Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

All we hear is...

The early elements of a Marxist appraisal of Lady Gaga emerge...



I went to see Clint Eastwood's Invictus the other day. I haven't got a great deal to say about it, and what I do have to say will certainly be way too soft - for a serious Marxist critique see the piece by Louis Proyect - but for someone for whom the 1995 Rugby world cup was a distant schoolboy memory, and at the time almost certainly an event viewed purely as a dramatic sporting spectacle (and I fear, probably if supporting onyone, then supporting the England side of if I remember rightly Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott - these being my 'pre-Marx' days) it was a little enlightening. Moreover, given Michael Moore's new film is going to be bloody hard to track down at the British box office, it ain't a bad film to see (though if you can still catch it, definitely check out A Prophet). The heady mix of race, sport and politics which runs throughout Invictus put me a little in mind of such epics as Escape to Victory, and while perhaps coming close to being a tiny little bit grating in one or two places, its gentle, liberal anti-racist message is timely at a time when fascist parties in Britain are standing on a programme and propagating policies rather akin to those in apartheid South Africa. For a sense of contemporary South Africa, with its grotesque inequalities and poverty, on film, one is much better off seeing a film like Tsotsi, while something of the power and glory of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle is captured in Amandla!.

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Interview with Ilham Moussaid

The new issue of Socialist Review has a number of excellent articles one might highlight, including discussions of anti-fascist strategy and tactics necessary to tackle the racist thuggery of the EDL to Ambre Ivol remembering Howard Zinn, from Pat Stack on Michael Moore's new film Capitalism: A love story to Alex Callinicos on Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth (according to Fredric Jameson 'the last and richest of the Empire trilogy...a powerful and ambitious reappropriation of the whole tradition of political theory for the Left' but actually a work which, according to Callinicos, 'hugely underestimates the extent to which the logic of capital still rules the world - and therefore the effort of critical thinking and political organisation that will be required to break its hold').

However, perhaps most noteworthy for English readers is Jim Wolfreys interview with Ilham Moussaid a candidate of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France - who - just because she herself happens to wear a headscarf - has seen her electoral campaign already (unsurprisingly) cause a hypocritical outburst of racism from the French establishment and (more positively) challenged many, not least many on the French Left, to begin to face up to the question of confronting Islamophobia.

'I've been politically active for four years now and the media reaction disturbs me because my political engagement can't be reduced to the headscarf. I'm part of an association that fights exclusion, racism and violence in the Avignon area. We offer support to young people in schools. We organise cultural and musical outings with them. We fight exclusion and discrimination in the quartiers populaires. I was also active in the collective networks against the war in Iraq, against apartheid in Palestine, and against the genocide in Rwanda and in Kosovo.

So I do all that in parallel. I was always coming across NPA activists in all these movements and a year ago I decided to join them. Now I'm treasurer of my NPA branch and things are going well. I'm active in fighting privatisation, for example, in the universities and the post office. We're active every day.

I got a very good welcome in the NPA. In the quartier populaires the NPA is something we have to make use of. It's our tool. For me it's our tool because we're building it. When the LCR became the NPA it was an opening out to the quartiers populaires. Olivier Besancenot said to us, "If you want to fight capitalism - welcome." He didn't say to us, "If you're Marxists or Leninists or Trotskyists." He just talked about capitalism because we're all against capitalism. It's the source of practically all our problems. I didn't join straight away but it's been a good experience. I already had my principles - for equality, for a better distribution of wealth - before joining the NPA, but I feel at home here. It's a political question - for me it's the best tool for our struggle.'

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Against Liberal Imperialist 'Marxism'

It is understandable that a Social Democratic student of imperialism can easily find arguments in his theoretical luggage if he wants switch to the other side. He only has to regard Marxism mechanically and say: ‘Socialism is only possible on the foundations of the highest capitalist development, of imperialist development; therefore, let us first help consolidate these foundations with all our power, let us protect the world power of our own country against foreign imperialism; today we must be imperialists, but socialism remains the ultimate goal’ —in the remote future, because it has surely become apparent that the proletariat is still far too weak for victory.

It is obvious that, with this attitude, the quasi-Marxists do not prepare and promote the realization of socialism, but rather inhibit and delay it. The realization of socialism depends solely on the strength, independence, energy and clarity of purpose of the working class.

Anton Pannekoek, 1915

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

A note on revolutionary discipline

A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.
Leon Trotsky, 1923

In other words, were one say a revolutionary socialist inside a revolutionary socialist organisation who disagreed with the strategy and tactics of that organisation, one would have a revolutionary duty to persistently raise one's opinion inside of that organisation, even if one was still in a minority. One would critically defend one's independent position within the framework of democratic centralism - within the democratic frameworks of the party - e.g. a national conference - and then 'submit, because it is your party' outside of such times to what was agreed by the majority of the party at that conference - even if one did not agree with the majority.

