Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edmund Ironside

Edmund Ironside was pleasantly surprised on being told he had made it onto Dead King Watch.

After ruling for a mere seven months, Edmund Ironside died on November 30 1016, which makes this the 990th anniversary of his death.

Born in 989, Edmund was the second son of King Ethelred the Unready , but when his elder brother Ethelstan died in 1014 Edmund was heir. A power-struggle began between Edmund and his father, but this was put on hold when Canute attacked England with his Viking forces. When Ethelred II, who had earlier been stricken ill, died suddenly on April 23, 1016 Edmund succeeded to the throne, though with little support from the Southern nobility who preferred Canute.

When Edmund forcefully recovered Wessex from Canute’s previous invasion in 1015, Canute responded by laying siege to London, yet Edmund’s defence was successful earning him the name 'Ironside'. Despite the victory, conflict continued until Edmund was defeated on October 18 by Canute at the battle of Ashingdon in Essex. After the battle the two kings negotiated a peace in which Edmund kept Wessex while Canute held the lands north of the River Thames. In addition, they agreed that if one of them should perish, territories belonging to the deceased would be ceded to the living. Sadly for Edmund, he died first and his territories were ceded to Canute who then became King of England.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I am not sure how to load 'You Tube' videos myself, but Histomat readers might be interested in watching Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other leaders of the Communist International in action during the Russian Civil War over at Virtual Stoa. While we are discussing revolutionary Marxists, does anyone know anything about Austro-Marxist Gustav Eckstein? No real reason why, but I am just interested in him. Finally, perhaps check out historian Keith Flett's new series on the British Chartist movement in this week's Socialist Worker. As Trotsky noted of the Chartists, 'All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat—the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection—were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found out their principled answer.'

Edited to add a brilliant little homemade film about Lenin

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain has nothing to apologise for

Tony Blair is set to turn the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade next year into part of his 'feel good' farewell tour, where a grateful British public will hail the historic victories of Blairism. Rather than apologising for possibly the worst crime in British history - the slave trade - Blair wants us to 'rejoice' because eventually and reluctantly the British Government was forced to abolish it.

As Blair notes, perhaps with a trace of bitterness in his voice at the fact that his criminal Iraq war was declared 'illegal' by the former Secretary of the United Nations, 'It is hard to believe what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.' He continues, 'I believe the bicentenary offers us not only a chance to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition - but also to express our deep sorrow that it could ever have happened and rejoice at the better times we live in.'

It would of course be nice indeed if Blair really did praise the true heroes of abolition - the likes of Toussaint L'Ouverture and other leaders of slave revolts - or indeed the working class radicals and liberals in Britain - rather than simply praising British MPs like the Tory Wilberforce. Somehow I can't quite see Blair championing the Haitian war of Independence from British, French and Spanish colonial power - just as the Americans and British are getting their butts kicked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as over Iraq, Blair expresses 'sorrow' and 'regret' over the 'disaster' - but explicitly appears to rule out an apology - as this inevitably would raise the question of blame and possibly reparations. And, just as over Iraq, as Gary Younge points out, an apology would inevitably undermine the 'necessary illusion' that Britain and 'the West' in general is superior to everyone else.

If Blair apologised for slavery - or indeed for Iraq - then it would undermine the Whig idea that Britain's past is one of the rise of 'democracy' and 'civilisation' and it would make people question New Labour's whole embrace of Victorian values on just about everything, from Gladstonian 'moral imperialism' abroad, to attacks on the 'feckless' 'undeserving' 'anti-social' poor at home.

Already New Labour historian Tristram Hunt has been wheeled out to try and explain to us why an apology would apparently be 'politically driven and devoid of historical context':

'William Wilberforce had no great affection for the African slave, but he had considerable regard for the spiritual state of England. He led the abolitionist crusade as part of his own evangelical vision for curtailing moral corruption. When Wilberforce's dogged certitude coalesced with a broader demand for political and social reform, the momentum towards 1807 was unstoppable. Ultimately it wasn't economics or security fears which ended the slave trade, it was public pressure and moral sentiment.

Which is why the 200th anniversary of abolition should be a moment of pride as much as guilt. The complexities of abolition mean that the kind of apology Tony Blair offered for the 1840s Irish potato famine - politically driven and devoid of historical context - does no service to the significance of abolition.'

After trying and failing to justify the lack of an apology as a historian, Hunt then simply gives the real reason why New Labour can't and won't apologise:'Any official apology on behalf of the British government would...be logically incoherent, it would unnecessarily goad middle England opinion and open up claims for reparations.' There we are - we can't tell the truth to [white] 'middle England' - because firstly they can't handle the truth and if we did tell them the truth their whole world would fall apart and secondly, it would cost us money that would be better spent on things like Trident nuclear submarines.

Yet without an acknowledgement that the British Empire did commit this historic 'crime against humanity', then the door is open for all sorts of myth making about British 'enlightened' rule and love of 'liberty'. As Professor James Walvin has commented: 'My worry about 2007 is that there will be such a euphoria of nationalistic pride that people will forget what happened before, which was that the British had shipped extraordinary numbers of Africans across the Atlantic.' His worries look well founded. After all the dominant traditional Oxford School of historiography about the slave trade - which Hunt represents - still rules in the academy as well as outside it. As the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, author of the pioneering Capitalism and Slavery (1944), once pointed out, it seems at times that the only reason that the British engaged in the slave trade in the first place was so that they could have the glory of abolishing it. 2007, unfortunately, looks set to be one of those times.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Historical Materialism conference 2006

Over the past week or so I have got a fair few hits from people looking for the HISTORICAL MATERIALISM 2006 CONFERENCE 'NEW DIRECTIONS IN MARXIST THEORY', so I thought I may as well blog about it. It is in London and Mr Rooksby is going, but unfortunately I cannot make it myself. Grrr. It looks excellent - no, it looks awesome - though I am not sure if there are still any places left...Here are the details, anyway...:

8-10 DECEMBER 2006
Further details will be sent to registered participants


Subjects discussed will include: the transformation problem; variable capital; Marx's journalism, Otto Bauer's analysis of the world crisis of the 1930s; non-equilibrium economics; the labour theory of value; financial and industrial capital; the euro and labour integration; finance and the law of value; the domestic labour debate; the political economy of contemporary capitalism; the legacy of Karl Polanyi; the political economy of Turkey and Latin America; Marxism, Islam and the Middle East; Islamism, imperialism and global feminism; the work of Maxime Rodinson; Islam and capitalism; the labour process and resistance in the neo-liberal welfare state; the labour movement; migration; land reform in East Asia and capitalist transitions; commodity chains; waste and capitalism; global capitalism and urban violence; globalisation; theories of imperialism; capital accumulation and the state system; oil and rise of Asia; the governance of global capitalism; China and Cultural Revolution; Nepal and Maoism; China and future of the global economy; accumumation by dispossession; economic theory and the economics of imperialism; Althusser and philosophy; Marxism and critical realism; Italian Marxism; Lukacs; Carl Schmitt; Deleuze; Foucault and governmentality studies; Marxism and political subjectivity; Spinoza; early Soviet history; Russia in the 1920s; theories of the Soviet Union; Lenin rediscovered; bourgeois revolutions; passive revolutions; Chris Wickham and the Middle Ages; Marxism and international law; Marxism and theology; the US National Security Strategy, Hurricane Katrina, and contemporary warfare technologies; the historical uncanny; Marxism and scifi; US leftisttheatre; 'political' filmmakers in the United States; Victor Serge's approach to literature; Zizek, nationalism and Kusturica; the future for committed cultural criticism; Marxism and music; the life and legacy of Ernest Mandel; Marx, Gramsci and anti-oppression politics; Engels's late letters; Karl Kautsky; class and morality; republicanism; Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas today; Marxian political theory; the Communist Manifesto; Marxist philosophy of language; Marxism and social movements ... and much more!

