Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to the future

 Some anonymous philanthropist has posted a long dialogue from 1983 between the left-wing historians EP Thompson and CLR James to Youtube. In between blasts of reggae Thompson and James talk about their scholarly work, the political situation in 1983, and the prospects of the left.

By the early eighties Thompson had become the world's most-cited living historian. His massive The Making of the English Working Class had changed the course of the discipline by inspiring young scholars to think about the past 'from the bottom up', rather than in terms of the cunning of diplomats and statesmen. Despite his success, Thompson had in 1980 given up historical research to campaign against the deployment of both American and Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe. He had soon became one of the best-known spokesmen for the wider peace movement.

While Thompson spent much of the eighties travelling from one meeting hall and protest site to another, making speeches and scribbling press releases, the octogenarian CLR James lived quietly in a shabby flat in Brixton, the south London suburb known for its large black population and riots. James' great works, like his epic history of the Haitian revolution and his politically engaged study of West Indian cricket,  had never achieved the mainstream renown of The Making of the English Class.
What is most remarkable about the dialogue between Thompson and James is the confidence both men have in the immediate future. Both see the eighties as a decade in which the forces of the left have every opportunity to advance. James believes that more and more Third World nations will follow the lead of revolutionary Iran and Sandinista Nicaragua, and break free of the domination of America. He suggests that India, with its huge, politically literate working class, will soon experience revolution, and become an important player in world politics.

Thompson is less sanguine than James about the state of the global left, but he believes that the peace movement which is building in both Western and Eastern Europe may be able to usher in a new era in history, by humbling both the Stalinist dictators of the Soviet Union and the Reagan government and uniting European peoples in some sort of egalitarian confederation.

Both James and Thompson seem to see the Reagan and Thatcher governments, with their aggressive brand of free market capitalism and antipathy to organised labour, as historical aberrations, rather than as harbingers of the future.
Before we mock the optimistic visions of Thompson and James, we should think carefully about the historical context of their chat.

For members of my generation, the eighties bring to mind a set of curiously contradictory images. The decade of our childhood and early teenage years was the era of yuppies, synthesiser-rock bands with extravagantly bad hair, and febrile sharemarkets, but it was also marked by mass unemployment, epic industrial disputes like Britain's miners' strike, and fear of nuclear war.

The eighties began with America and its allies recoiling from military defeat in Indochina and anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World, and wondering how to deal with an economic crisis which had lasted for the whole of the seventies, and had prompted wave after wave of industrial unrest. Respected commentators prophesised the collapse of Western capitalism and the ever-increasing power of the Soviet Union and its allies.
By the end of the eighties the world seemed to have changed completely. America and Britain had enjoyed a decade of right-wing rule, during which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had subdued insurgent trade unions, handed many formerly state-owned assets to the private sector, and stared down a visibly weakening Soviet leadership. Popular culture had lost much of its seventies insouciance, and reconciled itself to the hegemony of capitalism. The grimy radicalism of the Sex Pistols and The Clash had been replaced by Duran Duran's odes to superyachts and supermodels.

Through the nineties and much of the noughties, the triumph of Thatcher, Reagan and their many imitators seemed like an historical turning point. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the exhaustion of the Soviet Union and the popularity of Western capitalism had brought humanity to the 'end of history', and prophesised that America would be the model for all future societies, many formerly radical intellectuals nodded their heads with varying degress of sadness. Organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank set about applying the 'lessons' of the eighties to continents like South America and Africa, forcing government after government to privatise assets, eliminate subsidies, and submit to the erratic logic of the free market.

When Britain's Tories were finally voted out of office in 1997 they were replaced by the 'reformed' Labour Party of Tony Blair, a man who openly admitted his admiration for Thatcher. As Britain and much of the rest of the West enjoyed a period of strong economic growth in the late nineties and early noughties, it seemed that the changes of the eighties had created the basis for a new boom. The decade had become the first page of a new and glorious chapter in the history of Western capitalism.
But the contradictions of the eighties always survived in some of the memories and popular images of the decade. The struggle of Britain's miners, which saw northern towns placed under military occupation and pitched battles on the edge of coal pits, the riots by unemployed youth in Brixton and other poorer suburbs of big cities, and the persistent fear that nuclear-tipped missiles would come flying over the horizon from Eastern Europe were impossible to reconcile with the jejune visions of Fukuyama and his ilk.

