Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Alex Callinicos on the Ukraine crisis

The reaction of the Western left to this enormous crisis has been, to put it mildly, confused. Far too many (including some who should know better) have been willing to cast a blind eye at or find excuses for Russia’s military intervention. The reasons for this attitude are, in ascending order of respectability, Stalinist nostalgia, exaggeration of the role of the extreme right in the anti-Yanukovych movement, and the search for some counterweight to American power. The net result is a revival of what used to be called campism in the days of the Cold War—seeing states in conflict with the US and its allies (then the USSR, now usually Russia and China) as in some sense progressive allies of the left.
      None of this has much to do with the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The fate of Ukraine preoccupied Trotsky during the last year of his life in 1939-40, as Europe rolled into the Second World War. Distilling the results of prolonged debates among Russian Marxists (which continued after October 1917) in which Lenin consistently insisted on the necessity of defending the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, Trotsky defended “the independence of a United Ukraine” (ie incorporating Polish Galicia and Volhynia) even if that meant “the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR”—and this, remember, at a time when he was vehemently arguing that the Soviet Union was still a “degenerated workers’ state” that revolutionaries should defend against Western imperialism.
       Quoting Trotsky can be a religious exercise, but his views are worth bearing in mind when considering supposed Marxists who dismiss the idea of Russian imperialism as an “abstraction” or even advocate the partition of Ukraine. Putin’s apologists on the Western left must explain how their stance squares with the right to national self-determination. If they defend Crimea’s (extremely dubious) claim to separate from Ukraine, where do they stand on the long-standing Chechen struggle for independence from Russia, brutally crushed by Putin? And what will they say if Russian forces move into eastern Ukraine and become mired in crushing the nationalist insurgency that this would almost certainly provoke?
       Of course, the US remains the dominant imperialist power on a world scale. And of course, it is thoroughly hypocritical for Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry to denounce Putin’s seizure of Crimea, forgetting Washington’s interventions in its own backyard such as the October 1962 naval blockade of Cuba or the December 1989 invasion of Panama (a state, incidentally, carved out of Colombia at Teddy Roosevelt’s behest at the beginning of the 20th century).
But from a Marxist perspective, imperialism is about more than American power. The classical theory of imperialism is, more than anything else, a theory of intra-capitalist competition. Imperialism is a system, the form taken by capitalism when the concentration and centralisation of capital bring about the fusion of economic competition among capitals and geopolitical competition among states. Putin’s actions express exactly this imperialist logic, combining geopolitical preoccupations (above all, blocking NATO expansion) with economic motivations (fear that Russian firms will be squeezed out of the Ukrainian market by European rivals).
      The confused left response to the Ukrainian crisis is in part the result of an optical illusion created by the so called “unipolar moment” of apparent US global dominance after the end of the Cold War. Particularly in the light of Afghanistan and Iraq, American power has seemed so overwhelming and so malign that everything must be subordinated to resisting it. But this was always precisely an illusion. US hegemony has always been contested, reflecting the fact that imperialism involves a hierarchical distribution of power among competing capitalist states. This fact is becoming more important now.
       The relative decline of US power that has become evident since Iraq and the crash is opening up a period of more fluid competition, in which the weaker imperialist states begin to assert themselves. Putin’s strategy has reflected this for some time. Potentially a much more important conflict is developing in Asia, as China’s economic rise encourages its ruling class to flex their muscles geopolitically, in particular by building up the military capabilities to exclude the US Navy from the “Near Seas” along their coasts. The clashes between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are harbingers of more to come.
     In this era of growing inter-imperialist rivalries political clarity among revolutionary Marxists is vital. In New York, London and Moscow the main enemy is at home (a slogan Karl Liebknecht coined in response to a great inter-imperialist war whose centenary we will soon be remembering). But acknowledging this is no reason to apologise for our own rulers’ rivals. Imperialism is a hydra-headed beast. It needs to be killed, not merely one of its manifestations.

Full article 'Imperial Delusions' (from the forthcoming International Socialism journal) online here, while Tariq Ali also has quite a good article on the Ukraine here, as does Mehdi Hasan here 

Edited to add: See also Rob Ferguson and Sabby Sagall in the new Socialist Review

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phil Evans - revolutionary cartoonist

Phil Evans on the Police...

...the Nazis...

...on Enoch Powell...

...and wider racism...

Karl Marx

...Phil Evans on the Labour Party and socialism...

...on Socialist Worker...

On alternatives resulting from the capitalist crisis

The man who decided to redefine socialism

(Apart from the last, which contrary to popular belief and malicious rumour was not drawn with Richard Seymour in mind, all images from Steve Irons (ed.) The Joke Works: The Political Cartoons of Phil Evans (London: Socialist Worker, 1982).)