On Friday evening, the winner of the 2005 Deutscher Memorial Prize, Kevin Murphy, will deliver his Prize Lecture.

The conference will include two Socialist Register plenary sessions to launch the 2007 issue on the ecological crisis: can capitalism prevail? and on eco-socialism, democratic planning and political strategy.

Attendance at the conference is free but voluntary contributions are encouraged to help with the costs of organising the conference (we suggest £15 for unwaged/£30 waged).



Saturday, November 25, 2006

On 'Eco-Marxism'

The news that self-declared 'Eco-Marxist' blogger Derek Wall has won the position of joint principal speaker of the British Green Party - along with another member of the 'Green Left' faction - is encouraging indeed. In the past the Green Party have been quite sectarian towards Respect - standing against Salma Yaqoob and George Galloway for example - and in Leeds the Green Party have even joined a Rainbow Alliance with the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The victory of two socialists shows that the majority of Green Party members reject the Party moving to the Right in such a way, and instead show that they want the Green Party to keep to its pacifist and environmental roots.

However, Derek Wall's victory means it is probably timely to discuss Wall's attempt to synthesise environmental or ecological concerns with Marxism to form 'Eco-Marxism' or 'Eco-Socialism'. As well as his blog, Wall has written a book entitled Babylon and Beyond: the economics of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements setting out his politics - which I admit that I have not read. However, a while back, I asked him why his analysis of Marxism in the book was written under the oddly titled chapter heading 'Imperialism Unlimited', given Marxists since Marx onwards had tended to be rather opposed in general to capitalist Imperialism - and indeed had been among its leading theoretical critics. Wall kindly responded by sending me what he described as 'a taster' of his argument - taken from Chapter 6 of Babylon and Beyond, and I propose to do now what I should have done when he sent me it - discuss it on my blog.

Derek Wall starts his chapter on 'Imperialism Unlimited: Marxisms' with a quote from the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez about manatees:

Captain Samaritano had an almost maternal affection for the manatees, because they seemed to him like ladies damned by some extravagant love, and he believed the truth of the legend that they were the only females in the animal kingdom that had no mates. He had always opposed shooting at them from the ship, which was the custom despite the laws prohibiting it. Once, a hunter from North Carolina, his papers in order, had disobeyed him, and with a well-aimed bullet from his Springfield rifle had shattered the head of a manatee mother whose baby became frantic with grief as it wailed over the fallen body. The Captain had the orphan brought on board so that he could care for it, and left the hunter behind on the deserted bank, next to the corpse of the murdered mother. He spent six months in prison as the result of diplomatic protests and almost lost his navigator’s licence, but he came out prepared to do it again, as often as the need arose. Still, that had been a historic episode: the orphaned manatee, which grew up and lived for many years in the rare-animal zoo in San Nicolas de las Barrancas, was the last of its kind seen along the river.

‘Each time I pass that bank,’ he said, ‘I pray to God that the gringo will board my ship so that I can leave him behind all over again.’
(Marquez 1989: 331-332)

After that slightly odd start (the relevance of which - like the title of the chapter I still cannot fathom), and a brief dig at just how many different Marxist organisations exist in the modern Marxist movement in Britain compared to the one unified Green Party, Wall decides to discuss Karl Marx:

Much of what he wrote in the nineteenth century is surprisingly robust. Marx can be amusing, exciting to read and is generally more subtle than many Marxists and critics admit. His core arguments, that capitalism is unjust, tends to keep expanding, and leads to alienation and to the growth of monopoly are at least clear. Yet some of the most important links between his ideas were never made. So for instance he argues that profits tend to fall and that capitalism is prone to recession, but he ‘did not develop a complete theory of crisis' (Went 2000: 65).

This kind of misses out probably the central aspect of Marx - that he grasped not only contradictions within the capitalist system but also that an international working class would be formed by the development of that system and would be forced to struggle against the capitalist class - the owners of the means of production. Marx saw before anyone that the working class would grow and inevitably be forced to politically organise itself independently - and in emancipating itself collectively this class would be the class which would emancipate the whole of society - it would be a revolutionary class.

Wall then moves onto Engels:

Engels, his co-author tried to reconstruct much of what Marx wrote after his death in 1883. Scraps of paper and crossed out paragraphs were put together to finish the volumes of Capital, his masterwork. One gets the impression that much of Theories of Surplus Value was scratched on to cigar packets left under his bed. Presenting Marx’s ideas so they would appeal politically to the working class, Engels emphasised the elements of Marx’s thought that suggested that capitalism was doomed and communism was inevitable.

I think this is kind of unfair on Engels, who like Marx insisted the possibilities ahead were either socialism or barbarism, but Wall does capture something here about the politics of the Second International which did so much to spread socialist ideas among the newly militant rising working class movements of Western Europe (we should not of course forget that much of the Second International was unfortunately quite Eurocentric).

The Second International Marxism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enhanced the view that Marxism was a form of scientific socialism, a political version of physics based on laws of historical progress:
What distinguished Marxism in this context was its rare ability to link revolutionary fervour and desire for change with a historical perspective and a claim to be scientific. Almost inevitably, therefore, the inherited ideas were simplified, rigidified, ossified. Marxism became a matter of simple faith for its millions of adherents (McLellan 1980: 2).

Again, many of the parties of the Second International did have a religious flavour to them - but remember - they were operating often in conditions where they were struggling for basic democratic rights (many workers still did not have the vote - remember all women did not get the vote in England until 1928) but already the fact than many workers did have the vote was creating huge numbers of votes for independent labour parties for the first time ever. Moreover the Marxism of the Second International deserves more than this caricature - at their best the likes of Kautsky and Plekhanov for example were deeply impressive and original thinkers.

Anyway, Wall then passes over the failure of the Second International to oppose the First World War - which highlighted its reformist nature - as well as the birth of Soviet Power in the October Revolution of 1917 but leaps straight into an attack on Stalinism - which he blames on Leninism in the traditional manner:

Marx, whatever his faults as an individual and a thinker, has often been ill served by his disciples. The establishment of Communist Parties under Lenin and then Stalin turned Marxism into a dry dogma, a religion. The almost universally dismal political practices of far-left parties in the twentieth century, from Cambodia to Camden, have produced cartoon Marxisms, largely devoid of intellectual content.

Sadly, here Wall seems to have produced a cartoon picture of Marxism - one where Lenin is turned from the greatest rebel and dissident thinker of the twentieth century into a precursor to Stalin, one where outstanding Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky - or indeed the heroic few who rallied to the Left Opposition around Trotsky at the time Victor Serge called 'midnight of the century' might as well have never been born for all the attention Wall gives to them.

Yet Wall now draws a distinction between 'Marxisms' - though sadly not the one between the vision of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky's democratic and revolutionary 'socialism from below' against Stalin's 'socialism from above'. Wall ignores that 'river of blood' dividing the Marxist movement completely, but instead sees the birth of 'academic Marxism' as more significant - quite brave given Wall is an Economics Lecturer himself - though those wanting to understand this trend more fully should read Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism.

...the dogmatism of the Marxist Parties led to a split between academic and activist Marxism. While some important Marxist intellectuals such as Gramsci and Althusser have been members of the Communist Party, or other far-left parties, or politically active in different ways, many more have enjoyed little or no real as opposed to theoretical participation. Academic Marxism has become a minor industry producing conference papers, books and doctorates. While there is nothing wrong with this and advances have been made, much theorising has been obscure and devoid of political implication. Some of the more obscure variants of Marxism with the least apparent connection to practice such as the Japanese Uno school are extremely important in providing detailed and sophisticated accounts of how modern capitalism works. While we may agree with Uno theorists that anti-capitalists ‘must not shy away from using abstract theory to make sense of the world’ there is a danger that academicisation may hide the contributions Marxism can make to real-life struggle (Albritton 1999: 181).

