Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Charlie Brooker Speaks to the Nation

It is not hard to write in a disparaging fashion about why the 'popularity' of X-Factor and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here - with their icons such as 'Jedward', 'Jordan' and the unspeakable thing that is called Simon Cowell - are merely cultural reflections of the dehumanizing alienation of 21st-century British capitalist society, but there is still something distinctly satisfying about the manner and style in which Charlie Brooker does it. As he notes, 'one day we'll emerge on the other side of this unprecedented cultural drought and wonder how the hell our imaginations survived'.


More on W.E.B. Du Bois

This blog has always had a soft spot for W.E.B. Du Bois, so Lenin's Tomb's long review of The End of Empires: African Americans and India by Gerald Horne was most welcome. Some issues of The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP that Du Bois founded and edited for a long period, seem to be available online - which is also nice.

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CIA Report: Israel will fall in 20 years

A study conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has cast doubt over Israel's survival beyond the next 20 years.

The CIA report predicts "an inexorable movement away from a two-state to a one-state solution, as the most viable model based on democratic principles of full equality that sheds the looming specter of colonial Apartheid while allowing for the return of the 1947/1948 and 1967 refugees. The latter being the precondition for sustainable peace in the region."

The study, which has been made available only to a certain number of individuals, further forecasts the return of all Palestinian refugees to the occupied territories, and the exodus of two million Israeli - who would move to the US in the next fifteen years.

From here. Of course, one has to take anything the CIA says with a pinch of salt, but one still thinks - if only. Moreover, it is rather striking that their perspective on Palestine does seem to dovetail with that of the Socialist Workers Party...


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Leon Trotsky on sport

In 1925, in Where is Britain going? Leon Trotsky had suggested that any future ‘British Revolution’ will ‘inevitably awaken in the English working class the most unusual passions, which have hitherto been so artificially held down and turned aside, with the aid of social training, the Church, and the press, in the artificial channels of boxing, football, racing, and other sports’. Such an analysis of sport was of course far more sophisticated than the position the official Communist movement were to take subsequently, which went from a crude denunciation of sport as ‘bourgeois’ during the ‘class against class’ Third Period ‘line’ during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and then embracing sport in an uncritical manner during the Popular Front period and thereafter (pick up any copy of the Morning Star to see the residues of this aspect of British Communism). A decade later, in 1935, writing on the French Left, Trotsky lambasted the futility of socialist and trade unions counter-posing worker’s youth organizations in the recreational sphere to providing clear political leadership in the class struggle. ‘In the sphere of philanthropy, amusements, and sports, the bourgeoisie and the Church are incomparably stronger than we are. We cannot tear the working class youth away from them [i.e. away from the bourgeoisie and the Church] except by means of the socialist program and revolutionary action.’ [See Leon Trotsky, On France (New York, 1979), p. 114.] However, it might also be worth remembering that the ‘International Conference of the Youth of the Fourth International’, held in Lausanne on 11 September 1938, declared ‘we demand our right to happiness!’ ‘The duty of the working class is to help create a youth that is strong and capable of throwing all its physical and mental strength into the fight against capitalism’ and so ‘the Bolsheviks-Leninists demand’ among other things ‘free access to all sports fields’ and ‘stadiums’. [See Will Reisner (ed.), Documents of the Fourth International, p. 282.] I'll leave readers of Histomat to draw their own conclusions about Trotsky, orthodox Trotskyism and sport from the above, but for now if anyone reading knows me and is feeling silmulaneously both generous and short of ideas about what to get me for Xmas or anything, then one of the superb new Trotsky T-shirts from the good people over at Philosophy Football (see above) would be more than satisfactory. Failing that, some of the Trotsky, Gramsci or Luxemburg mugs or coffee sets available from Red Stuff would be perfectly acceptable as well. I think I have been suitably subtle about this...

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chris Harman on Ho Chi Minh

[[This humourous account of the late Chris Harman's intervention on behalf of the International Socialists at the Ho Chi Minh memorial meeting held in London's Conway Hall in 1969 appears in an excellent collection edited by David Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-68, (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 412-15.]]

The Ho Chi Minh memorial meeting took place to commemorate the death of Ho Chi Minh. There had been two massive demonstrations on the subject of Ho Chi Minh. the first of which had occasioned a conflict in Grosvenor Square which outraged and shocked the bourgeois press and at the same time greatly cheered those who participated provided they didn't have to go through it all over again. On the second Vietnam demonstration great precautions were made by the bourgeoisie to prevent the seizure of state power. But the revolutionaries organized in such a way that they spent most of their time stewarding the march to prevent people breaking the law, like a large number of sheepdogs chasing each other into tidy shapes. The memorial meeting was effectively an epitaph on the solidarity campaign as far as I was concerned.

