Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

More on Bourgeois Revolutions

 The question of 'how revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?' has most recently be raised by Neil Davidson in his monumental work (which I have currently got about 1/3 of the way through, and am enjoying so far) but in 1989, Alex Callinicos wrote a critically important article in International Socialism 43 on 'Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism', which is now online, and which Davidson in many ways builds upon in his study...
Edited to add: A video introducing 'Marxism and Revolution Today' with Callinicos and Davidson

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Marikana Support Campaign Appeal

Marikana Support Campaign 
An Urgent Call for International Solidarity
On the 16th August, South African Police fired live ammunition at striking miners at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, killing 34 and injuring 78. Many were killed were shot at close range while trying to surrender. The Marikana miners were demanding a tripling of their salary to R12,500 (£950 or €1100) per month.   

In the following days, 270 of the Marikana strikers were arrested and charged with the murder of their colleagues under the Common Purpose doctrine, a law last used under Apartheid. They were released on bail after public pressure forced the National Prosecuting Authority to provisionally drop the charges. Since the massacre the community of Marikana has lived under a virtual State of Emergency, with police patrols, raids and reports of unlawful arrests and harassment. Over half of the Lonmin Strike Committee due to testify before the Commission of Inquiry have been over the past days charged with murder.

To date not one police officer or official has been charged for the massacre at Marikana. Yet some of the miners still face the prospect of long prison sentences as the State intends to blame the miners themselves for the violence. Most of the miners who were killed and badly injured in Marikana were sole breadwinners and the loss of their earnings has left many of their dependents in a desperate situation.

The Marikana Lonmin miners secured a 22 percent pay rise. It was short of the R12,500 demand but the deal was hailed as a victory. What the miners have actually done is fight a brave fight for a living wage. They have drawn public attention to the gap between the wages of mine workers and platinum and gold sector bosses, many of whom earn 1000 times more than the average miner. The massacre and the victory have inspired strikes in other mines across the country. The Marikana Support Campaign has been endorsed by the various strike committees and this has raised the demand for campaign material.  

What the Campaign has achieved so far

The campaign and legal representatives have kept vigilant watch on the State sponsored Farlam Commission of Inquiry, pushing for transparency and forcing a postponement to ensure the presence of families so that the restorative objective of the commission can be met more effectively. In addition the campaign has organised legal representation for twenty six of the families, paid for a private forensic pathologist, kept close watch on biased media reporting and offered alternative analysis, mobilised for practical support and resources for the families of the strikers, organised placard protests of the inspection of the killing site as well as nationwide pickets and demonstrations demanding an end to police harassment and intimidation of the Marikana community, brought large numbers of people to Marikana to bolster locally organised protests and to attend strike and community meetings, produced campaign materials, badges, leaflets and T-shirts etc; organised striker and community representative speaking tours in cities and townships across the country.

All of this costs money. In the coming months we need to increase the pressure on the Farlam Commission of Inquiry through a coordinated national and international campaign that presses for a just outcome for the Marikana families of the deceased, the scores injured, and hundreds arrested.

Account Name: HRMT 1 for Marikana Support Campaign
Bank: Nedbank   
Branch: Constantia
Branch Code: 101109
Account No: 1011102366
Reference: Marikana Support Campaign
The Marikana Support Campaign is supported  by many organisations including: Amnesty International SA, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Advocates For Transformation Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Equal Education Law Centre, Human Rights Media Trust, Lawyers for Human Rights, Legal Resources Centre, RAITH Foundation, Right To Know, Section 27, Social Justice Coalition, Socio-Economic Rights Institute, Treatment Action Campaign, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, National Council of Trade Unions, Marikana Development Forum, Wonderkop Women’s Group, Wonderkop Tribal Council, Alternative Information Development Centre, Soweto Concerned Citizens.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Socialism # 136

The new issue of International Socialism is now online, and includes Alex Callinicos, Alexander Anievas, Adam Fabry and Robert Knox on Obama, his foreign policy record and the upcoming US election, Panos Garganas and Richard Seymour on Greece, Donny Gluckstein on what real democracy looks like, Nicola Ginsburgh on Owen Jones's Chavs, Paul Blackledge on autonomist theorist John Holloway, Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad on the crisis of black political leadership in Britain exposed by the 2011 riots, and Laura Vooke on the impact of the crisis on the working class in Britain, as well as other material on for example, debates in political economy, Paul Levi and the Bradford riots of 2001.

