Monday, 30 September 2013

Comment: In defence of our history

(From LSHG Newsletter # 50, Autumn 2013)

In January Owen Jones published an article in which he sharply criticised those “obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago” and claimed that “the era of Leninist party building surely ended a long time ago.”

There was a rapid rebuttal from Alex Callinicos in Socialist Review, which denounced the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas” and argued that “genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal”.

Callinicos’s article provoked widespread comment, notably from John Riddell, who deployed formidable erudition in his account of how “democratic centralism” functioned in the early Comintern.

This is not the place to discuss those debates, and certainly not the circumstances that gave rise to them. But as socialist historians, we should be particularly concerned by one theme underlying these discussions, the question of how the study of history relates to political practice.

The argument against history is well known, summed up in Henry Ford’s famous remark 

“History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today.” 
[Chicago Tribune, 1916]. 

Owen Jones and his mates in the Labour Party would probably go along with this. It is popular with university managements, like those at Middlesex and London Met, which have closed history departments. (Middlesex, which broke its links with the past in 2006, is now running a course for Asda managers, which consists of just twelve days of classroom study in three years, plus online studies and work-based assessment.

For the left such arguments have a superficial attractiveness. Surely we should start from the concrete realities of our own time, not with memories of the past. The attitude is summed up in George Galloway’s famous recommendation that we should “stop talking about dead Russians”.

A recent manifestation is the claim that the internet, and such phenomena as Facebook and Twitter, have changed everything and opened up a totally new style of political activity.

In my view such rejections of history should be forcefully countered. To begin with there is a simple logical objection. This rejection of history, this claim that our world, in Yeats’s words, is “all changed, changed utterly”, is itself a historical judgement. To make any serious assessment of what exactly has been changed by the internet, we need to look at the history of forms of communication from the blank semaphore telegraph of the 1790s, which so excited Babeuf and his comrades, through the electric telegraph, radio and television to the internet. Only such a historical analysis can provide a basis for a proper analysis of change and continuity.

It is well-known that in revolutions those taking part frequently draw on models from the past. The French revolutionaries of 1789 saw themselves as re-enacting the Roman Republic. The Chartists often thought in terms of remaking the French Revolution. And in the Russian Revolution there was frequent reference back to 1789 and to the Paris Commune. Thus in his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky reminds us that the Bolsheviks, in seizing the State Bank, were very much aware of the precedent of the Paris Commune:

'Almost simultaneously with the seizure of the Telephone Exchange a detachment of sailors from the Marine Guard, about forty strong, seized the building of the State Bank on the Ekaterininsky Canal. …. The seizure of the bank had to some extent a symbolic importance. The cadres of the party had been brought up on the Marxian criticism of the Paris Commune of 1871, whose leaders, as is well known, did not venture to lay hands on the State Bank. ‘No we will not make that mistake,’ many Bolsheviks had been saying to themselves long before October 25. News of the seizure of the most sacred institution of the bourgeois state swiftly spread through the districts, raising a warm wave of joy.'

Such retrospective identification was not always helpful. The confused debate about the Soviet Thermidor in the 1920s is a case in point. But it was inevitable. When human beings are engaged in radically remaking the world, they can only conceive what they are doing either in terms of pure imagination (like the Utopian socialists), or in terms of what has been done in the past. A proper understanding of the originality of a revolution’s achievements can only be achieved after the event.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx noted the way in which revolutionaries constantly turn to the past:

'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.'

But he thought that the proletarian revolution could break with such backward-looking practices: 

'The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.'