'A large number of people who had come into VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign] had, after those two marches, decided either to piss off back home and play their records or alternately to join a political organization. Some did both. The death of Ho Chi Minh provided the last gasp of opportunity for the VSC to call a meeting with some hope that it would gather people from quite a wide political spectrum and drag back the various warring elements within the VSC. These were effectively the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group. Around these two groups was a whole number of small Maoist organizations and on one edge and feeling very unhappy was the Communist Party.

'Everybody agreed that the death of Ho Chi Minh was a bad thing. It was not particularly surprising that Jack Woodis as the representative of the Communist Party took the chance to reappear on a VSC platform. Nor was it surprising that a representative of the North Vietnamese Embassy should be there too. This in fact suited everyone because it convinced Jack Woodis that he was part of the young aware radical generation or something and it suited the IMG's belief that they were part of some world-wide movement striding to victory after victory in Indo-China and elsewhere. It suited me because I had to dish out leaflets for the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign, which was considered at that time a going concern, and this was a very handy concentration of lefties to do it. Also there were Maoists who had broken away from the great Vietnam demonstration-that-never-was to go to Grosvenor Square and now felt their hair might fall out if they went inside the Conway Hall and so stood outside failing to flog stuff. Inside the score was about 40 percent IS, 30 percent IMG, 30 percent CP, Maoist etc. Most of the meeting was taken up with various people saying that the death of Ho Chi Minh was a great loss to the revolutionary movement throughout the world. Which is probably true but got a bit repetitive. Chris Harman got up for IS and made a speech showing no sign that he might be addressing other than an IS meeting. He addressed the meeting with a certain lack of style but no more than one would expect and proceeded in fairly forthright terms. He dealt first with Ho Chi Minh's contribution to the world revolutionary movement. And everybody sat there soaking up the usual collection of left-wing platitudes to which they had been well accustomed in the Conway Hall. Left-wing audiences are aware of the times that they gather together to clobber hell out of each other and they are aware of the times they gather together to indulge in mutual self-congratulation about the strength of the Left. The latter occasion is rare, but when it comes people thank god for it and think how great it is to be part of the united left against Fascism or the Spanish Civil War or something.

'After a while Harman proceeded to get on to the question of Ho Chi Minh's contribution to killing off the Trotskyist movement in North and South Vietnam. He expanded on various themes and pointed out that from the International Socialists' point of view, though they supported fully the Vietnamese people's struggle against American imperialism and had done a great deal practically in Britain on this theme, it was crucial to realize that Ho Chi Minh and the regime he had headed were not the answer to North Vietnam or Vietnam as a whole and what was eventually necessary was a workers' republic which would have to get rid of the present set-up. This went almost unnoticed by the audience. I regarded all this as fairly sound stuff which I'd heard before anyway hundreds of times. Anyway, Harman finished his speech and a lady aged about 55 to 60 got up and marched to the front and said that it was absolutely outrageous that people should just sit there and vegetate when somebody had just made a totally slanderous attack on the leader of the Vietnamese Revolution who had just died. Whereupon there was thunderous applause from the 60 percent of the audience who weren't in IS. Harman looked slightly surprised and slightly grieved and slightly pleased by the reaction to his address. Tariq Ali looked very unhappy indeed because he could see his meeting falling apart in front of him. At the back of the hall a Maoist shouted "Washington spy!" at Chris Harman, which seemed to please him further. The audience now became somewhat heated. The Communist Party started to denounce the IMG, the IMG in its turn started to denounce the IS. The IS stood there looking grieved in some cases, sheepish in others and quite pleased with themselves for causing so much fuss and bother among the other groups. One Communist came up to the IS contingent and said "You're always like this. You were like this during the thirties. You'll try and wreck anything." By this time the platform was somewhat depleted since half of it had stormed off. The IMG speaker then proceeded to make a declamatory speech that no one could understand.