The passing of the brilliant socialist cartoonist Phil Evans (1946-2014) attracted much less attention than that of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, probably because for the last twenty years or so of his life he had not really been engaged with the political Left and so he had kind of slipped out of view.  But his work from the 1960s until the 1980s Evans won a reputation on the Left as one of the best socialist cartoonists in Britain - and as the cartoons above hopefully show, he was able to wonderfully satirise everyone ranging from  fascists and racists on the right to the limitations of the reformist Left.  As Kent Worcester noted back in 2009 in The Comics Journal, 'Phil Evans is one of the most compelling visual satirists to comment on British politics in the past half-century. His career gives new meaning to the phrase “underrated.” His pen-and-ink drawings mainly appeared in SWP periodicals, most notably the weekly Socialist Worker. But they also turned up in numerous U.K. trade union publications in the seventies and eighties. His work was at one time highly regarded among labor movement activists, but invisible even then to many fans of English political cartooning. For American readers, the only plausible point of entry into Evans’ work would have been Trotsky for Beginners, published in 1980, with text by Tariq Ali, or Marx’s Kapital for Beginners, published two years later with text by David Smith'.  

In The Joke Works, a collection of his cartoons from 1982,  Evans described how he first came to draw his first political cartoons from 1965 onwards, aged 19 as a student at Leeds College of Art, and what he was trying to do with cartooning.

'At Leeds I founded - and was the secretary of - the Socialist Society, an alliance of different political groups, ranging from the Labour Party to the Communist Party to the sectarian Socialist Labour League.  I was never attracted to the CP because of the lessons of history: history is marvellous because it has (as Trotsky says) 'great irony'.  In 1956, no-one had to point out the connections between Hungary and Suez, because they happened silmultaneously.  History put them together.  More importantly for me, history put the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the height of the Vietnam War together (January-June 1968).  When I was nineteen, I started to draw political cartoons and design posters and leaflets.  One of the first posters I made was "Smash Imperialism East and West".  It was of a burning tank and was critical of both the imperialism of America in Vietnam and the imperialism of Russia in Czechoslovakia....

When I was younger I wanted to be an oil painter, a portraitist.  More recently I realised that to be a cartoonist is just as difficult - more difficult perhaps - because you have to get your hands dirty in the political fight.  I have always been interested in propaganda - I've always felt that if you're good at something then why not try to make a point with it?  A little pamphlet, with cartoons, on the struggle of a tiny group of ordinary seamen against their right-wing union leaders, or textile workers against a sweatshop employer, is more important than the cracks on the face of an important diplomat or princess.'

At some point in the 1980s, as Worcester notes, Evans parted company with the SWP, but his vast output for the socialist left - including the Our Norman cartoon strips about the life of a every day factory worker ('Norman') and his life and thoughts on the world around him remain an inspiration.  Worcester's descriptions of the Our Norman series really sum up what was critical about Evans's 1970s political cartooning at its best: 

'The cartoon tells its story from inside the labor process, from an explicitly blue collar point of view. Most editorial cartoonists see “politics” as something that concerns politicians and other prominent individuals, as something practiced in legislative chambers and presidential debates. Evans starts from the assumption that the experience of work itself is a fundamentally political question...What distinguishes Phil Evans’ 1970s-era cartooning is its remarkable confidence in the forward march of the masses. His work from that period anticipated a time when a confident and united working class could seize the levers of power.'

As Roger Huddle, who worked with Evans in the SWP printshop during the 1970s, recalled, 'Norman was every worker, someone ducking and diving though the trials of work in a factory. He got one over on the bosses, kept up his union dues and took great pride in outwitting the foreman. How Phil maintained the excellence of this series was his commitment to the workers’ struggle.'   Workers in struggle today - together with other socialists - can still learn much from the wit and wisdom of Phil Evans - who, like Tony Benn, made a tremendous contribution to powerfully and memorably communicating socialist ideas to a wide, popular audience.

Edited to add: Phil Evans obituary in the Guardian and this comment by Roger Protz plus:
David Widgery on Phil Evans (1981) 

Edited to also add: Kent Worcester's obituary of Phil Evans in New Politics 

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn and Bob Crow

Apparently, the Ancient Greeks didn't write obituaries. They simply asked one question of the dead man: 'Did he have passion?' Both Tony Benn and Bob Crow, who both tragically passed away this week, had passion. But they both had much more than this - they had principles.

