Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

What the Total Workers Know

'A worker’s labour power is his only wealth. It is also his strongest weapon. The irritated cart-horse that snorts and kicks in impotent rage makes no impression on its master so long as it continues to drag its load along the way. But when it sticks its hoofs into the macadam and refuses to budge, then the driver is up against a tough proposition.'
The Worker (organ of the Clyde Workers’ Committee), January 29, 1916.

First Visteon, now Total - who says that the modern working class can no longer fightback and win?

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Homage to John Saville

Lucid, fiercely loyal to friends and causes, and a formidable enemy of bullshit, Saville made his contribution to history and to scholarship outside the limelight. "There are not many entries in the Dictionary of Labour Biography," [Ralph] Miliband wrote in the introduction for the Festschrift (Ideology and the Labour Movement, 1979) presented to him by friends and pupils, "which record lives of greater dedication and integrity."
Eric Hobsbawm remembers fellow Marxist historian John Saville (1916-2009), whose autobiography, Memoirs from the Left, was reviewed here and here

Edited to add: 'I did a lot of work when I was able': remembering John Saville, 1916-2009 over at the ever superb Reading the Maps

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Solidarity with the striking Lindsey workers

Statement from the Socialist Worker's Party on the construction dispute:

The sacking of 900 workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) is an attack on every trade unionist in the country.

Total used the sacking of 51 workers as a threat to activists at the site. They have now moved to break the recent unofficial strike movement based around LOR. If the employers succeed in breaking this well organised group of workers then every trade unionist will suffer.

There is only one response to this outrageous attack. That is to shutdown every construction site, every refinery and every power station. Workers across the movement have to move now to support the workers at LOR.

The fact that workers have moved to do exactly that should be applauded.

Unite and the GMB unions repudiated the action at Lindsey. They say that they were forced to by the anti-union laws. But 12 years into a Labour government that Paul Kenny, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson tell us to back why are these laws still in place.

There are 2.2 million on the dole now and soon there will soon be 3 million out of work. A job goes every 30 seconds. We have just seen British Airways ask their workers to work for nothing.

Its time to resist now. These sackings are a challenge to the whole working class movement. We have to back the construction workers to the hilt.

Earlier this year on some construction picket lines the slogan "British jobs for British workers" appeared. Every construction strike is now branded as "anti foreigner". This is not true.

But to win support from the whole movement it needs to be made crystal clear that the battle is for every worker to have decent conditions and one rate for the job, no matter where they are from.

Every trade unionist, every workplace has to get behind this fight.

Sometimes there are pivotal moments in the history of the workers’ movement. The sacking of the printers at Wapping in the aftermath of the miners’ strike was one such moment. It was used to intimidate the whole working class. At a time when resistance to the economic crisis is just developing we can't allow this to happen again.

This is a battle for everyone. We have to build the maximum possible solidarity, urgently. A victory for construction workers would be an inspiration for every worker who is fighting back for the right to work, this is a fight the labour movement has to win.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Ken Loach on the need for left unity

From an interview with Martin Smith in the new Socialist Review:

"My feeling is that we need to think of the regroupment of the left in Britain in terms of the European left now. The European left is a project obviously bigger than any one group. I am very encouraged by the events in France right now and the development of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. The European left, which is so big, will just swallow up the differences between the different groups on the left over here. I've been in meetings where we've talked about this for 45 years, and organisationally are we any further forward in all that time? If you want to be depressed, that's the depressing thing. On the optimistic side the need just gets more and more intense. It was urgent after the Iraq war, but now even more urgent with the collapse of the banks and increasing unemployment, industries closing down and so on, and the environmental disaster that's awaiting the next generation. The pressure to unite just gets bigger and bigger. Every left meeting I go to is based on the fact that the crisis is about to engulf us all. It's not in the distant future. It's unfolding before us now. We've got to get together at some point. Living in separate tents isn't going to solve anything really."

Edited to add: The SWP's Open Letter to the left about the need to create a socialist alternative, with some responses here

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Europe Today: Like the 1930s in slow motion?

[Reflecting on the election victory of a former member of something called 'the National Socialist Movement' as my local MEP in Yorkshire, I was once again reminded of what to me has always seemed the prescience of a comment made by the late and indeed great Marxist Tony Cliff, who became a Trotskyist in Palestine during the 1930s and went onto found what became the Socialist Workers Party, during the last decade of his life - the 1990s. As Cliff put it, 'At the beginning of the 1990s I stated that observing the 1990s in Europe was like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion.' Cliff's perspective has often been caricatured by some on the Left as a catastrophist one, and as American capitalism actually succeeded in enjoying a boom during the 1990s which helped world capitalism in general and fascist totalitarianism did not engulf Europe, at times it has seemed that if we were living in a period like the 1930s again, then things were this time round were happening in exceedingly 'slow motion'. However, the Great Crash of 2008 and the current economic recession have signalled the end of the boom, and the current political polarisation between victories of hard right or neo-Nazi parties in the current European elections (together with some successes for the Communist/Trotskyist far left in places like Portugal) suggest that perhaps we should take another look at Cliff's suggestive analogy about the 1930s - which seems more than relevant today with respect to Europe at least. By way of contribution to a possible debate on this, I reprint below an extract from Alex Callinicos's 1994 article 'Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe Today' from International Socialism 63, which I think draws out some of the suggestive similarities between the 1930s and the period since the start of the 1990s well]:

