Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, January 30, 2006

Dead King Watch: Charles I

I don't know - you wait ages for a monarch to die and then three die at once. You might not know it, but you will have to believe me when I say that this blog does on occasion write about things other than dead English Kings.

But Charles I, who was executed 357 years ago today, is a bit special. I will write more about his execution, and why it constitutes one of the most glorious moments in English history when I have more time on this post, but for now lets just savour this anniversary.

Edited to add the following background from Christopher Hill's The English Revolution:

'The issue was one of political power. The bourgeoisie had rejected Charles I’s Government, not because he was a bad man, but because he represented an obsolete social system. His Government tried to perpetuate a feudal social order when the conditions existed for free capitalist development, when the increase of national wealth could only come by means of free capitalist development. A seventeenth century parson thus described the line-up: – “Against the king, the laws and religion, were a company of poor tradesmen, broken and decayed citizens, deluded and priest-ridden women. . . . the rude rabble that knew not wherefore they were got together, ... tailors, shoemakers, linkboys, etc.; ... on the king’s side ... all the bishops of the land, all the deans, prebends and learned men; both the universities; all the princes, dukes, marquises; all the earls and lords except two or three; ... all the knights and gentlemen in the three nations, except a score of sectaries and atheists.” We need not take that partisan account too literally but it makes the class nature of the division clear.

Charles’s policy throughout his reign, illustrates the class basis of his rule. He tried to regulate trade and industry with the contradictory intention both of slowing down a too rapid capitalist development and of sharing in its profits. In foreign policy he wished for the alliance of the most reactionary powers, Spain and Austria, and refused therefore the forward national policy demanded by the bourgeoisie. Because he lost all favour with the moneyed classes, he had to levy illegal taxes, to aim to dispense with Parliament, to rule by force. His failure in Scotland showed up the rottenness of the whole structure which he had reared; and his appeals for national unity against the foreign enemy fell on deaf ears. The real enemy was at home. The invading Scottish army was hailed as an ally. The Parliamentarian attack showed that the opposition had realised that they were fighting more than a few evil counsellors (as they had long believed or pretended to believe), more even than the King himself. They were fighting a system. Before the social order they needed could secure they had to smash the old bureaucratic machinery, defeat the cavaliers in battle. The heads of a king and many peers had to roll in the dust before it could be certain that future kings and the peerage would recognise the dominance of the new class.

...Many of those who fought for Parliament were afterwards disappointed with the achievements of the revolution, felt they had been betrayed. But they were right to fight. A victory for Charles I and his gang could only have meant the economic stagnation of England, the stabilisation of a backward feudal society in a commercial age, and yet necessitated an even bloodier struggle for liberation later. The Parliamentarians thought they were fighting God’s battles. They were certainly fighting those of posterity, throwing off an intolerable incubus to further advance. The fact that the revolution might have gone further should never allow us to forget the heroism and faith and disciplined energy with which ordinary decent people responded when the Parliament’s leaders freely and frankly appealed to them to support its cause.

...After the Army’s victory in this second civil war, Grandees and Levellers united to clear the compromisers out of Parliament (Pride’s Purge) and to bring the King to justice. After a speedy trial, he was executed on January 30th, 1649, as a “public enemy to the good people of this nation.” Monarchy was declared to be “unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people,” and was abolished. The House of Lords, which was also abolished, was merely “useless and dangerous.” On May 19th, 1649, a republic was proclaimed.'


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dead King Watch: The imbecilic George III

George III died on 29th January 1820, so today is the 186th anniversary of his death. I'm a bit too busy to write much about George III, who Karl Marx regarded as an 'imbecile', but I have fortunately found the following account which gives some sense of what 'losing America' to the Americans in the War of Independence did for his popularity with conservative critics:

'On October 25th, 1760, George The Third succeeded his grandfather George II (1683-1760) as the king of England. George the Second and his father before him, George the First, were more German than English. Their reigns were beneficial to England in that the first two Georges were content to play at being kings and let the English rule themselves through their democratic institutions. George the Third, however, was a different matter. He thought himself to be an English king, one to rule; and during his reign he attempted to take control. Green was to write that George The Third "had a smaller mind than any English king before him save James the Second. He was wretchedly educated, and his natural powers were of the meanest sort. Nor had he the capacity for using greater minds than his own by which some sovereigns have concealed their natural littleness. On the contrary, his only feeling toward great men was one of jealousy and hate. ... During the first ten years of his reign he managed to reduce government to a shadow, and to turn the loyalty of his subjects at home into disaffection. Before twenty years were over he had forced the American colonies into revolt and independence, and brought England to what then seemed the brink of ruin." Green concludes: "... the shame of the darkest hour of English history lies wholly at his door." In Thackeray's The Four Georges, we find, in respect to George III: "He bribed; he bullied; he darkly dissembled on occasioned; he exercised a slippery perseverance, which one almost admires, as one thinks his character over. His courage was never to be beat." Why did the English people put up with George the Third? The answer is simple: "the majority of the people remained helpless and distracted between their hatred of the house of Hanover and their dread of the consequences which would follow on a return of the Stuarts."'

