Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

New uses for Christopher Hitchens books

No. 94. Stopping Water Damage From A Leaky Roof

This morning I awoke to the sound of drip...drip...drip. Basically, my bedroom roof was leaking, but I only noticed because the rain water happened to fall down and bounce off the cover of a copy of Christopher Hitchens, For The Sake of Argument; Essays and Minority Reports, (London, Verso, 1994), which a friend had lent me and was conveniently lying around unread on my bedroom floor. If Hitchens's collected essays hadn't been there, perhaps the leak would have gone undetected, leading to untold water damage with who knows what consequences. I wonder if any Histomat readers have by chance found similar uses for old copies of Hitchens's writings...

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Alex Callinicos on the US Elections

'...The "change" that both [Democrat] candidates claim to be seeking means no real change...both Clinton and Obama are running as loyal servants of the US empire, just like every serious Democratic candidate before them.

How could it be otherwise given the headlock the corporate rich have on the US political system? The Democrats may not get many contributions from George Bush’s pals in the oil industry, but they get plenty from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.

The idea that either Clinton or Obama, if elected to the White House, would significantly improve the condition of the mass of working class women and black people in the US is pure cloud-cuckoo land. Anyone who really wants change in the US will have to look elsewhere.

Full article here. I also liked John Pilger's take on US Presidential campaigns:

'a parody, entertaining and often grotesque. They are a ritual danse macabre of flags, balloons and bullshit, designed to camouflage a venal system based on money, power, human division and a culture of permanent war.'

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008


New Labour now think that multinational companies like McDonalds should have more of a say over education for workers - including being able to hand out A-levels. 'We should not be ideological about who provides the service - we should just work out who is best at providing it' says James Purnell, Brown's appointed successor to the hapless Peter Hain at the Department of Work and Pensions. Yeah, but isn't there a slight difference somewhere between teachers 'providing' A-levels through the old fashioned system known as education in schools, and McDonalds 'providing' A-levels through some new fangled scheme involving training its wage-slaves to serve up shit? The genius that is Steve Bell certainly seems to think so...as does another fine cartoonist Tim

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Histomat Exclusive: Blair lands new job at The Hague

In a shock new development to all those who have followed the career of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair since leaving the office of Prime Minister of Great Britain, he has now landed another job - head of the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands. Blair, lets recap, already has the following jobs:

1) Lecturing the people of the Middle East of the importance of not waging disastrous wars.
2) Lecturing rich American bankers JP Morgan on the importance of making money.
3) Lecturing Swiss insurers Zurich on cutting down on climate change.
4) Lecturing European political parties on how to restore popular trust in politics and politicians.

Yet now Blair has the job he describes as 'his biggest challenge yet' - trying to enforce the law to ensure international war criminals do not escape punishment for their crimes. He sounds eager to begin work, and already has a long list of people in his sights to track down and bring to justice. 'The biggest problem is often one of self-denial - war criminals often simply refuse to face up to the enormity of their crimes after leaving office' Blair told the Financial Times. 'But I am told the law is very clear on this matter - and I believe it is time we held those who start illegal wars and so kill hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people, to account. Indeed, such work is essential to securing peace in the medium and long term'.

When his bosses at Wall Street banking firm JP Morgan were asked if they were worried Blair's new job at The Hague might interfere with his work for them, they issued the following statement: 'Tony Blair is someone who strikes us as being completely and utterly committed to the world of investment banking, and his new job only adds to his international reputation and so his worth to us. We see him as a complete and utter banker'.


On the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Lego...

Lego Marx and Engels

...I dig up something else from the Histomat archive to mark the occasion.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Straight to Hell

From the Histomat archive, two posts relating to the crimes of the late Indonesian dictator General Suharto - one about his Western backed military coup in 1965, and one about his murder of East Timor a decade later...

Edited to add: SW Obituary

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Black radicals on Barack Obama

He is being consumed as the embodiment of colour-blindness. It's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He has become the model of diversity in this period, and what is interesting about his campaign is that it has not sought to invoke engagements with race other than those that have already existed.

