Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Marxism 2010 videos online

The Marxism conference videos are well worth a look... as is the new Socialist Review, which among other things celebrates the 'socialist diamond jubillee' of the formation of the Socialist Review Group in 1950.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Libraries Gave Us Power

'Culture is the conjunction of the skills and knowledge of historical mankind, the mankind of nations and classes. Knowledge grows out of the activities of man, out of his struggle with the forces of nature; knowledge serves to improve these activities, to spread the methods of combining each obstacle, and to increase the power of man. If we assess the meaning of culture in this way we shall grasp more easily the meaning of Leninism. For Leninism, too, is knowledge and skills - and also, not knowledge for its own sake but knowledge for skills. In this sense, although not only in this one, Leninism represents the product and consummation of all of man's previous culture. Leninism is the knowledge and ability to turn culture, i.e. all the knowledge and skills amassed in previous centuries, to the interests of the working masses. Therein lies the essence of Leninism.'

So suggested Leon Trotsky during a remarkable speech on 'Leninism and Library Work' he gave to the First All-Union Congress of Librarians in 1924 (don't look for it online - those interested will have to dig it out in the excellent collection of Trotsky's writings - Problems of Everyday Life).

In a very readable and insightful recent interview to mark the 70th anniversary of Trotsky's murder, Tariq Ali noted that he now referred to himself as no longer a 'Trotskyist' but as a 'Trotskyish', and suggested that

'one of the big problems with Trotsky’s own evolution is that, because he was constantly being accused of not being a Leninist, he himself became a sort of semireligious Leninist; whereas he had very real and accurate criticisms of Lenin in the past. I always felt, and now I really feel it, that this was a real, real tragedy for that man. Such a powerful intellect. He must have known the mistakes they made and how these mistakes could or should have been avoided, but didn’t dare say it for fear of what his political opponents would do with it. That must have been torture for him and I think, being who he was, he was very, very aware of that.'

So for example the quote from Trotsky above - that 'Leninism represents the product and consummation of all of man's previous culture' (no small claim there for Leninism then) while in someways profound, is also a little 'semireligious'.

On the subject of 'Leninism and Library work' by the way, Trotsky was of the opinion that in Soviet Russia, 'a librarian is not an official dealing with books, but rather he is, must be, must become a cultural warrior, a Red Army soldier fighting for socialist culture' and noted that Leninism 'teaches the working class to pick out from the gigantic store of culture what is most necessary today for its social liberation and for the construction of society along new lines' and commented that 'every teacher, every worker correspondent, every liquidator of illiteracy, every librarian must understand this essence and realise it in himself, if he wishes to become not simply an official of the Soviet state, but rather a conscious worker for culture, who with book, article, and newspaper, must penetrate deeper and deeper into the minds of the masses, as a miner with a pick penetrates deeper and deeper into layers of coal.'

While we are on the subject of 'Leninism and Library work' - it would be most amiss of me were I not to remind readers of Histomat who have not already done ss that they should really go away and sign the petition to save the CLR James Library in London which is under threat from a gang of bureaucratic philistines on Hackney Council. Libraries in Britain - like many other essential public services - are under attack more broadly by the Con-Dem coalition.

Finally, this seems as an appropriate place as any to highlight a fascinating interview with the famous Marxist historian of the Mexican Revolution Adolfo Gilly - an activist in the Trotskyist movement from the 1940s onwards - in the latest New Left Review. Since not everyone will have access to this online, I will reprint a small section from the interview when Gilly was asked about early intellectual influences, and is full of fascinating references to a whole range of revolutionary literature - much of which I expect will only be able to be tracked down with the assistance of a library.

