Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, August 30, 2010

New book on Malcolm X

Malcolm X: Visits Abroad April 1964-February 1965
By Marika Sherwood

Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) after a troubled childhood and imprisonment, became a Muslim on his release in 1952. A gifted speaker he became the major preacher and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam, indicting white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against African Americans. But tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to Malcolm X's resignation in March 1964. He now made the pilgrimage to Mecca, became a Sunni Muslim and disavowed racism. While he had crisscrossed the USA many times for the NOI, Malcolm now travlled widely in the Middle East and throughout Africa, and also paid a number of visits to England and France, addressing Muslim, student and political organizations.
An erudite man of great charisma and intelligence, he was a national and international figure when he was assassinated in New York on 21 February 1965.
This book is an introduction to Malcolm's travels in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, taken from his travel Notebooks, autobiography, FBI papers and local newspapers.

ISBN: 978-0-9519720
Special sale price £5
Email Savannah Press: savannah@phonecoop.coop.

Marika Sherwood will be launching her fascinating book - which among other things has details of Malcolm's visits to not just the London School of Economics and Oxford University but also Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester - at a Black and Asian Studies Association seminar on Tuesday, September 14 (room G37) at 6pm, Senate House, University of London, Russell Square, London WC1. Everyone is welcome - for more info see here.

Labels: , , , , ,

Selma James on the Black Jacobins

It took an earthquake whose destructive power was enhanced by dire poverty to rekindle interest in Haiti. Many who want to know who Haitians are seem to have turned to CLR James’ classic text, The Black Jacobins, a history of the revolution the slaves made.

Seizing on the revolution in France, they took their freedom and got revolutionary Paris to ratify it. But as the revolution’s power in France waned, to prevent slavery’s return they had to defeat the armies of Spain and Britain as well as France’s Napoleon and, amazingly, they did. In 1804 the independent republic of Haiti was born.

Black Jacobins was published in 1938 as a contribution to the movement for colonial emancipation — for Africa first of all, when few considered this possible. By 1963 it had been out of print for years but the exploding anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements had created a new market for it. Later books updating information on Haiti’s revolution have not challenged its classic status. It’s worth asking why.

First, James takes sides uncompromisingly with the slaves. While he has all the time in the world for anti-racist whites who loved Toussaint and the revolution, his point of reference is the struggle of those who were wresting themselves back from being the possession of others. The book recounts their courage, imagination and determination. But James doesn’t glamorise: ‘The slaves destroyed tirelessly. . . . And if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them.’

Nor does he shield us from the terrorism and sadism of the masters. But the catalogue of tortures does more than torture the reader; it deepens our appreciation of the former slaves’ power to endure and overcome. Despite death and destruction, the slaves are never helpless victims. This may explain why strugglers from the Caribbean and even South Africa told the author that at low points in their movements Black Jacobins had helped sustain them. This quality is what makes the book thrilling and inspiring — we are learning from the Haitians’ determination to be free what being human is about.

Second, Toussaint L’Ouverture possessed all the skills of leadership that the revolution needed. An uneducated, middle-aged West Indian when it began, he was soon able to handle sophisticated European diplomats and politicians who foolishly thought they could manipulate him because he was black and had been a slave.

James liked to say that while the official claim is that Lincoln freed the slaves, it was in fact the slaves who had freed Lincoln — from his limitations and the conservative restraints of office. Here James says that ‘. . . Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.’ Then he adds: ‘And even that is not the whole truth.’

In other words, while the movement chooses, creates and develops its leadership, historians are unlikely to pin that process down, whatever they surmise from events. What we can be sure of, however, is that the great leader is never a ‘self-made man,’ but a product of his individual talents and skills (and weaknesses) shaped by the movement he leads in the course of great upheavals. The Haitian Jacobins created Toussaint and he led them to where they had the will and determination to go.

This is still groundbreaking today, considering that there are parties and organisations, large and small, which claim that their leadership is crucial for a revolution’s success. There are also those who believe leadership is unnecessary and it would hold the movement back. In Haiti the slaves made the revolution, and Toussaint, one of them, played a vital role in their winning.

Third, James tells us who many of these revolutionary slaves were. They were not proletarians,

‘But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organised mass movement.’

This is relevant to the problem of development which the book poses: what are non-industrial people to do after the revolution? The movement has struggled with this question for generations. Toussaint relied on the plantation system of the former masters who claimed to personify ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’; they ultimately captured and killed him. The ex-slaves would not have it. They wanted their own plots of land, and the end of the plantation – an early form of forced collectivisation.