I didn't know either of these two leading figures of the trade union and socialist movement personally - and so firstly, my condolences to those friends, family and comrades who were close to them. The RMT leader Bob Crow I will not say so much about, I only saw speak a few times at a distance at rallies - his sudden passing at the shockingly young age of 52 is in a sense more shocking than that of Tony Benn. The loss of both, and in the same week is a devastatingly sad blow for the British working class movement. Crow was one of the most militant and political trade union leaders of his time, while Benn had long established his credentials as the best loved, best known and most widely respected socialist in Britain over the last few decades - and one of the twentieth century British labour movement's greatest orators. On that last point, I have to be a bit careful - I didn't hear figures like James Maxton and Aneurin Bevan of course - but I was fortunate enough to first hear Benn speak at Marxism in the late 1990s, when he could still leave one spellbound with his eloquence and the logical way he built up his argument. Inevitably his powers as an orator faded in recent years with age, but I count myself fortunate to have seen him speak when I did (as I am grateful for example to have heard Paul Foot speak, though I think sadly I was a bit too young to see him at his best).

Rather than try and write a formal political obituary myself - which would have to track Benn's long march to the Left, from technocratic spin doctor to the very best kind of parliamentary socialist, his internationalism from the Movement for Colonial Freedom to Stop the War Coalition onwards, his sense of the importance of history and the hidden radical and revolutionary history of Britain in particular, the question mark about whether if he had been ten years younger at the time of Respect's rise in 2004/5 when the anti-war movement was still going strong he might have left the Labour Party and helped form a socialist alternative to it, etc etc - I will link to some political obituaries of Benn and Crow at the end, and instead here just share some personal memories of Tony Benn.*

Coming into political activism as a student in the late 1990s, Tony Benn had almost a kind of 'rock star' legendary status among left-wing students. Before one had even seen him or heard him speak in person, one knew about him. I remember as a teenager for example watching a video of Spitting Image at a house party (quite why it was on in a room upstairs at a houseparty full of teenagers trying to get drunk and get off with each other I don't know), but I still recall a satirical sketch 'News at Benn', where there was a weather report where I think the Tony Benn puppet would be declaring 'the rising sun of socialism...' every morning. I think I first saw him up close after a NUS student demo for free education (Blair's New Labour had just imposed tuition fees) around this time, where after speaking at the student rally he came onto our bus briefly before it set off back to Leeds because one of the students on it was a distant relative or something. Even I as a relatively hardened Marxist and member of the SWP found it hard not to get caught up a little bit in the excitement of it all.

Hearing Benn speak at the end of countless national demonstrations became a regular feature - almost to be taken for granted. He was the person one surged forward among the crowd to hear - almost like it was your favourite band coming on at a festival - and one strained to catch every line. After several demonstrations - and after attending his meeting at Marxism festival every year it was possible to do so - the novelty wore off slightly, but the memorable often repeated and often witty quotes and anecdotes stuck with you long after much else about the demo or meeting had been forgotten. Some examples:

 'In 1930, as a five year old, I met Ramsay MacDonald, when he still was the Labour Prime Minister, and he gave me a chocolate biscuit, so I have been a bit suspicious of all Labour leaders with chocolate biscuits ever since'

 'I met Gandhi in 1931...When Gandhi was in London, somebody asked him, "What do you think of civilisation in Britain?" and Gandhi said: "I think it would be a very good idea!"'

 'The Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it - a bit like Christians in the Church of England'.

 'The people set up parliament as a democratic tool to manage capitalism - now capitalism is using parliament as a tool to to manage the people' (or something like this)

 'I, as a three-year-old, met a Labour MP in 1928. I didn't see him again for seven years. He was in a black shirt, in Parliament Square, as leader of the British Union of Fascists. His name was Oswald Mosley. It is always tempting for the hard right to gain power by focusing on a scapegoat and frightening people; of focusing on a supposed threat as Hitler did and building support on the basis that only a strong man can deal with it.'

 'In Mein Kampf Hitler said, "democracy inevitably leads to Marxism." Now you work that one out.'

Living in Leeds, where his son Hilary became a MP, one sadly didn't see Tony Benn very much during the Stop the War movement - as he didn't want to come to to speak at a mass rally in Leeds against the war because it would risk embarrassing his son who was making a political career in New Labour ('I'm a Benn, but not a Bennite' was Hilary's 'catchphrase'). However, on occasion, in recent years he would pop up to Leeds to speak - I remember him a few years ago at Leeds Civic Hall for a Stop the War event, where I got the chance to speak to him very briefly beforehand and one time outside the Grand, where he was speaking at his 'An evening with Tony Benn tour'.

This last occasion sticks in my mind. I got there very early in order to sell Socialist Worker outside, as SWP members tend to do (when we are organised enough, at least). Now, I am aware that selling revolutionary socialist papers is deeply old-fashioned - and the future of socialism is supposed to be on twitter and facebook or something - but there are sometimes moments when being an unreconstructed Trotskyist paper seller has its own reward. Not that many times, it has to be said - but they do happen. This was to be one of them. For who should come up the street but the Grand Old Man of British socialism himself, and then rather than just go into the venue, which might not even have been formally open then, he set up his little fold up chair on the street, sat down next to me, took out his pipe and proceeded to light up. Imagine this - just me and Tony Benn - outside the then deserted venue on a warm and sunny summers evening - waiting for his fans and supporters to arrive.

