Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Ray Challinor - revolutionary historian

One of my most inspiring experiences as a historian came when I had the honour and privilege of spending a day in the company of Ray Challinor a few years ago - and so it was particularly dispiriting to hear the sad news that he passed away yesterday. Ray was a member of the Socialist Review group (forerunner to the International Socialists/SWP) and was a truly outstanding and in many ways ingenious Marxist historian of the British working class movement, particularly in the North East of England. All of his many writings deserve reading and thinking about - one of my favourite short pieces by him The Red Mole of History on revolutions should give people a taste of his style and is particularly relevant given current events across the Arab world. Ray had his idiosyncracies and eccentricities, but as he himself wrote about the 'parliamentarian, poet and lion-tamer' John S. Clarke, 'in his writings he understood the need to maintain the reader's interest in order to get over his message. Whatever he was doing, he always strived to amuse and entertain as he instructed...to him, socialism must have a human face - or it was nothing'. The same was as true of Ray as it was of John S. Clarke, and such humanism together with the clear understanding of class politics that pervade all Challinor's writings on revolutionary history meant that his works will stand the test of time, above all his work on the Socialist Labour Party, 'The Origins of British Bolshevism', while all those who were amused, entertained and instructed by him over the years will stand forever in his debt. I'll add tributes/obits etc here are they appear. RIP Ray.
Raymond Challinor Internet Archive
Appreciation by John Charlton

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Interview with Egyptian comrade

Hossam el-Hamalawy interviewed Al-Jazeera also at here: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/
- down with Mubarak - solidarity with the Egyptian protesters - victory to the Egyptian Revolution!

Edited to add: Judith Orr, editor of Socialist Worker is currently blogging live from Egypt here


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mubarak, your plane is waiting!

The spreading of the resistance from Tunisia to brutal Western backed dictatorships across the Arab world, above all in Egypt is tremendous - - see here and here for updates - an inspiration to everyone who wants liberation in the region and internationally. In Britain, it is the task of socialists to not only stand in solidarity with such heroic and revolutionary struggles but through ideas and organisation to try and help ignite a similar revolutionary spirit here to bring down Cameron and Clegg's rotten regime here - which means initially trying to build the protests over education cuts and fees this Saturday in London and Manchester.

Incidentally, observers of the Tunisian Revolution might spare a thought for Beatrice Hibou, author of a forthcoming Polity press book, The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia:

This highly original book is a detailed analysis of the everyday mechanisms of domination and repression that enable political regimes to function and to secure the submission of their populations. It takes modern-day Tunisia as its object of analysis but this book is not just a case study of a particular country: it is a brilliant analysis of the politics and economic life under which we all live today. Hibou combines two intellectual traditions, drawing on Weber and Foucault, in order to scrutinize the modes of government and the apparatuses that regulate the concrete exercise of power. Starting from an analysis of the Tunisian economy, she lays bare the mechanisms of subjection. She explains how the debt economy, the tax system, the management of privatizations, and the organization of social solidarity and welfare all create processes of mutual dependence between the governing and the governed. As a result, repression and police control appear to play a less central role than the accommodations, calculated stratagems, day-by-day compromises, and reciprocal interdependencies which, together, secure the daily legitimizing of the regime. Above and beyond the case of Tunisia, this brilliant work unveils the processes through which authoritarian regimes are perpetuated. It sheds light on the mechanisms of domination at work in apparently democratic states too.

Sadly, her methological reliance on Weber and Foucault to study the 'mechanisms of domination and repression that enable political regimes to function and to secure the submission of their populations' mean that by the time her book about how 'authoritarian regimes are perpetuated' appears later this year, the book - whatever other undoubted other merits it has - will have been rather a little outdated and undermined in the most glorious fashion by the force of events...