It is quite remarkable indeed that as America and the rest of Europe underwent a great age of Revolution, good old Blighty stuck to King George III from 1760 all the way through to 1820. Morton notes that key to understanding this is the fact that 'George did not, as has sometimes been supposed, attempt, like the Stuarts, to free himself from the control of Parliament. The time when that was possible had long past. Rather he tried to make himself "the first among the borough-mongering, electioneering gentlemen of England." He formed an alliance with the Tories - who were now in the main 'loyal' and respectable county squires and big landowners - and who supported a policy of war. More is known now than then about his mental illness (see the film 'The Madness of King George'), but Wikipedia is right to note 'George III was hated by the rebellious American colonists and in Ireland for the atrocities carried out in his name during the suppression of the 1798 rebellion. The United States Declaration of Independence held him personally responsible for the political problems faced by the United States.' In general, under him, the United Kingdom (as Britain and Ireland had come to be known then) played a most counter-revolutionary role on the world stage - waging war against revolutionary regimes in America, France and what became Haiti.

Yet at home, there was a growing tide of dissent. As Morton put it, 'two poles of attraction began to appear: the imperialism of the Court, Government and financiers, drawing to itself all the privileged classes, and a new radicalism, at first aristocratic and slightly cynical but later proletarian and genuinely revolutionary, drawing a mixed following of the dispossessed, the unprivileged, and, in each generation, a host of those who saw in the profession of radicalism a means of entering the ranks of the privileged.'


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dead King Watch: Henry VIII - Greedy Bastard

Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547, which makes this the 459th anniversary of his death, and Dead King Watch could have hardly missed this occasion. Henry is famous not just for his size but 'for having been married six times and for wielding the most untrammelled power of any British monarch'. This power came from his Parliament's passing of several Acts from 1529 onwards which severed the English Church from the Roman Catholic Church - the 'Protestant Reformation' - and established Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. This boosted the power of the monarchy over the clergy immeasurably - and when followed up with the suppression of the monasteries in 1536 -9, undertaken to try and solve a growing financial crisis, clearly showed the real agenda of Henry VIII. This was not about trying to create a popular mass movement against the power of the Catholic Church - after all still the ideological lynchpin of the feudal system across Europe - it was about establishing an effective modern independent absolutist monarchical state in England. Parliament was tolerated, but real power lay with the King through his Privy Council and a network of local Justices of the Peace.

AL Morton describes Tudor Government at this time: 'There was no standing army and only a small paid bureaucracy. But by medieval standards it was costly enough and soon outran the old sources of revenue that had changed little since the Middle Ages. Henry VIII started with the immense accumulation of funds left by his father but soon spent it. The extravagance for which he is notorious was not merely a personal weakness, it had political motives. The Kings of Europe in this period aimed at attracting the nobles to court, and, by turning them into courtiers, weakening them as political rivals. For this purpose a lavish expenditure was necessary and kings and nobles competed in display on an every increasing scale. Where the feudal nobles had shown their importance by the size of their armed following, their descendants were judged by their dress and the style of their houses.'

This was the great age of chivalry, of jousting and so on - and Henry who had come to the throne in 1509 aged just 18 was a great athlete and sportsman (apparently inventing 'Royal Tennis'). Yet as Morton notes, all this display was very costly and 'Henry, always apt to develop political necessity to the point of mania, seemed to take a political delight in squandering his resources. In addition, the wars to which the balance of power policy committed him proved expensive and brought no return. Finally, as the century went on, the influx of gold and silver from America began to increase prices without bringing any corresponding increase in revenue' - which led him to plunder the Church as described above.

It seems Henry VIII was also something of a homophobe, indeed passing the first anti-gay law in England, the Buggery Act 1533. The Act made buggery (anal sex) with man or beast punishable by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861, when life imprisonment was substituted. Yet even then the law survived until 1967, and the tabloid press demonisation of Lib Dem Simon Hughes shows that for all the talk of 'new Britain' and 'modern Britishness' - some very old and nasty prejudices still remain. It might also be noted that 'the direct effects of this law were not restricted to England. Because of England's success as a colonial power, and its tendency to impose its entire legal structure on the ruled areas, legal prohibitions against homosexual activity derived from this law extended well outside England. In Scotland, for instance, (which has a separate legal system) the law was not changed until 1979. In many American states "sodomy" laws are still on the books, as also in former British colonies in the Caribbean.'