Undoubtedly Marx was over-optimistic about the prospects for socialist revolution in the nineteenth century, and hence underestimated the extent to which those involved in making socialist revolutions would need to learn from the past. The younger Alex Callinicos, not so weighed down with the burden of defending the Marxist “tradition”, made some interesting comments on these passages by Marx, considered together with Sartre, Benjamin and others. He observed that 

'historical materialism does not simply transcribe the pattern of past struggles passively. It seeks to assimilate these experiences of these struggles critically and reflectively. Only such an appropriation of the past can produce historical knowledge ‘whose pulse’, in Benjamin’s words, ‘can still be felt in the present’. For the point of remembering past victories and defeats is to learn from them and to put their lessons to work in the future.'
 (A Callinicos, Making History, Chicago, 2009, p. 264. The book was first published in 1987, and planned before the miners’ strike of 1984-85.)

The study of history is also relevant to a major problem in Marxist theory. The philosopher Georg Lukács put forward the concept of “imputed consciousness”, that is, the consciousness of which the working class is potentially capable, rather than that which it has at any particular point in time:

'By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. …. Now class consciousness consists in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ (zugerechnet) to a particular typical position in the process of production. This consciousness is, therefore, neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class. And yet the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual - and these actions can be understood only by reference to this consciousness.'
(G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London, 1971, p 51.)

Now this notion of “imputed consciousness” is both essential and problematic for Marxism. Essential, because unless it can be shown that the working class is capable of a radically different consciousness than that which it has at present, then any hope of the self-emancipation of the proletariat is vain. Yet problematic because of the vexed question of who does the “imputing”. Is there some elite vanguard that knows better than the working class itself what the class should be thinking? 

The educator must be educated, but who imputes the imputer? The only way out of this dilemma is to show what the working class is potentially capable of by study of what it has achieved in the past. If we’re asked how we know that the working class could run society for itself, the only answer that is both intellectually sound and plausible in debate is one that cites the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets, Budapest 1956, Nantes 1968 and Portugal 1975. The left needs more historians and fewer philosophers.

Of course all the experiences referred to are partial. The working class has never held on to power for very long. But that is a problem that lies at the very heart of the historical process. There are no guarantees; the future is socialism or barbarism, successful revolution or “the common ruin of the contending classes”. And it was the period of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath that showed the highest level of working-class struggle yet known to human history. The successful proletarian revolution in Russia was followed by a wave of strikes, mutinies and the formation of workers’ councils throughout Europe. Germany came to the very brink of revolution, while Italy, France, Spain and Britain also saw massive struggles. The formation of the Communist International brought together various currents of the left and offered hope to millions of workers that there would be no return to the system that had produced the catastrophic World War. That’s why, doubtless to Owen Jones’s great chagrin, some of us will go on talking about Lenin and other dead Russians for some time to come.

At present we face the challenge of Michael Gove trying to manipulate the teaching of history in the interests of the social order he defends. Teachers and indeed all of us should fight Gove’s plans. But we should be clear that no government will provide the kind of historical education we need. The left needs to assume its responsibility for the historical study, research and popularisation that is central to its project. We need more bodies like the London Socialist Historians Group. The recent Matchwomen’s Festival at the Bishopsgate Institute showed what can be done with imagination and a non-sectarian approach. The historical process includes the future as well as the past, and without history we have no future.