I came of age in a country [Argentina] that was not in the First World, but was not a peasant country either, which gave it a very particular form. My initial commitment to the revolutionary movement came first—books came afterwards. What I read seemed rather to confirm what my experience and intuition had already been telling me. In fact, I think this is generally the case: one is led towards rebellion by sentiments, not by thoughts. At the end of his statement to the Dewey Commission, Trotsky described being drawn to the workers’ quarters in Nikolayev at the age of eighteen by his ‘faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity’, not by Marxism. But perhaps the most crucial sentiment is that of justice—the realization that you are not in agreement with this world. There is a story that Ernst Bloch was asked by his supervisor, Georg Simmel, to provide a one-page summary of his thesis before Simmel would agree to work on it. A week later, Bloch obliged with one sentence: ‘What exists cannot be true.’ The thesis later became The Principle of Hope. It was this kind of ethical moment that was crucial for me—the discovery that there was a necessary connection between justice and truth.

I remember reading Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed when I was eighteen, but what really brought me to Trotskyism were two articles of his on Lázaro Cárdenas that analysed the post-Revolutionary Mexican government’s continual oscillations between subordination to imperialism and forwarding workers’ interests. According to Trotsky, this variation was due to the weakness of the national bourgeoisie, and to the relative power of the proletariat. In his view, cardenismo was a sui generis form of Bonapartism, attempting to raise itself ‘above classes’, and making concessions to the workers in order to secure some room for manoeuvre against foreign capital. I was very struck by the force of Trotsky’s arguments.

If I had to choose a handful of books that made a particular impression, there would be André Breton’s L’amour fou, which I read in 1949, and C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, which I read in French on a train to Bolivia in the late 1950s, as well as his study of Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. Curiously, when reading Moby Dick some fifteen years earlier I had been struck by the very same sentence from which James took his title. Melville and James are marked by the same refusal of injustice I mentioned earlier. I also found it in José María Arguedas, a Peruvian who wrote an extraordinary autobiographical novel called Los ríos profundos, and in the poetry of another Peruvian, César Vallejo. And of course it’s present in Frantz Fanon. I recall buying Les damnés de la terre in a bookshop on the via Veneto in 4 December 1961—I remember the day exactly because I read the book in one sitting, and it made a big impact on me. I discovered Gramsci around the same time, during a stay in Italy. I also read the work of Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti and the group around Quaderni rossi, and of course the writings of Rossana Rossanda, Pietro Ingrao and the Leftist tendencies inside the pci. I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.

Taken together, all of these works have in common a concern with the preoccupations of the people, based on the impulse to understand their world and what motivates them. The reasons why people rise up in revolution are not incidental, they are substantive. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky writes that the masses didn’t rise up because they were thinking of the future, but because what they were experiencing in the present was intolerable. Walter Benjamin expresses a similar thought in his theses on history. When Guha writes of the ‘autonomous domain’ of the subaltern, and of ways of conducting politics ‘below’ official politics, it comes from his experience as a communist militant in India. In a way, when I wrote on the Mexican Revolution I was concerned with the same phenomena of social life as in Guha’s work, though mine took a more elemental form. Many look at the support for Perón or Cárdenas and say, they were Peronists, or cardenistas. But the parties in question were just the epiphenomenal form taken by the desires of all these people. Parties often think they are the ones organizing and instructing the people on how to mobilize, but that’s not the case—they were the best institutional form for securing particular ends, and the impulse comes from elsewhere, from long years of suffering, from an intolerable reality.

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Some early thoughts on Ed Miliband's victory

The victory of Ed Miliband - 'the candidate of the trade union bureaucracy' as Socialist Worker put it, against his brother David, 'the candidate of the New Labour bureaucracy' is remarkable - and certainly to be celebrated as a victory over all the very worst rotten pro-capitalist pro-war reactionary elements of the Labour Party (as well as leaving a nice amount of egg on the face of one time leading Labour left-winger Dennis Skinner) . Whichever Miliband won the election would have had - and Ed now has - a very good chance of being the next Prime Minister, but clearly the majority of grassroots Labour activists understood Ed Miliband would be a better bet to rebuild the Party itself than his brother - who as a former Foreign Secretary who fervently supported the criminal and disastrous imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would hardly be ideal to try and remove the stench of corruption and clean up the stains of blood left by the Blair-Brown years.