Anyway, shades of Andre Gorz in 1968 aside, it would perhaps be unfair to suggest to say that a more old-fashioned use of Marx might have helped Hibou's study - after all revolutions by their nature take everyone by surprise when they happen to some extent - as well, Marx himself put it, they come 'like a thief in the night'. However, it is the beauty of revolutionary upheavals - and this is something Marx grasped better than anyone - that their very possibility is rarely even countenanced by traditional intellectuals, for the whole foundation of bourgeois thought (Weber/Foucault etc) is predicated on the idea that revolutionary upheavals are in the past, finito. They can apparently no longer happen in advanced capitalist societies, where people are apparently forever submissive, locked into eternal small power struggles, where 'accommodations, calculated stratagems, day-by-day compromises, and reciprocal interdependencies which, together, secure the daily legitimizing of the regime' (to quote Hibou again). Accordingly, as Marx put it, for the bourgeoisie, 'there has been history, but there is no longer any'. Fortunately, those who stand in the classical Marxist tradition with its understanding of the centrality of social class, and class struggle, are unlikely to stress 'The Force of Obedience' in any study of 'the political economy of repression', even in the most obscenely vicious and brutal dictatorships, for they tend to have a slightly better sense of the ever-present possibilities of social change, resistance and revolt...

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Sunday, January 23, 2011


The forthcoming issue of Historical Materialism Journal (not yet online) has a symposium discussion on Lars T Lih's Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (for a couple of reviews see here and here), which includes Chris Harman's last article on Lenin and Leninism, and so should be well worth looking out for. Another journal which is not online but of interest is Socialist History, the latest issue of which looks at Syndicalism and Radical Unionism.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Ambridge Socialist online

Socialist fans of The Archers (after 60 years, there must be a fair few out there) might like to know that the radical publication The Ambridge Socialist, for a long time rather an exclusive 'underground' revolutionary paper, is now easily accessible online, with of all things, an exclusive concerning the recent untimely passing of Nigel Pargetter...and a slightly less controversial defence of the Grundys on the grounds that 'the core of the Grundys represent the real hope for the future of the village...'

The Battle of Cable Street - 75 years on

This October marks a great anniversary in the history of anti-fascism in Britain, as David Rosenberg notes in an article revisiting Cable Street. Incidentally, 'the Battle of Cable Street' featured as a rather surprising moment of prime-time Xmas TV viewing last year thanks to the inclusion of a portrayal of British Union of Fascist sympathisers in the remake of Upstairs, Downstairs...while see also this interview with Max Levitas, a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

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How not to write the history of the French Left

Uncritical admirers of the late social historian Tony Judt might be advised to look away now...

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John Molyneux on the politics of culture

The classical Marxist position, defended by Lenin and Trotsky, was that the best of bourgeois, and all past, culture should not be rejected by the working class but, as far as possible under capitalism, be assimilated by it, and taken over and preserved under socialism. As Trotsky put it in Class and Art Shakespeare will still speak to us when, ‘Capital will have become merely an historical document, together with the program of our party. But at present we do not yet intend to put Shakespeare, Byron, Pushkin in the archives, and we will continue to recommend them to the workers’. The healing of the split in culture, the achievement of a diverse but unified classless culture, would however be possible only in a classless socialist society.

To this standpoint, which I share, I would make two additions. Changed conditions in the last century have made it possible for some elements in popular culture, coming up from below, to achieve the quality, intensity and complexity associated with the best of high culture. This happens mainly in music, the art form closest to the people, but sometimes in other forms as well. My personal nominations would include Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Shane McGowan, Charlie Chaplin and Tracey Emin.

Also every major people’s movement develops, as it were, its cultural wing and accompaniment. The Irish national struggle is an obvious example with WB Yeats, Jack Yeats, Synge, O’Casey etc. But think also of the black movement in the US with Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and many others, or the Russian Revolution with Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Malevitch, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Vertov and so on. This has a necessary and positive role to play in helping to bring social change and needs to be encouraged by socialists, not to replace or dispense with traditional art or ‘high culture’ but in addition to it.

Full article here, while those who want to read more of Molyneux on culture should read his reflections on Adorno on Beckett, plus I guess his blog more generally.

