Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Like Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets on speed

The mobile phone age, with its myriad instantaneous forms of interaction, has provided a miraculous deliverance to the diminished activist army. With disciplined direction, a relatively tiny number of determined foot soldiers can resemble an invading horde. They are like Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets on speed.
Janet Daley on the Socialist Workers Party in the Daily Telegraph

If only we were that good. Still, I suppose to an average Daily Telegraph reader, this probably makes some sense, just as to an average Daily Mail reader, Melanie Phillips must seem at least partly sane when she attacks the Socialist Workers Party in more traditional reactionary fashion ('extremist agitators', 'placard-toting obsessives', 'droning Marxist bores' and 'far-Left thugs'). Anyway, since my readership includes at least some of my fellow 'die hard SWP agitators' whose 'aim is to destroy British society', I feel I might as well highlight the fact that the contents of the second series of International Socialism, the quarterly journal of the SWP, are now slowly being put online here and here at the Marxists Internet Archive - the first series (1958-1978) is already online here. While the scale of pace at which the 'determined footsoldiers' of the internet revolution are putting the contents of the back issues of the SWP's theoretical journal online is unlikely to terrify even the most sheltered of Daily Telegraph readers, it is likely that as it slowly appears, the content, with its trenchant analysis of the Tories and the class struggles against them throughout the long 1980s - including the Great Miners' Strike - and wider developments in international capitalism and the struggles against that from the 1980s onwards will prove both useful and instructive to any self-respecting 'anti-capitalist extremist'...

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Remembering Guernica

Stuart Hall - who was interviewed recently in The Guardian* - once asked the great Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James ‘about the three great moments in which he could see a single artist speaking on behalf of a whole historical revolutionary moment’.

‘He told me about the Acropolis, even though its architect is unknown. He told me about Shakespeare, and then he told me about Picasso’s “Guernica.” He said, “Look at Picasso. Look at ‘Guernica.’ A wonderful painting. What is it about? It is about the Spanish people. It is about the energies of the Spanish revolution. When you look at “Guernica” you see the whole movement, the whole maelstrom of the Spanish revolution encapsulated in an aesthetic form.”’**

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece of ‘immeasurable chaos’ was a response to the Nazi Luftwaffe's bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War on 26 April 1937 - the first ever carpet bombing of an undefended civilian target. With the 75th anniversary coming up this year - and amidst a rising tide of propaganda designed to soften us all up for a military strike on Iran (though see this recent interview with Tariq Ali for why such an attack is currently probably not on the list of top priorities for the American Empire), Philosophy Football's anniversary T-shirt, reflecting Picasso's famous painting, bears timely witness to the collective memory of Guernica.

* Stuart Hall sounds particularly pessimistic in this interview because of his problematic association of Ed Miliband's Labour Party with 'the Left' in Britain. Recently the far-left - not least the SWP - has managed to deeply annoy the Tory Party and its rich supporters with its active and partly successful campaigning opposition to the exploitation of 'workfare'...
** Stuart Hall, ‘C.L.R. James: A Portrait,’ in Paget Henry and Paul Buhle (eds.), C.L.R. James’s Caribbean(London, Duke University Press, 1992), p. 15.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Justice for Alfie Meadows

From Defend the Right to Protest:

We’re writing to you on behalf of the Defend the Right to Protest and the campaign we’ve launched, Justice for Alfie Meadows:

Alfie Meadows was one of a number of students injured by police during the mass demonstration outside parliament against MPs voting through £9000 tuition fees. In Alfie's case he had to undergo emergency brain surgery to save his life after being hit over the head by a police baton. Jody McIntyre was also dragged out of his wheel chair and hit.

A Doctor present on the demonstration set up a field hospital in parliament square as thousands were kettled. The 34 year old doctor was later kettled on Westminster Bridge and recorded symptoms of severe crushing including respiratory problems and chest pains.

These scenes formed part of a wider pattern of attacks on students protesting in defence of education. Mass arrests followed and significant numbers of young have since people torn away from their families and friends to be jailed for up to 36 months. This includes Zenon Mitchell, a Sussex University student, who is in prison for 15 months after being filmed throwing one placard stick on the 10th November education demonstration.

It is absolutely paramount that we do not leave Alfie Meadows to a similar fate. He has since been charged with violent disorder -a charge which carries a sentence of up to 5 years and goes to trial on 26th March.

Alfie first became involved in campaigning during an occupation to save his philosophy department at Middlesex University. After it was closed and moved to another university, he then took part in the demonstrations against increasing fees - and nearly lost his life.

We are asking lecturers to support the Justice for Alfie Meadows Campaign in the lead up to his trial on Monday 26 March. The victimisation of students is an attack on all of us still fighting the governments attacks on education.

Thus far the campaign has the support of NUS, UCU, CWU, PCS and a wide range of academics, MPs and public figures.

There are a number of ways you can help:
1) Sign the Justice for Alfie Meadows on line petition.
Over 1200 people have signed, signatories include Tariq Ali, John McDonnell (MP), Gigi Ibrahim (Egyptian Activist and Blogger), Liam Burns (NUS President), Ken Loach (Film Director), Jody McIntyre (Journalist and Equality Movement) and Zita Holbourne (BARAC and PCS NEC). Circulate the petition widely through all networks. You should also include links to the website www.defendtherighttoprotest.org and an email contact point: info@defendtherighttoprotest.org .