In the early years of the eighties, especially, Thatcher and Reagan and the policies they promoted seemed destined for the dustbin of history. As Brixton burned and unemployment rose relentlessly, Thatcher fell far behind the Labour Party in the opinion polls. Labour itself was moving leftwards, as it adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and sent Trotskyists to parliament. It was the Falklands War, and not the success of Thatcherism, which turned the tide and gave the Tories their impressive victory in the general election of 1983. Reagan also struggled for much of his first term, as Americans came home in bodybags from Lebanon and unemployment crept upwards.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the beginning of what has become known as the Great Recession, the eighties of riots, strikes, and paranoia have made a comeback in popular consciousness. As Britain's dole stretch and riots return to London, newspaper columnists are warning about a return to bad old days. The economic growth of the early twentieth century seems to have owed more to dodgy accounting and debt than to a successful reinvention of capitalism by Thatcherites. Fukyama's sanguinity seems absurd.
The conversation between EP Thompson and CLR James is important because it returns us to a moment when the eighties seemed like they might be a continuation rather than a reversal of the pattern of the sixties and seventies. When they sat together in a television studio in 1983, Thompson and James could reasonably expect to see Thatcher and Reagan's experiments in extreme capitalism defeated, the Western trade union and peace movements strengthened, and more Third World nations shake off the hegemony of America.

And it is worth wondering whether the long run has completely discredited Thompson and James' speculations. Thatcherism may have triumphed in Britian in the late eighties, as the miners were defeated and the north was deindustrialised, but the hegemony of free market capitalism seems increasingly uncertain a quarter century on. America may have thwarted the revolutionaries of the Third World in the eighties and nineties, but it has seen the International Monetary Fund defied by a series of radical South American governments in recent years. The Iranian revolution may have been betrayed by a grotesque theocracy, but in nations like Egypt and Tunisia the Arab Spring now promises a new era. Watching Thompson and James, we can return to a moment which seems both remote and curiously contemporary.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


21 Comments:

Anonymous CPGB -PCC said...

From the latest Weekly Worker:

To begin with the positive: ‘Marx is back’. The crash of 2008 and its long-drawn-out consequences have meant that the tendency of capitalism periodically to threaten the foundations of its own existence is back on the political agenda. This is one of the distinctive predictions of Marx’s critique of political economy, and it has meant that even the rigid control of the academic economics profession and of economic journalism by ‘neoclassical’ marginalists has not prevented a ‘Marx revival’.

I do not definitely say, as Martin Thomas does, that the capitalist crisis is ‘unresolved’. This may be true, but it may also turn out that enough of the losses have been externalised away from the ‘core countries’ through money-market mechanisms for there to be a new limited upturn or even a new bubble, on the basis of the extraordinary levels of money-printing that have gone on in the last period.

Secondly, the politics of class is back with a vengeance. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan against the 1% - the ruling class - resonated widely, even if the movement itself has largely withered, as all such spontaneist direct-action ‘spectacular’ projects do. Owen Jones’ Chavs becomes an Amazon bestseller. Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell calling cops ‘plebs’ becomes, for a while, a political running sore. David Cameron finds it necessary to claim that he stands for “privilege for all” - a nonsensical slogan.

The Eurocommunist idea argued by the late Eric Hobsbawm and others, that issues of class are gradually being superseded by identity issues - gender, race, sexuality - as motivators of radical critique of the present order, has spectacularly proved itself false. Capital has shown in the last 20 years that it can be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc, in its own way; what it cannot do is avoid waging war on labour.

The crisis and austerity accentuate the issue, since the Con-Dem government is determined not to waste the opportunity to push through attacks on welfare and privatisation of the health and education systems. The effect is an obviously corrupt government acting in the interests of its ‘1%’ paymasters at everyone else’s expense.

This context has necessarily produced a real, if as yet small, revival of militant collective action. Days lost through strikes rose in 2011 to the highest level for eight years. A large chunk of this was the one-day public sector action on November 30, but if this element of the 2011 figure is subtracted, there would still have been a rise in strikes.

1:19 pm  
Anonymous Evan said...

"The conversation between EP Thompson and CLR James is important because it returns us to a moment when the eighties seemed like they might be a continuation rather than a reversal of the pattern of the sixties and seventies."

