the international. Think about AL Morton's A People's History of England (which I am often quoting from on this blog) or even Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States , which in an important sense arguably remain models for historians in other countries to reclaim 'their' national histories against the official interpretations of the past as laid down by their rulers. To those who can only see 'Stalinism', 'Popular Frontism' or 'Left-nationalism' in all this, one can only quote from Frederick Engels, in his The Peasant War in Germany (1850) - arguably his attempt to write part of a real 'People's History of Germany':

'The German people are by no means lacking in revolutionary tradition. There were times when Germany produced characters that could match the best men in the revolutions of other countries; when the German people manifested an endurance and energy which, in a centralised nation, would have brought the most magnificent results; when the German peasants and plebeians were pregnant with ideas and plans which often made their descendants shudder.'

We need more 'History from Below' - not less.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How the 'imperial spirit' survives

I don't often put up articles by old-school Tories, but sometimes they can express very clearly the realities of how power operates in the world - because they have seen how it works at close range. Here is Brian Walden - a former politician turned historian - arguing that 'British foreign policy needs a rethink and the UK should stop kidding itself about its role in the world today'. I don't agree with everything he says in the article, but I will put up some select quotes to show how clearly he can see the parallels between what Blair is doing in Iraq and what the British Empire used to do:

'My grandfather was an unrepentant Imperialist. He was immensely proud of the Empire and felt personally responsible for what he thought were its triumphs and disasters.

His son-in-law, my father, didn't share his views. He referred to the immaculately dressed old man as 'the dandy who won the Boer War'. The two men used to debate Imperial issues with a passion and eloquence that impressed me as I listened outside the parlour door.

I was especially fond of their high moral tone. It was years later that I realised their disagreements were superficial. Fundamentally they were in agreement. Both of them thought Britain was the centre of the world. They judged everything by reference to British standards.

I remember the way my father defended Gandhi. He said: 'Gandhi became a lawyer in London. He's had experience of proper British principles in the law.' He would have been appalled if anyone had told him he was being grossly patronising. To say that somebody possessed British principles was the highest praise he could bestow.

That Britain might at any moment be called upon to act in a distant land seemed to him the most natural thing in the world. He would say of some international crisis. "It won't be put right you know, until Britain does something about it."

It's with sadness I accept I no longer believe anything like that. What surprises me is that so many of our politicians and diplomats still seem to believe it...something of the imperial spirit of my father and grandfather still survives in a modern fashion.

Too many people at the top have a misplaced confidence that Britain has, not just a role, but a major role to play in world affairs. That's why we keep being told that we punch above our weight diplomatically. And such bounding self-confidence isn't confined to any one political party or faction. It's as if we are prey to a collective delusion. I include myself, at least as far as past actions are involved.

Let me tell you of something that happened to me 40 years ago. We weren't then in the Common Market and I was talking to two MPs, one of whom was in favour of joining, the other was against. In the hope of being conciliatory I rather jokingly suggested that we might apply for associate membership, which would give us the economic benefits, but no political obligations or control.

The absence of political control shocked my colleagues. Both of them turned on me like tigers. And then one of them said something very significant. He said "Britain's place is and always must be at the top table."

I'd like to say that I stuck to my guns, but I didn't. I could see the force of the top table argument. I believed it myself, at least in one sense. I could see Britain the ally of America giving it wise advice.

Britain, from the pinnacle of its long democratic history, talking to France and West Germany and pushing them in the right direction. And naturally Britain would be exerting a pervasive moral influence over the younger nations.

When I look back on the complacent ignorance of my views I shudder.

Now, I think we need to stop kidding ourselves about our role. In the real world we don't keep giving Washington advice that it takes. We aren't listened to attentively by France and Germany. And there isn't a long queue of countries lining up to receive our moral guidance.'