2) Attend and publicize our Defend the Right to Protest Public Forum: Stand Up For Justice at Euston Friends Meeting House, Euston Road. Monday 5th March 7PM. Speakers include: John McDonnell (MP), Imran Khan (Campaigning Lawyer and Solicitor for Stephen Lawrence’s family), Alfie Meadows (Student Defendant), Liam Burns (NUS President), Marcia Rigg (Sean Rigg Justice and Change Campaign), Frank Fernie (Imprisoned protester, now free.) and Rob Evans (Guardian Journalist). Circulate and join the facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/242723812474501/. You may also want to create your own event for a delegation.

3) Be part of supporting/organizing a delegation to attend the demonstration outside Kingston Crown Court on Monday 26th March at 9AM, when Alfie Meadows will attend the first day of his trial.

For more information, questions or queries, please email us on info@defendtherighttoprotest.org

Yours in Solidarity,

Defend the Right to Protest


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Friday, February 24, 2012

A History of Riots conference

For those who are not regular readers of the blog of the London Socialist Historians Group, a reminder that this Saturday (25 Feb) in London there is a conference on A History of Riots which may be of interest.

Friday, February 10, 2012

All out on March 28!

NUT, PCS and UCU (teachers, civil servants and lecturers) unions in Britain have decided to back another mass co-ordinated strike over pensions on March 28th - 'M28' may sound like a boring motorway, but this is great news - and means the fight over pensions is back on now with a vengeance...


What is Historical Materialism?

[I was recently in the midst of a 'spring clean' of my bedroom/study, where I came upon a long forgotten folder that contained among other things an undated little mini essay/notes written by myself entitled just 'Historical Materialism'. I reckon it was probably written around five years ago - because of the reference to Paul Blackledge's Reflections on the Marxist theory of history (2006) at the start of it, and the lack of any reference to the latest capitalist crisis that began in 2007. I figured that since I don't do much with this blog nowadays, but as I have recently passed the 600,000 original hits mark since setting it up in 2005, it was probably about time I gave people who come across a blog entitled 'Adventures in Historical Materialism' a brief explanation of what 'Historical Materialism' is exactly - and so have decided to put it up here. It is kind of a mixture of notes/exposition - and the 'influence' / blatant ripping off of works such as Paul's Reflections and Chris Harman's Marxism and History will be apparent to many readers - I do not make many claims to originality in this essay, though any errors contained within are mine alone. Finally, those interested in debating the ideas of 'historical materialism' further could do a lot worse than attend Marxism 2012 in London in early July.]

Historical Materialism - The Marxist theory of history

'At its heart, historical materialism is a theory of historical change through the evolving contradictions between the forces and relations of production of various modes of production' -Paul Blackledge

Focus on humanity as agents of history. 'History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. It is man, real living man that does all that... History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims', Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895) noted in The Holy Family (1845). 'Men make their own history...' Marx noted at the start of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(1852).

Therefore more than mere Materialism where the study of humanity is part of scientific study of natural world - a better approach than mystical religious notions of divine intervention, or an idealism (where free floating ideas just come and go by themselves - like Hegel's Absolute Spirit or the British Whig historians with their ideas of inevitable 'Progress'). As Marx and Engels put it, 'in contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven'.

But Historical Materialism - Humans are not just like animals though - they are social creatures with language who, unlike say apes, can act to change the natural world. They do this primarily through working - using their labour power to act on the natural world to produce the means of subsistence needed to survive. As Marx and Engels noted in The German Ideology, men 'begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.' This is just as well - on the face of it humans are not best equipped to survive - we are naked and can't naturally survive in cold climates, we are not equipped with the fangs or claws of a natural predator, we can't graze as we have only one stomach, and the brain takes time to evolve so infants are vulnerable. Again the Germany Ideology: 'Life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.'

Adult life for most people on the planet has therefore always consisted of a daily routine of toil - it is a constant in all forms of human society however otherwise different they have been. Tony Robinson, who played 'Baldrick' in Blackadder, once presented a TV series called 'The Worst Jobs in History'. The vast majority of humanity have always been 'Baldricks' doing often terrible things with most of their time to simply survive, and this remains the case today.

The consciousness which resulted from this life of labour is what makes us human beings. This consciousness, our ideas, are rooted in material conditions of society - it is when new ideas become a material force through being taken up and fought for by large numbers of people that society changes. Marx and Engels did not just see the great mass of toilers as passive objects of history like most traditional historians who prefer to keep them in the background while what they write what Marx and Engels called 'the high-sounding dramas of princes and states' - for Marx and Engels ordinary people were the subjects of history - and they were most attracted when they turned to write history by writing about revolutions when the great mass of people were centre stage - for example Marx's The Civil War in France [about the Paris Commune of 1871] or Engels The Peasant War in Germany.

Humans constantly make and remake themselves through history in a material context. Marx and Engels did not believe humans were simply free to act as they wish - objective conditions in society always set limits and imposed constraints. Because humanity has to struggle with nature to realise its needs, there will always be a 'realm of necessity' which demands labour if its needs are to be met. 'In the social production of their life, men enter definite relations which are independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.' We will come onto what Marx meant by all this when he wrote it in 1859 [in Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy] in a bit - but essentially it means every human when they go out to work enters into a social relationship which shapes the rest of their lives. The question 'What do you do?' is a very common one as it is a very good way to learn quite a lot about a person with just one question, and every job carries with it a set of assumptions about that job. For example, if someone tells you they are a 'Merchant banker', then you tend to feel you have already learnt quite a lot, possibly more than enough already, about that person, especially if they are also unfortunate enough to have a surname like ' Wegg-Prosser' or the like. But even under socialism there will not be a free lunch - there will still be the need to labour only this labour will be without exploitation, and will be take less hours to do. 'The reduction of the working day', Marx wrote, was 'the basic prerequisite' for freedom.

