Friday, June 30, 2006

Meddling while Dili Burns

'The town is pretty much deserted now', ABC journo Peter Cave reported from Dili yesterday, in the wake of a new outbreak of rioting and a new exodus of refugees. The Anzac 'peacekeeping' force seems to be following the practice of the American general who talked of destroying Vietnamese villages in order to save them. It is unlikely, though, that the peace of the grave was what those East Timorese who naively welcomed the Anzacs a couple of weeks back were hoping for.

There is no doubt that the Australian-led intervention force is struggling to control events in East Timor. They have been unable to establish political 'stability' by resolving the power struggle between ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao. Although Alkatiri has been forced out of office, he has in recent days managed to mobilise supporters from the east of the country, and he retains a base of support in the Fretilin organisation. Gusmao and his ally Jose Ramos-Horta have leaned so heavily on the Australian government for assistance, and have employed such flagrantly extra-constitutional tactics in their power grab, that they seem to have shored up Alkatiri's support within the party.

The departure of the Prime Minister responsible for the April 28th massacre in Dili has only opened up a new political vacuum, because according to the constitution Alkatiri's successor must be chosen by Fretilin, which dominates East Timor's parliament. Gusmao does not dare to ask the party to choose Alkatiri's successor, because he knows that his buddy Ramos-Horta will fail to win the votes of most of Fretilin's parliamentary representatives. Fretilin may even restore Alkatiri to the post of Prime Minister. Gusmao and Ramos-Horta face a stark choice: they can either back down and abandon their power grab, or they can even more flagrantly ignore the constitution, and turn their attack on Alkatiri and his close allies into an attack on all their opponents in Fretilin. Gusmao's refusal to organise a vote for a new Prime Minister suggests they are so far following the second course of action.

The continuing political impasse in East Timor and the frustrations of Gusmao and Ramos-Horta help to explain the behaviour of Anzac troops in recent days. These 'peacekeepers' did little to intervene as pro-Gusmao mobs began a new round of riots, attacking refugee camps inside Dili that held pro-Alkatiri civilians and burning shops and houses. In some cases, the failure of the Anzacs to protect civilians was undoubtedly an expression of their own incompetence and lack of resources. There must be a suspicion, though, that at least some of the attacks carried out by pro-Gusmao forces have been tolerated by Anzac forces because the Australian government wants to strengthen Gusmao's position within Fretilin.

Despite their stated policy of allowing all peaceful protests, the Anzacs devoted precious manpower to blockading a protest march by Alkatiri's supporters on the eastern fringe of Dili for several days. At the same time, Gusmao's rather less than peaceful supporters rampaged through the city, driving pro-Alkatiri residents out of the city and chanting slogans like 'Kill the communists!' Alkatiri's supporters seem to have been allowed into Dili only now that the residents they might have mobilised have been dispersed, and the chances of building a demonstration large enough to pressure Gusmao into abandoning his power grab has been lost.

The Anzac forces have shown their blatant pro-Gusmao bias by blaming Alkatiri for provoking the riots of recent days. Apparently Alkatiri's refusal to retreat quietly from the political stage after resigning as Prime Minister and his call on supporters to march on Dili are responsible for the attacks on refugee camps. The impatience of the Anzac forces with the refusal of Gusmao's opponents to accede to his coup is palpable, and Australian left-wing analyst Michael Berrell may be right when he warns that the riots of recent days may foreshadow a pogrom resembling the hideous aftermath of Shuarto's anti-communist coup in Indonesia in 1965.

Despite the overwhelming evidence for the self-interested and cynical nature of John Howard and Helen Clark's latest 'humanitarian mission', the Australasian left has done little to make East Timor an issue. In Australia, the Labor and Green parties are firm backers of the reoccupation of East Timor, and the largest far left organisation, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, has taken the absurd position of neither supporting nor opposing Howard's new military adventure. In New Zealand, the tiny Communist Workers Group and Communist League remain the only organisations to have staged anti-intervention events. The latest issue of the Workers Charter newspaper exemplifies the confused response of the Australasian left to the crisis in East Timor. Workers Charter draws attention to the cynical nature of the Anzac occupation, but it also runs an article calling for leftists to take their lead from the tiny and completely compromised 'Socialist' Party of Timor, an organisation which is energetically promoting Howard's intervention!

It is not as though John Howard and his boss George Bush are popular figures in Australasia. This week tens of thousands of Australian workers rallied to oppose Howard's anti-union legislation. The occupation of Iraq is incredibly unpopular in both Australia and New Zealand. But the left and the workers' movement have done little to relate the occupation of East Timor to Howard's anti-worker agenda at home and his role in Bush's imperialist adventures in the Middle East. It may take an escalation of the crisis in East Timor and the return of Anzac troops in bodybags to spark widespread opposition to Howard and Clark's local exercise in imperialism.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Leave the Kahui whanau alone

In the past fortnight the Kahui whanau has suffered two tragedies. The first tragedy was the deaths of the twins Chris and Cru at Starship Hospital. Since that awful day, the Kahuis have had to endure a second, ongoing tragedy - a campaign of lies and vilification that has destroyed their lives and made them pariahs in their communities and prisoners in their homes.

We still don't know who killed the Kahui twins, but we do know the forces responsible for the destruction of the mana of the Kahui family. Journalists and politicians have devoted tens of thousands of words and hundreds of hours to the demonisation of a poor South Auckland family which had already suffered more than most Kiwi families could endure.

Even before the bodies of their children were cold, the Kahuis were being subjected to a campaign of harrassment by journalists and the police. Reporters staked out two family homes, and gatecrashed the tangi held last week for the twins. When the Kahuis understandably declined to talk to them, the journalists decided to interview their keyboards instead, and produced a string of inflammatory and highly speculative 'revelations' about the family. We were told that family members were raging alcoholics, because a few beer cans were lying about outside their home in Mangere; we were informed that they were child abusers, because a dirty nappy was found in their front yard; and we were told that they were 'the tip of an iceberg' of 'Maori abuse' because, well, they were Maori. Reports of the grief the twins' parents and grandfather had shown in Starship Hospital were quietly forgotten in the rush to demonise the Kahuis as vicious drunks.

Not wanting to be outdone by the journos, the police did their bit to make the lives of this bereaved family hellish. They bullied the father of the twins, who was still in a state of shock and consequently quite incoherent, into taking part in a long interview without any legal representative shortly after the death of his kids. When the Kahuis hired the young man a lawyer and demanded access to the tape of his interview, the police refused to hand it over, preferring to make dark hints about its contents. When, in response to this blatant attempt at intimidation, the Kahuis refused to talk further with the police, the cops fed journalists and politicians stories about a 'conspiracy of silence' and a family determined to 'get away with murder'.

Politicians have flocked to the Kahui 'story' like flies to a dungheap. In parliament, in the Beehive and on talkback radio around the country, we have heard them condemning the Kahui family and calling child abuse a 'Maori problem'. Of course, this sort of behaviour is par for the course for a certain section of New Zealand's political elite. National leaders have always been keen on Maori-bashing, and the seabed and foreshore crisis of 2003 showed that Labour could play the same game with aplomb. This time, though, some Maori leaders and politicians of the 'left' have chosen to jump on the anti-Maori bandwagon. The Maori Party has outdone even the Nats in the viciousness with which it has attacked the Kahui family. Maori Party MP Pita Sharples has emerged as the chief tormentor of the Kahuis, appearing on TV and radio to bag the family using the most derogatory of terms.

Shortly after the death of the twins, Sharples barged into the Kahui home at seven in the morning, and was shocked to discover a family member asleep on the living room couch after drinking a few beers. For this dreadful crime alone, Sharples deemed the whole Kahui family as 'dysfunctional'. Does Sharples not think that the scene he witnessed could not have been witnessed in countless thousands of Kiwi households the morning he visited the Kahuis? Will he be making dawn raids on other homes - the townhouses and apartments in wealthier suburbs of Auckland, for example - and then 'outing' their inhabitants if he finds evidence of alcohol consumption, or is the sort of humiliation he has visited upon the Kahuis only intended for poor Maori families who have recently lost children in tragic circumstances? Did it never occur to Sharples that somebody who has suffered such a loss might have very good reasons to take solace in alcohol, especially when he is being harrassed by scores of journalists and police? Did it occur to him that, in the grossly overcrowded Kahui home, somebody might be sleeping on the couch as a matter of necessity, not because he'd passed out there?

Sharples' friend Matt McCarten used his column in the Herald on Sunday to twist the knife in the Kahui family's back. McCarten is a high-profile member of New Zealand's trade union movement and a supposed leftist, but he used his precious column space to regurgitate the crudest, most violent right-wing caricatures of the Kahuis. It was no surprise to hear that the Kahuis received a death threat the day after McCarten's column appeared.

There is a real danger that the hysteria about the Kahuis and about Maori child abuse will be used as an excuse for attacks on the most vulnerable sections of the Maori population. There are clear parallels between the current outcry and the response in Australia to the revelations of child abuse in isolated Aboriginal communities last May. The Howard government and its friends in the media have used the issue of child abuse to demand that Aboriginal people renounce campaigns for justice over land theft and the 'stolen generation' of children and instead blame themselves for their problems. Instead of recognising that Aboriginals are the victims of over two hundred years of racist policies that have robbed them of their land and imperilled their cultures, the Australian government has cast them as victims of their own 'lack of values'. Instead of returning stolen land and resources and paying to improve public services like health and education in Aboriginal areas, the Howard government demands that Aboriginals simply 'get their act together' and magically overcome two centuries of genocidal state policies.