This Republican administration is the most diverse in history. But when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all. We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions. But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder. When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that's fine. But there's a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.

Angela Davis, former Black Panther and academic.

I haven't heard anything he has talked about that has touched on the lives of black people in this country. If we are going to get Clinton in blackface, why not just get Clinton?

Obama didn't support the war, but he was only in the Illinois Senate - he didn't have influence. [Obama was not elected to the US Senate until November 2004; the Iraq war began in March 2003.] He probably would have [supported the war] if he'd been in the Senate.

· Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther activist who has been on death row in Pennsylvania for 25 years.

From here.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008


I am afraid I haven't really got time for a long blog at the moment - to be honest I haven't really got time to blog at all - but I would just like to comment briefly on a couple of forthcoming elections, the American elections and the London GLA/Mayoral elections. Both of them are quite similar in a way, and what seems to apparently matter in each is the personality of the candidate rather than any politics - about which we hear little.

Firstly, regarding this years American elections - about which I finding it hard to get that excited about given the choice between the main frontrunners ain't much of a choice at all, there was a mildly diverting article in last week's New Statesman by a Tory called Tara Hamilton-Miller who writes about how many Conservative MPs are falling over themselves to court the US Democrat Party.

'It is difficult to generalise as to whom Conservative MPs and voters would support. Some of the most right-wing have been seduced by Barack Obama. [David] Cameron himself seems rather smitten, commenting: "I must say, I think he's compelling. I think we need the same sense of possibility here." The old-fashioned view that the right would always side with the Republicans no longer stands.

Although McCain would appear to be the natural choice for Conservatives, many Tory MPs are either "out" Democrats or at least considering it for the first time. A shadow minister sums it up: "I was going to say it was because I know so little about Romney and Huckabee, but that's not the reason. I'm bored by the Republican candidates and fascinated by the Hillary/Obama show. Who wouldn't be?"'

I think socialists and those on the left who are falling over themselves in uncritical adulation of Obama and the Democratic Party in general might want to take a bit of a reality check when they see who else is 'facinated' and 'compelled' by the Democratic Party frontrunners.

Meanwhile back in LabourPartyCapitalistBritain.com, the left blogosphere is in a mild turmoil about the London Mayoral Elections coming up on May 1. In brief, Ken Livingstone, the current Labour Party's London Mayor, was criticised in some witch-hunting TV documentary made by embittered former lefties for being - shock horror - a bit of a lefty in the past, still a bit of a lefty on some issues in the present, and appointing lefties as advisors to him. Nick Cohen began the McCarthyitesque campaign with a lazy crude 'cut and paste' job from his book - an article which did not tell you very much about why Ken Livingstone was apparently 'unfit to be Mayor' but did tell you everything you need to know about why Nick Cohen was unfit for journalism. Cohen was unable to even get the most basic facts straight. To take just one minor example from the very first paragraph:

'To understand why Ken Livingstone is unfit to be the Labour candidate for mayor of London, you have to grasp that he has never moved away from the grimy conspirators of the totalitarian left...Ken Livingstone began by travelling with the sickest sect of them all: the Workers' Revolutionary party.'

In fact, Ken Livingstone in fact did not begin political life by 'travelling' with the now defunct WRP, but remarkably the first group he identified with was the now defunct decidedly 'libertarian socialist' group Solidarity, as recorded in Who's Afraid of Margaret Thatcher?: In Praise of Socialism; by Ken Livingstone and Tariq Ali, (Verso Books, 1984,) before making the odd choice, in 1968 of all years, of joining the Labour Party.

Anyway, the real problem with Livingstone, as Respect mayoral candidate Lindsey German points out, is not that he is too left wing, but he is nowhere near left wing enough.