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Saturday, October 06, 2012

E.P Thompson and C.L.R. James

Friday, October 05, 2012

Historical Materialism Conference 2012

Ninth Annual Conference
Weighs Like a Nightmare (8-11 November, SOAS, London)   
Registration is now open and a provisional programme is now available to download  


Eric Hobsbawm on becoming a Communist in 1930s Berlin

[Of the late, great Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson once noted that '"Politically," having joined the CP [Communist Party] in 1936, he belongs to the era of the Popular Front, that pursued an alliance between capital and labour which has determined his strategic thinking... "emotionally", however, as a teenage convert in the Berlin of 1932, he remained tied to the original revolutionary agenda of Bolshevism.' There is lots of good stuff on Hobsbawm appearing now online - the Radical History Review interview is up now - and Verso for example have put up his 2012 introduction to the Communist Manifesto. Personally I have also always had a soft spot for an interview that Hobsbawm did in 1998 about his early political activity as a young socialist activist in late Weimar Germany with Andrew G Marshall in the Independent - entitled 'Revelations: Eric Hobsbawm, Berlin 1931-33: I was working for the revolution', which I will reproduce below]

MY PARENTS got engaged just before the First World War but because one of them was British and the other Austrian, they had to go to Switzerland to marry. Unable to return to either of their home countries, they decided to live in Egypt. So I was born, by a historic freak, in Alexandria. Unfortunately both my parents died within a very short period of each other and I was looked after by close members of my family, first in Vienna and then Germany.

Growing up in Berlin, between 1931 and 1933, was the most crucial phase in my life. I reached puberty and the age of intellectual revelations. Back as far as I can remember I've been on the left. If you grew up in central Europe, there was no way a Jewish kid could be on the right, because by definition they were anti-Semitic. These were the years of the rise of the Nazi Party, so that naturally confirmed my views. There was a political pressure-cooker developing, it was almost impossible not to be drawn. I would listen to the adults talking: how can we prevent Hitler coming to power? And later, when will he come to power?

It was one of the phases when my uncle, who I was living with, happened to be in the money. So we lived an ordinary middle-class existence - which was by no means always the case. I joined the Socialist Schoolboys, an association of secondary left-wing students that was de facto a part of the communist movement. For the part of Berlin in which I lived this was very much a minority activity, with perhaps three or four boys or girls from middle-class families per school. We would sell their periodical called the Shulkampf ( the struggle in the schools) which by that time was in decay - duplicated rather than printed.

I attended the last legal demonstrations and distributed leaflets for the last, no longer quite free, elections, all of which was quite dodgy. It was certainly not something we particularly liked doing. I was never physically threatened, but you didn't ring the bell or stop for a discussion, just chuck the leaflets through the letter box and whip down the stairs again. Obviously it took a lot of conviction; however, in retrospect, it's not absolutely clear to me if I considered it political or a more grown-up version of cowboys and Indians! But it was very serious, I could have got into a lot of trouble - quite big trouble. The left was particularly in danger after the burning of the Reichstag building as Hitler blamed the communists. In fact my friends were so worried I was asked to keep the duplicator under my bed for a few weeks; being a foreign citizen my risks were considerably less. I was treated as an Englishman at school, although I spoke better German, so I was more likely to be blamed for the Treaty of Versailles. Yet that did not mean I was not constantly aware. My uncle taught me an important lesson: never do anything that might even suggest that you are ashamed of being Jewish. Quite a lot of people wanted to dodge it.

We didn't leave because of the new laws - as foreigners we were not so affected - but because my uncle was wiped out. He had been working for an American movie company, and in the middle of the slump there was a new law in Germany so that 75 per cent of the employees had to be citizens. Considering the uncertain economic situation of both sides of my family, the idea of moving to somewhere else for a job was not at all surprising. My uncle decided to move back to England. I was a little bit short of 16 and I doubt I would have become a historian if we'd stayed on the Continent.

It took a lot of getting used to England, especially as to start with it was much more boring than Germany. School was not a problem because secondary education was way behind, so I was treading water until university when I could continue the intellectual conversation that had already begun in Berlin. After the slump and the rise of fascism, it was not so unusual to be passionately communist and Marxist even in England. In fact by my arrival at Cambridge in 1936, communism on a small scale had got quite a long way.