A more helpful way of thinking about the future is provided by a formulation of Tony Cliff's, that observing Europe in the 1990s is like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion. The same ingredients are present today--deep seated economic crisis which puts increasing pressure on the social structures which built up during the boom, crisis also of the political system, class polarisation involving both the growth of the fascist right and greater working class militancy. The pace of development of the crisis along these different dimensions, however, is - as yet -slower than it was in the 1930s. This can be seen in a number of respects.

1. The economic crisis is not yet as severe as it was in the 1930s. To take the most important case, that of Germany, in December 1932 there were 5.8 million registered unemployed, nearly a third of the workforce: the rate of unemployment was even higher--40 percent--among male industrial workers. There were, in addition, over a million unemployed who no longer bothered to register, and at least 2 million workers on short time working...

2. Bourgeois political structures, though under severe strain, are not yet as fragile as they were during the inter-war period. The First World War and the upheavals which followed it caused an immense shock to the political system. The empires of eastern and central Europe vanished; the successor states were often weak and generally unstable. The Great Depression encouraged a shift towards authoritarian, if not fascist rule across the continent. Surviving parliamentary regimes - above all in Britain and France - found themselves besieged internally and externally. Once again the Weimar Republic offers the clearest case of this process. The conditions of its establishment - first the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, then the defeat of the revolutionary left - meant that from the start the republic's existence was opposed by mass parties on both the far right and the far left. During the brief period of relative stability in 1923-8 the parties of the moderate right and left were able to evolve some kind of modus vivendi, but it did not survive the onset of renewed crisis in 1929. The Brüning government marked, in effect, the decision of the bulk of the ruling class to dispense with parliamentary rule.

Bourgeois democracy in Western Europe has, by contrast, much stronger roots today. Even those states whose parliamentary institutions date only from the 1940s, like West Germany and Italy, have now experienced 40 years of political continuity against a background of economic growth. Class conflict has to a large degree been contained within the framework of bourgeois democracy, which has been able to weather some severe challenges, notably the upheavals of the 1960s and their terrorist aftermath in Italy and West Germany. Finally, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the successful extension of liberal democracy to Spain, Portugal, and Greece, an achievement all the more remarkable because of the intensity of the class struggles which accompanied the fall of the dictatorships in these countries. Of course, bourgeois democracy is now under considerable pressure throughout Western Europe...

3. The challengers to liberal democracy from the far right have been successful chiefly in accumulating votes. As yet fascist parties like the National Front in France and the MSI/National Alliance in Italy are primarily electoral machines rather than the paramilitary mass movements built up by Hitler and Mussolini. This is, from the point of view of the fascists' long term chances of winning power, a serious weakness. As Chris Harman argues:

they need an active mass movement behind them capable of penetrating every pore of society. Only that can give them the means to counter other social forces, especially the organised working class which is capable of blocking their totalitarian schemes. They need more than votes. They need supporters also prepared to face up to the risks involved in smashing every street, every housing estate, every factory, every office and every school.

Of course, the existing fascist organisations are willing to use political violence. But small gangs of skinhead thugs who are brave enough to firebomb the homes of sleeping Turks, or beat up young Asians in dark alleyways, do not amount to what Harman calls 'mass street fighting organisations', like Mussolini's squadristi, or the Nazi stormtroopers (SA), who numbered 400,000 in 1932. The existence of these formations was critical in winning the support of big capital for Hitler's accession to office. Unleashing the SA seemed to be the only way of breaking the organised working class. Today's Nazis have yet to convert their largely passive electoral support into the kind of mass paramilitary force which might lead the bosses, should the general crisis become sufficiently acute, to back them.

4. Finally, the organised working class in Western Europe is considerably stronger than it was in the 1930s. In his major study of the German working class under Hitler, Tim Mason argues that mass unemployment after 1929 was a crucial factor in sapping the will of the strongest labour movement in Europe to resist the Nazi takeover. 'The fate of the working class in these years was progressive immiseration, hunger, fear and hopelessness... In the frightful distress of this period the labour market too became politicised--the decision for political activism against National Socialism became more and more a decision for unemployment and hunger.' These circumstances, as well as the confusion, vacillations and divisions of the leaders of the social democratic and Communist parties, may help to explain 'the relatively limited resistance to the destruction of the workers' parties and the unions in the spring of 1933'. The European working class today, however, whatever defeats it may have suffered, and however much certain of its gains may have been eroded with the return of mass unemployment in the past 20 years, is plainly in a much better position to resist future assaults...