It must have been a time when the Nazis in Britain were still on the rise so probably late 2000s - I remember I had some Unite Against Fascism stickers and leaflets with me, and so anti-fascism is what I talked to Tony Benn about. I felt a little bit like the young student who in the revolutionary year of 1917 approached Trotsky (I think Trotsky describes this in his autobiography My Life) and offered to become his personal bodyguard. It wasn't quite the same, and I made no such offer to Tony Benn, but I remember thinking - 'shit, should some fascists come around the corner and try to attack Tony Benn - the only thing that would be in their way would be me - and it was my revolutionary duty to defend Benn should the need arise'. But fortunately - especially for Benn, given my poor streetfighting abilities - no gang of fascist thugs came around the corner - but instead just a steady stream of Tony Benn supporters began turning up - and they were as equally delighted as I was to see their hero just sitting outside the venue in the sun, willing to talk to anyone and everyone who came up.

Anyway, that seems to be a nice memory on which to end this - on what has otherwise been a very sad day, and with Crow's passing, a very sad week for the Left. I will add obituaries, etc below as and when I get time. RIP Tony Benn and Bob Crow - two great and inspirational socialists.  

Tony Benn obituaries / tributes
 Charlie Kimber, in Socialist Worker
 John Molyneux
Ian Taylor on 'The Politics of Tony Benn'
 Ian Birchall
Gary Younge
Lindsey German, for the Stop the War Coalition
George Galloway
Alex Callinicos  
Leo Panitch
Mark Steel
Mike Marqusee

See also Tony Benn and Duncan Hallas discussing the 1926 General Strike at Marxism
and Chris Harman and Donny Gluckstein on Tony Benn's Diaries

Bob Crow obituaries / tributes 
Charlie Kimber, for Socialist Worker
Christian Wolmar
George Galloway
Kevin Crane
Mark Steel

*Another important and inspiring socialist who passed away recently was Phil Evans - a cartoonist for Socialist Worker in the 1970s - I plan to write something separate about him at some point.

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Tony Benn on the radical and revolutionary tradition in Britain

Tony Benn 1925-2014 - an inspirational socialist and the finest orator I ever had the privilege of hearing

This book explores the radical and revolutionary tradition which we have inherited from those who went before us and established, here in our country, a set of values based on the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy to set against the prevailing political culture. This culture, which rests on the worship of authority and the elevation of personal privilege above the common good, is so strongly entrenched in the mass media and the educational system that the very fact that an alternative tradition has been in existence for centuries is simply not known to many people...

What is that rival tradition and that rival analysis? Where does it come from and on what does it depend for its authority and support? This reader sets out to provide some of the answers to those questions, and to do so through the minds, pens and voices of the people who created that tradition for themselves, and for us.

We are so used to the idea that Britain is an industrialized country and, overall, among the richest in the world, that it is easy to forget our past. For most of our history we were, like so many of the Third World countries today, a peasant society dominated by a feudal hierarchy which owned the land and lived off the people. Thus the roots of our radicalism lie in peasant resistance, and many of the demands for revolutionary change, recorded here, are the same as those that we hear and read about today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For example, the theme of 'liberation from the Norman yoke' shows us people opposing the invaders and the oppression they brought. That resistance was based on the denial of the legitimacy of a Crown, which derives its legal claim to the throne from the Conquest, when William I, having defeated Harold at Hastings, proclaimed his personal authority... Such feelings, together with a distrust of the power of the landowners, bishops and lawyers who sustained that Norman oppression, fuelled radical and revolutionary movements long before trade-unionism and socialism appeared on the scene to reinforce those emotions with a scientific analysis of the role of class.

At the very beginning it was religious belief that provided the basis of opposition to the oppressors, and there are many references to the revolutionary message of the Bible. This is why the authorities would not allow the Bible to be made available in English, so that the people could read it freely until 1535. The Establishment feared that the same liberation theology - which today brings peasants, industrial workers, trade-unionists and socialists together in Latin America as they struggle for justice - might have united resistance to its authority.

The most basic feeling of all, and the one that could never be suppressed, was the idea of inherent rights, which recurs throughout this book. It derives originally from the belief that God, as the creator of all humanity, had implanted those rights in each man and woman as His gift, and that no person, however rich or powerful, had any moral or legal right to take them away. This is why radicals and dissenters, and many in the Labour Movement today, have always put the claims of conscience above the law, and have been quite ready to pay a personal price for doing so.