Ian Birchall

Book Review: Grand narratives


A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals

by Neil Faulkner
Pluto Press 2013 352pp
ISBN 9780745332147

Marxism looks at historical grand narratives and the sweep of history (although not only that obviously) and Marx in the Communist Manifesto ventured on a brief summary.
Since then a handful of books in the English language (there are others beyond the scope of this review) have attempted to summarise the broad range of history from a Marxist perspective.
Probably the best known is A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938) which is still worth a read today. Morton was a member of the Communist Party Historians Group. More recently the late Chris Harman has produced a similar volume (A People’s History of the World) but extended its scope world-wide.
Neil Faulkner keeps the world wide scope but has aimed to produce a Marxist rather than a people’s history. The difference may be subtle but perhaps revolves around a popular history of struggle on the one hand and one that seeks to make more overtly political points in terms of indicating a strategy for today on the other.
Faulkner’s book comes from a regular piece he wrote for the Counterfire website so each chapter can be seen as an individual entry, rather than the book being written in more traditional format. However, as the author notes, the original blog entries have been re-worked and regrouped so the book can be read in its entirety or as a series of historical episodes.
The author, of course, follows an historical trajectory from ancient - his particular area - to modern and admits in the introduction to certain biases, primarily euro- and perhaps even anglo-centrism. These can be forgiven since no one, the author included, is saying that the volume is the last word on things.
Readers may have their disagreements with this or that characterisation made by Faulkner. I’m not clear why he uses the word ‘decay’ to reflect the defeat of revolution in Russia once Stalinism got a grip for example (p221). However, that kind of discussion is for the back rooms of pubs or corners of coffee bars.
In general Faulkner gives a well informed and well written whistle stop tour of the history of the world from a Marxist perspective exactly as the book’s title indicates. It may be that in the balance between the impact of material forces and the ability of ordinary people to change the world despite this, that the book errs a little more to the latter than might be historically justified.
However, its sense of the historical process remains in my view excellent. For example a short piece on ‘how history works’ raises the important point of the relationship between core and periphery with an understanding that change often starts first at the margins.
There are one or two more serious criticisms. It may just have been the fact that the book was constructed from web entries, but it does rather skate over the issue of women’s fight for equality and liberation.
It is strong on issues like imperialism, war and racism, as it should be, but again perhaps rather less good on more mundane but over time as important matters such as the fight for adult suffrage, civil rights and so on.
To give the reader a more general sense of where Faulkner comes from in the book I couldn’t spot any characterisation of a Marxist historian like E.P. Thompson or a Marxist historical debate that is not well within the bounds of existing orthodoxies.
In other words, and in many ways quite rightly, Faulkner’s concern here is getting across the pattern of the historical grand narrative rather than pursuing potentially ground breaking but controversial historiographical points.
As a book to read along with A.L. Morton’s and Chris Harman’s it is certainly a worthwhile volume

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter # 50 (Autumn 2013)

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Remembering the 1913 Dublin Lockout

From LSHG Newsletter, # 50 (Autumn 2013)
A starting point is with the Chartists who were active three-quarters of a century before the Lock-Out. Those who are active socialists and trade unionists will know that organisation and solidarity take a long time to build and are not easily disrupted once they have been. When Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon ran two of the UK’s largest unions in the 1970s, the transport workers and engineers respectively, it was the end result of work they and others had been engaged in since the 1930s.

A central feature and issue of the Dublin lock-out was the links between those involved and trade unionists and radicals on the UK mainland. Solidarity and how it was provided was both central and essential.

The solidarity of 1913 had a considerable background to it then. The links between British radicals and Irish nationalists went back to the early years of the nineteenth century, although they were disrupted when O’Connell lent towards backing Whig administrations in the 1830s. Chartism did not get a significant foothold in Ireland but that doesn’t mean there weren’t links.

As we know, not least from Engels’ less than happy comments, there was a significant Irish population in the UK in the 1840s and indeed afterwards. Some, no doubt, were being exploited as cheap labour. Others were leading the fight for better conditions for workers — for example the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, who had earlier sat as an Irish MP, or James Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the Poor Man’s Guardian whose, followers sat on the First International with Marx.

The links between Irish radicals and Chartists were particularly strong the summer of 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe. Revolution was attempted in Ireland and in August 1848 in London too. Indeed the last attempt at an armed rising on English soil took place just five minutes from Red Lion Square on 16th August 1848 at Seven Dials. In the 1850s the Murphy Riots, essentially anti-Irish, reflected a current of reaction and racism in the working class. However the general pattern for the fifty years before 1913 was of political and trade union support for Fenianism and pressure for Irish Home Rule. The Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 13th November 1887 had as one of its foci Ireland, and the repression of Irish radicals. It was organised by the SDF and the Irish National League. A little later James Connolly was a member of the successor BSP.