As Wall concludes: Marxism has become a tree with a thousand branches. Lenin invented the concept of the Communist Party, having split his Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks. Some pre-Leninist Marxist Parties like the DeLeonists exist as tiny political fossils, even today. Trotsky divided from Stalin to create the Fourth International; this has splintered many times and today one tiny group has launched a movement for a Fifth International. Mao also separated from the Stalinist orthodoxy. Fidel Castro, while a leader of an 'orthodox' Leninist Party once linked to Moscow has broadly combined guerrilla warfare strategy, third world nationalism and most recently environmentalism in his Cuban version. Euro communism, an exception to revolutionary hostility to capitalism, has been a distinct strategy of Communist Parties keen to prosper in parliamentary systems. Intellectual divisions include Western Marxism (a diverse and untidy tradition including the Frankfurt School), analytical Marxism, several varieties of post-Marxism, regulation theory, critical realist Marxist, etc. Marxist doctrine as developed by Marxist parties has sometimes functioned as a tactical weapon against others on the far left rather than a serious guide to action. Marxist parties may maintain their distinct identities in a small but crowded field through differences of ideology.

Now to try and unravel all this seems to Wall to be a mission too far. 'For the reasons outlined above any serious review of Marxist anti-capitalism will be something of a roller-coaster ride. The Marxism that effortlessly linked exploitation, class struggle, capitalist crisis and communist victory is no more.' Yet that Marxism has never been totally vanished - it is indeed as John Molyneux argued in 'What is the real Marxist tradition?' (a work one wishes Wall had read or would read) the key to understanding all the different 'Marxisms' that have emerged since - as one can judge them on the key formulation of Marx: 'The emancipation of the working class must be the conquest of the working class itself'. One can therefore relate how Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Fifth International, Che Guevara, Western Marxism etc stand on this principle, judge them accordingly and find them a betrayal, perversion or distortion of the Marxism of Marx.

To be fair, Wall then does discuss some of the best thinkers in Marxism around today, for example discussing Alex Callinicos, a leader of Britain’s largest far left group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and his An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (2003) 'which provides an example of how Marxist political groups have tried to understand globalisation and interact with the wider anti-capitalist movement'. Yet he discusses Callinicos alongside Fidel Castro, former President of Cuba, who according to Wall 'combines the contradictory strands of Marx’s own writings to show that the development of a global market has both costs and benefits. His ideas can be read in On Imperialist Globalization: Two Speeches (2003)'. Indeed Wall told me that 'the best stuff I read' on Marxism 'came from Castro who looked at how capitalism/globalisation builds the foundations of a future socialist society by raising the forces of production and how they need to be transcended to get to an ecosocialist society based on use values'. One wishes that rather than reading Castro's speeches Wall had instead gone to Cuba to see the true nature of Castro's attempt to build 'an ecosocialist society based on use values' - as modern Cuba has nothing in common with Marx's vision of Communism (though this is not to say Marxists should not defend the Cuban state against US Imperialism).

While praising Marx as a thinker, one wishes Wall would read more of Marx and less of 'Marxists' like Castro. Marx himself, as John Bellamy Foster has shown, did take environmental questions seriously - there is arguably no need to be an 'Eco-Marxist' if one understands what Marx himself had to say on the question - and then try and develop that tradition of thinking. As Marx himself put it in Capital:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as good heads of the household.

I would need to read more of Wall's book before I could decide whether 'Eco-Marxism' was destined to be yet another perversion of Marxism - though going by Wall's crude lumping together of Lenin and Trotsky with Stalin and Mao the signs are not good. Yet clearly debates between Marxists and environmentalists are healthy, and obviously it is vital that the unity achieved in the Campaign against Climate Change needs to be deepened. The election of 'Ecosocialists' to the leadership of the Green Party will hopefully strengthen the cooperation between socialists and environmentalists in Britain - and stop the current moves towards what EP Thompson called Exterminism among our rulers. Yet if we are going to inflict a defeat on our rulers on this question, and indeed every other question, then 'Eco-Marxism' is not enough - we need to go back to the real Marx - the Marx of what Wall calls 'class struggle' and 'communist victory'. Sadly, I rather doubt my local branch of the Green Party - currently in bed with Tories and Liberal Democrats - would ever sign up to that.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Lenin on the Channel Tunnel

'Britain and France are the most civilised countries in the world. London and Paris are the world’s capitals, with populations of six and three million, respectively. The distance between them is an eight- to nine-hour journey.

One can imagine how great is the commercial intercourse between these two capitals, what masses of goods and of people are constantly moving from the one to the other.

And yet the richest, the most civilised and the freest countries in the world are now discussing, in fear and trepidation—by no means for the first time!—the “difficult” question of whether a tunnel can be built under the English Channel (which separates Britain from the European Continent).

Engineers have long been of the, opinion that it can. The capitalists of Britain and France have mountains of money. Profit from capital invested in such an enterprise would be absolutely certain.

What, then, is holding the matter up?

Britain is afraid of—invasion! A tunnel, you see, would, “if anything should happen”, facilitate the invasion of Britain by enemy troops. That is why the British military authorities have, not for the first time, wrecked the plan to build the tunnel.

The madness and blindness of the civilised nations makes astonishing reading. Needless to say, it would take only a few seconds with modern technical devices to bring traffic in the tunnel to a halt, and to wreck the tunnel completely.

But the civilised nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about “invasion”. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose “good business” through the digging of the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and hold up technical progress.

The Britishers’ fear of the tunnel is fear of themselves. Capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilisation.

On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way. It has amassed enormous wealth—and has made men the slaves of this wealth. It has solved the most complicated technical problems—and has blocked the application of technical improvements because of the poverty and ignorance of millions of the population, because of the stupid avarice of a handful of millionaires.

Civilisation, freedom and wealth under capitalism call to mind the rich glutton who is rotting alive but will not let what is young live on. But the young is growing and will emerge supreme in spite of all.'

Lenin, 'Civilised Barbarism', 1913. 'EuroTunnel' finally opened in...1994, a mere eighty years later.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edred

On 23rd November 955, King Edred passed away, which makes this the 1051st anniversary of his death. Born in 923, he became King aged 23 and then ruled for about ten years before dying of an illness in his mid to late thirties. I know one can't judge anyone by their appearance, but I think an exception can be made for Kings and Queens. Just look at Edred. And then laugh.


John Stuart Mill on Communism

'If, therefore, the choice were to be made between Communism with all its chances, and the present [1852] state of society with all its sufferings and injustices; if the institution of private property necessarily carried with it as a consequence, that the produce of labour should be apportioned as we now see it, almost in an inverse ratio to the labour—the largest portions to those who have never worked at all, the next largest to those whose work is almost nominal, and so in a descending scale, the remuneration dwindling as the work grows harder and more disagreeable, until the most fatiguing and exhausting bodily labour cannot count with certainty on being able to earn even the necessaries of life; if this or Communism were the alternative, all the difficulties, great or small, of Communism would be but as dust in the balance.'

John Stuart Mill, (1806-1893) The Principles of Political Economy


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Listen, Marxist!

Histomat's former Latin American correspondent Paddington - about to return to Latin America - has, possibly out of pity for my primitive taste in music, kindly compiled a list of his 350(ish) top musical monads. Among those listed is 'on a rope' by rocket from the crypt, which I had forgotten about until I suddenly remembered it a few days ago - it is good to see it there. However, while there is Billy Bragg, I was disappointed not to see any Levellers or Pete Seeger there - nor Rage Against the Machine's 'The Battle of Los Angeles' (particularly 'Testify'). And how could Paddington miss out The Redskins and their 1986 album Neither Washington Nor Moscow? To remember the 20th anniversary of the Redskins sole album, I will put up the lyrics to one of their songs below.