The Howard approach to indigenous peoples requires a caste of compliant, 'Uncle Tom' indigenous 'representatives' prepared to echo the state's criticisms of their own peoples and help the state administer and discipline their peoples. In Australia, these Uncle Toms include the likes of Noel Pearson, who praises Howard's plans to cut welfare for Aboriginals and dismisses the stolen generation and the theft of land as irrelevancies. Like Howard, Pearson favours drastic cuts in Aboriginal welfare entitlements and in government spending on Aboriginal communities.

In Aotearoa, Pita Sharples and his fellow Maori Party MPs are candidates for the same role as Pearson. Since its formation in the aftermath of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi of 2003, the Maori Party has moved steadily to the right, voting in parliament against the Civil Unions Bill and for National's anti-union 90 Day Probation Bill, and establishing close ties with the Act Party. Instead of making party policy around burning issues for Maori like poor housing, low wages, and stolen land, Sharples and his mates have focused on promoting the same sort of individualistic pseudo-solutions to indigenous problems as Howard offers in Australia. Maori Party MP Hone Harawira's campaign to criminalise smoking is a good example of the individualistic, 'blame the victim' approach of the right to the problems of indigenous people. Instead of pressing the Labour government over its failure to reduce hospital waiting lists and to provide better health services in the isolated parts of his electorate, Harawira is attacking Maori smokers, making them scapegoats for health problems that have their roots in racism and economic inequality.

The attacks on the Kahui whanau are only one example of a growing tendency to blame the most vulnerable and desperate people in society for their circumstances. To the media and to bigmouth politicians like Matt McCarten and Pita Sharples we should say: leave the Kahui whanau alone!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

From Malta

One of the great things about the onward march of technology is the way that it is democratising geekiness. Back in the 90s, the notion of creating and maintaining a website was unthinkable for yours truly - such an activity was the preserve of bespectacled and brainboxed friends who spoke in an irritating dialect of programmese whenever the subject of computers came up at parties. Today, though, even idiots like me can run a blog, and play with some of the toys that were once the preserve of brainy friends. Geekdom has ceased to be a meritocracy.

One of the fun little gadgets attached to this blog is 'Extreme tracker', which records the number of unique visitors (we had almost 200 yesterday, thanks I suspect to a little plug by the venerable Grauniad) and also tells where they came from. I know I'm easily amused, but I was wildly excited to log on tonight and see that not one, not two, not three, but four Maltese people had just visited this blog. It's the first time I can remember seeing that distinctive white and red flag in the visitors' log, and I'm celebrating by reproducing a painting which one of my favourite artists inflicted on the wall of a church in Malta nearly four hundred years ago.

A precursor of MacEnroe as well as the modernists, Caravaggio had to flee Rome for Naples and later Malta after killing a bloke over a disputed point in a tennis game. He managed to live on the island for fifteen months, before new indiscretions saw him
forced to move on. I like the way that the Malta Caravaggios are painted onto walls, and thus can't be abstracted from their geographical context by the vampiric art markets. Anyone who wants to see them 'in the flesh' ought to be forced to endure a seasick journey to the island, just as anybody who wants to see Len Lye's creations should be forced to drive the windy and precipitous road through the Taranaki hill country into New Plymouth and its Lye centre...

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

No tears for Alkatiri

The slow-motion coup launched last month by East Timor President Xanana Gusmao and his mates in the Australian government has finally forced Mari Alkatiri from office. The smart money is on Gusmao's close ally Jose Ramos-Horta taking the plum job of Prime Minister, and on Australia becoming even more dominant in East Timor, at the expense of its rival Portugal.

In a statement circulated on the Green Left Weekly discussion list, Michael Berrel has characterised Alkatiri's departure as 'another significant defeat for the left':

Ultimately Alkatiri was forced to resign because Fretilin either couldn't or wouldn't organise a demonstration of popular support for the embattled Prime Minister. If they wouldn't then it was tantamount to an action of deliberate political suicide...

It is becoming apparent from reports in today's media that the strategy of Gusmao and Horta and the powers that stand behind them is to promote the 'reformist' wing within Fretilin and effectively split the Fretilin movement. For 'reformist' read that part of Fretilin which wants to ditch any last remaining links with its revolutionary
or socialist past and seeks an accommodation with the western powers and the Neo-Liberal policies they promote. Just weeks ago, this wing of Fretilin was only able to muster some 71 votes out of 586 in its attempt to remove Alkatiri at the Fretilin congress now it is set to take over the country...

At the start of the crisis I compared the situation to that of the Congo in 1960 when Patrice Lumumba was removed because he was an obstacle to western interests, I stand by that but I think the more accurate analogy is what happened to Aristide in Haiti last year...

Until as late as this morning the Sydney Morning Herald was considering the possibility of as many as twenty thousand
of Alkatiri's supporters coming to Dili...

Just a few final reports. It was reported that over the weekend Gusmao consulted with among others the former Indonesian governor of East Timor. Say what! What on earth was the romantic hero of the resistance doing conspiring with the former Indonesian governor of East Timor???!

I believe that Berrel is correct in seeing the victory of the Gusmao-Horta faction in Fretilin as a victory for Australian foreign policy rather than the East Timorese people, but I don't think that means we have to entertain illusions about the man Ramos-Horta will replace. Berrel ought to ask himself why Gusmao and Ramos-Horta have been able to put many thousands of supporters onto the streets of Dili in recent days, and why Alkatiri has been unable to mobilise an effective response. And before he cited the vote for Alkatiri at the recent Fretilin conference as a sign of the man's grassroots appeal, Berrel ought to have remembered that Alkatiri's supporters won that vote by abandonding the secret ballot in favour of a show of hands and intimidating many of their opponents by threatening them with the loss of precious public sector jobs.

The truth is that Gusmao and Ramos-Horta have been able to hijack a wave of genuine and justified hostility that Alkatiri's authoritarian and ineffective rule has generated amongst ordinary East Timorese, especially those from the west of the country:

Carrying a shackled monkey bearing the sign "Alkatiri", Cabut said what many people felt about East Timor's Prime Minister as thousands took to the streets to celebrate his backing down.

"He had no interest in the people's suffering," said 25-year-old Cabut, who would not give his last name. He was leading about 20 people daubed in whitewash to pay tribute to the "martyrs" from weeks of civil disturbances that left at least 21 people dead.

The real tragedy is not Alkatiri's departure but the fact that Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, with their close ties to governments with an interest in exploiting East Timor, have nothing better to offer their country.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Evil frogs

I was down on the Ukraine at the beginning of the World Cup. As we sat in one of the bars dedicated for a month to 'soccer' and contemplated the flags of thirty-two nations, Muzzlehatch and I quickly decided that the Ukrainians had the worst banner. Before you decide that we're hopelessly shallow for making aesthetics the criterion for not supporting a team, check out the Ukranian flag in its true awfulness:

Doesn't it remind you of the paintjob in the boys' bogs at your old primary school? My attitude towards the Ukraine has softened, though, since a team member made a spectacularly imaginative excuse for its 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Spain in its first World Cup match:

This morning Ukraine's defender Vladislav Vashchuk said that Ukraine's humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Spain was not the fault of the players - but was down to the frogs. Frogs outside the team's hotel in the scenic east German town of Potsdam had croaked all night before the game, leaving the team tired and out of sorts, he said. "Because of the frogs' croaking we hardly got a wink of sleep," the defender explained. "We all agreed that we would take some sticks and go and hunt them...

The Guardian described that as the weakest excuse in the history of sport, but don't the Ukrainians deserve some credit for being so splendidly shameless? I'm tempted to support the team now that it's staggered into the last sixteen.

Simon Black is not a person who uses trivial asethetic criteria for choosing what teams to support at the Cup. A Premier League footballer who became a socialist activist after retiring from the game, he has written a rebuke to lefties who disguise their contempt for sport with weak political arguments:

As World Cup fever grips the globe, many progressives will be sighing at the prospect of another sporting spectacle distracting the “masses” from the pressing issues of the day — the classic “bread and circuses” argument. There is a tendency on the North American Left to disdain sport: its competitive nature, the corporatization of its grand events, its inherent masculinities and cultures of exclusion.

Some of this critique is grounded in good sociology; some of it bears an irrational disdain for that in which one does not participate or enjoy...

In many countries, soccer is a terrain of political and ideological struggle like the media or the education system. Teams in Europe often have decidedly partisan political followings. Lazio of Rome was the club of Mussolini and retains a large fascist following today. Italian club A.S. Livorno has long been associated with communism and banners of Che Guevara can be seen waving in the stands at the team’s home games. Clashes between Livorno’s supporters and the fans of right-wing teams can dominate match day in this picturesque Tuscany town.

When asked to play a friendly match against the Zapatistas, left-leaning club Inter Milan gladly took up the offer encouraged by its bohemian supporters who see their team as a counterbalance to AC Milan, owned by former right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi...

You can read Black's guide to the Cup here.

And if you're keen to discuss the ongoing drama in Germany with other lefties, then you could do worse than check out the Joga network...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Return of Althusser

Here's the draft of a review I'm doing for the new Labor Tribune website set up across the Tasman by Marcus Strom and his mates. I probably need to check a couple of those references - let me know in the comments boxes if you spot any howlers...

The Return of Althusser

Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, Louis Althusser, edited by Francois Matheron and Oliver Corpet, translated by GM Goshgarian, Verso, London/New York, 2006

Twenty five and a half years ago, at the beginning of a particularly cold northern winter, an elderly man strangled his wife in the Paris flat they had shared for many unhappy years. November the 16th 1980 marked not only the end of Helene Althusser's life but the end of her husband's career as an academic philosopher and communist political activist. Judged unfit to stand trial, the man who had been the most famous Marxist in France divided the last decade of his life between mental hospitals and a dinghy flat in a decaying part of Paris. Forbidden to teach or publish, he disappeared from public view; many old friends and comrades tried to believe that he, too, had died on that cold November day. The books and essays that had galvanised a generation of left-wing students were forgotten, as the rise of neo-liberalism and postmodernism brought new enthusiasms to academia.