Just before the Lock-Out, during the Great Unrest in July and November 1911, Tom Mann had visited Ireland, met Larkin and Connolly and underlined the significance of the formation of the Irish TGWU. It’s worth remembering that this tradition of links and solidarity exists, but of course that is just a starting point. It is a period of anniversaries in Ireland, focusing perhaps particularly on 1916, and some while back the Financial Times reported that the Irish and British Governments had set up a special committee of historians to keep an eye on commemorations and, one takes it, make sure that nothing too awkward that required or provoked action in the here and now comes up. It is not too clear what this committee is doing, but one possible outcrop appeared recently in the Guardian.

Colm Tóibín wrote a column complaining of plans by the Irish Government to remove history as a compulsory subject in the Irish school curriculum. Quite rightly this is causing protest and it is a reminder that whatever we think about Gove’s tinkering with the British history syllabus at least he does think it is worth amending and teaching. So far so good. However Tóibín goes on to argue, in respect of things like the 1913 anniversary, that we really don’t need historical grand narratives [or bigpictures] anymore and that people are fed up with bad politicians and historians using heavily partial versions of history to score points in the current day.

Here Tóibín has half a point. He is right that while history should be used to provide context to current events and to make sure questions are asked it is not something which should guide practical political agendas. History properly researched has too many nuances and ‘what if’ type points to lend itself to such a strictly practical application.

Toibin is not right about grand narratives. We do need history to try and make at least some general sense of the past, otherwise it can appear as a series of unconnected and sometimes disputed ‘facts’ that tells us nothing at all. What does this mean when it comes to remembering 1913?

It probably means that simply sloganizing that the TUC sold out Irish workers, or that James Connolly or Jim Larkin was right or wrong about this or that point, while it may have a political purpose, is not really useful history.

The more interesting historical points and agendas revolve around how solidarity was organised and by whom, what the politics and the political balance of TUC decisions on this subject were, the possibility of organising low skilled workers with little previous union tradition, the impact of state repression and violence and the longer term legacy of 1913 on labour movements both in Ireland and elsewhere in the world, perhaps particularly the US more than the UK.

1913 is to some extent a world we have if not lost, then have half-forgotten in labour history and labour movement terms. A peak of British imperial power just before the First World War, a reflection of the great unrest from 1910/11, when questions of union organisation and political representation were not settled, and strategies remained to be tested in practice. The 100th anniversary of the Dublin Lock-Out is a good time to remember it.

Keith Flett

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Introductory Training Workshop in Marxist Political Economy

IIPPE Introductory Training Workshop in Marxist Political Economy


Following the success of previous Training Workshops, the International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy will run a one-day introductory training workshop in Marxist Political Economy on 6 November 2013 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, the day before the start of the annual Historical Materialism Conference (also at SOAS). We are seeking an audience of engaged participants, including undergraduate, postgraduate students, junior academics and activists, who have a particular interest in acquainting themselves with the basic principles of Marxian political economy. As this is an introductory workshop, it will assume no prior knowledge and will be led by Simon Mohun and Alfredo Saad-Filho. If you wish to attend the workshop, please send your name and occupation to Elisa Van Waeyenberge <<>> before 15th of October 2013.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

'We Will Be Free!' The Tolpuddle Martyrs Story


'WE WILL BE FREE!' The Tolpuddle Martyrs Story

Now touring the UK -  including as part of the Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon festival

13th October 2013- Tristan Bates Theatre, LONDON
Time: 7.30 pm
Tickets: £10.00 /£8.00 
Box Office: 0207 240 6283

Reviews Edinburgh 2013
Liz Eves nominated for best actress by The Stage 
  1. MUST SEE The Stage
    ★★★★★ Edinburgh Reporter “Very much a play to appeal to all ages”
    ★★★★★ Excellent new play on the Tolpuddle Martyrs is a five-star triumph'
    ★★★★ Fest “it's a charming, family-friendly piece that presents an important bit of history inventively and enjoyably.”
    The List ‘This utterly charming play is a delight’
    All Edinburgh Theatre ‘Magnificent entertainment’ 
    'Small but perfectly formed' Northern Echo