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Tales of Marx and Marxism

Some upcoming dates that may be of interest to readers of Histomat who keep diaries:

Friday 25 February: Eric Hobsbawm on How to Change the World
- a (now sadly booked up) talk by the veteran Marxist historian in London on his new book about Tales of Marx and Marxism.

Saturday 26 February: The London Socialist Historians Group have organised a One Day Conference 'MAKING THE TORIES HISTORY' from 9.30am-4.30pm at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1. Speakers on the subject of the British Conservative Party include such ever keen observers of it as Ian Birchall, Neil Davidson, Nigel Harris (author Competition and the Corporate Society: British Conservatives, the State and Industry, 1945- 1964,(1971) David Renton and Richard Seymour (author The Meaning of David Cameron).

30 June-4 July: Marxism 2011, London. 'Austerity, resistance, alternatives - Ideas to change the world'. Speakers already confirmed include: Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Terry Eagleton, Nina Power, John Bellamy Foster, John McDonnell, Laurie Penny, Alex Callinicos, Richard Wilkinson, Mark Serwotka, Judith Orr, Ilan Pappe and Istvan Meszaros. If you book before the end of March you get a £5 pound reduction on the ticket price.

10-13 November, Eighth Annual Historical Materialism conference, London.


Solidarity with the Tunisian Revolution

'If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.' - Abul-Qasim Al-Shabi, the great early 20th century Tunisian poet whose statement adorns this new solidarity T-shirt from Philosophy Football. There is extensive excellent coverage of the Tunisian Revolution, easily the most exciting and important 'regime change' to happen this year so far on, among other places, Lenin's Tomb.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Peter Hallward on Haiti: A Year On

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of the population has been repeatedly traumatised. It’s hard to imagine how people can still manage to endure it...

The UN continues to play the same role it has played for the last six years, which is keeping a lid on social discontent by military-style policing...It has invested virtually all its money—more than $600 million a year—in an extremely well-armed, expensive occupation force. One report last spring showed that the UN didn’t pull anyone out of the rubble in the first three days of the earthquake. It’s incredible. They had 8,000 young, well-trained men, and couldn’t rescue a single person.

It is beyond shocking that this foreign occupation is being presented as a positive ‘peace-keeping’ mission. Its only function has been to impose an unpopular coup on a very resentful population and to prevent them from taking significant political steps to counter or reverse it.”

Full interview online here

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2011: Key Dates for Activists in Britain

January - The Student Struggle continues...anyone else who wants to join in most welcome!

Wednesday 19 January - Save the EMA

Saturday 29th January, National Demonstrations: London & Manchester
Also supported by UCU, NCAFC and in Manchester by TUC and PCS youth network


Saturday 5 February: Unite Against Fascism Protest against the English Defence League in Luton - this is critical after Jack Straw played the race card yet again recently.

Saturday 12 February: People’s Convention to Build Resistance to Austerity, hosted by Right to Work and others, London

March in March

Saturday 26 March: “March for the Alternative”, organised by the TUC, 11am Victoria Embankment, London.

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Histomat Exclusive: David Miliband's Big TV Idea

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New Book: Marxism and World Politics

Marxism and World Politics:
Contesting Global Capitalism

Edited by Alexander Anievas

Well, - newish, and there is a review of this edited work - an important survey of and contribution to the resurgence of Marxist theorising about the nature of modern imperialism - online here by Paul Blackledge. On the subject of imperialism, Verso have recently republished Neil Smith's work 'Uneven Development' - which is also supposed to be excellent...

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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Journalists and Revolution: The Case of Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome dismounting a train in Soviet Russia
Or, a review of The Last Englishman; The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers

In an interview published in the latest Socialist Review, the great journalist John Pilger was asked, 'Every year now sees a generation of journalism graduates failing to find work in the media. What would you say to young people who want to enter journalism to hold power to account?' and replied that:

I would say that the BBC and the Murdoch press are not for you. Become a freelance; maintain your independence and, above all, your principles. Remember that journalism is a privilege and that you are an agent of ordinary people, not of those who seek to control them. Journalism is about humanity, and your responsibility is to report the world from the ground up, not the other way round.