When Louis Althusser burst back into the public eye, it was as the wretched parody of himself that he had drawn in the 'autobiography' published posthumously in 1992. In The Future Lasts A Long Time Althusser 'confessed' to never having read most of Marx, let alone Hegel, to getting his best ideas by 'eavesdropping' on graduate students in university cafeterias, and to inventing some of the quotes and references in his most famous works. The fact that the great philosopher also 'confessed' to being propositioned by General de Gaulle on a Paris backstreet and plotting to steal a nuclear submarine did not seem to bother his critics: they seized upon the literary products of his mental illness as proof that the phenomenon known as Althusserianism had been nothing but a gigantic confidence trick played by a loopy Left Bank intellectual on pretentious academics and naive young radicals. Eager to prove its anti-communist credentials, even the 'quality' press advertised its hatchet jobs on Althusser with headlines like 'The Paris Strangler' and 'Marx and Murder'. The Future Lasts A Long Time was a heavy headstone on Althusser's grave.

In recent years, though, the reputation of Louis Althusser has undergone an unexpected revival, thanks to a new generation of left-wing intellectuals. In the first six years of this century, at least half a dozen book-length studies of aspects of Althusser's thought have appeared; they have been complemented by a steady stream of essays and papers. Sociologists, literary scholars, and philosophers have all shown a renewed interest in Althusser. The long-overdue publication of Althusser's late writing in English translation in The Philosophy of the Encounter is likely to heighten this interest.

What can be drawing a new generation of intellectuals to a man who seemed personally, politically, and intellectually discredited only a few years ago? An answer to this question has to reach back to the decades before November 1980.

From Stalin to Marx

After spending his late adolescence as a monarchist Catholic, Althusser was converted to communism in a World War Two POW camp. In the years after the war he combined an academic career with conscientious work for the Communist Party of France (PCF). Like millions of other young people sickened by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed it, Althusser looked to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union as beacons of light in a dark world. For the young Althusser, Stalin and his state personified Marxism in theory and practice.

Like millions of other communists, Althusser was awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin in the fateful year of 1956. Realising that he could no longer blindly trust anyone else's version of Marxism, Althusser plunged himself into a long and rigorous study of the works of Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach, and numerous other figures important to the socialist tradition. By the early '60s he had developed the key parts of his iconoclastic interpretation of Marx and Marxism. The mid-1960s were the golden age of Althusserianism in France. With the 1964 publication of For Marx and Reading Capital, Althusser and his circle of disciple-collaborators unveiled a Marxism that seemed to offer the possibility of studying the past and present in new and exciting ways.

To understand the impact that Althusser's work had in the '60s, it is necessary to understand the competing versions of Marxism that existed in those days in France and in most other Western European countries. At the beginning of the decade, the theoretical discourse of pro-Moscow communist parties like the PCF was still dominated by what is often called 'mechanical Marxism'. Mechanical Marxists saw Marx's Capital as a set of rigid 'laws of history' that demanded that human societies pass through a series of 'stages' on the way to a communist utopia. The engine of this teleological process was the contradiction between the 'forces' and 'relations' of production. In other words, economics ensured that every society would tread relentlessly through 'stages' with the names primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The victory of socialism and the flourishing of human culture were assured, despite the best efforts of capitalists, imperialists, and Trotskyists. The great British historian EP Thompson satirised the mechanical Marxist view of history and culture when he wrote that 'For the Stalinists, an increase in tractor production in the Soviet Union will lead to better lyric poetry being written'.

The 'mechanical Marxism' of Moscow and its satellites was opposed by socialists who, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Thompson, were inspired by some of the earlier, 'humanist' writings of Marx as well as Capital. For the 'humanist Marxists', human willpower and the imagination were more important to the progress of the socialist cause than tractor production, and alienation was as bad as exploitation.

Althusser's work created a sensation because it rejected both mechanical and humanist Marxism, arguing that they were merely two sides of the same coin. Both creeds, Althusser argued, gave distorted pictures of reality, because both put the human being and a quasi-religious idea of progress at the centre of history. Influenced by Martin Heidegger's critique of Sartre as well as his own reading of Marx, Althusser announced that history was 'a process without a subject'. He insisted on the importance of the 'conjuncture' - the specific economic, political, and intellectual circumstances that determined, or at least placed limits on, thought and behaviour in a particular place and time. Althusser didn't like destiny, but he didn't like accidents either. He may have rejected teleology, but he was still a materialist.

Althusser and his disciples tried to renovate Marx's key concepts to rescue them from the influence of Stalinism and humanism and make them compatible with an anti-teleological but materialist view of the world. For instance, the Althusserians renovated and enlarged the concept of 'mode of production', which had been used in a very simplistic way by many Stalinists. Crucially, the Althusserians argued that two or more modes of production could coexist in the same society, or 'social formation' as they called it. Societies did not have to be homogenously 'feudal', or 'capitalist', or 'socialist'.

Althusser accompanied his theoretical work with aggressive criticisms of unhealthy trends in the policies of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the West. He felt that the Soviets were reneging on socialist principles when they talked about 'peaceful co-existence' with the West, and accused the PCF of prefering to talk to left-wing Christians and social democrats than wage class war in the workplaces and streets of France. (By the mid-60s, Althusser had correctly perceived that the PCF and other Stalinist parties were assimilating many of the features of 'humanist Marxism', in an effort to give themselves a more 'respectable' face. The influence of left-wing 'Catholic humanism' on the PCF theorists was considerable, and is exampled in the works of Roger Garaudy, the party's 'official' philosopher for much of the 60s.) Because of his criticisms of the Soviet Union and its sister parties in the West, many people associated Althusser with the Chinese side in the Sino-Soviet split that rocked the communist world in the 1960s. The leadership of the PCF became deeply suspicious of Althusser, accusing him of spreading 'gobbledygook', but this only made him a hero to radical young party members, who organised themselves him into a secret Althusserian faction of the PCF called the Spinoza Group.

Althusser Downunder

Althusser's theoretical innovations inspired many Marxists outside France. In New Zealand, for instance, a generation of scholar-activists who had been radicalised by the Vietnam War and the Maori fight to reclaim stolen land devoured For Marx and Reading Capital. These young Marxists found in Althusser a sophisticated alternative to the clapped-out mechanical Marxism of New Zealand's old Stalinist parties. They used Althusser to develop a new approach to the study of New Zealand society and history that did justice to subjects like Maori nationalism and the oppression of women. In their groundbreaking studies of the development of New Zealand society, Dave Bedggood and Owen Gager used Althusser's insight that more than one mode of production could exist in a social formation to counter the racist way Stalinist thinkers had treated Maori.

Many Stalinists had assumed that the setting up of the Wakefield settlements had seen New Zealand become a homogenous capitalist country and thus ended the 'feudal' mode of production practiced by the Maori. Bedggood and Gager showed that Wakefield established only islands of capitalist social relations in a sea of pre-capitalist Maori society. Even when capitalism did spread further and interact with Maori society, it did not destroy that society. Instead, the Maori of the Waikato Kingdom, Parihaka and other de facto states established a 'Polynesian mode of production' which combined market gardening for export with collective land ownership and labour, and thus fused elements of capitalism and pre-capitalism.

Even after the defeat of Maori in the New Zealand wars, remnants of the Polynesian mode of production persisted in many places, creating a material basis for Maori nationalism and the continuing existence of a strong Maori culture.

Where Stalinists had regarded the destruction of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka as a necessary step forward into the capitalist 'stage' that must precede socialism, Bedggood and Gager were able to see that the Polynesian mode of production was, like the Russian peasant commune that Marx so admired, a rough working model for a socialist society. Parihaka and the Waikato Kingdom needed to be defended rather than destroyed. (Today, the insights of Bedggood and Gager are more important than ever, because multinational capital and the Australian and New Zealand governments are trying to destroy the traditional land ownership structures of 'backward' Pacific countries like the Solomon Islands in much the same way that the British and colonists sought to destroy 'Maori communism' during the New Zealand Wars.)

In France, at least, the golden age of Althusserianism was short-lived. In May 1968, the country was plunged into a revolutionary crisis: the largest general strike in history brought the economy to a standstill, students built barricades in the streets of the big cities, and de Gaulle ordered the army to encircle Paris and prepare for a replay of 1871. In this hour of opportunity, the PCF came to the aid of the French ruling class by convincing the millions of members of the trade unions it controlled to go back to work in exchange for a few concessions from the government.

Many on the radical left felt that the party's most famous philosopher had betrayed them, too - in the midst of the crisis he had admitted himself to a sanatorium in the countryside. The slogan 'Althusser - where are you?' appeared on walls around Paris, as the revolutionary students who had been inspired by For Marx looked in vain for leadership. The failures of 1968 haunted Althusser through the 1970s, and probably contributed to the tragedy of November 1980.

For Althusser, the 1970s was a decade of political and theoretical contradictions. Althusser tried to draw lessons from the disaster of 1968, and incorporate them into his theoretical work and political activism, but he could never quite break with some of the more unfortunate habits a long apprenticeship in the PCF had given him.