Yes, Henry was definitely a man with an eye for the ladies. According to Wikipedia, he was an accomplished musician, author, and poet and he wrote the popular folk song 'Greensleeves' for one of his lovers and future Queens, who had rejected Henry's attempts to seduce her.

'Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.

I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.

My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.

Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.

Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.'

However, before we build up too strong a romantic image of Henry VIII, it might be worth remembering exactly which future Queen he had in mind when he wrote this love song - one, er, Anne Boleyn. She ended up getting beheaded of course by her 'lover long and true'...

He died from obesity and 'the service of committal was interrupted when his coffin burst forth offensive matter and filled the church with a most obnoxious odour'. There, thats a nice image to leave you with...


Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Balance Sheet

After he went in, I said I would reserve judgement until he came out. My judgement is simply this. Him coming out was the only good thing to come out of the whole thing.

But that is enough about Simon Hughes and the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. As for Galloway, who devastates his hypocritical critics here, he did make it onto here, while this is a welcome consolation prize of sorts. A victory in defeat as it were...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dead Queen Watch: 'Famine Queen' Victoria

Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901 - which makes today the 105th anniversary of her death. She was the longest reigning monarch - 63 years on the throne - having been coronated in 1837. As a result, she is one of the most famous monarchs, and was memorably and sympathetically played by Dame Judy Dench in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. Yet the reality of life under her reign for ordinary people in the British Empire was quite different. Colin Gill, co author of Topple the Mighty, has helpfully summarised her rule:

'When Victoria came to the throne in 1837 it was like a breath of fresh air to the middle class compared with her extravagent, arrogant and stupid uncles, two of whom had preceded her as kings. But the working class was not so convinced.

The Chartists’ 1842 petition to the queen demanded she pay attention to "the great disparity existing between the wages of the producing millions and the salaries of those whose comparitive usefulness ought to be questioned, where riches and luxury prevail among the rulers and poverty and starvation among the ruled".

Victoria displayed some signs of sympathy for liberal causes in her earlier years, but this disappeared as her reign drew on.

In 1867 she complained that the Irish had never "become reconciled to English rule, which they hate — so different from the Scots, who are so loyal...We shall have to hang some, and it ought to have been done before".

By the end of her reign she had re-invented herself as the Great White Queen as the prime minister, Disraeli, drove through a murderous imperial expansion across the globe.

Her attitude to British military incursions into Sudan echoes those who justify troops in Iraq today: "A blow must be struck or we shall never be able to convince the Mohammedans that they have not beaten us".'

The blow struck in Sudan was indeed quite some blow. 'In 1898, at the battle of Omdurman those fighting under the Union Jack fired 3,500 shells and 500,000 bullets. The British suffered 28 dead while 11,000 Sudanese Dervishes were killed. Most died from Maxim machine-gun fire: "It was not a battle but an execution ... The bodies were not in heaps - bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composed with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces..." Wounded Dervishes were shot or bayoneted where they lay. Afterwards General Kitchener boasted that his victory had opened all the lands along the Nile "to the civilization influences of commercial enterprise."'. I don't remember Dame Judy Dench's character mentioning this...

Some idea of the British 'murderous imperial expansion across the globe' under Victoria can be sensed from just reading a list of the 'small colonial wars' (as they have euphemistically been called) undertaken during Victoria's reign:

Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837
Capture of Aden, 1838
First Afghan War, 1838-42
Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48
Opium Wars in China, 1839-42
War in the Levant, 1840
War in Afghanistan, 1842
Conquest of Sind, India, 1843
Gwalior War, India, 1843
First Sikh War, India, 1845-6
Against Native Africans, South Africa, 1846-52
North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54
Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9
Second Burmese War, 1852
Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854
War with Persia, 1856-7
North-West Frontier of India, 1858-67
Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60
Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4
Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861
Ambela Expedition, 1863
Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5
Bhutan Expedition, 1865
Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868
Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870
Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874
Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6
Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877
North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9
Second Afghan War, 1878
Third Afghan War, 1879
Zulu War, 1879
North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4
Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1
Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882
Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5
Third Burmese War, 1885
Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885
End of the Nile Campaign, 1885
North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92
Minor Operations in India, 1888-94
Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895
Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896
Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8
Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8
North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8
Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1

Those who want to read more about these battles might like to try to track down Victor Kiernan's book, European Empires from Conquest to Collapse. As well as presiding over bloody British efforts in the 'Scramble for Africa', which of course later included the Boer war, particularly noteworthy are her attitudes towards Ireland and India. Wikipedia notes that Victoria was called the "Famine Queen" after the British Government chose to let the free market take its course in the Irish Potato Famine (An Gorta Mor), which cost the lives of over one million Irish people and saw the emigration of another million from 1845-9. In 1856, - one hundred and fifty years ago - Frederick Engels visited Dublin and gave his view of the country: 'Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony ... the so-called liberty of the English citizen is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country and the sodden look of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here amongst the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.'

