We Make Our Own History

Review: We make our own history: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Pluto Press, London 2014)

For an exponent of ‘history from below’, the title has an immediate appeal. To a degree, the book suffers from being presented partially to fulfil the academic necessity of publishing research work. The language used is sometimes overly technical which can be off-putting to the general reader, especially with the earlier chapters. But it is worth persevering. One strength that arises from this form of presentation is that it is well referenced and there is an extensive bibliography to lead the reader on to other discoveries. Given the approach of the authors, there are some odd omissions: no mention of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose Marxist Humanism is echoed frequently, nor of some of the critics of Marxism such as Cornelius Castoriadis or Murray Bookchin, whose work would have seemed very relevant, and later works by David Harvey, Paul Mattick and others that cover the experience of the 2008 recession.

Despite these small reservations, the main strength of the book is that both authors have been immersed in recent activism, principally in Ireland and India, so their insights derive from practice as much as theory. Their experiences have led them to reject ‘institutionalised forms of Marxism’ in favour of another Marxism being possible, grounded in practice. They have tested their ideas among activist gatherings and social movement conferences, though perhaps they needed testing in more challenging conditions. This takes nothing away from their fundamental argument in favour of an organic, developmental conception of resistance and rebellion that creates its own theories through practice and self-reflection.

They make a useful distinction, drawn from Gramsci, between ‘common sense’ (ways of doing things imposed by the status quo and operating within the dominant consensus) and a deeper ‘good sense’ that builds from people’s real experiences and desires and challenges the boundaries of ‘how things are’. [p 74]

They provide a useful analysis of different forms of ‘social movement from below’ at different stages of development from the specifically local to the more generalised. Perhaps their most useful insight however is to describe the power structures of the status quo as ‘social movements from above’ – immediately reconceptualising the dominant culture as contested, temporary and fragile. The local and particular, through intelligent networking, can therefore begin to articulate an alternative and go on to develop a new narrative that can confront the dominant structures.

They note that social movements, grounded in everyday realities, always go well beyond the limited abilities of a political party, to institute grassroots, self-organised change. When this becomes self-reflexive, it becomes praxis and we enter the complex dialectical process, between social movements from above and below, and within each of these spheres, since these processes are uneven and sometimes contradictory. There is great hope in this way of seeing the world.

Tucked away on page 76 is an insight that may be worth developing further. The authors paraphrase from Lichtermann’s 1996 volume, The Search for Political Community. Describing different types of movement, they make reference to environmental groups in the US: ‘middle class, mostly white, US Green participants found themselves largely isolated from the cultures they were born into and needed to construct new activist communities as a means of social support’. Is this why people gravitate more easily to left and Green parties and structures than to grassroots movements? Is this why they then substitute sectarian factionalism for real community engagement, which in turn deepens their estrangement? Something for many activists to reflect on.

A No State Solution

Looking way beyond the current international furore about Herr Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Middle Eastern countries, 2017 is the centenary of the source of the whole problem: the Balfour Declaration. Dated 2 November 1917, it was written by AJ Balfour, British Foreign Secretary to Lord Rothschild and read:

“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”

This was not purely Balfour’s doing, it was a statement by the British Imperial State regarding territory over which they had absolutely no rights, other than what was being achieved by force of arms as part of the war against the Ottoman Empire. It followed an agreement reached between the French and British the previous year (the Sykes-Picot Agreement) which divided up the Middle East into spheres of influence and occupation among the WW1 Allies, also regarding territory over which neither Empire had any rights. So, the whole problem stems from an imperial arrogance rooted in nineteenth century attitudes.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, not least of which has been the Holocaust. The industrial murder of millions of Jews and others, on racial and political and eugenic grounds, by Nazi Germany with the active support of anti-Semitic governments and peoples throughout Europe, created what would inevitably be an unstoppable migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine. That in turn led to the creation of the State of Israel at the behest of the United Nations and a series of wars resulting in the present-day impasse.

