Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, March 31, 2008

Gary Younge on Martin Luther King

'Forty years after King's death, the ability of America to both mythologise the man and marginalise his meaning is all too cruelly apparent. His symbolic likeness is effortlessly incorporated into America's self-image as the land of relentless progress. Meanwhile, his legacy of struggling against poverty and imperialism is undermined with every passing day. Had he lived he would most certainly have been loathed. In order for America to love him, he first had to die.'

Full article here, which also serves a superb rejoinder to those 'decent leftists' who attack Rev Jeremiah Wright as 'hate-filled'. Gary Younge is speaking in London in July on black America and Barack Obama at Marxism. More on King here and Obama here.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Scott McLemee on Castro and Zizek

The ever readable McLemee has written a critical review of Castro's autobiography My Life and also suggests a possible new project for the cultural theorist and film star Slavoj Zizek.

Labels: ,

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who are the real 'post-leftists'?

Alan Johnson trying to recruit a merchant banker to the 'decent Left'

The British Professor Alan Johnson, a former Trotskyist* turned self-styled intellectual heavyweight of the pro-war "left", has been hard at work recently trying to come up with new ways to denounce those of us who still refuse to bow down before the power and glory of the American Empire. His last attempt to coin a suitable phrase to attack anti-imperialists was to say we had fallen ill with 'neoconitus', a disease of Johnson's own fevered imagination. Now one or other of his co-thinkers have come up with a new expression - 'post-leftism', which Johnson now seems very excited about indeed. The idea is simple enough, and I am surprised that it took the 'pro-war "left"' so long to come up with it, though like 'neoconitus' the problem with it is that it is really too simple to stand up to any critical examination. But lets at least try and follow Johnson's 'thinking':

Post-leftism has its roots in the inter-war decades of the last century when the old left's belief in a future socialist society first began to drain away. It grew, as the late Lionel Trilling put it, in the form of an "adversary culture" - a comprehensive opposition to "bourgeois" society ungrounded in a positive alternative. The post-left has radicalised this inchoate hostility until "Amerika" is the satanic principle in the world.

Can we really mark one single historical period where defeat led to disillusionment and claim that 'post-leftism' had its roots in that one period? Was there not some draining away in the belief in a future socialist society after say the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, an event which effectively killed the First International? Or what about say 4 August 1914, which effectively killed the Second International when that organisation (with one or two honourable sections an exception) decided to abandon internationalist principles and line up behind their own ruling class during the First World War?

But perhaps I am being slightly pedantic - we can concede that Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia in the 1930s inevitably and ultimately did lead to a wider disillusionment with the socialist project, and that various people ultimately decided to throw the socialist baby out with the Stalinist bathwater, leading to a phenomenon that one could legitimately call a 'post-leftist' one.

But where Johnson goes wrong is when he tries to claim that the history of the left since the 1930s is actually about the development of a 'post left' as though it represented one mass coherent intellectual current, albeit one rooted in 'inchoate hostility':

'The post-left luxuriates...in anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, anti-Zionism, anti-capitalism, and anti-liberalism'

In reality, if 'anti-Americanism' grew in the post-war world it was because it was a response to the growing power of America and the whole bloody history of attempts by America to try and dominate the world through imperialism in the post war world. If 'anti-Westernism' grew during the post war world it was because 'the West' had before then bequeathed to the world the slave trade, colonialism, imperialist scramble for Africa, two barbaric World Wars, the Great Depression, fascism, and the Nazi Holocaust. Quite a few people had quite a few reasons to be raising doubts about 'Western Civilisation'. If anti-Zionism grew in the post-war world then that might have had something to do with the fact that in 1948 the State of Israel was established by force and terror in Palestine and has acted as a colonial outpost of the West in the Middle East ever since then. As for anti-capitalism and anti-liberalism, haven't 'the Left' always kind of opposed capitalism and counterposed socialism to liberalism? What is particularly 'post left' here?