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Dead King Watch: Charles II the 'Merry Monarch'

Charles II died on 6 February 1685 - which makes today the 321st anniversary of his death. His reign, which began in 1660, marked the Restoration of the monarchy. Charles II is known in history as the "Merry Monarch", with religious toleration dominating the political scene during his reign, but perhaps also because of his numerous mistresses and illegitimate children:

'He publicly acknowledged fourteen children by seven mistresses; six of those children were borne by a single woman, the notorious Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, whom Charles granted the Dukedom of Cleveland. His other favourite mistresses were Nell Gwynne and Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth. Charles also acknowledged children by Lucy Walter, Elizabeth Killigrew, Viscountess Shannon and Catherine Pegge, Lady Greene. The present Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, Duke of Richmond and Gordon, Duke of Grafton and Duke of St Albans all descend from Charles in direct male line...It is worth noting that Diana, Princess of Wales was descended from two of Charles' illegitimate sons, the Duke of Grafton and the Duke of Richmond (who is also a direct ancestor of Camilla Parker Bowles). Thus her son HRH Prince William of Wales, currently second in line to the British Throne, will very likely be the first British monarch descended from Charles II, and the first descended from Charles I since the death of Queen Anne in 1714.' Well, we all know what happened to Charles I...

Charles II's foreign policy was a wavering balance of alliances with France and the Dutch but his reign also saw the rise of British imperialism through colonisation and trade in India, the East Indies and America, and the passage of Navigation Acts that secured Britain's future as a sea-power. Charles granted the British East India Company the rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions, to mint money, to command fortresses and troops, to form alliances, to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas in India.

To be fair to him, he did pass the Habeas Corpus Act, however, in 1679, which modern imperialists like Blair are trying to do away with.


Dead King Watch: Sweyn I

Sweyn I of Denmark -or 'Sven' as he can also be called - ruled England for five weeks from Christmas Day 1013 to February 3 1014 - when he died, which made it the 992nd anniversary of his death a few days ago. This 'Great Dane' led a bloody invasion to get his hands on the throne of England - nice.

'The contemporary Laud Chronicle states that "before the month of August came king Sweyn with his fleet to Sandwich. He went very quickly about East Anglia into the Humber's mouth, and so upward along the Trent till he came to Gainsborough. Eorl Uhtred and all Northumbria quickly bowed to him, as did all the folk of Lindsey, then the folk of the Five Boroughs. (...) He was given hostages from each shire. When he understood that all the people had submitted to him, he bade that his force should be provisioned and horsed; he went south in full force, and entrusted his ships and the hostages to his son Cnut. After he came over Watling Street, they worked the most evil that a force might do. They went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and did the same, then eastward to London."

But the Londoners are said to have destroyed the bridges that spanned the river Thames ("London Bridge is falling down"), and Sweyn suffered heavy losses and had to withdraw. The chronicles tell that "king Sven went from there to Wallingford, over the Thames to Bath, and stayed there with his troops; ealdorman Aethelmaer came, and the western thegns with him. They all bowed to Sweyn and gave hostages."

London had withstood the assault of the Danish army, but the city was now alone, isolated within a country which had completely surrendered. Sven Forkbeard was accepted as King of England following the flight to Normandy of king Ethelred the Unready in late 1013. With the acceptance of the Witan, London had finally surrendered to him, and he was declared "king" on Christmas day.

Sweyn based himself in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, and began to organize his vast new kingdom, but he died there on February 3rd 1014, having ruled England unopposed for only five weeks.'


Islamophobia and the British intelligentsia

Just thought I would put up Ziauddin Sardar's article in the latest New Statesman for you, which is itself a resume of "'Get off your knees': print media public intellectuals and Muslims in Britain", by Nasar Meer, in Journalism Studies, Volume 7, Number 1, February 2006. Because I'm kind like that - and because Islamophobia among mainstream commentators isn't challenged enough.

