Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Twenty Years After

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Great Poll Tax Riot of 1990 in central London - the high point of a mass campaign of non-payment by millions of working class people in Britain that was critical to forcing Thatcher from power - and so an event well worth commemorating twenty years on.

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David Harvey Speaks

The Enigma of Capital
LSE Department of Geography public lecture
Date: Monday 26 April 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Old Theatre, Old Building

For three centuries the capitalist system has shaped western society and conditioned the lives of its people. Capitalism is cyclical – and increasingly bankrupt. Boom-and-bust is its model. Laying bare the follies of the international financial system, eminent academic David Harvey looks at the nature of capitalism and why it's time to call a halt to its unbridled excesses. He examines the vast flows of money that surge round the world in daily volumes well in excess of the sum of all its economies. He looks at the cycles of boom and bust in the world's housing and stock markets and shows that periodic episodes of meltdown are not only inevitable in the capitalist system but essential to its survival. The essence of capitalism is its amorality and lawlessness and to talk of a regulated, ethical capitalism is to make a fundamental error. The Enigma of Capital considers how crises of the current sort can best be contained within the constraints of capitalism, and makes the case for a social order that would allow us to live within a system that really could be responsible, just, and humane.

David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate School and former Professor of Geography at Johns Hopkins and Oxford Universities. The author of numerous books, he was awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1995 and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007. He is the world's most cited academic geographer and his course on Marx's Capital has been downloaded by well over 250,000 people since mid-2008.

This event celebrates Professor Harvey's new book The Enigma of Capital. This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. For more information, email events@lse.ac.uk or call 020 7955 6043.

See also:
Tuesday 27 April,
David Harvey will now be speaking 6.30pm 27th April at
The Great Hall, King's College, The Strand, WC2R 2LS

Door open 6pm, Please be early to avoid disappointment

Harvey also speaks on The Crisis of Capitalism on 28 April 2010 £12 / £11 Concessions / £10 ICA Members.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Marxism in London in 2010

Three possible dates for people's diaries...

1. Marxism 2010, Ideas to Change the World, 1-5 July 2010, Central London [Book by 5 April to save up to 50 percent on entry]:
The global economic crisis has highlighted the bankruptcy of a system that puts profits before the needs of ordinary people. Billions across the planet face hunger, war, poverty, catastrophic climate change and unemployment. But billions are also asking whether a different world is possible, talking about alternatives and fighting back. Marxism 2010 will bring thousands of these people together from across the world to discuss, debate and organise the fightback. Don’t miss it.

Speakers at Marxism 2010 include:
Slavoj Žižek, Sheila Rowbotham, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn asks where next after the election?, New-York based Guardian journalist Gary Younge assesses Obama's first year in power, Hester Eisenstein, Nina Power and Judith Orr debate "the new sexism", Economists Ben Fine, Alfredo Saad-Filho, Joseph Choonara, Guglielmo Carchedi, Costas Lapavitsas and Graham Turner analyse the ongoing economic crisis, John Holloway on his new book, "Crack Capitalism" , Istvan Mészáros discusses alternatives to parliamentarism, Gerry Conlon (wrongly imprisoned as one of the Guildford Four) joins Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg and leading human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce for a panel discussion on civil liberties, Alex Callinicos on his new book, "Bonfire of Illusions", Ghada Karmi, Sami Ramadani and Haifa Zangana take part in a course of meetings on Palestine , Iraq and the Middle East, Panos Garganas brings new from the front line of resistance in Greece, Mark Serwotka, Kevin Courtney and Jeremy Dear join discussions with other trade unionists, Jeremy Corbyn MP participates in a series of meetings on Latin America, Martin Smith (LMHR) and Weyman Bennett (UAF) on the fight against fascism, Die Linke MP in the Bundestag Christine Buchholz speaks on Afghanistan and joins a panel on the radical left, Danny Dorling on "Injustice: why social inequality persists", Steven Rose on "The future of the brain" , An evening of poetry with Michael Rosen, Roy Bailey performs an evening of folk music and also David Edgar on "Theatre, funding and ideology"

2.'Crisis and Critique': Historical Materialism Annual London Conference 2010, Central London, Thursday 11th to Sunday 14th November

Call for Papers
Submission and Abstract Deadline: 1 June 2010
Notwithstanding repeated invocations of the ‘green shoots of recovery’, the effects of the economic crisis that began in 2008 continue to be felt around the world. While some central tenets of the neoliberal project have been called into question, bank bailouts, cuts to public services and attacks on working people's lives demonstrate that the ruling order remains capable of imposing its agenda. Many significant Marxist analyses have already been produced of the origins, forms and prospects of the crisis, and we look forward to furthering these debates at HM London 2010. We also aim to encourage dialogue between the critique of political economy and other modes of criticism – ideological, political, aesthetic, philosophical – central to the Marxist tradition. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht projected a journal to be called ‘Crisis and Critique’. In very different times, but in a similar spirit, HM London 2010 aims to serve as a forum for dialogue, interaction and debate between different strands of critical-Marxist theory. Whether their focus is the study of the capitalist mode of production's theoretical and practical foundations, the unmasking of its ideological forms of legitimation or its political negation, we are convinced that a renewed and politically effective Marxism will need to rely on all the resources of critique in the years ahead. Crises produce periods of ideological and political uncertainty. They are moments that put into question established cognitive and disciplinary compartmentalisations, and require a recomposition at the level of both theory and practice. HM London 2010 hopes to contribute to a broader dialogue on the Left aimed at such a recomposition, one of whose prerequisites remains the young Marx’s call for the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’.