Indeed, rather than Johnson's imagined community called the 'post left' it was those people who stayed ideologically committed to the 'old left' in whatever form who from the 1940s and 1950s onwards who tended to express what Johnson calls 'post left' beliefs. Johnson denounces Noam Chomsky as a 'post leftist' for arguing that 'America is the greatest terrorist state'. But Chomsky was someone who radicalised politically out of the Great Depression and general crisis in America in the 1930s and who made his name in part analysing and attacking American imperialism at the time of the Vietnam War. He is about as 'old left' as it gets. It was those who broke from the left (the 'post-left' if you like) in the 1940s and 1950s who went all over the place ideologically, but if they went anywhere initially tended to go towards 'Western' liberalism of one sort of another - and support for the Vietnam War. Indeed, Johnson kind of acknowledges this in his discussion of the 1960s 'New Left':

'The nihilist movements of the late 1960s denounced "Amerika" and the "great white west".'

It slowly becomes clearer what Johnson is really taking exception to, then. It is not an imagined community called the 'post-left' at all but rather the rise of the 'New Left' out of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and also in particular the rise of militant black nationalism and the raising of the banner of 'Black Power' as the American Civil Rights movement radicalised as a result of the Vietnam War and also in the face of vicious state repression. Indeed most of Johnson's article is precisely aimed at the radical black preacher Rev Jeremiah Wright - who seems to be coming straight out of this 'Black Power' moment. Now there are of course aspects of black nationalist thought that are problematic for socialists, but Johnson's attack on the 'anti-American' Rev Jeremiah Wright misunderstands American history, particularly African-American history, profoundly. Johnson may prefer to ignore completely the fact that American 'civilisation' was built up first on the racist genocide of native Americans and then on the slavery of black Africans, but it will take more than the election of Barack Obama for American society to truly face up to its legacy of its racist past - particularly when Obama seems to be committed to fighting future imperialist wars that will only allow racism of another sort to flourish. The Rev Jeremiah Wright, whatever his particular eccentricities, in attacking American power understands something profoundly important about American society, its past and present, while Johnson's attacks on Wright reveal only his ignorance.

Worse than that - Johnson's breathless praise for Obama as a hero of the 'decent left' shows exactly who are the real 'post leftists'. Obama may come across as a decent enough bloke, but there is nothing 'left' as far as I can see about him, while there is certainly no longer anything remotely 'decent' or 'left' about Johnson and the rest of the 'decent left'. There is however a political radicalisation similar to that in Vietnam going on today as a result of the movements against Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson hates the way this new mood of against war, imperialism and racism is spreading up from the streets and 'gaining influence in the academy, media and politics'. Johnson attacks 'the postmodern academic [who] tells students that the human condition has been blighted by "western-patriarchal-racist-homophobic-logocentric-capitalist-imperialism" and talks of the "multitude" that resist this new "Empire".' Whatever the failings of postmodernism, and there are many (logocentrism anyone?), at least those who understand that America is an Empire and therefore oppose it not because it is American but because it is an Empire show that there is hope still for humanity. But for that hope to be realised means that it is vital that out of the political radicalisation seen in the international anti-war movements, a new left committed to revolutionary socialism emerges.

*'A PARALLEL REACTION AMONG MANY ON THE LEFT -- the so-called B52 Liberals or Stealth Socialists -- has been to look to the military power of the United States and NATO to police the globe in defense of human rights. This reaction is a reprise of Americans for Democratic Action [A.D.A.] of the 1950s which, after condemning the latest "mistake" in U.S. foreign policy, would then call on the U.S. government to lead a social revolution in Asia. Hal Draper's reaction at the time -- "How naive is a liberal allowed to be?" -- must be ours today' - Alan Johnson, New Politics, 1999.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, March 27, 2008

If you live in London...

You know it makes sense...