Freedom, because it is tied up with labour for Marx, is therefore always balanced by constraints. To complete the famous sentence in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.' The level of a societies economic development therefore sets the parameters of the possible outcome of an action.

The past history of society is therefore important to determining how we act in the present - and for Marx and Engels the history of human civilisation could be summed up simply - it was the history of class struggle. Marx's favourite historical character was Spartacus - the tragic leader of a doomed slave revolt against the Roman Empire, precisely because he was not afraid to try and resist a tyrannical order, even though Marx knew that even if Spartacus had been successful the general pattern of history would have not been altered significantly. Spartacus could not have built a socialist society on the back of ancient slavery. Marx said that he did not invent 'class struggle' - the best liberal bourgeois historians had already began to explain history through class struggle before him after experiencing the French Revolution. All he claimed that Marx did new was:

1. Show that the existence of classes was tied up with particular phases in the development of production. Class was an objective 'expression of the fact of exploitation' - a class was a 'group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of control) to the conditions of production.. .and to other classes' (GEM de Ste Croix, author of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World). Class struggle then was 'essentially the fundamental relationship between classes involving exploitation and resistance to it, but not necessarily either class consciousness or collective activity in common' (de Ste Croix).
2. Show that the class struggle would lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat.
3. Insist that the dictatorship of the proletariat would lead to the abolition of classes and a classless society.

Engels said class struggle takes place on three levels - economic, political and ideological. Of course they all interlap with each other, but it is worth trying to distinguish between these three factors on some level. How do they relate to each other?


Modes of production

Humanity has known various ways of organising society to meet basic needs of food, shelter etc. The main, but not only ones (Marx also referred for example to 'the Asiatic mode of production') are:

Primitive Communism. Modern homo sapiens formed 100,000 years ago. The first humans lived in classless hunter gatherer societies, moving around and living off the fat of the land. These were egalitarian communities based instinctively on cooperation - what Engels called primitive communism. However, five thousand years ago all that changed - an agricultural revolution took place and labour became more productive as it was possible to settle in one particular area and cultivate plants and domesticate animals rather than simply move around and scavenge the whole time. Communities were able to produce a surplus above and beyond the bare necessities of food, shelter and clothing. From now on, not everyone had to go and be a hunter - some individuals could live off the labour of others. From now on, human societies divided into rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, in a word class society. Class society at this stage was a necessary evil however, for civilisation to advance beyond hunter gather societies. (See Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and Gordon Childe's What Happened in History(1942))

Ancient world - ancient Greece and ancient Rome. A mode of production based on slavery, exploitation of slave labour. In time, Rome fell into crisis as the available supply of new slaves dried up and the cost of slave labour spiralled - and the whole edifice of Roman civilisation began to dry up. See eg. G.E.M. de Ste Croix The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981)

Feudalism - Medieval European civilisation. Feudal lords exploited the labour of their serfs, and then once serfdom was abolished, exploited that of free peasants. See eg. work of Rodney Hilton and Guy Bois.

Capitalism. Industrial Revolution created industrial system. Large capitalist employers - who Marx called the bourgeoisie - exploit people who are free to come and go from their particular firm but who work for a wage. These 'wage-slaves' Marx called the proletariat.

For Marx, the abundance of wealth created by capitalism created for the first time the possibility of a transition to Socialism, based on collective property and where the proletariat would rule. Eventually, this workers state would 'wither away' and Communism, and a truly classless society would mark 'the end of History' as we have known it up to now. Marx and Engels studied all of these modes of production, in part to show that there were alternative ways to organising society than simply capitalism, and devoted their life's work to trying to achieve the end goal of Communism as the logical progression of history.

Exceptionalism? Did every society have to follow this path in this order - or could say a country like Russia leap to socialism without going through capitalism? Marx in later life learnt more about vitality of pre-capitalist forms of communal production and in a letter to Russian Vera Zasulich (1881) argued the Russian commune (mir) was 'the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia', showing he did not hold to a unilinear model of history. But Marx and Engels did also keep to idea that capitalism essential for socialism - writing in 1882 preface to Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto, 'if the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, then Russia's peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.' So Russian communes if successful could trigger a successful European revolution.

Production - forces and relations of production

For Marx then the Mode of Production was the real foundation of society. But how was production organised?

1. Forces of Production- the material labour process by which man has acted on nature to meet their needs, provide themselves with a livelihood, control the natural world, etc. Composed of human labour power itself, the means of production (the raw materials, land etc which humans transform into something useful for us), and the instruments of labour (the tools we use). As humans develop new knowledge, technology and new techniques, new ways of harnessing nature for productive ends, so we developed our forces of production, our ability to provide ourselves with a livelihood through labour. As basic needs are fulfilled, the drive to satisfy new needs leads to a tendency to naturally develop the forces of production. The growth in numbers of humans over time is a clear example of a new need placed on our productive capabilities. But while the natural environment is potentially destructive to humanity (and so it remains with climate change), history is full of examples of how the forces of nature have been harnessed into forces of human production to meet our new needs (eg fire helped us cook and eat meat, keep warm and burn fossil fuels -water led to watermills, wind gave us windmills and now windpower turbines).

