Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Out now! The Enoch Powell Dog Whistle

Are you a Conservative MP or MEP who has recently taken a nose dive in the popularity stakes?

Maybe you recently accidentally on purpose declared that Britain's most popular institution, the NHS, was all a terrible 'mistake'?

Does everyone in your constituency now hate you with a rare vengeance?

Are you worried about whether you will survive the next election?

Then you maybe are in of need of...

The Enoch Powell Dog Whistle

'I used the Enoch Powell Dog Whistle and found it worked a treat. Before everyone hated me, but now at least racist voters respect me. The BNP even declared me their favourite 'politician of the week' - so I must be doing something right!'' - 'Desperate' Dan Hannan, Kent.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Win a CLR James T-shirt

Those Histomat readers whose interest in cricket has perhaps been slightly lifted of late by the recent Ashes series may be interested to know that the good people over at Philosophy Football recently produced a series of T-shirts, two of which were illustrated with quotes about cricket from legendary socialists Harold Pinter and C.L.R. James (others quoted include John Arlott and the liberal historian GM Trevelyan). The Trinidadian writer James, when he wasn't busy attempting a veritable Copernican Revolution in Marxist theory or labouring to uncover the hidden historic role played by black people in the development of modern civilisation (indeed, The Black Jacobins recently came first in the New Statesman's selection of 'Red Reads: Fifty Books That Will Change Your Life'), worked as a superb cricket correspondent for the Guardian during the 1930s and 1950s and once famously asked, in a nice riff on Rudyard Kipling's 'What should they know of England who only England know?', 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?'.

Anyway, if you'd like to be in with a chance to win a T-shirt with that very quote of James's on it, then Philosophy Football have teamed up with Socialist Worker to give you that very opportunity in a competition. The set question is not hard - you don't have to literally try and answer the question 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?' or another equally intriguing question, 'What do they know of CLR James who only CLR James know?' But be quick, Histomat readers - you only have till the end of the month...

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

International outrage as 'bomber' goes free

The man wanted in connection with the criminal bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan is free and greeted by Col. Gaddafi instead of spending the rest of his life in prison

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Bluetones, Blur and the legacy of Britpop

I went to see the Bluetones play live earlier this week. I was never really a massive fan and indeed had rather forgotten about them until a few months ago and then googled them and saw they were still going and well, when the opportunity to see them again after about a decade came up, it sounded too good to miss. In the event, they were okay - (lets face it though - they were always okay) - and played a lot of new material which sounded reasonable enough - you definitely have to respect them at least for still going.

The Bluetones were a band that kind of rose and fell with the wave of 'Britpop' in the mid-1990s, and I only really mention them now because of an article reminiscing about the legacy of Britpop written by Jude Rogers - a blur fan - I read yesterday. I was also a teenage blur fan - indeed the very first 'proper album' I ever bought was Parklife on cassette - and was going to write about Blur at some point anyway - this moment has now been rather brought forward.

Rogers gives a rather cynical take on the whole phenomenon from the perspective of someone who bought into the whole New Labour project (for it seems a mixture of idealism, careerism and naivety) and is now a little disillusioned about Blair and Brown (again for a mixture of principled reasons like tuition fees - I was actually on the march she describes in Oxford in support of the 'Oxford non-payers', the first and only time I have ever set foot in the place - and the war on Iraq but also one senses for careerist reasons - there is no chance of any political career with New Labour when they are currently so hated). Rather than blame New Labour though she takes her sense of political betrayal out on blur and in particular Damon Albarn.

Of blur she writes:
'Now I see that these records were, on the whole, far less exciting and much less revolutionary than their predecessors. The Great Escape brimmed with musical nods to Britain's past - woozy cinema Wurlitzers on tales of suburban life ("Fade Away"); oompah brass on songs about wealth ("Country House") and the National Lottery ("It Could Be You") - but many of its lyrics oozed with humourless kitsch.'

As for Damon Albarn,
'Albarn, it seems now, was always a reactionary at heart. When Blair finally did what Labour had been trying to do for 18 years, making this first-year undergraduate and her friends scream with joy in a junior common room, Albarn turned down his invite to the victory reception'.