None of these differences between the 1930s and the 1990s constitute any reason for complacency. One lesson history teaches is the way in which quantity can turn into quality - how the cumulative effect of small scale changes and pressures can suddenly produce a systematic transformation in the situation. There are already some examples of this in Western Europe today - most notably the collapse of the party system in Italy, and Germany's sudden leap into instability. The continuation of the economic crisis - likely even if there is some temporary and partial recovery from the recession of the early 1990s - may create conditions in which the political structures of bourgeois democracy come relatively quickly under much more acute pressure, and some of the fascist parties are able to make the transition from electoral machines to paramilitary mass movements.

The film of the 1930s may, in other words, be running in slow motion, but it is running. This is not a reason to sink passively into despair, but rather to spring into action. The film need not have the same end this time round. Whether it does or not depends, as does every historical outcome, on the conscious intervention of human beings. It is undoubtedly the case that the existing organisations of the European left are part of the problem, rather than of the solution. The reformist organisations - the various social democratic parties, and the inheritors of Stalinism, like the PDS in Italy - have given up even pretending to offer an alternative to capitalism, and seek simply to manage the market more efficiently and humanely than the constitutional right. This Tweedledum-Tweedledee politics simply drives many of those who want real change into the arms of the fascists...

But the crisis of the 1990s is creating a new generation of young workers and students who can be won to the ideas of the revolutionary Marxist tradition...The potential for revolutionary socialist organisation is vast. The need for it is equally great if an alternative to a capitalist society once again in crisis, and to the fascist barbarians seeking to exploit it, is to emerge. There is time to build such organisations right across Europe in the struggles that are developing--so long as that time is seized now.

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Join Unite Against Fascism

From Unite Against Fascism:

Last night saw the fascist British National Party (BNP) gain its first two seats in the European parliament. BNP candidate Andrew Brons, a former stalwart of the National Front and a lifelong Nazi, narrowly took the final MEP place in the Yorkshire & the Humber region. The fascists polled 120,139 votes, representing 9.8% of the vote as compared to 8.0% in 2004.

BNP leader Nick Griffin took the final MEP place in North West England in the early hours of today. Griffin, who has a criminal conviction for incitement to racial hatred, polled 132,094 across the region, or 8.0% of the vote as compared to 6.4% in 2004.

Peter Hain MP, secretary of state for Wales, said:

"It is a shameful stain on Britain that we now have racists and fascists representing our country. It is vital that everyone now isolates and confronts the BNP and works with Unite Against Fascism to defeat them."

Ken Livingstone, chair of Unite Against Fascism, said:

"The economic crisis and abuse of MPs' expenses have provided fertile ground for the extreme right. It is no surprise in these circumstances to see an electoral breakthrough for the BNP, a fascist party, in Britain.

"The BNP claims to be a normal political party. In fact they are 21st century Nazis. As in the 1930s they exploit people's anxieties in an economic crisis to scapegoat minorities and ultimately threaten all our democratic freedoms.

"Wherever the BNP wins elections, racist attacks increase. Nobody should use the BNP result as an excuse to capitulate to racism. That is exactly the approach which has helped them get this far and it would help to get them further.

"Unite Against Fascism is committed to the broadest progressive alliance against the BNP -- linking all democrats, trade unions, minority communities and the great majority of society against every kind of racism and fascism."

Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, said:

"This is a turning point in British politics. It is the most significant electoral success to date for a fascist party in this country. It threatens to normalise the presence of the BNP on the political scene in a similar manner to Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National in France.

"We cannot allow this to happen. It is vital that we mobilise the largest possible mass movement across every walk of life to stop the fascist BNP and drive them out of the political mainstream.

"We have done this before when working people rose up in unity to defeat Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. We did it in the 1970s when the Anti Nazi League drove the National Front of the streets. Now it is our duty to inflict the same defeat on the British National Party."


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Hubert Harrison on how to review books

'In the first place, remember that in a book review you are writing for a public who want to know whether it is worth their while to read the book about which you are writing. They are primarily interested more in what the author set himself to do and how he does it than in your own private loves and hates. Not that these are without value, but they are strictly secondary. In the next place, respect yourself and your office so much that you will not complacently pass and praise drivel and rubbish. Grant that you don’t know everything; you still must steer true to the lights of your knowledge. Give honest service; only so will your opinion come to have weight with your readers. Remember, too, that you can not well review a work on African history, for instance, if that is the only work on the subject that you have read. Therefore, read widely and be well informed. Get the widest basis of knowledge for your judgment; then back your judgment to the limit.'
Quoted in Harrison Redux: The resurrection of a pioneering cultural journalist by Scott McLemee

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Thomas Paine: Permanent Revolutionary

Tomorrow marks the bicentenary of Thomas Paine's death. When he died in 1809, only six mourners attended his funeral, two of them free African Americans (testament to Paine's hatred of slavery). As the great orator Robert Ingersoll noted,

Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.