What one does not do, if one is serious about revolutionary politics, is to resign with a whimper from one's revolutionary socialist organisation just because one has lost an argument over strategy and tactics and is in a minority. The only circumstances in which this would be acceptable - indeed absolutely justified - is if one's party had made a betrayal of the principles of socialism and the class struggle itself (eg supported an imperialist war/not supported a strike by workers, etc etc). If the party had made such a betrayal - and showed no signs of correction after one had put the opposing arguments in the democratic forums of the party - then one would have a duty to form a faction within the party to fight for the correct position - and if that did not work - then to resign from the party, form a new revolutionary Marxist grouping and call on the members of your old party to join your new organisation because the old was irredeemably bankrupt and had become 'social-imperialist/class collaborationist/ etc etc'. It is then a question of class - but all this stuff one would have thought would have been the ABC of Socialism anyway, and not even necessary to state.

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A quarterly for Marxist theory

Much has been made of the fiftieth anniversary of New Left Review (see for example the eulogy by Stefan Collini in the Guardian last week) and the commemorative issue (61, Jan-Feb, 2010) is indeed really excellent - with contributions from everyone from Perry Anderson and Tariq Ali through to Mike Davis and Robin Blackburn via Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall and so on. The editorial by Susan Watkins is also noteworthy, and end as follows:

When the Review was founded, as Stuart Hall vividly evokes in this issue, forging a ‘new left’ was an immediate practical project; in the second decade of the 21st century, it is one for the longue durée. But the journal can still think about how to prefigure the general intellectual culture that an effective—therefore, pluralist and internationalist—left would require. By definition, such a movement would defend the conditions for a broader and richer critical culture, a more engaged political practice, a more conscious economics; would be as hard-headed and determined as the power it confronts. However notionally, this is the horizon to be borne in mind as a younger layer comes to the fore. In its early years, the Review benefited a great deal from the overlap of political generations in the two journals that came together to found it, as a joint project. The editors of the New Reasoner, born in the 1920s, fought in the War and mainly acquired their political education through the cpgb. The young writers and critics around Universities and Left Review were more attuned to the new cultural currents and social rebellion. Today the generational overlap stretches much farther—the ageing society proving an unexpected boon for the left. Hobsbawm, Hall and others share its pages with writers not yet born in 1960: Malcolm Bull in the fields of aesthetics and philosophy; Gopal Balakrishnan, Dylan Riley or Benno Teschke on political theory; Zhang Yongle on Chinese intellectual history; Tony Wood and Forrest Hylton on Russia and Latin America; Cihan Tuğal and Ece Temelkuran on Turkey; Kasian Tejapira on Thailand, Peter Hallward on Haiti; Sebastian Budgen or Alexander Zevin on France; Tom Mertes and Naomi Klein on new social movements; Sven Lütticken, Julian Stallabrass and Emilie Bickerton on the visual arts.

If anything, the inter-generational contrast is starker now than it was in 1960. The editors who saw the Review through its first few decades came of age in a still strongly delineated national culture and public sphere, in which social classes were tangible realities; they hit their intellectual stride in the mid-60s, a time of intense commitments on the left, with victory seemingly within reach; positions were forged and argued within a highly politicized and internationalist milieu. Today’s young writers have grown up within far more depoliticized cultural and intellectual environments, structured by the market and mediated, for better or worse, by electronic forms of sociability. Flares of protest have been ephemeral; every mobilization they have known—alter-globo, climate change, marches against the invasion of Iraq—has ended in defeat. But perhaps the very rarity of a serious left forum in these times makes a journal like nlr more valued. The thought-world of the West is increasingly patterned by Atlantic-centred structures of wealth and power. University disciplines—international relations, economics, law, social sciences, area studies—derive their curricula from the narrowing perspectives of its rulers’ needs. A neutralized academic Marxism risks being the unwitting reflection of this trend. nlr stands outside this world, defines its own agenda. Can a left intellectual project hope to thrive in the absence of a political movement? That remains to be seen. But in the meantime it will have plenty on its plate.