Today, all sorts of new technological breakthroughs are happening eg internet, - as Marx put it after watching the industrial expansion of Victorian Britain, with its feats of engineering using steam power and consequent advances in communication (railways, steamships, telegraph etc), 'the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production'. Capitalism has created more massive and colossal productive forces than ever thought possible before, and for the first time has made possible a new social system resting on the abolition of exploitation.

As Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, 'development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.'

2. Relations of production Marx used the term relations of production to periodise the past - to divide it up so distinctive productive epochs - modes of production - could be differentiated by the relations of production which dominated within each. As new ways of creating wealth from nature appeared, humans tended to automatically develop new ways of working together socially in order to use these skills to their best advantage. Human societies are transformed from mud huts to villages to cities - or a dense forest becomes agricultural land. These new ways of cooperation were new social relations of production. So a change in the forces of production tends to lead to a change in the relations of production, and these new relations of production play havoc with the old system. As the German Ideology put it: 'In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution'.

Revolution is therefore built into the structure of society - not a product of the actions of revolutionaries. About allowing the full potential of forces of production to develop unhindered in new social relations of production - so bourgeoisie a revolutionary class against feudalism. Transfer political power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie as economic power already passed to the bourgeoisie. Revolution establishes in superstructure what has already been achieved in the economic base.

The use of iron tips on spears could make killing big game easier and safer and so alter hunting patterns, just as the invention of pill for contraception has transformed sexual mores. So gold and silver become money, tidal currents become trade routes, and so on. These new relationships of production in turn enable an acceleration of the productive forces, and also determine all sorts of other relationships in society. The kernal of a new society begins to grow inside the shell of the old relations of production.

Any class society at a specific point therefore has ever-evolving social relations governing that human societies relationship to the natural world - so at one point the pattern of class relationships might be master and slave, feudal lord and serf, guildmaster and apprentice journeyman in the workshops of medieval Europe, or the capitalist and the wage labourer. The development of the capitalist mode of production depended not simply on the emergence of new forces of production based around artisans and merchants, around new trading links and the development of local commercial capitalism in new towns, but on creating new relations of production, a new class of labourers freed from the land - they had to get peasants off the land and into factories - they had to separate peasants from their existing limited control over the means of production and into the marketplace. This involved a clash with the old relations of production - the landlord-peasant relationship - and the old superstructure around land ownership which centred on the Crown - ultimately leading in England to the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth century and the King having his head chopped off.

Once there was the start of new relations of production around free labour through the putting out system in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in England this accelerated the development of new productive forces and after the bourgeoisie broke the political supremacy of the old aristocracy in the seventeenth century Britain rapidly developed to become the first great industrial nation.

In Germany, no new class emerged to break the power of the old Junkers and landlords and Germany went backwards economically for 150 to 200 years -something later educated Germans like Marx were only too aware of. Once classes existed, we can see how any attempt to change the relations of production is going to always involve a battle over who was to control the means of production - the ruling class was the class who managed to take control of the means of production from the majority of direct producers, who produced the wealth. So peasants resisted being kicked off the land then, and fought against the later Enclosure Acts in England and against the Highland Clearances in Scotland. The free market had to be created through violence by the new class - as Marx put it, 'capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with dirt and blood'.

Relations of production then were economic relations of effective control - essentially exploitative relations between classes. At a certain point in history, the control over the means of production by a tiny minority was a progressive thing, as it guaranteed that the surplus labour could be used to develop the forces of production, make sure things like dams are built, canals are dug, food stored effectively, etc.

3.The clash between the forces and relations of Production
Relations of production then inevitably involved exploitation - as labour of the producers included both the necessary labour as well as surplus labour to keep the ruling class who didn't labour in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Accordingly, if an existing ruling class felt that one new way of organising production was a threat to its power as it undermined existing social relations of production, then it acted to try and block the development of this new force of production by defending the existing old relations of production, the old set up, whatever the wider cost to the development of society. They put their own interests as a class before the wider interests of humanity, and if necessary are prepared to wage a brutal and bloody class war from above.

So for example, China under the Sung Dynasty (960-1259) was several centuries ahead of Europe - it had invented gunpowder, firearms, iron foundaries, magnetic compasses etc. Yet these scientific breakthroughs did not lead to the development of industrial society or an industrial revolution as the old ruling elite of landowners and bureaucrats had no interest in them. Chinese society therefore slowly decayed and was overtaken by Europe after the seventeenth century - leading ultimately to the colonialisation of huge swathes of China in the nineteenth century by western imperial powers.

Therefore you get a clash between the pressure of the ruling class 'superstructure' from above to prevent the change in social relations, and the pressure of the production process below to create them. The new ideas and new ways of organising production have to triumph over the old ideas and old relations of production if society is to progress. If the old ways of organising society remain dominant then they become 'fetters' on the forces of production and can hold society back and society can regress as productive forces are destroyed as a once great Empire declines - witness the ruined ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean for example - or else the tension builds up and becomes so great that an era of social revolution unfolds as a new class emerges which smashes the old superstructure and carries the forces of production forward. The combination of the forces and relations of production holds the key to Marx's explanation of the great epochal transformations of civilisations: either stagnation and catastrophic decline or progressive surges forward. In Europe, three great revolutionary transitions - the Reformation, the English Civil War and the French Revolution - from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century allowed the new forces of production to break loose from the shackles of the feudal relations of production.

