Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Galloway champions the Bolivarian Revolution

'These orchestrated attacks on Chávez are a travesty' declares Galloway in today's Guardian, hammering the British neo-cons around Blair who claim to support 'democratic Socialism' in theory but hate the sight of it in practice.

'The atmosphere in Caracas is fervid. The vast shanty towns draping the hillside around the cosmopolitan centre bustle with workers' cooperatives, trade union meetings, marches and debates. The $18bn fund for social welfare set up by Chávez is already bearing fruit. Education, food distribution and primary healthcare programmes now cover the majority for the first time. Queues form outside medical centres filled with thousands of Cuban doctors dispensing care to a population whose health was of no value to those who sat atop Venezuela's immense wealth in the past.'

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Histomat Exclusive: Nick Cohen's next book

Fast on the heels of writing 'What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way', reviewed here and by Ian Birchall here, Histomat can exclusively reveal that Nick Cohen is in the process of writing a follow up work. Provisionally entitled simply Who's Right?: Why I Am Always Right About Everything, we have secured exclusive permission to publish the preface from an early draft of the work. While what follows is certainly not in keeping with the editorial line of Histomat, we decided that it was nonetheless important enought to warrant putting on the blog:

Who's Right? Why I Am Always Right About Everything by Nick Cohen.


All my best ideas always come to me after spending a day in the pub, and the decision to write this book was no exception to the rule. My friend, the famous Marxist Professor Norman Geras and I had been hard at work planning how we could best mark the first anniversary of the launch of the Euston Manifesto, an anniversary that was fast approaching. After the ninth round, we had come up with various ideas (my suggestion of organising a pub crawl around Euston was proving the most popular idea with us both), but as we staggered out from our favourite tavern, Norm was still trying to come up with something more imaginative and inspired. 'We are the vanguard of a fucking world movement, Nick...we are making fucking history...we may all be in the gutter now but we are looking to the fucking stars...'

Old Norm had a point. He may have now been literally staring up at me from an actual gutter, but I thought he really had put his finger on something important there. I was a 'fucking star', even if the world had yet to look upon me as one yet. Norm was now grinning inanely, and began mumbling something about frightful hobgoblins and the two of us being like Marx and Engels, but I was now deep in my own thoughts. Wasn't I the greatest satirist in the English language since Jonathan Swift? Hadn't my polemics been compared in prophetic power to George Orwell? I turned to ask Norm to confirm that all this was indeed the case, but he looked as if he had now fallen asleep on the pavement. No matter.

It was at this point that my mind went back to what Socialist Worker had said of What's Left?: '363 pages of tedious, self-righteous diatribe and monotonous whining'. They were hardly going to say anything else, of course. I thought back to the time I had been invited to debate with the SWP at their 'Marxism' festival a few years back. I accepted the offer and turned up after spending the day preparing my arguments in a nearby bar, something I slightly regretted when I urgently needed to relieve myself on mounting the stage. Nevertheless, despite this self-inflicted injury, I decided to press on and get the whole thing over with as fast as possible. I began, and bravely told them straight out exactly what I thought of their chilling totalitarian Leninist organisation. After about ten minutes into my speech, the Chair complained that the supposed topic of the particular debate was not 'Leninism' or 'the SWP' but 'Should fascists should have the right to free speech?' Oh, well. Like I was bothered.

Still there was, I reflected with hindsight, a grain of truth in the argument that my book had been a 'diatribe'. What's Left? was all about things I was against - I now needed to write about what my alternative was, what I was for. The Euston Manifesto was supposed to be about what we we stood for, a sort of updated Communist Manifesto, but alas it had been written by a collective rather than me alone and accordingly, in terms of literary style, it had suffered somewhat. What was needed was a statement about what I thought - but written solely by me and solely about me. Hence the idea for Who's Right? was born.

At this point I felt Norm's hand on my shoulder. He looked sad, but he seemed to have sobered up somewhat. 'Let's face fucking reality, Nick, it's you and me against the fucking world now. Euston's fucked, Iraq's fucked, its all shot to shite, my academic credibility is in tatters and everyone hates us. Even if we organised a pub meet up to celebrate the fucking anniversary of the fucking Manifesto the only people who would turn up would be us, and a few journalists who had come to take the fucking piss. Maybe its time, you know, to wind the whole thing up.' I was staggered. 'What, and let the totalitarian Islamists and Leninists triumph?' I fired back. 'What happened to "Stormin' Norman"?' Besides, I said, 'I have had a revelation...' After telling him of my cunning plan to write a book all about me and how brilliant I am, Norm seemed enthusiastic but had questions. 'An autobiography? Your last book told us more about yourself than it did about the War on Iraq, and now you want to write even more about yourself?' Yet Who's Right? aims not simply to be an autobiography. It aims to be nothing less than a new manifesto for the movement that was born a year ago in Euston...