The tone is still overly pessimistic, but the attack on 'a neutralized academic Marxism' is interesting, while the discussion of inter-generationality and the Left is a critical matter - as the recent passing of the likes of Peter Gowan, John Saville, Daniel Bensaid, Chris Harman and Howard Zinn - to name only some of the most notable has only too sadly made apparent. Anyway, on a more cheery note, it is also worth remarking that much of the entire first series of International Socialism - which celebrated its fiftieth birthday a little while back - is now online over at the Marxists Internet Archive, and in honour of this I will reproduce the very first editorial dated from 1 September 1958 and entitled - in a very down to earth and unpretentious manner, Introducing the journal

The shocked generation in Labour movement history is slowly passing on. The decline in Western Capitalism – however protracted – is steadily undermining the stranglehold of Reformism, its servant, over the working class. Stalinism – the ideological expression of the State Capitalist world – is losing its potency as an alternative. Once again, the international working class is looking to its own resources for strength and inspiration.

In this, Marxism has a crucial role to play. A science of action, constantly assimilating and formulating the experiences of the international working class, it is the most biting weapon in the struggle against class society on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

We present International Socialism as a small contribution to Marxist thought. Its function is to bring the traditions of scientific socialism to bear on the constantly changing pattern of class struggle, to help clarify its nature and conversely, to keep the science of working class action a living one and not the compendium of quotations to which it is so often and so tragically reduced.

One limitation will be obvious to readers. This first issue will be found too heavily biased towards economic problems. We hope, in future, to grow in scope to include every aspect of working class activity, that is, every aspect of the class struggle and the fight for socialism.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

...has got itself a website. It is still hard to get oneself too overly-excited about TUSC - which aims to build a pro-trade union and socialist alternative to New Labour while it is in its current embryonic state and so quite unable to really satisfactorily answer the question of who to vote for by itself just now, but where I live the potential for it to develop is quite exciting on one level at least - as for about the first time in ten years pretty much the whole of the local left of Labour political parties are now - nominally at least - part of the same left electoral coalition...


Finally, I see some point to Facebook

While I remain highly suspicious of facebook and thought the highest point of political activism one might organise on it were forms of 'consumer pressure' - for example enabling Rage Against the Machine to block Simon Cowell taking the X-mas No. 1 single spot, reading about this has made me warm somewhat to its organising potential...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Take Back Education

Join the teach-in to build the Resistance - King's College London 27th Feb 11am-4pm - see here for more details:

Education is under attack. Up to a third of university funding - £2.5bn - is to be cut, 30 universities could shut down and over 14,000 lecturers may lose their jobs. Big businesses exert more and more control over the university system. Cuts in student places and higher fees could exclude many people from higher education altogether.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Education workers are lobbying for strike action, following the victory at Tower Hamlets College. Students are protesting across Europe, organising occupations to stop neo-liberal reforms - and taking control of campuses for another kind of education. This February we will be hosting a day of alternative lectures and tutorials in King's College London to bring together staff and students to celebrate what education could be - and to prepare for the battles ahead.

Initial line up includes:

literary critic Terry Eagleton + poet and education campaigner Michael Rosen + Jeremy Corbyn MP + lecturer and radical theorist Alex Callinicos + Justice for Cleaners Juan Carlos Piedra + activists from Ireland and Austria + education workers who have led successful strikes + voices from students and campaigns around the country + other speakers to be announced.

Alternative lectures and tutorials include:

The crisis in our universities and the battle for education + Education for liberation - what could our education look like? + The corporate takeover of our universities + How do we fight for free education? + Building fighting unions + Education for all - challenging Islamophobia, racism and the points based immigration system + The tasks ahead - building resistance that can win.

On the final point, people might like to note the recent vote for action by lecturers at Leeds University - messages of support can be sent here

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E.P. Thompson Today

Over at Reading the Maps, the author of the forthcoming work The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics contributes a defence of the relevance of the Marxist historian and activist EP Thompson for socialists today. This is an extract:

It seems to me that, in the twenty-first century, everyone committed to the politics of the left faces the predicament the young EP Thompson chose for himself in 1956. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1991 and the decline of Western social democracy into the neo-liberalism of the ‘Third Way’ have meant that the old sources of left-wing orthodoxy have vanished. For a generation that has grown up in the era of Putin and Blair, claims about the inevitable triumph of socialism, or even the inevitable amelioration of the worst features of capitalism by social democracy, seem absurd. The once-orthodox belief that socialism could save humanity by massively increasing the planet’s industrial output also seems anachronistic to a generation aware of the dangers posed by global warming, deforestation, and other side-effects of industrialism. Like EP Thompson, today’s leftists are forced to search in diverse places for alternatives to the dogmas of both Stalinism and old-fashioned social democracy.

