Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Richard Hart - socialist historian

I was saddened to learn about the passing earlier today of Richard Hart, a great Jamaican socialist historian - indeed one of the great historians of the modern working class in the Anglophone Caribbean (and also an important trade union activist who played his part in the making of that class himself). I never met him, but had the fortune to correspond with him - his numerous works were a tremendous contribution. My condolences to his friends, family and comrades. RIP.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Capdown: Henryk Grossman and capitalist downfall

Capdown - Time For Change EP (1999)Capdown - Act You Rage (Single) (2003)

'Marxists cannot develop revolutionary theory in the 21st century without, in the process, returning to the ‘hidden from history’ debates which took place between Frederick Engels’ death and the rise of Stalinism. [Henryk] Grossman is an important part of our heritage, alongside other participants in those debates such as Luxemburg, Bukharin, Isaac Rubin, Pavel Maksakovsky, Roman Rosdolsky, and even the reformists Hilferding and Bauer.'
So noted Chris Harman in 2007, in a review praising Rick Kuhn's biography of Henryk Grossman, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism.

The Tories are currently busy heralding the very mildest signs of limited economic growth as 'recovery' from the current great recession , but as the Marxist economist Michael Roberts notes, this is in large part down to a 'credit-fuelled property and financial asset boom' based in large part on a mini 'credit bubble' based around housing (anyone getting any sense of deja vu here?). 

Few people did more work on uncovering the crisis tendencies of the system than Karl Marx, and one of the most important Marxist economists in defending Marx's stress on the importance of looking at the underlying tendency of the rate of profitability to fall to see the roots of economic crisis was Henryk Grossman. 

Marxists, particularly Marxist economists, are therefore indebted to the continuing work of the team around Rick Kuhn who are in the process of translating for the first time the great corpus of Grossman's work into English from four languages over four forthcoming volumes (a taste of the first volume can be found in an essay ‘The Change in the Original Plan for Marx’s "Capital" and Its Causes' [an essay by Henryk Grossman]in the latest Historical Materialism journal, but available online in an earlier form here, with a contextualising introduction by Kuhn available here. Readers of Histomat who are interested in economic theory will also appreciate Grossman's essay ‘Fifty years of struggle over Marxism, 1883-1932’, about which Kuhn has again written a valuable contextual piece, bringing discussions around Marxist economics up to the present day.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why I am not resigning from the SWP

I didn't really want to write a post like this - but have been prompted to do so in part by the (uncharacteristically) incredibly sectarian and indeed rather disgusting tweet by left wing Labour Party member Owen Jones, who as a respected journalist one might have hoped would have known that there are often two sides to any story, and that he knows and can know only one side of this particular story. As a SWP member who attended the party's national conference this weekend, I thought I should just briefly explain why I am not joining those who have sadly decided to now leave, but am instead - like the overwhelming majority of comrades, including a significant section (and indeed possibly the majority) of the former 'Rebuilding the Party' faction - staying in the party.

It is pointless to try and pretend that this last year has been one of the 'finest hours' in the history of the SWP - despite the many positive contributions to the wider movements and struggles the SWP has made over the past year - to the anti-Bedroom tax movement, helping to force the Labour Party to include a commitment to abolition in their manifesto - to the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, helping through mass Unite Against Fascism mobilisations to block the advance of the fascist EDL at a time when fascism is growing across crisis-ridden Europe - to name just two examples. A useful report of this weekend's conference by the party's national secretary Charlie Kimber can be found here, but in short the conference went as well as possible given the depth of the crisis that has so badly afflicted the organisation this past year, a crisis that has now hopefully been finally resolved as a result of the democratic decisions taken at the conference. It is worth quoting from this section of Kimber's report:

The conference passed overwhelmingly a motion that set out the political context of the divisions and the debates they have sparked. And delegates passed near-unanimously a revised set of procedures for our disputes committee which looks at matters of discipline and conduct. We hope this will give every member confidence in the processes. 
Furthermore the central committee (CC) made a statement that many people have suffered real distress as a result of taking part in or giving evidence to the disputes committee, or due to slurs on the internet and we are sorry to all of them for that. Specifically two women who brought very serious allegations suffered real distress. We are sorry for the suffering caused to them by the structural flaws in our disputes procedures, the way in which the two cases became a subject of political conflict within the party and slurs on the internet.
Delegates showed through the votes at conference that they did not believe the party and its leadership are sexist or trampled on the politics of women’s liberation or covered up injustice.