Under capitalism, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production is expressed through a tendency for the rate of profit to decline, a tendency rooted in the process of capital accumulation, so cannot be resolved short of a revolutionary transformation of society. Trying to reform the existing social relations of production by abolishing the privileged position of the ruling class is also impossible - so revolution necessary 'as the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way'. Yet revolution for Marx and Engels was also necessary as 'the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.'[German Ideology] Workers in rebellion throw off their socialisation which fits them to subservient roles and from then on 'every cook can govern', as Lenin put it. Just as the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary phase had acted as a universal class, so now the proletariat would become a universal class - but unlike the bourgeoisie it would not then go on to exploit or oppress any other class below it.

Therefore we can see that a model of Marxism which stresses economic determinism or technological determinism is a vulgar version of Marx's model of historical change. It is not inevitable the new ruling class will break through. The outcome of a particular crisis depends ultimately on who wins in a class struggle - 'a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes'.

Stalin: Claimed forces of production automatically changed relations of production and then the superstructure - as needed to justify the horrors of Stalinist state capitalist industrialisation to overcome backwardness - basically industrialisation would usher in a workers democracy but in the meantime those who resisted state capitalist accumulation had to be put in GULAGs. Extreme technological determinism.

Mechanical model - like Maos.

Mao: Reverse - argued the relations of production were determining - extreme voluntarism in the Cultural Revolution - basically wave your red book, denounce your lecturers and don't worry about eating as way to overcome economic backwardness. Althusser gave intellectual expression to this mood.

[Robert] Brenner and [Ellen] Meiksins Wood - Ignore forces of production - how people get a livelihood from nature and also argue relations of production are determining - all that matter are the clash of ideas, the class struggle itself, rather than how people make living on ground.

Yet economics is crucial to understanding how classes form in the process of organising production based on exploitation and the impulses which lead classes to struggle against each other. Economics is therefore the foundation of society - and understanding the economic base is crucial to understanding anything else about a particular society. As Engels put it, 'according to the materialist conception of history the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life'.

Politics and Ideology

However, economics alone tell us little about which side is likely to triumph in these class struggles - only that class struggle is inevitable and built into any system of production. It is here that we need to see the political and ideological levels of the class struggle in more detail.
Once ruling classes exist, then every ruling class tends to automatically organise around itself a political and ideological superstructure to defend and fight for its interests. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx noted that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e. the class which is the prevailing material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force'.

Of course, often the ruling class was internally divided into various factions. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx described how it was material conditions of existence which kept the two factions of the 'Party of Order' in nineteenth century France -Constitutionalist Monarchist Orleanists and Absolutist Royalist Bourbons - apart -'two different kinds of property.. .the rivalry between capital and landed property'. As he went on:

'Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of different and distinctly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations'.

As Marx put it in 1859, 'the totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.' Let us look at some of the more obvious institutions any ruling class needs to rule.

Politics: The State

The State is really the secret weapon of any ruling class - it is this which gives it its single greatest advantage over the mass of producers and all other classes it rules, and over the rest of society in general. What is the State? Marx himself never devoted attention to a systematic analysis of this, but it is clear he would have agreed with Max Weber when he called the State the sole legitimate organised force of coercion in
a set geographical boundary. As Marx put it, 'political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another'. In short the state is simply bodies of armed men at the beck and call of the ruling class. Marx distinguished the state from civil society, but recognised it as a product of both internal class antagonisms and external rivalries with other states.

Firstly the internal class antagonisms shape the state. See The Eighteenth Brumaire for the detailed analysis Marx gave of the evolution of the French State after the French Revolution - but essentially Marx noted that while the state defended the power of the class that ruled, the class that ruled was not necessarily the class that governed the state. So for example, in Marx's native Germany, the Junkers around Bismarck governed the state but in a 'revolution from above' actually worked to build up German capitalism, i.e. the rule of the German bourgeoisie. The same was more or less true of Britain in the nineteenth century - the Houses of Parliament and Lord were dominated by an aristocratic elite but Britain was nonetheless the 'workshop of the world' which led the way in industry. The extent of the compromises which the bourgeoisie is prepared to make when it comes to who actually runs the state machine depends on the total balance of class forces at that time - all the contradictions of society find some reflection in the state machine. Hence it is that working class representatives are elected to and tolerated in Parliaments for the most part - this does not stop the State being public power above society and choking the rest of civil society.

Yet external rivalries with other states were also crucial. The European absolutist monarchies of early modern Europe corresponded to a phase in which the state balanced between feudal aristocracies and the rising bourgeoisie in order to respond to sharpening international military and economic rivalry. Under capitalism, with the development of modern imperialism, we do not need to look far to see how state power is employed in the interests of the ruling class to wage wars abroad - what Marx saw as 'rivalry in conquest'.

Relative Independence?
Yet Engels in a letter to Conrad Schmidt in 1890 argued the state would enjoy a degree of 'relative independence' from the economic base - indeed 'political power can wreak havoc with economic development'.


Social being as we have seen determines consciousness for Marx. Ideas that today we regard as abhorrent - for example cannabalism - were viewed as normal in societies which depended upon them for survival. Ideologies - systematic beliefs about the world - have to be analysed in terms of their contribution to sustaining or undermining the prevailing relations of production. For example, racism developed in order to justify the barbarism of the highly profitable slave trade at a time when the Enlightenment was proclaiming the universal rights of man in Europe and America. Black people of African descent had to be seen as sub-human - not quite men and worthy of being a piece of property to be carried across the Atlantic like any other commodity. The defenders of the old relations always insist that their rule is 'natural' ind 'universal' - 'as good as it gets' and they are the best people to be in charge and look after the rest of us. 'Don't worry, be happy' is their message - and it is a nessage that the ruling class pump out through the mass media today just as the paidpriests in the Catholic Church under feudalism used to tell peasants to patiently wait for social justice in the afterlife. A whole host of institutions exist to put out mystical ideas to cement people to existing ruling class.