If one million Irish people were left to die from malnutrition by the British commitment to 'free trade' and profits in the 1840s, it has been estimated by Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts (2001) that between 12 and 29 million Indians were to die from famines under her reign. Queen Victoria had become Empress of India in 1877, but as she travelled around in luxury she seemed quite unmoved by the sheer numbers dying of poverty. George Monbiot has summarised the famines under 'Pax Britannia' - about which, it might be noted, in Britain at the time only the tiny Marxist Social Democratic Federation campaigned against:

'When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

As millions died, the imperial government launched "a militarized campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought." The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places which had produced a crop surplus, the government’s export policies, like Stalin’s in the Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the North-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceding three years, at least 1.25m died.'

A 'memorable quote' from the 1997 film Mrs. Brown was when Queen Victoria tells a Princess at dinner that 'You're not eating enough. One must not let vanity overrule appetite'. If the real Empress of India ever uttered such a statement then it is criminal that she did not apply the same principle more widely. Queen Victoria, as we have seen, was more than happy to let her imperial vanity overrule the appetites of millions.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Anti-War President

"Many people are very, very sincerely anti-war...everyone is anti-war. The president is anti-war. No one wants war. But no one wanted what happened on September 11 either."

Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush, January 2006.

I do not know a lot about George Bush's politics before September 11th, but I would be very surprised if he had ever opposed any war waged by the US Government up to then in his life...


Friday, January 20, 2006

New Labour and the English Peasants Revolt

The Death of Wat Tyler at the hands of one of the King's men, 1381

'The Queen could decide to punish George Galloway under an ancient law, according to reports.

The 1382 Summons to Parliament Act allows the Queen to "amerce" - arbitrarily punish - the politician if she believes he has not "reasonably and honestly" excused himself from parliament to appear on Big Brother.

"Every one to whom it belongeth, shall upon Summons come to the Parliament," the law states. "If any Person of the same Realm ... do absent himself, and come not at the said Summons (except he may reasonably and honestly excuse him to our Lord the King) he shall be amerced, and otherwise punished."

Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, was among those urging the Queen to enforce the law.'

Might this ancient law of 1382 giving the monarch such powers have had something to do with the English Peasants Revolt, a year earlier? Is Galloway perhaps the new Wat Tyler?

But aren't Labour supposed to the party of the 'people'? Given they are so obsessed with 'progress' and building a 'new Britain', isn't it a bit desperate to try and get the Queen to deal with their political opponents?

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Carnival time

To those who are new to the world of blogging, the discovery that there are lots of little 'sub-spheres' within the 'blogosphere' can be quite thrilling. I first found out about 'History blogging' from here a few months ago, for which I will always be thankful. Generally speaking, historically minded bloggers can be found at the History Carnival, twice a month. The latest History Carnival can be joined here, at 'The Old is the New New', which includes among other things one bloggers' list of the ten worst Americans and a blogger who seems to enjoy writing about 'Airpower and British Society, 1908-1939', of all things. Also included are some precient thoughts on 'historiography', while you might reconsider the way you think about Stalinist Russia after reading this. Not included, but for those interested in looking at old photos of Leeds, UK, might like to check out here, while I know at least one reader who will be interested in this blog, 'Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean'. The trouble is, of course,that once you enter the world of History Carnival, you can find the whole thing dangerously addictive. Don't say I didn't warn you...

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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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Friday, January 13, 2006

Return of the Mac...

Blairite Denis Macshane has written down his thoughts on George Galloway on Big Brother for the Independent No doubt he is being paid handsomely for it, but what is MacShane's special insight?

'George Galloway demeans Parliament, shames politics, abuses democracy, and his latest cavorting in the soft-porn sleazy bedrooms of Big Brother will destroy for ever what standing he has with British Muslims.'

Yeah, I can just see them flocking back to vote for Blair, who really does demean Parliament, shame politics, abuse democracy and, oh yes, also kills Iraqi Muslims...

'How has this come about? What has happened to one of the most gifted orators on the post-war left that he elects to become a modern-day Harold Davidson, the Vicar of Stiffkey. The latter was a noted church preacher of the early 20th century who ended his days performing in a lion's cage, such was his craving for headlines and notoriety. A lion ate him in 1932 and that was the end of the Vicar of Stiffkey.'