We are seeking papers that respond to the current crisis from a range of Marxist perspectives, but also submissions that try to think about crisis and critique in their widest ramifications. HM will also consider proposals on themes and topics of interest to critical- Marxist theory not directly linked to the call for papers (we particularly welcome contributions on non-Western Marxism and on empirical enquiries employing Marxist methods). While Historical Materialism is happy to receive proposals for panels, the editorial board reserves the right to change the composition of panels or to reject individual papers from panel proposals. We also expect all participants to attend the whole conference and not simply make ‘cameo’ appearances. We cannot accommodate special requests for specific slots or days, except in highly exceptional circumstances.

Please note that, in order to allow for expected demand, this year the conference will be three and a half days’ long, starting on the Thursday afternoon. Please submit a title and abstract of between 200 and 300 words by registering here by 1 June 2010

Possible themes include: • Crisis and left recomposition • Critique and crisis in the global south • Anti-racist critique • Marxist and non-Marxist theories of crisis • Capitalist and anti-capitalist uses of the crisis • Global dimensions of the crisis • Comparative and historical accounts of capitalist crisis • Ecological and economic crisis • Critical theory today • Finance and the crisis • Neoliberalism and legitimation crisis • Negation and negativity • Feminism and critique • Political imaginaries of crisis and catastrophe • The critique of everyday life (Lefebvre, the situationists etc.) • The idea of critique in Marx, his predecessors and contemporaries • Art criticism, political critique and the critique of political economy • Geography and crisis, geography and the critique of political economy • Right-wing movements and crisis • Critiques of the concept of crisis • New forms of critique in the social and human sciences • Aesthetic critique • Marxist literary and cultural criticism • Reports on recent evolution of former USSR countries and China

3. Chris Harman Memorial Meeting, Saturday 17 April, 5pm
Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh St, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG. Email enquiries@swp.org.uk for more details. The Chris Harman Internet Archive continues to grow into a valuable resource of hope for revolutionary socialists.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Celebrate multicultural Dudley

Do the right thing - don't let the racist EDL run riot next weekend

Edited to add: Comedian/Public historian David Mitchell on the fascist BNP:

Sometimes Nazi comparisons are well used. While the crimes of the BNP are incomparably smaller than those of the Nazi party, as thankfully is its degree of electoral success, its views are comparable and history suggests that it would be naive to assume that, were the BNP given the opportunity of power, its actions wouldn't also be.


'Gandhi, but with guns'

Arundhati Roy on the tribal peoples of India's heroic struggle - of late often under the inspiration of Maoist/Naxalite strategy and tactics - against the might of the Indian state - there is also a video once can watch here

'Significant wars are often fought in unlikely places...Here in the forests of Dantewara a battle rages for the soul of India. Plenty has been said about the deepening crisis in Indian democracy and the collusion between big corporations, major political parties and the security establishment. If any body wants to do a quick spot check, Dantewara is the place to go.'


That's why William Morris has gone to Iceland

[In the 1870s, the great Victorian artist William Morris made several trips to the now economically bankrupt (if remarkably relatively sexually liberated) country formerly known as 'Iceland' - and as the Morris scholar Fiona MacCarthy notes, we should all be glad he did because he came back a changed man, and indeed would later become an outstanding revolutionary socialist thinker:]

'Iceland itself became a kind of yardstick against which Morris measured the follies and iniquities of Victorian Britain. The Icelanders lived hard lives, but they never lost their dignity or sense of true priorities. The important things survived. Morris admired the strong literary traditions, noting how oral storytelling continued through the generations, keeping families transfixed through the long winter nights. He responded to the practical simplicity of Icelandic farmers' houses. These single-storey turf-walled structures, their rounded roofs blanketed with grass and flowers, had a minimalist beauty that showed up the self-indulgence of the "ordinary style of bourgeois comfort" in which Morris, a financier's son, had been brought up.

By the time he came to Iceland, Morris had founded his decorating firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co with the idea of reforming Britain's debased taste in the design of household products. From his own experience, he was already painfully aware of the economic pressures towards short cuts and shoddiness, the negation of the basic human instinct to perfect one's skills. In Iceland's more rudimentary economy craftsmanship still flourished within a living tradition of folk art. Morris's delight in discovering a country where design was directed only at supplying basic human needs fuelled his future diatribes against the Victorian culture of excess...Morris also came back with a new radical awareness. Reading the journals you can see the processes of revelation dawning. He came home politicised, convinced that "the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes"...

Early in 1883 Morris crossed the "river of fire" and became a revolutionary socialist. Note the image of the river: the journey across water was always a potent metaphor for Morris...This final transformation of the cosseted son of the capitalist classes, whose family fortunes derived from copper mining in the valley of the Tamar, was described by EP Thompson, the historian of the English working classes, as "among the great conversions of the world". Morris joined the Democratic Federation, a small and, at the time, relatively unknown party committed to bringing about a total social revolution, creating a society without rich and poor, without masters and men; a new world in which art could flourish. Art for Morris was the test of a true civilisation.