Her account on Britpop, blur and Blairism is I think rather flawed. Yes, Blair tried to surf the popularity of 'Britpop' but my sense is that blur were never at all happy to be in league with New Labour - and this is not because they were secretly 'reactionary' or Tory but because - like me - New Labour left me completely cold even before they ever got into power in 1997. My sense is that in as far as they were political at all blur and in particular Albarn were always to the left of New Labour (as were Oasis - witness their support for the Liverpool Dockers Strike in 1997) and even implicitly anti-capitalist. I would have felt completely betrayed if blur had turned up to Blair's 'victory reception'.

In fact, while I am not going to say that blur played any role in my turn to Marxism, my reading of their lyrics did nothing to discourage me in such a turn at all. The very choice of album title 'Modern Life is Rubbish' might signal some sort of reactionary nostalgia or conservatism but given the main song on the album was the still glorious 'For Tomorrow' I read it as an implicit hatred of bourgeois society - a materialist society Blair championed. Think of the Left-Hegelian condemnation of commodification 'The Universal' or celebrate the cynicism of 'End of a Century' with respect to the millenium hype epitomised by New Labour's failed homage to corporate power, 'The Dome'. Indeed, I partly blame Damon Albarn for my never having gotten around to passing my driving test - I suffered a crisis of conscience after reading an interview in NME with Albarn which attacked what damage cars were doing to the environment.

Moreover, describing Albarn as a 'reactionary' seems not only insulting but frankly ridiculous - by the article's own evidence at their recent gig in Hyde Park he reminded 'the audience that this is also where two million people ended their march against the Iraq war' back in 2003 - a march Albarn attended. More recently, with The Good, the Bad and the Queen he headlined a Love Music Hate Racism festival. It is not surprising that their recent 'Beginners Guide to blur' collection has a picture of Bush and Blair on the cover - they were always anti-war and to the left of Blairism.

As for blur's music, yes I suppose parts of it have dated badly. Indeed, I had stopped listening to blur really until I saw their recent Glastonbury gig on TV and then was inspired to dig out their back catalogue, buy (the excellent) 'Think Tank' which I hadn't got round to doing and listen to it all again. But Parklife remains a classic, and the genius of blur was their creativity and ability to evolve musically unlike Oasis. Okay, so Alex James sans blur is hard to take seriously and Dave Rowntree's sad efforts to get elected as a Labour councillor are well, sad frankly - but Graham Coxen's solo work and Albarn's talents more than make up for such matters. Lets 'look back in anger' at the waste of 12 years of New Labour government but lets not blame blur, the Bluetones or Britpop in general for Blairism.

Edited to add: An alternative take on blur from paddington

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Turn Imperialist War into Civil War

Writing in this week's New Statesman, the former supporter of the orthodox Trotskyist International Marxist Group turned New Labour's Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth attacks what he calls (in pseudo Leninist language) the 'defeatist' attitude of the British people with respect to the 'Good War' in Afghanistan. As Ainsworth argues, 'The coalition is operating as a force for good - not as an occupier or an invader.' I suppose if you say something enough times you may eventually convince yourself, though it don't necessarily make it so.

Yet what is particularly insidious about New Labour is less their lies and propaganda offensive at a time of war - those have a long pedigree both in Labour's history and in British history more generally and are in a sense inevitable. Nor is their authoritarianism and attacks on civil liberties - including attacks on the right of migrants to join anti-war protests - a surprise - such things are part and parcel of imperialist warfare. What I find insidious is that having lost the intellectual argument for war, they continue to attempt to 'bring the war home' by trying to get more active consent from the British public for their militarism and warmongering on behalf of multinational corporations and the American Empire under the guise of 'Britishness' by organising symbolic rituals such as 'Armed Forces Day' and military parades of the living and the dead. New Labour do this while hypocritically claiming that such things are not in any sense 'political' and having nothing to do with them trying to appease racists and the right wing press. As Ainsworth puts it, 'The war in Afghanistan is too important to be reduced to a political football'. As a result, as John Pilger noted recently,

These are extraordinary times. Flag-wrapped coffins of 18-year-old soldiers killed in a failed, illegal and vengeful invasion are paraded along a Wiltshire high street. Victory in Afghanistan is at hand, says the satirical Gordon Brown. On the BBC’s Newsnight, the heroic Afghan MP Malalai Joya, tries, in her limited English, to tell the British public that her people are being blown to bits in their name: 140 villagers, mostly children, in her own Farah Province. No parade for them. No names and faces for them. The suppression of the suffering of Britain’s and America’s colonial victims is an article of media faith, a tradition so ingrained that it requires no instructions.