One freelance journalist who has done this through reporting the student revolt in Britain is Pilger's fellow New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny. When the revolt subsided over the Christmas break, Penny, having safely won much praise and number of plaudits (including 'Histomat Socialist Blogger of the Year 2010', let's not forget), decided to do what many liberal-lefty columnists tend to do when they run short of material - have a dig at the Socialist Workers Party, mainly for, er, still selling Socialist Worker in the age of the internet and generally acting like some 'cultish Petrograd-enactment society' i.e. arguing the Bolshevik Revolution remains an inspiration for anti-capitalists in the 21st century. Those who want to get into the Laurie Penny-SWP debate can get into it via Lenin's Tomb, but what I want to do is explore the question of journalists and revolutionary struggle - in particular Arthur Ransome and, (sorry Laurie yes), the er, Russian Revolution. This will be done by way of a short book review of Roland Chambers recent biography - also reviewed here and here - and hopefully may go someway to clarifying why revolutionary Petrograd remains an inspiration today.

There is an old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover – and this adage needs to be remembered with Roland Chambers' new biography of Ransome - The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome - as much as ever. If the title is incredibly confusing – and not explained in the text itself bar a passing reference to the fact that at one point it seemed – to Ransome himself at least – that he ‘was the last Englishman in Moscow’ during the Russian Revolution, then the subtitle hardly helps – ‘the double life of Arthur Ransome’. Roland Chambers tells us he was initially aiming in the aftermath of released classified documents in 2005 proving that he he had been recruited by the British government as an agent of the newly formed MI6 to write ‘a brief and colourful exposé, a sharp adjustment to the whitewash that hitherto has screened Ransome from anything approaching a candid assessment.’ The fact that the former head of MI5 Stella Rimington is quoted on the front describing the work as ‘fascinating’ might be enough to put any self-respecting socialist off.

However, fortunately, Chambers’ work offers more than this. As he writes, ‘very quickly I realised that his life, as well as the age that he lived through, offered something much richer.’ This should not have been much of a discovery – Ransome’s rich and varied life has long since attracted historians and biographers, above all Hugh Brogan. But let Chambers continue:

No other Englishman saw the war and Revolution from so many points of view. No other journalist so effectively blended the rhetoric of conventional democracy with the radical doctrines of Marxism-Leninism. As a struggling writer in pre-war London, Ransome had befriended strident nationalists and equally strident internationalists. In the same way, between 1914 and Lenin’s death in 1924, he found himself on easy terms with arch-reactionaries and committed revolutionaries. Ransome was a bohemian and a conservative, a champion of self-determination and a an imperialist, a man who cherished liberty but assumed, as a matter of course, that liberty depended on a successful negotiation with power. The fascination of his story consists in the ease with which he adopted all the competing ideals of his generation. Yet Ransome, who longed, above all, to be included, did not consider himself a controversial figure. On the contrary, while others had lost themselves in uncertainty, forgotten who they were or how to live, he had always, he insisted, been the simplest of men’.

Smearing Ransome as 'an imperialist' seems to me to be quite unjustified, and indeed, contra Chambers, rather than leading a ‘double life’ – it seems to me that Ransome remained one man, albeit a many sided man, with fairly consistent principles and a basic if slightly naïve decency and honesty throughout. Moreoever, what emerges as most fascinating about Ransome’s story is not so much this sense of contradiction and ‘double consciousness’ that saw him essentially prove useful for different purposes to the Bolsheviks and the British government, even if never fully really trusted with anything important by either of them. Rather, what is really fascinating about Ransome’s life is the quite unlikely fact that this upper-middle class English journalist and writer of vaguely leftish liberal leanings happened more by accident than design to have been one of the outstanding witnesses of the Russian Revolution.