Today the corset-maker from Thetford, East Anglia, is claimed almost as a 'founding father' of America, to the extent that he was even quoted (though not named directly) by Barack Obama in his inaugration speech. Yet, as the radical historian Peter Linebaugh, who is working on an eagerly awaited biography of Paine, notes in two recent articles for Counterpunch - here and here there was much more to Paine than meets the eye: as Linebaugh notes, Paine was 'a revolutionary opposing kingship, one-man rule, the puppet-show of sovereignty, the war-making essential to monarchy'.

Of course there are inevitably limitations to Paine's political vision. As Megan Trudell noted,

'Paine's anger and disgust at bloated privilege, his sense of justice, faith in 'lower orders' and defence of revolution are very relevant. But Paine took part in revolutionary movements against the old order at a time when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. Now that class is the order and is therefore the active enemy of revolution and a block on the further development of human society. Paine's work, however marvellous, does not give us the tools with which to break the grip of that parasitic class.'

Yet one aspect of Paine's politics does seem to be also very relevant today in particular - his tremendous internationalism. Paine was that quintessential prophet hated in his own country - England - at least among the rich. He went to fight in the American War of Independence, a revolutionary people's war against the British Empire, and then championed the Great French Revolution which so terrified the rich and powerful crowned heads of all Europe. Yet his internationalism did not stop him becoming an inspirational figure in the making of the English working class, as testified by E.P. Thompson in his classic work of 1963. As Mark Steel once noted, according to one account, the Chartists of Merthyr Tydfil 'assembled in secret places on the mountains, and taking Paine's works from under a concealed boulder, read them with great unction'.

Yet Paine's very internationalism (his motto was 'the world is my country') poses a problem for those who talk, like Andrew Marr, of 'a strong English patriotism of the left, a vision that gathered Tom Paine, Hazlitt, the Chartists, the struggle against fascism and the post-war welfare state'. Those today like Billy Bragg et al who think the English Left need to try and reclaim English nationalism from racists and nationalists and use it for 'progressive' ends, would not, I feel, have found a supporter in Paine himself. Paine, like many of the Chartists (one of whose leaders after all was William Cuffay) was a tremendous internationalist to his very core - and that aspect of his life, together with his revolutionary ardour and spirit, should be why the Left, particularly in England, remember him today.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Gordon Brown awaits first meeting of new Cabinet

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Imperialism and Global Political Economy

New Book: Imperialism and Global Political Economy By Alex Callinicos (Kings College London)

Description: In Imperialism and Global Political Economy Alex Callinicos intervenes in one of the main political and intellectual debates of the day. The global policies of the United States in the past decade have encouraged the widespread belief that we live in a new era of imperialism. But is this belief true, and what does 'imperialism' mean? Callinicos explores these questions in this wide-ranging book. In the first part, he critically assesses the classical theories of imperialism developed in the era of the First World War by Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Bukharin and by the Liberal economist J.A. Hobson. He then outlines a theory of the relationship between capitalism as an economic system and the international state system, carving out a distinctive position compared to other contemporary theorists of empire and imperialism such as Antonio Negri, David Harvey, Giovanni Arrighi, and Ellen Wood. In the second half of Imperialism and Global Political Economy Callinicos traces the history of capitalist imperialism from the Dutch East India Company to the specific patterns of economic and geopolitical competition in the contemporary era of American decline and Chinese expansion. Imperialism, he concludes, is far from dead.

Table of Contents• Epigraph• Introduction: Empire of Theory, Theories of Empire•

Part I: Theory•
1. The Classical Legacy• 1.1 Continuing Marx's Capital• 1.2 Luxemburg's fertile diversion• 1.3 The Lenin-Bukharin synthesis• 1.4 Organized capitalism and economic crises• 1.5 Spectres of ultra-imperialism•
2. Capitalism and the State System• 2.1 Rethinking the theory of imperialism• 2.2 Conceptualizing the state system• 2.3 Interests and ideologies•

Part II: History•
3. Capitalism and La Longue Durée• 3.1 What is capitalism?• 3.2 Markets and empires• 3.3 The sinews of capitalist power•
4. Ages of Imperialism• 4.1 Periodizing imperialism• 4.2 Classical imperialism (1870-1945)• (i) A liberal world economy• (ii) An economically and politically multipolar world• (iii) Territorial expansion• (iv) Military competition and state capitalism• (v) Race and empire• 4.3 Superpower imperialism (1945-1991)• (i) Open Door imperialism• (ii) The partial dissociation of economic and geopolitical competition• (iii) The Third World - malign neglect and partial industrialization•
5. Imperialism and Global Political Economy Today• 5.1 The specificity of American imperialism• 5.2 Global capitalism at the Pillars of Hercules?• (i) Entrenched uneven development• (ii) A persisting crisis of profitability• (iii) A redistribution of global economic power• (iv) Continuing geopolitical competition

Edited to add: Book Launch featuring a discussion between the author and Professor David Held
In the Council Room, King's College London,
Strand, London WC2R 2LS
On Wednesday 1 July 2009
At 6.00 pm
RSVP to Pelagia Pais
King’s College London
Strand, London WC2R 2LS
Email: pelagia.pais@kcl.ac.uk

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Lars T Lih on Chavez's gift to Obama

Or, What’s to be Made of What Is To Be Done?