The plan in 1947 had been to create a two-State solution to the problem of how this massive influx of Jews seeking security and a homeland could live alongside their Palestinian Arab neighbours, while to some degree not prejudicing ‘the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities’ (which included Christian, Muslim and secular Arabs). The situation 100 years after the 1917 Declaration is that a two-State solution has become an impossibility. Similarly, a one-State solution in which Jews and Arabs lived side by side in equality has become a political impossibility. More likely is a one-State solution in which Israel is essentially an apartheid State incorporating Palestinians as second-class citizens, alongside other Palestinians in a local version of what in apartheid South Africa were nicknamed ‘Bantustans’.

In the spirit of 1968, let us therefore ‘be realistic and demand the impossible’ – neither Zionism nor anti-Zionism. The only solution lies in a movement among both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews to create a No-State Solution in which all peoples in this disputed territory live together in harmony as co-operative neighbours, owning the land and the means of production in common without any form of threat to each other. In 2017, we must embrace the impossible as the only realistic course. The alternative is the continued cancer of barbarism, growing and spreading and infecting every society around the world. It is only one of many ‘impossibilities’ we must embrace.



Spectres of Revolt

Spectres of Revolt

Just finished reading this book by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Illinois. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to make sense of what is happening in the world today on a global scale, both the revolts and the reactions, and looking for a way through to a better world. There is one caveat – he doesn’t provide and answer and doesn’t pretend to. You will not find any formula, but he will encourage you to take notice of what is going on in a different way and help you orientate yourself more critically and skilfully, especially if you are more than a little disturbed by the shape that many of the revolts take.

What I have found most refreshing in the book is that he gives an unusually full and broad survey of radical thought from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, through post-modernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida (Spectres of Marx), providing a whole gamut of sources from which you can go further to make your own critical excursions. He draws attention to often neglected thinkers, from Anton Pannekoek, through Raya Dunayevskaya and Cornelius Castoriadis to Julia Kristeva and George Katsiaficas. The first three were known to me and have each had their influences on me at different times; Kristeva I knew about but had not come across her work on revolt, to which I will now pay attention; Katsiaficas is completely new to me.

As a taster, I include below a ten-point examination of why seemingly pointless revolt speaks clearly, expressing its own philosophy from below. I have abbreviated it, but hopefully not rendered it incomprehensible in the process, but retained its essence. The original comes from pages 245-247. My apologies to the author if I have misrepresented him in any way.

The Logic of Revolt

  1. Revolt is communicative action by means other than words, by means other than text. Revolt articulates questions, criticisms, visions and expresses disaffections.
  2. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the existing state of affairs.
  3. Revolt calls for some other state of affairs that can be imagined. Revolt imagines a state of affairs that does not exist, yet seems both possible and desirable to insurgents.
  4. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against conventional politics and established channels of reform. Revolt emerges in the face of frustrated and failed reform. Or, revolt addresses reformist failure.
  5. Revolt speaks for positions that are marginal or invisible without it. Revolt seeks to eliminate the invisibility and oblivion of its own reasonable context.
  6. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the boredom and acceptance of everyday life by way of their opposites, excitement and rejection. Revolt is an ecstatic refutation of acceptance.
  7. Revolt calls for and enacts the direct experience of autonomy and spontaneity (this acknowledges the prefigurative aspects of the rupture with everyday life.
  8. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the separation of theory from praxis… revolt rejects the notion that what makes sense in theory is impractical.
  9. Revolt calls for resolutions of anguish and hope. Revolt is not, in-and-of-itself, a solution to a problem, and yet it conceives of and presents itself as part of resolutions.
  10. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks more desperately and dangerously than in conventional communicative formats, such as textual writing and political speech. Even where revolt wants to be non-violent, it self-consciously risks various forms of violence, and in confronting a quotidian violence, is incapable of promising the absence of violence.

[Abbreviated from, and with apologies to: Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy from Below, Repeater Books, London 2016, paperback edition]



Red Ellen Wilkinson

Just finished reading ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’, by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Whatever your specific political persuasion, I urge you to read it and to persevere with its 450 pages of extensive detail. This year will be the centenary of her death from an accidental overdose of pills on 6 February 1947, at which time she was the Minister for Education in the Attlee Government and one of the architects of the experiment in social engineering from 1945. She helped create the foundations of the world in which I grew up.