In his speech, Ed Miliband accordingly made the following pledge:

"The Labour Party in the future must be a vehicle that doesn't just attract thousands of young people but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of young people who see us as their voice in British politics today...Today a new generation has taken charge of Labour, a new generation that understands the call of change...Today's election turns the page because a new generation has stepped forward to serve our party and in time I hope to serve our country. Today the work of the new generation begins."

I have no doubt lots of young idealistic people will indeed now rally behind a Ed Miliband led Labour Party, particularly given the growing moral and political bankrupcy of the Tory Boys currently running the Lib Dems. But whether young people who take the idea of socialism seriously should now join the Labour Party is another question - and one that for an answer people could do far worse than read the thoughts of the great Marxist Ralph Miliband - Ed's father. In 1966, Ralph Miliband, commenting on Harold Wilson, noted that 'when Mr. Wilson so unexpectedly became leader of the Labour Party, many people on the Left thought that their situation had been drastically changed, and that left-wing voices would at long last be effectively heard at the highest reaches of Labour policy-making.'

Such illusions were soon to be proved wrong - not least after Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. But for Ralph Miliband, the idea of 'parliamentary socialism' itself through the Labour Party was a flawed strategy - and socialists would be better off trying to build up a socialist alternative to the Labour Party from below:

'It is absurd to think that the men who now rule the Labour Party, and who will go on ruling it, will ever want, or would agree under pressure, to push the Labour Party in socialist directions, and to show the resolution, single-mindedness and staying-power which such reorientation would require. Carthorses should not be expected to win the Derby. To believe, against all the weight of accumulated evidence, that the Labour leaders can, for instance, be made to adopt a “socialist foreign policy” if it is presented to them in sufficiently alluring terms is pure delusion, on a par with Robert Owen’s hope that Metternich would act on the plan for a Co-operative Commonwealth of Europe which Owen presented to him at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818...It may be that the Labour leaders lack the knowledge to apply socialist policies: but what they lack even more, and irremediably, is the will.

What this amounts to is that the Labour Party is and will remain as much of a non-socialist party as it has ever been, with its leaders providing a Lib-Lab, non-socialist alternative to the Conservative Party. This does not mean that the two parties are now “the same”. They are in fact very different, in terms of the kind of people who mainly vote for each party, in terms of their membership and the aspirations of their activists. But the parliamentary leaders of the Labour Party (and the point applies, though to a lesser degree to the leaders of the Conservative Party) have always been able to attenuate the political expression of these differences to the point where they do not, in concrete terms, endanger the “neo-capitalist” framework which both party leaderships now accept as permanent.

However, even this common acceptance of “neo-capitalism” as permanent does not eliminate all differences between the two party leaderships; there remains plenty of room for political divergence and controversy over economic and social policy. Even the task of strengthening British capitalism, to which the Labour leaders are dedicated, is not one that can be pursued, particularly by a Labour Government, without arousing hostility on the part of many interests well represented in the Conservative Party.

This reproduces, though at a different level, a situation which endured for the best part of the nineteenth century as between the Tory and Liberal parties. These parties were not by any means “the same”; but, as Lord Balfour noted in a famous Introduction to Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, their “alternating Cabinets, though belonging to different Parties ... never differed about the foundations of society”. It was at one time thought that, with the emergence of the Labour Party as the main opposition, the confrontation had assumed an altogether different character and that what now divided the parties did concern “the foundations of society”.

It may be difficult for socialists inside the Labour Party to accept that this was a mistaken interpretation, and that there is no genuine likelihood of it ever coming to correspond to reality. It is the more difficult to accept this in that the Labour Party remains the “party of the working class”, and that there is, in this sense, no serious alternative to it at present. This, of course, has always been the central dilemma of British Socialism, and it is not a dilemma which is likely to be soon resolved. But the necessary first step in that direction is to take a realistic view of the Labour Party, of what it can and of what it cannot be expected to do. For it is only on the basis of such a view that socialists can begin to discuss their most important task of all, which is the creation of an authentic socialist movement in Britain.