Inspired partly by the 'universities of the streets' that had been a feature of May 1968 and parts of China's Cultural Revolution, Althusser tried to temper the hyper-intellectualism of his mid-60s work. He announced rather uncertainly that philosophy was 'class struggle in theory', and sparked outrage by quoting Lenin's description of academic philosophers as 'flunkeys and dunces' to an audience of academic philosophers. But Althusser could never quite shake the urge to over-systematise and over-refine that had marred For Marx and Reading Capital. He sometimes seemed to think that the refinement of concepts was an end in itself.

Some of Althusser's followers took this hair-splitting tendency to an extreme - in Britain, for instance, two bullish young academics named Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess became notorious for writing a series of books of 'social theory' which forsook virtually all reference to empirical research in favour of turgid exercises in pseudo-Althusserian logic chopping. It was the likes of Hindess and Hirst who prompted EP Thompson to write 'The Poverty of Theory', an entertainingly abusive polemic that unfairly lumped Althusser together with some of his third-rate imitators, and thus helped damage his reputation in the Anglo-Saxon world. More justified criticism of Althusser came from Bertell Ollman and Derek Sayer, who reminded their readers that Marx's concepts were and are deeply dialectical, and thus quite impervious to attempts at hard and fast definition.

Althusser's political activities in the '70s were also confused and contradictory. On the one hand, he remained a PCF member, and became a vigorous supporter of the party's strategy of creating a cross-class 'patriotic aliance' against the handful of 'monopoly capitalists' who supposedly exploited the rest of the capitalist class as well as the middle and working classes. Such a strategy clearly belonged to the 'Eurocommunist' 'turn' that pro-Moscow parties across Western Europe were making in the 1970s. The Eurocommunists insisted on their support for bourgeois democracy and formally renounced the classical Leninist aim of smashing the capitalist state and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Althusser, though, did not believe that such features of Eurocommunism were a corollary of the cross-class political alliance he favoured. He became an outspoken critic of the PCF's abandonment of the goal of dictatorship of the proletariat, yet remained enthusiastic about the prospect of the party forming a capitalist government with Francois Mitterand's Socialists.

The contradictions in Althusser's theoretical and political practice helped ensure that, even before the tragedy of November 1980, Althusserianism was no longer a fashionable intellectual or political stance.

After 1980

There is a sense in which the destruction of Althusser's reputation and role in public life after 1980 actually freed him to write with an unprecedented boldness. Because he no longer had a reputation to protect, or an audience of admirers to instruct, he could strike out in any direction he pleased, indulging whims and divulging influences that he had kept hidden before November 1980.

Philosophy of the Encounter is thus a sort of 'secret book', and has an intimate quality lacking in Althusser's pre-1980 works. 'The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter', the first post-1980 text in the book, is a rambling and sometimes rather artless account of an 'underground tradition' running from Epicurus through thinkers as diverse as Spinoza, Marx, Wittgenstein and Heidegger to Althusser. One has the sense that Althusser is not announcing a new discovery of the importance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, but rather taking the opportunity to acknowledge debts he has always owed, but has preivously hesitated to confess.

Although Althusser announces that there is now a 'teleological' Marx, whom he rejects, and an 'aleatory' Marx 'of the encounter', whom he embraces, he makes it clear that terms like 'aleatory materialism' and 'philosophy of the encounter' are intended not as concessions to postmodern rejections of Marxism, but as new attempts to envisage a philosophy that is both materialist and anti-teleological. The most rigorous elucidation of Althusser's 'aleatory materialism', and the best place to start reading Philosophy of the Encounter, is a series of interviews Althusser granted to the Spanish philosopher Fernanda Navarra from 1984 to 1987.

In a recently-published essay on Althusser's late work which should be read alongside Philosophy of the Encounter, the Italian philosopher Vittorio Morfino isolates and discusses five key concepts of aleatory materialism: the void, the encounter, the fact, the conjuncture and necessity/contingency.

The void represents for Althusser the possibility of action - it is in a sense the space where the encounter may take place. The encounter is a unique event, a contingent coming together of diverse 'elements': it may or may not 'take hold', ie persist and become a fact. The conjuncture is a term which is familiar from Althusser's earlier work - now it names the conditions in which encounters take place and (sometimes) take hold. Necessity/contingency is a double-sided concept inspired by Althusser's obsession with creating a philosophy that is both materialist and anti-teleological. Althusser emphasises that necessity can be grounded in contingency - that a phenomenon which necessarily creates all sorts of effects was nevertheless itself formed contingently.

Althusser and Morfino relate this set of concepts to the concrete example of the emergence of capitalism in the West. Althusser tells us that the teleological Marx was wrong when he said that the working class was the 'product of big industry'. In fact, the working class was not the simple 'product' of any pre-existing phenomenon, but one of a complex set of 'elements' that came together to create capitalism. The coming together of these elements was not preordained: capitalism was not 'inherent' in feudalism, any more than it was inherent in ancient Rome, which also boasted some of the elements necessary to create capitalism. There is a notable similarity between Althusser's argument here and the insistence of his old enemy EP Thompson that class exists as 'process and a relationship', not a 'thing'.

It seems to me that the concepts Morfino catalogues are best treated as a set of metaphors, rather than as the raw materials for yet another attempt to create an Althusserian 'system'. We should be wary of trying to refine these rough diamonds into clean symmetrical philosophical concepts.

In many ways, Althusser himself seems in the 1980s to have finally abandoned his efforts at the conceptual refinement and systematisation of the insights contained in his critique of teleology and defence of materialism. The casual and at times quite concrete style of the late writings is undoubtedly partly a reflection of Althusser's circumstances and state of mind, but it is also a sign that he had abandoned part of the enterprise of For Marx and Reading Capital. In these last writings he has ceased to use the curiously neutered, abstracted language that dominated those earlier works, and has instead become alternately more down to earth, treating concrete historical 'encounters' in an anecdotal or even empirical manner, and more poetic.

Once again, there is an interesting parallel with EP Thompson, whose brilliantly empirical histories were complemented by 'theoretical' works that aimed to supply broadbrush guidelines about what historians and other researchers should and shouldn't do, rather than coin a prescriptive lexicon for them to use. (Thompson would, of course, argue that many of Marx's forays into theory have much the same quality; in 'The Poverty of Theory' he bewailed the widespread failure to understand that Marx's discussion of base and superstructure in the 1859 Preface was an exercise in metaphor, not philosophical rigour.)

Althusser may be retreating from some of his earlier positions in these late works, but he is making a fighting withdrawal: as mentioned above, he strongly rejects the temptation to follow fashion and renounce Marxism, and it can be argued that his retreat leaves him better able to defend some of the important insights of the Althusserian interpretation of Marx. We may note, for instance, that by abandoning quixotic attempts at a 'final' definition of concepts like mode of production, Althusser puts himself in a stronger position to take aim at the dogmatism and reductionism of mechanical Marxism.

Althusser's 'tradition' of aleatory materialism may seem a little ramshackle at times, but it does allow him to shine a light on a range of important thinkers, and on their affinities with aspects of Marxist thought. Althusser's unexpected praise for Wittgenstein is a striking anticipation of the greatly increased attention this figure has received from Marxist thinkers in the last few years.

And Althusser's aleatory materialism does not only look backwards: in important ways, it connects Marxism with one of the most profound new intellectual developments of the past quarter century. Althusser's relentless insistence on the coexistence of contingency and necessity link his late work to chaos theory, a body of thought which Marxist thinkers have all too often neglected to treat seriously, despite its strongly dialectical overtones. Nobody who reads Philosophy of the Encounter carefully can any longer justify this neglect. In this as in so many other respects, Althusser has throws down a challenge to today's Marxists. It is good to see that some are taking up the challenge.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Battling the pseudo-left - and Tourette's Syndrome

I commented the other day on the implosion of the pro-war, neo-neocon 'left' in the face of political reality, and described how the verbal fusillades and photoshop caricatures that these folk once aimed at the 'pseudo-left' - that's the rest of us, in case you hadn't guessed - are being directed at rival factions of a 'movement' that was small enough to begin with. Now one member of the Popinjays faction, a bloke by the name of Will, seems to have set up his own webpage devoted to one on one combat with a member of the Harry's Place gang called Graham. Pity Graham won't turn up and play, but I guess Will can always beat himself up.

As well as combatting the dastardly Graham, not to mention that global 'pseudo-left conspiracy' of anti-war political parties and trade unions, this embattled Popinjay seems to fighting an ongoing battle with Tourette's Syndrome:

Knows fuck all about fuck all and his crazy sidekick Wardythewhale knows even less. Dear me. What a bunch of stupid or pompous or ignorant or, let's just use a shorthand phrase -- middle class wankers with lots of time on their hands arses-- If you examine skim over their arguments crap , you'll quickly see any and all possibility of an objective world or verifiability of any truths about it has been banished from their heads. In other words - the absurdity of Post-modern and feudal excrement in combination, all claiming the inheritance of the enlightenment. It's all just the latest installment of bourgeois cretinism against Marxist clarity. And the little fanclub continues unabated. Good for them. The freaks and idiots supply a target.

Sheesh. He sounds a bit like me at the age of 22 after one too many whiskeys (yes, Kirsty, I know - one was one too many). I think it was that 'middle class wanker' Oscar Wilde who said that the worst type of Protestants are the Jesuits. After reading the pro-war 'left's blogs on and off for a couple of years - yes, I know what you're thinking, what does that say about me? - I'm inclined to think that the worst type of Stalinist is a neocon.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Save the whales, stuff the natives

The Australian and New Zealand governments, pious editorialists on both sides of the Tasman, and the Green Party's conservation spokesperson Metiria Turei have ganged up to berate the poor Pacific countries that voted with Japan against a global ban on whaling at the recent International Whaling Conference.