If you start off as a minority child, first by being English in Austria and Germany, then in a political minority, you become how EM Forster described one of his characters: always standing at a slight angle to the universe. It is probably why my books have done well in other countries, I am not exclusively rooted in a single culture. I've known other children of refugees, who reacted to this by becoming 200 per cent British.

Attending secondary school in three different countries broadened the kind of literature I read and the kind of experiences I can have. My ideas are based on a fair amount of travelling around and talking to people. For example, going to Italy in 1951 was very important, I couldn't have gone before the war because it was a fascist country. I discovered, in some ways, a completely new range of things. In the South there were people who joined the communist party despite being Jehovah's Witnesses! Here were people whose views, although officially left and right, did not use our political syntax. For them the age of Luther and the age of Lenin were the same. This gave me ideas on working on movements of history that shouldn't have been there in modern times. The same trip also introduced me to writing about the history of social bandits, (those who were not considered to be just criminals by the people around them) which is now a very large field, which I think I can safely say I invented.

The cause to which I devoted a good deal of my life hasn't worked out. I hope it has made me a better historian, because the best history is written by the people who have lost out. It sharpens your analytical capacity. The winners think that history came out right because they were right, while the losers ask why everything was different, and that is a more profitable question. Personally, I can't complain. My cause has not done well but my books, inspired by it, are very successful. Writing was not what I set out to do - very different from when I was in secondary school in Berlin working for the world revolution, but it is much better than what could have happened.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Eugene Genovese (1930-2012)

From The New Republic

 It’s been a bad week for Marxist historians. Last Thursday, southern historian Eugene Genovese died; over the weekend, the British scholar Eric Hobsbawm passed away. The two men had strikingly different career arcs: Genovese famously moved from left to right, embracing conservative politics in his late years. Hobsbawm remained on the left. There was at least one point of convergence: In 1995, Genovese reviewed Hobsbawm’s sprawling history of the 20th century in TNR.

As Genovese noted at the end of his review of Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes,

Eric Hobsbawm is one of the few genuinely great historians of our century. He is also the one genuinely great historian to come out of the Anglo-American Marxist left. I admit to my prejudice. He has been the strongest influence on my own work as a historian, and in 1979 1 dedicated a book on black slave revolts to “Eric Hobsbawm: Our Main Man.” I have made a great many mistakes in my life,, but reading and rereading Hobsbawm’s powerful new book I am relieved to see that I got at least that much right.

Yet as Steven Hahn notes, with works like Roll, Jordan, Roll Genovese also takes his place in Marxist historiography, despite his later shift to the right. Hahn notes

the sheer power and inspiration of his teaching. With a few note cards in hand, Genovese delivered brilliant, wide-ranging lectures on early modern Europe (not his specialty), the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the crisis of the 17th century while pacing back and forth in front of the room. He exuded confidence, erudition, and intense political commitment, and he sent a powerful message to those, like myself, who were desperately searching for socially and politically meaningful things to do: that intellectual work was immensely valuable to any movement for change; that the only politically useful scholarship was scholarship of the highest order; and that if we studied hard enough, read broadly enough, and thought deeply enough we would write the sort of history that made a difference. For me, nothing would be the same again.

Eugene Genovese’s scholarship made an enormous difference despite the challenges that he faced. As a self-proclaimed Marxist, he had to make his way through an unreceptive professional discipline – history – in a country still feeling the effects of McCarthyism, and he took on one of the central areas of historical interpretation, the coming and significance of the Civil War. What got him a hearing and then the notice of distinguished historians like C. Vann Woodward and David Potter was the breadth of his research, the clarity of his arguments, and the respect he paid to intellectual adversaries (sometimes more than they deserved). At a time when most scholars thought the debates over the Civil War had largely been resolved and a “consensus” interpretation reigned supreme, Genovese wrote of a fundamental, and revolutionary, battle between two different and increasingly antagonistic societies: a bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South. In a series of immensely influential books – especially The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) – he insisted that slavery established the foundation of a radically different order in the southern states, limited the course of southern economic development, and gave rise to a pre-bourgeois ruling class that fashioned a distinctively reactionary world view. These were perspectives and concepts that had little familiarity among American historians, who tended to be cautious and hostile to social theory, but within relatively short order they were framing a new and energetic discussion about slavery, the South, and the Western Hemisphere. To this day, the fields of southern and United States history show the effects.