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Another random conversation

Back in 2007, I recorded a random conversation I had on my doorstep with some Mormons. This is a random conversation I had this morning in the street with an oddly smiley man in his 40s who approached me with leaflets early on my way to work.

[Man]: Good morning, would you like to take one of our leaflets?

[Me, glancing briefly at the oddly familiar leaflet - a landscape scene attempting to evoke nature's full richness, with children playing on green grass in front of a moose - yes, a moose - a pastoral idyll very far removed from the busy bustling urban modern city centre in which we were currently located]: Er... are you a Jehovah's Witness?

[Man]: Yes, that's right - have you heard about us?

[Me, wondering whether there is anyone who has not heard of Jehovah's Witnesses]: Yes.

[Man]: Would you like one of our leaflets then?

[Me, after a pause]: Well, I'm a Marxist, so I think I am unlikely to be converted by you, just as I'm unlikely to convert you...

[Man, moving off]: Well, at least we can have a laugh about it...

I think overall this counts as a score draw - I didn't take his leaflet but by admitting I was unlikely to 'convert' him, I guess I suggested I was somehow not altogether confident ideologically. In fact I am sure I could have taken him on in argument well enough, but it was early morning, I hadn't had a coffee, and frankly was unprepared to have a long argument - where as he was armed with leaflets and ready to go. The fact he thought this conversation counted as 'a laugh' was however rather sad in some ways. I would say he needs to 'get out more', but then, getting out and about is the one thing Jehovah's Witnesses are not exactly shy about doing...


Alex Callinicos on Vince Cable

Given the Cost-cutting Con-Dem Coalition of Cutters are, generally speaking, in the words of The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker, 'the most ideologically dry bastards since Hayek sandpapered a freeze-dried camel's hump', Business Secretary Vince Cable's populist attack on 'City spivs' and even 'capitalism' created a bit of a stir this week. However, those wanting clarification about the exact contradictary nature of Cable, capital and the coalition could do no better than read Alex Callinicos, who notes his speech 'falls into a long tradition of politicians trying to distance themselves from what [the then Tory Prime Minister] Ted Heath denounced in 1973 as the "unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism"'.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

ISJ Conference: Imperialism and Austerity

International Socialism journal presents a one day conference on the twin crises of the liberal world — the economic crisis and the crisis of imperialism.

Saturday 25 September, Glasgow
Western Infirmary Lecture Theatre, Glasgow University, G12 8QQ

9.30am - 5pm
Tickets £10 waged/£5 unwaged.
Contact Gregor on 07738 334724 for more details.
For transport information, call Ben: 07805 590391.


Chris Bambery (author, A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci, ISJ editorial board).

Alex Callinicos (Author, Bonfire of Illusions, Imperialism and Global Political Economy and editor of International Socialism).

Joseph Choonara (author, Unravelling Capitalism, ISJ editorial board).

Panos Garganas (editor of the Greek newspaper Workers' Solidarity).

Mike Gonzalez (author, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, A Rebel's Guide to Marx, ISJ editorial board).

Jane Hardy (author, Poland's New Capitalism, ISJ editorial board).

Marnie Holborow (author, The Politics of English).

Boris Kagarlitsky (author, The Politics of Empire, The Twilight of Globalisation).

Richard Seymour (author, The Liberal Defence of Murder, The Meaning of David Cameron, ISJ editorial board).


The twin crises of the neoliberal world.
Imperialism contained? Russia and Latin America.
Racism, the far right and the crisis.
Finance humbled?
The struggle against austerity in Europe.