Russia sparked the fires in 1917
First workers revolution
The first workers revolution in history
Working people forced the bosses' backs against the wall
First steps taken for a better life for all

It's a shame
It's a crying shame
When our past is buried
And our victories go un-named
It's a crying shame
When our history books
Talk of kings & men of fame

And in another country workers rose again
1919, 1919 in Berlin
But they didn't learn the lessons
From the Russians that they should
Revolution, revolution was drowned in blood

It's a crying shame
But the lessons plain
It's a crying shame
But the lessons plain

All things are possible

Hunger of the 30's
Hunger of the 30's back again
And the rich still rich
And the poor still the same as they ever were
And it seems to me
We're still not learning from our history

And it's a crying shame
Those who hold the future hold themselves in chains
It's a crying shame
Those who bear the pain hold themselves to blame
It's a crying, it's a crying shame
It's a crying shame

Look at Petrograd!
Look at Barcelona
Fight against the land
Fight against the land & the factory owners
Same fight today against another ruling class
Learn a lesson from your past

It's a crying shame
But the lessons plain
It's a crying shame
But the lessons plain
It can happen again
It's a crying, crying, crying shame
But the lessons plain
It can be done again!


Monday, November 20, 2006

Daniel Guerin

I have just noticed this website tribute to Daniel Guerin (1904-1988), a brilliant French libertarian socialist thinker and revolutionary historian (see his La lutte de classes sous la première République : Bourgeois et 'bras nus' (1793-1797)) (1946). For a short article on his life by David Berry see here - thankfully for people like me the site is in English as well as French...

Edited to add: On the subject of the French Revolution, check out Mark Steel's review of the new film Marie Antoinette:

Not once does this film show life outside the royal court. Because who wants to know about loser peasants and slaves who are, like, nobodies. You get an idea of the approach from an interview with Kirsten Dunst, who played the queen of France, in which she said of her character, "All she really wanted to do was go to Paris and visit the opera and probably be like anybody on the street." Because that was what life was like for anybody on the street at the time--opera, opera, opera. Maybe, when she was told the people had no bread, what she actually said was, "Then let them attend The Marriage of Figaro. If they go to the opening night there'll be waiters wandering around with canapes--by the time their carriage arrives they'll be stuffed."

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

A muse on Muse

After the mixed reception to my various posts on other rock bands on this blog (Iron Maiden, Oasis, System of a Down) it is perhaps not altogether surprising that I have left it a while before venturing any other comment on any other bands (incidently, I think Maiden's 'romantic anti-capitalist' politics deserve a deeper analysis than my post was able to do). However, when I heard Muse's latest album 'Black Holes and Revelations' I thought - bloody hell, Muse are moving to the Left in a big way, aren't they?

Songs like 'Soldier's Poem' ('It's a shame we're all dying...How could you send us all far away from home...There's no justice in the world, There's no justice in the world, And there never was') are defiantly anti-war - though Muse still have some way to go before they are a patch on the haunting lyrics and melodies of Thom Yorke's 'Eraser' ('Harrowdown Hill') in this respect. However, it was on hearing the powerful 'Knights Of Cydonia' that I was convinced that there was the definite start of a shift - nothing more, nothing less - away from Matt Bellamy's obsession with conspiracy theories (which leave humanity as mere passive objects of History) into a realisation that the inhuman bastards who run society can be - and have to be - resisted by us.

Come ride with me
Through the veins of history
I'll show you how god
Falls asleep on the job

And how can we win
When fools can be kings
Don't waste your time
Or time will waste you

No one's gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

No one's gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

No one's gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

My suspicions about Muse's radicalisation in this respect were confirmed by the interview with the band in this week's NME, which a housemate had kindly bought and left lying around the house:

Matt Bellamy: 'I see the only thing to do is to build some Molotov cocktails and start bunging them at fucking MPs. I'm not sure what else there is to do. It's almost got to the point where its "Let's just have a civil war"'
Interviewer: 'You're suggesting a full-on revolution?'
MB: 'There's not enough of that in music. We're born into this bondage, this system. It's pleasant, it's a nice world, but put it this way: the vote we all get is useless. The concept of democracy is a fucking joke. Rock's supposed to shake that up and say, "Fuck that, this is shit, man! Let's burn down the Houses of Parliament!...I'm not going to lead a revolution, but I'm happy to join in on one.'

This marked shift in their politics away from conspiracy theories to thinking about urban insurrection - with all its contradictions - should be welcomed by Marxists, given Muse's current - and in my opinion deserved - status as probably the biggest rock band in Britain at the moment. I will leave the last words to Muse, and their song 'Assassin':

War is overdue
The time has come for you
To shoot your leaders down
Join forces underground


Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The radical Liberal economist J.A. Hobson's Imperialism, A Study (1902), a critique which Lenin used for his classic Marxist study in 1916, is now online at the Marxists Internet Archive. The 'decent' 'pro-war Left' should be required to read it.

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Heart of a Heartless World: Marxism and Religion

I recently noticed that I passed the 50,000 'hit' mark, which apparently means 50,000 different people have at one stage or another come across this blog on their travels. The internet has been amazing for communications. As one left wing blogger once noted of the number of 'hits' he recieved, they 'are roughly the same as Partisan Review’s monthly circulation circa 1938, when the likes of James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman and Clement Greenberg published there. That’s a readership I can definitely live with.' I subscribe wholeheartedly to this sentiment, though I am not sure exactly how my average compares to Partisan Review's circa 1938.

Anyway, to celebrate this historic milestone, I thought I would put up the text of a short talk I gave to a SWP meeting recently on the subject of 'Marxism and Religion'. I wrote it quickly, and shamelessly plundered two excellent articles for information - 'Marx and Religion' from Socialist Worker earlier this year, and 'The Bolsheviks and Islam' from an article in International Socialism. Those wanting to explore the question of Marxism and Religion more thoroughly might like to read Michael Lowy, Chris Harman on Islam and 'Islamo-fascism', and Paul N Siegel's comprehensive work The Meek and the Militant. Okay, here goes:

The question of the relationship between Marxism and religion is a facinating one, but one which remains a source of quite considerable misunderstanding.

On the one hand, there are those who tell us that Marxism and religion have absolutely nothing in common with each other – and that Marxists and religious believers can not and should not work together for a common aim at all. There are all sorts of varieties of this argument. Historically, during times of social upheaval, supporters of the existing system have tried to win believers in God away from revolutionary Marxists by denouncing Marxists for their ‘Godless atheism’. Yet, even worse, at times certain people have, in the name of Marxism, declared a war on ‘religion’. Perhaps the worst examples of this came in Stalinist Russia, where in whole areas Russian Orthodox Christian churches were destroyed, icons looted and burned and priests abused during the period of forced collectivisation. In China under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, religious believers were harassed, religious scriptures and art destroyed and religious buildings closed. Today in Britain there are even a few people who call themselves ‘Marxists’ yet join up with Islamophobic pro-war Liberals in denouncing those Marxists who – like those of us in the Socialist Workers Party, who work in united fronts like the Stop the War Coalition and the Respect Coalition with Muslim activists, on the grounds that believers in Islam are somehow inherently reactionary (Oddly enough, these people do not seem to make an issue of us working with the likes of Tony Benn or George Galloway, who are both Christians, but anyway...)