Yet no book of Genovese’s has had the impact of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974). A long, complex, almost Hegelian treatment of the master-slave relation – and of the dynamics of power that were embedded within it – Roll, Jordan, Roll is a study of intense struggle, unfolding over decades, that enabled slaveholders to establish political and cultural hegemony but also enabled slaves to claim basic rights for themselves and room for their communities. At the book’s center is slave religion, at once a concession to the cultural authority of the masters and a celebration of the slaves’ solidarity, spirituality, and destiny--a measure of the contradictory character of the slave regime. Replete with comparative and international references, political allusions, and literary flourishes, Roll, Jordan, Roll may well be the finest work on slavery ever produced.

But it, along with the rest of Genovese’s early work, had serious critics, especially on the left. While acknowledging his analytical skills, many felt that Genovese was too admiring of the slaveholders’ power and too dismissive of the slaves’ rebelliousness; too interested in class and not sufficiently interested in race; too focused on the pre-capitalist features of southern society and the paternalist ethos of the masters; and too blind to the capitalist impulses of an intensely commodified world.

If we are remembering Genovese at his best, the last words might go to
Colin Barker who reviewed Genovese's collection of essays In Red and Black in 1973 for International Socialism:

This collection of essays by Professor Genovese is generally very fine. Genovese, author of The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), gives us here a set of writings characterised by its sensitive and undogmatic approach to Marxist analysis. Several essays take issue – sharply, and yet exactly from the vantage of fundamental solidarity – with some theoretical approaches of Black Power intellectuals. Genovese offers a spirited defence of the white Southern novelist William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which deals with an historical slave uprising, insisting that the Negro people cannot be free without an accurate understanding of their real past history, not some essentially mythical history in which every struggling Negro was automatically either an Uncle Tom or a saint of the revolution.   

Above all, every revolutionary movement needs the truth, not a romantic and sentimental account. Thus the exceptional essay, American Slaves and their History, explains at one and the same time – through a marvellously close and imaginative recreation of the social world of the plantation – why slave revolts were not widespread in the South and yet how in practice the Negro slaves did struggle, individually and collectively, against the slave-owners’ oppression and shaped the very world of the Southern gentry.  The book is also impressive in its principled assertion of the vital necessity of revolutionary socialist politics in America.

Edited to add: Read Scott McLemee
and Louis Proyect and Christopher Phelps

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Some early reflections on 'One Nation Labourism'

Or, how can socialists challenge the 'new conservatism' of Ed Miliband?

The official British labour movement is supposed to be marvelling at the intellectual genius of Ed Miliband this week - for a) doing what anyone involved in acting at any level can do, i.e. learn the lines of a speech written for him and deliver them in public, b) noticing there is a paternalistic historic political tradition called 'One Nation Toryism' dating back to Disraeli (that along with 'Old Labour' died something of a death when British capitalism stopped growing from the 1970s onwards and so making some meaningful positive reforms to benefit the poor was no longer easily done), and c)  noticing that no previous Labour leader has tried to invent a new tradition of 'One Nation Labourism' (perhaps because if anyone else before him had tried to raise this banner many people might have thought 'Hang on, isn't "One Nation Labourism" a bit too close to, er, "National Socialism"?' - something  Ed Miliband can just about get away with because of firstly Disraeli's own Jewish heritage and secondly Ed Miliband's own Jewish heritage and the experience of his family fleeing the Nazis).  Miliband's 'One Nation Labourism' looks as if it is basically 'Blue Labour Re-loaded' - but with less stress on appealing primarily to a 'white [supposedly racist] working class' up North and more stress on trying to win a [supposedly] nationalistic middle class in the South of England.  In other words, the solution for Ed Miliband is not only to adopt Tory policies (acceptance of cuts, public sector pay freeze etc etc) but now also use Tory rhetoric about how Britain is really apparently 'One Nation' (an 'imagined community' if there ever was one at the best of times but a sick joke at a time when inequality is at a record level in Britain) - as well.    So what is to be done, aside from building the fight back by marching for 'a future that works' on 20 October and trying to build a new tradition of political trade unionism independent of Labour among the rank and file of British trade unionists by supporting initiatives like Unite the Resistance?  Here I think we can learn something from the late Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband - Ed's father - in an article he wrote in 1987 for Socialist Register with Leo Panitch on 'Socialists and the "New Conservatism"'.  Speaking of the social democratic parties like Labour (this is before the rise of New Labour - so his criticism applies doubly today), Miliband senior noted that:

These parties, or at least their leaders, offer at best a return to the days of the Keynesian/welfare state, a reflationary fiscal policy and corporatist-style relations with the trade unions. In effect, they boast of a ‘new realism’ which promises an even more thorough accommodation with capitalism than before. A cloudy rhetoric mingles some of the catch-phrases of the new conservatism with the theme of ‘social compassion’. Thus, Neil Kinnock offers ‘efficiency, individual liberty, wealth creation, patriotism’ as the guiding tenets of the Labour Party, and then adds ‘justice, compassion, and equality’ for good measure. This is supposed to ‘reassert democratic socialist values as an effective body of values for modern needs rather than a ghost from the past’. (The Future of Socialism, Fabian Tract no.509, 1985) But this verbiage, and the policy proposals which accompany it, leaves altogether untouched something which is not ghostly at all, namely the existing structures of power, property and privilege of ‘late capitalism’, and the structures of domination which it is the purpose of socialism to dissolve.

This is why an essential task for socialists is to conduct a sustained, principled and informed critique of social democratic leaders, the result of whose endeavours is not to advance socialist transformation but to retard it. Making this critique presents many problems in the light of diverse electoral and political considerations; and there is always the danger that such a critique will turn into ineffective vituperation. Nevertheless, the socialist case has to be affirmed and developed if it is not to be lost in a fog of obfuscating rhetoric.

The difficulty of the task is underlined by the fact that socialists in Britain have to support the return of a Labour Government; and American socialists, presented with no alternative in many states, may even have to vote for Democratic candidates. In the constricted choice offered at the present time, it is clearly of great importance that the most reactionary bourgeois politicians [e.g. Cameron, Clegg today - Ed] should be driven from office. But socialists have long been aware that elections alone do not determine public policy. The outcome of elections has certain effects, and that is a virtue of capitalist democracy. But the reforms that may flow from electoral outcomes are limited and vulnerable. This is why the purpose of political action for socialists must not only be the achievement of immediate defensive victories, but the widening of the basis of support for reforms which open the way for more fundamental transformations.

We are under no illusion that the institutions of capitalist democracy provide the mechanisms of a smooth achievement of such reforms. Even if a government pledged to radical changes of policy at home and abroad were to be brought to office on the basis of a substantial electoral and parliamentary majority, we have no doubt that it would meet fierce resistance from conservative forces, international as well as national. But this is not the issue before us today in the countries of advanced capitalism. On any realistic assessment, the coming to office of such a government is not an immediate prospect, to say the least, and this makes speculation on the likely ‘scenario’ when such a government does gain office not very relevant to the immediate tasks facing socialists in these countries. Speculation on the degree of opposition even to the re-establishment of something like the Keynesian/welfare state might be more in order.

In this connection, we note that there are many people on the Left who believe that the goal of the Left today should be to establish a Swedish or Austrian-style social democracy in countries like Britain or the United States. Even if this were the appropriate goal for socialists to pursue, it is our view that this fails to address the structural factors which prevented the emplacement of a hegemonic social democracy in the past. It was not that the leadership of the British Labour Party did not look to and admire Sweden; this was always the ‘beacon’ of even right wing social democrats. But the structural position of British capital in the world economy, the leading role of financial capital, the international function of the currency, all underwrote capital’s opposition to anything more than the tepid Keynesianism which the British Treasury practised in the postwar decades. The same factors account for capital’s successful opposition to effective trade union involvement in economic decision-making and the extensive ‘decommodification’ of services of the kind seen in Sweden and Austria. What is true of Britain in these respects is a fortiori true of the United States.

It was precisely such factors which rendered the advances that were made so vulnerable to the attacks of the ‘new conservatism’. In this view, those people on the Left who do want Swedish or Austrian-style social democracy, but who reject a confrontation with capital as too ‘extreme’, are simply refusing to face reality. In the conditions of ‘late capitalism’ in these countries, radical reform inescapably entails such a confrontation.