Actually - a lion ate Stiffkey in 1937, but who cares about accuracy? Certainly not Macshane. Still, as someone who once heard Denis Macshane speak, I can safely say that no-one will ever describe him as 'one of the most gifted orators of the post-war left' - that is for sure.

'Galloway's fate will be decided by the sensible voters of east London who must be asking themselves why they lost the services and hard-working brilliance of the Jewish-African-American, Oona King, for someone who has been denounced in the Commons as Saddam Hussein's "Lord Haw-Haw".'

Hmm - I wonder who it was who denounced Galloway as 'Saddam Hussein's "Lord Haw-Haw"'? Oh, I remember now...

'MPs have a special privilege which comes with election. It is not the money or allowances, nor the ephemeral chance to slide up the greasy pole of ministerial ambition - a pole which seems far better at allowing "here today and gone tomorrow" ministers to crash to the bottom. It is the raw pleasure of using Parliament as a tribune to advance big or small causes.'

My jaw drops at this. Macshane - a careerist who supported the war so he could 'silde up the greasy pole of ministerial ambition' - attacks Galloway who was witchunted out of the Party because he put his campaigning principles before his ambition... And then he tells George, oh, if you are an MP you can use your position to advance wider causes as well - as if Galloway has done nothing else since being elected as a Respect MP!

'Two hundred years ago William Wilberforce used Parliament to abolish slavery. When Galloway was a baby, an MP called Sydney Silverman did the same to abolish hanging. Tony Banks drove ministers mad over abolishing fox hunting, but he got his way. Galloway is one of the most polished Parliamentarians in the business. Yet he rarely, if ever, appears in the Commons to make his case.'

One suspects this might be because by appearing in the Commons too often raises your chances of accidently coming accross hypocritical egotistical barefaced apologists for imperial power like MacShane...

'After two decades in Parliament and 10 years before that as a leading Scottish politician and then head of War on Want, what does Galloway stand for? He claims to support the cause of Muslims worldwide. Yet he opposed Tony Blair and Robin Cook when they organised the war in Kosovo which stopped the mass murder of European Muslims by the Serb thug Milosevic.'

...but led to more mass murder by the American thug Clinton and the British thug Blair...

'The biggest mass murderer of Muslims in modern history, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iranian, Kuwaiti and his fellow Iraqi Muslims on his hands, is Saddam Hussein. When I worked in Geneva in the Nineties the most feared individual there was Saddam's brother who organised the terror and assassin networks that killed Saddam's opponents all over Europe and the Middle East.'

Thank goodness that George Bush and Tony Blair could never be accused of having the blood of hundreds of thousands of Muslims on their hands...

'Yet in one of the most bizarre conversions ever seen in politics, Galloway decided that the democratic Western powers were a bigger enemy to everything he as a socialist and democrat stood for than the evil of the Iraqi dictator.'

A view shared by most other socialists and democrats in Britain - like say, Tony Benn whose 'bizarre conversion' here is not touched upon by Macshane for some reason.

'From his speech of praise to Saddam's face to donning pyjamas in a television freak show, this is the fastest descent of talent, ability and burning desire to change the world into the nothingness of modern mass media exploitation.'

Oh, thank goodness that if there is one thing New Labour are never guilty of it is trying to exploit the modern mass media.

'Poor George. He came to make the world a better place. He has made himself a joke figure. What a waste.'

Poor Denis. He wrote this comment piece to try and impress his masters in Downing Street. He has made himself into even more of a joke figure than he was already. What a waste of money paying him to write it was.

Edited to add: Article spotted here

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Classic Marxist Historiography

Brothers, sisters, friends and comrades - I profusely apologise but I am really busy at the moment. So rather than me bore you by doing the talking, I thought I would allow readers to discuss what they think are the greatest works of Marxist history ever written. There have been some outstanding Marxist historians - who have produced some outstanding work - but to create controversy and discussion I have selected a 'top ten' - restricting myself from using the same person twice. This list is about classic works - and one work that will doubtless become a classic - and so perhaps some 'one hit wonders' take precedence here over more deserving cases (the notable example here is Eric Hobsbawm, who I admire greatly, and many others from the Communist Party Historian's Group of 1946-1956). And how can anyone really quantify this stuff anyway? Nevertheless, I produced this list precisely so people feel duty bound to tear into it. However, if you haven't read any of the following, I highly recommend you do - and if you know a lot more about Marxism and History than me then please inform the rest of us about what we should be reading. Apologies for not explaining more about my choices - but perhaps at a later date... And, before anyone points it out - I know Women's history remains rather neglected at the moment on this blog - it is something I will try and rectify in future - feel free to throw links and recommendations at me for women's history... Finally, if you are thinking about buying any of the books mentioned, remember use a pro-trade union bookshop like this lot rather than corporate bastards like Amazon, Borders, et al.

