Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Race, Class, 1619 and 1620

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020]

Race,  Class,  1619 and 1620

It has been little discussed in the UK but the New York Times 1619 project about the origins of modern America has sparked a massive debate in the US.

A summary is at the link below but there is a lot more to be said. Issues of race, racism, class and patriotism, progressive or not have been at the centre of the debate with well known radical and socialist historians critical of the project.

In the UK there is an important counterpoint around 1620 and the sailing of the Mayflower where issues of race and racism are also to the fore. The link is below

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/arch ive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619project/604093/ http://www.socialisthistorysociety.co.uk /?p=707

We hope to organise a roundtable discussion on the issues and the history later in 2020.

Black History in 2020

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020] 

Black History in 2020 

2020 is the 150th anniversary of the death of William Cuffay, the black leader of London Chartism in 1848. He was transported to Tasmania after a rigged trial but continued to be a labour movement activist in Australia to his death.

The LSHG plan to mark the anniversary and encourage others to do so.

Below is a letter that appeared in The Guardian (13 January 2020) from Marika Sherwood, who the LSHG have worked with regularly over many years. In the age of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a rising acceptability of racism black history is more important than ever.

The Black and Asian Studies Association began campaigning about this missing history almost 30 years ago (Black British history syllabus devised for diversity in schools, 9 January). We even met the then education minister, whose ignorance of this history was as profound as that of 99% of teachers. If we want to understand our “nation” we have to look at how multicultural/ethnic it has always been. Africans, as far as we know, arrived in large numbers as a regiment in the conquering Roman armies. Some settled here, and undoubtedly some would have fathered children by native women. Two fairly recent books on black people in Tudor Britain tell us about the increase in the black population. This, of course, grew as the trade in enslaved Africans increased, and again when freedom was granted to the enslaved in the colonies in 1833.

So we should be teaching about Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, about the wars encouraged by the Europeans to obtain prisoners of war, who were declared slaves and sold to the Europeans, and about Africans here – their treatment, work, protests about slavery and contributions to society for so many years.

It is not only the school curriculum that has to be changed, but the training of teachers. And inservice training should be provided for all existing teachers as their ignorance, one could argue, is one reason why many black pupils do badly as school. Peter Fryer’s book Staying Power, still the best on this history, should be available in all school libraries.

Marika Sherwood
Research fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

Comment: Labour leaders and labour history

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020] 

Labour leaders and labour history 

The current Labour leadership contest has highlighted an issue that is not brought up that much - Labour leaders and their knowledge of labour history.

Rebecca Long Bailey raised the far from uncontroversial idea of progressive patriotism, something that has been discussed on the left since at least the Falklands War. She did give an historical example of the American Civil War but the history of British workers’ attitudes to it is not a simple one.

Keir Starmer wrote a piece for the Guardian about making a case for moral socialism without managing even a nod to Harold Wilson’s phrase that Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing (associated with the origins of War on Want). Starmer however also managed to tweet on the 165th anniversary of the birth of Eleanor Marx (16 January). His background makes it difficult to call his knowledge of labour history.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/j an/15/labour-socialism-values-election-economicmodel.

While Jeremy Corbyn, like Tony Benn, has an abiding interest in history he is not by any means an historian. One Labour leader who was definitely in that category was Tony Blair. A university librarian once told me that, before he was leader, Blair had to give a speech involving a mention of the Webbs. He had no idea who they were and turned up to borrow a book on them.

Blair however was the anti-history leader. If New Labour was to be really ‘new’ it could by definition keep on banging on about the past. Blair did go as far  though as to unveil the statue of Harold Wilson outside Huddersfield station.

Wilson himself operated in the framework of a slightly different Labour politics. He was not one to miss a Durham Miners’ Gala, or to call out Communists, or those like trade unionist John Prescott, who he thought were.