This means that socialists have to take a long-term view. Two closely related issues are involved. How do we go about convincing more and more people that there are socialist solutions to the shortcomings and derelictions of capitalism? And what are the agencies which will enable socialists to contribute collectively to the advancement of specific struggles, to the spread of socialist ideas, and ultimately to the struggle for power? 

...Social democracy, for all practical purposes, has long given up any such project. When forces within social democratic parties have arisen – and they repeatedly have – to push their leaders to the left, these forces have sooner or later been defeated, among other reasons because leaders under challenge could always claim that the Left was not only unreasonable, unrealistic, etc., but also that its challenge must be fatally damaging to the electoral chances of the party, given the spectacle presented to the electorate by a divided and squabbling party. Electoral considerations, in this respect as in many others, are inevitably of great help to party leaders, since these considerations push followers to want a ‘unity’ which is of great advantage to those who are in control of the party. Social democratic parties will long remain major actors on the political scene of capitalist democratic regimes; and as we have already noted, they are always to be supported against conservative parties. The important point, however, is that on all the evidence that has accumulated over many decades and in many countries, these parties cannot be expected to address seriously and effectively the task of education, mobilisation and struggle which any party truly committed to socialist transformation must undertake.

 There are many people on the Left today who strongly feel the need of a party free of the various shortcomings which have burdened the socialist movement in the past. At present, the will to embark on such an undertaking is stymied by the thought of past failures and disappointments, and by the sense that what matters above all is to support the existing parties which, however inadequate they may be, offer a chance to get rid of reactionary governments. But it is perfectly possible to give such support and yet to envisage the coming into being of new socialist formations that would seek to fulfil the many tasks that now go largely by default.

There is, however, a different sort of inhibition which has in recent years prevented many socialists from thinking seriously about socialist alternatives, in this and in other realms, and to which we have already made reference. This is the loss of confidence and even belief that the socialist project is more than a utopian vision; and with this goes a great deal of self-flagellation and breast-beating about the sins of omission and commission with which the Left charges the Left. Self-criticism is of course very necessary; but much that goes on in this vein is not so much self-criticism as self-indulgent political masochism, accompanied by further retreat from socialist purposes and policies.

All this will pass; and the crying need for new agencies of socialist transformation will sooner or later come to be seriously addressed.  In large measure, it is the deficiencies of social democratic and Communist parties which have produced the ‘new social movements’ of the last two decades – movements whose focus is sexual and race oppression, ecology and peace. These movements have undoubtedly enlarged and enriched the meaning of socialism. All such movements are an essential part of the coalition of forces on which a socialist movement must depend.

However, no such ‘new social movement’ can obviate the need for a socialist party (or parties). Nor can they replace organised labour as the main force on which a socialist movement must rely. Here, and in the actual or potential support of the working class in general, is where the main strength of such a movement has to be found. The ‘working class’ in advanced capitalist countries includes some three quarters of their population – blue collar, white collar, service and distributive workers, men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled. The task of a socialist party is to afford a degree of coherence to a class which is inevitably fragmented and divided, and to do so without any pretension of achieving a necessarily artificial and imposed ‘monolithic’ unity.

In the coming years, two tasks are in this respect critical. The first is to persuade those workers who have moved electorally to the Right that the new conservatism [ie. Miliband  - Ed] is their enemy. The second task is to persuade those many members of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ working class who have never supported the Left that their interests and aspirations are bound up with the struggle against capitalism.

This is the necessary perspective for anyone committed to the task of socialist transformation. Any other perspective exposes those who harbour it to disillusion, despair and retreat. But long-term though the perspective is, it is not ‘millennial’: for the socialist project is solidly grounded in the growing awareness of vast numbers of men and women that the system cannot deliver on the promises which its apologists so generously dispense. The central problem for socialists is that this awareness is not accompanied by the conviction that there exists a socialist alternative to capitalism. It is this which must be overcome; and it can only be overcome if the socialist case is articulated and developed in a mode of thought and speech which is rigorous, fresh and accessible...

We are well aware that nothing which has been said here provides a blueprint for the solution of the many practical problems that socialists have to resolve if they are to make headway with the socialist project. Our justification, if one is needed, is that at this point of the struggle for socialism in the countries of advanced capitalism, there is need for more than a concentration on the nuts and bolts of the enterprise. At least as important, and in some ways more important, is a clear perception of the structure which the nuts and bolts are intended to keep in place. In other words, what is also needed and badly needed, is a reaffirmation of the principles and values which make up the socialist project, and an insistence that there are radical, rational and feasible alternatives to the ways of life dictated by a system whose own needs are ever more sharply in conflict with human needs.