In fact, it is testament to how well the conference went - given fears among members about how it might go beforehand - and the new spirit of unity that the vast majority of those attending the conference would have left with - that the faction not only voted to wind itself up after conference but have also handed over their factional blog to those who have just left the party. There will still of course be debates, tensions and discussion within the party - (to be honest, there are always debates, tensions and discussion within an organisation like the SWP) - especially when the matter of the causes of the crisis arises, but the vast majority of the party voted essentially to 'agree to disagree' about the details of this - and try to move on, hopefully slowly rebuilding the trust that has been damaged through actions rather than words. In other words, the SWP has survived, and, with time, can hopefully slowly move forward in a unified manner now and rebuild.

Why is this important or noteworthy for anyone reading outside the SWP? Well, this is partly because for all its faults the SWP remains the largest revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain, and one of the largest internationally. To build up such a revolutionary organisation to the size of something like the SWP takes decades - anyone wanting to read more on this should definitely read Ian Birchall's fine biography of SWP founder Tony Cliff. It is telling that in his resignation letter, Birchall notes that 'I do not intend to join any other organisation'. This is doubtless not just because of his age and health as he says, and not only because none of the alternatives on the revolutionary left in Britain look particularly appetising for various reasons, but because as a historian and activist he knows just what a long hard slog building a revolutionary organisation from very small beginnings is - particularly in the non-revolutionary conditions of modern Britain. After all, Birchall has dedicated a large part of fifty years of his life to the building of such an organisation - indeed he has made a incredibly valuable contribution to such a task over those years. Such a task of building from scratch is surely only to be taken if it is absolutely necessary (I once wrote about when this would be the case before on this blog here).

No doubt at least some of those now leaving will try to form some new revolutionary socialist organisation at some point - but they should not be in any doubts about the very difficult task they have ahead of them. They would say of course such a task is easier than working to rebuild the SWP - well now they are free to go and test that opinion in practice. This to be honest will probably be the best for all of us in many cases. I will still see many of those leaving as comrades and am sure many of them will continue to make a very positive contribution to the working class movement. They should just not be under any illusions as to how difficult such a task they have ahead in waiting for them.

This is particularly because in the current conditions, when there is a basic contradiction in Britain between huge anger at the Tories' brutal class warfare - and the general lack of a fightback, at least on a national level, from our side in response. The low level of class struggle means that any socialist organisation is going to be in ever-present danger of turning inwards through frustration at the lack of progress. In such a context, a very serious accusation as that levelled against the SWP's former national secretary was always going to be incredibly damaging, and serve as the catalyst for pent up bitterness and wider frustration with the leadership.

More critically, the low level of class struggle means that there are pressures in two directions on every revolutionary organisation - and indeed on every individual revolutionary. Firstly, there is an ever-present danger of sectarianism - standing aside from the movements and just denouncing everyone else on the Left - and in particular the trade union leaders who (since retreating from the mass co-ordinated strikes in 2011) have not led as effective a fightback against the Tories as they might have done - from the sidelines. This is easy to do - there are numerous sects on the left in every country one can find who just do this. The temptation to simply rail against the trade union bureaucracy for the sake of it when one is in a tiny minuscule grouplet is even greater. The SWP - no doubt in part because of not only its intellectual tradition and culture but because of its small but not insignificant roots in the wider movements and class struggles - has not retreated into sectarianism but continued to build the wider movements against austerity, working with the trade union leaders for example when they call even the mildest kind of action in the hope it can fan the flames of a wider revolt - and supporting more moderate initiatives like the People's Assembly as well as building more militant groups such as Unite the Resistance to try and put more pressure on the official leaders of the trade union movement through building up rank-and-file networks from below.

Secondly, the SWP has also to date resisted the other ever-present danger or temptation - that towards liquidationism. It sometimes seems easier and more desirable and 'realistic' for revolutionaries (again particularly those in very small organisations) to play down their revolutionary Marxist politics and make 'short cuts' (towards for example electoralism, particularly strong after the welcome success of left parties like Syriza in Greece) or look for a new 'saviour upon high' to deliver instead of stressing the centrality of the organised working class in changing society. For example, in Britain we have seen a widespread pessimism towards the possibility of militant class struggle in response to the Tories attacks, and an adaptation towards the dominant popular ideas of both 'movementism' and 'left reformism'. The SWP for example was rather a lone voice on the left in Britain when it criticised Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union (and someone whose militant rhetoric about civil disobedience against austerity has meant he has been seen by many as a kind of 'saviour from on high'), after his disastrous failure to effectively act to defend jobs at Grangemouth.