As a socialist historian I think its useful for Labour leaders to know something of Labour and labour history. Perhaps being leader should require a test on the matter. It’s probably too much to hope they’d learn from it but certainly a critical awareness of recent labour history and the way Labour has reacted to and handled electoral defeats in the past 50 years would not go amiss.

Keith Flett

Sunday, 9 February 2020

LSHG Seminar - Martin Hoyles on Ira Aldridge - 17 February

Dear Comrades,

We are resuming our seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research.

Details of the first seminar are here:

London Socialist Historians Seminar

Martin Hoyles, 'Ira Aldridge, black actor in Victorian London'. 

Monday 17th February, 5.30pm, Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1. 

Free without ticket. Details contact Keith Flett on address above

Comrades may recall a previous seminar from Martin Hoyles on William Cuffay, the black leader of London Chartism in 1848.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture 2020

The Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture in London will take place on the evening of Thursday 27 February at the Swedenborg Hall, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, Holborn, WC1A 2TH at 6pm. I do hope you can join us. The evening will be chaired by Professor Penny Corfield
and the lecture will be given by Norah Carlin on the subject of her new book,
Regicide or Revolution, What Petitioners Wanted September 1648-February 1649
. The book is a fascinating examination of popular politics as the revolution reached its decisive moment.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Ruth Frow - obituary (2008)

Ruth Frow 1922-2008
Written By: Maggie Cohen
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008  

Ruth Frow died unexpectedly aged 85 on 11 January. Ruth was the co‑founder with her long time partner Eddie Frow, who died in 1997, of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

The library has grown from the 1960s to be a major resource for British labour history with books, pamphlets and other memorabilia.

Frow, a teacher by profession, shared a passion with her husband for touring the country picking up second hand books. The experience is documented in ‘Travels with a Caravan’, an article in a 1976 issue of History Workshop Journal.

Despite referring to their bibliophilia as more of a disease than a hobby, the Frows’ perspective was not of archaeology but of political activism. Ruth Frow had joined the Communist Party (CP) in Sandwich, Kent, in 1945 and stayed a member when moving to Manchester. She met Eddie Frow at a CP day school on labour history in 1953 and their engagement present was a book on William Morris.
Ruth, again in collaboration with Eddie, produced an extensive series of pamphlets and books on labour history ranging from struggles in the engineering union to the history of militant women.

In Manchester Ruth was a NUT teachers’ union rep and, from the later 1950s, a leading figure in the peace movement. She was co-founder and first chair of CND in Manchester. Taking early retirement in 1980 she was able to devote herself full time to the library. As befitted someone who had been a deputy head teacher of one of Manchester’s largest comprehensive schools, Ruth was a formidable figure but a great encourager of people researching labour history.

After Eddie’s death she continued to be associated with the library and kept it focused not just on preserving the past but also engaging with the future.

The Trustees, Friends and staff of the Working Class Movement Library invite you A Celebration of Ruth Frow's Life on Saturday 5th April at 2pm at Peel Hall, University of Salford, The Crescent, Salford. Tea, coffee and biscuits will be available. (Peel Hall is virtually opposite the Library - but please use the crossing lower down as the road is lethal!).

The most effective way we can commemorate Ruth is to ensure that the library she and Eddie founded to rescue and make available the history of working class people and their struggles for justice, equality and a better life continues, flourishes and reaches out more widely. We know that Ruth would have wholeheartedly approved that we ask for donations in her memory to be made to the Library.

Please extend this invitation to colleagues and friends. We hope to see you on 5th April but know that if you are not able to attend you will be with us in spirit.

On behalf of the staff, volunteers and trustees,
Maggie Cohen, Chair of Trustees

Working Class Movement Library
51 The Crescent, Salford M5 4WX
Tel: 0161 736 3601 Fax: 0161 737 4115
Web: www.wcml.org.uk Email: enquiries@wcml.org.uk

A version of this obituary first appeared in Socialist Worker.
See also Kevin Morgan’s obituary in The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/feb/01/labour.uk

Book Review - 60 Years of Struggle

A world we have lost?
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

60 Years of Struggle: History of Betteshanger Colliery By Di Parkin Pub: Betteshanger Social Welfare Scheme 2007 166 pp Paperback ISBN: 978-0955755002

Someone who was 16 in 1985 at the end of the last great British miners strike is now approaching 30, and in the intervening period most of the British mining industry has disappeared. There are only a few thousand miners left in Britain.

So mining and miners, a hugely significant part of Britain’s industrial past, are now moving from the current into history.

Di Parkin has produced a history of Betteshanger pit in the Kent Coalfield which closed in 1989.

The book is produced as a memoir for the many ex-miners and ex-miners’ union activists who are still around and will find a ready readership there. It provides some quite detailed labour-process and industrial history of the Kent mines and of union struggles based on this that will be hugely interesting to those who were involved. Dave Harker’s new book on the Shrewsbury pickets [to be reviewed next issue] is in a similar vein.

But the test for both books is whether they reach beyond their core readership and engage with younger generations who have little memory of mining or miners.

Here Parkin’s book raises wider issues that should ensure that.

The Kent Coalfield was the last major UK one to open in the 1920s with Betteshanger operational from 1928 and was significant because it was the only source of coal south of the Thames — potentially vital for the London market. It attracted to it miners from all over the UK who had been victimised during the General Strike. It started with a tradition of political militancy and that’s how it continued and ended up as well.

It also seems to have attracted, on Parkin’s account, a breed of exceptionally hard nosed pit managers as well so class struggle was guaranteed virtually from day one.

The militant reputation of Betteshanger is explained by Parkin in two phrases ‘sod it’ and ‘rag up’. When miners had had enough of a dictatorial pit manager they simply walked off the job.
Parkin hints that while these walk outs were usually sanctioned by the union the real power was amongst rank and file miners rather than the union machine.

Hence Betteshanger was a rich source of new industrial tactics. There were two stay down strikes in its history when miners refused to leave the mine and the pit also lays claim to being one of those that launched the flying pickets during the 1972 miners strike when miners successfully picketed power stations and oil refineries.

Most startlingly for the modern reader many of these strikes actually won.

Perhaps the most famous strike of the lot was the one in 1942 again over bullying pit managers. As this was war-time the strike was actually illegal and the strikers were taken to Court, fined, and in the case of the NUM officials at Betteshanger, jailed.

It did not work. The miners did not return to work and in due course the Government had to intervene, cancel all the fines and release the jailed officials. The bullying pit managers were stood down.

It was a magnificent episode in British labour history but it also raised a significant question. The NUM branch at Betteshanger was run by the Communist Party, or at least by those who had CP politics. A little more on who these men were and what their background was in the book would have been useful in terms of their relationship to the CP.

Even so of course, the CP in 1942 was backing the war and increased production. Yet it did not condemn the Betteshanger strike. Parkin suggests that the CP in order to be elected as NUM officials could not afford to oppose the action of miners whatever the CP line was.

However there was a tension between the industrial and political lines of the CP that might have been explored a little further.

Parkin’s book is a compelling read — I finished it on a single train journey — and one that deserves a wide audience, both old and young.

Book Review - The Restless Generation (2008)

‘This is musical Mau-Mau’ – Jeremy Thorpe, 1956
Written By: John Burton
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

The Restless Generation: How rock music changed the face of 1950s BritainBy Pete Frame Pub: Rogan House 2007 512pp Paperback ISBN: 978-0-95295-407-1

Post-1945 Britain saw something unknown for a generation – slowly rising working class aspirations and living standards. By the 1950s, as Pete Frame says ‘having been liberated from war and austerity ... youngsters were ready, willing and able to indulge themselves ... no longer little adults waiting to become big adults, we luxuriated in a teenage world’.

Into that world came Rock and Roll and its cousin skiffle, (whose British origin in 1949 is traced by Frame to a tin hut round the side of a pub in Cranford, up a tributary of the Thames) the ‘bastard offspring of New Orleans-style jazz’.

The mention of the hut is enough to suggest that this book may be packed with tiny detail. It is. (Frame was, after all, the author of various ‘Rock Family Trees’ where you could find out exactly who played what with whom and when, if you were so inclined.) He has interrogated almost ninety people to create this story. It starts with the jazz and blues enthusiast Ken Colyer, the man from that tin hut who jumped ship to play with the jazz greats of New Orleans before being deported to rejoin the early English trad-jazz and skiffle scene with Chris Barber, Lonnie Donegan and others.

The new music inspired thousands of hopefuls to pick up guitars, banjos, washboards or whatever. We meet many famous names as they come together (and split) in coffee bars, clubs and theatres. We see bizarre attempts by their managers to insert them into variety theatre shows (flagging because of the spread of TV), billed along with acrobats, ventriloquists and unfunny comedians before realising that most of the audience only wanted to rock. For similar reasons abysmal British covers of great American singles were produced with zero excitement and session musicians ‘squarer than an Oxo cube’.

When the film with Bill Haley Rock Around the Clock was released in 1956 it stuck ‘a dagger into Britain’s staid way of life’ according to Frame. ‘What mattered was the music . . . and the insight into the milieu surrounding it. How American teenagers dressed, spoke, behaved, danced. . . Hundreds wanted to start bands.’ There were street disturbances in east London after jiving fans, jeering at the police, were ejected from cinemas, many being fined for insulting behaviour. Rank dropped Sunday showings. Watch Committees and local councils banned the film across Britain as cinema seats were slashed, fire hoses and fireworks set off, post-film audiences danced in the streets and police were attacked. Although only about 60 people were prosecuted, the media reaction was as if the entire teen population had gone berserk.

The arrival of Elvis Presley and Heartbreak Hotel was just too much for BBC Radio’s Head of Light Music. Presley and Haley were ‘freaks at the bottom of the gimmick noise barrel.’ Equally vicious were some music journalists. Jazz critic Steve Race wrote in Melody Maker

‘... the current craze…. is one of the most terrifying things ever to have happened to popular music... let us oppose it to the end.’
Too late. Elvis was wild, young, beautiful and sexy. He wasn’t this year’s model, says Frame. He was this generation’s model.

Riding to Rock and Roll’s defence came an unlikely hero: Labour MP Manny Shinwell, 72. After denouncing the censorship, he said in a near-Marxist moment on radio, found by Frame in the BBC archives

‘… there’s something happening to the youth of the nation; they’re trying to free themselves, they want more liberty, more freedom. They resent the routine, being in a rut, getting up in the morning, being clocked in, being liberated only when the employer decides they can be liberated… Therefore I don’t worry when they do a bit of jiving.’
That’s it exactly. Pete Frame has done a great job telling his story of alienated youth seeking expression (not overtly political, but rebellious) and the moral panic that they triggered. (Elsewhere in this Newsletter Gerd-Rainer Horn writes of cultural rebellions of 1956 onwards preparing the ground for the political rebellions of the sixties and seventies.)

There’s a useful timeline but no footnotes or chapter titles and the index isn’t brilliant. The prose is that of a dedicated rock journalist, not an academic. But even if you don’t want the small details of the artistes and repertoire, there’s still enough material buried here to conjure up the world of stuffiness and grey-flannel boredom that the musicians and their fans fought against in the 1950s.

The History of Now (2008)

The History of Now: a work in progress
Written By: Julienne Ford
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008  

I started the current project modestly and reasonably enough by attempting to revise the labour theory of value (yes already I have made some enmity!) to produce a practical economics that factored in environmental justice as well as making it possible for alternative communities to infiltrate, and hopefully to some degree subvert, the global corporate concentrations of capital.(1) This meant that I had to go into the details of the carbon trading concepts and the history of its development and gradual adoption by capital and its lackeys. (Incidentally, the carbon trading bank through which these tokens are traded exclusively is owned by the best mate of the guy, Aubrey Meyer(2), who managed to get the scheme adopted!). So I read closely most of the Schumacher briefings and engaged with the position of the Resurgence people. In particular I was struck by a popularisation of this position by David Edwards.(3) This book seemed to sum up the whole thrust of a loose grouping of Fabianish artisans connected with Summerhill and Dartington Hall, as well as the Resurgence people (who include some who were at various times insiders in the Blair circle – e.g. Mulgan.) They do concede that corporate capitalism is destroying the Earth as well as the psychic and physical well-being of the majority of the people on it. Their analysis is lifted straight from Marx but not attributed to him: terms (e.g. the word “monetocracy”) are invented to purvey this framework as though it has sprung afresh from a new paradigm. That’s ok with me actually, because if this gets a Marxist critical perspective understood and adopted widely among well-meaning, rather well-heeled, people, who are worrying about the future of their children, then it is all to the good. However, what I won’t swallow is the claptrap that the ‘monetocrats’ need our sympathy even more than the dispossessed and oppressed because, apparently, they have less chance of seeing the world as it really is. Nor can I accept the ridiculous attempt to tame corporate capitalism rather than destroying it. This is, after all, the same guff that morphed into the ‘third way’ with which New Labour continued the historic process of social democratic collusion with capital by controlling the population on its behalf - this time, rather than achieving this by some amelioration of the worst of the emiseration, they did it by naked terror and unconstrained exercise of illegitimate power.

Another aspect of this green Menshevism is the widespread demonisation of Marxists, revolutionaries and freedom fighters, which ascribes to us some kind of thirst for ‘the Terror’ akin to the Bush/Blair idea that Muslims celebrate death rather than life. These people carefully pick the objective conditions from between the lines of the monetocratic conspiracy (drawing on excellent writers like Chomsky, Zinn, Pilger, Glasgow Media Group etc.) but when talking about ‘anarchists’ or Marxists they rely heavily on the very same propaganda that they have just exposed.

The politics of the ‘Green movement’ and especially the British Green Party has been, and remains, opposed to left-wing insights, tending to caricature us as Stalinist, macho, intolerant and innately predisposed to violence. This stereotyping is partly based on ignorance of the actual writings of Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and the Panthers etc., partly on a lazy reliance on media information on anything outside their own experience, and a little bit on deliberate obfuscation. The Lovelock ‘Gaia’ notion was a godsend (ha ha) to those who wanted to make a premature closure to the top of their paradigm. When Lovelock started saying that the crisis was now so urgent we had better have nuclear power some people thought he had ‘lost it’ or been nobbled. But actually his Gaia hypothesis is fundamentally conservative theology, a physical-world equivalent of Talcott Parsons structural-functionalism(4) , i.e. a batty teleology which says leave alone and all will work out for the best. He never was any champion of oppressed and dispossessed humanity.

But, just as the ‘tipping point’ has been reached in recognising the environmental crisis and its urgency, so I believe this point is fast approaching in the bigger awareness of the relationship between that crisis and the structures of exploitation. I have great respect for popular writers like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot who make it fashionable among the chattering strata to decry capitalism itself. And more and more ‘soft’ movements like the eco-village networks have come to understand the importance of bottom-up structures for decision making. Liberation movements from the Zapatistas to ‘God’s Bollocks’ in the Lebanon are an inspiration which historians may recognize as echoes from earlier liberation movements, and which have fired the World Social Forum and reminded many movers and shakers that prior to the twentieth century this is how all the progressive movements in the so-called first world operated. The struggle of organised industrial labour is clearly tied to specific historical circumstances and, though it must not be abandoned, it cannot be enough in this century when the bitter fruits of the changing structure of industry (so aptly and irritatingly explained by Hobsbawm(5) have to be reaped by the “excluded”(6) and by the New Deal family with its two overworked parents whose next baby is being headhunted for one of New Labour’s baby-ASBOs.

At the same time the internet obviously gives globalisation a hint of optimistic possibility, of HP Newton’s Revolutionary (as opposed to reactionary) Intercommunalism.(7)

My own position was wrought from Newton’s idea of Revolutionary Love refined by the theory and praxis of the New Jewel Movement in London and Grenada. I now see this as a form of anti-imperialism which has benefited from third world liberation struggles as much as from that of the industrial working class in the imperial nations, and has benefited most of all from international solidarity.

I cannot stress strongly enough that whatever one reads from ‘engaged Buddhism’, ‘deep ecology’, Earth-First type anarchism, European and Asian Trotskyism, modern ‘Eurocommunism’, Rastafarian Rodneyism, radical Islam, the UK ‘nationalists’ and Alliance of Green Socialists, etc. - we are all ‘singing from the same sheet’. One has only to look at Castro’s study of liberation theology or his latest (2007) essay on international solidarity, to appreciate the synchronicity of the Zapatista metaphor that we make the road by walking – and as we walk we talk: we debate, we argue, we progress both dialectical theory and praxis.

I call this position dialectical universalism.

Stringent dialectics easily dismisses the terrible mistakes of diamat and Stalinism. Rather, I suggest, it is worth rehabilitating(8) the dialectical method as understood by Engels(9) and showing how pushing to the negation of the negation is the form of reasoning which suits our evolving human consciousness.(10) When Greimas’ application of Boolean logic(11) is applied to it, it becomes absolutely transparent and easy: one is left marvelling that such blundering forms of cognitive manipulation as induction and deduction ever became hegemonised to the extent that they did.
Universalism argues cogently for a permanent progression of abstraction, taking the perspective further and further away, like Giodarno Bruno’s idea that if a point of light is removed to infinity it illuminates the whole sphere. Diamat was an attempt to close the paradigm prematurely with some stupid metaphysical materialism that was strangely identical to the kind of scientism now paradoxically expounded by American Fundamental Christianity.(12) Postmodernism rightly ridiculed this. But Engels had already demonstrated that empiricism spawns its own crazy idealist metaphysic.

Atheism as an ideological commitment is another mistake shown up for what it is by dialectical universalism. Many of us reject deism but that does not make us atheists. It’s not a question of choosing a god (or gods) or being ‘an atheist’. Presumably an atheist is someone who doesn’t accept any faith, not someone who doesn’t believe in a god (otherwise Buddhists would be atheists). Any notion of transcendent properties, even something like ‘collective conscience’ or, say, ‘the proletariat as the universal class’ posits a noumenal entity which helps make sense of the entire paradigm. I don’t really care if people believe in fairies as long as they are universalist fairies who won’t stop flitting around and jingling their annoying little bells until all the people of the earth ‘not only control the productive and institutional units of society ... but have seized possession of their own subconscious attitudes towards these things’. (Newton(13))
Universalism does not require unanimity of taste, preference and practice. It is nothing like the ‘integration’ which New Labour wants instead of ‘multiculturalism’. We don’t all have to have identical beliefs and values. Any fairy or god or philosophy is good enough as long as it is predicated on our human responsibility to the overall collective, and recognition of the consequences for all of the behaviour of each. Sidney Webb(14) gives data on the Soviet education system in the 1920s when Russian was the second language in all schools and many vernacular tongues were given written forms for the first time – and not in Cyrillic but in the Roman alphabet. 100% literacy was achieved in less than a decade, showing that it is possible to do this in a vast, diverse system and not just in a tiny island like Grenada.

Personally I think Paul Kingsnorth’s prescient slogan ONE NO AND MANY YESES(15) is spot on. More and more people can see what is wrong with global capitalism but only idiots would wish to replace it with another hegemony.

So now, as I see it, the task is not so much to write out a useful synthesis (though I am determined to have a bash) as to work out the structures of support and solidarity, of information-sharing and inspiration, cooperation and coordination, and of spreading the word far beyond the traditional spheres of socialist sympathy that will enable us to seize the coming moment and avert the present catastrophe in what Bunny Wailer has so aptly called ‘the nick of time’.(16)

With regard to such structures I am convinced that the most pressing task is to work out how to use Web 2.0 – perhaps with webcams etc. – to create a form of universal videoconferencing that enables a system(17) of thousands of ‘workshop groups’ (perhaps of about fifteen members each) to discuss issues, distil conclusions and have those conclusions presented at plenary sessions, then translate into further discussion and keep repeating the process. It is a process that could properly be called participative democracy: as opposed to representational ‘democracy’ where you get a chance to choose between tweedledum and tweedledee every four years and ‘whoever you vote for the government gets in’, taking over the authoritarian structures of repression and putting their own brand-stamp of ‘leadership’ on them. If we cannot do this we must drown in our own self-righteousness as the tide of toxic, radioactive emotional subjectivist sewage rises above our pathetic appetites for self-aggrandisement.

1. The current (2008) formulation for this is ‘An appropriate planetary economics would not be based on exchange value in the global market but on usefulness in specific times and places, as mediated by mindfulness, both in the identification and rejection of (displaced) exploitation and expropriation, and in the defence of indigenous autopoesis’. Julienne Ford Never Point at a Rainbow: dialectical universalism and the project of humanity (Superscript, August 2008)
2. Aubrey Meyer, Contraction and Convergence (Green Books, 2000)
3. David Edwards, The Compassionate Revolution (Green Books, 1998)
4 Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (Free Press, 1967)
5. Eric Hobsbawm, The Forward March of Labour Halted? (Verso, 1981)
6. The collusion of social scientists with the entrenchment of the term ‘excluded’ to refer to those outside or ‘below’ the organized working class is as much part of the rightward shift of the discipline of sociology as it is a continuance of the deliberate ignorance of the role of the dispossessed, wretched, enslaved, imprisoned and so-called ‘lumpen’ brought to the centre of the historical stage in HP Newton’s analysis. H P Newton and V I Lenin, Revolutionary Intercommunalism and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (Superscript, 2004)
7. Ibid.
8. Such a rehabilitation would have almost nothing in common with Zizek’s defeatist attempt at the same task. The Parallax View (MIT, 2006)
9. Friedrich Engels, The Dialectics of Nature (Progressive, 1954) and Anti- Dühring (Progressive, 1947)
10. I have found nothing on this topic as enlightening as E V Ilyenkov, Leninist Dialectics and the Metaphysics of Positivism (New Park, 1982)
11. A.J. Greimas, Semantique Structurale (PUF,1995)
12. Woods and Grant also make this point, Alan Woods and Ted Grant Reason in Revolt: dialectical philosophy and modern science (Algora, 2002) Vol 1 p.215. A similar position from outside a Marxist perspective comes from Tina Beattie The New Atheists (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 2007)
13. Op. cit.
14. Sidney Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (Longman,1935) p.67 Vol 2
15. Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses (Free Press,2003)
16. Bunny Wailer, Blackheart Man. (Tuff Gong circa 1971) See also Walter Rodney, Groundings with my Brothers (Bogle-l’Ouverture, 1969) and Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: from Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (Hansib,1985).
17. This system would be a worldwide network of internet workshops based on the model developed by the Peoples’ Revolutionary Government in Grenada which was used so successfully to restructure the entire (colonial) education system, and create a level of literacy far exceeding that of the UK today.

The Spirit of '68 - Gerd-Rainer Horn

The Spirit of ’68
Written By: Gerd-Rainer Horn
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

The Spirit of ’68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976 By Gerd-Rainer Horn Oxford University Press, 2007 264pp Hardcover: ISBN 978-0199276660

My study contradicts recent reinterpretations of 1968 which seek to denigrate or deny the central challenges to the socio-political status quo inherent in the turbulent events of this era. 1968, it is argued, opened up the possibility that the economic and political elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain could be toppled from their positions of unnatural superiority to make way for a new society where everyday people could become masters of their own destiny. Furthermore, this monograph argues, the moment of crisis and opportunity culminating in 1968 must be seen as part of a larger period of experimentation and revolt. 1968 is understood as a symbolic marker for a much larger period of upheavals which began in 1956 and ended in the mid-1970s. The ten years between 1956 and 1966, characterised above all by the flourishing of iconoclastic cultural rebellions, can be regarded as a preparatory period, which set the stage for the non-conformist cum political revolts of the subsequent ‘red’ decade (1966-1976).

