Saturday, February 26, 2005

From the horse's mouth

Venezuelan trade unionist Ricardo Galindez recently spoke to a meeting in Cambridge (the university town in the UK, not the posh little place with the neat watertower near Hamilton) about the political situation in Venezuela and workers' control in the paper, sugar and oil industries (see the Q and A section, at the end). Fascinating stuff - read it here.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Arguing about EP Thompson

Stefan Collini's long article about English historian and political activist EP Thompson in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement has raised some readers' eyebrows, and prompted at least a couple of sharp letters to the editor. Reproduced below is my epistle, which is, I'm sure, far too long for publication. I've given it hyperlinks, to help explain some of the references.

Times Literary Supplement

To The Editor:

In his article ‘Moralist At Work’, Stefan Collini offers a Janus-faced ‘reappraisal’ of EP Thompson. For Collini, the Making of the English Working Class is an ‘acknowledged classic’ but it ‘cannot now be described as influential’; Thompson’s condemnations of the industrial revolution exposed a ‘great, raw wrong’, but now have ‘a dated air’; and Thompson’s ‘tireless devotion to the cause of peace’ and ‘direct and heartfelt political polemics’ are admirable, but ‘less relevant’ today.

Collini wants to dispose of Thompson as a historiographer and political thinker, and laud him instead as a ‘cultural critic’, a man whose work is characterised by moral fervour and Romantic imagination, but not by a great deal of analytic acuity.
Collini suggests that Thompson was always more of a‘man of letters’ than a historian, pointing out that he lasted only seven years at Warwick University Ltd. But it was Thompson’s deep knowledge of literature and his openness to the influence of Leavisian literary criticism which made The Making of the English Working Class a great work of history. The Making’s Leavisian blend of close reading and sweeping polemic – its fluent movements from the general to the particular and back - helped break the dour, ultra-empiricist mould of orthodox British history and inaugurate the‘literary turn’ which has so enriched the discipline in recent decades.

Collini reads the historiographical positions in The Making as the eloquent but inevitably inaccurate results of Thompson’s experiences as a young communist soldier in the 1940s, and of the long years he spent after the war as a Workers’ Education Association tutor in Yorkshire, amongst what was supposedly a militant pocket of an ‘old’ industrial working class facing imminent extinction. Thompson’s exceptional experiences in the 1940s and '50s are supposed to have combined with his powers of imagination to produce abook which idealises what it cannot analyse.

For Thompson, though, the ‘heroic years’ of the ‘people’s war against fascism’ could not be so easily conflated with the ‘Natopolitan’ era that announced itself with the pyrrhic victory of Yalta and the frosts of the Cold War. Again and again, Thompson’s 1950s writings denounce the apathy and economism of a population anaesthetised by a mass consumer culture paid for by loans from the United States. Andy Croft and others have shown that Thompson the WEA tutor frequently felt frustrated by his students’ lack of interest in working classhistory and socialism, let alone the poems of Blake and Wordsworth. The Making was originally conceived as a textbook, an effort to reawaken an apathetic working class’s sense of its own glorious past.

Collini tries to bolster his case againstThompson-as-historian by quoting Perry Anderson's description of the histories as ‘great works of literature’. Collini believes that these words are ‘significant’, given the ‘sharpness of exchanges’ between Thompson and Anderson. More significant, perhaps, are Anderson’s numerous tributes toThompson’s skills as a historian. Anderson’s only really sharp criticism of Thompson – his 1966 reply to‘The Peculiarities of the English’ – gets its rhetorical charge from the perception of an 'astonishing contrast’ between Thompson’s achievements as a historian and his deficiencies as a political strategist.