Lenin finally (1923) proposed that the State encourage co-operatives which, independent of the party, would dominate the economy. Gandhi insisted that Indians must hold on to the cotton industry and its village way of life against all odds. Nyerere proposed ujamaa or African socialism for Tanzanians, and with the momentum of the independence movement, people made extraordinary strides (an untold story). China has more to tell us; and some Indigenous Latin Americans are gaining the power to say what they propose.

We know that Haiti went further than the movements elsewhere: it was decades before others abolished slavery. Haiti, so far ahead, was vulnerable to the imperial powers which it had infuriated by its revolutionary impertinence.

Now, despite often racist reporting of events there, we are learning how the present Black Jacobins have been organising and how their struggle has continued. President Aristide, whom they elected by 92% of the vote, was twice taken from them by an alliance of the US and the local elite. They demand his return. The least we can do is support that demand.

Selma James, Black Jacobins past and present - for more on CLR James's majestic work see here.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kick over this statue

The legendary 1980s band The Redskins once had a hit of sorts with a song entitled 'Kick Over the Statues' - not a bad sentiment, particularly in a country like Britain where one does not have to look too far for statues honouring various bloodsoaked ruling class 'heroes' - as chronicled by the late Colin Gill and Leon Kuhn in their marvellous little book Topple the Mighty.

It is therefore encouraging to see that a campaign has sprung up in the North East Welsh town of Denbigh against plans to build any new sculpture to pay tribute to a local ruling class 'hero', a particularly brutal imperialist adventurer HM Stanley, of 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' fame and a central figure in the late nineteenth century European 'scramble for Africa'. As the campaigners letter of protest notes:

'We call on the people of Denbigh not to erect any statue to 'honour' the imperialist HM Stanley. A statue would convey uncritical approval and celebration of all aspects of Stanley - something not possible for such a controversial figure today. It is wrong to romanticise the African "adventures" of Victorian era imperialists. The racist ideas of the day led to hundreds of thousands of Africans being killed or mistreated - Europeans believing that their supremacy entitled them to confiscate land and exploit natives and resources.'

The nineteenth century diarist, W.S. Blunt, once recorded the following note after reading Stanley's autobiography, which gives some indication as to why Stanley became such a racist barbarian after arriving in Africa:

'Stanley, before going to Africa, though ill-bred and ill-educated, was a decent working man with a modest opinion of himself and a good heart, but the position he found himself in in Africa filled him with the usual idea of being the representative of a superior race, with right of command over the people of the country he was travelling through, and little by little he got into the way of shooting them if they did not obey his orders, or provide him with food. All of his later writing is an attempt to show that he had a high motive in excuse for these violences, the cause of Christianity, civilisation and the rest, till he became a contemptible humbug.'

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Racist thugs not welcome in Bradford

Join the 'We Are Bradford manifestation of unity against the racist EDL on Saturday 28 August
Assemble 12 noon at Exchange Square, Drake Street, Bradford city centre
Go to Unite Against Fascism for more details.


Statement of Support for Right to Work Demonstration at Tory conference

We wish to state our outright opposition to the current policy of austerity being pursued by the current coalition government. David Cameron and Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander, are cutting public services, forcing up the retirement age, freezing pay, targeting benefits, reducing pensions, reducing access to higher education and enforcing further privatisation in the NHS and our schools.

Far from us “all being in it together” Britain is scarred by poverty and inequality levels which are among the highest in Western Europe. In contrast the City of London and the corporate board rooms continue with their bonus culture and obscene pay and financial awards. Britain is the seventh wealthiest society in the world but has the sixth worst inequality among OECD countries

The majority will pay for the largesse of the few and for the casino economics of the 2000’s. The budget deficit is not “our” debt. It is the result of bailing out the bankers. If the money needs to be recouped there are alternatives but these are shunned in a pan-European race to deflation and austerity.

Accordingly we wish to state our support for the demonstration initiated by the Right to Work Campaign outside the Tory Party conference in Birmingham on Sunday 3 October. This has already been backed by three national trade unions (the PCS, NUJ and UCU), the Labour Representation Committee and a number of local trade union and campaigning organisations.

