Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, July 27, 2009


The 1975 film Winstanley (tagline: 'The revolution starts here') about Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers (at the vanguard of the far left in the English Revolution), is being re-released by the BFI - see also here.

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More on Trotsky

Sorry, a bit irrelevant I know, but I was digging through some old files and, well, speaking of Trotsky, I came across this snippet on page 28 of With Trotsky in Exile by Jean Van Heijenoort which I thought ought to be shared with Histomat readers. It's about when Trotsky tried to learn to drive at some point during the 1920s.

Trotsky, when still in Russia, had expressed the desire to have a car and to drive. Joffe, a Soviet diplomat and friend of Trotsky, sent him from abroad a Mercedes, specially equipped with a powerful engine. Trotsky took the wheel and, after five hundred yards, went into a ditch. That was the end of the driving.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Save Jobs and the Planet - Support the Vestas Occupation

Earlier this month,John Molyneux wrote about Vestas:

Vestas is a wind turbine factory (the only one in the UK) on the Isle of Wight near where I live in Portsmouth. It is threatened with closure on the 31 July. with the loss of 600 jobs. This will have a devastating effect on the already weak economy of the Island and is a serious blow to the fight against climate change. Last night I went, with Jonathan Neale of the Campaign against Climate Change and other comrades, to a meeting with about ten of the Vestas workers on the Island. It is clear that these workers want to resist and that what they need above all is confidence and the feeling that they will be supported. If they fight it will be of great significance for the British workers movement and for the general struggle to save the planet.
In this context messages of support from everyone, but especially international messages, to savevestas@gmail.com are very important.

Earlier this week, the workers occupied - but now face court action. Solidarity is crucial as the occupation continues.

Email messages of support to savevestas@gmail.com
Send donations to Ryde and East Wight Trades Union Council, 22 Church Lane, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO33 2NB

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stop ''Fascism 2009'' in Codner

From Unite Against Fascism:

Unite Against Fascism is calling on anti-fascists across the country to converge on Codnor, Derbyshire, at 9am on Saturday 15 August to protest against the British National Party rally taking place in the village that weekend. UAF supporters intend to "kettle" the rally by surrounding it with protesters. This action will demonstrate that the vast majority of people in this country reject the Nazi politics of the BNP.

For two cartoons of Nazi BNP Fuhrer Nick Griffin see here and here


Monday, July 20, 2009

Sheila Rowbotham on the Tolpuddle Martyrs

From here:

In 1834, six agricultural labourers, three of whom were Methodist lay preachers, were sentenced to transportation to Australia. Every year they are commemorated by the Trade Union Congress, at a festival in Tolpuddle in Dorset, as the founders of the trade union movement...To mark the 175th anniversary of their trial, the festival screened Bill Douglas's epic, long-lost and finally rediscovered film Comrades: A Lanternist's Account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Having attained almost mythical status since its release in 1986, the film is now being reissued by the British Film Institute (BFI).

By 1834 trade unions had been legalised, so the Tolpuddle men were charged under a nearly forgotten law that made it illegal to administer oaths. The names of the martyrs - George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - might easily have been erased from history, like those of so many other hapless victims arraigned under a class-skewered legal system. Instead, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, inspired by the co-operator Robert Owen's hopes for "a new moral world", mounted an agitation for their release. The moderate radical MP JA Roebuck noted the political implications - the case revealed "that the House of Commons does not represent the feelings of the people". This was an ominous indictment of the legitimacy of the recently reformed parliament and the Whig government. To the petitioners and demonstrators these were merely the new tyrants.

Feelings ran so high that, incredibly, the men were pardoned and granted free passage back to Britain. It took three more years for them all to come home as the authorities were more tardy in tracing and releasing them than they had been in hustling them away. Nevertheless, against all odds, the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned. The victory became a symbol to a working-class movement of the power of combination, not only in the matter of wages but in the achievement of democratic power through a charter of political rights...