Chambers' grasp of the Russian Revolution is decidedly shaped by the dominant liberal discourse which portrays the urban insurrection in October 1917 as not the climax of the whole Revolution but rather as a Bolshevik coup. Yet he has done a lot of reading about the revolution and brings it to life generally successfully despite his own political prejudice and weak grasp of what he calls ‘Marxism-Leninism’. For example he sees Lenin’s small polemical pamphlet What is to be done? as a ‘definitive manifesto’ which envisaged a ‘one party state’, rather than what it was, an intervention which in fact rather more modestly aimed to bring home to Russian Marxists the need for a revolutionary organisation with its own revolutionary paper in preparation for the coming revolutionary upheaval predicted by all careful observers of Russia’s development. As Ransome himself was to write of Lenin in 1919, in person he was far from the humourless, sour-faced, power-hungry plotter and schemer of legend:

‘More than ever, today, Lenin struck me as a happy man, and walking down from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other great leader who had a similar, joyous, happy temperament. I could think of none. Napoleon, Caesar, did not make a deeper mark on the history of the world than this man in making, none records their cheerfulness. This little bald, wrinkled man who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing and another…Not only is he without personal ambition, but as a Marxist, believes in the movement of the masses…his faith in himself is the belief that he justly estimates the direction of elemental forces’

It is a pity that, while Chambers’ work focuses quite rightly on Ransome’s experiences as a journalist reporting the Russian Revolution, he either chose to ignore or did not seem to have come across Paul Foot’s 1992 excellent essay, ‘Arthur Ransome in Revolutionary Russia’ - (there is a short version online) written to introduce the republication after about 70 years of Ransome’s pamphlets written in the aftermath of the revolution. In any case, Chambers’ work missed the opportunity to bring out fully the real significance of Ransome’s life – though this theme shines throughout the work nonetheless.

Before Russia, as Foot noted, ‘what he lacked was any sort of clear commitment’ to or enthusiasm for politics. ‘He had not joined the newly-formed Labour Party or shown the slightest interest in any of the great issues which racked pre-war Britain; women’s suffrage, Irish independence or the great strikes of 1911 and 1912 which effectively destroyed the Liberal Party and shook the Tories to their foundations…Perhaps he yearned for the sort of world which William Morris painted in News from Nowhere, but felt that the reality of Britain in the first 14 years of the century was so far distant from anything Morris had hoped for that there was no point in taking up a political position’. Chambers tells us that Ransome attended meetings of the Fabian Society, 'debates which stirred him so deeply that he took long night walks into the country to clear his head...but his interest in politics rarely extended beyond a fashionable contempt for the "bourgeoisie".'

Rather like George Orwell going to fight in the Spanish Civil War, what changed everything for Ransome was the experience of witnessing a society in the midst of a great social revolution. Of course, the revolution had its dangers for a foreign journalist like Ransome still trying to get to grips with the Russian language. At one point in the midst of the February Revolution in Petrograd, a horseman galloped up to him, pointed a pistol in his face and demanded ‘For or against the people?’
‘I am English’, replied Ransome, helplessly.
‘Long live the English!’ shouted the horseman, and galloped away.

Yet as Foot noted, what Ransome saw in revolutionary Petrograd 'excited him so much that he became for the first and last time politically committed’. As Ransome later wrote in The truth about Russia in 1918, ‘I do not think I shall ever be so happy in my life as I was during those first days when I saw working men and peasant soldiers sending representatives of their class and not of mine’ to the Petrograd Soviet – the workers council springing out of that revolt.

As Foot notes, ‘The key to his excitement was the new democracy. Representatives of a new class, previously dispossessed of property and power, were suddenly entering the political arena. News from Nowhere was News from Everywhere’. The soviets were the real democratic force – with electable and recallable delegates - democracy from below – and the Soviets were, as Foot notes, ‘a hundred thousand times more democratic than the parliaments of the West, which had never really interested him’. As Ransome wrote back home of the Petrograd Soviet, ‘It was the first proletariat parliament in the world, and by Jove it was tremendous’.