Diane Abbott MP,
Chris Bambery, Secretary Right to Work campaign,
Tony Benn,
Paul Brandon, Chair Right to Work Campaign,
Jeremy Corbyn MP,
Katy Clark MP,
Bob Holman,
Caroline Lucas MP,
John McDonnell MP,
China Mieville,
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary PCS,
Elaine Smith MSP.

To add your name and details (position if any, email address, postal address- not to made public) go to here


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remembering Leon Trotsky

Seventy years ago this week the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was murdered. In 1965, in 'Some Memories of Trotsky', one of Trotsky's secretaries from 1937-38 in Mexico at a time when Stalinist terror was in full swing, the Russian born Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya recollected her thoughts, and I will reprint them below

Because of the heroism of the former Russian Commissar of War, the rigors of exile when Stalin won the struggle for power, and the tragedy of Trotsky's assassination at the hands of a GPU assassin, much that has been written about Trotsky's later years has a subjective air about it. His last years seem to have provided a field day for psychological approaches even on the part of political analysts. Recently, a novel has been published -- and a TV "special" based on it -- which imputes to Trotsky a change in political outlook which allegedly he was unwilling to admit. Only people who have no thoughts of their own can so misconstrue the thoughts of others.

Leon Trotsky at no time let the subjective factor enter into any of his anaIyses of objective situations. Quite the contrary.

I remember one incident during the Moscow Trials, when "the General Staff of the Revolution" was killed off by Stalin, and Trotsky himself was accused of the most heinous crimes. The Russian bureaucracy had the state power -- and the Lubianka; the money, the brutality, the total disregard for history and, most of all, the time -- a whole decade -- in which to fabricate the greatest frame-up in all history.

The Mexican press would hold open two columns of space for Trotsky to answer the charges levelled against him at the Moscow Trials in 1937-38. He had only a couple of hours in which to write his answers -- and that only by virtue of the fact that President Cardenas intervened on his behalf and asked the press to inform Trotsky of the charges as they came in on the teletype. Trotsky never knew what the accusations would be, nor what the year was in which he was alleged to have done this or that crime. Moreover, the Trials had come at a time of the greatest personal grief in the Trotsky family, for the long arm of the GPU had reached out to kill the only living son of Trotsky, Leon Sedov. It was a predetermined, insidiously planned feat of a master intriguant, calculated to give Trotsky the blow that they hoped would render him incapable of answering the accusation against himself, that they knew would come in two short weeks.

Indeed, the death of Leon Sedov inflicted the deepest wound, and in a most vulnerable spot. Lev Davidovich and Natalia Ivanovna Trotsky locked themselves into their room and would see no one. For a whole week they did not come out of their room, and only one person was permitted in -- the one who brought them the mail, and food of which they partook little.

Those were dismal days for the whole secretarial staff. We did not see either L.D. or Natalia. We did not know how they fared, and feared the consequences of the tragedy upon them. We moved typewriters, the telephone, and even doorbells to the guardhouse, out of sound of their room. Their part of the house became deathly quiet. There was an oppressive air, as if the whole mountain chain of Mexico was pressing down upon this one house.

The blow was the harder not only because Leon Sedov had been their only remaining living child, but also because he had been Trotsky's closest literary and political collaborator. When Trotsky was interned in Norway, gagged, not permitted to answer the charges leveled against him in the first Moscow Trials (August 1936), Sedov had penned Le Livre Rouge, which, by brilliantly exposing the Moscow falsifiers, dealt an irreparable blow to the prestige of the GPU.

In the dark days after the tragic news had reached us, when Lev Davidovich and Natalia Ivanovna were closeted in their room, he wrote the story of their son's brief life. It was the first time since pre-revolutionary days that Trotsky had written by hand.

On the eighth day, Leon Trotsky emerged from his room. I was petrified at the sight of him. The neat, meticulous Leon Trotsky had not shaved for a whole week. His face was deeply lined. His eyes were swollen from too much crying. Without uttering a word, he handed me the handwritten manuscript, Leon Sedov, Son, Friend, Fighter, which contained some of Trotsky's most poignant writing. "I told Natalia of the death of our son," read one passage, "in the same month of February in which, 32 years ago, she brought to me in jail the news of his birth. Thus ended for us the day of February 16, the blackest day in our personal lives....Together with our boy has died everything that still remained young within us...."

But even this great grief did not dim Trotsky's ardor for the revolutionary cause. The pamphlet was dedicated "to the proletarian youth." If the GPU had counted on this blow to disable him, they counted on the wrong man.