Ellen was born in Manchester on 8 October 1891, not far from the area described by Engels in his ‘Condition of the Working Classes in England’, though in a slightly more upmarket neighbourhood. She became one of a generation of working-class intellectuals imbued with the ideals of socialism, feminism and internationalism. She campaigned for votes for women from an early age, was a dedicated trade union organiser all her life, helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), became a long-serving Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and Jarrow, organised the Jarrow Crusade, campaigned against fascism in the 1930s and on behalf of Republican Spain and helped in the foundation of the UN and UNESCO. She worked tirelessly and this book shows in great detail just how hard that was and how, in the end, it broke her physically. She gave her life for the working classes. If there is to be a statue to her, as has been suggested, it is long overdue and may it replace one of those bronze men on horseback.

I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Ellen stood for, but I salute her intentions and her bravery and the way she fought. Most of us mortals fall well short. What this book illustrates, step by step, and decision by decision, is the way in which the desire for ‘something better now’ can distort the longer aims and divert the most militant among us. Time and time again, Ellen allowed her principles to be set aside in order to get some small measure of vital improvement for working class lives in the immediate present. Her story is an object lesson and an archetype of how staunch and genuine socialists in the Labour Party in the UK gradually triangulate their way to becoming divorced from the working class while purporting to be representing their best interests. For every reform she won, large or small, there was an equal and opposite compromise where she turned against her own principles and blocked the tide.

This is the road that has led via Blair to Brexit, via Clinton and Obama to Trump, via the integration of neo-liberal principles in EU institutions to the rise of a new fascist menace in Europe. It is matched by similar tendencies across the globe. It is to be hoped that this process quickly produces its opposite and superior reaction: a world-wide movement for the liberation of working people from the fetters of globalised Capital. This time: let the working class be its own force for liberation.

Saying that, let me take nothing away from ‘Red Ellen’ – she did what she believed was right in the circumstances of her times. Would that the present-day Labour Party had more MPs and members like her, whatever the limitations of that organisation.



Lessons from the Past

Watching the unfolding of the so-called ‘alt-right’ tendency across the globe during the decade since the 2008 Crash, can seem scary. First, let us call a spade a bloody shovel, as those of us from England’s north-east would do: this tendency is a form of fascism re-designed and adapted in an opportunistic manner for the present day. Second, let us look back at periods where this sort of re-invention has happened before.

Sixty years ago, the USA was gripped by just such an anti-democratic movement, feeding off anti-communism and led by Senator Joe McCarthy. Go watch the movie, Good Night and Good Luck for a message of hope. Remember as well those individuals who had the courage to face down McCarthy – people like Arthur Miller, Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman (who died just recently) and the Weavers and all those other brave people who struggled through blacklisting and worse.

Remember also what followed just a few short years later. The Civil Rights Movement kicked off in the South, quickly followed by the emergence of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Add in the campaigns against the Vietnam War and the creation of Students for a Democratic Society, along with the whole mass movement on campus and in the streets. It led in time to the emergence of Black Power and radical feminism. Wasn’t that a time?

Times of stress are times for organising. There are already signs that this what is happening. It needs to be more substantive than what has developed so far, less ephemeral, more determined to stay the course and bring about the change in ways of thinking, ways of dealing with each other, ways of developing the solidarity at grassroots level into practical networks.

Organisation is the way to freedom. Don’t mourn, Organize! as Joe Hill said. But think as well.



Getting to grips with Trump

There has been a great deal of liberal and left hand-wringing since Donald Trump ‘won’ the election for President of the United States. I use the word ‘won’ advisedly. He personally did not win anything; he was gifted the job by a combination of factors. Top of that list was the 42% of the potential electorate who did not cast a vote, leaving the top job ballot blank or not voting at all. Second on the list was the peculiarity of the electoral system, which meant that Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes, but lost in the Electoral College, because of the way it was set up 200 years ago, ironically to prevent oddball candidates being chosen by a gullible electorate (as the then elite saw things). Thirdly, there were a host of factors that have been analysed statistically, section by section of the populace, which are too tedious and speculative to be worth considering. Fourthly, there was the eight disappointing years of Obama since his first election in a pink cloud of hope in 2008, to be followed by a Democrat candidate promising more of the same. One could go on and on, but it is time to move forward.