Though he now prepared notes in order to write a full history of the Russian Revolution to date, Ransome unfortunately missed his chance to watch the triumph of Soviet power in October, but rushed back in the aftermath. He arrived in time to witness the period when the Constituent Assembly – the old ‘democracy’ from above - was dissolved in 1918. As Foot notes, Ransome, ‘watching Trotsky in action explaining the government’s policies to hundreds of freezing soviet delegates in crude clothes, this moderate and restrained reporter, trained in the reserved language of British upper class education, wrote this:
‘ I felt I would willingly give the rest of my life if it could be divided into minutes and given to men in England and France so that those of little faith who say that the Russian Revolution is discredited could share for one minute each that wonderful experience’.

Such statements are even more remarkable as Ransome did not see the revolution as someone who was already a committed revolutionary socialist like say, John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World or Victor Serge (see his Year One of the Russian Revolution) or Alfred Rosmer (Lenin’s Moscow). Later, returning from the perils of the Russian civil war to his home city of Leeds to write what would become Six Weeks in Russia in 1919, Ransome confessed to finding his account ‘surprisingly dull’, noting he would have liked to have conveyed more of the excitement of the Revolution which had drawn in the likes of himself, ‘far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries’.

‘There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of all of my own impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow even in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war’.

As Paul Foot notes, ‘Ransome’s writing style is as plain and clear as in any of his children’s books. His prose, in Orwell’s famous phrase, is “like a window pane”’. Ransome’s eyewitness accounts were then rather exceptional - the Guardian socialist journalist Morgan Phillips Price also wrote impassioned reports from revolutionary Russia - and Ransome followed Six Weeks up with The Crisis in Russia, 1920. However, they were not reprinted after the early 1920s until the Redwords edition of 1990s – in part because the Bolshevik leaders they tended to focus on were the likes of Trotsky (Ransome fell in love with and married Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina - Trotsky’s secretary) and Ransome’s good friend Karl Radek and rather ignored Josef Stalin. As Foot notes, Ransome’s accounts had ‘shuffled him off where he belonged, to the fringe of the revolution’. Incidentally, a similar fate of neglect seems to have befallen Louise Bryant’s accounts – despite the fame of her partner John Reed.

Foot thought The Crisis in Russia 1920 ‘the best of Ransome’s work on revolutionary Russia’ and claims ‘the high water mark of all’ is Ransome’s ‘account of a conference at Jaroslavl'.

'He went there in early 1920 with Radek, recently released from prison in Germany…The conference was a long and difficult one and Ransome and his friends were glad to retire that night to their hotel. As they prepared for bed there was a knock at the door. A railwayman stood outside, begging them to come to a performance of a local play written and performed by local workers and their families. Ransome’s description of what follows – especially his account of Radek’s speech to the railwaymen and their families, is an electrifying piece of writing. I read it first in 1976, and return to it again and again when I feel dispirited.‘

According to Ransome, Radek was asked to ‘give a long account of the present situation of Soviet Russia’s foreign affairs'.

'The little box of a room filled to a solid mass as policemen, generals and ladies of the old regime threw off their costumes, and in their working clothes, plain signalmen and engine drivers pressed round to listen. When the act ended, one of the railwaymen went to the front of the stage and announced that Radek, who had lately come back after imprisonment in Germany for the cause of revolution, was going to talk to them about the general state of affairs. I saw Radek grin at this forecast of his speech. I understood why, when he began to speak.

He led off by a direct and furious assault on the railway workers in general, demanding work, work and more work, telling them that, as the Red Army had been the vanguard of the revolution hitherto, and had starved and fought and given lives to save those at home from Denikin and Kolchak, so now it was the turn of the railway workers on whose efforts not only the Red Army but also the whole future of Russia depended. He addressed himself to the women, telling them in very bad Russian that unless their men worked superhumanly they would see their babies die from starvation next winter. I saw women nudge their husbands as they listened. Instead of giving them a pleasant, interesting sketch of the international position, which, no doubt, was what they had expected, he took the opportunity to tell them exactly how things stood at home. And the amazing thing was that they seemed to be pleased. They listened with extreme attention, wanted to turn out someone who had a sneezing fit at the far end of the hall, and nearly lifted the roof off with cheering when Radek had done. I wondered what sort of reception a man would have who in another country interrupted a play to hammer home truths about the need of work into an audience of working men who had gathered solely for the purpose of legitimate recreation. It was not as if he sugared the medicine he gave them. His speech was nothing but demands for discipline and work, coupled with prophesy of disaster in case work and discipline failed. It was delivered like all his speeches, with a strong Polish accent and a steady succession of mistakes in grammar.