Japan has been accused of interfering in the affairs of states like the Solomon Islands by offering them money in return for their vote, and that paragon of political ethics Winston Peters has accused the natives of a lack of principle for taking the cash. The Greens talk ominously about the need for an 'inquiry' into the whole business - in other words, about yet more Australasian interference in the affairs of states like the Solomons.

But small Pacific countries are desperate for money from Japan because they have been so exploited by the very countries which are now complaining about the IWC vote. New Zealand and Australia have bullied Pacific countries into implementing neo-liberal economic 'reforms' that have devastated their economies and dried up state revenue flows. And when neo-liberalism has led to social breakdown Australia and New Zealand have landed troops and cops to keep the natives in line.

Pacific countries have also been bullied into cooperating with Bush and Howard's War of Terror. The Solomon Islands, for instance, was pressured by Australia into joining Bush's 'coalition of the willing' against Iraq, even though its security forces did not control all of the territory of their own country. I don't recall Metiria Turei or her friends in the Kiwi mainstream media complaining about pressure from big countries then.

It's no wonder that there is now a tendency for Pacific countries to turn towards Asian powers like China, Taiwan and Japan to provide some of the economic assistance that is not forthcoming from Australasia.

It is a shame, of course, that the price of this assistance is support for policies like whaling, but the main responsibility for the vote at the IWC has to sit with the governments of Australia and New Zealand. They created the economic crisis that has forced small Pacific states to choose between cash and the environment.

And I'll take the Greens' indignation a little more seriously when I see them end their support for Anzac imperialism in the Pacific, and thus do their bit to undermine the root cause of the environmental problems in this part of the world.

The Greens, and Metiria Turei in particular, are complicit in the RAMSI occupation and recolonisation of the Solomons, an operation which, by dismantling economic regulations, undermining traditional land ownership, and generally letting multinational capital run riot, has created far more environmental damage than whaling ever will.

'Traitor!' 'Splitter!' On the death throes of the pro-war 'left'

A couple of months ago I dipped my toe into the discussion about the odious Euston Manifesto by posting the paper I wrote on the pro-war 'left'. If you remember, the pro-war 'left' is a tiny but noisy bunch of mainly British journos and bloggers who think that the 'pseudo-left' - that's the real left, for those of us who don't reside on Planet Zog - has betrayed its history and principles by not supporting George Bush's military adventure in Iraq. These curious folk think that the US Marines have taken on the mantle of the International Brigade in a new war against fascism. They dredge up some of the most unfortunate formulations of Marx - the stuff about dragging backward peoples out of barbarism at the start of The Communist Manifesto, and the celebrations of the destruction of Indian and Chinese society in some of the journalism of the 1850s - and use them to garnish their 'Viva Cheney' polemics.

Some people mistakenly interpreted the launch of the Euston Manifesto as a sign of the pro-war left's increased vigour. In reality, the Manifesto is a sign of the movement of most of the pro-war 'left' away from a highly contradictory political position toward a more uncomplicated rapproachement with imperialism. At the end of my paper I wrote that:

The pro-war left seems to be disintegrating as a coherent political tendency, as its former adherents choose between an uncomplicated neo-conservatism and a return to the ‘old’ anti-war left.

The Euston Manifesto replaces the ostensible commitment to socialism that was a feature of most pro-war 'left' discourse with an uncomplicated celebration of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, and a call for a 'progressive' alliance of the left with 'democratic' Tories and Liberal Democrats. If it is anything, the Manifesto is the beginning of an alliance between the Blairite section of the Labour Party and its co-thinkers in the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties, a sort of feeble pre-emptive strike against any leftward lurch in a post-Blair Labour Party.

Now the two largest pro-war 'left' blogs, Harry's Place and the Drink Soaked Trotskyist Popinjays for War, have fallen out over the direction of their 'movement'. The ostensible cause of the feud between the blogs is the policy of Harry's Place towards annonymous commenters, and one obnoxious commenter in particular, but the real reason for the discord in the pro-war camp is the drift toward 'liberalism' and 'away from the labour movement' that the Popinjays perceive amongst Harry and his boys. A number of the Popinjays really do seem to believe that they are Marxists; Harry and his mates have long since left such self-identifications behind, and sit on the Blairite right of the Labour Party. Like their more famous chums David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen, they have moved from 'left-wing' support for Bush's military adventures to across-the-board support for a free market capitalism barely constrained by Third Way social democracy.

If the situation on the Iraq front of the War of Terror looked more promising, and the possibility of new 'liberations' inflicted by Anglo-American weaponry existed, then the different factions of the pro-war 'left' might be able to put aside their differences and form a United Front against the dastardly appeasers and Quislings of the real-world left. But the all too obvious failure of the invasion and occupation of Iraq to create a 'progressive' outcome has taken the wind out of the pro-war ship's sails, and the same rhetoric that was used against the anti-war left is now being used by the Popinjays against the crew at Harry's Place. These 'liberal' deserters from the cause of Marxist imperialism are now apparently guilty of being appeasers of fascism - in other words, of the same sins as George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party, and everybody else who didn't think George Bush was an objective revolutionary.

The Popinjays now seem to stand alone against a massive worldwide conspiracy of pseudo-leftist political parties and trade unions, and against the traitors and splitters on their own side. The pro-war 'left' has frequently used the word 'Trot' as an insult, and mocked the far left, and the Trotskyist sections of the far left in particular, as a collection of tiny sects riven by vituperative dispute and completely divorced from the labour movement and the rest of the real world. This 'People's Front of Judea' stereotype of the far left is fun to use, but it has only ever applied to a handful of silly groups. It seems to me that the stereotype can be applied much more accurately to the pathetic remnants of the pro-war 'left'.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Feeding the eyes

About halfway through the fractured, half-finished, infuriating, and inexhaustibly rich novel known as 1984, Winston Smith gets his hands on a copy of the book supposedly written by Goldstein, the semi-mythical leader of the semi-mythical resistance to the practitioners of Ingsoc. In one of the moments of private pleasure-taking that punctuate 1984, Smith opens the book at random and savours a passage, secure in the assumption that he will have time to read the whole volume again and again.

Unlike poor Winston, I don't have Big Brother peering over my shoulder 23 hours a day. I don't think one has to live in a police state, though, to understand the pleasure he got out of opening a book he had long wanted to read and picking out a passage at random to savour. I've been doing the same thing to Geoff Park's Theatre Country: Essays on landscape and whenua since I got hold of a copy of it a few weeks ago. Theatre Country is the sequel to Nga Uruora: the Groves of Life, the book which recorded Park's journeys around the sites of New Zealand's (mostly extinct) lowland forests, and the parts of it I've sampled feature the mesmerising mixture of history, poetry, and ecological polemic that won Park's debut a wide audience. (I wrote about Nga Uruora here.)

Here is a passage to savour from Theatre Country, taken from the start of Park's essay about Colin McCahon's Urewera Mural:

Driving east from Murupara you can watch the landscape suddenly slip from the grip of the great colonial project. Pastoral plain and pine plantation yield to the primordial, as abruptly as tasrseal becomes loose gravel. Up against the wild forcefield of Te Urewera, Britain of the South just gives up.

It is different here, and Colin McCahon knew it. The West's cataclysm of change has been through Te Whaiti, Ngaputahi, Ruatahuna, and Maungapohatu, as it has every Pacific village. But dispossession here, as with the empire's potentials for obliteration, has had but a shadow of its success elsewhere in Aotearoa. Te Urewera's land lies without the gangs of Pakeha farms that now inevitably surround it in other New Zealands, and remains unfazed by their urgent economics. It is as though Tuhoe's history, their mountain fortress's inaccessibility, has given them a strength that still sustains. While what now saturates the rest of the country may circle Te Urewera on all sides, it can't enter. It is as though the land's life-force is still Maori.

Yet somehow the possibility is betrayed by the way the Maori clearings seem to shrink from what encircles them. The driver too feels diminished by the wild life outside, compared with passage through a domesticated landscape. Road maps confirm what the view hints. This is the South Pacific, not England. A dark, elemental, forever forest, not to be entered unless you know precisely what you're doing. Primordial, Gondwanan, shrieking with birds, but unhaunted by the human history that brings time - or landscape - into being. Pacific Gods - Papatuanuku, Tane - have a stronger stake in it than Christianity's one, but the distinction is trivial. This has long been its own place. Brutal news for those who like to call the landscape theirs. A raw land - scary stuff, as Colin McCahon knew.

Te Urewera is not country to be driven through and ignored. Whether captivated by its wildness or by the 'despair of ever getting into open country again', most people, in my experience, can't keep their eyes off it. Entering it always reminds me of a Tongan friend with whom, one wet Sunday in Fiji, I coaxed a wounded car up out of sugar-caned plains into rain-forested hills - hills that Siosefa, who had never ventured beyond Tongatapu's flatness before, had not imagined. 'Today', he said, 'we feed the eyes'.

Feed your eyes - read Theatre Country and Nga Uruora.

cats and water

well personally I was quite shocked when MAPS told me his cat liked going swimming, I mean, what cat likes water?

But amazingly, we sat at the edge of his pool for close on half an hour and every time his cat would clamber out MAPS would grab it and throw it right back in the middle! and it seemed to love it! I snapped this photo after MAPS had finally decided it had had enough fun for one day.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Jack plays monopoly

In the early 1970s, long before he became the working class hero of Reagan's America, a scruffy New Jersey kid called Bruce Springsteen started a band called Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom. The young Springsteen's creation was notable both for its size (it had over twenty members) and its short lifespan (it folded after only two gigs). If a legion of Springsteen biographers are to be believed, the purpose of Dr Zoom was to enable some of Bruce's dodgier mates to impress girls by boasting that they played in a rock 'n roll band. Because some of these mates didn't actually play an instrument, in the conventional sense of the word, Bruce was forced into some interesting experiments on stage. He gave four blokes, for instance, the job of setting up a table in one corner of the stage and playing monopoly there while the musicians did their thing. "It was great", the Boss is supposed to have told one hagiographer, "these guys would be talking to a girl in a bar and they could say 'Yeah, I'm in a band - I play monopoly'".