The following morning, the papers carried the announcement of the Third Moscow Trials (March 1938). Trotsky labored late into the night. One day he was up at 7 a.m. and wrote until midnight. The next day he arose at 8 a.m. and worked straight through to 3 a.m. the following morning. The last day of the week he did not go to sleep until five in the morning. He drove himself harder than any of his staff.

"The Old Man," as we called him affectionately, wrote an average of 2,000 words a day. He gave statements to the NANA, the UP, AP, Havas Agence [Agence France-Presse], France, the London Daily Express, and the Mexican newspapers. His declarations were also issued in the Russian and German languages. The material was dictated in Russian. While I transcribed the dictation, the other secretaries checked every date, name and place mentioned at the trials. Trotsky demanded meticulous, objective research work; the accusers had to be turned into the accused.

Yet so unused to subjectivism was this revolutionary that he was deeply incensed when the daily press printed "rumors" that Stalin had, at no time, been a revolutionist, but had always been "agent of the Tsar" and was now "wreaking vengeance." When I brought him the newspapers which carried this explanation of the blood purge resulting from the Moscow Trials, Trotsky exclaimed, "But Stalin was a revolutionist!"

"Wait a moment," he called to me as I was leaving the room, "We'll add a postscript to today's article." Here is what he dictated:

"The news has been widely spread through the press, to the effect that Stalin allegedly was an agent provocateur during Tsarism, and that he is now avenging himself upon his old enemies. I place no trust whatsoever in this gossip. From his youth Stalin was a revolutionist. All the facts about his life bear witness to this. To reconstruct his biography ex post facto means to ape the present reactionary bureaucracy."

Again, when the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky had brought in the verdict: Not Guilty, and a press conference was called, Trotsky was asked: "Do not pessimistic conclusions in regards to socialism flow from the Moscow Trials and the verdict of the Commission?" Trotsky replied:

"No. I do not see any basis for pessimism. It is necessary to take history as it is. Humanity moves forward as did some pilgrims: two steps ahead, one step back. During the time of the backward movement, all seems lost to skeptics and pessimists. But this is an error of historical vision. Nothing is lost. Humanity has developed from the ape to the Comintern. It will advance from the Comintern to actual socialism. The judgment of the Commission demonstrates once more that the correct idea is stronger than the most powerful police force. In this conviction lies the unshakable basis of revolutionary optimism."

Unfortunately, optimism, no more than subjectivism, is at the root of political attitudes. It is theory -- the philosophical premise for it -- which is decisive. Because his theory -- that Russia still remained a workers' state, "though degenerate," and must be "defended" when World War II broke soon after the Hitler-Stalin Pact was concluded -- appeared to me to be at variance with both the reality of state capitalism in Russia and its total perversion of the Humanism of Marxism as a theory of liberation, I broke with Trotsky. My break from Trotsky's politics in no way changed my attitude toward him as one of the greatest revolutionists of our age, one who, with Lenin, led the great October Revolution. He remains "the man of October."

Labels: ,

Ralph Miliband on the perils of 'humanitarian intervention' in Afghanistan

'...Almost by definition, a regime imposed upon a hostile population by foreign arms (or for that matter without the help of foreign arms) will be strongly repressive: opposition must be put down, civil rights must be denied, and civic life must be severely controlled, and thereby impoverished. This also deeply affects economic life and activity...The result is resistance or at best indifference, inefficiency and corruption. Poor performance and non-cooperation aggravate economic difficulties; and these in turn enhance popular dissatisfaction.

In this perspective, the notion that these regimes can eventually come to enjoy a large and growing measure of popular support must appear illusory. For not only are they deeply marked by their dependence on foreign intervention for survival (and for the most part by their origin in foreign intervention); but also by the essential nature of the regimes which military intervention (or the threat of foreign intervention) serves to maintain. The point is that the regimes in question are not simply monopolistic and repressive from temporary necessity and transient adverse circumstances, but by their very structure...

[There] is the argument that, whatever may be said against military intervention in most cases, it is defensible in some exceptional cases, namely in the case of particularly tyrannical and murderous regimes, for instance the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda and of Pol Pot in Kampuchea...The argument is obviously attractive: one cannot but breathe a sigh of relief when an exceptionally vicious tyranny is overthrown. But attractive though the argument is, it is also dangerous. For who is to decide, and on what criteria, that a regime has become sufficiently tyrannical to justify overthrow by military intervention? There is no good answer to this sort of question; and acceptance of the legitimacy of military intervention on the ground of the exceptionally tyrannical nature of a regime opens the way to even more military adventurism, predatoriness, conquest and subjugation than is already rife in the world today.