'The claim that Ken Livingstone's advisers believed they could create a socialist city state will come as a surprise to his friends and enemies alike. They certainly haven't succeeded...any socialist who enters government at local or national level has to judge his or her impact by one criterion: is their holding of office making life better for working people?

Any serious attempt to do so means challenging some of the vested interests: the property developers who are doing so much to despoil London for the benefit of their shareholders; the City of London whose recent reverses come after years of huge salaries and bonuses; the employers who are making people work longer and harder for low wages.

Livingstone and his advisers have not done that. Instead they have taken the view that development and a booming city had to be encouraged in order for that wealth to trickle down and for jobs to be created. Far from challenging these unelected interests it has often meant encouraging them, no doubt in the interests of the long term project of socialism in one city.

The idea that this theory has something to do with Leon Trotsky is bizarre. Before the Russian revolution Trotsky was exiled in London, Paris, New York and Vienna. He made history in St Petersburg in 1917. But he famously rejected the view that socialism could be built in one country, let alone in a single city. The idea of flourishing city states has more to do with the Medicis than with Marxism.'

Thank goodness that someone like Lindsey German is standing for London Mayor and offering a clear socialist alternative to New Labour - just as it is good that there are at least some on the American left who understand the importance of trying breaking the political monopoly of the two main big-business parties. Such candidates can never stand in such elections because they can win - though there is a possibility Lindsey German could get elected onto the GLA - but in order that, come election time, people can see that there is resistance to the neoliberal agenda even at that most unlikely of places - the ballot box. If socialists can find an echo there for the arguments of people over profit, for the millions rather than the millionaires, that can only give confidence to the real living movements against capitalism and war outside.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Dear readers, I fear I may have contracted 'neoconitis', which is apparently a 'disease endemic in the UK and the US'. According to Dr Alan Johnson, contracting the disease apparently 'blocks off any proper consideration of the social democratic antitotalitarianism of Paul Berman, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, Ladan Boroumand, Kanan Makiya, Azar Nafisi, Bernard Kouchner, Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown.' Still, if I am 'suffering' from neoconitis, at least I haven't got whatever the hell it is Johnson has gone down with. Anyone who can praise the likes of the wretched war criminal turned Wall Street investment banker Tony Blair or the champion of ID Cards and Trident nuclear submarines Gordon Brown for their 'social democratic antitotalitarianism' surely needs serious medical help fast. I am no doctor, but it seems to me that Johnson should be relieved of the burden of writing for the Guardian as a matter of some urgency, and possibly quarantined immediately to stop whatever it is he has got spreading. Not that I can see much chance of Johnson's disease spreading, to be honest, but it is usually better to be safe than sorry on matters like this.


Book Review: The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

A revolt on a slave ship in 1787

In what amounts to a pioneering and path-breaking work, in The Slave Ship: A Human History Marcus Rediker reminds us of what he calls 'the darker and more violent side' of the history of Atlantic slavery, noting that with their 'abstract, indeed bloodless statistics...even the best histories of the slave trade and slavery have tended to minimise, one might even say sanitise, the violence and terror that lay at the heart of their subjects.' Not that Rediker passes over the bloody facts of the matter, but he contextualises them within the rise of the capitalist system from its breakthrough in Western Europe to global hegemony.

The slave trade lasted almost four hundred years, from the late fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century, and saw over 12 million souls transported across the Atlantic ocean in the greatest forced migration history has ever seen. Almost two million never survived the six to ten week long Middle Passage, whether dying from the ever present danger of deadly disease or from causes man-made, their bodies cast into the sea for the trailing sharks. If one attempts to calculate the initial costs of capturing and enslaving Africans in Africa, and then add the numbers who perished within the first year of work in the New World of the Americas, then some idea of the full horror becomes apparent. 'From stage to stage - expropriation in Africa, the Middle Passage, initial exploitation in America - roughly 5 million men, women and children died. Another way to look at the loss of life would be to say that an estimated 14 million people were enslaved to produce a "yield" of 9 million longer-surviving enslaved Atlantic workers'.