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, has just announced on Venezuelan television that the next time he meets with President Barack Obama, he will give the American head of state a short book written in 1902 by one Lenin, entitled What Is to Be Done? (Chto delat’?).

A surprising announcement. The last time Chávez showed his willingness to fill out Obama’s reading list, he gave him a topical book on the situation in Latin America. But what topical interest can be found in a book over a century old, written under the drastically alien circumstances of tsarist Russia? Besides, many of us will remember being taught about this book in a poli sci or history class. Isn’t What Is to Be Done? a ‘blueprint for Soviet tyranny’? Isn’t this the book in which Lenin expressed his contempt for workers - or, in any event, his worry that the workers would never be sufficiently revolutionary? These worries, so we are told, led Lenin to advocate a party of ‘professional revolutionaries’ from the intelligentsia that would replace a genuine democratic mass movement. All in all, isn’t What Is to Be Done? something of an embarrassment for the Left - a book much better forgotten than thrust into the hands of world leaders?

I am not privy to Chávez’s thoughts on the matter. But, having recently spent several years of my life re-translating What Is to Be Done? into English and recreating the historical context for Lenin’s book, I feel qualified to clear up some of the confusions and misconceptions that surround the book. In preparation for my study Lenin Rediscovered, I read every piece of writing mentioned by Lenin in What Is to Be Done? - and since Lenin was intensely polemical, I had a lot of ground to cover. I had to become well versed, not only in the intricacies of the infighting among the Russian revolutionaries, but also in the ways in which the Western European workers parties inspired Lenin and his comrades. I had to get a sense of the exact political conjuncture in Russia in the few months in late 1901 and early 1902 during which Lenin hastily penned his treatise.

A blueprint for Soviet tyranny? On the contrary, What Is to Be Done? represents a heritage that had to be rejected before Soviet tyranny could be established. An expression of elitist ‘worry about workers’? On the contrary, Lenin goes way overboard in his sanguine optimism about the workers’ revolutionary fervor. Lenin’s organizational suggestions are all about reconciling the contradictory imperatives of avoiding arrest in the underground while simultaneously creating extensive roots in the Russian worker community. As for topicality - well, we shall see.

At the turn of the twentieth century, tsarist Russia was run by a religiously-sanctioned elite that was hostile even to the idea of political freedom - that is, freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of autonomous organization. The tsarist regime showed itself unable and unwilling to adjust to the challenges imposed by a world that was rapidly globalizing and putting pressure on Russia in terms of military rivalry, economic performance and the subversive political ideals wafting in from the west. To prove how incompetent they were, the tsarist government got itself involved in a war with Japan and bungled it big-time. More and more social groups in Russia were losing patience with the tsar’s pretentions - not only such traditional troublemakers as the intellectuals or the national minorities, but also groups that the government had always assumed to be highly loyal, such as the peasants and even many opposition-minded landowners and businessmen. The industrial workers in particular were rapidly being politicized, thus becoming the most dangerous opposition force.

All this inchoate and uncoordinated discontent could explode if the right spark fell in the right place-which is why Lenin and his friends called their underground newspaper The Spark (Iskra). The ultimate aim of their newspaper was to make the anti-tsarist revolution happen. An underground newspaper published abroad could hardly provide directly leadership to the many discontented groups throughout the Russian empire. What it could do was make people aware that they were not alone, that discontent everywhere was growing, that tsarism was becoming desperate, and that one group at least-the industrial workers - was increasingly ready to take to the streets, not only for their own sectional economic interests, but to obtain political freedom for all of Russia. Once society as a whole was imbued with this awareness, tsardom was doomed. Such was the reasoning of Lenin and his friends. Today, of course, any such strategy would have to be adapted to forms of communication not dreamt of in 1902.

But this strategy leads to a paradox. Lenin, the committed Marxist socialist, the future head of the Soviet one-party state, making political freedom in Russia his most urgent priority? Strange as it may seem - and ignored as it by most Western historians - this is exactly the case. Lenin made political freedom his top priority precisely because he was a dogmatic Marxist socialist. Like many other Russians of his generation-both the intelligentsia and the workers - Lenin was inspired by the stirring example of the massive and powerful German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD was a mass, worker-based party, officially committed to a Marxist brand of socialism, showing radical opposition to the German establishment, and growing in numbers and influence all the time.

The outlook of the German party was based on the core Marxist proposition that socialism can only be introduced by the workers themselves, and so the main activity of the party consisted of a ceaseless round of propaganda and agitation, both aimed at spreading the socialist word among the workers. Russian Social Democrats were green with envy at the massive Social Democratic press, the noisy and crowded rallies, the eloquent denunciations by elected socialist deputies in parliament. But in order to emulate the German socialists, they needed something that didn’t exist in Russia: political freedom.