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The hidden history of the Spanish Civil War

Read all about it on Lenin's Tomb.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Love Music Hate Racism Carnival

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Histomat Marx-like Genius Awards

Just as the NME has its 'Godlike Genius Awards', I thought I would mark clocking up 200,000 'hits' on Histomat by unveiling the 'Marx-like Genius Awards'. Woo. Rather than just another meaningless and random list of Top Ten Revolutions, or Top Ten works of Marxist writing on History, or whatever, this time around I have decided to attempt to compile a list of the top ten greatest living Marxists on the planet today, (including people who have made an historic contribution to Marxism even if they are not now Marxists). Oh yeah. I should therefore remind readers lest it need saying that this is actually the definitive comprehensive official list of greatest Marxists, considered, peer-reviewed and approved by a panel of experts at great length. It is not therefore to be taken lightly, as any sort of personal top ten list that was put together quickly over a lunch hour when I suddenly noticed that my stat-counter had hit a significant milestone and couldn't think of a better idea for a post. No, that is not my style at all. However, I must take full responsibility and blame for the fact that the list is Anglo-centric as hell, and with a distinct (but perhaps sadly unavoidable?) race and gender bias. I would however appreciate comments, criticism, ridicule, suggestions of the thousand and one people who I missed out, etc etc etc and if people want to go away to draw up alternative lists that would be cool. I would certainly learn a lot from that. Indeed, any attempt by one person to compile such a list in the end only really reveals that persons ignorance/arrogance. Okay then, that all said, in alphabetical order by surname, the greatest living Marxists are...[drum roll]

Perry Anderson

Grace Lee Boggs

Alex Callinicos

Loren Goldner

Irfan Habib

Chris Harman

Eric Hobsbawm

Victor Kiernan

Michael Lowy

John Saville

Remember, some of these people are on the list for their historic contribution, rather than their current political contribution. Right. And if you think there are too many historians on the list then well, sorry, but that's kind of your problem not mine. Anyway, I have lit the fuse as it were...what is now done is done...


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Towards the abolition of White Season

I am afraid I haven't caught the much hyped BBC's 'White Season' myself. Ostensibly about the British working class, from what I have heard about it it seems they decided to ignore questions of exploitation - the defining thing which shapes class and classes after all - and certainly decided to ignore questions of class struggle. Instead, they focused on race. In itself this might have been okay - for example an examination of the 'white working class' which could have then been followed up with an examination of the black working class, the asian working class and so on, but unfortunately the BBC being the BBC they couldn't help but go down a racist route - as has been widely discussed on the British left blogosphere and elsewhere. As a contribution to this debate, I thought I would just highlight an article from the Histomat archive entitled 'The invention of the white working class, which briefly explored the historical dimensions of 'whiteness' in relation to the British working class.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 15, 2008

John Molyneux on Marxism and Art

[I hope John Molyneux won't mind, but a recent introductory article on Marxism and Art on his blog deserves a wider readership, and so I will republish it on Histomat, with a few pictures to hopefully make the thing more aesthetically pleasing. There is also a good short introduction to why revolutionary socialists need to organise to build revolutionary parties by John Molyneux in the latest SW - online here]

What Marxism has to say about art (by which I mean all the creative arts i.e. music, literature, painting, sculpture, photography, film, drama, dance and so on) is limited but important.

It is limited in that Marxism does not offer, and should not try to offer, any prescriptions or instructions as to how artists should make their art. There is no 'Marxist' way to write poetry, or paint, or play the trumpet or compose symphonies, any more than there is a Marxist method of mechanical engineering, playing chess or doing the high jump. (Marx himself wrote some poetry when he was young, but it wasn’t very good and he soon gave it up). Marxism does not require that artists tackle certain themes e.g. class, war or revolution, rather than others such as sex, dreams or religion, or even that art be overtly political or committed.