As Rediker notes though, there is a 'violence of abstraction' that has plagued the study of the slave trade and slavery in general. 'Numbers can occulate the pervasive torture and terror, but European, African, and American societies still live with their consequences, the multiple legacies of race, class, and slavery. The slaver is a ghost ship sailing on the edges of modern consciousness'.

Rediker's achievement is to resurrect this ghost ship, to bring back the dead as real living people with names and faces, and to try and let us listen as far as humanly possible to the voices of the voiceless. There is abundant scholarship on the slave trade, but the view from the slave ship itself, Rediker notes, remains 'in many ways unknown'. He describes for example the 'shock and awe' experienced by many Africans on seeing the European slave ships, bristling with cannon, for the first time. How did they sail? Did magical spirits make them start and stop? As the young eleven year old Olaudah Equiano was taken on board a ship with his enslaved fellow Africans, he felt astonished and terrified at the savagery on display by the 'white men', the motley crew of mainly European sailors. What did they want from him? Only a child, he feared cannabalism and being eaten alive, but some older slaves on board offered him comfort and 'gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them'. Equiano of course was to have an extraordinary life, and grew up to become an abolitionist and author of the 'most influential literary work of the abolitionist movement from an African perspective'.

Rediker is at his strongest in describing how the slave ship and its crew changed through each leg of its journey, looking from the point of view of the increasingly tyrannical ship's captain, the motley crew of mariners, and the rebellious multitude of the enslaved. At first it looked a thing of beauty when constructed, then the slaver became a 'vast machine' from the point of view of its working crew, then a 'floating dungeon' housing a 'macabre chamber of horrors' from the point of view of both the sailors and the enslaved during the Middle Passage. In the process, racial thinking and ideas emerges, and 'race' is made and remade as the ship sails its course. The systematic terror and violence that it was necessary to deploy on board by the captain and crew against the enslaved in order to prevent the ever present danger of insurrection is also an overriding theme. The captives outnumbered the crew ten to one, and an estimated one in ten voyages saw an uprising. Rediker carefully describes the complicated 'deep dialectic of discipline and resistance' on board the slaves ships, from individual attempts to resist to mass collective acts of explosive opposition.

Explosive is the right word - sometimes the slaves succeeded in blowing up the whole ship with gunpowder - and an estimated total of 100,000 people died in insurrections in the history of the slave trade - with an average of 25 people killed in each attempted rising. Most uprisings failed - the whole slave ship was built as a prison in order to precisely stop them even getting off the ground, and there was a stash of weapons and torture equipment on board to punish and humiliate. To rise up, the unarmed enslaved had to first free themselves from their iron manacles and shackles, then escape from their dungeon below deck, and then try to take control of the ship by force against a crew armed with cutlasses and blunderbusses, often protected by a barricado especially constructed on the upper deck for just such an eventuality. If they did all that, they would then need to work out how to sail the ship itself. The vast majority of insurrections inevitably failed, and then the punishment meted out against the organisers of the rebellion was brutal and sadistic - as all counter-revolutionary violence tends to be. John Newton, a slave captain who later in life was to commit himself to the cause of abolition, once wrote in a private letter describing what he witnessed on board the Brownlow during its voyage of 1748-9. After a failed insurrection, the good Christian captain, Richard Jackson, sentenced the rebellious slaves to death. The first group:

'He jointed; that is, he cut off, with an axe, first their feet, then their legs below the knee, then their thighs; in like manner their hands, then their arms below the elbow, and then their shoulders, till their bodies remained only like the trunk of a tree when all their branches are lopped away; and lastly, their heads. And, as he proceeded in his operation he threw the reeking members and heads in the midst of the bulk of the trembling slaves, who were chained upon the main-deck.'

The second group of rebellious slaves:

'He tied round the upper parts of the heads...a soft, platted rope, which the sailors call a point, so loosely as to admit a short lever: by continuing to turn the lever, he drew the point more and more tight, till at length he forced their eyes to stand out of their heads; and when he had satiated himself with their torments, he cut their heads off.'

