Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Brown, Britishness and the Butcher's Apron

...or why we should all stop worrying about Empire and learn to love the Union Jack

Gordon Brown has spelt out what he means by 'Britishness', arguing that Britain should have a day to celebrate its national identity.

'The chancellor used his first major speech of 2006 to urge Labour supporters to "embrace the Union flag"...In the wide-ranging speech, Mr Brown said it is time for the modern Labour party and its supporters to be unashamedly patriotic as, for too long, such feelings have been caricatured as being tied up with right-wing beliefs, when in fact they encompass "progressive" ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility. "Instead of the BNP using it as a symbol of racial division, the flag should be a symbol of unity and part of a modern expression of patriotism too," Mr Brown said. "All the United Kingdom should honour it, not ignore it. We should assert that the Union flag by definition is a flag for tolerance and inclusion."'

Unfortunately the Union flag is not by definition 'a flag for tolerance and inclusion' - many people from former British colonies since the Irish onwards regard it as a flag for intolerance, exclusion and bloodshed - the 'Butcher's Apron'. The imperial dimension was not mentioned by Brown, and his idea of celebrating 'Britishness' or having a 'British' day while we are still involved in neo-colonialism in Iraq and elsewhere today shows that for him and the rest of the British elite, Empire does not just belong in the past - it is our future too.

We should not be surprised, given Labour's history, however. When has the Party ever not been 'unashamedly patriotic'? Patriotism is an essential component of Labourist ideology. Brown gave his speech to the Fabian Society - and the Fabians themselves have never been anti-imperialist (though some Fabians were anti-colonialists). This is what Partha Gupta noted in his Imperialism and the British Labour Movement (1975):

'During the Boer War the Fabians had to define their attitude to imperial expansion...Fabianism and the Empire- a pamphlet drafted by [George Bernard] Shaw - justified the British conquest of the Transvaal and the opening up of China to European commerce, and argued that states with a higher civilisation had a right to take over backward states. About the same time Sidney Webb praised Lord Rosebery for having, unlike Liberals like Morley, an imperial outlook.' Indeed, 'the future Labour Prime Minister, James Ramsey MacDonald, had resigned from the Fabian Society over the issue of the Boer War, and criticised the arguments justifying the extension of the British Empire in the name of civilisation.'

In 1923, J.H. Thomas, colonial secretary during the first Labour Government was said to have introduced himself to the heads of departments at the Colonial Office with the statement, 'I am here to see that there is no such mucking about with the British Empire'. And so Labour's support for imperialism continues...

Edited to add: Trotsky had the Fabians nailed in 1926 - see here.

'These pompous authorities, pedants and haughty, high-falutin'cowards are systematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie continue to survive and even suppose themselves to be firmly in the saddle...In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population consists of proletarians the governing Conservative-Liberal imperialist clique would not be able to last a single day if it were not for the fact that the means of violence in its hands are reinforced, supplemented and disguised by pseudo-socialist ideas that ensnare and break up the proletariat...They are the main prop of British imperialism and of the European, if not the world bourgeoisie. Workers must at all costs be shown these self-satisfied pedants, drivelling eclectics, sentimental careerists and liveried footmen of the bourgeoisie in their true colours. To show them up for what they are means to discredit them beyond repair. To discredit them means rendering a supreme service to historical progress. The day that the British proletariat cleanses itself of the spiritual abomination of Fabianism, mankind, especially in Europe, will increase its stature by a head.'

Also to mention that on March 18-19 there will international protests around the world against the occupation of Iraq and Bush and Blair's plans for war against Iran...

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At 5:10 am, Blogger V said...

There is a group of people, according to whom, imperialism is a thing of past. One of my friends have compiled an answer for them. To read, please visit: http://reddiarypk.blogspot.com/2005/12/imperialism.html

Good Blog!

At 10:23 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Vidrohi - thanks for your comment.

I agree that Imperialism is about a global system ('the higher stage of capitalism' as Lenin put it), but I strongly disagree when your friend argues that the USSR was somehow outside of that system.

Under Stalin, the USSR made first compromises with imperialism (joining the League of Nations - the 'thieves kitchen' as Lenin put it) in 1934, had relations with Mussolini's Italy and then Nazi Germany - the Nazi Soviet pact) and after WWII set about widening its control by taking over Eastern Europe through its Red Army.

The 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' was therefore neither a free union of states but forced, there were no Soviets (a bureaucratic elite controlled production), it was not socialist (but State Capitalist - read Tony Cliff) and also hardly a Republic since Stalin reigned like an autocratic Tsar. Four words, four lies.

Russia was therefore subject to the competitive pressures of capitalist accumulation like any other state in the world system. That meant it was forced to put down national movements for independence eg. in Hungary, just as the US acted for similar reasons in Vietnam and the British did in Kenya etc.

When the hated dictatorship finally collapsed under popular pressures from below and its own internal and external contradictions - capitalism was not 'restored' - hence many of the Stalinist bureaucrats who controlled production under state capitalism remained the people who controlled production under private capitalism, as they went into 'business'.

If it had been a 'counter-revolution', there would have been a new ruling class after 1989 surely? But it is the same scum - look at Putin - ex KGB.

Russian imperialism today in for example the oppression of Chechnya is not qualitatively different from Stalinist imperialism and his oppression of Chechnya.

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