'Harman had wandered off the platform for some reason and Tariq Ali was left making occasional remarks about the IS letting the side down. The IS shouted at Tariq, "So you support the Communist Party, when did they ever join the VSC?", "Opportunist" etc. People at the back shouted at each other. The general atmosphere that came over for anyone who took a slightly detached view of the proceedings was one of a collection of nutters screaming at each other, and achieving very little. The IMG seemed quite pleased, however, to have photographs of the IS failing to stand up or sit down, whichever the case may be, during the Vietnamese national anthem. This created considerable problems because they seemed to be playing the Red Flag at the same time and I was not sure whether you should stand for either or both or leave, since my reaction since childhood has always been that wheneve a national anthem gets played I walk out of the room as fast as possible. All IS being rude meant to me was that instead of dying a quiet private death three weeks later, VSC died in Conway Hall. But because the IS actually said that after all Ho Chi Minh wasn't such a good thing the VSC got off its bed and ran around for a couple of minutes before collapsing in two minutes in a dead coma.'

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Terry Eagleton on Walter Benjamin

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had the curious notion that we could change the past...What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it. Benjamin also thought this about works of art. In his view, the meaning of a work of art is something that evolves over time. Great poems and novels are like slow-burning fuses. As they enter into new, unpredictable situations, they begin to release new meanings that the author himself could not have foreseen, any more than Goethe could have foreseen commercial television. For Benjamin, it is as though there are meanings secreted in works of art that only come to light in what one might call its future. Every great drama, sculpture or symphony, like every individual person, has a future that helps to define what it is, but which is beyond its power to determine.

Full article here

Sunday, November 08, 2009

School kids against the Nazis

One piece of good news in a weekend otherwise marked by sorrow


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

It is still kind of hard to take in the terribly sad news of the passing of Chris Harman, who at the time of his relatively early death while out in Egypt was perhaps the leading theoretician of the International Socialist tradition. That his death comes as not only a personal blow to those who were close to him but also a political blow to those who stand in that tradition does not need to be stated - the greater one's understanding of the history of that tradition in general and knowledge of his contribution in particular, the deeper the understanding one has of just how sorely he will be missed in the struggles ahead.

A former student of Ralph Miliband, it was during the early 1960s at the University of Leeds and particularly the year 1968 while around the London School of Economics that Chris Harman came to prominence as a leader of the student revolt. It seems he had embarked on a Phd with Miliband when 1968 broke out - but then abandoned this along with any idea of making an academic career - no doubt agreeing with the sentiment of Lenin that 'It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ''experience of revolution'' than to write about it.' I don't have the exact reference at hand, but in David Caute's book on 1968 Year of the Barricades, there is a description of Harman striding to the front to address a mass meeting of students and telling them that 1968 was 'a year of international revolution that would go down in history like 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917 and 1936' and noting that students turned to each other with puzzled expressions to see if anyone knew anything about the 1830 revolution.*

Yet after 1968, Harman did decide to write about that 'year of revolution'. An autodidactic at heart, whose interests ranged widely, he seems to have among other things taught himself a whole range of European languages in order in part to write a genuinely internationalist account of the year 1968 and its aftermath - a year marked as much by workers' struggles as the rise of the New Left intellectually - as well as an important work on the 'Lost Revolution' in Germany 1918-23. While he could with ease have risen in academia in a whole number of disciplines (economics, philosophy, history, politics, sociology...) he stayed the course as a leading member of the Socialist Workers' Party in Britain and so lived out his life as 'above all, a revolutionary'. It is doubtful that he would have enjoyed a career in academia greatly though - where the driving pressure is to say something 'new' - regardless of whether it is profoundly useful or utter rubbish. Harman was of course an original Marxist in many ways - think for example of his pamphlet on the contradictions of Islam, The prophet and the proletariat, but the idea of a 'Harmanite' is unthinkable - above all Harman was a disciple and follower of Tony Cliff - and unapologetic about the fact (see what must be one of his last articles on the importance of the theory of State capitalism as developed by Cliff for understanding the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe). As a result, as a Marxist theorist he was often ignored and snubbed by the more snobbish dedicated followers of contemporary intellectual fashion on the Left, despite the fact that intellectually he towered above almost all of those he critically analysed as 'academic Marxists'. Time and again for example, at meetings at say Historical Materialism conference, one would hear a presentation given by some leading theorist - almost certainly a professor of something or other - that left most people just feeling small at how little one knew of say the minute complexities of certain details of Marxist economic theory - only for Chris Harman to invariably rise from his seat, grab the key point of the speaker and then either develop or critique it but in language anyone there could understand - and so one would leave the meeting feeling one had learnt something new about Marxism as a result. Yet it is telling for example, that to the best of my knowledge those times he did offer articles to New Left Review, they were turned down (interestingly he does get the briefest of mentions in the latest issue of NLR, in an interview given by the late Peter Gowan, giving a talk for the International Socialists on the Cuban Revolution that was attended by Gowan, who was unimpressed by Harman's principled Marxist criticism of Castro). Yet, and what was critical, Harman did not write such still unparalleled works as The Fire Last Time (a work respected by Rage Against the Machine among others) and A People's History of the World with academics in mind as his audience - he wrote to educate and engage with a working class audience and win young people to revolutionary politics. As a result some of his writing could be dismissed as 'populist' - but this is to mistake his purpose in writing and the audience he had in mind.