Strange but true: the central aim of Lenin’s political career, at least up to the outbreak of war in 1914, was obtaining political freedom for Russia by revolutionary overthrow of the tsar. In a short book written around the time of What Is to Be Done? in which he explained the platform of Russian Social Democracy to a popular audience, Lenin entitled one section ‘What Do the Social Democrats Want?’ and answered his own question thusly: ‘Russian Social Democrats, before anything else, aim at achieving political freedom’ (Lenin’s emphasis). As Lenin further explained in a newspaper article, ‘without political freedom, all forms of worker representation will remain pitiful frauds, the proletariat will remain as before in prison, without the light, air and space needed to conduct the struggle for its full liberation.’

Lenin’s commitment to this goal was no secret to his political rivals. One of the first reviews of What Is to Be Done? appeared in the underground journal of anti-tsarist liberals. The anonymous author (possibly the liberal party’s most famous leader, Paul Miliukov) explained why Lenin opposed the so-called ‘economists’ within the Russian socialist movement:

‘The Russian proletariat- said the advocates of [economism] - had not yet matured enough to understand specific political demands; all that it was capable of now was the struggle for its economic needs. The Russian worker did not yet feel any need for political freedom. [But] in a country that has a despotic regime such as our Russian one, in a country where such elementary democratic rights as the right of free speech, assembly and so on, do not exist, where each worker strike is accounted a political crime and workers are forced by bullets and whips to return to work - in such a country, no party can restrict itself to the narrow framework of an exclusively economic struggle. And Mr. Lenin justly protests against such a program.’

Lenin’s Mensheviks critics even accused Lenin of going overboard about political freedom and thereby increasing the danger of letting the workers be politically exploited by the bourgeois liberals.

In order to make his strategy plausible, Lenin had to make a strong case that the Russian workers were champing at the bit to fight the tsar and demand political freedom. And in fact, at the very time Lenin was writing What Is to Be Done? , the growing militancy of the workers was evident to everyone - not least to the tsarist authorities, who even tried setting up their own loyal worker movement in order to combat more revolutionary-minded organizations. If Lenin really expressed the views attributed to him in standard textbooks - pessimism, even despair, about the revolutionary mood of the workers - no one would have taken him seriously. As it was, in the words of the anonymous liberal reviewer, ‘this book is being read with passion, and will continue to be read, by our revolutionary youth’.

For many readers, all of this will seem literally unbelievable, like arguing that Adolf Hitler was a philo-semite. We are talking about the Lenin, aren’t we, the one who founded a state noted for its lack of political freedom and its oppression of workers as well as all other groups? Yes, it’s the same Lenin alright - which means that What Is to Be Done? does not provide a ready-made explanation for the evolution of the Soviet system. Indeed, an accurate reading of Lenin’s 1902 book makes developments after 1917 harder to explain.

This is not the place to tackle the necessary explanations. But here’s a suggestion. The same exalted estimate of worker creativity and revolutionary fervour found in his writings of 1902 lead Lenin in 1917 to believe that the dire economic crisis of that year could be easily solved simply by letting the workers smash the repressive state and forcing the capitalists to do their proper job. The result was an accelerated leap into complete economic collapse, and this in turn necessitated some dictatorial back-pedalling.

I merely throw this out, but I believe that this kind of explanation is superior to the typical B-movie script in which Lenin rubs his hands, Boris Karloff-style, and cries ‘At last-my chance to take political freedom away from the workers, as I have always dreamed!’

Lenin’s organizational suggestions only make sense in the context of the aims that I have just outlined: spreading the word under repressive conditions. Thus Lenin’s central organizational value was not conspiracy, but konspiratsiia. The aim of a conspiracy (zagovor in Russian) is to be invisible until the proper time. The Russian word konspiratsiia - one that had been used in Russian socialist circles for over a decade - means the fine art of avoiding arrest, while spreading the word as widely as possible. The konspiratsiia underground was an underground of a new type, worked out bit by bit by local Russian praktiki who dreamt of applying the logic of the German SPD under the inhospitable conditions of tsarist repression. Lenin’s organizational plan was not an original creation out of his own head, but rather a codification of the logic inherent in the konspiratsiia underground improvised by local activists.

This applies in particular to Lenin’s most notable terminological innovation, the ‘professional revolutionary’. In my new translation, I render Lenin’s term as ‘revolutionary by trade’, which brings out the underlying metaphor better. But the essential point is that the professional revolutionary was a functional necessity of a konspiratsiia underground, and thus all Russian underground parties adopted the term and relied heavily on the type, that is, on activists devoted full-time to underground activity and ready to move from place to place so that local organizations did not fall into demoralizing isolation. The concept of ‘professional revolutionary’ has nothing to do with the intelligentsia vs. the workers. The reliance on professional revolutionaries is precisely what does not separate Lenin’s Bolsheviks from other underground factions.