Ten: Chris Harman - A People's History of the World (1999)
- Does what it says in the title. An excellent introduction full of tips for further reading. As a nice bonus, it is online here. A controversial choice for a top ten - but hey, I'm a controversial kind of guy.

Nine: G.E.M. de Ste Croix - The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981) Guardian obituary of de Ste Croix here - he often gets unfairly forgotten in such lists.

Eight: Frederick Engels -The Peasant War In Germany (1850)
One of the first, if not the first, work of 'Marxist history' - as such it deserves a place in here. It showed that in 'religious wars', there are not only bloody battles - economics and politics are never far from the surface either...
Online here

Seven: Christopher Hill - The English Revolution 1640 (1940). Online here. Yeah, Hill's later work is probably better, but it ain't online so... Mention should be made here of Brian Manning, one of Hill's students, who wrote the underrated The English People and the English Revolution.

Six:Isaac Deutscher - Trotsky(3 Vols - 1954-64) Wonderful Marxist biography. Neil Davidson has an interesting article on Deutscher here

Five: Mike Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001)

How British imperialism, economic crisis and the environment combined to create famines which murdered 12-29 million Indians during the high period of the Raj. See a recent article by Monbiot, 'How Britain denies its holocausts' and a review here. A model for Marxist writing today.

Four: E.P. Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class(1963)

A Class book, and also an absolute classic example of the tradition of 'History from Below' by a brilliant historian

Three: C.L.R James - The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)

A grand narrative of a victorious slave revolt in Haiti- indeed 'the only successful slave revolt in history' - that was intrinsically intertwined with the Great French Revolution. Apparently a film of the Haitian Revolution should be coming out at some point - see this blog - which is excellent news.

Two:Karl Marx - The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851)

Online here, this little book will show you why Marxist history is the complete opposite from everything your teachers ever told you it is - and from the great man himself. It don't get much better than this...

One:Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution (1930)

...only it did, once. Online here, just as Marx's 18th Brumaire was written after 1848, this was also written in the aftermath of a revolution. Things always seem a lot clearer after such events, for some reason:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edward the Confessor

It was the 940th anniversary of the death of Edward the Confessor yesterday, but I was rather, er, distracted by GG on BB to post about it then. Sorry. Edward is often seen as a rather saintly figure - probably because he liked collecting relics and gave money freely to churches and monasteries. In fact he was said to be 'very slothful, and to have an unsteady attention to duty with fits of ill-timed energy and to be devoid of sound judgement'.

Edward was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma, daughter of Richard II of Normandy and he spent the first 25 years of his life in Normandy. At that time, most of England was under Danish occupation under the King Canute - but when he died in 1042, Canute's sons were unable to hold the dominions together and the Godwins were able to restore the English line. In 1043, Edward became King. When I discussed the Magna Carta of 1215 earlier in Dead King Watch, someone ('Chris') commented that they were told that Magna Carta 'was largely a re-issue of the Accession Charter of Henry I, which itself was lifted wholesale from the Accession Charter of Edward the Confessor and noted they didn't 'think anybody has ever accused Edward the Religious Nutcase of being a proto-democrat'. Edward the 'Religious Nutcase' certainly does not deserve to be remembered as a 'proto-democract' - as AL Morton notes, Henry's reaffirmation of old laws were 'mistakenly attributed' to Edward - possibly because of the odd veneration now being given to Edward during Henry's reign - from which the label 'the Confessor' dates.

In fact, as Morton notes, Edward was 'a pious half-wit' who on his return to England 'brought a train of Norman monks and nobles to whom he gave the best and richest bishoprics and lands. The history of his reign is one of constant struggle between the Norman influence at court and the power of the Godwins. The permeation of England by the Normans was one of the main reasons for the ease in which their conquest was carried through'. Given this rather treacherous role, it seems odd that Edward remains the patron saint of the Royal Family to this day.

On his death in 1066, both the Godwins and the Normans thus laid claim to the throne, and Harold Godwinson was sadly defeated by William the Bastard.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Celebrity Big Brother, George Galloway and Leninism

Yes, indeed George Galloway has gone into the Big Brother house. Time will tell whether this is a success, and it is a risky thing to do, but I think he is absolutely right to be audacious and go for it. The boos that greeted him from some of the crowd before he went into the House explain why this is so - at the moment, while Galloway has huge support from the anti-war movement, among the broader layers of the British working class he - and Respect - are still rather an unknown factor. Most people in Britain are anti-war - but many also believe the tabloid press lies and smears about Galloway and Respect. By going on Big Brother, Galloway has a chance to appear in front of millions of people as a human being instead of a demonised monster. More than that - depending on how the editing of the show goes - he has an excellent chance to make the case for a socialist alternative to New Labour. Elitists may frown and snobs may sneer at the spectacle of Galloway appearing on a 'reality TV' show - but Respect will not go forward in Britain unless it can begin to win the hearts and minds of millions of people. Opportunities like this do not come often - and they have to be seized. Lenin was very fond of a quote by Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most brilliant military minds ever. 'On s'engage, et puis on voit!' Galloway deserves our unconditional support for now, and only then can we come to some conclusion about whether or not he was right to go in.