By now Morris had come to the conclusion that books without political purpose were flatulent and lifeless. For a decade he became totally embroiled in the literature of conflict. Everything he wrote – poetry and stories, journalism, lectures – was dedicated to what he called "the Cause". Not everybody noticed. In many people's eyes Morris was still the author of the relatively innocuous "Earthly Paradise", and he was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate in 1892 after the death of Tennyson. As a revolutionary socialist he could not possibly accept.

News From Nowhere is the book in which Morris's visionary politics find their ultimate expression. It is a novel of an ideal post-revolution future set in 2012, a date which now seems curiously imminent. Though it reads with the directness of a children's story, it has deep, underlying subversiveness, a total upturning of accepted values. News From Nowhere became a kind of handbook for the romantic-intellectual English socialism that has only just ended with the death of Michael Foot. Towards the end of this dream novel comes a haymakers' feast – a community gathering in a flower-decked church with a crowd of handsome, happy, well-dressed men and women looking "like a bed of tulips in the sun". The truly democratic village scene described by Morris reminds one of Iceland, but with better weather. Ideals of community he formed on those journeys of the 1870s stayed with him all his life.'

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eugene Debs on what Socialists say about Immigration

[The American radical Eugene Debs (1855-1926) was one of the greatest revolutionary socialists who ever lived. In 1910 he wrote this letter to counter the arguments of those 'socialists' who argued for the necessity of supporting immigration controls - a letter which 100 years later still speaks to us today on an ever topical issue given the current climate of racism in Britain around the question today being whipped up by all manner of mainstream media 'social commentators' and politicians from Gordon Brown ('We are fighting for Britain's future', 'We will put the British people first') downwards...]

My Dear Brewer:

Have just read the majority report of the [Socialist Party] Committee on Immigration [which called for the exclusion of Asians from America]. It is utterly unsocialistic, reactionary and in truth outrageous, and I hope you will oppose with all your power. The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation...

Away with the “tactics” which require the exclusion of the oppressed and suffering slaves who seek these shores with the hope of bettering their wretched condition and are driven back under the cruel lash of expediency by those who call themselves Socialists in the name of a movement whose proud boast it is that it stands uncompromisingly for the oppressed and down-trodden of all the earth. These poor slaves have just as good a right to enter here as even the authors of this report who now seek to exclude them. The only difference is that the latter had the advantage of a little education and had not been so cruelly ground and oppressed, but in point of principle there is no difference, the motive of all being precisely the same, and if the convention which meets in the name of Socialism should discriminate at all it should be in favor of the miserable races who have borne the heaviest burdens and are most nearly crushed to the earth.

Upon this vital proposition I would take my stand against the world and no specious argument of subtle and sophistical defenders of the civic federation unionism, who do not hesitate to sacrifice principle for numbers and jeopardise ultimate success for immediate gain, could move me to turn my back upon the oppressed, brutalized and despairing victims of the old world, who are lured to these shores by some faint glimmer of hope that here their crushing burdens may be lightened, and some star of promise rise in their darkened skies.

The alleged advantages that would come to the Socialist movement because of such heartless exclusion would all be swept away a thousand times by the sacrifice of a cardinal principle of the international socialist movement, for well rnight the good faith of such a movement be questioned by intelligent workers if it placed itself upon record as barring its doors against the very races most in need of relief, and extinguishing their hope, and leaving them in dark despair at the very time their ears were first attuned to the international call and their hearts were beginning to throb responsive to the solidarity of the oppressed of all lands and all climes beneath the skies.

In this attitude there is nothing of maudlin sentimentality, but simply a rigid adherence to the fundamental principles of the International proletarian movement. If Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly, and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare.

Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.

Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fibre that will prevail against the world.

Yours without compromise,
Eugene V. Debs.

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Mark Twain's tribute to the French Revolution

'The ever memorable and blessed revolution, which swept a thousand years of villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood — one: a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell.

There were two Reigns of Terror, if we would but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death on ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the horrors of the minor Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror, which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over, but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.'

From Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), quoted here

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Students fighting for Socialism

The remarkable recent events at Sussex University, where following the violent repression and victimisation of students protesting against cuts, lecturers are now also on strike today, naturally have a whiff of 1968 about them. However, those students protesting may also be interested in events at Oxford University way back in the early 1920s, which also seem to be a kind of precursor of many student protests to come. Brian Pearce once summarised the story which began when a group of students set up a publication, ‘Free Oxford’ from 1921-22 (a special May Day number (1922) which carried as its masthead a quotation from Trotsky: ‘To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him.’):

When the arch-reactionary Tory Minister Lord Curzon of Kedleston was Chancellor, there darted across the Oxford firmament a comet called ‘Free Oxford’. This was ‘an independent socialist review of politics and literature’ (later: ‘a communist journal of youth’), which came out in six numbers in 1921 and 1922 and achieved an amazing success, with a circulation of at least double that of other university papers. Contributors included Louis Golding, A. E. Coppard, Edgell Rickword, Richard Hughes and other bright young writers, together with Edward Carpenter, of the older generation, and also E. Varga and K. Radek, who sent their articles from Moscow.

‘Free Oxford’ found purchasers in every university and aimed to become a regular inter-university paper reflecting and promoting the work of the University Socialist Federation. Already before it was closed down it was publishing a regular ‘Cambridge Letter’ from the youthful Maurice Dobb.