A famous line from Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? is: ‘give us an organization of revolutionaries - and we will turn Russia around!’. This is a reference to Archimedes’s lever, a device able to give almost infinite power under the right circumstances to a single person: ‘Give me a place to stand and I can move the earth!’. In Lenin’s application, a properly organized party was the place to stand, but the lever itself was the cascading revolutionary awareness that would amplify the message of a small group of activists and turn it into a revolutionary onslaught against the autocracy. Lenin focused on organization because everything else - the enthusiasm of the masses, the universal hatred of the autocracy - was at hand.

How topical are the suggestions found in Lenin’s 1902 book? Let the reader judge. The situation Lenin faced was something like this: there existed a potentially wide social consensus in opposition against a religiously-sanctioned regime noted both for its hostility to political freedom and its growing inability to respond to paramount social needs in a globalizing world. Some of the potential opposition groups have a greater capacity than others to combine militant activity on the streets with focused political aims that can unite the opposition. There also exist committed group of activists with international contacts, ready to go underground to spread the word.

These are the parameters of the problem as Lenin saw it. Of course, any solutions to similar problems today cannot follow the details of the one Lenin came up with. But they can emulate the creative communication strategies and the focused organizational improvisations that made Lenin’s book such a hit, not only for the Russian undergrounders in 1902, but for the likes of Hugo Chávez.

Lars T. Lih lives in Montreal, Canada. His book Lenin Rediscovered was published by Brill in 2006 and republished in 2008 in paperback by Haymarket Books.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Fight for the Right to Work

A conference to build the resistance

Saturday 13 June, central London
• Solidarity with the fightbacks
• No to redundancies & closures
• Jobs for all

For too long thousands of jobs have been destroyed without resistance. For too long the issue of unemployment—especially youth unemployment—has been ignored. It is time to organise the fightback. The occupations and campaigns at Visteon, the occupations at Prisme in Dundee and the occupation at Waterford Crystal have changed the atmosphere inside the working class movement.

We desperately need more resistance.

The economic crisis, internationally and domestically, is leading to soaring unemployment, insecurity and devastation of communities. UK unemployment is well over 2 million and headed sharply upwards. Young people are particularly badly affected. There are already 820,000 unemployed under the age of 25, and 600,000 people leave school this summer. Many will not find jobs.

The government has found hundreds of billions to bailout banks and financial institutions. But instead of saving jobs, Gordon Brown is pressing ahead with policies that cut them—from Royal Mail to local government to the civil service to the NHS.

Individual unions and the TUC should be leading the fight against job losses by opposing redundancies, resisting closures and demanding a transformation of government policy. This is a conference to learn from the experience of resistance, encourage more struggles, and bring together trade unionists, the unemployed, school and college leavers. It’s a chance to increase the pressure on trade union leaders, develop the networks of resistance, and come up with campaigning ideas over the most crucial issue facing workers today. Make sure you are there, and get your union branch, stewards’ committee, campaign organisation or student union to send delegates.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The resistable rise of the BNP

From Unite Against Fascism:

'the latest polls make sobering reading. YouGov has the BNP on 7 percent among those who say they are certain to vote. That could win them up to four Euro MP seats – North West England, Yorkshire & the Humber, West Midlands and London – if turnout stays low. A slightly higher turnout, in contrast, would prevent the BNP from winning any seats at all. This underlines how close this election is, and how wrongheaded premature declarations of victory are. If we can get the anti-racist vote out in the next few days we can strike a blow against the Nazis. The alternative scenario is the grim prospect of four fascist MEPs representing Britain in the European parliament. What we do over the next couple of days will make all the difference. If you want to help stop the Nazis, you should join UAF's eve-of-poll campaigning on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. We need to get the message out far and wide: we can stop the BNP if people come out and vote against them on Thursday.'

While Lenin has penned a reasonable piece on the Euro-elections already, I thought I would share with you my own experiences of anti-fascist leafleting in a multicultural, working class area over the gloriously warm weekend - or rather the gist of two conversations I had with two older working class people (both white).

First conversation - a woman.
Me: Hiya, can I just give you a leaflet, its for the Euro-elections and about why you should vote against the BNP...
Her: Are you from the BNP?
Me: No, against them, because they are a fascist party...
Her: [a little disappointed, but taking a leaflet] Oh. I'm going to vote BNP - I've voted Labour all my life but now I'm voting BNP. I worked as a cleaner, but fell over and hurt my arm, and so was off work. I got incapacity benefit for several months but all the time Labour harassed me to get me back into work, and after five month's they have now cut off my benefit.
Me: That sucks, particularly in the light of the expences scandal. But a vote for the BNP is a wasted vote - they don't care about ordinary people, they just say whatever people want them to hear.
Her: That sounds like most politicians then.
Me: Yes, but the BNP are not an ordinary political party - their leadership admire Hitler, deny the Holocaust and they just want to go around stirring up racism.
Her: Are you in a political party?
Me: Well, I'm a socialist, but I'm not a member of New Labour, indeed I have campaigned against them for the last ten years or so.
Her: Aren't Labour socialist? Isn't that the same thing?
Me: Tony Blair, Peter Mandleson - these people are not socialists...
Her: [disapprovingly] But you are on the Left?
Me: Yes.
Her: Well I'll take a leaflet for my daughter. [Conversation ends, her reading the leaflet, but I guess still probably going to vote BNP]

