Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, June 30, 2008

Preparing Battlefield Iran

Via here, veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reports on how the Bush administration has continued and continues to make secret moves against Iran...

See also the Campaign Iran website.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

On the joys of job interviews

From here:

I sat down in front of the panel of stony, unimpressed faces. An iceberg would have radiated more warmth. No one asked me about my presentation. There was just an embarrassed silence for a few seconds while... while what? What was I supposed to do? Inscrutable reptile looks. Then the first question. I was asked how I would promote the college's Equal Opportunites policy in the classroom. Of course, I'm wholly in favour of Equal Opps policies and it's good that they clearly take it seriously - but what am I supposed to say about this? I managed to mumble something vague - but only after considering, for a second or two, a facetious response. 'How would I promote the college's Equal Opportunities policy in my teaching? Well I suppose I would promote it by not being a racist, sexist or homophobic bastard in the classroom.' What else can you say?


Friday, June 27, 2008

Is the white upper class going fascist?

Punters at the Henley Royal Regatta

[The results of the Henley by-election in Oxfordshire were overall quite unremarkable. It is a quintessential ruling class area - home of the Henley Royal Regatta - and so the vast bulk of the votes went to the historic party of the ruling class - the Tories. The classic party of the petit-bourgeoisie - the Liberal Democrats - came second, and the party of the progressive petit bourgeoisie - the Greens - came third. But what was surprising about the election result was the results for the minor fringe parties in British politics. I am not really thinking here about the small extremist pro-big business sect 'New Labour', but rather another small extremist party - the fascist BNP - a party of the reactionary petit bourgeoisie - that beat them]

The current debate raging on the blogosphere and on the likes of the Guardian's Comment is Free is the key question: why are such significant numbers of the white upper class voting for the British Nazi Party? Histomat therefore contacted some leading experts who have studied the white upper class for their insights, and these are some of the responses we got...

Commentator A: As early as the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold declared that the English aristocracy were simply 'Barbarians' without any culture whatsoever. What has to be remembered and understood about the British upper class in particular was that since the 1920s there was never really a time when they were 'anti-fascist' or even 'anti-racist', as it were. If one thinks about the admiration for Mussolini and Hitler during the 1920s and 1930s, a lot of it came from the old English aristocracy. And of course the leaders of British fascist movements have historically often come from the landed gentry - from Sir Oswald Mosley to Nick Griffin and so on. Fascist regimes have always managed to gain the support of sections of the upper class when in power and so we should not be surprised by the Henley result.

Commentator B: The upper class feel disenfranchised and unrepresented by any of the major parties in British politics - their traditional party - the Conservatives - have gone on a major march left to the centre of British politics, and that has created a political vacuum that the fascists are beginning to fill. Unless a 'new aristocrats' party' fundamentally committed to the class interests of the aristocracy is formed, then fascists will always find a hearing as fascists will always lie to say whatever it is they think that their particular audience wants to hear.

Commentator C: Lets be blunt about this - the upper class are fundamentally ignorant about society, even though many of them have had the best education money can buy. All they do is live off their inheritance and sit around watching Wimbledon on TV and drinking Pimms all day and so when some racist scumbag comes round blaming 'the crisis in housing' on 'migrant workers', they simply agree, thinking he is referring to the difficulties they find hiring cleaners and nannies willing to work for them all day for next to no pay. All we can be thankful for is that so few of this class of people vote - I still don't think they really understand the system of democracy and how it works through elections - otherwise we really would have a problem on our hands.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trotsky Legacy Conference

Those based in the US (and interested in Trotskyism) might be interested in the following conference organised in late July on The Legacy of Leon Trotsky and US Trotskyism...

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Queen not amused by Mugabe

After stripping Mugabe of his knighthood, the Queen lashed out, declaring that Mugabe was 'an unelected head of state who seems to think that he had a God-given right to rule over his people'.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intermission, or, doing a meme

Dear comrades and friends, I have been invited by a friend to 'do a meme', which apparently is not something illegal but simply means following the instructions below:

'List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.'