What is becoming apparent is that those who imagined that a President Trump would somehow morph into respectability after the outrageous things he and his supporters have said, and ‘took a risk’, as many have said in interviews, will have their illusions surgically removed. The first handful of appointments have all been right-wing, racist, misogynist supporters of everything Trump said in his speeches, sometimes even more vociferously and for a lot longer. Trump, his family and his cronies will form a cabal at the heart of the Executive that neither the Legislature, nor the Judiciary will be able to modify very much – certainly not control. This will be a four-year test of whether the much-vaunted balance in the US Constitution remains fit for purpose headed by a fascist. The battles which will mean the most in this period will be those worked out in the hearts and minds of the American people. Can they turn things around from a nation divided by hatred? Can they find a new humanism as they confront what is coming, step by painful step?

At the moment, nobody has the answer to that question. The answer can only be provided by the people themselves. The same process should be undergone across Europe and there is no time to lose, as far right candidates are lining up in France, Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere – having already become established in various guises in Hungary, Poland, Denmark and elsewhere.

The question of the hour is: can we create a new humanity in the face of this slide towards barbarity?

Living on a Council Estate

I have been reading Lynsey Hanley’s book on council estates in the UK[1]. I could easily recognize many of the feelings she describes regarding the Midlands council estate in which she spent her childhood.

Until I was six years old, our family of parents, two girls and two boys lived in a cramped two-bedroom terrace house in Darlington, built in the 1890s or thereabouts within earshot of the railway. I was born there and enjoyed my earliest memories of childhood freedom in the surrounding streets (and beyond, to parental concern). There was a small park at the top of the street and the primary school was just around a couple of corners. There were neighbourhood shops for most things and the Co-operative Stores not far away on the main road. There were loads of children and good neighbours to keep an eye out and step in when needed. The house was privately rented (from my mother’s uncle, who also owned the corner shop, where we exchanged our ration coupons, and a cobbler’s shop at the top of the street). It was too crowded as the girls reached their teens. In 1952, we moved to a council estate on the eastern edge of the town, mostly brand new semi-detached and low level flats. There were no amenities on the estate, apart from several grassy areas where children could play and roam. The countryside was a short distance for adventurous little legs and we took advantage. Shopping meant a long walk to Haughton-le-Skerne village, to which the estate was attached and which bore the village name. There was everything you needed for day to day life there and you could catch a bus into the town centre from the village green. There was a working-men’s club and two pubs, as well as a fish and chip shop. A mobile library visited every Friday. The school was a bit further – so I soon learned how to run fast to get home for lunch and back again, the best part of a mile each way. Socially it was mixed, as school photographs show, my own clothes being among the scraggy end.

We were lucky. These houses were built on the principles set out by Bevan in the 1940s. By and large, the families in them were not ‘slum clearance’ but the result of ordinary overcrowded working-class respectability. There was even a bit of snobbery towards the less favoured neighbouring Springfield estate, probably undeserved – some of our own relatives lived there! It is worth commenting that the neighbourly camaraderie that grew up around us (a direct copy of the terrace house experience) also included some negative gossip regarding families further down the street and somehow down the pecking order. Community has both an inclusive and an exclusive element.

Growing up there, it was normality and I thought nothing of it. The change only came for me when, like Lynsey Hanley, I was aged 11 and sent to the Grammar School on the other side of town, literally the other side of the tracks of the East Coast Main Line a long bus ride away. Once there and enjoying a different set of interests and opportunities, the estate became alien. It had not changed, but my horizons had. Friends and girl-friends mostly came from the western side of town. Getting a ‘good job’ was never going to be enough and I soon ditched that for University.

One thing for sure – you can pluck the lad from the working-class estate, but you can never erase that early identification, however uncomfortable it might be in practice. That is what I mostly share with Lynsey Hanley, a loyalty to a milieu into which I can never return, but which I will defend from its enemies. It also means that, for me, left wing theories are never enough. There must be meaningful changes right now and one of those top of my list is the provision of adequate housing to a good standard. We need Bevan’s vision again, maybe in a less bureaucratic form, but soon.

[1] Lynsey Hanley: Estates – an intimate history (Granta, 2012). See also her companion book ‘Respectable’