Second conversation, with an old bloke walking his dog.
Me: Hiya, can I just give you a leaflet, its for the Euro-elections and about why you should vote against the BNP...
Him: I think the BNP have a lot of good things going for them...
Me: Well, they also have a lot of bad things going for them as well - their leaders are fascists who admire Hitler for example...
Him: Well I think a lot of people are going to be voting for them...
Me: Yes, I guess you are right there...
Him: The main parties are running scared of them and the more they attack them the more popular the BNP are going to be...
Me: Yes, but the mainstream parties are right to condemn the BNP because they are not an ordinary political party...
Him: Well I still think they are going to do very well...
Me: Yes, but if you care about democracy you would be worried about them doing well...
[Conversation ends with him walking away reading the leaflet]

On the one hand, I guess it is very worrying that of the two white people I got into a serious conversation with that afternoon, both of them put the case for voting BNP to me. On the other hand, neither were offended by being offered an anti-fascist leaflet and neither used racist arguments which is what I was expecting to justify why they were considering voting BNP. What was striking however from the conversations I had was that when you put the fact that the BNP were fascists out there, it was kind of taken on board without challenge, but this in itself did not seem to be of decisive importance - for the Euro-elections at least. The mainstream parties - not least Labour - are so hated, so maligned for their corruption and arrogance, that some people think that voting BNP is fine as a clear 'protest vote' - and one they know all the mainstream parties will hate. Since the Euro elections are not about state power - voting BNP is seem as something almost acceptable, regardless of their fascism. Yet if the BNP do get MEP seats in Thursday's elections, then it will be, in part, a mass 'protest vote' that is not altogether about race and more about complete and utter despair with the current morally and politically bankrupt Labour Government, one not just steeped in sleaze but also hypocrisy, a Government which promised 'no return to boom and bust' and then promptly delivered both. The need for a united socialist party to act as a real voice of the voiceless who have been betrayed in Blair and Brown's Britain will be greater than ever after June 4th.

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An old story

‘Respectability is the death of all working-class movements. With the change in the public attitude towards trade unionism came a change in the social standing of the officials. They too became respectable, and with their new position came their divorce from the working-class point of view, the growing breach between the official caste and the rank and file. Divorced from manual labour, the leaders ceased to understand the needs of the wage-earner, and with the crowning camaraderie of the House of Commons died the last semblance of the old unity. The Labour leaders entered the governing classes, and Labour was left, perplexed and unmanned, to find new leaders from its own ranks...’
G.D.H. Cole, The World of Labour, A Discussion of the Present and Future of Trade Unionism, (1913).

'The trade union movement has become, like the hereditary peerage, an avenue of political power through which stupid untrained persons may pass up to the highest office if only they have secured the suffrages of the members of a large union. One wonders when able rascals will discover this open door to remunerative power.'

'The position of privilege, irrespective of capacity – a position occupied by many trade union officials – is becoming the most scandalous circumstance of the Labour movement.'
Beatrice Webb, 1917 and 1918 (respectively), from Diaries, 1912-24, pp. 89,109.

‘There must be something in the nature of the life of a bureaucracy, whether it be of a government, trade union, political party or a religious institution, that deadens the receptive faculties and smothers the imagination. Whether it is the comfortable life of the office, the necessary routine of their work, with its rules and regulations, or a cynicism induced by their escape from industrial life, I, for the moment, leave to the sociologist and the psychologist.’
J. T. Murphy, Sheffield engineering shop stewards’ leader in the first world war, in New Horizons (1941), p. 50.

‘The imperialist era has seen the rise of a social group whose function it is to keep the rank and file firmly tied to the capitalist wagon: the body of Labour leaders and officials. For these the mere creation of a State monopoly capitalism provided new functions, new status, new jobs. With every advance in the strength of the Labour movement, the politeness with which they as individuals are treated, grew.
Whatever the fortunes of the rank and file in the imperialist era, for them it has quite clearly brought an almost unqualified advance.’

Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Taming of Parliamentary Democracy’, Modern Quarterly, Autumn 1951.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Is Obama building socialism?

It's a tricky one, apparently...

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Finding Rosa

So Marx rests in Highgate cemetery, Engels's ashes were apparently scattered into the North Sea, Lenin's Tomb is in Moscow, Trotsky's grave is in Mexico, Gramsci's grave is in Rome, but what about Rosa Luxemburg? Well if this report is true, it seems she might too finally get the kind of decent burial that has been so long overdue...

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