I don't really want to do the 'tagging 7 other people' bit in such an open fashion, but I thought I would inflict readers of Histomat with 7 songs that 'shaped my spring' as it were. My musical taste is notoriously appalling in its primitivism, but don't worry, I won't do this very often. This is an intermission - not a regular thing. Anyway, my seven songs are as follows.

1. First We Take Manhatten - Leonard Cohen
2. Dance of Death - Iron Maiden
3. Paper Planes - MIA
4. Guns of Navarone - Skatalites
5. Sinnerman - Nina Simone
6. Spring Rain - The Go-Betweens
7. Ring the Summer Home - Ewan MacColl

Sadly Ewan MacColl's song is not on YouTube - but take it from me it is a brilliant folk song about the English Peasants Revolt of 1381 that lasts about 10 minutes. The others I have posted as videos below. I suppose I should really apologise in a way for the Iron Maiden song - but I like the way it is reminiscent of Spinal Tap's classic 'Stonehenge'. And in any case, I am not alone in thinking Maiden rock. The clue to Maiden's genius lies I think in the following snippet from an article about the band recently in the Guardian:

The bassist [Steve Harris] is quiet and focused, talking in detail about the surprise influence of Jethro Tull and how he incorporated the structures of English hymnal music and medieval tunes into Maiden songs.

Anyway, these 7 songs are my meme - readers of Histomat can feel free to do their own memes if they feel suitably inspired by my example...I'm off to check out Jethro Tull...


The Go-Betweens: Spring Rain

Nina Simone Sinnerman

Skatalites - Guns of Navarone

M.I.A. Paper Planes

Dance of the death Iron Maiden

Leonard Cohen - First We Take Manhattan

Zimbabwean socialists to speak in UK

With the situation in Zimbabwe becoming desperate, those near London might be interested in hearing socialists from Zimbabwe speak about the situation and the possibilities of future change from below in the country at Marxism in early July.

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Angus Calder

I read this week that the Scottish writer, poet and socialist historian Angus Calder had died earlier this month, which is sad. There is an obituary by Bernard Crick here, and another one here. Though I haven't read it, his work Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s is supposed to be superb, while he wrote several articles for International Socialism Journal, including this short piece on the British Empire.

Edited to add: Socialist Review Obituary

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Egypt's strike wave hits London

'We want the dawn': Photographs from Egypt's strike wave
1 - 11 July 2008, Students' Union, SOAS, Thornhaugh St, Russell Sq, London WC1

"You want the dawn? The battlefield's right here The hero is a hero.And the coward is a coward."
Women textile workers' strike leaflet,April 2008, quoting Egypt's great vernacular poet, Ahmad Fu'ad Negm

Opening event: 6.30pm 1 July
Film showing: 'On the streets' by Nora Younis about the Property Tax Collectors' strike
Speakers: Hossam el-Hamalawy and Farah Kobaissy
All welcome - free entry

/ RSVP to Dr Anne Alexander,
Department of Politics,
SOAS / aa107@soas.ac.uk

Since December 2006 workers' strikes have swept Egypt, as textile workers, tax collectors, tobacco packers and many thousands of others have mobilised for bread and workers' rights. Photographers Hossamel-Hamalawy, Nasser Nouri, Mostafa Bassiouny, and Farah Kobaissy document Egypt's greatest wave of industrial protest since the 1940s. The exhibition is funded by the Economic and Social Research Councilunder the ESRC Non-Governmental Public Action Programme(http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/NGPA/) The organisers would alsolike to thank SOAS Students' Union for hosting the event, and SOAS UNISON and UCU for their support.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Life in Palestine

British socialist councillor Michael Lavalette is currently blogging from Palestine...