On the other hand, Marxism is often attacked not for being ‘Godless atheism’ – but for quite the opposite reason – being ‘just another religion’. People say, don’t join a Marxist organisation – they are just like a 'religious cult'. Again, such people can point to historic examples where those acting in the name of Marxism have indeed acted as if Marxism was a religion. One thinks again of Stalinist Russia – or Maoist China - and the cult of the great infallible leader that existed. One can read all sorts of books where a kind of parallel between Marxism and religion is attempted, with Marx and Lenin as the kind of God figures, and then Stalin or whoever as the ‘Son of God’, the legitimate successor. Lenin himself noted in his classic work, The State and Revolution, that after the death of great revolutionists, ‘attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.’ Yet this is exactly what happened to Lenin himself after his death at the hands of the conservative Stalinist bureaucracy. And, indeed, after attacking the Russian Orthodox Church, once his regime was more established Stalin now returned to the relationship with the Church that the old Tsars of Russia had enjoyed – a somewhat ‘strange alliance’ now formed. Indeed, during the Second World War, the Russian Orthodox Church called for God’s blessing upon Stalin and Stalin’s regime, just as in the First World War. ‘Let us intensify our prayers, declared the Patriach Alexii, ‘for the divinely protected Russian power and for its Authorities headed by the wise Leader, whom the Will of God chose and set up to lead our Fatherland along the path of good deeds and glory.’ Stalin went from being the feared tyrant and persecutor of religion to God’s chosen appointee.

Given the confusion then that exists, it is arguably worth briefly restating firstly what Karl Marx himself said about religion, and secondly what the tradition of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was with respect to religious believers, in particular with Muslims, before some general conclusions might be drawn for today.

What did Marx say on the question of religion? Well, As Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right(1844) famously put it, religion was:

‘at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’

Now I want to digress for a moment on what is meant by the phrase ‘opium of the people’. Opium at this time was widely smoked by those who could afford it at this time – for pleasurable effects. There is a famous book by Thomas de Quincey called Confessions of an Opium Eater. All sorts of writers and novelists got off on the stuff. Think of Arthur Conan Doyle's character, Sherlock Holmes, a heroin addict yet widely remembered as an archetypal Victorian bourgeois gentleman. By comparing religion to opium, Marx was not damning it all. Indeed, the British Government at this time traded hugely in opium, indeed British Imperialism grew the stuff in the territory they had conquered in India, and even went to war on China for the stuff – in the Opium Wars on the 19th century. Today, by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the British Government is presiding over a massive rise in opium production – despite the clearly damaging effects of street heroin on working class communities at home.

More importantly perhaps is the fact that the description ‘opium of the people’ is not specifically Marxist – similar can be found in various contexts in the writings of other German philosophers of the time – like Bruno Bauer (who we will come onto in a bit), Moses Hess and Heinrich Heine.

Yet, Marx’s comparing of religion to a nice pleasurable drug is of course an implicit criticism of religion – and Marx stood in the tradition of the Enlightenment, which placed rationality above superstition, and scientific reason over notions of ‘divine will’ and ‘divine intervention’ as an explanation for social change.

Yet Marx was equally critical of those liberals who elevated criticism of religion above all other political concerns. To understand why, one has to look a little bit into Marx’s life.

Marx was born to a Jewish family, in Prussia – now part of Germany – in 1818. Prussia at this time was still an absolute monarchy full of ancient restrictive laws, propped up by the stifling ideology of the Holy Roman Church. Jews like Marx faced systematic discrimination with laws determining where they could live and the jobs they could hold. This discrimination was so bad that Marx’s own father even converted to Christianity to escape oppression.

In the 1840s, while Marx was in his twenties and working as a radical journalist on a Liberal paper, there were debates raging about Jewish emancipation in progressive circles – and Marx spent time arguing with a circle of Liberals known as the Young Hegelians – after the great German philosopher, Hegel. These liberals were inspired by the Great French Revolution which had so thrilled Hegel himself, and longed for the kind of democratic elections and separation of Church and State seen in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Yet, they didn’t actually want to have to go through the messy and risky business of organising a revolution themselves – and instead organised campaigns in an attempt to reform the creaking Prussian State.

Yet despite the fact that the campaign for Jewish emancipation was one part of this struggle – and Marx himself backed the campaign to scrap the discriminatory laws, not all the members of the Young Hegelian liberal circle followed suite.

Most shockingly for Marx, a former tutor of his from University, Bruno Bauer, who was very prominent in the group – indeed he had been sacked from his University post in 1842 for his radical views – came out against Jewish emancipation, mobilising in his defence an apparently left wing argument.

Bauer argued that religion was the main enemy, - there are parallels today with liberal atheists like Richard Dawkins who has just written a book called The God Delusion, arguing that if only everybody could be like him and realise God was an invention of humans, rather than humans being the invention of a God that doesn’t exist – the world would be a better place. Anyway, back to Bauer – Bauer was very critical of religion and given it was the main problem that therefore for progressives to waste time supporting Jews supporting emancipation as Jews would be capitulating to religion and be the special pleading of a religious minority.

Bauer argued that if Jews first renounced their religion, they would then be worthy of support by liberal atheists like him. As Bauer wrote, ‘As long as he is a Jew, the restricted nature which makes him a Jew is bound to triumph over the human nature which should link him as a man with other men, and will separate him from non-Jews’. Now, this doesn’t sound too bad on the face of it – placing the fact we are all human above a particular religious identity. Yet Bauer quickly followed this up with a second essay, which revealed what was really troubling him about the idea of Jewish emancipation.

As Bauer put it, while Christianity was equally as bad as Judaism, there was something about Judaism that made it different from Christianity as a religion. ‘The Christian has to surmount only one stage, namely that of his religion, in order to give up religion altogether. The Jew on the other hand, has to break not only with his Jewish nature, but also with the development towards perfecting his religion, a development which has remained alien to him’.

There are lots of parallels here with the question of Islamophobia today – a lot of Liberal secularists and even people on the Left refuse to defend Muslims rights despite the fact that they are on the receiving end of a racist backlash on the part of the warmongering Blair Government, currently illegally occupying two Muslim countries an oppressed Muslims. Instead these people – some of them calling themselves Marxists - either downplay, ignore or worse collude in Islamophobia, joining in with the likes of Jackboot Straw in calling for Muslims to take off their veils so they can be integrated into Blair’s authoritarian ‘Britain’, with all the joys that entails. While insisting they are against all religion, they feel there is something special about Islam which means it is responsible for women’s oppression, homophobia and even terrorism – in a way which they feel other religions are not.

How did Marx at the time react to his former mentor Bauer? Did he join in the attacks on ‘Jewish backwardness’? Did he simply mouth pleas for more ‘tolerance’ of Jewish people?

No, Marx wrote a polemical essay entitled ‘On The Jewish Question', published in 1844 – the same year as his opium quote – where he turned his guns on Bauer’s liberal politics – noting that Bauer’s secular insistence on a distinction between Church and State was nothing like enough even to accomplish Bauer’s aim of ending religion – in America the US Constitition was avowedly secular, yet the US was a deeply religious country still, teeming with religious sects of all sorts.

More fundamentally, Marx insisted that religious faith was an effect – not a cause - of a much more general oppression. Focusing on matters of theology and trying to win people to atheism were a distraction from real social struggle against this general oppression.

Marx also took on the Liberal idea that political emancipation could only be restricted to the question of state policy, while not touching on private ‘civil society’ – which left unchallenged whole areas of human existence like the question of private property and wage labour which accompanied it. Society was not just a mass of atomised individuals motivated solely by self interest – as the Liberals saw it – (and saw themselves, for that matter, as Marx noted), but was characterised under capitalism by oppression and exploitation. In contrast to the Liberals, Marx called for not just political emancipation but a more general human emancipation. This demanded not only an atheistic understanding of the world, but a consistently materialist understanding of human society and its history.

After this exchange of essays, Bruno Bauer would shift off back to the right and later become a cheerleader for the vile anti-Semitism that emerged in Germany in the 1870s under Bismarck’s rule, an ideology which would lead to the Nazi gas chambers. Today he is a forgotten figure – remembered only for his debates with Marx. Marx, on the other hand, after writing this and other essays in 1844, Marx would go onto become the revolutionary champion of the working class that he is remembered as today.