It was as primarily an outstanding populariser of Marxism then, and at first through such accessible and clearly written books such as How Marxism Works or his contribution to the collection Party and Class that I guess many people of my generation first encountered Harman's work. Those of us in the SWP in Britain were lucky that we could regularly hear him speak - if sometimes we were a little embarrassed and ashamed when he turned up to give a meeting to say only a handful of students. In later years, the intellectual respect for him among particularly young people internationally who had been won to revolutionary Marxism through reading the likes of Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and himself was profound. Yet on meeting him, one was struck by how incredibly modest about his intellectual abilities he was, and his endearing humility was something in utter contrast to some Marxists one meets. It is impossible here to give more than a sense of the intellectual debt I and no doubt others feel we owe to Chris Harman - a debt that can in no way be repaid in a blog post. While I will obviously add obituaries, tributes etc etc as and when they appear to this post - one is just left with a sense of the profound injustice of his passing. Why, when fighters of the ruling class such as Thatcher and Kissinger seem to be able to live on and on forever, do those who devote their lives to fighting for the oppressed and exploited of the world so often have to die before their time?

Chris Harman Internet Archive

Tributes to Chris Harman/ More tributes/ Even more tributes
Alex Callinicos, 'Obituary: Chris Harman, 1942-2009'
John Molyneux, Obituary from The Independent (see also a longer version here)
Michael Rosen, Obituary in the Guardian
Ian Birchall 'Chris Harman: a life in the struggle'
John Rose, 'Chris Harman's ideas were forged in the heat of the struggles of 1968'
Joseph Choonara, 'Another Side of Chris Harman'
Andy Durgan 'A whiff of teargas'
Larry Elliott 'Chris Harman: A thinker and a polemicist'
1983 Interview with Chris Harman about Socialist Worker
2009 Interview with Chris Harman about writing A People's History of the World
David Widgery, Chris Harman on Ho Chi Minh, 1969
Socialist Review, Tribute (see also Mary Phillips)
Lenin's Tomb, 'Chris Harman RIP'
Kieran Allen, for the Irish SWP
Panos Garganas, for SEK (Greece)
Choi Il-Bung, for All Together (South Korea)
François Coustal and Dominique Angelini, for the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, 'Hommage a Chris Harman'
Graham Turner on Zombie Capitalism
Keith Flett, for the London Socialist Historian's Group
En Lucha (Spain), Tribute (in Spanish).
Marx21, Tribute (in German)
Ian Rintoul, for Solidarity (Australia), Tribute
Shannon Price 'Ideas for Revolution in the 21st century'
Alan Maass, for the American ISO, 'A powerful voice for international socialism'
Socialist Resistance editorial board, 'Chris Harman: A life in the heart of the struggle'
Colin Falconer and John Mullen, for Marxists Unitaires (in French)
Socialist Unity, 'RIP Chris Harman'
Sandra Bloodworth, for Socialist Alternative (Australia), 'Chris Harman's death a tragic loss for socialist movement'
Splintered Sunrise, 'Fixed and Consequent'
Andy Wilson, 'Obituary of Chris Harman'

* The actual account from Caute (p.320) is as follows - one obviously has to take into account Caute's bias against revolutionary politics:

On 14 June 1968, a new national grouping, the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), held its inaugural conference at the LSE in the volatile atmosphere generated by events in France. ('Students of the world IGNITE,' exhorted a poster.) The conference, which rejected parliamentary politics outright, was attended by two leaders of the French insurrection, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Alain Geismar, both clearly exhausted (Geismar had been fighting the police outside the Renault factory at Flins). A humourous report of these sessions by David Widgery portrays the intervention of Chris Harman, a Trotskyite who habitually began his speeches, 'We have to be absolutely clear about this'. Greeted with friendly groans, Harman brandished his moped crash helmet: 'We must be quite clear what is happening. 1968 is a year of international revolution no less than 1789, 1830, 1848, 1917 and 1936'. Militants with Black Dwarf in their hands were to be seen conferring about what did actually happen in 1830.

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