The Russian Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance

Whenever I take the time to 'surf the left blogosphere', or whatever the phrase is, which is sadly quite a rare event these days, I am invariably struck by the quantity and quality of decent socialist blogging that it is possible to find out there. But one has to go searching for such stuff - and too often it remains hidden away under all the social-imperialist scum and sectarian-reformist idiocy that invariably rises to the top in the 'left political blogosphere'.

Take for example the author of General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle an American blogger who has put their MA dissertation on 'The Russian Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance' online - a remarkably brave (and worthy) thing to do in my opinion. It looks fascinating...

1. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and The Messenger
2.Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, and the Negro World
3.Cyril Briggs and The Crusader

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Reading Capital with David Harvey

If one is holed up somewhere with broadband access and perhaps a broken leg or something, this might well be worth a look...

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Churchill on Franco and Hitler

Winston Churchill's respect for the work of 'Signor Mussolini' is well known, writing as late as 1939 that 'Up till a few years ago many people in Britain admired the work which the extraordinary man Signor Mussolini had done for his country. He had brought it out of incipient anarchy into a position of dignity and order which was admired even by those who regretted the suspension of Italian freedom.' It should not therefore come as much of a surprise that the imperialist gangster was also quite taken by the Spanish fascist dictator Franco and even Hitler himself (before WWII).

On February 23, 1939 he wrote of Franco:

'He now has the opportunity of becoming a great Spaniard of whom it may be written a hundred years hence: "He united his country and rebuilt its greatness. Apart from that he reconciled the past with the present, and broadened the life of the working people while preserving the faith and structure of the Spanish nation." Such an achievement would rank in history with the work of Ferdinand and Isabella and the glories of Charles V.'

Even after the Second World War and the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust had come out, Churchill remembered discussing Hitler in 1932, and noted:

'I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat, even though I am on the other side. He had a perfect right, to be a patriotic German if he chose. I always wanted England, Germany, and France to be friends.'

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Lula's Brazil

Sean Purdy, who runs the highly recommended Dissenting Historian blog, has written a useful account of the state of politics in Brazil under Lula, whose 'Workers' Party' Government has been pro-big business at home and engaged in imperialist intervention abroad in Haiti.


New Horror Film: 42 Days Later

Labour MPs shuffle past one of Gordon Brown's new 'schools' - sorry Mcacademies - in the terrifying 42 Days Later

From the makers of the classic Evil Dead Trilogy and 28 Days Later comes the new thriller 42 Days Later...

Starring David Davis as an unlikely hero of human civilisation fighting a veritable army of New Labour Zombies:

It's not just Gordon Brown who looks like a dead man walking, Labour now looks like a party of zombies. Polling lower than ever recorded, with its leader sunk below any previous floor, no party has ever come back from here before. Bad news is only replaced by worse every week that passes. It's hard to know if the living dead walking towards their doom are in denial or have already decided nothing can save them.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Many Marxisms

London is not only hosting Marxism 2008 in July, but also a more academic Marxist conference organised by Historical Materialism journal in November:

7-9 November 2008
School of Oriental and African Studies, Central London

Ever since its foundation in 1997, Historical Materialism has sought to contribute to the intellectual recomposition of the global Left by serving as an international venue for critical Marxist research. The journal's initial wager - that Marxism remains a vital, and heterogeneous political and theoretical tradition - has been borne out in a conjuncture where Marxist thinkers have amply demonstrated the critical resources at their disposal (witness recent debates on imperialism and neoliberalism). Within the academy, the facile dismissal of Marxism seems to have run out of steam, and the attitudes of new generations of students and researchers have changed accordingly. No longer simply forced to survive in hostile conditions or to retreat into isolated academic subcultures, and despite an often adverse global political context, Marxist intellectuals, face new challenges, which this conference seeks to address. How can we develop the plurality of Marxist debates, fields and schools without making concessions to eclecticism, narcissism or compartmentalisation? How do we square the concrete multiplicity of Marxisms with the strong commonalities in intellectual vocabularies, theoretical sources and political aims? Hasn't the question of the diversity of Marxism - of many Marxisms - accompanied the tradition’s entire development, a testament both to its internationalist horizon, and to the inexhaustible potential of its many critical insights and conceptual formulations? What strategies can allow us to confront, and perhaps overcome, some of the disparities or even misunderstandings born of these processes of differentiation? And how might we profit from them? Having tried to foster a form of critical cosmopolitanism and debate in past conferences, bringing together thinkers working in different fields, and out of different traditions, this year's Historical Materialism conference wants to emphasise problems and opportunities raised by the existence of 'Many Marxisms'. To this end, it aims to take stock of recent developments in Marxist thought, surveying the most vibrant recent debates; to confront critical moments in the historical development of Marxism; to identify crucial concepts and areas of research than can cut across any preconceived academic specialisation or geographical isolation of Marxism; to reflect on the ways in which Marxism has and continues to intervene in mainstream intellectual debates; and, finally, to generate a space in which the outlines of the many twenty-first century Marxisms may be delineated. For more details, please contact: historicalmaterialism@soas.ac.uk


Larry Elliott on the British economy

Its all a bit like the Monty Python 'Dead Parrot Sketch' apparently...

When he was chancellor, Brown's pitch to the electorate had been the man of prudence and probity, the equivalent of the solid shopkeeper who would never sell his customers shoddy goods.

Today the situation is somewhat different, with the voters - in the immortal words of Monty Python - registering a complaint and ministers seeking to reassure, loudly but unconvincingly, that the parrot is not quite dead but is just resting.

There is much talk from Alistair Darling about how the economy is better placed than those of other countries to withstand the global downturn ("the Norwegian Blue prefers kipping on its back"), and that there are parts of Britain - away from the financial sector and the housing market - that are still doing well (Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, beautiful plumage).

As far as the voters are concerned, the plumage don't enter into it. They seem utterly unmoved by the idea that Britain is, by all accounts, envied as a bastion of creativity when their homes are dropping in value and their real incomes are being squeezed. Rather like the angry customer in the pet shop, they have taken a closer look at the parrot and decided that the only reason it stood on the perch for so long was that the government nailed it there with both public and private debt.

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Alex Callinicos on Barack Obama

Imagine, in a galaxy far, far away, an empire in decline. A disastrous military adventure and the rise of new powers have exposed its weakness. To cap it all, the emperor himself is generally despised as a provincial clod.

But now his successor has to be chosen. What better way to rehabilitate the empire in the eyes of others than to select as emperor an eloquent, dynamic, relatively young man – a man who, while being utterly safe, not only belongs to the group of imperial subjects who are victims of its greatest historical injustice, but whose father comes from a foreign country and who himself spent some of his childhood in another?

Read the rest of the article here

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When Bush met Brown # II

After their first encounter went so well, we can look forward to round 2...

Brown: I am committed to fighting for 42 days...
Bush: You think you can hang on as leader that long?

Bush/Brown: It is really good to meet up again - standing next to you actually makes me look quite good...

Bush/Brown: What's it like being a deeply unpopular political failure on your way out of power?

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Protest at Bush visit

There is no more suitable candidate for Leading War Criminal than George Bush. The only person that comes anywhere near him is Tony Blair. They are both beneath contempt. Bush should certainly be arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay where he can rot forever.
- Harold Pinter


Saturday, June 07, 2008

John Berger on intellectuals under late capitalism

In 1988, the Marxist cultural critic John Berger wrote an interesting article for the New Statesman on intellectuals role in society, and how it had changed. Traditionally, things were fairly straightforward:

The word intellectual - referring to a person - was first used during the 19th century. The term referred essentially to a new type of publicist, not to be confused with the earlier categories of scholar, historian, philosopher, humanist, teacher, scientist. What exactly was his function? Can any generalisation cover the full railge of examples available? From Ruskin to George Orwell, from d’Annunzio to Ego Kisch? It may help to ask: why did the nineteenth century offer or demand a new kind of life’s work.