As the years passed, religious belief was supplemented, or replaced, by a more secular view of history. These inherent rights were restated in terms of reason, a humanist view that in the transition lost none of its ethical force, although it had been stripped of its theological significance. The concept has come to be expressed in terms of the rights of a freeborn Englishman, or the rights of the Scots, Irish or Welsh, of Women and of Blacks, to enjoy equality of treatment under the law. Yet the political battles that have been fought over the centuries were for the most part fought under the banners of religion and religious freedom. So it is important that we should remember that many of the ideas of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, equality and socialism owe their origin to the Old Testament and the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth, as they were interpreted by those who were looking for some justification for their own struggles. Modern socialists should never forget that fact, lest we accidentally cut ourselves off from our own history and come to believe what our enemies say of us: that we are proponents of some foreign creed which has no roots in our own national history.

Indeed this is one reason why the Establishment historians ignore our real history. They fear that if it was made intelligible to the mass of the people we would quickly connect past with present, and draw great strength from that understanding. And so indeed we would, as we come to realize that we are engaged on a campaign for justice and freedom that has gone on, in varying forms, for nearly two thousand years. It is not, as the Establishment would have people believe, only a few trouble-makers, perhaps owing their allegiance to some foreign revolutionaries, who are pressing for change.

This, then, is the moral and historical basis for that alternative political tradition, and we only have to read a few of the passages to find ourselves immediately familiar with the arguments. For those who have not read them before, it is rather like meeting distant cousins for the first time, exploring the common relationship and exchanging family legends, so that, quite soon, total strangers begin to feel at ease with each other, and can almost imagine that they have known each other all along. But this personal selection also opens up direct communication between generations that will reawaken in us some of the anger experienced by those who have gone before and help fuel the present pressure for change, accelerating the process of reform here and now.
What is written here should not just be read as a collection of historical writings. It should allow us to use the past to serve the present; by making us familiar with the old battles to harden us for what may lie ahead, and to unite us with all people everywhere who are struggling for the same objectives and are using their own history to help them—a history that may turn out to be much like ours. In short this is a book for our times to give us knowledge that we can use, to provide hope and courage and, above all, the certainty that we are not alone in what we believe.

If we are to use this book, as it is intended to be used, we have to do a lot more than read it. For we are living at a time when the clock is being deliberately put back in order to cheat us of the gains that were won in earlier years. Unless we resist there is no guarantee that this skilful campaign of regression will not succeed. The attempt to restore Victorian values is only a beginning. It may help us to learn about the struggles that took place in Victorian times so that we can mobilize the forces for progress that achieved so much during that century, and laid the foundation for the advances that followed. We can call up Robert Owen, Charles Kingsley and Anna Wheeler, William Morris and H. M. Hyndman, Marx and Engels, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle martyrs together with all their progressive contemporaries, to reinforce us as we gird our loins to fight these old battles again. If they want to go back to the eighteenth century and resurrect the blind conservatism of Edmund Burke we have Tom Paine and his Rights of Man still at our disposal. Now that the divine right of Prime Ministers is being wheeled out, almost as Charles I would have argued it in the seventeenth century, we have John Lilburne and William Walwyn and the Levellers and Diggers in our camp.

In 1983 the Greenham Common women were gaoled under the Justices of the Peace Act of 1361, and if that is how they want to have it they should not forget that twenty years later Wat Tyler and John Ball marched across the bridge to occupy the City of London. Whichever century they choose to fight us in we have our champions too. Nor should we ever forget Pelagius—Britain's earliest and greatest heretic, who challenged St Augustine on the central question of original sin. He asserted the essential goodness of man, an idea that undermined the authority of the Papacy and anticipated by 1,800 years the socialists who argued the same case.

Some of the passages quoted here are explicitly revolutionary and we should not forget that the right to revolt is an ancient one that must always be held in reserve as a protection against the possibility that one day democracy and self-government might be removed, leaving us no alternative but to defend these rights by force. At this very moment in our history the other side should be reminded of this so that they do not miscalculate in what they may plan to do to us. For in the counter-revolution which they are trying to carry through it is already clear that they are prepared to attack our ancient freedoms, as with the attack on the rights of the people of London and of the other metropolitan boroughs who are to lose the power to elect their own councils. The trade unions are facing—in effect—the reintroduction of the Combination Acts which made it impossible for them to function. Women are under attack, both at work and in the home where they are expected to take on their shoulders the tasks that the Welfare State was set up to discharge.

We are losing the power to govern ourselves, and a foreign president may make war from our own country. The armed forces, the security services and the police, all heavily armed and trained in counter-insurgency operations, are now virtually unaccountable and work behind barriers of almost impenetrable secrecy. There is not a single democratic gain made by our people that is not now under some sort of threat, not a single major political issue that has not been discussed over the centuries that has not now been placed once more upon the agenda. The role of the crown, of the lords, and of the church are being discussed again. So is the question of Ireland, imperialism, our relations with America and Europe, and the rights of all working men and women.