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Book review: Adventures in Marxism by Marshall Berman

Ten years ago, in 1996, something quite extraordinary happened to me that I still do not quite fully understand. I was sixteen years old and I read a book that changed my life completely, utterly - The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by two German revolutionary socialists, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Quite why it blew my mind (when millions of people worldwide have read this book and remained apparently quite unmoved) would require me to fill you in with a fair few personal details sprinkled with a few shaky hypotheses - which you will be thankful I will not bore you with. Doubtless to say I was looking for some sort of better explanation for the catastrophic state of the world than I had previously been given so far - indeed I am pretty sure I had decided before I actually read the book that The Communist Manifesto was going to blow my mind...

I can still remember the buying the book quite clearly. The place was upstairs in WH Smiths. Penguin had just began their little 60p classics series and had a big display with many titles - and when I saw that The Communist Manifesto was included - the whole thing in one little tiny pocket sized book! - I knew it had to be mine. However, there was a problem - how would I buy it? I looked around to make sure there was no one else watching, then I quietly and with a look of perfect innocence on my face quietly approached the counter. I was terrified as I handed over the little book to the young woman behind it. I stuttered something like 'Can I buy this, please?' - I think I was seriously expecting sirens to go off or something as I tried to buy it. I couldn't quite believe that it was for public sale - and for only 60 pence! What were the capitalist class thinking of! Perhaps it was just a clever trap to lure out us young anti-capitalists into the open and she would just calmly notify my school and the police after my sweaty little hand had handed over my little one pound coin? Anyway, buying The Communist Manifesto for me was I think my first political act - my first statement in public that I was, yes, a 'Communist'. The poor shop worker in WH Smiths almost certainly had no idea as she handed back my forty pence change the significance - for me at least - of what had just taken place.

About fifty years before me, at a bookstore in New York, another young man - Marshall Berman - went through a similar experience with another book by Marx - his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 - that was for sale in a ridiculously cheap edition thanks to the USSR which (about the only good thing it did do) while it existed published cheap copies of Marx, Engels and Lenin's writings. 'It was midnight blue, nice and compact, a perfect fit for a side pocket in a 1950s sports jacked. I opened it at random, here, there, somewhere else - and suddenly I was in a sweat, melting, shedding clothes and tears, flashing hot and cold. I rushed to the front: "I've got to have this book!"' In fact Berman ended up buying twenty copies. 'I felt like I was walking on air. For the next several days I walked around with a stack of books, thrilled to be giving them away to all the people in my life: my mother and sister, my girlfriend, her parents, several old and new friends, a couple of my teachers, the man from the stationary store...I try to imagine myself at that magic moment: How did I get to be so sure of myself? (Never again!) My intellectual impulse-buying...the exuberance with which I pressed myself on all those people; my certainty that I had something special, something that would both rip up their lives and make them happy; my promises of lifetime personal service; above all my love for my great new product that would change the world'. I felt the same about my Communist Manifesto - I carried it around with me in a pocket for about a year after that and try and engage all and any one who would listen - I remember even having a futile chat with a guy who felt he was God's gift to the Conservative Party (think of a young David Cameron) about what Marx said in the Manifesto about what would happen to the family in a future Communist society...

I suppose in a sense for me (and possibly also it seems for Berman) it was a little like a religious experience - my 'conversion to Communism'. A few years later, while stewarding at one of the yearly SWP conferences, 'Marxism', I found myself briefly standing next to Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, of all people. After brief pleasantries, and given she seemed quite impressed with the turnout to the event, I asked her half jokingly whether she had been 'converted' to Marxism yet. She hadn't - but repeated the word 'converted' - as though that word alone explained why she was not a Marxist. At the time, I didn't quite understand her response - I thought this a reasonable enough question to ask her - but now I can understand more about what she was reacting against. There is a tendency within Marxism that comes close to - indeed almost overlaps into - religion (indeed a few members of the Bolshevik Party openly proclaimed their belief in God - see Alexander Blok and his poem - I think it is called 'The Twelve'). One of the articles in Berman's Adventures to Marxism - 'Georg Lukacs's Cosmic Chutzpah' - discusses in detail how for Lukacs - who became possibly the most important Marxist philosopher of the Twentieth Century - becoming a Communist clearly was a religious conversion. When he was in prison in 1920, after the collapse of the short lived Soviet Republic of Hungary of which he served as Commissar for Education and Culture, his former tutor Max Weber wrote to him asking 'was that your "calling" or whatever'?