Towards the end of 1921 the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, one Lewis Farnell, sent for the editors, told them: ‘I will not have Bolsheviks at Oxford’, and expelled them. ‘Free Oxford’ went down with all guns firing. In particular, the following headlines caught public attention: ‘Editors Sent Down. Curzon’s Campaign Against “Free Oxford.” Foolish Foreign Minister Forces Feeble Farnell to Fight Free Speech.’

Reaction in the university world and in the press to Farnell’s action was generally unfavourable (‘Farnellism and Crime’, and ‘Academic Pogrom by Modern Canute’, were typical newspaper headlines) and Curzon, being a politician, sought to dissociate himself from his Vice-Chancellor. This he did, in a letter to The Times. Farnell was stung to reply to it, and a great deal of unpleasantness was created for the University. The more Farnell and his supporters tried to justify themselves, the bigger fools they made of themselves. ‘The crux of the matter was whether it was wrong to advocate the use of force as a means of attaining political ends, and it was pointed out, with reason, that if this ruling held in the university the Officers’ Training Corps should be abolished’ (Maurice Ashley and Christopher Saunders, ‘Red Oxford’).

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Anti-fascism Past and Present: Veterans of Cable Street Interviewed

'Cable Street knocked the Blackshirts’ confidence. They never tried to march through Whitechapel again. That is why it is essential to fight today’s rascists and fascists – you’ve got to stand up to them, and stop them from marching.
The police said don’t march in the 1930s as well. There were huge arguments at the time against confronting them.
My father was a Jewish immigrant who escaped from the Baltic in a hay cart – he knew from experience what the pogroms in eastern Europe were like and he was terrified.
He said, “‘Keep your head down, and keep out of the way. If you ignore them and laugh at them they will go away.’
“But we knew that staying at home wasn’t the answer”..
I was on my own, none of my family were with me. I wasn’t scared, I had been on demonstrations before. But I didn’t know what to expect – I only became acquainted with police tactics later. I was fairly innocent and wasn’t expecting trouble.
There were so many of us that you couldn’t move. I can remember the elation in the crowd that so many people were there.
The dockers came from Limehouse and Poplar – to my amazement, because they had a reputation for being antisemitic. There were cabinet-makers from Bethnal Green and tailors from Whitechapel.
There were so many different accents. Miners came from Wales and Communists from all over Britain.
“They shall not pass,” was on everybody’s lips. The sheer scale of numbers meant the fascists couldn’t get through.
Eventually, after some hours, the word went round that the fascists had been turned back.
Everyone was cheering. Where I was people were dancing and singing and throwing their arms around one another.
I think it is essential to fight. You’ve got to stand up to them, you have to be prepared to stop them from marching.'

Alice Hitchin, who was 17 at the time of The Battle of Cable Street, and who supports the anti-fascist mobilisation in Bolton this Saturday

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Greek Workers Solidarity Meetings

Fight for the Right to Work International Solidarity meeting


Vasilis Sylaidis of Greek trade union Intracom, will give an
eyewitness account of the recent general strike
PCS striker will report on the struggle of the civil service workers against attempts to cut redundancy pay and jobs
Jim Wolfreys President, King’s College, London, UCU, will report on the struggle against massive cuts in Higher Education

Tuesday 23 March, 6.30 pm
Room S –2.08, King’s College,
The Strand, London WC2
(Basement, through the main entrance, next to Somerset House).
Leaflet here Greece: Fresh Cuts, Further Resistance

Other meetings with Vasilis Sylaidis

Manchester Wednesday 24 March 7.30pm, Methodist Centre, Central Hall, Oldham Street , Manchester M1 1JT

Glasgow, Thursday 25 March, 7.30pm, Renfield St. Stephen's, 260 Bath Street , Glasgow , G2 4JP

Dundee, Friday 26 March, 7.30pm, Marriot Hall, City Square, Dundee DD1 3BB

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Monday, March 15, 2010

On Marxism and Anarchism

"Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!"
-Otto Von Bismarck

Bismarck's quote - which was recently used to advertise an academic conference on the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism, Is Black and Red Dead? - was made after the defeat of the Paris Commune and the subsequent collapse of the First International, in which both 'Marxists' (well Marx and Engels at least) and Anarchists (including Bakunin) had participated. That ever since a kind of sectarian hostility between Marxism and Anarchism has tended to be the most common form of 'dialogue' between the two traditions of thought has to be seen as a matter of regret, not least because at their best both traditions have much that is critical to contribute to the rebirth of a genuinely revolutionary tradition inside the wider anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Indeed they are both often seen as the most consistent forms of what is often called 'libertarian socialism' (as opposed to the opportunism and betrayals of social democracy and the distortions and criminal bureaucratic dictatorships of Stalinism). In fact, I will (unsurprisingly) argue here (albeit in an undoubtedly brief and schematic fashion) - that Marxism is preferable to anarchism.

By 'anarchism', I intend to concern myself with what I am going to call 'classical anarchism' - rather than autonomism (a kind of fusion of Marxism and anarchism which because it is 'newer' -owing its historical roots to the post-Second World War period - is much more fashionable than either classical form). The current marginality of 'classical anarchism' in Britain - seen for example by the relative lack of attention given to the death of perhaps the most important anarchist in post-war Britain last month - Colin Ward - is nothing new. As anarchist historian David Goodway notes in Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2007), Britain was an ‘anarchist backwater’ at the time when the historic anarchist movement as a current within the international working class was flourishing from the 1860s until the crushing of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Anarchism in this period, Goodway notes, was ‘embedded in the artisan response to industrialization, first in France, followed by Italy and finally, in the early-twentieth century, by Russia and Spain’ but this ‘artisan response’ in Britain had already been and gone, dying out with the end of Chartism. Accordingly, ‘in Britain anarchism as a social movement never amounted to much, except among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of East London and – for reasons still to be explained – on Clydeside’.