As Newton noted, 'a savageness of spirit, not easily conceived, infuses itself...into those who exercise power on board an African slave ship, from the captain downwards...it is the spirit of the trade'. Why such murderous barbarity? In part it was necessary to counter this enslaved African resistance, what Thomas Clarkson called those moments of 'the brightest Heroism [that] happen in the Holds or on the Decks of the slave vessels'. The economic costs of slave resistance were high - and resistance 'significantly reduced the shipments of slaves' to America by an estimated one million over the full history of the slave trade.

By the end of the 1780s, as Rediker notes, abolitionists were able to use the powerful image of the slave ship, built up by the likes of Thomas Clarkson, to demonstrate 'that the vessel that had carried millions of Africans into slavery also carried something else: the seeds of its own destruction'.

What made such a cruel barbaric system last so long? Well, the plantations of the Americas were able to devour the labour of Africans because there were huge profits to be made by merchant capitalists. In 1807 alone, one year, Britain imported for domestic consumption 297.9 million pounds of sugar, 3.77 million galleons of rum, 16.4 million pounds of tobacco and 72.74 million pounds of cotton, almost all of it produced by enslaved labour. The slave ship 'was a concentration of capital, and it was the bearer of capitalist assumptions and practices about the world and the way it ought to be.' As Rediker noted in a recent interview:

We sometimes think of slavery as being pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, and that capitalism only really begins with free waged labour, but I think that blinds us to a lot of very important processes.

People were expropriated in one setting and then moved to a more market-orientated setting where their labour was exploited through usually quite violent means. In that way the slave trade is emblematic of a larger process that is happening to workers everywhere.

All these enslaved Africans were moved to the western Atlantic plantation system and their lives would be consumed by producing sugar, tobacco and rice for the world market. I like to paraphrase the great Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney who said that in the slave trade capitalism paraded without even a loincloth to cover its nakedness.

Today, when the great imperial powers are again using all kind of sophistry in order to try and re-colonise Africa, a historical understanding of the utterly barbaric methods by which European merchant capital under-developed Africa through the slave trade could not be more necessary. There could be few better introductions than Rediker's vivid and panoramic history, which surely deserves to become the classic account of life and death on the slave ships.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Facebook unmasked

Facebook pretends to be about freedom, but isn't it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime with a population that will very soon exceed the UK's?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blair and the Power Elite

I am still trying to digest the news that Tony Blair, while still no doubt devoted to his 'civilising mission' bringing peace to the Middle East, thinks things are going so well in that arena that he has time to take a part-time job at US investment bank JP Morgan. 'I have always been interested in commerce' he told the Financial Times. That is the kind of expertise which gets you a salary of $1m (£500,000) a year at an investment bank apparently.

I suppose I should try to hurl some sort of insult such as 'corporate cock-sucking bastard' or perhaps, with a nod to cockney rhyming slang, trying to think of things which might rhyme with 'investment banker'. However, this blog is always very refined and serious in its analysis and would never stoop to such lows. I have, however, always thought that Blair was 'a bit of a banker'. Anyway, the best background reading on understanding just why Blair, still a member of the Labour Party, might well get such a job can perhaps be found in the most recent edition of Variant magazine, in an article reviewing the work of the American sociologist C Wright Mills by John Barker, in particular Mill's 1956 book The Power Elite.