It was arguably Frederick Engels – Marx’s collaborator – rather than Marx who really did pioneering work to trace how religious conflicts in the past – such as the rise of Protestantism - were matters of far greater importance than theological debates over transubstantiation – but represented social and economic conflicts and clashes. Otherwise, it is doubtful if they would have ever needed to burn any heretics at the stake. Anyone who reads Engels fine work on the Peasant War in Germany – which heralded Thomas Muntzer, leader of a peasant revolt which swept Germany in the early sixteenth century, as a ‘quasi-Communist’ and a ‘religious revolutionary’ will be able to see this for themselves.

Indeed, Frederick Engels was so inspired by lectures he attended as a student at Berlin University in the early 1840s on the subject on the Book of Revelation – one of the last books in the Christian Bible which predicts the Second Coming of Christ down to Earth to wreak vengeance on all the exploiters and oppressors of the world - that he wrote an article on ‘The Book of Revelation’ in 1883 from the notes he claimed have been ‘carrying with me since 1841.’ In the article he expressed sadness that the study of the Bible as a document was not as widespread as it was, and outside Germany tended to have a ‘mild, but utterly unhistorical, spirit.’ Along with trying (unsuccessfully) to date when it was written by playing around with the number 666, he concluded ‘instead of being the darkest and most mysterious, it is the simplest and clearest book of the whole New Testament.’ Indeed, ‘as an authentic picture of almost primitive Christianity, drawn by one of themselves, the book is worth more than all the rest of the New Testament put together.’ In the 1920s, the socialist writer DH Lawrence devoted his last work to a study of ‘Apocalypse,’ noting optimistically, ‘just as inevitably as Jesus had to have a Judas Iscariot among his disciples, so did there have to be a Revelation in the New Testament. Why? Because the nature of man demands it.’ ‘The religions of renunciation, meditation, self-knowledge, pure morality…express the individual side of man’s nature’ and ‘isolate’ it. They are ‘not for complete individuals’ as they ignore the ‘collective’ part of human nature, which Revelation epitomised.

In fact, the Book of Revelation represented not so much a contradiction in human nature, but, as Chris Harman has shown, the contradictory position the persecuted Christian sects found themselves at the time it was compiled. ‘The most bitter resentment could find an outlet in the vision of the apocalypse, which would witness the destruction of the “whore of Babylon” (easily understood to mean Rome) and the reign of the “saints,” with the high and mighty pulled down and the poor and humble ruling in their place.’ Yet by the second and third centuries AD, the Christian sect was growing and trying to appeal along class lines to richer elements of society, and so, ‘by projecting the transformation into the future and into a different, eternal realm, the revolutionary message was diluted sufficiently to appeal to those whose bitterness was combined with a strong fear of real revolution.’ Nevertheless, as Karl Mannheim noted, ‘the very idea of the dawn of a millennial kingdom on earth always contained a revolutionary tendency, and the Church made every effort to paralyse this.’ They want you to read the Bible – but just not the Book of Revelation at the end – as it is all about social revolution. If you don’t believe me, go away and read it...

That really is the point about religion – religious believers can find support for pretty much anything in the founding texts – and explains the contradiction whereby the Christian religion can include on the one hand George W Bush and Tony Blair and the Pope and on the other Tony Benn, Martin Luther King or even more radical people like the Liberation Theologists of Latin America.

It is sometimes suggested that there are no examples of left wing figures or organisation emerging among Islam – yet Malcolm X was a major influence on the leaders of the revolutionary Black Panthers Party in the 1960s despite coming from a background of the Nation of Islam. Leaders of the Mujahadeen in Iran argued for a fusion of Marxism and Islam in their guerrilla struggle against the dictatorial US backed Shah. If it is then clear that Muslims can – surprise surprise, like any other religious believers – hold revolutionary beliefs (incidently, given there are now 1 billion Muslims in the world, quite how some ‘pure’ Marxists can hope for socialist revolution internationally if Muslim people can’t lead revolutionary struggles is a mystery to me) it might be worth concluding with some brief comments on how Lenin’s Bolsheviks related to the 16 million odd Muslim people of the former Russian Empire during and after the October Revolution of 1917 – before the revolutionary hopes were crushed by the rising Stalinist bureaucracy.

Firstly, while the Bolshevik Party’s programme was avowedly atheist, atheism was never a condition of party membership, as religion was the private affair of the citizen and indeed Lenin argued in 1909 that the party should recruit religious believers without offending their faith in any way. As Lenin put it:

‘The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparent complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events such as wars, earthquakes etc’.

When workers in 1905 marched behind a Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Gapon, to petition the Tsar during the General Strike, the Bolsheviks didn’t stand aside and denounce the workers for following someone who was linked to the Church which was a key bastion of reaction for the Tsar – but joined the movement. Incidently, the fact Gapon was a priest didn’t stop the Tsarist troops massacring this workers demonstration.

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power and declared the Soviet State to be non –religious – not anti-religious. Religious communities were given remarkable freedoms under the revolution, including Muslim communities, though clearly the links between the Russian Orthodox Church and Tsarism meant that religion could not be allowed total freedom given the conditions of civil war. Religious believers were welcomed into the Bolshevik ranks, while national rights of formerly oppressed peoples were defended. The Bolsheviks did not make an issue out of the Islamic veil – and indeed it was Stalinist bureaucrats and Great Russian Chauvinists in 1927 – after Lenin’s death and Trotsky’s isolation from the Bolshevik leadership – who launched a mass assault on the veil. The Bolshevik tradition was the opposite – as Zinoviev and Radek put it at one moment during the Civil War in 1920, at the Baku Congress of the People’s of the East, it was vital Muslims were won to fight for Soviet Power – even invoking that struggle as a jihad – ‘holy war’:

‘You have often heard the call to holy war from your governments, you have marched under the green banner of the Prophet, but all those holy wars were fraudulent, serving only the interests of your self-serving rulers, and you, the peasants and workers, remained in slavery and want after these wars…we summon you to a holy war for your own wellbeing, for your own freedom, for your own life!’

Today, the anti-capitalist slogan ‘another world is possible’ seems to me to go to the heart of the issue. Our present world is indeed a kind of hell – with famine and poverty killing 18 million children a year, and the ever present grave danger of humanity being destroyed by war-criminals like Bush and Blair and huge corporations who put profits before both the planet and the people. But we must work to construct that ‘other world’ on earth – through building an anti-capitalist movement strong enough and confident in its own powers to overthrow the existing system. That inhuman, racist and barbaric system is our main enemy – and only once we have built a new world on earth – a world of peace, equality and social justice – should Marxists bother themselves about such questions as to whether or not a God exists.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Opium War

The poppy of Remembrance Sunday truly is the opium of the masses. If you want to respect the memory of those murdered in imperialist wars, take Blair out in front of that bloody monument and have him shot, him and his war cabinet, during that two minutes of obedient silence - Lenin's Tomb.

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Dead King Watch: Canute

'Cnut' is the bloke on the right.

Today marks the 871st anniversary of the death of Canute, a Danish King who ruled England and so gets to be part of Dead King Watch. Lucky old Canute. Canute is perhaps best remembered while King of England for the legend of the waves, about how he commanded the waves to go back. Was 'Cnut' simply a Cnutter? Well, according to the legend, not really. Apparently, Canute grew tired of flattery from his courtiers and when one such flatterer gushed that the King could even command the obedience of the sea, Canute got so annoyed that he took the courtier down to the seaside to prove him wrong. However, Wikipedia notes that 'It is quite possible that the legend is even simply pro-Canute propaganda' and I find the idea of any feudal King getting 'tired of flattery' a little far fetched myself. Still, whether true or not - it means old Canute gets to be remembered for something.

Canute was born in about 995, son of Sweyn I of Denmark. Little is known about his life before 1013, but that year, in August, he accompanied his father on his successful invasion of England. While King Sweyn was off conquering England, Canute was left in charge of the remainder of the Danish army at Gainsborough. Upon the sudden death of his father the following February, in 1014, Canute was proclaimed king by the Danish army. However, the assembly of magnates refused to accept him and instead voted to restore the defeated king Ethelred the Unready from exile in Normandy.