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Monday, October 01, 2012

The History Man: Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

 This morning, while teaching (a seminar on 'Social Justice and Inequality' appropriately enough), one of my students suddenly interrupted and said 'Could I just make an announcement: Eric Hobsbawm has just died'.  I had mixed initial emotions - impressed that a first year politics student knew of Hobsbawm and understood it was a significant enough event to interrupt the class, slight irritation and disappointment that the aforementioned student was clearly not paying full attention to the seminar discussion and was checking his phone - and, above all, I guess sadness that the inevitable had happened and Eric Hobsbawm - one of the greatest Marxist historians of the 'short twentieth century' and a towering figure perhaps almost unique in his range of concerns, breadth and depth of knowledge and command of sources - was no longer with us.

I only met Hobsbawm very briefly on one occasion - when he was speaking alongside Dorothy Thompson and John Saville at the launch of Saville's Memoirs of the Left in London almost a decade ago - but, ever since one of my history teachers at school had kindly photocopied an interview with Hobsbawm from the Guardian c mid-1990s for me because of my interest in Marxism, like many many others, his writings on Marxism, history and the responsibility of historians in society have been a massive influence.  The 1978 interview with Hobsbawm by Pat Thane and Elizabeth Lunbeck from Radical History Review provides one of the best short introductions to his life and work.  'It seems to me that it is very important to write history for people other than pure academics', Hobsbawm noted in that interview.  'The tendency in my lifetime has been for intellectual activity to be increasingly concentrated in universities and to be increasingly esoteric, so that it consists of professors talking for other professors and being overheard by students who have to reproduce their ideas or similar ideas in order to pass exams set by professors.  This distinctly narrows the intellectual discipline...the kind of people one aims at are, I hope, a fairly large section of the population - students, trade unionists, plain ordinary citizens who are not professionally committed to passing examinations but do want to know how the past turned into the present and what help it is in looking forward to the future'.

This healthy approach was shaped by Hobsbawm's commitment to politics and his leading role in the Communist Party Historians Group (and its successor groups) - which avoided what he saw as the 'danger' of Marxist history being about just labour history in the 19th and 20th centuries and instead 'had people who dealt with everything - classical antiquity, medieval feudalism, the English revolution.'  After beginning with the Fabians (on which he did his PhD), Hobsbawm did write some classic works on the modern labour movement like Labouring Men and Worlds of Labour but also wrote an extraordinarily wide range of topics, - from primitive rebels and social bandits like 'Robin Hood', to jazz (under the pseudonym 'Francis Newton') and 'Captain Swing' (an English agricultural workers rebellion), to his famous quartet on modern world history The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes.  His orthodox Communism - which led later to an embrace of what was becoming New Labour - and becoming 'Neil Kinnock's favourite Marxist' - meant parodoxically politically he was weak despite his generally outstanding strengths as a historian.  As Chris Harman noted in 2002 - reviewing Hobsbawm's autobiography Interesting Times, 'there might be two Eric Hobsbawms. One ended his book on the 20th century, The Age of Extremes, by describing the system as out of control and threatening all of humanity. The other was at that very time praising New Labour’s approach to politics....there is the Hobsbawm who still calls himself a Marxist, who wrote Labouring Men and The Age of Revolution, is scathing about the revisionist and postmodernist historians, is damning about the Blair government, and still insists on left wing political commitment.  But there is also the Hobsbawm who backed the Labour right against Tony Benn, told us the poll tax could never be beaten, extolled the Italian Communist Party’s cosying up to the Christian Democrats, and sponsored the Marxism Today gang as they galloped towards a political yuppieland of interviews with Tory ministers and columns in the Murdoch press.'