It is not clear yet how far they want to go but we would be well advised to be ready for anything, since if they go too far it may be much harder, if not actually too late, to stop them. There is no law of God or Nature that exempts this nation from the fate that befell Germany and Italy, Spain and Portugal in the 1930s, and overtook Greece and Turkey more recently. The only guarantee of our freedom lies with here and now, and we had better wake up to that simple truth before it is too late. An ex-imperial power, as we are, with a decaying capitalist system of the kind we have, can be very dangerous to other countries and to its own people too. But even if we are spared the horrors of a domestic struggle to retain, or regain, our freedom, other countries will not be so fortunate.

Those who live now under corrupt military dictatorships, financed and supported by Washington, or London, to protect Western investments from the danger of a popular uprising, will almost certainly be forced to take to arms to liberate themselves. Herein lies one of the major risks of a global confrontation with nuclear weapons. For it is not the risk of a major invasion by one superpower across a European frontier that we have to fear so much as the danger of war by proxy or by accident, in the absence of any effective democratic control of the fearsome military machines that we have allowed to grow within our own societies. If humanity does survive the appalling dangers that now confront us, it will be, in part, because we have listened to these voices from the past, reproduced in these pages, and have taken seriously those who are warning us now.

Indeed hope must stem from the possibility that we might also allow these voices to reach the people in other countries, where the same calls for justice and peace are to be heard. Although the religious traditions, and the historical experiences of these peoples are different from ours, these writings on the wall are to be seen all over the globe, and have appeared in every generation to enrich the understanding of those to whom they were addressed. The only power strong enough to contain and control the unimaginable destructive force released by the splitting of the atom is the greater power that could be generated by the unification of all these voices into one great clamour for justice. Therein lies our greatest hope, and, however it is defined, it must mean radical, if not revolutionary, changes in all societies to make that possible...

It is when we contemplate the enormity of that task and the urgency with which it has to be attempted that we can appreciate the value of the very ancient traditions of liberty and democracy that emerge from these pages. Great as the task may seem to be to us, can it really be any greater or more difficult than the ones which faced our forebears when they made their demands? Those demands must have seemed as far-fetched to many of their contemporaries as they were unacceptable to those who stood to lose their privileges. But, as history teaches us, time and time again, it is not enough to speak or write, or compose poems or songs, about freedom if there are not people who are ready to devote to their lives to make it all come true. Some of those whose writings we are able to read worked, and others died, to uphold the principles that they proclaimed. It is only a matter of merest chance who is remembered and who lies forgotten in some graveyard known only to those friends and comrades who lived in the same town or village at the same time.

This book is therefore dedicated to the nameless thousands who  worked, where they lived, to advance our common cause. They can never have known that what they believed in, and worked for, would survive in legend and tradition to encourage us so many years after they were gone, nor realize that the gift they have passed on to us is the most priceless gift of all—hope. For our greatest enemy is the fear that our opponents seek to instill in our minds to force us to accept the unacceptable, and so to paralyse our will and render us incapable of thinking out the alternative or working to bring it about. If we were ever to allow that to happen, we would have conceded a final victory to the other side, but as this book shows we all have it in our power to deny them that victory; and to establish a better society by our own efforts, provided that we remember our own history and the lessons of unity and courage that it teaches us.

Extracts from the Introduction to Tony Benn (ed.) Writings on the Wall: A Radical and Socialist Anthology 1215-1984 (London, 1984)

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Stand up to Racism and Fascism Day #M22

On Saturday 22 March it is UN anti-racism day and there are a number of mass rallies organised in
London, Glasgow and Cardiff to say 'no to scapegoating immigrants, no to Islamophobia and yes to diversity' organised by the TUC and Unite Against Fascism.
Please go to
http://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/ for leaflets and posters etc - given the current climate of
racist scapegoating and mainstream parties tailing of UKIP's racism (with Nigel Farage praising, and
trying to sound more like Enoch Powell every day) in the run up to the Euro elections - this is an important

National demonstration in London:
Assemble 11 am,
Join us on procession from Nelson Mandela statue, Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square rally.
Speakers include: Diane Abbott MP, Natalie Bennett, Leader, The Green Party, Jerry Dammers, "Free Nelson Mandela" song writer, Farooq Murad, Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain, Mohammed Taj, TUC President, Ava Vidal, Comedian

The Glasgow demo will assemble at George Square at 10.30am.