Having disposed of Thompson-the-historian, Collini works at discrediting the man’s political thought. Apparently the end of the Cold War, the ‘continued shrinking of manufacturing industry’, the end of ‘abuses’ by too-powerful trade unions, and ‘greatly enhanced prosperity’ have combined to date the political vision of books like The Making and Writing By Candlelight. But one of the preconditions for the‘prosperity’ globalisation has brought to Thompson’s old stomping grounds has been the outsourcing of industry to Third World nations like China and India - nations where The Making of the English Working Class is read for its insights into class struggle, not as a work of Romantic imagination. Collini refers to the extraordinary influence that The Making’s preface has enjoyed, but he seems to have forgotten the same text's insistence that 'the greater part of the world' is ‘still undergoing problems of industrialisation’, and that ‘causes which were lost England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won’. Collini’s dismissive attitude to Thompson’s persistent warnings about the fragility of peace and civil liberties in the late twentieth century is less than credible. In an era of pre-emptive invasions and detention without trial, books like Writing By Candlelight and The Heavy Dancers seem prophetic, not obsolete. The million or so Britons who filled central London in February 2003 were heirs to the two generations of peace protesters that Thompson’s words helped mobilise.

But Collini is determined to disregard Thompson the historiographer and Thompson the political theorist – instead, a place has been cleared in the canon for a‘cultural critic’, part of a tradition that runs ‘from Blake and Cobbett through Ruskin and Morris to Tawney and Leavis’. Thompson would not, of course, scorn such company. He would, however, object to the patronising attitude Collini shows towards his line of‘cultural critics’. In Collini’s conception, Morris, Tawney et al are purveyors of a vague, utopian, and rather ineffectual critique of ‘a whole civilisation’. When Collini invokes Thompson's study of Morris he ignores what John Goode has called the ‘ungainly quality’ of Morris’s life and work. The hostile response to Thompson’s study when it first appeared, at the height of the Cold War, was due to its highlighting of Morris’s rejection of a merely cultural opposition to‘civilisation’. Morris disavowed the simple oppositions of culture and industry, imagination and economics, and developed instead a detailed and sophisticated Marxist analysis of the world about him. Throughout his adult life, Thompson was no less ‘ungainly’ than his hero.

Collini will have none of this: for him, Thompson’s relevance as a ‘cultural critic’ is predicated upon his failure as a historiographer and political thinker. Thompson the ‘cultural critic’ seems to Collini a valuably ‘exotic’ commodity in an era of‘triumphal neoliberal capitalism’, an ‘important’ if impotent ‘reminder’ of a more humane set of values. Now that he is no longer considered a threat to the academy, and now that the left-wing ‘abuses’ he supported have (in Britain at least) been curtailed, Thompson is to be allowed a half-life as a sort of jester in the court of the intellectual establishment he always detested. Thompson is not around to refuse Collini’s offer; those of us who value his real achievements should refuse on his behalf, as he once refused on William Morris’s behalf.

Yours Sincerely,
Scott Hamilton,
PhD student
Sociology Department
University of Auckland

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Arms and paper for the people?

I blogged recently about Venezuela's decision to buy 100,000 AK 47s from Russia, a move that drew the ire of the United States government, which claimed that Venezuela's regular and reserve army have a combined total of less than 60,000 troops. Now has an article which gives us a clue about the possible uses of the guns - you can read it here.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has announced the form that workers' control, or worker-government control, of the recently-expropriated Venepal paper factory will take. The expropriation of Venepal, which has been renamed Invepal, involved not just the plant in the town of Moron but 5,600 hectares of land in 4 states.

Hugo Chavez relates the reorganisation of Venepal/Invepal to his new strategy of 'endogenous development', which describes as:

"Economic and social development prioritizing the collective benefits of industry and productionand focuses on local specificities in development planning.

According togovernment literature, endogenous development is based on “cooperative and humanistic” logic, as opposed to the capitalistic individualism of the global economy...

Invepal is to act as a “pole” of endogenous development in Venezuela’sNorth-East, a long-time manufacturing center. The government is alsolooking into building a plastic parts factory to produce for the automobileindustry, as part of a joint-venture with Iranian companies, and soap andfertilizer factories to supply the domestic economy.The government is simultaneously working on a plan to bring all basicindustry into the state-run endogenous development model.