The rejection of military intervention on this score is not meant to claim immunity and protection for tyrannical regimes. Nor does it. For there are other forms of intervention than military ones: for instance economic pressure by way of sanctions, boycott and even blockade. Tyrannical regimes make opposition extremely difficult: but they do not make it impossible. And the point is to help internal opposition rather than engage in military ‘substitutism’...

’Security’ is perhaps the reason most commonly invoked to justify military intervention...In considering this argument, much confusion may be avoided if a clear distinction is made between two essentially different propositions. The first of these is that it is useful and desirable for any given country to have uncontentious, cooperative and friendly neighbours. This is indisputable. The second proposition is that the requirements of security do not only make it useful and desirable for this or that country to have such neighbours, but essential, to the point, where possible, of justifying military intervention when the requirements threaten to be no longer met. I think that this second proposition is dangerous and unacceptable from a socialist standpoint, and that it rests on short-sighted and mistaken calculations...

In any case, security by virtue of occupation, and the maintenance of power of a puppet regime must be set against a number of contrary considerations. One of these is the fierce hostility which military intervention generates and the nationalist upsurge it produces. ‘Security’ is here turned into a mockery by the massive unpopularity of the occupier and his puppet government; and it is further degraded by the war of pacification which [the occupier has to pursue], with all its attendant horrors. What kind of security is this? It was in relation to American military strategists that C. Wright Mills coined the phrase ‘crackpot realism’...'

Ralph Miliband, 'Military Intervention and
Socialist Internationalism' (1980)

Some holiday reading for his warmongering son David and David's brother Ed perhaps?

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scott McLemee remembers Tony Judt

The historian Tony Judt, who died over the weekend, got entered into my registry not quite 20 years ago, when he started writing for The New York Review of Books and other publications. Some of his work was stimulating and some of it was annoying. His books on the European Left proved to be both. Judt was dismissive of questions and figures I thought were important, or else ignored them entirely. Reading Judt on Marxism involved a certain amount of intracranial yelling. As C.L.R. James once said about T.S. Eliot, he was someone I read in order to remind me of what I do not think...

Full article, which goes onto salute Judt's courage and commitment to fulfilling the role of the public intellectual against overwhelming odds to the end, here.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 06, 2010

Priyamvada Gopal on modernity, women and Afghanistan

The real effects of the Nato occupation, including the worsening of many women's lives under the lethally violent combination of old patriarchal feudalism and new corporate militarism are rarely discussed. The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change. The truth is that the US and allied regimes do not have anything substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine they have unleashed.

And how could they? In the affluent west itself, modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits. Other ideas once associated with modernity – social justice, economic fairness, peace, all of which would enfranchise Afghan women – have been relegated to the past in the name of progress. This bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people's modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.

Full article here

Labels: , , , ,

Three Dates for Activists Diaries

1) Saturday 28 August - Celebrate and Defend Multicultural Bradford from the racist English Defence League - protest called by Bradford Unite Against Fascism. This needs to be huge. Bradford has a proud history of anti-fascism, but the decision of the official local Labour movement there to leave the defence of the city from racists and fascists to the state, as though anti-fascism was a struggle best waged through state bans of 'extremists' or left to some sort of police action on the day, is sorely mistaken as a strategy. As the former general secretary of NATFHE Paul Mackney notes, 'We need imaginative tactics and strategy to deal with the EDL, but what do we do if the march is not banned or contained and these latter-day brownshirt hooligans go on the rampage through vulnerable areas?' That cannot be allowed to happen - Non Pasaran!

2) Sunday 3 October Right to Work Campaign Demonstration at Tory Party conference, Birmingham - Tell David Cameron to stuff his cuts. 'Our defence must be built on generalised strike action and community resistance' - Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary. 'This government of millionaires says "we're all in it together" and "there is no alternative". But, for the wealthy, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have already been restored to pre-crash levels' - Tony Benn.

3) Saturday 6 November - 'No to racism – No to Islamophobia’ National Demonstration in London.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 02, 2010

Animating the Crisis of Capitalism

Courtsey of RSA Animate, a recent lecture by Marxist economist David Harvey is brought to life - there are also lectures by Zizek and others. For an excellent recent analysis of the latest stage of the crisis by Alex Callincos, see here

Labels: , ,