As we walked home along the railway lines, half a dozen of the railwaymen pressed around Radek, and almost fought with each other as to whom should walk next to him. And Radek, entirely happy, delighted at his success in giving them a bombshell instead of a bouquet, with one stout fellow on one arm, another on the other, two or three more listening in front and behind, continued rubbing it into them until we reached our wagon, when, after a general handshaking, they disappeared into the night’.

One gets there a glimpse of the real hope of a new world emerging out of the old - a new world workers felt was their own and were prepared to fight and die to defend - but also the utter tragedy of the counterrevolution under Stalin, where such a spirit of public service, sacrifice, work as not something associated with alienated toil but freedom, was taken up by the Stalinist bureaucracy and used to build – not international socialism – but state capitalism in the most disgustingly bloody, hypocritical and cynical manner.

No wonder Ransome by the late 1920s was sickened by what he saw happening in Stalin’s ‘new civilisation’,– and embarked instead on his legendary series of children’s stories – Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale and so on. Paul Foot takes up the question which inevitably arises:

‘Was there any link at all between his delightful tales of middle class children in the Lake District and in Suffolk and the great events which shook the world in 1917? There is perhaps a clue in something wrote when he was only 22. Hugh Brogan recounts:
“The essence of the child, he held, is its imagination, the way in which, left to itself, and not withered by obtuse or manipulative adults, ‘it adopts any material at hand, and weaves for itself a web of imaginative life, building the world again in splendid pageantry, and all without ever (or hardly ever) blurring its sense of the actual”’

‘This combination of the unleashing of the imagination without ever losing grip on reality is the hallmark of Arthur Ransome’s marvellous reports from revolutionary Russia...The Russian Revolution is not just the most important event of the 20th century. It is a beacon for the 21st. For English-speaking socialists there is no more eloquent or accurate assertion of that than these passionate essays by one of the century’s great writers.

“Let the revolution fail” wrote Arthur Ransome in 1918. “No matter. If only in America, in England, in France, in Germany people know why it has failed, and how it failed, who betrayed it, who murdered it. Man does not live by his deeds so much as the purpose of his deeds. We have seen the flight of the young eagles. Nothing can destroy that fact, even if, later in the day, the eagles fall to earth one by one, with broken wings”.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Burston School Strike remembered

I have a backlog of stuff I have been meaning to highlight of late on Histomat - ranging from Tony Cliff on Clara Zetkin, CLR James on Che Guevara, Martin Glaberman on Martin Luther King, Brian Pearce on Trotsky as an historian, George Rawick on slavery in the US, Pat Stack on Wikileaks, and so on, but my pick of the crop comes from my good friend Paddington, whose excellent blog I really should try and link to more often and who has recently blended family history, local history, and socialist history with a topical blog about 'the longest running strike in British history', the Burston School strike. This was led by school students and lasted from 1914 to 1939, and took place in that heartland of industrial stuggle: er, Norfolk.

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Friday, January 07, 2011

International Socialism # 129

is now online. With Analysis of The student revolt and the crisis and Megan Trudell on The Tea Party movement in the US and the following articles (plus reviews etc etc).

Police killings and the law
Simon Behrman

Labourism and socialism: Ralph Miliband’s Marxism
Paul Blackledge

True crime stories: some New Labour memoirs
John Newsinger

Marxism and disability
Roddy Slorach

Decoding capitalism
Joseph Choonara

What’s wrong with school history?
Andrew Stone

Why we should be sceptical of climate sceptics
Suzanne Jeffery

Tony Cliff’s Lenin and the Russian Revolution
John Rose

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