Politics and coffee
The blogger known as Snowball has given my recently-published book on EP Thompson a plug at his Adventures in Historical Materialism blog, and written a longer response for a forthcoming issue of Britain's Socialist Review.
I'm very pleased that Snowball enjoyed my tome, because he's an expert on CLR James, a man who can in many ways be considered the West Indian equivalent of EP Thompson. James and Thompson both tried to see history 'from below', rather than through the eyes of diplomats and Kings and Presidents. Just as Thompson's masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class humanised the study of the industrial revolution, so James' famous book The Black Jacobins told the story of the Haitian revolution and war of independence from the perspective of slave rather than European master. Thompson and James were also united, of course, by a ferocious love of cricket.
One of the more inconsequential passages in my book describes the rise and fall of the Partisan Coffee House, which was a creation of the 'first New Left', the unstable but highly creative movement comprised of communists who left their Stalinised party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and students and other young people politicised by the British government's invasion of Egypt in the same year.
Billed as 'London's first anti-expresso bar', the Partisan Coffee House was established in Soho in 1958, close to offices used by New Left activists. The cafe featured very long tables that could be used for the meetings of political committees and clubs, and was spacious enough to be a venue for film screenings, art shows, and folk music gigs. It also became known as a place of refuge for London's down and outers, who could sit for hours over free cups of coffee.
The Partisan may have served a few too many free coffees, because financial problems caused it to close down in 1961. In the persistently wry autobiography he named Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm looked back at the demise of the Partisan and wondered how any coffee house could possibly have made a loss in the prosperous and increasingly hip London of the early '60s. Many of the ex-communists in the New Left lived in the coal and steel belts of northern England, and seldom visited London, where the movement was dominated by students and the young. Some of the old commies grumbled about the fecklessness of youth when the Partisan shut down and the New Left encountered other financial problems; EP Thompson was particularly indignant at what he saw as the lack of discipline in the south.
I was thinking about the Partisan Coffee House because I recently posted about the cafe in Riverhead where a Titoist, or perhaps a Titoist-Harawiraist, may have been lurking. I don't know of a cafe or restaurant in this part of the world run by the left, but there are a few establishments which deploy imagery associated, justly or unjustly, with the left. I blogged a few years about Auckland's Shangri La restaurant, which serves very hot Hunanese food and uses a weird mixture of Maoist and Tibetan motifs. More recently, I took photos of a couple of central Melbourne eateries with interesting names: the Engels Expresso Bar, which sits at the swanky end of Collins Street, and the Post-Mao Restaurant, which is located somewhere in Chinatown. The comrades of the first New Left wouldn't approve, but perhaps there's a certain historical authenticity in Engels, who was a very successful businessman, lending his name to an expresso bar haunted by bankers and stockbrokers. If only the suits of Melbourne would follow Engels' example, and use their profits to fund left-wing scholarship and activism.
The Post-Mao Restaurant confuses me: does its name represent support for the Dengists who currently run China, and their dictum that, contra Mao, 'to get rich is glorious', or is it supposed to suggest some sort of anti-authoritarian critique of Mao's rule, of the sort that the anti-Stalinists of the first New Left would affirm? Can anybody help me out?
[Posted by Maps - blogger is still locking me out of my own account...]