Monday, 30 September 2013

Comment: In defence of our history

(From LSHG Newsletter # 50, Autumn 2013)

In January Owen Jones published an article in which he sharply criticised those “obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago” and claimed that “the era of Leninist party building surely ended a long time ago.”

There was a rapid rebuttal from Alex Callinicos in Socialist Review, which denounced the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas” and argued that “genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal”.

Callinicos’s article provoked widespread comment, notably from John Riddell, who deployed formidable erudition in his account of how “democratic centralism” functioned in the early Comintern.

This is not the place to discuss those debates, and certainly not the circumstances that gave rise to them. But as socialist historians, we should be particularly concerned by one theme underlying these discussions, the question of how the study of history relates to political practice.

The argument against history is well known, summed up in Henry Ford’s famous remark 

“History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today.” 
[Chicago Tribune, 1916]. 

Owen Jones and his mates in the Labour Party would probably go along with this. It is popular with university managements, like those at Middlesex and London Met, which have closed history departments. (Middlesex, which broke its links with the past in 2006, is now running a course for Asda managers, which consists of just twelve days of classroom study in three years, plus online studies and work-based assessment.

For the left such arguments have a superficial attractiveness. Surely we should start from the concrete realities of our own time, not with memories of the past. The attitude is summed up in George Galloway’s famous recommendation that we should “stop talking about dead Russians”.

A recent manifestation is the claim that the internet, and such phenomena as Facebook and Twitter, have changed everything and opened up a totally new style of political activity.

In my view such rejections of history should be forcefully countered. To begin with there is a simple logical objection. This rejection of history, this claim that our world, in Yeats’s words, is “all changed, changed utterly”, is itself a historical judgement. To make any serious assessment of what exactly has been changed by the internet, we need to look at the history of forms of communication from the blank semaphore telegraph of the 1790s, which so excited Babeuf and his comrades, through the electric telegraph, radio and television to the internet. Only such a historical analysis can provide a basis for a proper analysis of change and continuity.

It is well-known that in revolutions those taking part frequently draw on models from the past. The French revolutionaries of 1789 saw themselves as re-enacting the Roman Republic. The Chartists often thought in terms of remaking the French Revolution. And in the Russian Revolution there was frequent reference back to 1789 and to the Paris Commune. Thus in his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky reminds us that the Bolsheviks, in seizing the State Bank, were very much aware of the precedent of the Paris Commune:

'Almost simultaneously with the seizure of the Telephone Exchange a detachment of sailors from the Marine Guard, about forty strong, seized the building of the State Bank on the Ekaterininsky Canal. …. The seizure of the bank had to some extent a symbolic importance. The cadres of the party had been brought up on the Marxian criticism of the Paris Commune of 1871, whose leaders, as is well known, did not venture to lay hands on the State Bank. ‘No we will not make that mistake,’ many Bolsheviks had been saying to themselves long before October 25. News of the seizure of the most sacred institution of the bourgeois state swiftly spread through the districts, raising a warm wave of joy.'

Such retrospective identification was not always helpful. The confused debate about the Soviet Thermidor in the 1920s is a case in point. But it was inevitable. When human beings are engaged in radically remaking the world, they can only conceive what they are doing either in terms of pure imagination (like the Utopian socialists), or in terms of what has been done in the past. A proper understanding of the originality of a revolution’s achievements can only be achieved after the event.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx noted the way in which revolutionaries constantly turn to the past:

'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.'

But he thought that the proletarian revolution could break with such backward-looking practices: 

'The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.'

Undoubtedly Marx was over-optimistic about the prospects for socialist revolution in the nineteenth century, and hence underestimated the extent to which those involved in making socialist revolutions would need to learn from the past. The younger Alex Callinicos, not so weighed down with the burden of defending the Marxist “tradition”, made some interesting comments on these passages by Marx, considered together with Sartre, Benjamin and others. He observed that 

'historical materialism does not simply transcribe the pattern of past struggles passively. It seeks to assimilate these experiences of these struggles critically and reflectively. Only such an appropriation of the past can produce historical knowledge ‘whose pulse’, in Benjamin’s words, ‘can still be felt in the present’. For the point of remembering past victories and defeats is to learn from them and to put their lessons to work in the future.'
 (A Callinicos, Making History, Chicago, 2009, p. 264. The book was first published in 1987, and planned before the miners’ strike of 1984-85.)

The study of history is also relevant to a major problem in Marxist theory. The philosopher Georg Lukács put forward the concept of “imputed consciousness”, that is, the consciousness of which the working class is potentially capable, rather than that which it has at any particular point in time:

'By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. …. Now class consciousness consists in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ (zugerechnet) to a particular typical position in the process of production. This consciousness is, therefore, neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class. And yet the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual - and these actions can be understood only by reference to this consciousness.'
(G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London, 1971, p 51.)

Now this notion of “imputed consciousness” is both essential and problematic for Marxism. Essential, because unless it can be shown that the working class is capable of a radically different consciousness than that which it has at present, then any hope of the self-emancipation of the proletariat is vain. Yet problematic because of the vexed question of who does the “imputing”. Is there some elite vanguard that knows better than the working class itself what the class should be thinking? 

The educator must be educated, but who imputes the imputer? The only way out of this dilemma is to show what the working class is potentially capable of by study of what it has achieved in the past. If we’re asked how we know that the working class could run society for itself, the only answer that is both intellectually sound and plausible in debate is one that cites the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets, Budapest 1956, Nantes 1968 and Portugal 1975. The left needs more historians and fewer philosophers.

Of course all the experiences referred to are partial. The working class has never held on to power for very long. But that is a problem that lies at the very heart of the historical process. There are no guarantees; the future is socialism or barbarism, successful revolution or “the common ruin of the contending classes”. And it was the period of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath that showed the highest level of working-class struggle yet known to human history. The successful proletarian revolution in Russia was followed by a wave of strikes, mutinies and the formation of workers’ councils throughout Europe. Germany came to the very brink of revolution, while Italy, France, Spain and Britain also saw massive struggles. The formation of the Communist International brought together various currents of the left and offered hope to millions of workers that there would be no return to the system that had produced the catastrophic World War. That’s why, doubtless to Owen Jones’s great chagrin, some of us will go on talking about Lenin and other dead Russians for some time to come.

At present we face the challenge of Michael Gove trying to manipulate the teaching of history in the interests of the social order he defends. Teachers and indeed all of us should fight Gove’s plans. But we should be clear that no government will provide the kind of historical education we need. The left needs to assume its responsibility for the historical study, research and popularisation that is central to its project. We need more bodies like the London Socialist Historians Group. The recent Matchwomen’s Festival at the Bishopsgate Institute showed what can be done with imagination and a non-sectarian approach. The historical process includes the future as well as the past, and without history we have no future.

Ian Birchall

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