On the subject of the latter, check out material on the 'Eurozone Between Austerity and Default' here, while Stathis Kouvelakis‏ has an article on 'The Greek Laboratory: Shock Doctrine and Popular Resistance' in Monthly Review's MRzine.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Reinstate the Right the Work Campaign's Right to March on Tory conference

Statement from the Right to Work Campaign about the proposed march past Tory conference on 3 October:

“We are alarmed to be informed that, despite earlier agreements with the Police and Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police are attempting to stop the trade union demonstration against public service cuts from marching past the Conservative Party conference at the ICC on Sunday 3rd October

The march has been initiated by the Right to Work Campaign and is 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.

We feel that this is a violation of the right to freedom of speech and our rights to protest peacefully against the Government. Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society and people have taken their opposition to Government actions to their conferences for decades. The decision of the West Midlands Police takes that right away. We note that Centenary Square will not be a “sterile zone” and that people will be able to access the area freely. By not allowing the Right to Work campaign to march past the International Convention Centre we are concerned that West Midlands Police is attempting to make political decisions about how visible protests against the cuts can be and are denying a basic democratic right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

We believe that West Midlands Police should permit the demonstrators to march past the Conservative Party conference on Sunday 3rd October.”

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

When Labour leaders er, gave a lead to labour

Dear Comrades,

Victims of Capitalism

All around you there are masses of people, including perhaps friends, neighbours and even your own families, who are plunged in poverty, forced to dwell in slums, driven down by unemployment — vainly struggling under the pressure of economic and social insecurity to make life worth while, for however much they sacrifice and however carefully they contrive, they are unable to escape from these terrible conditions.

They must endure or go under.

There is something wrong — radically wrong. Men are not rich or poor, employed or unemployed, hungry or satisfied, at peace or at war, happy or miserable, by God's decree.

These are inequalities and evils that are inherent in the system under which we live — a system which puts profit and private property before the economic security and well-being of the people.

Nature is bounteous in her gifts to mankind. Modern science and constantly improving machinery and methods enable wealth to be produced in far greater abundance than was ever dreamed of in days that are gone.

There would be enough for all and to spare if wealth were properly distributed and used.

Capitalism's Criminal Waste

But the world as we know it is at once a vast storehouse abounding with plenty and a vast poor-house overcrowded with distressed humanity.

Crops are burnt and fish is thrown back into the sea because it does not pay to sell them. And millions go hungry because they cannot buy.

These things are wrong; they are stupid and criminal. No one but a fool would try to defend or justify them. But they go on only because the people like you and others allow them to go on. The Labour Party wants to put them right. The Labour Party will put them right once the nation gives it power. It is going to build a sane Society within which there will be work, security and opportunity for all in an efficiently organized and well-directed State.

George Lansbury [then leader of the British Labour Party], 'An Appeal on Behalf of the Labour Party League of Youth', 1933.

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Tom Behan - Revolutionary Historian

Though I did not really know Tom Behan, (and indeed one of my main memories of him was a meeting I think he one year at Marxism on 'A Marxist analysis of the Mafia' - which in about an hour certainly wiped away my sentimental sense of the 'rustic chivalry' and glamour about such organisations that I had imbibed from countless hours watching The Godfather trilogy and other mafia films - along with not living in a country where such organisations operated), it was still a tremendous shock to read the following email from the SWP about 'Tom Behan (1957-2010)':

'It is with great sadness that I have to inform comrades that Tom Behan died on Monday. Tom was a member of the party for over 30 years. He played an invaluable role in the protests in Genoa and he was responsible for bringing over Carlo Guiliani’s mother to speak at numerous political events in Britain. His writings on Italy – especially on Mussolini, the Resistance Movement and the Mafia are just wonderful and should be read by everyone. He will be greatly missed. An obituary for Tom will be in next week’s Socialist Worker.'