I don't know whether Jack Ross was intent on impressing the females in the audience, or whether he is one of that curious band of Dr Zoom aficianados and bootleg collectors, but a couple of weeks ago he mounted the stage of the Empire Bar on Ponsonby Rd and played an hour-long solo on monopoly. To the surprise of his audience, which had expected an uncomplicated poetry reading, Jack unfolded a map of Auckland with a monopoly-style grid laid over it, and proceeded to travel from his starting point - his turangawaewae, in life and in art - of Mairangi Bay to such exotic locales as Milford, K Rd, and finally the Coromandel. On the way he read a poem or two inspired by each locale.

Jack's progress to the mystic mountains on the far side of Kopu's one-lane bridge was not without its troubles - the instruction 'Miss a turn, catch the bus back to Milford' became a groan-inducing refrain, a worse fate than Monopoly's 'Go directly to jail', as Jack's attempts to escape the North Shore became a sort of metaphor for the banality and futility of earthly existence, a Kiwi corollary to Kafka's castle or Sisyphus's quarry.

Now Jack, who has previously insisted that 'I'm not the blogging type - I don't have any thoughts', has founded and put a version of his 'Auckland game' there, along with a report on last week's Titus launch. It seems to me that, unlike most poetry, or for that matter most writing of any kind, the 'Auckland game' is well-suited to publication on the internet. Hyperlinks are an ideal way of carrying readers from Jack's map-board to the poems he has written about the places on this map-board. Ideally, I think, the hyperlinks would be placed on the map-board itself, not underneath it, but the template that gives to IT dummies like Jack and yours truly doesn't allow for such feats of engineering.

Never mind - the Boss would still be proud...

Saturday, June 17, 2006

EP Thompson, Marxism, Britishness, and missing footnotes

When it comes to academic writing I can be very lazy about references and footnotes. One of the advantages of putting a draft of a piece of work on a blog, then, is that sheer fear of being exposed as a purveyor of falsehoods will motivate me to check my references and write up my footnotes! That's the theory, anyway...This is the first half of a draft chapter from my thesis on EP Thompson. It takes the reader on a bit of a tiki tour, to use a Kiwi expression. There are some unresolved problems on show here - for example, there's my tendency to slide between the concepts of Englishness and Britishness, which is not such an easy thing to do when one is talking about EP Thompson. But, what the hell, it's a draft, and if it'll motivate me to write those damn footnotes...

EP Thompson, Marxism, and Britishness: part one

How British was EP Thompson?

In a letter he sent to the Times Literary Supplement last year, Peter Linebaugh criticised some recent interpretations of EP Thompson's life and work. 'Thompson is being recaptured by the establishment, and reinserted into a conventional English context' Linebaugh complained. On the face of it, Linebaugh's second charge might appear odd. EP Thompson was, after all, a scholar of English history and literature who spent most of his life in England, and became famous for his advocacy of what he considered distinctly English political, literary, and scholastic traditions. But Linebaugh's charge is not as quixotic as it might at first seem. By refusing the cliched view of the man he knew as a teacher and a friend, Linebaugh asks us to ponder the possibility of a more complex relationship between Thompson and his native country. And the longer we ponder it, the more problematic Thompson's 'Englishness', or for that matter 'Britishness', becomes.

Consider, for instance, the odd relationship between the subject matter of Thompson's major works of history and their critical reception. The Making of the English Working Class made Thompson an impressive reputation by mining new veins of English history, yet it has enjoyed more long-term influence overseas than it has in Britain. Thompson's immense popularity with historians, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and literary scholars in North America, South Asia, and parts of Africa belies the fierce particularism of The Making of the English Working Class and its successors. A useful contrast can be drawn with Eric Hobsbawm, another left-wing English historian to win a vast international audience. Unlike Thompson's works, Hobsbawm's ouevre treats aspects of the histories of many societies. Where Thompson used primary sources to delve into the minutae of often-forgotten aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth English history, Hobsbawm's histories typically rely upon the synthesis of an extraordinarily wide range of secondary sources. The international success of texts like Hobsbawm's A Short History of the Twentieth Century is far easier to explain than the rapturous reception that Thompson's excavations of obscure events in English history have received in faraway countries.

A similar paradox can be seen in Thompson's long career of political activism. Thompson tended to relate the political positions he took to a long tradition of 'radical dissent', and often compared the political struggles he was involved in to heroic parts of English working class and radical history. Yet Thompson was notably unsuccessful in his attempts to effect radical changes in British society. With the exception of a couple of years at the beginning of the '60s, he was unable even to gather a substantial local following for his 'distinctively British' brand of left-wing politics. He spent long periods feeling alienated from the British left, and and found himself unable to play a constructive role in the big political battles that shook his native country in the 1970s. But a lack of local success did not prevent Thompson's political ideas receiving wide circulation overseas. The leftist dissidents of Eastern Europe and Indira Gandhi's India often seemed more interested in Thompson's politics than either the British labour movement or Britain's left-wing intellectuals.

How can we explain these paradoxes in the reception of EP Thompson's work as a historian and as a political activist? Has Peter Linebaugh opened a can of worms with his unusual observation? In my view, some of the paradoxes in Thompson's relationship with Britain are rooted in much older contradictions. I want to try to put the problems we have been discussing into some sort of context by taking a sort of 'tiki tour' through the history of Marxism's often-troubled relationship with Britain and the British left.

Marx's Faustian Pact with Capitalism

Marx's relationship with the world's first industrial capitalist society was complicated. In some ways, the tensions in Marx's attitude towards Britain highlight the key unresolved tensions in his thought as a whole. In his entertainingly unsympathetic biogaphy of Marx, Robert Payne notes that one of his subject's favourite works of literature was Goethe's Faust. Marx could talk about the play endlessly, and when he was drunk he liked to disturb the other patrons of London bars by loudly chanting its lines in his 'rough, guttural, unlovely German'. It is easy to see how Marx might have been fascinated by the character of Faust, who makes a deal with the Devil in an effort to attain knowledge and power and change the world to his liking. For Marx - the pre-1871 Marx especially - capitalism was a Devil was both hated and necessary.

The contradictions in Marx's attitude to capitalism are perhaps most clearly evident in The Communist Manifesto, a work whose structure was modelled on Goethe's Faust. The Manifesto has often been remembered only for the rousing call to revolution in its final sentence, but its first few pages are devoted to a paean to capitalism. Marx and Engels see capitalism as an engine for progressive change - for drawing 'even the most barbarous of nations into civilisation' and abolishing 'the idiocy of rural life' - yet they also believe that, once established, it became an obstacle to historical progress. For the Marx of 1848, capitalism had strong positive as well as negative qualities. It was a necessary Devil.

When Marx arrived in London in 1850, Britain was the world's pre-eminent economic power, and the stronghold of the industrial revolution. Marx was the fleeing the failure of the so-called 'springtime of the peoples', a Europe-wide revolt by shifting alliances of capitalists, peasants, and plebians against some of the more obviously reactionary features of feudalism. The Communist Manifesto had related this revolt to the development of capitalism and the usurpation of old fedual classes by their capitalist offspring. Britain in 1850 was a much more capitalist society than Germany, or France, or Belgium. It had a far larger industrial sector and a more organised working class than any of these countries. It was not unreasonable, then, for Marx to see good prospects for social revolution in his new home. In the first decade of his residence in England, Marx made a string of optimistic pronouncements about both the English bourgeoisie and the English working class. But optimism gradually gave way to pessimism. Marx came to feel that the English bourgeoisie was incapable of confronting the backwardness that the incomplete revolutions of the seventeenth century had bequeathed to much of England and Britain's cultural and political superstructure.

Marx took longer to become disillusioned with the English working class. In the years after the foundation of the First International in 1864 he established close relations with some of the leaders of this class, and came to exercise a profound influence over one or two of them. The initial growth of the British section of the International encouraged Marx to believe that the local working class might become radicalised on a mass scale. In the late 1860s, though, the British section of the International stopped growing. Historians have argued that the extension of the voting franchise in 1867 and the positive report of a parliamentary inquiry into trade unionism in 1869 made many trade unionists believe that radicalism was unecesary in oursuit of their ends. In the 1870s a sustained economic upturn would reinforce this belief. In 1871, Marx was greatly angered by the failure of the English working class to act in solidarity with the Paris Communards. Shortly after the destruction of the Commune Marx effectively wound up the First International, and virtually retired from politial activism. He no longer held out hopes that working class revolution was in the offing in Britain or in the other advanced countries of Europe.

Disillusionment with the Devil

It can be argued that the 'failure' of the English bourgeoisie and more importantly the English working class to live up to Marx's expectations helped to create a crisis in his thinking in the years after 1871. Between 1871 and 1883 Marx published little, despite having more time than ever before for research and writing. Despite the urging of Engels and other admirers, Marx never finished the second and third volumes of Capital, the work he had envisaged as his masterpiece. In 1867, Marx had told a supporter that he was prepared to sacrifice his life to finish to Capital; after 1871, though, he did relatively little work on the second and third volumes. Instead, he accumulated tens of thousands of pages of notes on subjects that were mostly outside the scope of Capital. Instead of elaborating his theory of capitalism, Marx spent thousands of hours studying mostly pre-capitalist societies. He became so interested in Russia that he learnt the country's language. He also made extensive notes on Turkey, India, North Africa, the Iroquois Federation, and hunter gatherer societies like those of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.