The Cardiff protest will assemble at Riverside, Clare Gardens at 11am and parade through the centre of town to a rally by City Hall

For the list of supporters and for the Founding Statement  - see here

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London Unite the Resistance Forum

London Unite the Resistance forum, Monday 10 March

In London on Monday (10 March) Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary NUT, Consuelo Moreno Yusti (SOAS cleaners), Steve Hedley, Assistant General Secretary RMT, Ellen Clifford Disabled People Against Cuts, Chair: Jane Hardy UCU executive are all speaking at the Unite the Resistance forum.

At the heart of the meeting will be building solidarity for the SOAS cleaners fight. These migrant workers are fighting in the face of a wave of anti migrant racism from the Tories/UKIP and the right wing press. Come to the meeting, here their story and bring a collection from your workplace if you can. SOAS cleaners are planning to send a big delegation to the anti racist protest in London on 22 March.

Kevin Courtney will speak about the build up to national teachers action on 26 March, Steve Hedley will speak about further action on London underground to save jobs while Ellen Clifford will look at the Tories war on benefit claimants in the light of the retreat by ASOS.

The meeting is this Monday 10 March, 7pm, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8EP 


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

New Book: C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain

Out now as part of the C.L.R. James Archives series with Duke University Press:

C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain by Christian Høgsbjerg
C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain chronicles the life and work of the Trinidadian intellectual and writer C. L. R. James during his first extended stay in Britain, from 1932 to 1938. It reveals the radicalizing effect of this critical period on James's intellectual and political trajectory. During this time, James turned from liberal humanism to revolutionary socialism. Rejecting the "imperial Britishness" he had absorbed growing up in a crown colony in the British West Indies, he became a leading anticolonial activist and Pan-Africanist thinker. Christian Høgsbjerg reconstructs the circumstances and milieus in which James wrote works including his magisterial study The Black Jacobins. First published in 1938, James's examination of the dynamics of anticolonial revolution in Haiti continues to influence scholarship on Atlantic slavery and abolition. Høgsbjerg contends that during the Depression C. L. R. James advanced public understanding of the African diaspora and emerged as one of the most significant and creative revolutionary Marxists in Britain.

Read the introduction here


"Christian Høgsbjerg's book is going to make a very significant impact on the community of C. L. R. James scholars and beyond. Høgsbjerg has thoroughly combed the key archival sources to generate a comprehensive, lively, and insightful portrait of James's intellectual and political life during his first sojourn in Britain. In doing so, he has filled in many key details and fleshed out many important events in James's life in Britain."
Paget Henry, co-editor of C. L. R. James's Caribbean and editor of the C.L.R. James Journal

"When C. L. R. James left Trinidad for England in 1932, it was a kind of homecoming: A connoisseur of cricket, immersed in the works of Shakespeare and Thackeray almost from birth, James was the consummate Afro-Saxon intellectual long before setting foot in London. In C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain, Christian Høgsbjerg follows him into the meeting halls and radical bookstores, the cricket grounds and bohemian haunts, where this displaced 'Victorian with the rebel seed' emerged as a leading figure in the Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist movements. The fusion of insight with command of factual detail sets the new standard by which serious work on C. L. R. James must be judged."
Scott McLemee, editor of C. L. R. James on the "Negro Question" and the forthcoming The Dialectics of State Capitalism: Writings on Marxist Theory by C.L.R. James


''C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain opens up the issue of the Third World struggle in an elegant and memorable way''
'C.L.R. James: Back in Style, Black in Style' by Paul Buhle, authorised biographer of C.L.R. James, author of C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary

"The excellence of this book by Christian Høgsbjerg on CLR James's first sojourn in Britain between 1932 and 1938 is signalled by the drama of its cover photograph.  Wearing a very English raincoat, the Trinidadian writer and militant is pictured addressing a mid-1930s meeting in Trafalgar Square.
    By 1938 Special Branch had judged James to be a fluent speaker, very well versed in the doctrines of Karl Marx and other revolutionary writers.
    Shortly after arriving in England he moved in with his old friend and compatriot, the cricketer Learie Constantine, and was a powerful advocate of West Indian self-government.  But his elite colonial schooling at Trinidad's Queen's Royal College and a literary apprenticeship in Port of Spain had certainly not made him a Marxist.
    Steeped in English literature - he told me in a 1982 interview that he had read Thackeray's Vanity Fair ten times before he was nine years old -  Høgsbjerg explains that in his early Trinidad days James had been a devotee of English Victorian cultural prophets like Matthew Arnold, with all his sweetness and light.
   Yet within a few months of staying with Constantine in the insurgent Lancashire cotton-weaving town of Nelson, where his host was a Lancashire League professional cricketer, he had become so involved in and influenced by the struggles of the "Red Nelson" working class - which he allied with black struggles all over the imperialist world - that, as he declared, "literature was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself."   Høgsbjerg tells of this process of transformation with a compelling narrative vibrancy.
  In subsequent chapters he tells the story of James's involvement both in the apparently contradictory worlds - yet not so if you were James - of cricket reporting for the Manchester Guardian and Glasgow Herald and active solidarity with world anti-imperialist and Pan-Africanist processes.
   This was provoked by a reunion with his old Trinidadian school friend George Padmore who had written the pathfinding Life and Struggles of the Negro Toilers in 1931.  In 1937, as part of his solidarity work for the Ethiopian people after Mussolini's fascist invasion, he helped set up the African Bureau for the Defence of African and People of African Descent in London.
     Another engrossing chapter is that which tells of James's Paris-based research for, and the writing of The Black Jacobins, his history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791.  Its forerunner, the play about its leader Toussaint l'Ouverture with Paul Robeson as the protagonist, was performed in London's West End in 1936.
     Høgsbjerg has produced an invaluable addition to both British and Caribbean labour scholarship and has written it in such an accessible way that its stirring and provocative narrative ought to inspire thought and action.''
Chris Searle, 'A scion of black consciousness', Morning Star, 26 May 2014.