Many of those on the wider Left - including Owen Jones - who refused to criticise McCluskey for not organising a militant class fightback over Grangemouth (through for example trying to encourage workplace occupations) did so because they agreed with McCluskey about the possibilities and potentialities of 'reclaiming Labour'. This idea would make more sense if it was 1913 instead of 2013 - we have over 100 years of trying to 'reclaim Labour' and since 1945 every Labour government has been worse than the previous one. An Ed Miliband government, given the economic crisis which looks set to continue, will - sad to say - be even worse than Blair and Brown's governments, not because Miliband is personally politically worse than Blair or Brown, but because of the scale of the crisis, and the resulting welfare cuts and attacks on workers Labour in office will make as a result in order to try to show they can 'manage' British capitalism just as 'responsibly' as the Tories.

The need for independent working class politics and revolutionary socialist organisation remains as great as ever - indeed in some ways it has never been more needed than now. As many people have noted, if an organisation like the SWP - a revolutionary organisation that tried to intervene in the movements to win people to the politics of socialism from below while avoiding both sectarianism and liquidationism didn't exist, it would have to be re-invented from scratch. Fortunately, the organisation does still exist. In his resignation letter (the partial, misleading and one-sided nature of his account about conference and the dispute cases I am not going to try and respond to), Dave Renton notes that

'one of the things I liked about the SWP was that ... there were comrades who were self-effacing, articulate and principled. I think of well-known figures such as Duncan Hallas and Paul Foot, but the real strength of the SWP was far below, in the branches, almost every one of which had an autodidact Marxist, a worker who had never gone to university, a person who would quote obscure ideas of Marx or Lenin and use them to relate events happening in the world outside and to the tradition of the workers’ movement. Over the past 20 years the self-taught workers have almost all left, while the party-liners have multiplied...'

The reason this decline of self-taught working class Marxist intellectuals in the SWP has happened is overwhelmingly for objective reasons - the defeats the working class movement has suffered in Britain over the past 30 years under Thatcherism and then Blairism and now neo-Thatcherism, and the resulting wider decline of the revolutionary Left and its wider cultural institutions in society. It would have been more incredible and surprising in a sense if the regrettable shift that Renton describes had not happened in such circumstances. What the SWP has nonetheless still managed to do - in a way that most of the revolutionary Left has not done - is to survive as a relatively sizeable national organisation in this objectively unfavourable climate with small but at least in some places significant roots in the organised working class movement.

Since Dave Renton evoked Paul Foot, it seems perhaps fitting to end with a quote from Foot which remains as essentially true today - despite the damage done to the organisation this year - as it was over ten years ago when it was written:

Of the socialist parties in Britain today by far the largest, by far the most disciplined, by far the party most likely to organise wider campaigns in a non-sectarian manner, is the Socialist Workers Party, whose main (though not its only) fault is that it is not big enough.

Edited to add: A statement from the SWP in response to some of the recent resignations

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Monday, December 16, 2013

New Book: Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade and Castaway

Just in at Bookmarks bookshop, courtesy of the Socialist History Society and Redwords books:

Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade and Castaway by Christian Høgsbjerg

Chris Braithwaite (aka 'Chris Jones') was a black Barbadian seaman who became a leading organiser of colonial seamen in inter-war Britain.  He played a critical role in the Pan-Africanist and wider anti-colonial movement alongside figures such as C.L.R. James and George Padmore.  Christian Høgsbjerg recovers Braithwaite's long over-looked life as a black radical and political trade-unionist, and suggests his determined struggle for working class unity in the face of racism and austerity retains relevance for us today.

Endorsements / reviews

'Through his scrupulous research of the compelling life and times of Chris Braithwaite, Christian Høgsbjerg has uncovered the vital contribution of a pioneering black activist and anti-colonial stalwart. Braithwaite's brave achievement should be on the curriculum of all our schools.'
Chris Searle, Race & Class

'Høgsbjerg shines light on a generation of radical fighters against racism and exploitation, caught between the spark of light generated by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the crushing darkness of Stalinism.'
Hassan Mahamdallie, author of Black British Rebels

'Christian Høgsbjerg's "biography from below" of West Indian seaman Chris Braithwaite opens a portal onto an dynamic Black and Red Atlantic world of work and politics.  Here is an excellent contribution to a "people's history of the sea."'
Marcus Rediker

'this short new biography of Chris Braithwaite (known as Chris Jones) rescues a forgotten hero of the working class movement from relative obscurity'
Resolute Reader

'In opening up the story of 'Chris Jones' or Chris Braithwaite, author Christian Høgsbjerg has also opened up a largely otherwise forgotten chapter, still with interesting questions, in the history of the British Left.'
Charlie Pottins

'a creditable introduction to this important but hitherto neglected figure in seafaring history'
Mike Gerber, 'Uncovering an unknown hero', Nautilus Telegraph, 47, no. 6 (June 2014), p. 28.