Yet the intellectual appeal of anarchism to young anti-capitalists today – even in Britain - cannot be denied – when I was a teenager and only just discovering anticapitalism, my first arguments as a revolutionary socialist revolved largely around the debate between Marxism and anarchism – both seemed to offer so much and surely some sort of synthesis was desirable. Though at school my friend read Noam Chomsky while I read Leon Trotsky, together we set up a school political debating society, ‘the Commune’ – named after the Paris Commune of 1871 which as we have seen was welcomed by both Marx and Bakunin.

In this spirit of fraternal Marxist criticism of anarchism, I am going to use an anarchist's definition of anarchism. In Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, Goodway defines anarchism as follows:

‘unremitting hostility to the State and parliamentarianism, employment of direct action as the means of attaining desired goals, and organisation through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards’

I will briefly take each of these themes in turn – discussing their strengths and weaknesses in comparison with Marxism- and drawing mainly for argument from Paul Blackledge's recent article on Marxism and Anarchism and Paul Le Blanc's Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience. I am also indebted to Ian Birchall for sending me his 'comments' on Blackledge's article, which should be published in the next issue of International Socialism.

1. ‘Unremitting hostility to the State and Parliamentarianism’.

This is often seen as the rational core and a great strength of anarchism – the desire to immunise the wider movement from corruption and co-option by the forces of the capitalist state – and reformist politics. It suggests the need for revolutionary politics – and to 'smash the state'. Perhaps my favourite 'anarchist quotes' attack 'the venal and rotten parliamentarianism of bourgeois society' and note that ‘to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism not only in the parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics’. There is just one problem here - contrary to the accusation that Marxists are pro- ‘statism’ ( Mikhail Bakunin called Marx an ‘advocate of state communism’) and pro-‘parliamentarianism’ just because we tend to endorse standing in elections and taking electoral politics seriously, the quotes in question are from Lenin's classic The State and Revolution. In this great work - which resurrected the Paris Commune and elevated it to its rightful place of critical importance within the Marxist tradition - Lenin also went on to quote Marx insisting that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’, and noted that ‘Marx agreed with Proudhon in that they both stood for the “smashing” of the modern state machine’, noting ‘we do not at all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as aim’. Indeed, to quote from Lenin again, 'where there is a state there is no freedom - where there is freedom there will be no state'.

Yet there are problems with the anarchist reification of 'the State' as the main enemy of the freedom of the individual (itself merely a simplistic inversion of the traditional bourgeois focus on freedom only possibly existing through the state and parliamentary political action - because as Hobbes notes, without a strong state or Leviathan, human nature apparently dictated our lives would just be 'nasty, brutal and short'). Firstly, is this necessarily the case - what of the current struggle for health care reform in the US – is the British NHS really an enemy of freedom or a social good?

Secondly, all states are ultimately simply instruments of class domination, 'bodies of armed men, prisons etc' as Lenin noted, and so Marx argued that states are historical phenomena, tied up with specific relations of production and so the real need is to remove the underpinning relations of production. There is not just one type of ‘state’, but lots of different types of state – feudal states, capitalist states – what Lenin called the 'Commune state' of workers power, and then lots of different types of state within these forms – eg 'workers's states with bureaucratic distortions' as Lenin described the state which emerged initially from the Russian Revolution, the bureaucratic state capitalism of Stalinism, liberal democracies we know and love today and fascist states.

The exact type of state one is trying to overthrow plays an important role when it comes to determining revolutionary strategy and tactics. The opposition to 'the State' in general has historically led anarchism to underplay the importance of movements of national liberation against imperialism, while more critically their failure to distinguish between nascent emerging 'workers states' and capitalist states proved fatal in Spain in 1936, when a large section of the anarchists entered the liberal republican government to fight Franco rather than counterposing an embryonic 'Soviet state' in the form of workers committees to the liberal republic. The weakness of anarchism historically when it comes to the actual experience of revolution itself is linked to their failure to take politics and so the state seriously, while the hostility to even the germ of democracy represented by 'parliamentarism' is in its own way revealing of a 'democratic deficit' within anarchist thought itself (as the French anarchist Proudhon put it, ‘universal suffrage is the counter-revolution’) - which we will come onto later. As Blackledge notes, ‘the problem of the possibility of real democracy, sits at the core of the political disagreements about the relationship between freedom and authority, the issue of political organisation, and the character of the ethical critique of capitalism’ - ‘a widespread failing within anarchism to develop an adequate conceptualisation of democracy' is 'a weakness which is rooted in an incoherent model of human nature’.

2. ‘Direct action as the means of attaining desired goals’

Against other forms of more traditional political action, anarchists conceptualise revolution as ‘direct action’ to ‘transform’ society. Direct action is the practical implication of anarchist anti-statism - 'propaganda of the deed' as the old slogan put it.