Nor does Marxism provide a set of ready made political or ideological criteria for the evaluation of art. Mao Ze Dong was a poet as well as leader of the Chinese Revolution , but his merits as a poet are not determined by his merits or lack of them as a revolutionary or ruler of China. A Marxist who argues that T.S. Eliot was a bad poet because he was a reactionary (he was very reactionary) or that Diego Rivera was a greater painter than Picasso because he was more left wing, is not being a Marxist in his or her approach to art. Marx (and Engels) preferred the reactionary pro-aristocratic novelist, Balzac, to the progressive Zola, because he thought Balzac was a better writer who provided a fuller and more insightful picture of French society. The standpoint of Marxism, as Trotsky insisted in his debates over literature and art with the Stalinists, requires that art be judged as art.

What Marxism does do, however, is provide: a) a unique appreciation and understanding of the overall importance of art in individual and collective human development; b) the best analytical method for grasping the course of art and cultural history as a whole; c) an extremely useful standpoint for the analysis of the meaning and significance of individual works of art.

None of the great Marxists ever suggested that either individual works of art or art in general played a key role in determining the outbreak or outcome of revolutions. Nonetheless, they all took a serious interest in art and clearly felt informed and sustained by it. In this respect art seems to operate in a manner closer to medicine or nutritious food than to political action. Also the fact that art has existed in every known society in the history of the world reinforces the case for its social necessity. Marxism enables us to understand this.

For Marxism, creative labour is the essence of becoming and being human. Human beings are animals who have made themselves into more than animals through labour, 'by producing their means of subsistence' as The German Ideology puts it (see also Engels, The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man). Through labour humans shape their environment, their history and themselves.

However, in class divided society, and especially in capitalist society, most people most of the time are deprived of the possibility of creative labour. Their labour is alienated: they do not control it, and are forced to perform it not for themselves but at the behest of others and it becomes something that damages and distorts their lives. Art is the name we give to one of the few forms of creative labour, i.e. labour controlled by the producer (revolutionary practice is another) that is possible in class society. This makes genuine truthful communication of ideas and emotions possible in art in a way that is not possible in completely mercenary entertainment, journalism and advertising. And this is why art is important to us as human beings and Marxists even when that art is ideologically conservative and even though the art world and the cultural industries are dominated by the ruling class.

Indeed it is a central proposition of Marxist art history that the class which controls the major means of material production will also fundamentally dominate artistic production. For Marxism approaches art history on the basis of historical materialism which sees art, along with religion, philosophy, politics and law, as part of the superstructure of society which rests on, and is conditioned by, the economic base constituted by the forces and relations of production.

Of course the relations between economic development, class and art are not to be understood mechanically – they are complex and highly mediated – but denying or disregarding them as in the numerous bourgeois schools of formalist art and literary criticism makes it impossible to grasp the overall movement of cultural history or major developments within it.

Breughal's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1558)

For example, why was the art of the European Middle Ages so (relatively) static, formalised and unchanging? Because it reflected the (relatively) slow development of the forces of production under feudalism and their accompaniment by a rigid social hierarchy resting on frozen relations of production. What generated the spectacular artistic and cultural upsurge of the Renaissance that began in Florence at the end of the thirteenth century (with Dante and Giotto), culminated in Italy with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and then spread north through Germany, the Netherlands and England, encompassing such giant figures as Durer, Breughal, Rembrandt and Shakespeare? The historical materialist will answer that it was a reflection of the rise, at first within the fetters of feudalism and then breaking through in its own right, of the dynamic but contradictory system of capitalism and of the class associated with it, namely the bourgeoisie.

How do we explain why the stately procession of artistic phases (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic) measured in centuries and half centuries, suddenly gave way to the frenzy of modernism in which art movements (impressionism, expressionism, fauvism cubism, futurism, suprematism, dadaism etc) came and went almost in the blink of an eye, except as a response to the 'constant revolutionising of production' and 'uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions' imposed by modern capitalism.