Ethelred quickly raised an army, forcing Canute to abandon England and sail back to Denmark with the remnants of his army. When he sailed past Sandwich, Canute was so pissed off that he mutilated hostages given to his father as pledges of support from local nobles. Nice.

Canute’s older brother Harold became the King of Denmark on their father’s death. Canute suggested that the two brothers should jointly rule the Kingdom, which found little appeal with his brother. However, Harold promised him assistance and support for his conquest of England if Canute renounced his rights to the Danish throne. Canute kept silent and waited for an opportunity to present itself when he would 'reclaim' his throne in England.

Canute did not wait long, but returned to England in the summer of 1015 with a Danish force of approximately 10,000 men. The invasion force landed in Essex, which was occupied quickly. Northumbria fell next, and Canute executed its Earl Uhtred for breaking an oath pledged to Sweyn Forkbeard two years earlier. In April 1016, Canute entered the Thames with his fleet and besieged London. King Ethelred died suddenly during the siege, and his son Edmund Ironside was proclaimed king. When Edmund left London to raise an army in the countryside, he was intercepted by Canute at Ashingdon, Essex. After a decisive victory for Canute in the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund was forced to negotiate under unfavourable circumstances.

Meeting on an island in the Severn River, King Edmund II was forced to accept defeat and sign a treaty with Canute in which all of England except for Wessex would be controlled by Canute, and when one of the kings should die, the other king would take all of England; his sons being the heir to the throne. After Edmund's death (possibly murder) on 30 November, Canute ruled the whole kingdom. Canute was recognised by the nobility as the sole king in January 1017.

By dividing the country (1017) into the four great earldoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, Canute instituted the system of territorial lordships which would underlie English government for centuries. The very last Danegeld ever paid, a sum of £82,500, went to Canute in 1018. He felt secure enough to send the invasion fleet back to Denmark with £72,000 that same year. After about two decades of presiding over relative social peace, no mean achievement, Canute died in 1035, at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. On his death, Canute was succeeded in Denmark by his son Harthacanute.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nazi scum

Good post by Harry Perkins (someone who makes one trust bloggers called 'Harry' again) on the British Nazi Party's recent victory. As he puts it, 'apparently, describing Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith" and claiming that Muslims are turning Britain into a "multi-racial hellhole" does not count as inciting racial hatred. Neither does publicly announcing: "Let's show these ethnics the door in 2004"...If these two grotesque spewers of hatred had used the same language against British Jews, they would have been quite rightly convicted and thrown into prison cells. Islamophobia has become the last socially acceptable form of racism.' The Stop the War Coalition's People's Assembly on Islamophobia could not be more timely - those anywhere near London on November 18th should make every effort to attend.

Edited to add: Image from History Needs a Push


Thursday, November 09, 2006

New Labour reacts to Bush's election 'thumping'

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Bloody foreigners

The following inflamatory speech in the House of Commons by a Conservative MP railing against 'foreign invaders' whom he claimed were displacing native Britons caught my eye:

'Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for...Romanians, Russians and Poles. Rents are raised 50 or 100 percent...It is only a matter of time before the population becomes entirely foreign...The working classes know that the new buildings are erected not for them but for strangers from abroad; they see schools crowded with foreign children, and the very posters and advertisements on the wall in a foreign tongue.'

The date of the speech? Er, 29th January 1902. Its author, one Major William Evans-Gordon was demonising Jewish people looking for refuge from anti-semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe. Thank goodness British MPs today would never stoop so low as to make a bid for political power by playing the race card against migrants.

[Quote from Nigel Harris, Thinking the Unthinkable (2002), p. 46]

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Friday, November 03, 2006

British state terrorism

John Pilger tells it like it is in the New Statesman:

'The war on democracy has been successfully exported. In Britain, and in other western countries, such as Australia, journalism and scholarship have been systematically appropriated as the new order's management class, and democratic ideas have been emptied and refilled beyond all recognition. Unlike the 1930s, there is a silence of writers, with Harold Pinter almost the lone voice raised in Britain. The promoters of an extreme form of capitalism known as neo liberalism, the supercult responsible for the greatest inequalities in history, are described as "reformers" and "revolutionaries". The noble words "freedom" and "liberty" now refer to the divine right of this extremism to "prevail", the jargon for dominate and control. This vocabulary, which contaminates the news and the pronouncements of the state and its bureaucracy, is from the same lexicon as Arbeit macht frei - "Work makes you free" - the words over the gates at Auschwitz.

For the British under Blair, the influence of this fake democracy has been catastrophic. Even if the convergence of the Labour Party and the Tories was historically inevitable, it was Tony Blair, the most extreme British political figure in living memory, who returned Britain to a full-time violent, imperial role, converting a fictional notion, "the clash of civilisations", into a possibility. Blair has destroyed the power of parliament and politicised those sections of the civil service and the security and intelligence services that saw themselves as impartial. He is Britain's president, lacking only the accompanying strains of "Hail to the Chief". Last installed by little more than a fifth of the eligible population, he is the most undemocratically elected leader in British history. Poll after poll tells us he is also the most reviled.

Under President Blair, parliament has become like Congress under Bush: an ineffectual, craven talking shop that has debated Iraq only twice in two and a half years. With one important exception, regressive measure after measure has been waved through: from the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, with their mandatory sentences and house arrests ("control orders"). A "bill to abolish parliament", as the innocuous-sounding Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill 2006 might be known, removed parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation, giving ministers arbitrary powers and Downing Street the absolute power of decree. There was no public debate. How ironic that the bill stalled in the House of Lords, which, together with the judiciary, is now the loyal opposition.

In 2003, Blair worked the secretive royal prerogative - Orders in Council - to order an unprovoked, illegal attack on a defenceless country, Iraq. The following year, he used the same archaic powers to prevent the Chagos Islanders from returning to their homeland in the Indian Ocean, from which they were secretly expelled so that the Americans could build a huge military base there. Last May, the high court described the treatment of these British citizens as "repugnant, illegal and irrational".

On 16 October 2005, Bush claimed that al-Qaeda was seeking to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia". This deeply cynical, calculated exaggeration - reminiscent of Washington's warning of "mushroom clouds" following 11 September 2001 - was repeated by Blair fresh from the embrace of Rupert Murdoch, the likely source of his future enrichment. This is the message of liberal warmongers who have sought to be Tonier-than-thou and who salvage their spent reputations by using big, specious words such as "Islamo fascism". They suppress the truth that al-Qaeda is minuscule compared with the state terrorism that kills and maims industrially, and whose cost distorts all our lives. British state terrorism in Iraq has cost more than £7bn. The real cost of Trident is said to be £76bn. The premises of the best of British life that survived Margaret Thatcher have no place in this accounting. The National Health Service and what was once the best postal service in the world are denied subsidies uncorrupted by a rigged "free market". Whether it is the accretions of the freeloading Blairs or the sale of 72 Eurofighters to the medieval regime in Saudi Arabia, complete with "commissions", or the government's refusal to ban highly profitable cluster bombs, whose victims are mostly children - blood and money are the essence of Blairism and its mutant liberalism.'

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

John Molyneux

John Molyneux, a leading British revolutionary Marxist, has decided to set up a blog. This is excellent news - not least because I now have somewhere in the blogosphere to direct those who happen to hit on my blog after searching for 'adventures in historical materialism', somewhere where they might have a chance of learning something about, you know, Marxism. I particularly recommend reading his article on 'Their History and Ours' and his review of Geoffrey Swain's biography of Leon Trotsky - which was printed in International Socialism. Goddamn it - go and read it all.

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Peter Fryer (1927-2006)

I have just heard that the great English socialist writer Peter Fryer died on Tuesday night. Just as we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the man who reported so truthfully and powerfully what happened there has died. This is very sad, but he will be remembered by his wonderful and important writings - particularly his pioneering history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (1984), a work which still demands and repays reading today.