The mining and processing center in the country’s South-Eastern state of Bolívar looks tobecome a similar “pole” of co-managed state run enterprises. According topreliminary reports, Basic Industry Minister Victor Alvarez plans to beginwith the Aluminum processing plant Alcasa, much as the North-Eastern pole is being launched with Invepal."

Read the whole article here.

Monday, February 21, 2005

If George Bush pisses you off...

The Flemish Socialist Party has just the product for you - 'stickers' you can place in urinals, bearing the august features of the global village's global idiot...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Class struggle in the Venezuelan countryside

Alan Woods has a new article on attempts to reform land ownership in the Venezuelan countryside, and the bitter resistance of big landowners to peasant militants.

Perhaps the most important part of Woods' article is the information it gives about the recent conference of Venezuelan peasants in Tucari:

"On February 5th and 6th took place in Tucari the ‘Peasant Conference in Defense of National Sovereignty and for the Agrarian Revolution,’ sponsored by the Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora.

“Nearly 100 delegates met at the Berbere Cooperative, which is a collective farm run by largely Black farmers.

“Though there was universal support for President Hugo Chavez, the Agrarian Reform Law was severely attacked as it allows only lands over 5000 hectares to be expropriated and these lands need to be uncultivated to be covered by the law. The peasants criticized the Agrarian Reform Institute, which they claimed was so slow and bureaucratic that owners of latifundios would cut down whole forests off the land while the Agrarian Reform Institute made up its mind. Also many had received defective seed from the Institute. Many peasants who have taken lands directly have complained local judges are on the side of the landowners and have had local police drive them off the land [...]

“The conference discussed the need for armed self-defence as well as the possibility of guerrilla warfare if there is a U.S. invasion. They defended the need to build collective farms rather than dividing up the land. There was discussion on the need for accounting and discipline with those who refuse to work. The Conference agreed to set up a school on the Berbere farm to teach collective agriculture.

“The peasants discussed blocking the Panamerican Highway to get their demands. The only discordant note was from the local Mayor who told the peasants to have more patience and that the law was like a ‘father who makes rules for his child’. Her proposal for patience for solidly rejected. Many peasants stated they felt a ‘revolution within the revolution’ was necessary to have genuine People’s Power (Poder Popular.)”

Read the whole of Woods' article here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Open Source Scholarship?

Heard of the Centre for Co-operative Research? Me neither, until today. Here's what the Historiological Notes blogsite has to say about the project:

I came across 'open source historiography' in this morning's on-line read. Paul Thompson: One man can change the world tell the story about Paul Thompson who started to collect information about terrorist attacks after 9/11. After doing this in his spare time, he now collects information on Center for Cooperative Research where others are free to comment upon and correct the information published.

Is this 'open source historiography'? To define something as historiography I believe you need an author. In this case the author seem to be of less importance than the facts - and this might be the right priority. I would instead like to call this 'open source archivism' after the eighteenth and nineteenth century variety of historiography that believed in collecting as much facts about the past as possible to then give a correct picture of the world.

The history of terrorism is not at all within my range of knowledge, but it is interesting that a historical event as 9/11 creates new ways of historical research. We have always been interested in learning from the past, and I suppose this 'open source historiography' at the Center for Cooperative Research want to explain 9/11 and other terrorist acts.

I am quite sure there are many examples of new historiographical methodologies that have developed after a big historical event. What was brought to my mind, however, is how Begriffsgeschichte, which is a very intellectual form of historiography, came into being as a way of explaining how the German vocabulary developed a National Socialist society. Begriffsgeschichte is now useful in explaining all sorts of societal change, but the wish to explain the awful German story of the Second World War was its beginning.

Begriffsgeschichte was influenced by the linguistic philosophy - quite a novel take in the 1950s and 1960s. 'Open source historiography' is of course a melting of contemporary developments in software improvement and political science. Perhaps it is just a 9/11-fad, but it might develop into other fields of historical research.