Can the succession of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop etc, and therefore the whole course of modern popular music from Elvis Presley to Amy Winehouse be understood apart from the freedom struggle of Black America?

Even where individual works and individual artists are concerned Marxism offers unique insights. In his great book Ways of Seeing John Berger used the Marxist critique of capitalist social relations to produce superb accounts of Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Dutch still-life paintings. Neither Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times nor Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot can be understood without a grasp of Marx’s theory of alienation. In Seoul eighteen months ago I saw the Korean artist, Nam June Paik’s great pagoda of TV monitors The More the Better. It cried out for analysis using the concepts of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development.

Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)

No amount of Marxism can substitute for specific knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the art concerned. But art is part of society and evolves in constant interaction with society. The richest, most profound and most scientific analysis of society, which is Marxism, cannot fail to enrich our understanding of art.

Labels: ,

Mark Steel on British Citizenship

'[New Labour] ended up so modern they gave the job of reviewing British citizenship to Lord Goldsmith, who's concluded everyone should undergo a ceremony in which they pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. This is so advanced the rest of Europe only abandoned it 200 years ago. So there are probably other bits of his report, not yet published, which go: "Loyal British citizenship will be enhanced by dismantling the system of local government, and replacing it with a network of barons. A sense of modern national unity will be advanced if citizens, who shall also be known as 'serfs', kneel before them on the third Sunday of each month and offer them their wives as chattel. This measure, I feel, should bring about a rapid decrease in the practice of city centre binge-drinking." One of the questions in the British Citizenship test asks what you should do in the event of someone spilling your drink in the pub. So from now on the correct answer will be: "Challenge them to a duel."'

Full article hammering New Labour and 'Britishness' here. See also this article on 'loyalty oaths'.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Rees on John Milton

A fine introduction indeed by John Rees to 'Citizen Milton' in the new issue of Socialist Review:

'The occasion is the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth. I guess you have to have lived to some purpose to be still celebrated 400 years later. And John Milton did live to some purpose. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language...

Milton's political achievements are scarcely less noteworthy. When it was almost unthinkable to do so, he argued for freedom of divorce if the partners so wished in The Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce, and was condemned as "licentious, new and dangerous". His clarion call for freedom of speech, Areopagitica, argued against the censorship of the state: "So truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in free and open encounter." In 1644 to put your name on the front page of such a work was to risk your life, but Milton did so anyway.

Milton became probably the central ideological defender of Cromwell's revolutionary government. He was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues (essentially Foreign Secretary). In his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, the Defence of the People of England, the Second Defence of the People of England and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth he argued to a European-wide audience the right of the English people to execute their king and establish a republic.

When the Royalists produced a hagiographic Eikon Basilike in praise of the "martyred" Charles I, Milton replied with Eikonoklastes. He wrote, he said, not to insult the king but to serve "Queen Truth". As blindness descended upon the greatest poet of his generation, and of many generations to come, he wrote, "I resolved therefore that I must employ this brief use of my eyes while yet I could for the greatest possible benefit to the state..."

Better leave the last words to the poet Wordsworth:

"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power."

[Socialist Review also has a very readable review of the new Rambo film by Richard Seymour, among other things.]

Labels: ,

Students of the world ignite!


Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1968 'May events'.

40 years ago students were on the march against the US war on Vietnam but also against injustice and inequality everywhere. Then, in May, workers in France occupied their factories as students occupied their universities. Suddenly the world seemed on the brink of revolutionary change...Could it happen again?

LSE Students' Union invites you to a 40th anniversary conference:
Speakers include
Tariq Ali (writer, broadcaster & author of 'Street Fighting Years')
Chris Harman (LSE student '68 & author of '1968 The Fire Last Time)
Pierre Rousset (French Revolutionary)
And LSE student activists from 2008

PLUS A unique selection of 1968 short films
Saturday May 3rd from 2pm, LSE Old Theatre.