However, despite the hegemony of ruling class ideas in any society, the experience of exploitation leads inevitably to at least some people in the producing classes developing other ideas from the 'common sense' of their society. 'You can fool some people some of the time but you can't fool all of the people all of the time'.

The producing classes therefore have the potential to develop a 'political and ideological superstructure' around themselves to challenge the ideas and power of the ruling class, and despite its inevitably fragmentary and weak nature, this 'superstructure' - made up of the most class conscious and militant sections of the producing classes - challenges for state power in the political arena and to counter the ideas of the ruling elite. Each class depending on its exact position in the relations of production, develops its own leadership and tactics accordingly.

Some classes are able to successfully organise to challenge the old ruling class from within their superstructure, streadily growing in strength and consciousness as the forces of production develop, before finally overthrowing the old order. This was the case with the bourgeoisie, which supplanted the aristocracy in England through two revolutions in the seventeenth century in England after a long war of position getting control of parts of the existing state machine and ideological apparatus. 'Unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and battles of peoples to bring it into being'. Other classes like the peasantry are unable to go beyond the most localist revolts over control of land without the intervention of other more organised classes.

The modern working class is quite different. It cannot gradually use parts of the existing state machine for its own purposes in the same way as the bourgeoisie, nor can it ever gradually take over sections of the mainstream media. Its only weapons are its overwhelming numbers but unlike the peasantry it is able to build the mass collective organisations necessary to fight the class struggle -these organisations (trade unions, Workers Councils, political parties etc) are its natural and only 'superstructure'.

The heart of Marx's thought was that 'the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself' - Socialism is neither a dream of Utopian thinkers, nor can it be decreed from above by reformists trying to use the existing capitalist State. It is 'the real movement which abolishes the present state of things' - based on a scientific analysis of the contradictions of capitalism and the generalisation of the lessons of the class struggle waged by the working class to this point. The everyday class struggle is a school of revolution for the working class, and the best militants instinctively form or join defensive class organisations like trade unions and Social Democratic 'Labour' Parties.
However, when the class struggle reaches its heights, the best militants historically have formed or joined offensive class organisations like Workers Councils and revolutionary socialist parties in large numbers.

The role of Marxists is therefore to subjectively teach the working class what capitalism is objectively teaching them. However, the teachers must themselves be taught. Who teachers the teacher? The working class, that new productive force which is after all is not only 'capitalism's special and essential product' but 'the gravedigger of capitalism' and the builders of another, better world - a society where for once the overwhelming majority of people, the direct producers of wealth, collectively and democratically run society in the interests of the overwhelming majority.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Colin Sparks on the horrible history of the House of Windsor

Edward VIII with Wallis Simpson and 'a friend' - you might have missed this bit in Madonna's new film

[At a time when the Tories and right wing press are engaged in a full blown rabid demonisation of supposed 'benefit scroungers' and those supposedly living a life of luxury at the expense of the hard-working majority, it is paradoxical - to say the least - that the same Tories and their media baron friends are in full blown propaganda mode to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June this year - despite quite overwhelming and quite shocking evidence that, yes, the Queen has somehow successfully got away for sixty years living in a palace and cruising around the world at the taxpayers expense. Moreover, given the sad fact it seems kind of unlikely that Terry Deary and the BBC are going to turn their popular 'Horrible Histories' series around to the House of Windsor to mark the Diamond Jubilee, it seems it is our revolutionary democratic duty - to say the least - to republish an article from Socialist Review from July 1981 on 'The horrible history of the House of Windsor'. I am indebted to the author - Colin Sparks - and Socialist Review for kindly giving me permission to republish this article, written around the the time of the marriage of Charles and Diana]

An undistinguished military man in his early thirties is to be married in front of vast crowds and the world's press. How does this come about? What is there about the man which makes his person and doings so fascinating to millions of people? It can hardly be his personal qualities. Despite acres of newsprint, there seems to be nothing very special about him which would distinguish him from thousands of other upper-class twits who merit much more modest treatment. The only possible explanation is the family he was born into. But what's so special about the Windsor family? Colin Sparks investigates.