Scholars like Teodor Shanin and Haruki Wada have argued that Marx's new interests after 1871 suggest a disillusionment with the more of less unilinear model of history that had been put forward in texts like The Communist Manifesto. Citing the 1881 preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto, Shanin and Wada argue that Marx had lost some of his faith in the ability of capitalism to generate progressive historical change by destroying reactionary ideas and practices and creating a revolutionary working class. The Manifesto's blithe approval of the encroachment of capitalism into pre-capitalist societies had not been absent from parts of the first volume of Capital. In a footnote to the original 1867 German edition of the book, for example, Marx had celebrated the attacks by capitalism on the Russian commune. By 1881, though, Marx was sympathetic to the Narodnik claim that the Russian peasant commune could become the basis for a post-capitalist Russia.

In one of the famous letters to Vera Zasulich he drafted but did not post in 1881, Marx stated that the 'historical inevitability' of the path of development outlined in Capital is 'expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe'. Marx went on to say that his research in the years since Capital was published had convinced him that 'the Commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia'. Shanin sums up the change he sees in Marx's view of history when he writes that Marx moved from 'a sophisticated version of unilinearism' to 'the acceptance of multidirectionality' in history. Eric Hobsbawm talks of the late Marx's 'growing hatred of and contempt for capitalist society' and relates this attitude to the course that history had taken in the advanced countries of Europe:

It seems probable that Marx, who had earlier welcomed the impact of capitalism as an inhuman but historically progressive force on the stagnant pre-capitalist economies, found himself increasingly appalled by this inhumanity.

As he lost hope that revolution was on the horizon in Britain and other economically advanced countries, Marx became increasingly hopeful about the prospects for revolution in economically backward Russia. Revolution is likely in Russia because it is less advanced than countries like Britain, Marx suggests in a number of places in his late writing. The Communist Manifesto's equation of capitalist development with historical progress, via a progressive bourgeoisie and the revolutionary working class, is absent from the late Marx.

It should be remembered, of course, that Marx in his last years did not produce any sweeping new restatement of his ideas. Texts like the 1881 Preface and the Zasulich drafts offer us only hints about what such a reorganisation might involve. And the Faustian contradiction that was so apparent in The Communist Manifesto still lurked beneath the surface in some of Marx's very late work. The 1881 Preface, for example, tempers its enthusiasm for a Russian revolution with the warning that such a revolution could not succeed unless it inspired parrallel revolutions in the advanced countries of Western Europe. Intensive capitalist development and the mass working class it creates are still, in the final analysis, prerequisites for socialism.

Reorientation in Russia

After Marx's death the unresolved tensions in his thinking were dispersed amongst different factions of his followers. Second International theoreticians like Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky championed and extended the unilinear model of history and optimistic view of capitalist development found in works like The Communist Manifesto. The Second International's famous 'heretic' Eduard Bernstein took this optimism to an extreme by denying that capitalism was naturally inclined to crisis and needed to be sharply distinguished from socialism at all.

It was from Russia that the most creative response to the contradictions in Marx's thought emerged. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain was no longer the world's most dynamic capitalist economy. Industrial capital was becoming less important than finance capital, as the grandchildren of mill owners and coal barons found investment abroad increasingly attractive. Russia was one of the semi-developed countries that were targets for investors from the advanced nations of the West, and the encroachment of industrial capitalism on the country created all sorts of peculiarities. By the time the 1905 revolution erupted, Russia had some of the largest factories in the world along with a huge peasantry, a tiny and weak indigenous bourgeoisie, a set of political and legal institutions that reeked of feudalism, and a relatively small and isolated yet concentrated and extremely combative working class. The revolutionary bourgeoisie, routed feudal class, shrinking peasantry, and massive working class of The Communist Manifesto could not be easily located in this strange new world.

The extreme conditions that existed in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century threw down a gauntlet to local followers of Marx. Plekhanov and many others failed the challenge, and continued quixotically to expect their country to follow a path of development not dissimilar to that trod by Britain and other advanced countries. By the time of the 1905 revolution, though, Leon Trotsky was rejecting this dead end by developing the first draft of his theories of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution. Eventually these would become 'general' theories, supposedly applicable to every developing country, but in 1905 they were primarily exercises in Russian particularism. Trotsky counterposed the new conditions in Russia to the unilinear model of development beloved of Plekhanov and the majority of the Second International's theorists. He insisted that the development of capitalism on a global scale - a development that Lenin would later explain to Trotsky's satisfaction with his theory of imperialism - had played havoc with the unilinear model of historical development, and ensured that societies like Russia could develop in a manner very different from the model outlined in Capital. Russia could not be Britain.

By arguing that features of the recent development of capitalism had invalidated unilinearism, Trotsky avoided a confrontation with the authority of Marx. He was able to argue that he was complementing rather than revising classics like Capital. Yet Trotsky's claim that the 'new' conditions he described meant that a socialist revolution could break out in Russia before it succeeded in the West was even more iconoclastic than Marx's 1881 Preface, which had suggested that a Russian revolution would have to be accompanied by revolution in the West.

In 1917 key parts of Trotsky's theories were by adopted Lenin and, eventually, the rest of the Bolshevik leadership. Kautsky, Plekhanov and other aged leaders of the Second International were outraged when the Bolsheviks took power and declared their revolution socialist. They still insisted that socialism could only exist in nations with highly advanced economies, like Britain or Germany. Even the young Italian iconoclast Antonio Gramsci was initially puzzled by the Bolsheviks' seizure of power, declaring it 'the revolution against Capital'.

After the Bolsheviks took power Trotsky spent considerable energy clarifying and generalising the theories of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution. By the mid-1920s he was engaged in a bitter struggle with Joseph Stalin, whose doctrine of socialism in one country clashed sharply with the internationalism of the theory of permanent revolution. Yet, viewed from one perspective, the two theories have some important similarities. For instance, they share a rejection of the notions that socialism can only exist in an advanced country, and that socialist revolution in the advanced countries is a prerequisite for socialist revolution in less advanced countries. Trotsky's rejection of these notions is explicit, though it is qualified by his argument that a revolution in an isolated and backward nation like the Soviet Union can only survive by exporting itself, preferably to the advanced countries of the West.

Stalin's views are complicated by his argument that in backward countries a 'stage' of capitalist development featuring a 'progressive' indigenous bourgeoisie is a necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Yet his insistence that socialism could be built 'in one country', ie in the Soviet Union, is an unmistakable rejection of the applicability of Kautsky and Plekhanov's views to at least one backward and isolated country. Whatever faction of the party they belonged to, the Bolsheviks were emphatic in their affirmation of the socialist nature of their revolution, and in their belief in the importance of this revolution to world history. The success of their party in taking and holding on to power led to a rapid 'Russification' of Marxism, as Marxists in both the developed and developing countries looked to Moscow for inspiration and in many cases leadership.

The Russification of British Marxism

British Marxism was thoroughly Russified in the years after 1917. In the early 1920s, Moscow was instrumental in the fusion of a number of Britain's small Marxist groups into the Communist Party of Great Britain. The centralised, disciplined new party soon took control of or marginalised many of the traditional instititutions of British Marxism. Importantly, the formerly decentralised institutions for workers' education in Marxism and related subjects were quickly absorbed into the party or marginalised.

Lenin was personally involved in debates about the new party's programme and organisational structure. Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder dwells for many pages on his differences with 'ultra-left' members of the new party like Sylvia Pankhurst, who opposed work in the trade unions and the giving of critical support to Labour candidates at election time. The prestige that the Bolsheviks enjoyed as leaders of a successful revolution ensured that Lenin's criticisms were taken very seriously by British Marxists. But Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky were not only interested in Britain's relatively small Communist Party: they analysed British society as a whole, and urged British Marxists to accept their analyses as well as their tactical advice. In 1926, for example, Trotsky published Where is Britain Going? a book that ranged the length and breadth of British history to explain the crisis that produced the failed 1926 General Strike.

Lenin and Trotsky's Britain was radically different from the society Marx had perceived. Marx had observed in Britain the world's most dynamic economy, and come to link that dynamism with first the great potential and later the general apathy of the British working class. In the third decade of the twentieth century Lenin and Trotsky saw Britain as a declining power with an increasingly moribund economy. They believed that the country was ripe for revolution, but only if an increasingly immiserated working class broke with the Labour Party and the gradualist policies that had characterised British trade unionism since the end of Chartism. Lenin and Trotsky were fierce critics of the assimilation of Marx to this gradualist tradition by left-wing supporters of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party.

Lenin and Trotsky's interventions into British politics were widely regarded, even on the non-communist left, as hostile incursions by an alien and rather barbaric political tradition. In his introduction to the London edition of Where is Britain Going?, AN Brailsford called Trotsky 'a man from another world' and expressed unease at his 'Russian methods' of polemic. In his review of Where is Britain Going? John Maynard Keynes expressed the same attitude:

Trotsky sees, what is probably true, that our Labour Party is the direct offspring of the Radical Non-conformists and the philanthropic bourgeois, without a tinge of atheism, blood and revolution and revolution. Emotionally and intellectually, therefore, he finds them intensely unsympathetic.