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Free Nelson Mandela

Though I was a little too young to really remember the occasion myself, and indeed my only real connection to the man himself was being part of a mass crowd that welcomed him to Leeds in I think 2004, this week marks the anniversary of the freedom, after captivity for 27 years, of Nelson Mandela who was finally released by South Africa's Apartheid regime on 11 February 1990. This year, the country, which he was democratically elected President of, celebrates 20 years of freedom as well as hosting Africa's first World Cup. Back in the eighties The Specials sang Free Nelson Mandela. The people over at Philosophy Football have produced a timely T-shirt that both celebrates this message that inspired a generation to dance, march and boycott but also South Africa' achievements in its two decades of freedom. Plus the shirt helps raise funds for Action for Southern Africa successor to the Anti-Apartheid Movement - which is nice.

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St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asked him "how he dares molest the sea." "How dare you molest the whole world?" the pirate replied: "Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor."
Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors (2002).

Those wanting to know what Marxist historians think about pirates should obviously consult Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations; Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age and/or Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra, but the new issue of darkmatter looks equally fascinating. I will reprint the editorial notes below:

Editorial Notes: Pirates and Piracy – Material Realities and Cultural Myths by Andrew Opitz

This special issue of darkmatter sets out to examine the complicated and often incongruous cultural meanings assigned to pirates and piracy in the twenty-first century. Debates about piracy have long featured certain telling contradictions. At different times, pirates have been seen as both violent monsters and colorful folk heroes. They have been cast by historians and cultural critics as both capitalist marauders and militant workers fighting for a restoration of the commons. How can we account for these seemingly incompatible visions? Of course, it is important to observe that pirates were hardly uniform in their social and political orientations. Some were greedy opportunists. Some were desperate sailors and slaves driven to mutiny. Others were somewhere in-between. We should also recognize that our understanding of piracy is powerfully shaped by our economic interests and our relationship with the law. The propertied targets of piratical theft are quick to view pirates as criminal actors outside the bounds of civilized behaviour, but the dispossessed are inclined to take a more nuanced approach that admires the defiance of the pirates at the same time as it fears their violence. It is also important to note that pirates now have a symbolic importance that transcends the basic material conditions behind their banditry. Our enduring cultural fascination with pirates is tied to their status as celebrated figures of rebellion and nonconformity in popular novels and films. Although the actual history of maritime robbery is sordid and contradictory, the pirate has become a compelling symbol of freedom: freedom from oppressive work routines; freedom from polite behaviour; freedom from institutional controls; freedom from restrictive property laws; freedom from unjust social conventions surrounding race and gender roles. We now apply the pirate label to an assortment of activities – from the formation of transgressive sexual identities to the technology-assisted defiance of copyright law – that have little or nothing to do with the sea or those who “go down to it in ships.” The articles assembled in this special issue take a broad approach to the study of pirates and piracy, examining diverse subjects ranging from the working-class politics of transatlantic piracy in the eighteenth century to the actions of Nigerian media pirates in the twenty-first century and recent debates about Somali pirates within East African immigrant communities in North America. The authors who contributed to this special issue of darkmatter have approached the cultural politics of pirates and piracy from different angles. They are historians, literary critics, legal scholars and media/cultural theorists. However, their scholarship is linked by the shared understanding that modern piracy, like the modern world itself, is inextricably bound to the history of colonial and neocolonial relations of production and the legacy of racial and class conflict that they produced – a history that forged the global capitalist order that continues to shape our everyday relationships with other people. Pirates are often dismissed in the media as exotic anachronisms – colorful characters out of step with present realities. But the forces that produced and continue to produce pirates – global shipping, the extraction of resources from colonial and neocolonial holdings, the mobilization and control of labor in the service of investment capital – still drive our world today. Studying pirates and their ongoing cultural resonance is hardly a frivolous activity. It is necessary for a true understanding of the socially uneven, violent and unstable world in which we live – a world that is still very much at sea.
Andrew Opitz
Guest Editor

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Conference on The Vote - What Went Wrong?

With the upcoming British general election in May offering little in the way of excitement for socialists (with the possible exception of the embryonic left challenge from the 'Trade Union and Socialist Coalition' - 'TUSC' - not to be confused with this TUSC, and a handful of others), the upcoming annual conference of the London Socialist Historians Group on 27 February The Vote - What Went Wrong? seems timely. The most recent issue of the LSHG Newsletter is also now online, and includes among other things Keith Flett on the anti-war movement and Ian Birchall on how work on his forthcoming biography of Tony Cliff is coming along, both of which may be of interest to Histomat readers. While I am here I may as well also flag up the national Unite Against Fascism conference being held in London on 13 February - stopping the EDL going on any more rampages and stopping 'Nazi Nick' Griffin getting even the whiff of a chance of being elected in Barking will be priorities for the British Left over the coming period, as well as building on the mood of resistance and solidarity expressed at the recent successful Right to Work Conference - in order to fight the current jobs massacre.

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