'Open source historiography' will have the same pro's and con's as Wikipedia. It is not written by professionals. This mean that the weight of the information will not have a theoretical foundation. On the other hand, will the view not have the subjective perspective of one author - and we end up, for better or worse, with a postmodern pluralism. This is again a reason why I would prefer to call it 'open source archivism'. Using the term 'open source historiography' would give a claim of a theoretical foundation which is not present.

So in conclusion I welcome attempts at a new way of historical research, but I will still like to keep the difference between academic historiography and public historical writing.

Check out the CCR here.

100,000 guns

I wrote a little last year about the US military build-up against Venezuela, and the low-level war in the Venezuelan countryside between landlords and other elements of the ruling class (an imprecise term here, I know, but this is a hurried post, so forgive me) and the Chavez government and its supporters.

A series of events over the past couple of months have increased tensions between Venezuela, the US, and the US's leading ally in South America, Colombia. From the White House perspective, the key aggravation seems to have been a trip by Chavez to China, where an oil deal likely to be very injurious to the US was discussed. Chavez is now openly talking of diverting oil exports from the US, and the recent kidnapping of a Colombian guerrilla leader from Venezuela - an operation that took place with the consent of some elements of Chavez's own army - appears to have sharpened his resolve.

Many Venezuelans believe that the US is trying to start a war between their country and Colombia. It is certainly true that the US has outfitted the Colombian armed forces handsomely in recent years - under the guise of fighting 'narcoterrorism' it has supplied Black Hawk choppers, and facilitated the Uribe government's purchase of large numbers of tanks, weapons not noted for their usefulness in counter-insurgency fighting. Chavez responded to this military build-up by buying his own choppers from Russia. At the same time, he promised to revolutionise the armed forces, and involve the civilian population more closely in the defence of the country. Now Chavez is buying 100,000 AK 47s from Russia, saying they are intended for the use of the Army Reserve. It is certainly true that there are not anywhere enough soldiers in the conventional armed forces to use such a number of guns.

Is Chavez preparing to do what Allende would not do, and arm his own supporters against counter-revolution? Such a step could have fateful consequences - it would outrage more conservative parts of the army, who would see the base of their power eroded, and it would embolden the militants who have been pushing Chavez's government leftwards over the past few months (consider, for instance, the victory of the Venepal workers' demand for nationalisation of their factory under workers' control).

Needless to say, the White House is unimpressed:

The Bush administration has lodged a formal protest with Russia for agreeing to provide the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more than 100,000 AK-47 rifles that U.S. officials believe could be used to aid left-wing uprisings in Latin America.

The administration in December sent a secret letter of protest (formally called a demarche) to the Russian Embassy in Washington, according to senior U.S. officials. The officials say the warning was followed up by concerns expressed directly to the Russian defense and foreign ministers...(read the rest, if you can stomach the Cold War rhetoric, at the Washington Times).

You explain

This came by e mail today:

From: "Antonio Jesús"
Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2005 01:50:41 -0000
Subject: Stars (new and condensed)

April 1967 The Pink Floyd release "Interstellar Overdrive" (French EP
4 August 1967 The Pink Floyd release "Astronomy Domine" ("...stars can
August 1967 Jimi Hendrix releases B-side "Stars That Play With
Sam's Dice"... On tour with The Pink Floyd in November, Jimi refers
to Syd as
"Laughing Syd Barrett"
1968-1969 Syd records "Late Night" ("...seeing stars high and light")
February 1969: David Bowie records the first version of Space
Oddity: "And the stars look very diferent, today"
17 December 1969 Kevin Ayers and Syd record "Religious Experience"
"Singing A Song In The Morning")
1970 Marc Bolan marries Syd's former girlfriend and releases "A Beard
July 1970 Syd records "It Is Obvious" ("your stars, my stars...")
1970 Marc Bolan plays lead guitar on David Bowie's single "The
Prettiest Star"
1971 Kevin Ayers records "Stars"
1972 David Bowie records "Star"
1972 Syd grows a beard and forms Stars
1973 David Bowie records "See Emily Play"
1976 Kevin Ayers records "Star"
1976-1979 David Bowie records three albums with Brian Eno
1983 Brian Eno records "Stars"