Bertrand Russell was more sympathetic to Trotsky's book, but nevertheless felt that its author was 'a patriot when it comes to the pinch' and wanted to subordinate a Soviet Great Britain to the objectives of the Soviet Union. Brailsford, Keynes, and Russell were members of the left who held to liberal and gradualist views, and smarted at the idea that a backward nation like the Soviet Union could offer its revolution as a model to advanced Britain. Many of Marx's most famous writings had seemed to make Britain the model for the developing world; now the Bolsheviks seemed intent on reversing things. In his response to Keynes' review, Trotsky commented on the irony of the situation:

The majority of British critics of my book see its chief failing in that the author is not British and that consequently he is incapable of understanding British psychology, British traditions and so on...

Today, when we are victorious, British and European. socialists in general are inclined to permit us to be left alone in view of the peculiarities of our country and its national culture. They want in this way to erect an essentially ideological barrier along the same frontiers where Lloyd George, Churchill, Clemenceau[6] and others attempted to set up a material barbed wire blockade. 'It may be all right for Russians', so the 'lefts' say to all intents, 'but just let the Russians dare to cross the Russian frontiers with their experience and their conclusions'. The peculiarities of the British character are introduced as a philosophical justification for the theory of Bolshevik 'non-intervention'. Fabian and other critics do not know that we have been well tempered by all our past against arguments of this brand. But the irony in it is that while the Fabians are agreed nowadays, that is after our victory, to recognize Bolshevism, that is Marxism in action, as corresponding to the national peculiarities of Russia, the old traditional Russian ideology and not just that of the government but that of the opposition, invariably regarded Marxism as a creature of western culture and would proclaim its total incompatibility with the peculiarities of Russian national development.

My generation can still remember how the overwhelming majority of the Russian press declared the Russian Marxists to be ideological aliens who were trying in vain to transplant Britain's historical experience on to Russian soil. On every pretext we were reminded that Marx created his theory of economic development in the British Museum and through observing British capitalism and its contradictions. How could the lessons of British capitalism have any relevance to Russia with its enormous 'peculiarities', its predominantly peasant population, its patriarchal traditions, its village commune and its Orthodox Church? Thus spoke the Russian reactionaries and the Russian populists with appropriate right and left variations.

Thanks largely to the influence of Bolshevik leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, Marxism came to be identified in 1920s Britain with the October revolution and the society that it had created.

A Deeper Shade of Red

The era from the end of the 1920s to the mid-30s is known to historians of communism as the 'Third Period', and regarded as a time of unparralleled sectarianism and ultra-leftism on the part of communists loyal to Moscow. It is certainly true that, under the self-interested leadership of Stalin, the Communist Parties of the West, in particular, often behaved in an extreme, almost hysterical manner during the Third Period. Lenin's lessons in Left-wing Communism were forgotten, as parties rushed to condemn their social democratic rivals as 'social fascists' and to scorn even left-wing trade union leaders as 'lackeys of capitalism'. In Britain and most of the other countries of Western Europe, Third Period Communists stood candidates against social democratic rivals, even when they were bound to receive derisory votes, and struggled to build 'red' unions independent of the mainstream workers' movement. An almost religious belief in the imminent collapse of capitalism replaced analysis. The best-known result of Third Period policies was the refusal of the German Communist Party to form an alliance with their rivals in the Social Democratic party to keep Hitler out of power in 1933. Using the slogan 'First Hitler, then us' the German communists condemned themselves to disaster with their sectarianism and hyperoptimism.

If the Third Period was in important respects a departure from the policies urged on Marxists by Lenin and Trotsky, it also had certain intriguing connections with the ideas in texts like Where is Britain Going? and Left-wing Communism. For example, the frenzied dismissal of Britain's gradualist left and its trade union and Labour Party leaders by the Third Period Communist Party is in certain respects only an intensification of the attitudes Lenin and Trotsky had struck during their interventions in British politics. While Lenin had urged communists to make certain alliances with the Labour Party, he had made no secret of his complete contempt for its politics. Trotsky had accepted the need to work within the traditional trade union movement, but he had made no secret of his desire to see that movement 'Bolshevised' as a step towards a 'Soviet Britain'. With its aggressive dismissal of the Labour Party and the trade unions and its counerposition to them of 'Soviet communism', the Third Period party took some of the tendencies in Lenin and Trotsky's polemics to an extreme. Recent 'revisionist' histories of the Third Period have shown that ultra-left policies commanded considerable support amongst long-time Communist Party members, who clearly did not see its policies as a bolt from the blue.

Back to Britain

Third Period policies were no more successful in Britain than they were in the rest of Europe. Despite the beginning of the Great Depression and a sharp rise in unemployment, Communist Party membership dropped steadily in the early '30s. By the middle of the decade, Moscow was intent on ending the Third Period and inaugurating a new policy of the Popular Front, or the 'Popular Front against war and fascism' as it was often called. During the Popular Front era, which is usually dated from the Seventh and last Comintern Congress in 1935, Communist Parties sought to create alliances with social democrats and 'progressive bourgeois' parties, and tried to focus attention on 'progressive national history' as well as the October revolution and the achievements of the Soviet Union. The French Communist Party, for instance, revivied the slogan 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity', and began waving the tricolour rather than the red flag at demonstrations. I have noted elsewhere how Britain's Communist Party used the Popular Front era to 'rediscover' its country's non-Marxist radical history, and to attempt a rapproachement with the Labour Party and with liberals like Russell and Keynes.

The turn to the Popular Front saw the Communist Party encouraging its intellectual members and sympathisers to see a continuity between the best parts of Britain's intellectual tradition and Marxism. The great Marxist thinkers were related to some of the great British non-Marxist intellectuals; for instance, the party rediscovered the comparison Engels had made between Capital and The Origin of Species in his eulogy for Marx. The Popular Front era saw, then, a reversal of attempts to 'Russify' the British left. Instead of making the October revolution and Bolshevism the sole relevant models for the British left, the Communist Party began to draw upon an indigenous tradition of radical and democratic politics and talk of a unique 'British road to socialism' that passed through institutions like Westminster. After World War Two, some Popular Front policies were tempered, but others were institutionalised, and became virtually unquestionable parts of party doctrine. The British Road to Socialism, for instance, became the title of the permanent programme the party adopted in 1951. The small minority of party members who rejected the institutional legacy of the Popular Front era were forced out of the party. Edward Upward, who got his marching orders at the end of the '40s, made a reasoanble point when he claimed that Lenin would not have recognised the Communist Party of the postwar era.

Lenin and Marx may not have recognised the mid-century Communist Party of Great Britain, but some of the old tensions in Marxist thought still lurked in the organisation. There was, for instance, an incorrigible tension between British particularism and British universalism which harked back to some of the conflicts in Marx's thought about the country. The Communist Party's programme held that Britain's unique history meant that it could advance toward socialism on a road different to that travelled in many other places. Yet the party often offered its own experience and the history of its own country as guidelines for comrades overseas. The British party was a particularly powerful influence on sister groups in the British colonies or ex-colonies - for many of the leaders of these parties, the British organisation's headquarters on London'd King St were a sort of 'mini-Kremlin', and British communist leaders sometimes had an authority that rivalled that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The detailed advice that emanated from King St would frequently draw upon the peculiarities of British history. When the British urged their comrades in India to remake their alliance with the Congress Party after World War Two, for instance, they claimed that there were important similarities between the Indian independence struggle and the fight of the working class, middle class, and 'progressive' bourgeoisie for democratic reform in nineteenth century Britain. A Communist-Congress alliance would parallel the alliance the Chartists had struck with the 'progressive' parts of the middle class and bourgeoisie, the British claimed.

EP Thompson and the British commoner

I have described elsewhere how EP Thompson's mature political convictions were formed during the Popular Front era, a time when William Morris and the young Coleridge as well as Marx and Lenin were lauded by the Communist Party, and the Levellers and Chartists were allotted places in the same pantheon of heroes as the Bolsheviks.

From the beginning of his career as an activist and as a scholar - as I've noted elsewhere, the two pursuits were for him indissolubly linked - EP Thompson seems to have been convinced of both the interest and the importance of British history and culture, and of the relevance of this history and culture to contemporary political practice. Thompson's first important work of scholarship, his monumental biography of William Morris, was intended partially as a political intervention. In the best Popular Front tradition, Thompson wanted to reclaim an indigenous radical from his admirers on the right; he also believed that Morris' 'revolutionary romantic' politics could help counter certain tendencies toward economism and philistinism in the postwar British left. By the time he had become a leader of the Old New Left, Thompson had begun to assert that the tradition that included William Morris was important not just to the British left but to the left everywhere. At the end of 'Revolution', a text that was widely read in the Old New Left, Thompson asserted that:

It would be underestimate the long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner. It is a dogged, good-humoured, responsible, peaceable tradition: yet a revolutionary tradition all the same. From the Leveller corporals ridden down by Cromwell's men at Burford to the weavers massed behind their banners at Peterloo, the struggles for democratic and for social rights have always been intertwined. From the Chartist camp meeting to the dockers' picket line, it has expressed itself most naturally in the language of moral revolt. Its weaknesses, its carelessness of theory, we know too well; its strengths, its resilience and steady humanity, we too easily forget. It is a tradition which could leaven the socialist world.

When he published The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, Thompson prefaced the work with a famous assertion of its heuristic value for both scholars and political activists in the developing world:

[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialsation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this passage is suggesting British history, or at least a certain period in English history, as a model for the development of large parts of the developing world. English history and the situation of 'the greater part of the world' are being made commensurable. Thompson's claim for the relevance of his book to the situation of many developing countries is one of the reasons for the tremendous popularity it has enjoyed, not only amongst scholars in the Third World but amongst First World social scientists and political activists concerned with the problems thrown up by capitalist development in the Third World. For many readers, Thompson is not just describing the distant history of the world's first industrial power; he is saying something about the situation of hundreds of millions of people alive today.

[part two in a few days...]