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Defence of Leon Trotsky

The appearance of a new work on 'the exile and murder of Leon Trotsky' by an American academic Bertrand M Patenaude, Stalin's Nemesis, which is being serialised on Radio 4 was always likely to cause a bit of a stir. I mean, if people know one thing about the legendary revolutionary it is that, thanks to the Stanglers, they are able to come up with some kind of answer to the question 'whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?'.

The work has been widely reviewed (the reviews are usefully collected together by a welcome newish addition to the blogosphere, POUMista) but it has also been an opportunity for reactionaries and liberals of every stripe to once again slander and denigrate someone who faced the most terrific slander and denigration during his life from almost every quarter. Just as Stalin smeared the Jewish Trotsky as an agent of Hitler, so Richard Overy describes Trotsky's supporters as a 'motley crew', while Trotsky himself suffered from a 'blindness to any sense of humanity' and apparently 'never had any scruples about killing those in the way of the Marxist utopia'. It is a pity that Overy has seemingly not made time to read Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours where he answered exactly Overy's critique about 'moral scruple' over seventy years ago:

'A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man. "We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?" sarcastically demands the Philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of idealistic fetish, these philosophic gendarmes of the ruling class. It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws. "Just the same," the moralist continues to insist, "does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?" Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation, or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders." Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty-bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

Overy concludes with a bon mot: 'Trotsky was also famous for the metaphor 'the dustbin of history'; sad to say, he has probably joined the trash'. I like the 'probably' in that sentence - Overy may know little about Trotsky but he is a good enough historian to have some sense that many people concerned about the future of humanity continue to recognise Trotsky as a heroic fighter for the oppressed and exploited and are likely to be still reading and learning from Trotsky long after Overy's own books have been surpassed and lie, unread, mere dusty relics on a library shelf.

I have not read Stalin's Nemesis itself yet, but another of the reviews - that of Robert Service in the Guardian - simply demands a response in some form or another. Service, we learn, is writing 'a biography' of Trotsky. Given his biography of Lenin (2000) was a 'badly-written demonisation' we can guess what his forthcoming work on Trotsky will also be like - but Service's review of Stalin's Nemesis gives us a taste of what lies in store. Service starts out with a metaphor about writing about animals:

The death of a hunted fox is usually written about in two ways. One focuses on the chase and killing with sympathy for the defenceless animal. The second, usually favoured by the hunters, takes into account the hens, rabbits and lambs that have been the fox's victims.

True enough. I feel sorry for any poor little hunted fox, but I also feel for the unfortunate hens, rabbits and lambs that are killed by foxes too.

Trotsky's assassination in Coyoacán in August 1940 more often than not attracts treatment in the first mode, and Bertrand Patenaude's book falls into this category.

Eh? How did we go from foxes, hens, rabbits and lambs to Trotsky and his death at the hands of Stalinist terror? Can human activity and behaviour - politics - really be simply described using animal metaphors? It's one thing if you are writing a novel - or a 'fairy tale' like Orwell in Animal Farm - to reduce matters in this way for artistic effect - and Orwell did it with great skill - but Service is a historian at Oxford University - isn't he is supposed to, well, view things a little more seriously and historically?

Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, was the final abode of the fallen Soviet leader after Stalin had him deported from the USSR in 1929. He stayed successively in Turkey, France and Norway before the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas offered him permanent asylum. The intervening years were disastrous. His followers in the Soviet Union were shot or put to forced labour. Abroad, his daughter Zina committed suicide and his son perished in mysterious circumstances in a Paris hospital. He knew he too was marked for liquidation when the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros led an attack on his villa-fortress in May 1940. Three months later NKVD [Spoviet secret police] agent Ramón Mercader got into the compound and drove an ice axe into his cranium.

Ah, so that's what happened to Leon Trotsky! Cheers Robert, though you might have mentioned that Trotsky also sought refuge from Stalin in the great parliamentary democracy that is Britain but that the government of the day (incidently a Labour government) refused him political asylum as well...

Trotsky blamed all his troubles on Stalin.

If true, then perhaps understandable given Stalin wanted him dead, and was in the process of murdering his family and close friends.

In his elegant autobiography - one of the 20th century's political classics - he laid out how a criminal group had seized control of his beloved Communist party and pushed it to a terminus of self-seeking bureaucracy, corruption and violence.

Well, that's close to what Trotsky argued actually happened. Trotsky's My Life is indeed a classic but isn't Service thinking of The Revolution Betrayed here (My Life stopped in about 1929)? This doesn't really bode that well if he is writing a biography of Trotsky does it...

Patenaude does not hide how Trotsky himself had been associated with dictatorship and terror, but flashbacks to earlier episodes of Trotsky's career mostly show how the fox was caught by his hunters. The hens he had bloodily torn apart and devoured do not figure prominently.

'The hens he had bloodily torn apart and devoured' - Service really needs to get a grip and pull himself together a bit. He is supposed to be a historian - surely he might deign to mention something of the historical context to the Soviet 'dictatorship' and 'terror' - namely the Russian Civil War? Just in passing even? No? Oh well, hens bloodily torn apart and devoured for no reason other than it is in a fox's nature to tear apart and devour hens it is then and Trotsky is not a human being but an animal living by instinct. I see.

Not every unhappiness in Trotsky's life, was attributable to Stalin. Mentally unstable and afflicted by tuberculosis, Zina had left the USSR to join her father in the Sea of Marmara. A number of fires soon occurred in Trotsky's rented house. The suspicion of the resident Trotskyists was that Zina was the culprit. She was only happy when she was performing political tasks for her father, but he shrugged her aside and sent her to Berlin for medical attention. In Germany she wrote painful letters to her mother saying that the root of her difficulties was the alienation from the man she had "adored since the day of her birth". In despair she gassed herself. Trotsky's Bulletin of the Opposition denounced Stalin for what had happened, but the decisive factor was Trotsky's own incapacity for emotional empathy.

This is just sick frankly. 'The decisive factor' in Trotsky's daughter's suicide was apparently not the context of Stalinist persecution and exile (the suicide was 'not attributable' to Stalin at all apparently) but Trotsky's 'own incapacity for emotional empathy' - really, how low can one go? Talk about kicking the man when he is down.

On the political plane, too, he helped to design and build a political order that persecuted whole social categories.

I like this bit about 'social categories' - at least he recognises that enemies of the Russian Revolution were not defenceless, harmless and loveable farmyard or woodland animals but 'social categories' - but does he mean maybe 'exploiters' and 'oppressors' or something like that? Or what? He does not say - it is pathetic, frankly...

His Terrorism and Communism, written in 1920, justified the application of terror to presumed "enemies of the people". In his period of power after the October Revolution, he revelled in introducing a harsh dictatorial regime and never questioned the need for one-party rule. His ferocity continued after his deportation. In 1931, when the Menshevik leaders were arraigned in a show trial, he spared not an ounce of compassion. For Trotsky, as for Stalin, such people deserved to be punished without pity.

Still not a mention of the context of the Russian Civil War I see. Nevermind, one can't ask for everything I suppose. At least Service has moved on from talking about foxes and hens and is at least attempting to present some historical 'facts' before us. We have to be grateful for small mercies.

The strength of Patenaude's account is in his detective work on the last weeks of Trotsky's life. He has a good feel for the topography of the villa on Avenida Viena and has blended his story with an account of contemporary political conditions in Mexico. He is also up to date with the recent Russian research on the operations of the NKVD.

At last - something about the book itself under review. It sounds an interesting read. Thanks Robert.

Trotsky still has the power to raise passions.

No shit - Service is so passionate in his hatred he can't even bear to describe him as a fellow human being - he has to portray him as a bloodthirsty predator.

The brutal circumstances of his assassination, together with his genius for producing books of literary brilliance, continue widely to elicit the feeling that he would have constructed "socialism with a human face" in the USSR.

Trotsky also wanted 'socialism with a human face' internationally as well as in the Soviet Union - a small point but I think one worth mentioning given his defence of this basic principle of Marxism led to his exile and murder at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy (who wanted 'socialism in one country'). Memo to Robert Service - Trotsky's internationalism might be worth mentioning in the biography somewhere. Look up 'Permanent Revolution, Marxist Theory of' for more information on this perhaps.

But Trotsky was a master of selectivity and evasiveness when telling the story of his career and he drew a curtain across his complicity in consolidating an edifice of lawless dictatorship.

Thank goodness Service doesn't engage in any 'selectivity and evasiveness' himself when it comes to telling the story of Trotsky's revolutionary career - no, none whatsoever.

The fox indeed endured a grisly end. But it is surely also important to remember the deaths of the hens, ducks and lambs.

Eh? It was 'hens, rabbits and lambs' earlier - now it is 'hens, ducks and lambs' - what about the rabbits? And where did the ducks come from? Either get your animal metaphors right, Service, or just stick to writing about humans as humans. Actually, given his lack of interest in Trotsky the man, let alone Trotsky the revolutionary Marxist, why does he even bother? Oh, yes, I remember now, to try and discourage people from reading too much else about Trotsky and the Russian Revolution in case they get some odd ideas about 'socialism with a human face' being slightly better than the current wonder to behold that is global capitalism in the midst of one of its endemic crises. Denigrating one of twentieth-century capitalism's greatest critics through the form of a 'biography' that will doubtless sell well enough - Service's anti-Trotskyism all starts to make sense now - even if the need for such propaganda on behalf of the existing order in the twenty-first century is, in a way, only a reminder and a recognition of Trotsky's enduring appeal and importance.

Edited to add: The first volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Trotsky, Towards October 1879-1917 (1989) is now online

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Without Michael Jackson There Would Be No Tap

After a weekend spent lounging around in the sun reading an introduction to Martin Heidegger (don't ask) and watching Glastonbury highlights on TV (do ask - and incidently, what was it with all the Loyalist flags flying about all over the place?), I am not really in the best position to comment on what is going on politically in Britain and internationally (though I did gather a much loved icon from the world of music died last week - as did this chap - and that Wimbledon is underway). Hopefully I will have a better idea and understanding after this weekend's Marxism festival (while there is always good old Lenin's Tomb).

But briefly surmising the headlines, I see New Labour are still defiantly insistent on making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism by removing unemployment benefit from under-25 year olds deemed not to be working hard enough at finding a job - while silmulaneously freezing student grants and loans (though not tuition fees). There was a time when a threat to cut unemployment benefit would bring down a Labour Government through internal rebellion - but the Party has long stopped worrying about such things and learnt to love not simply Peter Mandleson, but also fraud and corruption around expenses going to the highest level of government as well as bailouts for bankers that have to be paid for somehow.

Still, if New Labour can't provide bread, at least it is providing circuses. Lets not worry about the billions to be spent renewing Trident nuclear submarine or the killing fields of Afghanistan - lets get all nostalgic for the old imperial spirit and kick back and enjoy the spectacle of 'Armed Forces Day'! Let's party like its 1945!

Tony Blair is doing his bit to raise people's spirits too. At a time when most people are worried about whether they will have one job at the end of the week, Blair is bravely leading the fight for the right to work. Though Blair already has so many jobs it is difficult to keep count (there was bringing peace to the Middle East, saving the planet from climate change, ending world poverty, as well as advising the bankers JP Morgan, Zurich Insurance, and running the Blair Faith Foundation thing, but I am sure I have forgotten something) he is now bravely battling to also be the next European president regardless. As the Guardian notes 'the Briton's main assets are name and brand recognition, international contacts, and the absence, so far, of any serious rival for the post.' There is just one minor problem which might stop Blair adding yet one more job to his CV - most people in Europe, for some odd reason, associate the 'Blair brand' with lying and committing war crimes. Oh yeah, and also being a complete and utter wanker.

Meanwhile, Ed Balls, currently New Labour's schools secretary but also the man who dreams of being a future Labour leader, is doing his bit to get people to smile through the recession with his own distinct brand of political comedy. Not only was Balls-by-name recently caught out putting through Mark Steel's classic Reasons to be Cheerful on his expenses, Balls-by-nature has now also come up with the cheery idea of introducing a five year MOT 'license' for weeding out incompetent professionals. Which profession in British society is it that has most failed in its duty, that is full to the brim of the most shady and sinister characters? Which profession is the weakest link that most needs the introduction of a five year license to practice? Greedy bankers? City traders and speculators? No, underpaid and overworked teachers of course! Brilliant stuff Balls!

The only possible 'reason to be cheerful' will be if New Labour's anti-working class policies and measures such as these fail to get onto the statute book because this utterly useless Brown government fails to renew its own 'license to govern' when it comes up for renewal next year (and long before reaching the five years in office mark). Those wishing to help build something new from the ashes of New Labour, a socialist phoenix that can rise from the flames, should join those protesting at the Labour Party conference, Sunday 27 Sept, in Brighton at the demonstration called by the UCU and NUJ, supported by the Fight for the Right to Work campaign.

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International Socialism 123

The new issue of International Socialism is out now, and it includes among other things Martin Smith on the resistable rise of the British Nazi Party - the electoral breakthrough of which is tragically already having all too predictable consequences - and analysis of the Euro-elections which concludes that regarding the British situation,

'Sometimes a threatening shock spurs people to sudden action. There was a sign of this with the magnificent and militant protests against the BNP after the election results emerged. Now is the time to see if the feeling can take on a new political form. The alternative is to cling to the hull of the Labour Party as it sinks into a sea infested with UKIP and BNP sharks. We do not know whether campaigning for a political alternative will gain enough critical mass to bring it about before the general election. But in any case, the networks drawn together in the process would help in the wider extra-parliamentary resistance to what capitalism has in store for us. There will be an urgent need in the months ahead for coordination in support of whatever struggles occur, in standing by those subject to abuse by the gutter press and in preparing for the fightback against the inevitable onslaught on the public services.'

There are also a host of other excellent-at-first-sight-looking-articles, including a reply by Roland Boer to John Molyneux on Marxism and Religion, Joseph Choonara on debates between Marxists over the current crisis, Talat Ahmed on Gandhi and Ken Olende on the first part of Jeffrey Perry's new biography of Hubert Harrison. Some critical summer reading for people...

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New book: Zombie Capitalism

New from Bookmarks Publications:
Zombie Capitalism: Global crisis and the relevance of Marx by Chris Harman.

A major new study of capitalism from Marx to the 21st century
Faced with the financial crisis that began in 2007 some economic commentators began to talk of ‘zombie banks’, financial institutions that were in an ‘undead’ state incapable of fulfilling any positive function but representing a threat to everything else. However 21st century capitalism as a whole is a zombie system dead to achieving human goals and responding to human feelings but capable of sudden spurts of activity that cause chaos all around. Chris Harman shows how Marx’s understanding of capitalism is essential for any explanation of how this world emerged and developed over the last century and a half. He shows that the roots of the crisis today lie not in financial speculation but much deeper in a crisis of profitability which 30 years of the neoliberal offensive have failed to reverse. The future of the system will not be a return to steady growth but repeated instability and upheaval, together with a rising ecological crisis. Finally he looks the force in society capable of ending the rule of capital — the global working class.

Praise for Zombie Capitalism:
'A powerful, comprehensive and accessible critique of capitalism from
one of the world’s pre-eminent Marxist economists. This book needs to
be read far and wide. It is a clear, incisive warning of the massive
dangers posed by a "runaway system" and the threat it poses for the
future of humanity.'

Graham Turner, author of Credit Crunch: Housing Bubbles, Globalisation and the Worldwide Economic Crisis

'Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the present
crisis and its place in the history of capitalism and an important
contribution to Marxist political economy.'

Alex Callinicos, Professor of European Studies, King’s College London

Edited to add: A review in Socialist Review.

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