This conversation was four or five years after Hobsbawm's 'The Forward March of Labour Halted?' and Stuart Hall's 'The Great Moving Right Show', which argued that Thatcherism and the 'crisis of social democracy' indicated that the 1980s weren't going to be a repeat of the 1960s and early 1970s. Were Thompson and James just more optimistic (or revolutionary in their outlook) than Hobsbawm and Hall, or were H/H too premature in declaring 'new times'? Or were H/H just wrong in their analysis?

1:25 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Evan,

I don't think either EPT or CLRJ was the sort of chap you'd turn to for sober analysis. EPT certainly vacillated, thoughout his life, between wild political optimism and total political despair. But, as the first commenter points out, Hobsbawm's proto-Blairism hasn't stood up too well either.

By the way, the blog you've set up is excellent! I hope everyone goes and checks out your piece on Hobsbawm and the document you've excavated from 1956...

1:33 pm  
Anonymous Evan said...

Thanks Scott for the reply and the kind words about my blog. I hope to keep mine going for as long as yours one day!

I've seen many commentators jump on the idea of Hobsbawm's arguments as proto-Blairism or New Labour, and I do have some sympathy with the teleological idea that you start with Eurocommunism in the 1970s and end up with New Labour in the 1990s. However I think Hobsbawm's original argument back in the late 1970s and early 1980s has been caricatured by many - I think of 'The Forward March of Labour Halted?' was more of a 'heads up', than an instruction manual for the way forward.

Have you read Andrew Pearmain's book 'The Politics of New Labour'? This book is a good analysis of the role that MT and the Euros had on influencing (or not influencing) New Labour.

1:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As if.

10:05 am  
Blogger me said...

Evan, I am putting a link to you blog on mine, just because of the name. I will actually get around to reading it when I get home tonight. Th name of my blog went totally over Scotts head I think, but I reckon you might get it.
Mark

11:55 am  
Anonymous CLR James online said...

CLR James texts online:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/index.htm

A good text for the Aretnisi-Tongese to read perhaps:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm

2:00 pm  
Anonymous CLR James online said...

What if CLR James had met EP Thompson in 1792?
http://www.sojournertruth.net/epthompson.html

2:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 sad old men.

11:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol even more sad

For the record, my top ten albums of all time are (in no particular order):

The Smiths – The Queen is Dead

The Clash – The Clash

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

Atari Teenage Riot – Burn! Berlin, Burn!

New Order – Substance 1987

Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

Xray Spex – Germ Free Adolescents

Bjork – Post

Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden

11:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is so funny.

4:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was on Saturday among dozens of speakers at a TUC-organised march in London against austerity. Other rallies took place in Glasgow and Belfast.

Miliband said: "Andrew Mitchell may finally have resigned. But the culture of two nations runs right across this government. They cut taxes for millionaires. And they raise taxes for ordinary families. They leave young people out of work while the bonuses at the banks carry on. They even have a chancellor of the exchequer who tries to travel first-class on a standard-class ticket. It's one rule for those at the top and another rule for everybody else: everybody like you who plays their part and does the right thing. The trouble with this government is that while they are think they are born to rule, it turns out they are not very good at it."

Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, said Miliband was leading Labour back "to the days of Michael Foot".

"The world has changed. Britain is in a global race. That's why we're dealing with our debts, getting people back to work and keeping mortgage rates low.

"Ed Miliband and his union paymasters are turning a blind eye to all that. By marching with them, Ed Miliband proved he still stands for more spending, more borrowing and more debt."

12:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:18 am  
Blogger Richard said...

You are going to live in Tonga near Atenisi and teach there?

An exciting development!

12:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's 2012.

7:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The police complaints watchdog is under pressure to widen its investigation into alleged fabrication of evidence by South Yorkshire officers in the 1980s as new allegations emerge of attempts to frame miners at the Orgreave coking plant clashes.

Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, said the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, should include in their examination of South Yorkshire police's post-Hillsborough "cover-up" the force's alleged framing of 95 miners for serious criminal offences after Orgreave.

"Many miners were subjected to malpractice during the strike by South Yorkshire police – and other forces," Kitchen told the Guardian. "I will be asking the NUM's national executive committee to consider complaining to the IPCC and DPP for the police operations at Orgreave and elsewhere during the strike to be investigated, now the details of what South Yorkshire police did at Hillsborough have been revealed."