By way of the smallest possible tribute, I will transcribe a small section from the introduction of one of his last books about The Italian Resistance to fascism during the Second World War - which reminds us that democracy and liberation from tyranny and dictorships does not come from on high, via B-52 bombers, but from below, from mass movements and the mass collective action of millions of people. This is Tom Behan on 'The Meaning of the Resistance']:

In essence the Resistance is about democracy, direct democracy. And perhaps the most subversive idea of the entire movement was that you can defeat a far more powerful enemy - in this case by successfully conducting a campaign of guerrilla warfare. When the Italian government signed an armistice and collapsed in September 1943, the Nazis brought large numbers over the Alps in a great rush to occupy the country, and to block the Allies, who were already in the South. The idea that the most ruthless and efficient fighting machine in the world could be brought to a standstill seemed like a joke back then - yet less than two years later German Field Marshals were forced to surrender to ordinary communist industrial workers.

The story of the Italian Resistance movement is the story of how ordinary people (a people who are often racially stereotyped as being cowardly), who had lived under a dictatorship for 20 years, played a key role in ending a system which seemed set in stone, totally unbeatable. It is the story of how a society which seemed extremely stable and controlled, destined to continue in the same way forever, suddenly exploded from below with mass activity, such that for a brief period everything seemed possible.

How could such an organisation grow so quickly? First of all, the situation was so dire that many people felt they had nothing else left to lose. A historian hostile to the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 [Thomas Carlyle] once captured the common causes of so many huge social upheavals, which were also applicable to Italy during the Second World War: 'Hunger and nakedness, and nightmare oppression lying heavy on twenty-five million hearts; this, not the wounded vanities or contradicted philosophies of philosophical advocates, rich shopkeepers, rural noblesse, was the prime mover in the French Revolution; as the like will be in all such revolutions, in all countries.'

By 1942 many Italian cities were being bombed nightly by the Allies, jobs were becoming scarce, as was food. A young worker in Milan recalled: 'Parents' body weight fell to 40-50 kilos, so they could give what little they had to their children. You reached the point that out of dying of hunger or dying from a bullet - it was better to die from a bullet.' Similarly, many families had loved ones fighting in Mussolini's armies who had either been killed, wounded or captured. For many conscript soldiers and their families, the idea of fighting alongside the invading Nazis, or dying for Mussolini's puppet regime created in September 1943 by the Germans, was simply never taken seriously.

People behaved in unusual ways: who would expect a Vice Chancellor in a speech to first-year university students to invite them to take up arms against the government? Well, it happened at Padua university in 1943.

The Resistance is important not just because it was a military movement which involved much of society, but because it was also a political movement, a movement for democracy against fascist dictatorship. Very few of the participants ever visualised their future in terms of the kind of stale parliamentary systems we know today; most were fighting for much more radical and participatory forms of democracy. Be that as it may, one simply cannot understand modern Italian society and politics without understanding the Resistance. Modern Italian democracy comes directly from the Resistance, it comes from below.

This is why it is has been so popular for many Italians - it was a war fought by volunteers. All Resistance fighters made their own personal decision that it was right to risk their own lives for a cause - a very different decision from that of someone joining an army because they receive their call-up papers through the letter box.
Tom Behan 'The Meaning of the [Italian] Resistance'

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Tony Blair's "10 lessons for peace-making"

From Tony Blair's A Journey:

1. Establish a framework of agreed principles.
2. Focus relentlessly on achieving your goals.
3. Accept that "small things can be big things".
4. Be creative.
5. Give the parties outside help.
6. Accept that peace is "a process, not an event".
7. Be prepared for disruption.
8. Recognise that leadership matters.
9. Accept that external circumstances must work in favour of peace, not against it.
10. Never give up.

I like the bit about being 'creative' - though presumably this is critical if anyone is going to accept the legitimacy of a war criminal giving lessons on matters of 'peace-making' in the first place...I guess we should all just be grateful that Blair hasn't got round to setting up the 'Tony Blair Centre for Peace Studies'...yet.

Protest at Blair's Memoir Launch, 12.30pm, 8 September, Waterstones, Piccadilly London.

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