Berman's Adventures in Marxism is another book that I guarantee will make you change the way you think about things. If you are not already a Marxist then it will present Marxism in a modern voice for a modern age, and it certainly has more chance of convincing you than anything I can write. If you are already a Marxist, then Berman's humanism will enthuse and inspire you. When it came out in 1999, even Christopher Hitchens was impressed, though that is not to say Berman's Marxism is perfect. In her review of the book,
Anne Alexander took a more critical look at some of the problems that tend to rise with many 'Marxist humanists' when asked the question Lenin asked - yes, capitalism sucks but what is to be done? That said, I think Berman's evoking of Marxism as an adventure - 'a special kind of human experience, different from ordinary life, joyful, liberating, thrilling, but problematic, scary, dangerous' is admirable. Indeed, before I even read Adventures in Marxism , I had decided to use the phrase as the the title for this blog. As Berman notes, the title was 'open-ended: it suggested a future that could offer more Marxist adventures'. The possibilities are surely endless -
favourite saying after all was 'Nihil humani a me alienum puto' ['Nothing human is alien to me'].

Modernity and Marxism

At the heart of Berman's whole work is the close relationship between Marxism - a political movement - and modernism - a cultural movement. This is a big topic - Berman indeed has devoted a whole book to it All That is Solid Melts into Air - but he handles it very convincingly to my mind - something I will go into in detail in another blog post. In short, modern capitalist society is full of enormous contradictions flowing from its inbuilt drive for profits.

Modern Life is Rubbish:

The relentless competition between capitalists to accumulate profits means that people end up divided and turned against each other because of the company they work for, the industry they work for, etc. Everyone has to compete against other people for jobs, which you need in order to survive. But work under capitalism brings only survival (though the recent deaths of thirteen miners in West Virginia remind us that work can also mean death) - not a life worth living. Marx shows how the worker is 'alienated' from what they produce at work -the worker 'mortifies his body and ruins his mind' and 'feels himself only outside his work, and in his work...feels outside himself', the worker 'is at home only when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour therefore is not free but coerced, it is forced labour'. Worse than that, the drive for profits forces companies to exploit workers - if they do not and decide to pay a decent wage, the pressure of the market will drive them out of business. The growth of the market means a growing 'concentration and centralisation of capital' and the rise of big business means closer and closer links between business and the state. Ultimately economic competition for markets between giant global companies becomes military competition between nation-states - which leads to imperialism and war. The whole system seems out of control - like a Frankenstein's monster now beyond human command - or perhaps like a runaway train.

Isn't Modern Life Brilliant?

However, fortunately, the misery created by capitalism is only half of the story. Modern capitalism also means that humans now have the potential to solve what seemed like previously unsolveable puzzles. The tremendous productive power unleashed by capitalist development allows us to imagine a world without famine and poverty and deaths through diseases associated with malnutrition and dirty water. No longer do we have to see things like this as simply 'Acts of God' about which we are powerless to do anything about. As Marx put it in 1848, 'the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?' Above all, today capitalism has created a new global workforce - the vast majority of the world's population are now completely united through the world market or else dependent on what that world market does. The other side of the coin to competition - is the other great contradiction of capitalism - cooperation. More and more people globally are being brought into workplaces where they find they have more in common with each other than they previously thought. Throughout capitalism's history, workers have organised themselves into trade unions, cooperatives - and ultimately political parties - based around the interests of labour as opposed to those of capital. Today, even British Tories have to claim to be committed to a free NHS if they are to have any chance of getting workers votes. But the great lesson here is this - capitalism is not beyond human control, it was created by humans, it is sustained by the tiny actions of millions of human beings each day, and if we as human beings decide we can do a lot better than capitalism then we can collectively decide to do something about it. We have the power - and the growing global anti-capitalist movement proves indeed that 'another world is possible'. The last words deserve to go to Berman himself, writing in 1999:

'The 1990s began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the "post-modern" age: we weren't supposed to need big ideas. As the 1990s end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, deskilling and dread--just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were workers who were ready to die with The Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the 21st, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.'

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy new year

Yep, have a good one in 2006 people. And particular happy new year greetings to this lot, emerging out of hiding in their 'autonomous' space to try and engage with the mass of ordinary people. Quite a heroic thing for them to do, especially if any of them are nursing a hangover at this moment in time.