At Orgreave in 1984, police officers on horseback and on foot were filmed beating picketing miners with truncheons, but South Yorkshire police claimed the miners had attacked them first, and prosecuted 95 men for riot and unlawful assembly, which carried potential life sentences. All 95 were acquitted after the prosecution case collapsed following revelations in court that police officers' statements had been dictated to them in order to establish evidence of a riot, and one officer's signature on a statement had been forged.

8:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After a long walk I find myself in a third class compartment, where there are other travelers I can barely make out. Just as I'm about to fall asleep I notice that the regular jolts of the train are chanting a word, always the same one, and which is more or less “Adéphaude.” The “adéphaude” is a precious yellow stone that I see sitting in the mesh bag next to a poorly wrapped package, enveloped in wrapping fabric with a railroad label on it bearing the inscription “Rhodes 1415,” which I am convinced is an error. It is impossible for me to place the battle in question, despite the basket weavers I question one after the other along the interminable marsh I am crossing with the air of a vagabond. I have arrived at a second class wagon. I sardonically make the observation that there are now in the mesh bag two packages bearing the mention “Rhodes no date.” At that moment I notice in the opposite corner a young woman who is speaking agitatedly to a companion who is at first invisible and who could be me, or some distant relative of a certain Lady Carnegie, who I think I knew when I was young. The young lady is dressed with great elegance. I am only able to make out a few words of conversation: “...lacking lacquer...” It is obviously a question of the packages which, in fact, look extraordinarily scaly. I turn my eyes towards the lady’s interlocutor and I see that he is covered in armor, which completely hides him. I stand up, indignant. At my feet are the remains of a cold meal. The lady wipes her hands with a lace handkerchief. We are in the middle of the countryside, near an embankment. It’s the evening of the battle of Marignan.

4:13 am  
Anonymous Cool Hand Luke said...

Hey Richard.

I'm all for sharing information, but do some homework before you post this kind of stuff, when you post things I can blow big holes in in just a few seconds it doesn't help your cause.

8:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Cool Hand made me notice I had done some mistakes with my spelling or keyboarding...

That's what was good about Thompson - the very fact that he [while sometimes being contradictory etc he was mostly passionate and sincere, and his interests ranged widely - I think this is what I was saying here!] - that he was sometimes cranky etc James is very nice fellow.

Regardless of the fine details it is good to see him - he sounds much as Imagined he would - and it is somehow comforting. These two are not so sad.

In a tight spot you feel that people such as James and Thompson make the world better. Simply knowing there are human, humane people are around how care (whether they are "right" or not to be optimists)is good.

Just as I admire such as Minto and Harawira or Tama Iti and Futa Helu.

8:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" Anonymous Cool Hand Luke said...

Hey Richard.

I'm all for sharing information, but do some homework before you post this kind of stuff, when you post things I can blow big holes in in just a few seconds it doesn't help your cause. "

Isn't this directed to Scott?

But if me - blow the holes in me.

8:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leftism, the radical, angry, hostile, festival of betrayals that it is…is to “liberal” what a fox is to a whale. Both mammals and from that point the differences in environment, form, function, size, and basic nature are universally different.

Leftism is also its own “reward” for its adherents. Bathed in disloyalty, oozing with treason, built upon layer after layer of lies and distortion…one cannot be a leftist without creating a virtual world of loathing tradition and then bloviating about it.

Leftism is a permanent protest culture. It is the primordial slime from Ghostbusters that thrives on negative energy. It seeks out ways to create divisiveness and “war” between people. Class warfare, racial warfare, gender warfare, sexual orientation warfare, age warfare, religious warfare. It gins up “victims” where there are none, just to feed off the carcass of dead relationships.

And, betrayal is its mother’s milk. It will take our homeland and find ways to denigrate it, trash talk it, buckle its knees, leave it open to enemy invasion, tear apart its borders, gut its military, weaken its might, strip its place in the world. And, it doesn’t treat our allies much better.

Peel a leftist and at his heart you will find betrayal. Tearing down the building blocks of the free market democracy is not a bug, it’s a feature of leftism. Obama is a radical leftist. The Democratic Party is crawling with them. We are in the Days of Betrayal. The mass media is a betrayal farm. Academia is a betrayal farm. Hollywood is a betrayal farm.

We are being cut up, shredded, torn to pieces by traitors. Leftism is their god, their country, their religion. They are…our enemies.

8:01 am  

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