The difference today is that a majority of the British people are not fooled. The cheerleading newsreaders can say "Britain’s resolve is being put to the test" as if the Luftwaffe is back on the horizon, but their own polls (BBC/ITN) show that popular disgust with the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq is strongest in the very communities where adolescents are recruited to fight them. The problem with the British public, says a retired army major on Channel 4 News, is that they need "to be trained and educated". Indeed they do, wrote Bertolt Brecht in The Solution, explaining that the people...

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In such an extraordinary 'officially apolitical' political atmosphere, and with the number of dead British soldiers in Afghanistan about to hit the 200 mark - it seems to me that the Left have to therefore redouble our efforts to also try and 'bring this war home' and make New Labour pay for their crimes. Everyone who is disgusted by New Labour's catastrophically bloody and disastrous war on the people of Afghanistan abroad - which every day brings more horror - as well as their war on public services and jobs massacre at home should try to join and help build two upcoming demonstrations, and so help cement the rising tide of resistance from below into a real movement for 'regime change at home'.

Rage Against New Labour - 27 September outside Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Troops Out of Afghanistan - 24 October, London.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Irresponsible Historians # 94: Sir Martin Gilbert

'Historical responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men'.
- Lord Acton, historian, 1887

With that quote about 'historical responsibility' with respect to 'great men' in mind, meet Sir Martin Gilbert:

Exhibit A, 'Statesmen for these times' by Sir Martin Gilbert, dated December 2004:
'Many comment that today's leaders look small compared with the giants of the past. This is, I believe, a misconception...Although it can easily be argued that George W Bush and Tony Blair face a far lesser challenge than Roosevelt and Churchill did - that the war on terror is not a third world war - they may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill...'

Exhibit B, news report dated June 2008:
'Mr and Mrs Bush went on to Downing Street last night for an informal dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with the Browns and three historians...David Cannadine, Churchill's official biographer Martin Gilbert and Simon Schama, presenter of the popular television series A History Of Britain, were invited after Mr Bush expressed an interest in meeting some historians, a No 10 source said'.

Exhibit C, news report dated August 2009.
In mid-June Gordon Brown announced that there would be a "non-judgmental", behind-closed-doors inquiry into the Iraq war, conducted by hand-picked insiders...members of the inquiry include historian Sir Law­rence Freedman, who helped Blair develop the doctrine of "liberal interventionism" that he used to justify the war. Historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who wrote an article in 2004 saying Blair and George Bush could one day be compared to Churchill and Roosevelt, is also a member of the inquiry.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Tony Cliff on Lenin and Trotsky

Can you imagine anything more exciting than the news that the first two volumes of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin and the full four volumes of his biography of Trotsky are now online in their entirety?

Well, lets face it, in all likelihood you can. But this is surely still a landmark event in the history of the internet and a tribute to the people over at the Marxists Internet Archive. For those who have not already got these works in print (which, lets face it given they are pretty much all out of print and some volumes - for example the last volume of the Trotsky quartet - are next to impossible to get hold of for love nor money is quite a lot of people) this is an important advance. While these biographies - like Cliff's 1959 study of Rosa Luxemburg - make no pretence of being 'definitive' studies - and naturally they have their limitations - the appearance of them online can only serve to raise the general level of discussion about the rich past legacy of classical Bolshevism as well as to help educate a new generation in the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism.

Lenin 1: Building the Party (1893-1914), Pluto Press, London, 1975.

Lenin 2: All Power to the Soviets (1914-1917), Pluto Press, London, 1976.

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917, Bookmarks, London 1989.

Trotsky: 2. The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923, Bookmarks, London 1990

Trotsky: 3. Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy 1923-1927, Bookmarks, London 1991.

Trotsky: 4. The darker the night the brighter the star 1927-1940, Bookmarks, London 1993.

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On John Cornford

Browsing George Galloway's site this morning, as one does, the following news announcement caught my eye:

George Galloway will be with host Matthew Parris on Great Lives - a weekly biographical series where each guest talks about a person in public life who is very special to them. George has chosen the poet John Cornford who was killed, tragically young, in the Spanish Civil War. He would like you to join him for 30 minutes to discover why he finds John's life so inspirational.
Broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday the 18th of August at 4:30pm, then repeated on Friday the 21st at 11pm.
And also available on BBC iPlayer from 19th August.