'I am often dumbfounded by what some of our prominent newspaper columnists have to say about Islam and Muslims. But not too surprised. Stereotyping is an old and, dare I say it, almost respectable institution in Britain. Muslims have been pigeonholed as violent, inferior fanatics for centuries; it provided a good excuse for colonising their lands.

Consider this example from Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, a year and a half ago. British Muslims, she screamed, "rarely speak out against terror" and "excuse, rather than refute, the many ferocious verses calling for the blood of infidels in their holy book, verses that justify terror". This is not simply a statement of monumental ignorance and arrogance, but also one of the finest examples of demonisation. It ascribes terrorism to Muslims through a double bind. If the Koran justifies terror, and all Muslims by definition believe in the Koran, then all Muslims by definition are terrorists. If Muslims reject and refute what the Koran says, then they cease to be Muslims. So the only way for Muslims not to be terrorists is to denounce their religion, join Toynbee and become dogmatic secularists. QED: "they rarely speak out against terror".

Then there was this from Will Hutton in the Observer: Islam is "predominantly . . . pre-Enlightenment". This statement has several layers of ignorance. It projects Islam "predominantly" as monolithic. It suggests that being "pre-Enlightenment" is inferior to being post-Enlightenment. It assumes that "Islam" and "Enlightenment" have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning. It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air. And, of course, it frames Muslims as "pre-Enlightenment" irredeemable barbarians.

Toynbee and Hutton are among a dozen newspaper columnists whose work is examined by Nasar Meer, a postgraduate student at Bristol University, in a brilliant paper published in the latest issue of Journalism Studies. The paper reveals how such demonising logic has become bread and butter for commentators of all political persuasions.

Meer shows how conservative nationalists (such as Charles Moore and Kevin Myers of the Telegraph, and Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail) as well as liberal secularists (such as David Aaronovitch of the Times) project "white fantasies" of ethnic others. The convergence of anti-Muslim opinion on the left and right enhances the falsehood that the presence of Muslims on British soil is an insidious danger to Britain.

Meer identifies a number of themes: by nature, Muslims are anti-modern and antipathetic to democracy and human rights. Muslim - but not Jewish and Christian - faith schools are a way of protecting young minds from modernity. A distinct Muslim identity is dangerous for Britain; assimilation "into the canon of Britishness" requires Muslims to abandon all ideas about preserving their identity. Muslims are a fifth column, a product of the policy of multiculturalism. Muslims are trying to strip Britain of its culture and traditions. Muslims are afforded special treatment at the expense of other beliefs and groups. Muslims lack self-criticism; and they charge everyone who criticises them with Islamophobia. It may not be long, Charles Moore suggests, before they are "extending the logic of their concentration in places like Bradford and Leicester" and seeking to "establish their own law within these areas". And so it goes on.

Newspaper columnists do not only determine how public issues are understood; they also shape knowledge of these issues. What we have here is a conscious construction of, as Meer says, an "apocalyptic vision" of Islam and Muslims in Britain. This knowledge, or rather this intellectually respectable racism, is being used to justify the claim that certain commentators have the right to tell Muslims how they should live their lives, what they should believe, and how they should conduct their community affairs. It also comes in handy in keeping alive the myth, first invoked by Enoch Powell, that racism is perpetuated by the very presence of ethnic others.

If you were to describe Jews or gay people in a similar manner, you would rightly be hounded out of what is left of Fleet Street.'

Islamophobia Watch is worth keeping an eye on as well.

Edited to add: Respect coalition statement on the cartoons.

'The Prophet and the Proletariat' - a Marxist analysis of Islam by Chris Harman is also online

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

100th British soldier dies in Iraq

Sad but true. Protests and vigils are set to take place in 100 towns and cities across Britain - see the links below.

This is more blood on Blair's hands, and more blood on the hands of all those Labour and Tory MPs who voted to send troops to go and re-colonise Iraq. The war and occupation of Iraq has been a criminal disaster - lets get the troops out now.

Stop the War Coalition

Military Familes Against the War

Eugene Debs on War