"Høgsbjerg discusses [James's] publications in various ways but it is the intellectual and social movement context the author brings to these works, which continue to animate critical minds today, that makes the reader pause and delight''
Matthew Quest, Insurgent Notes

''This impressively researched, well-written and accessible book demonstrates that James's time in Britain was a period of fertile intellectual growth for this inspirational writer and activist''
Brian Richardson, Socialist Review, June 2014.

''Just out from Duke University Press's C.L.R. JAMES ARCHIVES series is this important new book from Christian Hogsbjerg. Christian's first volume in this series was an edition of the original script of James's play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. This new book is the first to offer a full examination of James's years in England following his departure from Trinidad in 1932. In the few short years between his arrival in England and his departure for the United States, James published Minty Alley, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, World Revolution, A History of Negro Revolt and  Black Jacobins, all while keeping up work as a cricket writer and participating in the work of the African Service Bureau, International Friends of Abyssinia, and others. These years are vital for understanding James's evolution as a thinker and revolutionary, indispensable for understanding the work that he would do in the United States.''
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, author of C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction

''One of the most impressively researched biographies of a prominent radical to appear in recent memory ... Anyone with an interest in black protest, literary London, and/or left politics in the 1930s will enjoy this smart, factually grounded yet thematically rich biographical study''.
Kent Worcester, 'Renegades and Castaways', New Politics (Summer 2014)

''Høgsbjerg has made a major contribution through his reconstruction of James’s life and times in imperial Britain. Recovering James’s ventures into radical bookshops such as Lahr’s, his time spent in Nelson and Bloomsbury, his touring Britain as a cricket reporter, and much more, Høgsbjerg does a supreme job of reconstructing the historical geography of a distinct, and distinctly radical, life. In this sense, his book is an example to geographers, historians or other radical intellectuals pursuing the study of previously neglected biographies.''
Daniel Whittall, Antipode (August 2014)

"One of the book’s greatest assets is the way it manages a remarkable density of information. Refusing to succumb to the temptation of showing a single, linear narrative of James, Høgsbjerg uses the most diverse sources to illuminate the man’s different facets. His James is a witty thinker, spectacular orator, gifted organizer, cricket lover, and a politics addict. Indeed, these different traits exist side by side, develop over time, and contribute to shaping James’s trajectory....  He illuminates James as an actor who participated in and influenced contemporaneous debates about how Marxism and Trotskyism could provide answers to fighting colonial rule and the rise of Fascism.... CLR James in Imperial Britain is a valuable contribution to the field of James studies. It illuminates the early phases of Afro-Caribbean anticolonial activism in Britain and the development of anticolonial Marxism. Simultaneously, it tells the story of a remarkable beginning and shaping of much of C.L.R. James’s thought".
Itay Lotem, Twentieth Century British History (November 2014). 

Book Launches
Thursday 27 March, 7.30pm, Nelson Library, Lancashire.
Supported by North East Lancs TUC and Preston Black History Group.

Friday 11 July at Marxism 2014, central London 

Edited to add: Check out this film about CLR James's life in 1930s Britain

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Neither Washington nor Moscow

Socialists in the West must of course oppose any military intervention by the US or NATO in Ukraine. But the crisis reminds us that imperialism can’t be reduced to American domination. It is a system of economic and geopolitical competition among the leading capitalist powers.
        Rather than tail any of these powers, we must fight this entire system. This means opposing Russian intervention in Ukraine. Never has the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism” been more relevant.
Alex Callinicos on the mounting crisis of inter-imperialist rivalry in the Ukraine

Edited to add: Ukraine in Crisis - say no to imperialist war games

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