In particular, if while as a member of the Historians Group of the CPGB, twentieth century history was impossible to write, even when Hobsbawm did come to write the history of the twentieth century in Age of Extremes, his famous thesis about 'The Forward March of Labour Halted' meant he did not focus on the possibilities presented by working class struggles.  (There were other surprising omissions in Age of Extremes, such as the lack of mention of the struggles for black liberation in the US and even figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are absent - and this from a jazz enthusiast and pioneering jazz historian (!) -  though this is perhaps understandable given Hobsbawm was writing a quite personal account of the century late on in his career rather than a 'total history').  Yet for all his limitations, ever since Hobsbawm joined the Communist movement in the early 1930s as a young Jewish socialist activist who decided to embrace the future rather than no future as Hitler's Nazis seized power in Germany - at possibly the darkest moment in the history of the century - up until his recent intellectual defence of Marx and Marxism in 'How to Change the World', his voluminous intellectual work over the course of his life represent a colossal, immense contribution to not only historical scholarship in general and Marxist scholarship in particular - but also a resource of hope that future generations can draw upon in the struggle for a socially just and equal world.  

I will add obituaries and tributes etc as and when I get time:

Guardian obituary
Ian Birchall in Socialist Worker
Paul Blackledge in Socialist Review
Neil Davidson for New Left Project
Mark Mazower in the Guardian
Mark Steel in the Independent
Ramachandra Guha in Prospect David Feldman Eric Foner in The Nation Matthew Cole
for Verso. Marc Mulholland in Jacobin
Tristram Hunt  in the Telegraph and Guardian
Evan Smith on Hobsbawm and '1956'.
Donald Sassoon on Open Democracy
Keith Flett for the London Socialist Historians Group
David Morgan and the Socialist History Society
See  also Daniel Pick, Ishan Cader, Nicholas Jacobs
and Jonathan Derbyshire
Listen to Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
Articles in Past and Present Making History interview
Edited to add:  To take up and challenge all the points raised by the rabid but predictable anti-Communist attacks on Hobsbawm that have appeared over the last day or so from critics ranging from the Right to the 'pro-war Left' would be a true 'labour of Sisyphus', but perhaps the very worst and most disgraceful I have seen so far comes from A.N.Wilson in the Daily Mail.  Wilson - who might want to reflect on how his last book about Hitler  was received by historians of Nazi Germany (see for example Richard Evans in the New Statesman) before accusing anyone of writing 'badly written' books as he does of Hobsbawm, has penned perhaps the most appalling and insulting attempt at character assassination to date. He does not pause a moment to pay even the most begrudging of respects but launches straight in: 'He hated Britain and excused Stalin's genocide but was hero of the BBC and the Guardian Eric Hobsbawm a TRAITOR too?'  Wilson makes the slanderous accusation that Hobsbawm was a Soviet agent on the grounds that 'he was at Cambridge during the thirties and knew Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and other Soviet agents', and because he later wanted to read his MI5 file to find out who had 'snitched on him'.  This is it in terms of 'evidence', but who needs 'evidence' when you are A.N. Wilson writing in the Daily Mail and so can get away with inferring from this that therefore Hobsbawm must 'have done something of which the authorities were entitled to take a dim view - possibly something actively criminal'.   Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain - ipso facto the authorities were going to be taking a 'dim view' of anything he did - actively 'criminal' or not.  Yet, the fact Hobsbawm was a political refugee in Britain, was a historian, and was a well known member of the CPGB means he would have been possibly the worst and most useless person for the Soviet Union to have had as an agent on lots of counts, and Hobsbawm's remark seems to have been a perfectly innocent inquiry into which individual was spying on him on behalf of the British state.  Wilson also accuses Hobsbawm of 'openly hating Britain' - and there are certain things Hobsbawm probably did 'openly hate' about Britain - its Empire and British imperialist crimes abroad for example, or the racism and anti-semitism at home that he would have encountered as a Jewish refugee from Nazism during the 1930s.  Such anti-semitism came from groups like the British Union of Fascists and newspapers who supported the Blackshirts like the er, Daily Mail (who were also cheering on Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in this period).  Yet one only needs to glance at Hobsbawm's voluminous writings on labour history and working class political traditions and culture to give the lie to the idea that Hobsbawm 'hated' British working class people.   As to Wilson's final suggestion that 'Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace...his books will not be read in the future' - well, while historians are not in general in the business of making predictions, I think this is one prediction that almost every historian can safely say will be proved wrong.   Whether anyone will read or remember A.N. Wilson after his passing is a far more open question...

Edited to also add: I wrote too soon - you can get even worse than Wilson - see  this Spectator piece by the poisonous Douglas Murray.

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