Blair is apparently going to offer the bank 'strategic advice and insight on global political issues and emerging trends'. He can do this arguably because he is such a representative member of the new power elite, where state power and corporate power have become more intertwined than ever under militarised neo-liberalism. Mills pointed to the ‘military definition of reality’, and so as Barker shows took apart 'the self-idealization in which a free and independent capitalism chafes at the hindrances and costs of the state.' As Barker continues:

The reality of revolving doors shows in graphic style how the anti-statist ideology of this neoliberalism is disproved by its political, economic and financial dependencies on the state, whether it be military contracts or central bank rescues. The existence of a ‘global power elite’ as represented by Peter Sutherland for example, the idea of which has got US ultra-nationalists like Samuel Huntington into hysterical mode, implies a different set of revolving doors. Even so, Sutherland sat on the board of ABB with the militarist and nationalist Donald Rumsfeld. This is not to argue against the existence of a global capitalist class, or capitalism as a global mode of production, but to point to the flimsiness of neoliberal ideology. Equally, individuals are replaceable and scandal by itself changes nothing, but individuals of the power elite, both singly and collectively, are responsible for decisions which have consequences not for themselves but for millions of other people of whose lives they know nothing. They have never sat in waiting rooms, stood in queues, or gone hungry. Such basic but unstated apartheid is integral to the power elite’s irresponsibility and unctuous inhumanity? Certainly, in the world of geopolitics this is what is nailed down in an exceptional newspaper article by former diplomat Carne Ross. Talking from bitter experience he describes the filtering of information to a very small group of decision-makers: "They make decisions based on abstractions many removes distant from reality. Even on the ground, the strictures of security prevent diplomats from all but the briefest contact with the everyday reality of Afghans and Iraqis."

Thomas Pynchon’s fictional Mason in the novel Mason & Dixon warns 18th century Americans against the dangerous English ruling class who amongst other things, "will not admit to error." A minimum requirement of bourgeois democracy is that it should have the strength to prevent its leaders from making stupid and murderous decisions. When it came to the US-UK invasion of Iraq it failed to do the job. For the many considered and intelligent people who opposed the war, this has been a demoralising experience. Though there is a crowded bandwagon of wise-after-the-eventers, these, like the armchair Spartan Richard Perle, don’t take any responsibility for what happened, standing by the invasion decision. There have been no admissions of error from its cheerleaders. ‘Star’ political writer of The Observer, Andrew Rawnsley, on 26th January 2003 praised Tony Blair for not ‘pandering’ to anti-war public opinion – pandering in other words to the stupid masses. At the 2006 Labour Party Conference, Blair himself said: "The British people will, sometimes, forgive a wrong decision. They won’t forgive not deciding." This is the elite-speak of the political class in a representative democracy that has been hollowed out to such a degree that there is no need even for the pretence of a popular sovereignty. Blair’s sheer cheek is hard to match. Rawnsley, who one would have thought would have had the good grace to shut up, thought it a "masterclass." This fetishizing of the power elite leadership, which has a long proto-fascist and corporatist linage, is truly scary stuff.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Conference: 1968 and all that

An excellent looking international conference and bookfair will be held 'to celebrate the hopes and dreams of May 1968 forty years after' in London on May 10 this year. The eyewitness accounts promised from around the world look great, and among the intriguing looking talks so far proposed include Sheila Rowbottom on the personal and the political in 1968, John Molyneux on art and politics and Ian Birchall on Working Class Power. 'Most of what is said about 1968 tends to focus on students, posters, graffiti, situationism etc. Ian Birchall will argue that what mattered was the working class, the general strike and the factory occupations. All the rest is froth. He will explore his belief that the Situationist International played no role whatsoever in 1968 and is a myth invented subsequently.' Sounds quality, if a tad provocative.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

International Socialism 117

Issue 117 of the International Socialism Journal is now online. Obviously, it went to press before the recent dramatic exit of Benazir Bhutto from the political stage, but there is a timely article on the crisis in Pakistan. As usual, there is so much in the journal that one might highlight, but Chris Harman on Theorising neoliberalism (he also has a shorter article on the crisis in Respect), discussions of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and Mike Davis's Planet of Slums in relation to the African working class stand out at first glance. There is also an intriguing looking article on William Shakespeare, while Marxists with an interest in history should also check out this.

On the subject of the ISJ, the Marxists Internet Archive continually expands the content of back issues online. The indexes are as follows: