Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The resistable rise of Adolf Hitler

Eighty years ago today, on 30 January 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. This infamous day has been dubbed “midnight in the century”. It opened a new period of terror unlike anything the world had ever seen—bringing repression, war and the industrial murder of more than ten million people... Donny Gluckstein on the rise of Hitler's Nazis to power, the greatest defeat ever suffered by the working class movement - see also Florian Wilde on why the German Left failed to stop fascism.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Against War and Fascism

 Two conferences in London coming up:

1. Confronting War Ten Years On: An international conference
10am - 5pm, 9th February 2013 #tenyearson
Friends House, 173-177 Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ

As predicted around the world, the war on terror has caused catastrophe from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iraq and the Middle East to Libya, Somalia and beyond. The west has backed brutal Israeli assaults against Palestine and is threatening further intervention in Syria and Iran.
Ten years after the biggest demonstrations in history in February 2003, the warnings of millions have been vindicated. This conference will bring together leading activists and commentators to analyse continuing Western aggression and how to confront it.
Speakers include: Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Phyllis Bennis, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Brian Eno, Lindsey German, Owen Jones, Jemima Khan, Sami Ramadani, Salma Yaqoob and many others.
See also the Stop the War statement on British intervention in Mali

2.  Unite Against Fascism National Conference

The conference takes place on Saturday 2 March from 10am to 4.30pm at TUC Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS. The nearest tubes are Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road.

This year’s conference hosted by Unite Against Fascism, One Society Many Cultures, PCS and NUT on Saturday 2 March is a chance for anti-fascists and anti-racists to plan the campaign for the coming year.
Hundreds of anti-fascist and anti-racist activists, campaigners, faith communities and trade unionists will come together at the conference to discuss our strategy for 2013 – and look ahead towards the 2014 Euro elections, where the MEP seats held by British National Party leader Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, who has now formed a rival party, are up for election.
The conference will review our successes – incuding the crushing blow inflicted on the English Defemce League in Walthamstow – and discuss what we do in the next year to prevent the EDL regrouping and to counter fascist candidates in the elections in 2013 and 2014.
It will also be an opportunity to discuss how we challenge Islamophobia and racism, and defend multiculturalism.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Is Leninism finished?

Following on from the recent intervention of John Molyneux on the question of 'Marxism and the Party', Alex Callinicos has also now put up a defence of the Leninist tradition of building revolutionary socialist organisations on the model of 'democratic centralism' in order to counter some recent arguments made by the likes of Owen Jones in the Independent and ''Donny Mayo''  elsewhere, noting that 'the anti-capitalist struggle won't be advanced by relying on Labourism and the trade union leaders or by uncritical worship of the movements...'

Read the full article here

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Book Review: Unhitched by Richard Seymour


'As a member of the SWP, buying this book is probably an expellable offence', I joked to the genial old guy behind the counter in Housman's bookshop in London the other day as I handed over money for Unhitched by Richard Seymour - the proprieter of the Lenin's Tomb blog, which seems to be currently devoted to trying to drum up both sales of Unhitched and supporters of the 'SWP Opposition'. The Housmans assistant didn't get the joke, which served for me as a timely reminder that for probably about 99% of the Left in Britain, 'Lenin's Tomb' means, well, the Lenin's Tomb.

Anyway, onto Unhitched, which is really an enlargement on some of the arguments about the late Christopher Hitchens made in Seymour's The Liberal Defence of Murder. In many ways this little book is vintage Seymour doing what he does best - taking down pro-war liberal scum through remorseless detailed analysis of their bullshit. Those wanting a brief summary of the argument can go straight to this fine little piece Seymour wrote for the Guardian recently - Christopher Hitchens: from socialist to neocon. In general, Seymour's Unhitched does what it says on the tin - puts Christopher Hitchens on trial for his crimes - chief of which was acting as an apologist and propagandist for the American Empire. 'This is not a biography but an extended political essay' (pxxi), Seymour writes, indeed 'unabashedly a prosecution' in an imagined 'Trial of Christopher Hitchens' and 'if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result'. (pxxii)

Its appearance is therefore to be welcomed by socialists and democrats more generally - if only to serve as a long overdue and hopefully permanent antidote to the pro-war liberal chorus of sycophancy and sentimentality that still surrounds and stifles any discussion of 'the Hitch'. How did that disgraced former MP Denis Macshane describe Hitchens after his death - oh yes, 'a cross between Voltaire and Orwell'...

As someone who has not read Hitchen's own autobiography, Hitch 22, I personally was hoping for something resembling a bit more of a biography than a long polemical essay when I bought Seymour's book. However, after reading Unhitched I am convinced that for all of Hitchens's brilliance and talent as a literary critic, he is simply not intellectually worthy enough of the attention and the effort necessary for someone to write a decent, critical biography of him - being essentially a charlatan, prone to plagiarism even when he was good, and happy to lie and caricature when he was bad. Hitchens's intellectual and political degeneration - so apparent post September 11th but as Seymour shows, with long roots in Hitchens's past work - perhaps reached its nadir with his writing about the death of Mark Daily, a young American who signed up to fight and die in the 'war on terror' after apparently being inspired by Hitchens's pro-war propaganda. As Seymour notes of Hitchen's subsequent 'maudlin display of his grief and catharsis, in some ways even more stomach lurching than his tribute to the World Trade Center', it 'climaxed in a puddle of self-pity and self-vindication', and Hitchens, having 'fantasised that the Bush administration was the equivalent of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification', was 'shocked to find that they were selling out his just war' and so now 'felt awful - so awful that he shed his tears, took the occasion to vindicate himself once again, and then moved on without ever having to really account for what he had done' (p98).

There is a lot in here - discussions of Hitchens on Orwell, Kipling, Paul Scott, Edward Said as well as the more political material one would expect - and there are plenty of references that readers will want to follow up on, whatever their own particular interests. There is some good historic discussion on previous cases of political shifts to the right from former revolutionaries - and there are some nice quotes from the likes of William Hazlitt and Isaac Deutscher on the situation post the French and Russian revolutions respectively, as former hopes were dashed by the rise of the likes of Napoleon and Stalin. Seymour even has space to aptly quote Norman Geras on the shift that followed the fading hopes that the movements of 1968 would break through:

In the advanced capitalist world from the mid-1960s a generation of intellectuals was radicalized and won for Marxism. Many of them were disappointed in the hopes they formed — some of these wild but let that pass — and for a good while now we have been witnessing a procession of erstwhile Marxists, a sizeable portion of the generational current they shared in creating, in the business of finding their way "out" and away. This exit is always presented, naturally, in the guise of an intellectual advance. Those of us unpersuaded of it cannot but remind its proponents of what they once knew but seem instantly to forget as they make their exit, namely, that the evolution of ideas has a social and material context.

Hitchens - in the late 1960s and early 1970s of course a member of the International Socialists - himself once revealingly told Decca Aitkenhead,

 'I've done better than I thought I would. I've made more money than I ever thought I would. I've got more readers than I ever thought I would, and more esteem' and now earns 'several hundred thousand dollars a year' – but Aitkenhead noted Hitchens claims his wealth hasn't influenced his opinions at all. Does he think wealth ever affects people's opinions? 'Well, yes, I'm a Marxist, after all.' So why would his own opinions be mysteriously immune to his bank balance? 'Well, because I can't trace any connection...'

Marx's key point about 'social being determining consciousness' is demonstrated well in the case of Christopher Hitchens, and he is well placed in his historical context by Seymour. Ultimately, this is not about one personality - but politics. If I have any criticism, it is that books like this - and the Verso Counterblasts series in general which aims 'to challenge the apologists of Empire and Capital' are essentially a negative critique. They raise a wider issue and a more interesting question which is not really discussed: what is the responsibility of intellectuals at a time of crisis, tumult and war? After all there is a great tradition of revolutionary intellectuals who have managed to play a positive role in the class struggle and revolutionary politics without being pulled to the right, even when confronted by defeats far greater than the defeats of the 1970s and 1980s.

 As well as this piece on the subject by Rick Kuhn, there is an interesting article in the latest issue of International Socialism on 'Hegemony and mass critical intellectuality' by Panagiotis Sotiris that discusses Marx, Gramsci, Bourdieu and Foucault, but concludes by rightly stressing the importance of political organisation for intellectuals.  

Above all we must think of radical left parties, political fronts and organisations as knowledge practices and laboratories of new forms of mass critical intellectuality. In a period of economic and political crisis but also of new possibilities to challenge capitalist rule, questions of political organisation gain new relevance. Thinking of organisation simply in terms of practical or communicative skills for mobilisation, or of electoral fronts and tactics is not enough. It would be better, in order to build today’s parties and united fronts, to revisit Gramsci’s (and Lenin’s) conception of the party as a democratic political and theoretical process that produces knowledge of the conjuncture, organic intellectuals, new worldviews, social and political alternatives, as a potential (counter)hegemonic apparatus. We need forms of organisation that not only enable coordination and networking, democratic discussion and effective campaigning, but also bring together different experiences, combine critical theory with the knowledge coming from the different sites of struggle, and produce both concrete analyses but also mass ideological practices and new forms of radical “common sense”.

This is I think right - but it is perhaps worth also remembering what Marx and Engels - traditional intellectuals themselves who made an immeasurable contribution to the theory and practice of independent revolutionary working class politics - also said on the matter of radical intellectuals and left-wing political parties in 1879:  

It is an unavoidable phenomenon, well established in the course of development, that people from the ruling class also join the proletariat and supply it with educated elements. This we have already clearly stated in the [Communist] Manifesto. Here, however, two remarks are to be made: 

First, such people, in order to be useful to the proletarian movement, must bring with them really educated elements. This, however, is not the case with the great majority of German bourgeois converts. Neither the Zukunft [fortnightly Berlin magazine] nor the Neue Gesellschaft [monthly Zurich periodical] has provided anything to advance the movement one step. They are completely deficient in real, factual, or theoretical material. Instead, there are efforts to bring superficial socialist ideas into harmony with the various theoretical viewpoints which the gentlemen from the universities, or from wherever, bring with them, and among whom one is more confused than the other, thanks to the process of decomposition in which German philosophy finds itself today. Instead of first studying the new science [scientific socialism] thoroughly, everyone relies rather on the viewpoint he brought with him, makes a short cut toward it with his own private science, and immediately steps forth with pretensions of wanting to teach it. Hence, there are among those gentlemen as many viewpoints as there are heads; instead of clarifying anything, they only produce arrant confusion — fortunately, almost always only among themselves. Such educated elements, whose guiding principle is to teach what they have not learned, the party can well dispense with. 

 Second, when such people from other classes join the proletarian movement, the first demand upon them must be that they do not bring with them any remnants of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices, but that they irreversibly assimilate the proletarian viewpoint. But those gentlemen, as has been shown, adhere overwhelmingly to petty-bourgeois conceptions. In so petty-bourgeois a country as Germany, such conceptions certainly have their justification, but only outside the Social-Democratic Labor party. If the gentlemen want to build a social-democratic petty-bourgeois party, they have a full right to do so; one could then negotiate with them, conclude agreements, etc., according to circumstances. But in a labor party, they are a falsifying element. If there are grounds which necessitates tolerating them, it is a duty only to tolerate them, to allow them no influence in party leadership, and to keep in mind that a break with them is only a matter of time.

In 1890, Engels even more forcefully warned of the potential danger of petty-bourgeois intellectuals for a revolutionary workers' organisation, noting such intellectuals should

 understand that their “academic education” — which in any case needs a basic, critical self-review — gives them no officer’s commission with a claim to a corresponding post in the party; that in our party everyone must serve in the ranks; that posts of responsibility in the party will be won not simply by literary talent and theoretical knowledge, even if both of these are present beyond a doubt, but that in addition what is required is a thorough familiarity with the conditions of the party struggle and seasoning in its forms, tested personnel reliability and sound character, and, finally, willing enlistment in the ranks of the fighters;—in short, that they, the “academically educated people,” have far more to learn from the workers, all in all, than the latter have to learn from them.

It is telling for example that Hitchens arrogantly apparently thought himself 'on the brink of becoming a "full-time organiser"' while he was in the International Socialists (p7)- as though his academic education at Oxford gave him some kind of 'officer’s commission with a claim to a corresponding post in the party'. Ian Birchall once drew a useful contrast comparing Christopher Hitchens with Paul Foot (who Seymour sadly doesn't mention in Unhitched), who did stay the course in the IS/SWP despite equal pressures from bourgeois society to break with his commitment to building revolutionary socialist organisation and embrace the mainstream:  

It is interesting to compare him with Paul Foot. Both had the same public school/Oxford training, and used the literary and oratorical skills they had acquired from it. But Foot had a solid core of principles which stayed with him to the very end - and which certainly made him less successful, in terms of official recognition, than he otherwise might have been. Hitchens, even in his left-wing phase, was always much more committed to his own career and to staying within the bounds of the mainstream. I knew him when he was a member of the Hornsey International Socialists in 1974, and I have to say I never liked or trusted him very much. That is only a personal reaction, of course, but I always felt the commitment to his personal advancement was greater than his commitment to the socialist cause.

As Seymour demonstrates in this volume, Christopher Hitchens was 'a petty bourgeois individualist who esteemed collectivism at least some of the time but never submitted to it himself ... the sociological basis, as it were, for his leftism was the radical intelligentsia'(pxi, xxii). But is Seymour himself really so different from Hitchens in this sense? Though of course one cannot doubt Seymour's principled commitment to the socialist cause, and his politics are no doubt better and sharper than those of even the young Hitchens, as someone whose base is in higher education as a PhD student, Seymour is clearly not immune from the gravitational pull of the 'radical intelligentsia' in the form of 'academic Marxism', to say nothing of the wider pull of petty-bourgeois thinking predominant in the 'blogosphere'/ social media which comes with being a high profile blogger who writes for the likes of The Guardian.  Indeed, arguably Seymour's recent post on Lenin's Tomb defending 'patriarchy' - critically debated here - is perhaps best seen as an example of what Marx and Engels were talking about in 1879 when they criticised 'efforts to bring superficial socialist ideas into harmony with the various theoretical viewpoints which the gentlemen from the universities, or from wherever, bring with them ... Instead of first studying the new science [scientific socialism] thoroughly, everyone relies rather on the viewpoint he brought with him, makes a short cut toward it with his own private science, and immediately steps forth with pretensions of wanting to teach it'.

This is not meant as a personal or sectarian attack on Seymour - for no Marxist who works in the environment of higher education and/or who is an aspiring journalist is immune from such pressures. Still less is it meant as an attack on radical intellectuals per se. As Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP once wrote,

 The worst damage that can be done inside a revolutionary party is if there is an attack on the intellectuals inside the party, in the name of a proletarian attitude. As a matter of fact such an attack is not so much on the intellectuals but on the workers in the party. It is an insult to the workers as it assumes the workers are unable to grasp theory.

There of course has to be freedom inside a revolutionary party for members to have debates around, for example, theories of patriarchy. But equally, for socialists to take at face value the contemporary theories fashionable in the capitalist institutions of higher education, add one's own personal spin on them, and then pass what results off as the latest and highest form of thinking in 'Marxist theory' is precisely a method of thinking Marx and Engels (and later revolutionary Marxists) always warned against. To dismiss, for example, the relevance today of the debates that were had between Marxists and 'socialist feminists' during the 1970s and subsequently into the 1980s when the Women's Liberation Movement was at a much higher level of mass struggle than it has reached since, reveals a kind of intellectual elitism and arrogance that is most unworthy of any Marxist, let alone someone who is a member of the SWP.

Seymour wants his study of Hitchens to be seen as a kind of 'cautionary tale' to others - and he is right.  In a sense it is tragic that Hitchens was never able to develop into the outstanding socialist journalist and writer that at his best he showed signs of becoming - and instead became - as Seymour notes, paraphrasing Hazlitt, 'a living and ignominious satire on himself'.  It would be farcical now if Richard Seymour, who founded a blog called 'Lenin's Tomb' precisely to rightly provoke those with essentially petty-bourgeois and individualist prejudices against the most important and outstanding revolutionary Marxist thinker after Marx himself - ever ended up himself succumbing to the kind of hostile pressures he once so detested and still warns us against so eloquently and effectively in Unhitched.

Edited to add: For more on Marxism and intellectuals, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vols I and II (1977/78) and Paul Blackledge, (2007), ‘Marx and Intellectuals’, in David Bates, (ed.) Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

John Molyneux on Marxism and the Party

[I was recently heartened to see that Marxism and the Party by John Molyneux has been put online at the Marxist Internet Archive. This book is - as is characteristic for Molyneux - an incredibly clearly written and thought-provoking discussion of the whole question of revolutionary organisation - ranging from Marx through to Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci - and helps clarify what is meant by terms one sometimes hears a lot about, such as 'democratic centralism'. As one recent reviewer noted, despite perhaps some limitations, 'this is a short book which has much to offer those of us looking to the new mass movements around the world, in the hope that they can finally bury capitalism'. I was also pleased to note it has now been republished in Korea, and so have decided to republish John Molyneux's new 2013 preface below]

Preface to Marxism and the Party (Korea 2013) by John Molyneux

It is an honour for any author to have a book reprinted thirty five years after it was first published, so I am very grateful to Chaekgalpi and it is always a privilege to be able to contribute, in even a small way, to the struggle in Korea.  

Marxism and the Party, my first book, was written out of a particular historical experience – working to build a revolutionary party in Britain during the major upsurge in working class struggle in the years 1968-74 – a period excellently analysed in Chris Harman The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After.

Since then a huge amount of historical water has flowed under the bridge, too much for me to offer any detailed account of it here. However, in the broadest possible terms, it can be said that if 1968-74 was an international upturn in the struggle, the period that followed, certainly the 80s (the years of Reagan and Thatcher) and much of the 90s, saw a deep international down. The major exception to this, the mobilizations that brought about the fall of ‘Communism’ in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989-91 and which were an important democratic advance, were nevertheless not perceived as a step forward by most the public and most of the left, who thought that, in some sense or other, they were witnessing the downfall of socialism not the downfall of state capitalism. Only with the famous Seattle Demonstration in 1999 and the birth of the global ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, developing into the global anti-war movement, did the international tide begin to turn, and we are now a decade on from that with many further important developments.

So, two obvious questions arise: 1) to what extent do I still stand by what I wrote more than thirty five years ago? 2) how relevant is the book and its main arguments to contemporary circumstances?

The answer to the first question is almost entirely. Clearly one hopes to learn over the years and therefore if I were rewriting this book today I would aim to improve it but I still hold to the same essential politics and I believe I rendered the ideas of the great Marxists on the nature and role of the revolutionary party pretty accurately. The only important exceptions to this are the sections on Gramsci and Trotsky. As I wrote in the preface to the 2003 Korean edition:

The chapter on Gramsci was written before I was aware of the massive appropriation of his ideas by Eurocommunism and its intellectual fellow travellers for the purposes of reformism and class collaboration. Gramsci’s formulations in the Prison Notebooks contain a number of ambiguities on which I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt, but which were exploited by his epigones to seriously distort his legacy. Writing today I would take account of this and, while defending Gramsci as a genuine revolutionary, would offer a more critical treatment.

Regarding Trotsky I can quote from my introduction to the 1986 English edition.

In addition I would also devote more space to the conception of party and class embodied in Trotsky’s strategic writings of 1928-37, in other words his critique of the Stalinist ‘third period’ ultra-leftism which divided the working class in the face of Hitler and of the subsequent opportunism of the Popular Front period.

The reason I made that comment then is that those writings had proved extremely useful in the (successful) fight we in Britain waged against the rise of the Nazi National Front in the second half of the 1970s. The reason I repeat it here is that fight against fascism, especially in Greece, but also across Europe and beyond remains of crucial importance today.

On the question of relevance it is necessary to say something about the general political situation today.

The first point, of course, is that we are living through the most severe and extended economic crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This has been extensively analysed by Marxists of all persuasions and, particularly, by Marxists in the international socialist tradition (Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara etc) so it is only necessary to reiterate the most essential things here. These are that we are dealing with a fundamental crisis of the system, not just a banking or financial crisis, rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, that even after four years the crisis is continuing, with no real end in sight, and that this makes the question of who will pay for this crisis, their class or ours, the central issue of this period internationally.

The second point is the rising tide of resistance. Since, roughly, the end of 2010 we have seen a massive wave of revolt across the world. The Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions of early 2011, the initial uprisings in Libya and Bahrain, the Syrian Revolution the Indignados movement in Spain, the extended resistance of the Greek working class, the Occupy movement in the USA and elsewhere, mass student movements in Canada and Chile, the widespread struggles of workers in China and India, and various revolts and strikes in Africa (especially the Marikana miners) are all different moments of this immense development. Taken as a whole it is the largest wave of rebellion since the late sixties/early seventies. Because our rulers will fight back with all the multitude of means at their disposal, it is unavoidable that this general movement, as well scoring striking victories – such as the removal of Mubarak in Egypt - will also suffer setbacks and defeats, as in Libya and Bahrain. Nevertheless, the overall trajectory continues and this is creating a new and wider audience for Marxist ideas as evidenced by – among other things - the huge increase in the publication of Marxist literature.

Third, there is climate change. There is no avoiding the fact that the issue of climate change has been at the back rather than front of the consciousness of most of the left over the last few years and that, so far, it has not – in most countries – generated a serious scale of mobilization. I hope I am wrong about this but I would expect this state of affairs to continue for a period, partly because the issue remains an abstract, not a concrete one, for most working people, and partly because it is not possible to make credible demands to most national governments to fix the problem.

However it is also a fact that climate change is proceeding at an even faster rate than most scientists predicted and that 2012 and early 2013 saw a proliferation of the extreme weather events that climate change produces. The United States, which experienced its hottest summer on record with drought in about 40 states and extensive forest fires combined with the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in the New York area and freak tornados in the south, was an example of this. As I write Australia is locked in an intense, and again record breaking heatwave, while the arctic ice is melting at such a rate that at an artic free of ice in the summer is less than a decade away. This in turn brings the world closer to the tipping point at which massive ongoing climate change becomes close to unstoppable.

Moreover climate change interacts with the economic crisis. Capitalism in crisis, obsessed with restoring profit rates and economic growth, is proving completely incapable of addressing this problem. But, of course, it will be capable of responding to increasing natural disasters and the victims and refugees they inevitably produce with callousness, racism, war and fascist barbarity.

The combination of these facts makes the international socialist revolution and the building of revolutionary parties to secure its victory more important than ever. But here we face something of a paradox, namely that despite the intense crisis the general mood on the left is in many ways hostile to the party building project.

Recalling the period in which Marxism and the Party was first written, emphasises this. Although at that time, anarchism and spontanism had some influence, the main debate on the far left was between various political tendencies who claimed at least verbal allegiance to Leninism: traditional Communism (ie Stalinism), Maoism, Castroism, varieties of Trotskyism and so on. Behind Marxism and the Party, therefore, stood the aim of vindicating the International Socialist tradition’s interpretation of Leninism in opposition, particularly, to Stalinist and so-called ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist interpretations. This meant emphasing, above all, the dynamic and interactive (dialectical) relationship between the party and the real, living working class.

Today the picture is very different. Today there is almost an ‘anti-party’ consensus, especially among newly radicalising youth. In Spain the starting point of the great Indignados movement, with its mass occupation of city squares and its demand for ‘real democracy now’, was opposition to all political parties and trade unions. Revolutionary militants in Madrid and Barcelona were allowed into the squares only as individuals, not as members of organisations with banners and papers. Similar tendencies existed in Occupy in the US, London , Ireland and elsewhere, and even – if to a lesser extent- Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo.

I would not label this ‘anti-party’ consensus anarchist or autonomist, though anarchists and autonomists can certainly make use of it, because I think its roots lie not in the influence of Bakunin or Kropotkin or Hardt and Negri, but in a radicalised version of neo-liberal individualism which developed a very strong hold on youth consciousness over the past couple of decades. But whatever its origins this mood is a widespread fact. Does this mean, as is often claimed, that the idea of a revolutionary party has had its day? Not in my opinion, but it does mean that the argument may need to begin ‘further back’, as it were, than it does in this book with a defence of the need for political parties as such. As I have written recently:

As for the idea that there is something wrong with political parties as such we have, of course, to recognize how understandable such a reaction is in the face of the manifest behaviour of virtually all the parties most people have experience of, and we also need to understand there really is something wrong with the existence of political parties in that they are symptoms and expressions of a class divided society and thus exhibit many of the horrible characteristics of class society[1]. However given the actual existence of class society and the fact that the working class cannot walk away from this society and establish utopia elsewhere but has to fight for its liberation from within, and on the ground of, this society it has to be said that the existence of political parties is a gain and a necessary condition of even limited democracy. 
First it should be noted that, historically, political parties developed hand in hand with the development of (bourgeois) democracy and the extension of the franchise to working people in the nineteenth century. Prior to that there existed not parties but only loose associations among ‘notables’ ie aristocrats and leading bourgeois. It was only the winning of the right to vote by the masses that obliged the upper and middle classes and the workers themselves to form parties to fight for those votes. Second, the only modern societies where multiple parties do not exist are those where they are forcibly suppressed by military, fascist or Stalinist dictatorships, ie where there is no democracy at all. 
Moreover, imagine it were possible (of course, it is not), in a capitalist society, to secure without repression the voluntary dissolution of all political parties so that all deputies, MPs, councillors etc were unaffiliated individuals. Would this benefit the working class and the majority of people? No, it would not. On the contrary in such circumstances it would the rich, the bourgeoisie, who would benefit enormously because they would be able to use their personal wealth and all their other advantages (connections, cultural capital etc) to dominate politics even more than they do at present. Only through collective organization – be it in unions or in parties – are working people able to resist the power of capital and the domination of the bourgeois.
(John Molyneux, ‘In Defence of Leninism’, Irish Marxist Review 3, p.43)

However, even among left-wing socialists who accept the need for a party of some sort there is a widely expressed preference for a ‘broad’ left party, rather than a specifically revolutionary or Leninist organization. The main example of this is the international surge of more or less uncritical enthusiasm for Syriza in Greece, from the moment it became clear that it had a chance of winning a parliamentary majority. Other examples include the relative success of the Front de Gauche in France (compared to the avowedly revolutionary NPA), the Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany, the high poll results for the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark and the yearning often expressed for such a party in Britain (unformed because the people who could form it refuse to break with the Labour Party).

Of course the emergence and progress of such broad parties of the radical left is welcome in that it is a symptom and expression of the working class moving to the left, but those who counterpose such parties to the building of revolutionary parties and hail them as the main way forward are ignoring the tragic history of left reformist governments, most notably Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity in Chile in 1970-73, which ended in Pinochet’s brutal military coup, and the Popular Front government of Spain in 1936 which succumbed to Franco and fascism, as well as the historical experience of left reformism as a whole (Menshevism in Russia, Kautskyism in Germany, the Socialist Party in Italy in 1918-21 and many other examples. The fundamental weakness of left reformism, as Lenin emphasized in The State and Revolution, is its fudging of the need to smash the capitalist state as opposed to taking it over. As a consequence left reformist governments are either captured by the capitalist state or destroyed by it.

The necessity of an independent organization of revolutionaries – the hallmark of Bolshevism and much discussed in this book – to secure the victory of the revolution was hard won. Great revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and Trotsky fully grasped it only on the basis of the experience of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In the case of Luxemburg it is arguable that she paid with her life for not realizing it earlier; for Trotsky it was the main lesson of the success in October 1917 and the failure of the revolution in Germany in 1923. He wrote in The Lessons of October in 1924:  

Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade…We have paid far too dearly for this conclusion -- with regard to the role and importance of a party in a proletarian revolution -- to renounce it so lightly or even to minimize its significance.

Clearly I subscribed to this view when I wrote this book. The question is have any of the numerous changes and developments of the intervening years served to invalidate this conclusion today. In my view absolutely not and, regardless of the prevailing ‘mood’ or sentiment, I believe that it will be confirmed in the struggles that lie ahead. Therefore, given the immense crisis facing humanity, it is essential that the difficult task of building mass revolutionary workers parties be persisted with.  

John Molyneux, 22 January, 2013

[1] See the discussion of some of these problems in John Molyneux, ‘On Party Democracy,’ International Socialism 124, (2009).

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Radical America online archive

Radical America was a product of the campus-based New Left of the late 1960s, specifically the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but the magazine long outlived its seedbed. Its trajectory shows something about the effort to place an intellectual stamp on the radical impulses of the late twentieth century... There is some very very cool stuff buried away in there...

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Brian Kelly on the limitations of Spielberg's Lincoln

 Spielberg and Kushner marshal all the human and technical resources and cinematic expertise at Hollywood’s disposal in producing an elegantly rendered film.  Daniel Day-Lewis gives us an Abraham Lincoln that combines the wily, unaffected “plain folk” demeanour for which he was known and the intense brooding and deep pathos that marked his term in office. He is brilliantly supported by Sally Fields and Tommie Lee Jones in their roles as Mary Todd Lincoln and the Radical Republican tribune Thaddeus Stevens. Together the lowlight camerawork and precise attention to detail give the film a mid-nineteenth century, gas-lamp ambience, a sepia texture like glass-plate photographs. Some key scenes come off affected and overdone, but technically speaking Lincoln is a well-crafted and compelling film. 

It doesn’t do nearly as well, however, in offering viewers a nuanced portrait of the living Lincoln. This is a man who evolved under the pressure of events and the wider, revolutionary context from a middle-of-the-road lawyer and stump politician into his role as emancipator in a profound social upheaval. Against the current of much of the “new” history of emancipation—which acknowledges the centrality of slave self-activity to the war’s outcome—Spielberg’s Lincoln pushes slaves and northern free blacks to the very margins of the story, sailing close to an older and once dominant view of emancipation as an act of Yankee benevolence. In what amounts to a snapshot of high politics over a couple of weeks in late 1864 and 1865, the crucial relationship between the slaves’ desperate, persistent drive for freedom and the changing military conduct of the war is left on the cutting room floor...

Abraham Lincoln was a tentative revolutionary in a revolution aimed at consolidating bourgeois democracy in the face of an anti-democratic, slave owning ruling class willing to risk all for its survival. He was compelled by the force of events around him—and against his own inclinations—to lay his hand on the “thunderbolt of slavery” to win a desperate and otherwise unwinnable war.
However slow in coming round, ultimately Lincoln rose to the challenge, consummating the triumph of the American bourgeoisie over a regressive social order. But it was a triumph first conceived by slaves and their allies, and bought with the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers.

Read the full review here, and see also Kevin Anderson on Lincoln and Ken Olende on Tarantino's Django Unchained

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Rediscovered play by C.L.R. James published

With black history on the British school curriculum now under threat from the Tories as never before, the appearance of a critical edition of the great Trinidadian writer and historian C. L. R. James’s play about the Haitian Revolution Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history (out now with Duke University Press) is most timely. The remarkable play, written by James in 1934, was performed at London’s Westminster Theatre in 1936 with Paul Robeson in the title role - and stands as not only possibly the finest anti-imperialist play to make it onto the British stage in the inter-war period but the first time black professional actors starred on the British stage in a play by a black playwright. Toussaint Louverture represents a piece of revolutionary literature in its own right, indeed it is the lost literary companion volume to The Black Jacobins, James's classic 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution. The original playscript has never before been published, as it was widely presumed lost, and and so this is the last major piece of James's writing never before published. This special edition includes the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, and launches the new C.L.R. James Archives series with Duke University Press.

Endorsements / Reviews

 "The text of this nearly forgotten drama, succinctly introduced to today's readers with a valuable set of accompanying essays, is an invaluable contribution to Pan-African studies and our understanding of 'the Black Plato' as a remarkably talented playwright. C. L. R. James readers, and not only those of The Black Jacobins, will rejoice."
Paul Buhle, authorized biographer, author of C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary

"Long legendary throughout the diaspora, the first version of C. L. R. James's play about Toussaint Louverture finally emerges from the archives. This play is the production that united James with his friend Paul Robeson on the London stage. It was an extraordinary event at the time—witness the contemporary reviews added to this publication—and it is no less extraordinary today. In addition to reviews, this edition also reprints valuable early statements from James and Robeson. It is a singular, one might even say Olympian, volume with much to teach us all."
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, author of C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction and Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation

"The most famous account of the Haitian Revolution is, of course, CLR James’s 1938 history The Black Jacobins. But before he composed his dramatic history of revolution, James rendered the revolution as historical drama. His play was written in 1934, staged in 1936 at London’s Westminister Theatre – with Paul Robeson starring – and lost until a draft was rediscovered in 2005..."
 The Public Archive,'Radical Black Reading / Reading Haiti 2012'

''[T]horoughly researched and intelligently prepared....Toussaint Louverture is easily one of the two or three most important publications of C.L.R. James’s work in decades... now that the playscript is in print, it seems time for someone to rise to the challenge of putting it on the boards, or on the screen"
Scott McLemee, 'Revolution on Stage', Inside Higher Ed

''One need only read the table of contents to see that you have much more than a play here. It includes reviews and other critical information that deepens your appreciation of the play. This is an example how a chance discovery of a lost manuscript can be turned into something that opens the door to a relevant world. This play is a must-read for anyone who has read and loved The Black Jacobins as you can see much of the lyricism of that great work prefigured in its lines ... As long as the world wilts with oppression, is awash with crisis, and punctuated by resistance this play, its subject matter, and now this book, will have to be read, watched and pondered on over and over again.''
Gaverne Bennett, London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter

"James manages to tell the whole story of the struggle in all its twists and turns as Louverture steps his way through all the imperial trip wires until the fatal error where he trusts too much in French civilisation.  It focuses on dialogue between a small number of people on stage. As a play, the offstage revolutionary upheaval has to be described, not witnessed. Reading the script, the possibility of it being the bedrock of a screen adaptation is enticing.  Louverture’s story on the big screen, showing the heroism of the Haitian masses, would be a brilliant corrective to the Barack Obama-driven, post-racism narrative."
The play was only performed on a handful of occasions, but met with critical applause. James manages to tell the whole story of the struggle in all its twists and turns as Louverture steps his way through all the imperial trip wires until the fatal error where he trusts too much in French civilisation.
It focuses on dialogue between a small number of people on stage. As a play, the offstage revolutionary upheaval has to be described, not witnessed. Reading the script, the possibility of it being the bedrock of a screen adaptation is enticing.
Louverture’s story on the big screen, showing the heroism of the Haitian masses, would be a brilliant corrective to the Barack Obama-driven, post-racism narrative.
- See more at: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54593#sthash.Zck4Dh7r.3qo9rfix.dpuf
The play was only performed on a handful of occasions, but met with critical applause. James manages to tell the whole story of the struggle in all its twists and turns as Louverture steps his way through all the imperial trip wires until the fatal error where he trusts too much in French civilisation.
It focuses on dialogue between a small number of people on stage. As a play, the offstage revolutionary upheaval has to be described, not witnessed. Reading the script, the possibility of it being the bedrock of a screen adaptation is enticing.
Louverture’s story on the big screen, showing the heroism of the Haitian masses, would be a brilliant corrective to the Barack Obama-driven, post-racism narrative.
- See more at: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54593#sthash.Zck4Dh7r.3qo9rfix.dpuf
Barry Miles, 'Toussaint Louverture brought to life in play, book', Green Left Weekly

''The many people interested in James, and the many admirers in particular of his The Black Jacobins, will welcome this first publication of his 1934 play''
Rickey Singh, 'C.L.R. James and Toussaint', Trinidad Express, 30 July 2014.

Edited to add: See this discussion of the play in sx salon 16 (May 2014)
Toussaint Louverture brought to life in play

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shut Down the fascist Golden Dawn

When the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece first made its electoral breakthrough last year, the organisation seemed like a bad joke from  the film Die Hard.  Since then, the reality of what happens when fascists have the confidence to openly organise on the streets has become apparent in Greece, with racist attacks against migrant workers and violent intimidation of anti-capitalist and anti-racist activists.  This Saturday, it looks as if the message that 'Enough is Enough' will finally resonate loud and clear as Athens is going to see the biggest mass united anti-fascist mobilisation to date - with thousands marching.  As Javied Aslam, president of the Union of Immigrant Workers and chair of the Pakistani Community of Greece puts it, 'Athens will be full of marchers. This will break people’s fear'.  Those in the UK who can should join the global protests in solidarity with Greek anti-fascists set for Saturday 19 January.

Unite Against Fascism has called demonstrations at the Greek embassy in London and other cities.
  • London 12 noon, 1A Holland Park, Notting Hill, London W11 3TP (nearest tube Holland Park)
  • Bristol 2pm, The Fountains, Central Promenade, BS1 4XG
  • Edinburgh 12 noon, The Mound, in front of the National Gallery EH1 2LU
  • Glasgow 12 noon, Buchanan Street (corner of Gordon Street) G1 3HA
  • Leeds 12 noon, Briggate, LS1

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lenin's Tomb 'in urgent need of repair'

Lenin's Tomb - first a tragedy, now a farce.  Poor old Lenin, having to suffer the indignity of association with something that has recently shown signs of deteriorating rapidly as a result of a leak and now resembles a big white elephant.  

Lenin's Tomb is currently in bad need of repairs following a leak, and may need to be closed soon for the foreseeable future.  The body may well remain inside while renovations take place. 

Recently experts have been investigating the condition of the famed Tomb. The examination revealed that some parts of the Tomb have begun to deteriorate, leading to leaks.  According to one report,  'the state of the Tomb is deteriorating continuously' and 'the foundations are cracked'. Expert analysis of the Tomb came to the conclusion that 'the urgent resolution of two problems is required: to repair the foundations and to staunch the flow' of leaks.  'According to a Chief Architect, the main task at present is to halt the sinking'.

Legions of people once regularly visited Lenin's Tomb, but now it is mostly visited by curious tourists, and one local resident said it has 'become a tourist attraction in my opinion'.    
A growing number of people have said Lenin's Tomb should be done away with. A recent poll by an independent polling institute showed 40 percent of people in favour of this.

Monday, January 14, 2013

(Still) The Enemy Within: a film about the Great Miners' Strike

To help support this important film project see here

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

International Socialism # 137

Internationalism seems to be the theme of the new ISJ (full contents here), with Phil Marfleet writing on the latest stages of the Egyptian Revolution, an interview with Pete Alexander about the Marikana massacre of mineworkers in the new neo-liberal ANC led South Africa, Mike Gonzalez on politics in Latin America which once again hang in the balance given Chavez's illness, as well as other pieces including Jane Hardy on 'new divisions of labour in the global economy. There are also other treats, including Alex Callinicos's review of Neil Davidson's epic work on bourgeois revolution, a piece on how the German Left failed to stop the rise of Hitler's Nazis to power 80 years ago this month, as well as Ian Birchall on Ed Miliband's new hero, the 'One Nation' Tory Benjamin Disraeli.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

New book on Marikana

MARIKANA: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer

by Peter Alexander, Luke Sinwell, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope and Bongani Xezwi

The Marikana Massacre in August 2012 involved the largest number of killings of South African civilians by the security forces since the end of apartheid.  Those killed were mineworkers who were on strike for a living wage and were simply demanding the right to speak with their employer when the police attacked.

The core of Marikana is a series of interviews conducted with workers who were present at the massacre. In addition, the book includes a narrative of the strike and the massacre, written from the perspective of the strikers; an analysis of context and political significance; and a list of all those who died at Marikana. The book also includes 5 maps and 14 photos.

"The book is an attempt to provide a bottom‐up account of the Marikana story, to correct an imbalance in many official and media accounts that privilege the viewpoints of governments and business, at the expense of workers.”
Prof Jane Duncan
, Highway African Chair of Media and Information Society, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

“The Marikana massacre marked a watershed in the history of South Africa since the end of apartheid. In what may prove a classic work of engaged scholarship, this book helps the strikers themselves speak and be heard.”
Alex Callinicos, Professor of European Studies, King's College London
“No amount of capitalist brutality will deter our cause for a living wage. Workers should read this book about the struggle at Marikana.”
Joseph Mathunjwa
, President, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union
Available from Bookmarks - see here

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