Edited to add: Guardian Obituary

SW Obituary

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

R.I.P. The Labour Left (1906-2006)

I suppose I should start this piece by admitting that I am not now a member of the British Labour Party, and I never have been a member of the Labour Party. But I now know something else - I never am going to be a member of the Labour Party. Let me explain why.

Once upon a time, back in 1906 when the Labour Party was formed it stood against 'wars fought to make the rich richer,' while 'underfed schoolchildren are still neglected'

Last night, there was a vote in Parliament to set up a committee of inquiry made up of seven members of the privy council to examine what went so wrong with British foreign policy with respect to Iraq. This in itself was newsworthy - as it was about the first time in two years that the war had been debated and members of Parliament had had the chance to vote on it. This is how the BBC reported the outcome:

'An attempt to force the government to hold an inquiry into the Iraq war has failed in the House of Commons. A Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru motion for an immediate probe was opposed by a majority of 25 despite support from 12 rebel Labour MPs...Plaid Cymru's Adam Price said of the motion: "The issue at its heart is far bigger than party politics - it's about accountability, it's about the monumental catastrophe of the Iraq war - the worst foreign policy disaster certainly since Suez, possibly since Munich and it's about the morass in which we regrettably still find ourselves." The government was supported by 298 MPs and opposed by 273. Twelve Labour MPs rebelled.'

The key figures to note are these:

Firstly, 298 MPs (almost all Labour) voted against the idea that there should be any sort of inquiry into the Iraq war. These 298 MPs are utter utter utter scum - careerists of the lowest order. As Respect MP George Galloway noted, 'The House of Commons today had the chance to begin to redeem itself after the vote for this disastrous war three years ago. The fact that so many armchair generals on the labour benches voted with the Government in refusing even to hold an enquiry into the decision to go to war, shows how far removed this place has become from being a genuine parliament. The conclusions we must draw are profound. We need to redouble our efforts outside of parliament and at the ballot box against these "misrepresentatives"'. Hear, hear.

Yet more shockingly, only 12 Labour MPs rebelled. Twelve! Only twelve Labour MPs put their principles before their careers and voted to hold Blair - a war criminal - to account for his crimes. I am dumbfounded. Why so few? Why did even less than those who voted against military action in 2003 now support the government?

One of these former rebels, Ian Lucas told the house: 'I cannot support this opportunistic, cynical motion ... We see the nationalists in a constant campaign to assail the integrity of the prime minister, attack the Labour government and make political capital for cheap political ends.'

But Blair - the Prime Minister - doesn't have any integrity left to assail! One wonders if Lucas isn't making some cheap political capital with the likes of Gordon Brown by voting against the idea of an inquiry which can only damage the Glorious leader in waiting.

David Blunkett, the former home secretary, said the Tories were hypocrites for turning on the government after backing the war. 'There are those who haven't changed their minds but can't miss an opportunity to have a go at this government and our prime minister, whatever the consequences in terms of demoralisation and the difficulty it causes for our troops.' But as Galloway pointed out, 'To those who claim that holding an inquiry will "demoralise" the armed forces: we got a pretty good estimation of the morale of the armed forces after the head of the British army spoke a truth that has so rarely been heard in this chamber, that the presence of British forces in Iraq is exacerbating the dangers this country faces. That was before the US suffered over 100 dead this month; before the report in the Lancet that the most likely number of people to have been killed in Iraq since the war is 655,000.'

Denis MacShane, the rabidly pro-imperialist former Foreign Office minister, admitted that 'we have not got it strategically or tactically right' in Iraq - an understatement - but described calls for an inquiry as 'part of a cheap anti-American crusade'. Clearly a cheap anti-American crusade that holds a liar and a warmonger to account for his crimes is something everyone should oppose. An expensive pro-American crusade that costs the lives of thousands of people in Iraq on the other hand - yeah, I'll buy that for a dollar!

Only 12 MPs. This surely signals the end of the road for the Labour Left. Had just 25 more Labour MPs dug deep enough and discovered their consciences then Blair would have lost the vote - and possibly be on his way out of office. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs are supposed to be 25 strong - less than half of them voted for an inquiry! As for the hopes some on the Left still have that John McDonnell -chair of the Socialist Campaign Group - can even make it onto the ballot sheet to stand against Brown for Labour Leader - forget it. Surely any hopes of any Labour Left challenger to Blair and Brown getting onto the ballot paper must have been snuffed out now.

John McDonnell himself tries to put a brave face on the vote last night - arguing 'rather than despair it is critical that the campaign for withdrawal goes on and the campaigning to restore the Labour Party as a party of peace continues with increased commitment and vigour' but he must know its over now. What matters now is campaigning on the streets against the war - and drawing into the anti-war movement more disillusioned Labour Party members who must know now that the idea that the Labour Party can be restored to being 'a party of peace' is over now - if indeed it ever was a 'party of peace'.

It is the Stop the War Coalition in Britain that remains central to any rebirth of the Left in Britain at the moment. The Iranian socialist Ardeshir Mehrdad recently asked Alex Callinicos about this:

Q: 'How do you see the anti war movement? By its powerful appearance in the prelude to the Iraq war it raised hopes in a huge way. You reflected those hopes in your excellent book The New Mandarins and American Power, which came out that same year. Yet a few years later, not only did this movement not grow and spread, but we have indeed witnessed its downturn. Why? In your view can we be optimistic for a resurgence of this movement? How and in what direction?'

Alex Callinicos: 'It is a common error to use the gigantic protests of early 2003 to proclaim the death of the anti-war movement. One of our greatest achievements is used to hang us! The 2003 protests were on such a scale that they could only go forward by bringing down governments - which did in fact happen in Spain in March 2004, albeit in an indirect and complex way. The failure to achieve such an outcome on a broader scale - and therefore prevent or end the Iraq war - did lead to a certain ebbing of the anti-war movement relative to the high point of 15 February 2003, but the extent varied enormously depending on national conditions. Thus in the US the mainstream of the anti-war movement (including figures as principled as Chomsky) made the fatal error of putting their efforts in defeating Bush in 2004 by backing the pro-war Democrats under John Kerry, a mistake from which they are only beginning to recover.

By contrast, I think it is completely wrong to describe the condition of the anti-war movement in Britain as one of ‘downturn’. The Stop the War Coalition has been able to sustain an astonishingly high level of mass mobilization for the past five years - a succession of big demonstrations, usually twice a year, all very big by historic standards, if not on the scale of 15 February 2003 - and to gain very deep roots in British society. This is reflected in its ability to mount two large marches against the Lebanon War at very short notice and at the height of the summer holidays. More generally, his central role in engineering the Iraq War fatally damaged Tony Blair’s government and his complicity in the destruction of Lebanon is helping to end his premiership.

This contrast suggests that the fate of the anti-war movement has varied according to the state of the left in different countries. In the US the left has been crippled by its dependence on the Democrats. The British anti-war movement has been led by forces of the radical left that have been able to sustain it in a way that has combined consistent opposition to imperialism with an emphasis on building on a broad and inclusive basis. Elsewhere the pattern is confirmed by, for example, the decline of the Italian anti-war movement, which in 2001-4 mobilized on even a bigger scale than in Britain, but which has been very negatively affected by the entry of Rifondazione Comunista into a centre-left coalition government that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The international anti-war movement in any case faces a very big challenge. The Lebanon War confirms that the Bush administration is telling the truth when it says that it is waging a global war. Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon are all fronts in this war. Iran may be the next one. The involvement of European troops in both Afghanistan and Lebanon requires a response for the left throughout the EU. Let us hope that this very threatening situation will produce an upsurge of anti-war activity, not just in Europe but globally.'

It is this movement that has to built - and from that movement new parties of the Left - like Respect in Britain - that challenge neo-liberalism and imperialism can emerge.

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