Who abolished the slave trade?

Toussaint L'Ouverture - Haitian revolutionary hero.

I promise at some point to mark next month's 200th anniversary of the formal abolition of the British slave trade with a proper post, but in the meantime I thought I would just highlight some articles for people to read to be going on with. The first appeared a month or so ago in the Guardian, and was by the historian Richard Gott - 'Britain's vote to end its slave trade was a precursor to today's liberal imperialism'. The title speaks for itself, but it is a useful contextualisation of the 'pioneering achievement' of the British. Another useful antidote to the modern tendency towards 'Wilberforce worship' comes from Louis Proyect in a film review. Finally, those with time on their hands and a love for historical fiction could do far worse than track down Madison Smartt Bell's trilogy about the Haitian Revolution All Souls' Rising, Master Of The Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, reviewed by John Newsinger here.

Edited to add: Peter Linebaugh 'An amazing disgrace' - another Marxist review of the film on Wilberforce on Counterpunch

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

From Hegemony to Hot Fuzz - On Simon Pegg's 'Marxism'

I am not sure quite what those who live outside Britain will make of it, but I really enjoyed Hot Fuzz. It was kind of like Police Academy meets The Wickerman (the original version obviously, - indeed it even starred Edward Woodward), only written by and starring some of the finest talent in British comedy today. It was not that funny - but parts of it were and are genius - and it is far better than the trailers make out. Go and see it anyway.

This post however is not really about Hot Fuzz as such but about the main writer and actor in it Simon Pegg, and aims to be nothing more than a simple outline of what I think is his creative dialogue with cultural Marxism.

Star Wars and Gramsci

Pegg first came to prominence in about 1999 in his cult TV show Spaced, which was one of those shows which begins as a late night show on Channel 4 which only school and college students really watch but if successful within a few years almost everyone claims to have watched it religiously right from the beginning. However, before then Pegg was a student himself studying Drama at the University of Bristol and it was here he seems to have discovered Marxist theory.

In many interviews, reference has been made to the fact that Pegg wrote his University thesis attempting a Marxist analysis of Star Wars:

'I studied film theory at university and I love it. It’s great fun to dissect and pick apart films to see what their social impact is. I wrote my thesis on a Marxist analysis of “Star Wars.” It was great fun! I’m a huge fan of the first three films, but not particularly the new ones. “Star Wars” was an expression of post-Vietnam, Reagan era, kind of desperation of trying to get back to being heroes when after this time when good and evil had been so difficult to distinguish. Suddenly you get these big grand bad guys, and grand good guys. The good guys are young, white American people and the bad guys are these older English Imperialists types. It’s all there on the page and it’s not difficult to dissect. I’m a big fan of that stuff.'

While I have not read his thesis, nor to be honest am I ever likely to, and while I certainly would not want to challenge his knowledge of the Star Wars films, it seems to me that some of his analysis here is a little flawed. I buy the thing about the American elite wanting and needing to rediscover their sense of 'right and wrong' after the horror of Vietnam but I disagree a bit with this bit: 'The good guys are young, white American people and the bad guys are these older English Imperialists types' - as if Star Wars is primarily an attack on the (by then falling) British Empire. While some of the Emperor's officials appear to be kind of old English imperialists (Peter Cushing's role for example), I would have thought that the 'evil Empire' if anything rather represented the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. The most 'English' character after all is C3PO - who is a 'goodie' while Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan is also obviously an enemy of the 'Darkside'. Still it is an interesting thesis - and perhaps does throw some light on the way in which American power was spread around the world without direct colonisation as in the British Empire.

