Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Don't mention the War...of the Classes

After white-washing the British Empire and its bloody past wars, perhaps it is only appropriate that the historian Niall Ferguson now has set himself the task of ideologically waging the new battle for its future. With Steven Spielberg's remake of HG Well's classic The War of the Worlds (1898) currently showing in cinemas, Professor Ferguson thought it timely to ponder in the Daily Telegraph on 'The War of the World' today. 'It is now more than a century since H G Wells published The War of the Worlds' the Professor notes, 'and once again London is under attack.'

Ferguson tells us that 'Wells's story is much more than just a seminal work of science fiction. It's also a work of astonishing prescience. For so much of what it describes was to happen time and again throughout the 20th century...in the century after the publication of his book, the scenes Wells imagined became a reality in cities all over the world - not just in London, but in Sarajevo and Smyrna, in Nanjing and Shanghai, in Warsaw and Berlin, in Hiroshima and Phnom Penh.'

The twentieth century was indeed a bloody century of total war and barbaric destruction. But had cities never been destroyed by invading forces before then? Perhaps HG Wells had been 'inspired' by say, the bombardment of the Egyptian city of Alexandria by British naval warships ('gunboat diplomacy' as it was euphemistically called) in 1882? Ferguson does not ponder such possibilities. In his latest book, Colossus, he argues that the US Empire today can learn a lot from the 19th century British Imperialists about how to rule the world. Indeed, for Ferguson, the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 is one of his models for what the US ought to do in Iraq: act unilaterally and announce that troops will soon be evacuated, but keep them there indefinitely.

However, as Joel Beinin has argued, Ferguson's version of Egyptian history 'is about as reliable as Secretary of State Colin Powell's account of Iraq's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction delivered to the UN Security Council in February 2003'.

As Beinin argues 'Col. Ahmad `Urabi did not simply overthrow the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Tawfiq, in 1882, as Ferguson begins the story. Tawfiq had been installed in 1879 by the European powers in order to ensure the payment of Egypt's foreign debt. He refused to allow the newly established cabinet or the reconstituted Advisory Council of Representatives to exercise any restraint over his powers, especially in financial matters, and he rejected the principle of accountability of cabinet ministers to the Council.

By 1881, dissatisfaction with the khedive's deference to European bondholders' interests led to the formation of a National Party, which combined elements from the army, members of the Advisory Council of Representatives, which Tawfiq had dissolved, and Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals. `Urabi was the leader of a group of Arabic-speaking Egyptian officers who objected to the reservation of the highest ranks for Turkish speakers and opposed Tawfiq's cuts in the military budget to raise funds to pay European creditors. `Urabi and his allies raised the slogan: "Egypt for the Egyptians." Khedive Tawfiq was forced to appear to acquiesce by appointing `Urabi minister of war.

Behind the back of his government, Tawfiq called in the British and French, who sailed their fleets past Alexandria in June 1882. In response, the people of the city rioted, killing about 50 foreigners. Knowing that Tawfiq was collaborating with the British, `Urabi declared him a traitor and took control of the government. The British fleet bombarded Alexandria in July, after `Urabi refused to remove the cannons in its harbor. In August, a British army invaded Egypt, where its successors remained until 1956.'

In 1956, of course, they got kicked out by a mass struggle for national liberation (led by Col. Nasser) - something we can only hope happens to the US and UK today in Iraq - and 'Iraq for the Iraqis' would be quite as appropriate a slogan as any.

But back to Ferguson and his forthcoming book, 'The War of the World'. Ferguson is obviously a great supporter of the war and occupation of Iraq - and he does not want us to pull troops out. Given this, his response to the new 'attack' on London is to not damn the Government for its criminal and disasterous foreign policy - but to damn the Muslim community. In the kind of (racist) spin on HG Wells that you would expect from a neo-conservative reading of the novel, Islamic terrorists are now apparently like the alien Martians. 'We must expect the shadowy figures who lie behind these vicious deeds to try again in the not too distant future...As Wells said of the Martians, "intellects cool and unsympathetic" regard us "with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against us".'

Yet Ferguson finds that the British people 'remain perplexingly calm. Financial indicators of volatility and confidence were only momentarily affected by the 7/7 bombings...Yet, re-reading Wells, I am struck by the close resemblance between our present unruffled state of mind and the mood of confidence - not to say complacency - he depicted in late Victorian England on the eve of the Martian invasion.'

Perhaps the good Professor should look beyond 'financial indicators'. But moreover, perhaps the people of England can see something that the Professor apparently cannot - that the reason we are now getting bombed is because the British Government has a history of going and bombing other people? But just as Ferguson chooses not to see the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, so he chooses not to see the bombardment of Baghdad in 2003 or the bombardment of Fallujah in 2004. There are none so blind as those who choose not to see. The rest of Ferguson's vitriol against Muslims in the article is the sort of racist fare that the Daily Telegraph have a history of publishing, and I am loathe to publish it on this site. In essence, Ferguson seems to have bought into Samuel Huntingdon's Clash of Civilisations theory - and for him, the coming battle between the 'West' and 'fundamentalist Islam' is the coming 'War of the Worlds'. He fears that the West is 'divided' by the Muslim enemy within - and so he compares them to aliens because he wishes they could be treated as the English army in HG Well's War of the Worlds tried to fight off the Martian threat. It is worth remembering that Ferguson is no isolated figure outside the mainstream of contemporary academic debate - he is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard - and has been described by The New York Times as "the greatest British historian of his generation".

The media hysteria and hatred of Muslims is now at the level that it was after September 11th 2001, as the intellectual apologists for Empire try to soften us up to the need for this new war our rulers want to wage on Islam. Sir John Keegan, the Daily Telegraph's defence editor, argued in similar vein on the 8th October 2001. "Westerners fight face to face, in stand-up battle and go on until one side or the other gives in . . . Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle . . . preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit . . . This war belongs within the much older conflict between settled, creative productive westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals." See here. The likes of Keegan and Ferguson can whip up hatred free from fear the fear that they might be arrested or deported for doing so under Blair's proposed new laws. They can carry on 'condoning', 'justifying' and 'glorifying' acts of state terrorism in the time-honoured British tradition.

What is the alternative to this barbaric 'Clash of Civilisations', this racist 'War of the Worlds' that our rulers so desperately want?

It is, to point out, as Chris Bambery does in this weeks Socialist Worker, that 'there is a clash of cultures in Britain. It is between working people and those who take us into imperialist wars and who impose neo-liberalism at home and abroad'. In short, quite simply, we have to act to defend our multicultural society against the racists, we have to act against the war and we have to support working class people resisting exploitation.

We cannot hold out hope that Steven Spielberg, having remade the British socialist HG Well's The War of the Worlds, will now turn his attention to say American socialist Jack London'sThe War of the Classes. Hollywood has made films of Jack London's novels about wolves (The Call of the Wild, etc), but is not about to make a film about one of his ones about class struggle, despite it being the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World. The class war, that has been viciously waged for some time now by our rulers from above, is another war that it is definitely preferable to avoid mentioning if at all possible. Yet it is this war - the War of the Classes - that is the real 'War of the Worlds'.

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