'Chris Braithwaite was born in 1885 in Barbados. He became a leading organiser of colonial seamen in inter-war Britain. As a black trade unionist and political activist his life has been marginalised in accounts of this period. Like Mancunian black activist Len Johnson he played an important role in his own community, representing black seamen and other minorities who faced racism,not just from shipowners and fellow seamen but also from their trade union. How he continued to stay active in politics given the forces against him makes this such a wonderful book... well worth buying and only £4!!'
Lipstick Socialist

'Chris Braithwaite, who often operated under the name Chris Jones, was a Barbadian trade union activist who chaired the Colonial Seamen’s Association and regularly spoke at rallies and at the Speakers Corner section of London’s Hyde Park. Like CLR James, he contributed political pieces to International African Opinion and other anti-colonial periodicals, and, like James, he was a leftist critic of Stalinism who believed in the power of the organized working class to change society. In contrast to James, of course, the story of Braithwaite’s trans-Atlantic activism has been largely overlooked; Høgsbjerg’s characteristically sturdy study goes a considerable distance toward rectifying this oversight.'
Kent Worcester, 'Renegades and Castaways', New Politics 57 (Summer 2014).

Book Launch
Tuesday 18 February, 6.30pm at Bookmarks,1 Bloomsbury Street, London,WC1B 3QE call 0207 637 1848 to reserve place, £2 admission, refundable on any purchase.

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Defend University of London Student's Right to Protest

Please sign this statement:

We, the undersigned, unreservedly condemn the escalating use of police against peaceful protests at the University of London.
On 4 December, students were violently evicted from Senate House, University of London (UoL), by private security and police. On 5 December, a protest march in Bloomsbury in their support, calling for 'cops off campus', was attacked and kettled by police, and over 30 staff and students were arrested.
We believe this marks an escalation in the level of force against student-led protests at the University of London which threatens the ethos of the University. It seems clear that UoL Management are not negotiating with students and staff who protest - including occupying students - but are simply attempting to suppress dissent. We condemn the blanket injunction brought by the UoL against demonstrations or occupations across their many campuses.
We call on all who care about the future of our Universities to object to this invited invasion of the police onto campuses. Police intimidation has no place in a seat of learning. Many staff and students have fled repressive regimes. We are horrified at supposedly 'liberal' university managements adopting these tactics.
We demand an immediate repudiation of the injunction by UoL Management, no more police on campus, and for UoL Management to engage with students and staff about the concerns that led to the protests in the first place.

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Nelson Mandela's words remain weapons

“How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers and then at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world. It is only if the workers strengthen their organisation before and after liberation that you can win. If you relax your vigilance you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain. You just support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods. If the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.”
Nelson Mandela to South African trade unionists, September 1993. RIP Nelson Mandela.

Quick Xmas quiz question: Who was David Lammy, a black Labour MP, talking about in 2007 when he said this: 'I feel very strongly that he follows in the tradition of Nelson Mandela who talked about peace and reconciliation'. For a reminder of the shocking truth read here.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Work, Class and Resistance - ISJ Day School

Work, Class and Resistance:
A one-day conference hosted by the International Socialism journal.
Saturday 8 February 2014.

How relevant is Marx’s conception of class? Has the working class been rendered impotent by neoliberalism? What are the prospects for resistance from trade unions today?

The conference brings together academics and trade union activists. It is an opportunity to discuss and debate the shape of the working class today and the potential for resistance.

Plenary sessions:
The Working Class Today
Resistance and Organisation
Theorising Class
The State of Workplace Organisation
Precarity and Poverty
Social Media

Speakers include:

Ralph Darlington- professor of employment relations at the University of Salford and author of Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism.
Phil Taylor- professor at Strathclyde business school and editor of New Technology, Work and Employment.
Jane Hardy- professor of political economy at University of Hertfordshire and author of Poland’s New Capitalism.
Kevin Doogan- author of New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work.
Joseph Choonara- author of Unravelling Capitalism.
Jim Wolfreys- Kings College London UCU branch president.
Xanthe Rose- Postgraduate student at the University of Leicester.

Saturday 8 February 2014
Registration: 10.30 for 11am start. Ends: 5pm.

Location: Birkbeck, University of London,
Malet Street,

0207 819 1170
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/173209256217117/

Space is limited so book a ticket, email isj@swp.org.uk or phone 020 7819 1177. Those attending will be asked for a donation (£10 waged /£5 unwaged or student) to cover our costs.

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