A new intellectual space had been created in Europe — and the phenomenon was essentially European — by literacy and therefore by the growing presence of newspapers, pamphlets and popular books; and, equally, by the newly-won principle of democracy, whereby government and government decisions were meant to be subject to public opinion, publicly (as distinct from secretly) mobilised either en masse, or in pressure groups.

The intellectual and the journalist were born at about the same time, to work in the same field. The intellectual offered opinions; the journalist offered events. These opinions were all charged by an unresolved question which hung over the European century of 1840-1940.

This persistent question was: Who is governing whom and by what right? It led to a myriad other questions because, so long as it remained unanswered, nothing could be taken for granted concerning the justices of the status quo in any domain.

This new, urgent, unanswered question constituted a kind of no-man’s-land between rulers and ruled. And it was on this terrain that intellectuals spoke, each one with her or his individual voice. Both rulers and ruled, the voted and the voters, needed these voices. The rulers needed them (or some of them) so that they, the rulers, might be legitimised. Rule in itself no longer carried its own justification. The ruler needed the voices (or some of them) so that their own aspirations might be articulated and claimed within a framework of modern thought and action.

My use of the word voices is perhaps misleading. I do not want to suggest that intellectuals served simply as a chorus. They reasoned, they thought, they looked backwards and forwards in history, they sometimes displayed great independence. They were listened to because their voices, filling the no-man's-land of an unanswered fundamental political question, were doubly needed. However sombre or affirmative their arguments, the intellectuals of this European century spoke in a tone of supreme confidence, which came, not usually from their conclusions, but from their awareness of being doubly needed. Some belonged to the left and represented the new aspirations, others belonged to the right and offered legitimacy. Yet, however opposed their positions, most intellectuals in their heyday formed a single cultural group, and in their texts continually referred to one another.

After 1940, and the steady rise of the multinational company things changed:

Their century is now finished. The unanswered question has not been answered, but superseded by Consumerism, with its dreams of acquisition and, even more powerful, its fears of deprivation. Most social and political issues are now treated with public relations and marketing techniques, including media publicity, instant public opinion polls and a new art of political address adapted for television. The essential aim of such an art is to simulate "sincerity", whereby the ruler appears to speak to the ruled as if there were no distance or disputed ground between them. To some degree the professional interviewer who provokes this "intimacy" has replaced both the intellectual and the journalist.

Thus neither rulers nor ruled have much need of intellectuals in the old sense. Those who rule are today legitimised by manufactured popularity, while the aspirations of the ruled are smothered by manipulated consumerist fears and promises. It is here that advertising achieves its political, as distinct from economic, purpose: politics have become management.

True - official politics is now all about management - 'using Parliament to manage the people in the interests of capitalism' as Tony Benn puts it. But there is hope, and it lies in recovering the collective memory of the past from the rulers and viewing history instead from the standpoint of the ruled:

When it is noted that no new intellectual "stars" have replaced those of the last generation, there is no reason to deduce a generational insufficiency. They would be there if the space for them were open. It has been closed - along with the question which animated their first appearance, replaced by a more fundamental and organic one: How to survive? The question may seem minimalist, but ultimately the future of the world depends upon it. The question cannot be reduced to a purely ecological one. It is not only the survival of nature which is threatened, but also the survival of politics and culture - which is to say the survival of human self-respect. For self-respect to survive, the long historical experience of the ruled must be at last articulated in such a way that it offers an explanation of the world which can challenge corporate power. A sense of history has become a condition for our survival.

The most urgent task today for those who might once have been traditional intellectuals is to invoke the historical experience of the ruled, to underwrite their self-respect, and to proffer — not to display — intellectual confidence.

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