While on first sight this seems very attractive, there are in fact lots of different types of 'direct action' – and so lots of different types of anarchist as a result. Those closest to Marxism favour mass direct action to give people a sense of their own power, but for many individual 'lifestyle' anarchists (deriving from Max Stirner's egotistical variant of anarchism), individual direct action will do. Another problem with the anarchist reification of direct action for Marxists is that direct action is a tactic – just as standing in parliamentary elections is a tactic – neither in themselves constitutes a direct threat in themselves to the system – and both are potentially elitist - with a focus on what you and your organisation are doing without an adequate dialogue with the wider movement or the needs of the working class. In fact, if just one tactic is adopted – by either reformist socialists or anarchists – then the danger of the pull of substitutionism, acting on behalf of the class as a self-appointed elite, is even greater.

3. ‘Organisation through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards’

Anarchist ideas of organisation - when they exist - tend to emphasise the importance of 'non-hierachical', 'horizontal' forms of organisation, not vertical or centralised but 'pre-figurative' of the future society. Alongside this, anarchists tend to stress the critical dividing line politically is between 'authoritarians' and 'anti-authoritarians' or 'libertarians'.

The anarchist concern with attempting to imagine and 'prefigure' the new future society is not without value - and Le Blanc has praised some of Kropotkin's writings such as Mutual Aid and The Conquest of Bread along these lines. One problem however here is that prefigurative 'co-operative associations' do not tend to serve very well when it comes to revolutionary situations, or making successful revolutions. As Engels noted in 1872, in an article, 'On Authority', anti-authoritarians 'demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority.'

'Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?'

As Chris Harman once noted, discussing 'the lost German Revolution of 1918-23' and the failure of revolutionary leadership (with particular respect to Rosa Luxemburg):

If the revolution went down to defeat it was not through ‘inadequacy of politics’ – it was because the politics of this leadership was not tied to a coherent ‘organisational structure’. There was not even the embryo of a party capable of transmitting the political analyses of Rosa into the key sections of the class. Indeed, such was the lack of a tradition of coordinated revolutionary activity that Karl Liekbnecht simply ignored the decisions of the rest of the leadership of the newly formed party and, in the heat of the moment, put his name to a call for the forcible overthrow of the Social Democratic government. The result was that the most advanced layer of militants blundered into a premature struggle for power, which led to the annihilation of much of the Communist leadership.

The tragedy in Gemany was that the democratic centralist party was not built until after the party had suffered major defeats and until after many of its best leaders had been murdered. Of course organisation is useless without the correct politics. But correct politics is impotent without organisation. To pretend otherwise is to guarantee in future a repetition of many of the massive defeats of the past.

Building a democratic and centralised revolutionary organisation is not an easy task. Our model cannot be the so-called ‘Marxist-Leninism’ that was elaborated after Lenin’s death by the new bureaucratic rulers of Russia. We have to develop forms of leadership that learn from the spontaneous struggles of workers, generalising the lessons, and feeding them back into the class...

Finally we have to remember that a small revolutionary organisation certainly is not the embryo of a new society. We do not exist as an island of socialism within capitalism, but as a voluntary organisation of militants whose task is to lead the class as a whole to construct the new society. So the aim of internal democracy is not to show ‘this is how things will work under socialism’, but to tie the development of the party to the concrete experiences of its militants in the workplaces.

Marx's vision of 'socialism from below' stressed that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’, so Marxists recognise prefigurative elements of working class self-organisation and culture before the conquest of power – eg workers councils – but also recognise the inevitably uneven and fragmented consciousness of the working class under capitalism – even once workers' councils are in existence - and so the need for a revolutionary socialist party separate from the working class in order to try and overcome this division. Such a revolutionary organisation is not prefigurative but instrumental – a temporary instrument to win the majority of working class to socialist ideas and politics – and when that moment of victory is reached and the socialist revolution won, the revolutionary socialist party will disappear as its need and rationale will have disappeared.

If there is a dividing line in politics, then according to Hal Draper, it is not between 'authoritarians' and 'libertarians' but between those who stand for revolutionary democracy as against those who have an ultimately elitist contempt for the mass of working class people. If one believes that any attempt to build revolutionary socialist organisation is inevitably going to lead in despotism of one variety or other, (‘all political organisation is destined to end in the negation of freedom’ - Bakunin) then basically one believes that working class people are incapable of coming together to form democratic organisations without them being inherently corrupted - an elitist conclusion. As Duncan Hallas once noted,

The equation “centralised organisation equals bureaucracy equals degeneration” is in fact a secularised version of the original sin myth. Like its prototype it leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. For what is really being implied is that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proved to be true; to argue that it is necessarily, inevitably true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in the literal sense, is impossible.

Whereas anarchists say 'No Leaders!', Marxists - precisely because they have this belief in the creative capacity of working class people - say instead 'Everyone can be a leader!' - because we believe everyone can be a fighter against exploitation and oppression, against racism, sexism, homophobia, against all attempts to 'divide and rule' over the working class.

As Blackledge notes, for Marx, given his view on human nature, authority was inescapable, and so the choice was not a struggle against 'authority' but a struggle to smash an undemocratic form of authority (the state, corporate power) and replace it with a democratic alternative – the democratisation of social authority. So Marxism and anarchism do not stand for 'the same goals by different means' – for Marxists, freedom and authority are not necessarily directly opposite but actually are complementary.