The Communist poet John Cornford did indeed have a 'great' if tragically short, life - and the sacrifice of those like Cornford who gave their lives fighting fascism remains an utterly relevant inspiration for our anti-fascist struggle today. Cornford is clearly a hero for Galloway - see this characteristically short eloquent 2006 article - John Cornford and the Fight for the Spanish Republic - and his choice of a 'Great Life' and its timing - has to be applauded. However, one suspects that simply heralding Cornford as a 'fighter for the Spanish Republic' may actually miss not only some of the complexity of his politics but also downplay somewhat their revolutionary nature.

As the late great revolutionary historian Brian Pearce once noted, 'Cornford was killed in action in December 1936, fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. His writings while in Spain suggest that, had he lived, his Marxist approach would have brought him into conflict with Stalinism.' Pearce referred to John Cornford: A Memoir, edited by Pat Sloan (1938), which 'consists of selections from the writings of the young man to whom the socialist movement in the universities in that period owed more than to anybody else, together with contributions by people who knew him.' As Pearce noted,

For Cornford the struggle in Spain was ‘a revolutionary war’. ‘In Catalonia at least the overwhelming majority of the big employers went over to the fascists. Thus the question of socialism was placed on the order of the day.’ The Spanish Communist Party should ‘force recognition from the government of the social gains of the revolution’. Cornford feared that the party was ‘a little too mechanical in its application of People’s Front tactics. It is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralize the petty bourgeoisie – when by far the most urgent task is to win the anarchist workers…’

Though he had no time for anarchism, Cornford saw that the main body of militant workers in the principal industrial region of Spain, around Barcelona, were anarchists, and, being a sincere communist, that meant for him that the party’s task was first and foremost to get among those workers, establish close ties with them, and win them for Marxism. The line actually taken by the Stalinists was first to stick a label on the anarchist workers (‘uncontrollables’, the 1937 equivalent of ‘Left adventurists’), then to work up a pogrom spirit against them among the followers of the Communist Party, and finally to attack and decimate them, using an armed force recruited among former policemen and the middle class.

I do hope George Galloway's discussion of Cornford will find time to condemn the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in revolutionary Spain, though something tells me I shouldn't get my hopes up too much on this score.

Speaking of Pearce, those with access to a university library might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary Russia (v. 22, no. 1 (June 2009) which carries a long obituary alongside two tributes from academic historians, and those without might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary History which also has an obituary.

I am indebted to POUMista for drawing my attention to this photo of George Orwell - another witness to the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in Spain of course - which as POUMista notes 'highlights the fact that Orwell, although thought of by some as a Little Englander, was fundamentally an internationalist and cosmopolitan, and in many senses a postcolonial figure.'

Finally, POUMista also drew my attention to Reading the Maps on the late Leszek Kolakowski whose passing seems to have caused no end of debate and turmoil on the blogosphere.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Another Histomat Exclusive

After the recent announcement of the policy 'Local Homes for Local People', Histomat can exclusively reveal today that Gordon Brown unveiled a new policy for the retail sector...

'Local Shops for Local People'

A Local Shop, yesterday

Speaking of his new policy exclusively to Histomat, Brown said

'If you are local, then for convenience and practicality you need a local shop. And by local I mean local, and by local shop, I mean of course Tesco Extras, Sainsbury's Local, Tesco Metros, Sainsbury's Local, Tesco Express, and so on, so everyone can benefit from the whole diverse range of local options. In this time of economic insecurity we as New Labour, are going to champion Local Shops for Local People.'

When asked by one owner of a cornershop if this meant Brown would now provide additional support for post-offices, cornershops or small independent high street traders facing closure, Brown replied, 'Are you local? This is about Local Shops for Local People and we are New Labour. There is nothing for you here'.

In other news, Brown is reportedly also set to follow the path set by his predecessor Tony Blair who appeared in The Simpsons and set by Tory Mayor Boris Johnson's forthcoming appearance on EastEnders and plans to appear in a TV series himself. In the new series of the League of Gentleman, Brown will play a local councillor who stands for mayor of Royston Vasey on a programme of 'Local Homes and Local Shops for Local People'. The programme makers refuse to reveal in advance whether Brown's election attempt is successful or not.

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