See also this conference on May 1968 in London

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Leon Greenman RIP

Leon Greenman, (1910-2008)Auschwitz survivor 98288, 'the only Englishman sent to Auschwitz' has passed away. Those who had the fortune to hear him tell his story will never forget either it or him. Greenman's tireless, heroic and tremendous commitment to educating young people about the utter barbarism of the Nazi Holocaust and warning people about the continuing fascist threat, even into his nineties, was a truly inspirational contribution and one which will be sorely missed in the struggles ahead.

Guardian Obituary
SW Obituary


John Pilger on Australian Imperialism

Good article in the New Statesman on what Pilger calls Australia's 'hidden empire'. There is some detailed past commentary on Reading the Maps on some of this stuff too...

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Where was Blair?

When future historians wonder at Israel's bloody siege of Gaza, they might ponder on what the hell the official 'peace envoy' to the Middle East was busy doing at this precise point of time. Felicity Arbuthnot reveals the answer:

The 1.5 million souls to whom Gaza is home are entrapped, with no place to hide, pounded from ground and air, by tanks, F-16's and Apache attack helicopters (courtesy of the “land of the free”) in a reign of terror unleashed by "the only democracy in the Middle East". As little Gaza is set to become the next Sabra and Shatila massacre (with the advanced warning ringing round the globe) the world's governments deafen with their shameful, craven silence. War criminal turned Middle East "peace envoy" in our Kafkaesque world, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair Q.C., was unconcerned, taking a break from his stressful life counting his piles of ill gotten gains, holidaying at an African game park owned by Virgin Airways founder, Richard Branson.

To quote Bruce Forsyth, 'didn't he do well ladies and gentlemen?'

Stop the War - March on March 15

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Blogging for International Socialism in 2008

Last year I attempted to compile a list of bloggers linked to or supportive of the International Socialist Tendency, which can be read here. My pioneering effort in this direction was flawed however, crucially missing out lots of new IST bloggers while including all sorts of IST 'fellow travellers', at least one of whom has, er, sadly stopped 'fellow travelling' since then.

Now in 2008, Hossam in Egypt has issued A Call to Blogo-Arms to try to build up a definitive list of IST bloggers - a fascinating project which has already thrown up a whole number of revolutionary socialist blogs I had no idea about...probably in part because my Arabic is well, sadly non existent...

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 01, 2008

More John Bull-shit from the Brownshirts

Under the banner slogan 'New Labour Your Britain', the spring conference of the National Socialist British Labour Party saw the Great Leader Gordon Brown get a standing ovation from the assorted NSDLP members, known by some as the 'Brown Shirts'. 'I know these last few months haven't been the easiest' Brown told supporters. 'I have heard the worries. Worries about jobs going overseas, about the sorts of jobs our kids will get when they grow up and about how our communities are changing, and how the British way of life is under threat.' Playing the race card in such a brazen fashion during a period of economic uncertainty seemed to go down well with supporters, as did the announcement of a British Trust Fund designed to scapegoat migrant workers in a racist fashion by charging them to use the National Health Service and other public services. Along with the ever popular slogan 'British Jobs for British Workers', this policy announcement was possibly stolen from the NSDLP's rival far-right party in British politics - the British Nazi Party (BNP).

Brown stressed the importance of Britishness as a value, though as usual he played it safe by refusing to spell out what exactly constituted 'Britishness' and the 'British way of life'. However it was made clear to delegates that not being 'British' or worse still, being 'anti-British' was a Very Bad Thing and could incure not only penalties but punishments. 'Being a British citizen is about more than a test, more than a ceremony; it's a kind of contract between the citizen and the country involving rights but also involving responsibilities that will protect and enhance the British way of life.' To more cheers from the assorted Party members, Brown concluded 'Let us have confidence that our values are the values of the British people, and confidence that what we stand for is what the British people want for the future of this country. Let us go out and meet that challenge together'.

Labels: , , ,