Because revolutions themselves are about democratising authority - revolutionary democracy where workers in power are deciding things for themselves - the actual revolutionary experience - particularly that of the Russian Revolution of 1917 - has seen many anarchists come over to Marxism and to the fight to defend socialist revolution – most notably the revolutionary novelist Victor Serge. As Ian Birchall notes (in his 'comments on Paul Blackledge's "Marxism and Anarchism", forthcoming in International Socialism journal - people should if they can also dig out Birchall's review of Suzi Weissman's study of Serge The Course is Set on Hope in Historical Materialism journal), 'Serge argued there was no future for anarchism if it failed to integrate itself into the movement launched by the Bolshevik Revolution, but if it did participate it could make a significant contribution to that movement'. For Serge,

'Anarchist philosophy, which appeals to individuals, imposes on them attitudes in their private life and their inner life, proposes a morality, which is something that Marxism, a theory of class struggle, does not do to such a great extent. Armed with the spirit of free enquiry, more liberated than anyone else from bourgeois prejudices with regard to the family, honour, propriety, love, from worrying about "what people will say" and "what is expected", militants who see anarchism as "an individual way of life and activity", in the well-chosen phrase of some of the French comrades, will resist reaction in behaviour with their common sense and their courage in setting an example. While others become officers, functionaries, judges, sometimes joining the privileged elite, they will remain simply men, free workers, who can perform in a stoical fashion all the tasks that are necessary to plough up the old land, but who will never be intoxicated by rhetoric, or by success, or by the lure of profitable careers.' (Serge, Victor, Revolution in Danger, Redwords, 1997)

Overall, then, while anarchism in itself can provide important insights and anarchists like Serge who sided with revolution against counter-revolution have historically often made an immensely valuable contribution to the revolutionary movement, ultimately anarchism - unintegrated with a revolutionary working class movement consciously struggling for socialism such as that in Russia - is unable to act as a guide to action for those serious about revolutionary politics. The anarchist goal of trying to get to an ahistorical natural social harmony and freedom beyond the state, that is prefigured by loose federal organisations orientated solely on carrying out ‘direct action’ themselves, is an intellectually inferior vision to the Marxist goal – the struggle to democratise society against the state. Marxism accordingly necessitates a democratic and centralist combat organisation that orientatates anti-capitalist activism on politically winning the majority of the working class to socialism – and so takes a lead from the spontaneous activity of the working class at the point of production in the work places - and the task of building such an organisation has to remain the priority for those who would overcome what Hal Draper called 'the great problem of our age', 'the achievement of democratic control from below over the vast powers of modern social authority'.

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Racism in Britain Today

International Socialism journal seminar:

Richard Seymour on 'Racism in Britain Today'.

Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and the 'lenin's tomb' blog presents the latest in our series of seminars.

The electoral success of the fascist British National Party and the emergence of the English Defence League has forced activists in Britain to look again at the issue of racism. Cultural racism and Islamophobia seem to supplant traditional racist ideas based on biology—but what is behind this shift and just how novel is it? Richard Seymour argues that the rise in racism in Britain is driven to a considerable extent by government policies and media reaction, both liberal and conservative.

6.30pm, Friday 26 March, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, WC1H 0GX
(Room FG06, Russell Square Campus— Map: http://bit.ly/soasmap)

This seminar is free to attend and open to all. For more information email isj@swp.org.uk

Some of Richard's earlier articles on racism can be found at the 'lenin's tomb' blog, available online here

Those interested in fighting racism in Britain today should also try and get themselves to Bolton this Saturday (March 20) to counter yet another mobilisation by the racist thugs of the EDL.

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Requiem for Detroit?

Those with 75 minutes to spare who missed this programme detailing the history of the city of Detroit (which among other things has contributors including the legendary veteran activist Grace Lee Boggs can catch up with it here.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Edward Upward

A new website dedicated to the socialist novelist Edward Upward (1903-2009) has been launched by one of his grandsons here

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

New Book: Bonfire of Illusions

Bonfire of Illusions: The twin crises of the liberal world
By Alex Callinicos (Kings College London)

Something dramatic happened in the late summer and autumn of 2008. The post-Cold War world came to an abrupt end. This was the result of two conjoined crises. First, in its brief war with Georgia in August 2008,
Russia asserted its military power to halt the expansion of NATO to
its very borders. Secondly, on 15 September 2008 the Wall Street
investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. This precipitated a severe
financial crash and helped to push the world economy into the worst
slump since the 1930s.

Both crises marked a severe setback for the global power of the United
States, which had driven NATO expansion and forced through the
liberalization of financial markets. More broadly they challenged the
consensus that had reigned since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in
1989 that a US-orchestrated liberal capitalist order could offer the
world peace and prosperity. Already badly damaged by the Iraq debacle, this consensus has now suffered potentially fatal blows.

In Bonfire of Illusions Alex Callinicos explores these twin crises. He traces the credit crunch that developed in 2007-8 to a much more
protracted crisis of overaccumulation and profitability that has
gripped global capitalism since the late 1960s. He also confronts the
interaction between economic and geopolitical events, highlighting the
new assertiveness of nation-states and analysing the tense, complex
relationship of interdependence and conflict that binds together the
US and China. Finally, in response to the revelation that the market
is not the solution to the world's problems, Callinicos reviews the
prospects for alternatives to capitalism.