In his Guardian interview, Pegg revealed his interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci, noting his dissertation was entitled 'a Marxist overview of popular Seventies cinema and hegemonic discourses'. As the interviewer noted, 'when I roll my eyes and say, "Oh there's nothing like a bit of hegemony," he [Pegg] tells me that "an awareness of the postmodern condition is still the intellectual bedrock" of his comedic method.' This method manifested itself first in Spaced, which incidently in episode five apparently featured a character selling Socialist Worker who had a dog called Gramsci who was trained to bite rich people, and then bit his SWP owner when he won the pools or something. As one reviewer wrote:

'There's a wee bit of philosophy and science in this episode, Bilbo talks about the class war (Minty is selling 'Socialist Worker') and the Italian Marxist Gramsci. Brian makes a foray into the world of Mathematics when he muses on the influence of chaos theory in the Star Wars trilogy'.

Pegg's career however took off when he made Shaun of the Dead in 2004 - a pisstake off the popular zombie movie Dawn of the Dead (incidently, though I still need to confirm this, there looks like there is a bit of 'Stop the War' flyposting is on the street when the main character lives) and Hot Fuzz is clearly a spoof of US cop films like Bad Boys II - only with 'N.W.A.' standing for Neighbourhood Watch Association instead of anything else. However, what is interesting I think is what Pegg does next, now he is a massive star. Merely spoofing popular genres of films (Zombie films/Cop films etc) is brilliant - and the team he has around him do it brilliantly - but it arguably only gets you so far.

Pegg does bring some politics into Hot Fuzz (albeit in a subtle way) and I am not suggesting that Pegg should get directly political and aim to become 'the new Ken Loach' - whose The Wind that Shakes the Barley I have also seen recently and was quite simply not only the best introduction to Irish history in the twentieth century one could wish for but also an outstanding film in its own right. All I suppose I am saying is that if one takes the apparent current 'postmodern condition' too seriously, there are dangers. Most people in Britain today have a rather different experience of the police today than that reflected in Hot Fuzz. Most people do not see them as essentially good people or bumbling fools but rather as almost psychopathic bastards with very little social conscience whatsoever, who are acting on the orders of a Government which is currently extending police powers and ordering 'terror raids' on Muslim communities with often tragic and dangerous consequences. The real world is marked by the 'war on terror' - scarred by it, to use George Galloway's phrase. Yet just as the Vietnam war led to the birth of not just films like Star Wars but also the whole Zombie genre of films - so might something completely new and far more satirical ultimately emerge out of the barbarism of Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that Marxist students of film should always be attentive to the possibilities of the new - rather than simply honouring and paying tribute to the achievements of the old.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Gun crime: Blair speaks out

'It is about a specific problem within a specific criminal culture to do with guns and gangs...'
-Tony Blair.

Remember kids: Guns don't kill people, war criminals do.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Marxist analysis of the Simpsons

Comrade Nesbitt has done the international working class movement a tremendous service with his decision to put up his critical analysis of the Simpsons online. Clearly with both an attack on Iran and the Simpsons movie likely to come soon, this could not be more timely. In the early 1990s, US president George Bush used to praise the 1970s series The Waltons, claiming the US could do with less of the Simpsons and more of the wholesome Waltons Doug explains why the Simpsons ideologically challenged the US ruling class then, but also why George W Bush is not likely to make such an attack today:

Ultimately, the Simpsons is a victim of its own success and a victim of the post-Seattle era. The show spawned a world primetime cartoons and now competes for ratings, and in that competition, it’s the spectacle that takes the prize. This means more celebrities, more exotic locations, more gimmicks, more massive plot holes and so on. Rather than being a satirical examination of American working class life and alienation under capitalism, the show has been transformed from satire to spectacle.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Gramsci Conference in London

International Socialism journal conference:

Antonio Gramsci's Revolutionary Legacy
Saturday 12 May, central London

International Socialism journal is holding a one-day
conference marking the 70th anniversary of Gramsci's death.
Gramsci's revolutionary ideas were the product of the
upsurge in workers' struggles in Italy following the First
World War, centred on the city of Turin. But many of his
ideas, ripped from their context, have been used to justify
political positions completely at odds with those held by
Gramsci-most notoriously the "historic compromise"
which saw the Italian Communist Party help bail out the
capitalist system in the 1970s.
Today there is a revival of interest in Gramsci in the anti-
capitalist movement. This conference is an intervention in
the debate over the real legacy of Gramsci's Marxism.
Sessions on:
- The Turin Experience
- The Politics of Gramsci
- Reclaiming the Prison Notebooks
Hosted by London School of Economic SWSS
For information/bookings phone 020 7819 1177 or e-mail

Gramsci Archive
Chris Bambery on Gramsci
Chris Harman 'Gramsci vs Reformism'