All families have long histories and they are usually littered with rather sordid events about which it would be better to say nothing. It is in the nature of the institution that it makes people behave in very strange ways. But since this particular family is held up as a model to us all, and rests its wealth and power purely and simply on its history, it is well worth looking hard at that history.
If Charles is going to be King because, and only because, of his descent, it must be admitted that his family's record is so spectacularly sordid, and so riddled with malice and accident, that he would do better to change his name and try to lead a normal life.
Without delving too far into the murky and bloody history of the English Crown, with its murders, imprisonments, usurpations, massacres and general bloodiness, we can conveniently begin with one James II. His subjects suspected him, quite rightly, of secretly preparing tyranny and of being a crypto-Catholic (about the worst thing you could be at the time). He was consequently deposed in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. This was a bloodless coup, largely because the commander of the royal forces, a certain John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of the current war-monger Winston Churchill, was bribed to change sides just before the decisive battle. This noble act founded the young officer's future fortune but left the old king with no army and no choice: he had to run away.
He was replaced by his daughter Mary. Her claim to fame was that she was a Protestant and was married to the equally Protestant William of Orange - King Billy himself. So the origins of the modern monarchy are based upon a military coup and surrounded by bribery, treachery and foreign mercenaries.
After a few years, the direct line of descent ran out. The descendants of James II were disqualified for their obstinate persistence in Catholicism. So Parliament had to look around for someone else. There were two qualifications: some sort of distant claim and Protestantism - the second of which was much more important. They lighted on an obscure German prince, the Elector of Hanover, and duly shipped him over to be George I.
There was not much wrong with him as a King, apart from the fact that he could not speak English.
Despite having locked his wife up in a castle for 32 years, George I somehow managed to produce offspring, and he was duly succeeded by his son George II, who managed to learn English. His main claim to fame was that, despite having fought in many battles, he eventually died by falling off a lavatory seat in Kensington Palace, striking his head against a chest and expiring from the wound thus gloriously received. His son, Frederick, was already dead, having been hit by a tennis ball nine years earlier, so he was succeeded by his 22 year old grandson, George III.
If Georges Mark I and Mark II had been harmless if rather expensive, George III was not at all harmless. He was simply the most prominent of a pretty bad lot.
His sister, Caroline Matilda, for example, was married off at the age of 15 to the King of Denmark, whose major activity was, as the chronicles quaintly put it, pursuing 'low amours'. To recompense herself she took as a lover the Prime Minister, Struensee. This being discovered, he was hanged for his temerity and she was locked up in a castle for the rest of her life. George's youngest brother, the Duke of Cumberland, seduced Lady Grosvenor was sued by her husband for 'criminal conversation' (ie adultery) and had his love letters read out in open court. Another brother lived with a woman who had the triple handicap of being a widow, illegitimate, and the daughter of a tradeswoman.
George III, who was a bit of a snob and a lot of a puritan, decided that these goings on were getting the family a bad name, and he determined to clean things up a bit. One of his main instruments was the Royal Marriages Act, which he forced through parliament in 1772. This piece of despotism, which is still in force, states that any marriage of a descendant of George II is null and void if contracted without royal consent. This caused an awful lot of trouble because, while George III had a lot of children, they were, in the main, a very much worse lot even than his brothers and sisters.
All of his morality had an unfortunate effect on poor George, and he became a little crazy. On one occasion, driving through the Royal Park at Windsor, he stopped his coach, got out and tried to shake hands with an oak, being under the impression that it was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. This state of mind came and went with George until, opening the 1811 session of Parliament, he began his address: 'My Lords and Peacocks This was going too far: he was declared unfit to rule, locked away in Windsor Castle, and his eldest son was made Prince Regent.
Now, if George III was mad, his son was positively bad. He had, for example, committed the greatest crime that any future King of England is capable of: he had married a Catholic. Besides this, his extravagance, his reaction, his general uselessness, were nothing. His marriage, to a Mrs Fitzherbert, in 1785, he kept a secret, but it presented him with problems. It made it difficult to marry legally and beget an heir, and without that assurance of future monarchy, Parliament would not agree to pay off his enormous debts. Fortunately, Mrs Fitzherbert was a reasonable woman, and for a bribe of £3,000 a year, agreed to keep quiet about the whole thing.
This noble gesture freed the Prince of Wales to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who had been located on the Prince's instructions that, 'One damned German frau is as good as another.' The couple met for the first time three days before the wedding, and hated each other on sight. The Prince was drunk during the wedding, and had to be supported by the Duke of Bedford. The bride nearly fell down under the weight of her wedding dress. Despite these ill omens, the marriage produced a daughter, the succession was secured, and Princess Caroline was given her marching orders in the shape of a formal letter of separation. The Prince of Wales resumed his life with Mrs Fitzherbert.
So far, things have been simple if unpleasant, but at this point it starts to get complicated. In 1817, the successor, Princess Charlotte, died giving birth to a still-born child, and the whole business was back in the melting pot.
The Prince Regent was in a mess. He was married to Mrs Fitzherbert, but she was a Roman Catholic, and if this was discovered he would forfeit his title and be convicted of bigamy to boot. He could shelter behind the Royal Marriage Act but his second regal wife was completely estranged from him. One recourse Was to divorce Caroline and find a third wife. This could only be done on grounds of adultery, which was quite drastic, since the adultery of the wife of the heir to the throne is High Treason, and if convicted, Princess Caroline would have to be beheaded.
(Incidentally, this piece of barbarism is still law, so Lady Di had better keep her vows if she wants to keep her head.)
There were plenty of children floating around from his various brothers, but they were all illegitimate - due once again to the aforesaid Royal Marriages Act - and none of them would do. The Prince started proceedings to divorce his wife, which turned up a good deal of extremely unsavoury evidence as to her activities with her brother Bergami, but she died before she could be tried. The Royal Brothers also took matters in hand. They left their long-standing mistresses in the lurch and hurried off to find eligible princesses.
The situation was pretty desperate. The unemployed regularly took pot shots at the Prince Regent with live ammunition, and if one of them were to aim straight, the first 17 candidates for the throne had no children who could legally inherit. And the first 14 candidates were all themselves over 40. Unless one of them could get legally married and produce a legal heir, then it was a fair bet that the crown would pass from ageing hand to ageing hand quicker than the ball at Cardiff Arms Park. This, it was felt, would be bad publicity for an already detested monarchy and might give occasion for seditious activity tending in a distinctly Jacobin direction.
There was an additional incentive: legal marriage and legal heirs were the only things that would persuade Parliament to raise the salaries of these extravagant drones and pay off their vast debts.
Fortunately for all concerned, the numerous royal houses of Germany had numerous offspring whose parents were quite happy to overlook the moral and personal shortcomings of future spouses who might be expected to sit on the throne of England. Consequently a ready supply of royal brides and bridegrooms were on hand. Thus a Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen had no qualms in marrying the foul-mouthed and disgustingly reactionary Duke of Clarence, despite the fact that he had only just left the actress Mrs Jordan with whom he had lived happily for 20 years. And at the same ceremony, a Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg took on the relatively progressive Duke of Kent, who had just left Madame de St Laurent, with whom he had lived for 27 years.
There were a flurry of other Royal Weddings, but the succession was soon secured: the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria produced a daughter named Victoria. Thus, when George III described by Shelley as 'An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king' finally snuffed it in 1820, the Prince Regent duly became George IV. He was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Clarence as William IV, and he by Victoria.
With her, things settled down a bit. She reigned for an awfully long time and was pretty respectable. Around her, the myth of the modern monarchy was built. Some idea of the breadth of her comprehension can be judged from the fact that female homosexuality has never been illegal in Britain, since she refused to believe that women did that sort of thing and consequently it was exempted from legislation.
She married yet another royal German stud, Prince Albert, and produced an enormous brood. Her successor, Edward VII, was rather less respectable, gambling prodigiously and allegedly cheating at cards, but his personal scandals were confined to illicit liaisons with actresses and married women rather than horrendous crimes like secret marriages to Catholics. His successor, George V, was again very respectable. On being told that a famous man was a homosexual, he replied, 'But I thought that chaps like that shot themselves.'
So far, the vagaries of the succession had depended on the bizarre accidents of dynastic matrimony, and with George V's marriage to Princess Mary of Teck, great-grandaughter of George III, it looked as though things were nicely sewn up among the petty German princes. Almost without exception, these people had been political reactionaries of the deepest hue, but they had never been too far out of step with the ruling classes. At this point there comes about a filthy coincidence of reactionary politics and the absurd regulations of royal marriage which once again shifted the line of succession drastically.
The successor to George V was Edward VIII. He wanted to marry a Mrs Simpson, who was a commoner, an American, and a divorcee. About the only thing going for her was that she was not a Catholic. In addition, young Edward was an enthusiastic admirer of Adolf Hitler. The British ruling class did not much mind fascism as long as it kept the workers in check, but some of them saw a war coming with Germany over the spoils of the world, and thought that they needed to watch their backs. Consequently, Edward was forced to abdicate.
He immediately shuttled off to the Bertschesgarden to have an audience with Hitler, who went on record as considering him 'an ideal fascist monarch'. He continued his contacts with the Nazis during the war. In 1940 the Spanish foreign minister, one of the intermediaries, reported: 'The Duke is a firm supporter of a peaceful arrangement with Germany. The Duke definitely believes that continued severe bombing would make England ready for peace.' A later dispatch said: 'The Duke was considering making a public statement... disavowing present English policy and breaking with his brother (ie the King).' Even when shipped off to the West Indies, he continued in contact with Nazi agents, and after the war settled down next door to Oswald Mosley outside Paris.
His brother and successor, George VI, broke with tradition by marrying a commoner, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the current Queen Mother and an enthusiastic supporter of Ian Smith. Their eldest daughter is now Queen, married to a Greek of German royal origin, and mother of the splendidly undistinguished Charles. It is on that illustrious history that his claim to our attention and respect rests.
Nothing sums up the tacky nature of the British royal house so much as its name. We have traced a welter of Guelphs, Saxe-Coburgs, Saxe-Meiningens, and god knows what else, none of which seem to bear much relation to homely old Windsor. The fact is that it was changed to Windsor for 'patriotic' reasons during the wave of anti-German feeling at the start of the First World War. They are a family whose record proves time and time again that they will do literally anything to hang on to their wealth and power.
None of this would count for much, or even be worth the telling, if it were not for the ideological importance of the House of Windsor. They are projected as a central image of our society. They buttress the idea of the family. They prove that some are born to rule and others to be ruled. They embody the notion that merit is of no importance and inheritance is everything. They are the focus of every attempt to paper over the stinking decaying reality of British society with pretty pictures of an ideal dream of the past. Like the reality they conceal, they are a festering sore, and the great lie that they are fitted by breeding to reign over us is the apex of a system of lies which drowns the truth every day.