"The crisis of 2007-9 is an event of historic importance that has
affected economy, society and politics. Callinicos analyses its causes
within the broader development of capitalism in recent decades.
Particularly relevant is his stress on financialisation as well as the
implications he draws regarding the balance of imperial power across
the world. Written with the author's customary skill, this is a
welcome contribution from the left to the public debate."

Costas Lapavitsas, SOAS, University of London

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Public Archive

I have been sent the link to a new website, The Public Archive

'We are hoping that for now, the Public Archive will serve as a resource for Haiti's history; in the future, it will serve as a similar resource for other countries mis-, under-, or poorly-represented within the mainstream media. The Public Archive compiles historical essays, archival material, and well-informed journalism from across the web, mainly from freely available, if not always easily accessible, open-source journals, digital repositories,and online newspapers and periodicals. We hope it can serve as a teaching resource, and we ask you to encourage students and student organizations to link to it via their social networking utilities. (Our own Facebook page is at:http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=343535867070 and we twitter attwitter.com/public_archive)
Finally, the Public Archive is (and will always be) a work in progress. We'd appreciate feedback and comments and please send us links to potential sources'

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Old Left Review

There is a fair chance readers of this blog will have come across New Left Review, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, but how many readers of Histomat know a great deal about the original Left Review, founded by sympathisers of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934? Well, for those who are suitably intrigued, let the late great historian of British Communism Brian Pearce be your guide...

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Happy International Women's Day

Sorry this blog has been slow again of late people. I'd do a proper post today signifying International Women's Day (I was thinking of either an appraisal of This I Cannot Forget, the fascinating memoirs of Anna Larina, Nikolai Bukharin's wife, or possibly Cathy Porter's biography of Alexandra Kollantai that I picked up from Oxfam this week), but am suffering from a cold and so unable to muster the energy just now. Also in the pipeline for putting up on this blog are my thoughts on the relationship between 'Marxism and Anarchism', but I may wait until I have read Ian Birchall's reply to Paul Blackledge's article on that subject in the recent ISJ has appeared. If readers have any order of preference for these forthcoming posts then feel free to let me know.

Still, while I am here, I will link to the latest Charlie Brooker piece, if only because it notes astutely that the 'haunted elephant' Gordon Brown has 'slowly come to resemble a lumbering, doomy Mr Snuffaluffagus with all the carefree joie de vivre of the Kursk submarine disaster.' Which is true.

On David Cameron, Brooker is also astute. 'He's a replicant; an Auton; a humanoid; a piece of adaptive software that's learned to appeal to your likes and dislikes – "customers who bought Tony Blair also bought the following"...'

This is important information to bear in mind, not least because both Brown and Cameron have tried to make the forthcoming British general election all about their 'character' and 'personality' as much as matters of policy, and the two politicians 'characters' and 'personalities' are going to be even harder to avoid than usual because of the American style TV debates between the main party leaders we are all going to be subjected to.

Brooker has also penned an amusing article about passwords recently, while the two other random articles I came across recently was a polemic about the film Avatar by the comedian Slavoj Zizek, and a critical analysis of family history by the eminent Marxist philosopher Jeremy Hardy.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Three protests for Londoners


The EDL is marching to welcome the anti-Muslim Dutch political leader, Geert Wilders, who is visting Parliament. Wilders' exteme racism led to an earlier government ban on him entering Britain. The emergency protest, which has been called by Unite Against Fascism, and is supported by many organisations, assembles at 11am outside Parliament (DETAILS: http://bit.ly/cAsu6T ) .

A short walk from Parliament is the QEII Conference Centre, where Stop the War will hold its protest from 8.30am to 10.30am, as Gordon Brown's gives evidence to the Chilcot Committee (DETAILS: http://bit.ly/14uRwZ ).

PICKET OF JOE GLENTON'S COURT MARTIAL HEARING The picket of the court when Joe Glenton will be sentenced for refusing to fight in Afghanistan, will take place at 9.30am. (DETAILS: http://bit.ly/41D2DP ).

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Michael Foot (1913-2010)

Former Labour leader Michael Foot has died. He was as Tony Benn notes, a 'giant of the labour movement' in twentieth-century Britain, but one whose life - despite moments of heroism and intellectual courage - sadly only too clearly also revealed much about the futility and bankruptcy of dedicating oneself to what the Marxist Ralph Miliband called 'parliamentary socialism'. In his last published interview, however, it is nice to note that he thought his 'happiest moment' in all his years of activism came in 2003 with the massive Stop the War demonstration against the criminal and disastrous Iraq war, a war waged by those in New Labour now so fulsomely paying him their obsequious respects. I also like this quote of his about Marxism:

'In my opinion, Marxism is a great creed of human liberation. It is the creed which says that when all other empires fade and vanish, our business is to enlarge the empire of the human mind.'

Edited to add:
Tristram Hunt on Michael Foot
Homo Ludens on Michael Foot

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

George Bernard Shaw on Communism and 'the common'

’Most people will tell you that Communism is known in this country [Britain] only as a visionary project advocated by a handful of admirable cranks. Then they will stroll off across the common bridge, across the common embankment, by the light of the common street lamp shining alike on the just and the unjust, up the common street, and into the common Trafalgar Square, where on the smallest hint on their part that Communism is to be tolerated for an instant in a civilized country, they will be handily bludgeoned by the common policeman, and hauled off to the common gaol.’

George Bernard Shaw, "The Impossibility of Anarchism", a talk from 1891, published in Socialism and Individualism, 1911, p.42 - quoted here

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