Monday, February 06, 2012

Tony Blair does his bit for the unemployed

Readers of Histomat currently out of work might be interested in the following 'job' I came across recently:

Senior Research Analyst
Tony Blair Faith Foundation
Location: London

Report to: Director of Projects and Corporate Operations

Start: Immediate start

Application Close Date: Friday 10th February

About the role

The faithandglobalisation.org site will be a factual and analytical tool designed to inform users about the role of religion in the world. It will be a pioneering online database of key facts about religion and globalisation, using mapping based technology to bring the data alive from a range of authoritative resources. This combined data will be brought to life through cutting edge research, analysis, debate and daily news updates. We will engage some of the world's foremost thinkers to lead the debate on how faith interacts with globalisation.

The 'main duties' include 'maintaining a rigorous and ethical approach to the quality of research' and 'required skills' include 'high attention to detail' and would 'suit post-holders' if they are 'keen to be involved in a ground breaking project', 'mature in attitude' and above all 'well presented and business-like'.

Its nice that Blair seems to have learnt something about the importance of 'rigour and ethics in research' since his infamous bullshit over the dodgy Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction dossier, but I'm guessing those who think that one particularly 'ethical' way to contribute to a debate about how 'faith interacts with globalisation' might be to bring the founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation himself to an international criminal court for war crimes need not apply - however 'well presented and business-like' they were. They would doubtless be displaying an 'immature attitude'.

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