The geographic centre of attention is Western Europe, including notably the Mediterranean countries, and North America. Particular emphasis is placed on cultural nonconformity, the student movement, working class rebellions, the changing contours of the Left, and the meaning of participatory democracy as an anticipation of a non-alienated future. Employing a thematic approach, this monograph investigates the interplay of culture and politics from a consistently transnational angle, notably including a number of smaller European states, such as Belgium or Portugal, which normally fall outside the purview of comparative studies.

The opening chapter surveys non-conformists in the realm of the arts, presenting vignettes of the early days of Mersey Beat, the counterculture in the Swiss capital city of Bern, the Amsterdam Provos, and the like. Central to the argument in this part of the book is the crucial role this artistic revolt played in preparing the terrain for subsequent and/or simultaneously operating political rebellions. The chapter on students is noteworthy for its attention to student rebellion in Belgium and in Italy, where it came to campus explosions long before the occupation of the Sorbonne. Particularly in Mediterranean Europe, workers (Chapter 3) played an indispensable role in making 1968 a moment of crisis and opportunity in society at large and not just in the ivory towers of the education sector. The transitions from Old to New Left and then from New Left to Far Left are presented and analysed in Chapter 4. Participatory democracy (Chapter 5) was the method and the goal for both students and workers throughout the period under study in this book. The concluding comments attempt to place 1968 in the larger context of world historical time.

Britain's entry into the 1914-18 war and the role of individuals - Harry Ratner (2008)

Britain's entry into the 1914-18 war and the role of individuals
Written By: Harry Ratner
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008  

One of the problems facing socialist historians – particularly Marxist historians – is what weight to give to the two strands in Marxism, the determinist and the voluntarist; and how to reconcile the two.

The determinist strand sees history as the unfolding of objective laws as determinist as the laws governing the physical universe. It sees the stream of causality running one way from the economic base to the superstructure. Happenings in the economy determine happenings in the superstructure. The development of human societies is governed by these objective laws and the role of the individual is minimal.

Though Plekhanov, in his seminal The Role of the Individual in History, concedes that in certain circumstances individuals, because of their position in society, can affect events, they can only alter details but not the main trend of events which is determined by large scale social historical forces. At best prominent individuals are instruments of these historical forces. He describes the role of the individual as an accident in history. (1)

I have long been unhappy about both an overly economic reductionist interpretation of history and the downgrading of the role of the individual. How reconcile it with the voluntarist strand in Marxism? After all, why – if it is historically determined that capitalism is going to be replaced by the next historical stage, communism – should you and I bust our guts, go on demonstrations and have our heads bashed in by police truncheons?

Why have thousands of socialists and communists risked their lives, suffered torture and imprisonment if it was all predetermined and their actions made little difference? Why did Marx and Engels toil away at convincing people of the correctness of their views if the development of a revolutionary (Marxist) consciousness by the working class and its eventual overthrow of capitalism were determined by objective historical laws? I believe it is possible to reconcile the determinist and voluntarist strands. I will look at the factors leading to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and particularly Britain’s entry into the war to argue that a holistic view of history is better than a strictly economic reductionist one or a purely voluntarist one. I want to show that the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war cannot be attributed solely or mainly to purely economic causes, but that political and military factors were its proximate cause.

Within the political and military superstructure the decisions of individuals are not only necessary links in the causal chains but can have far-reaching consequences. I want to rescue the importance of the individual from its downgrading by a too economic reductionist view of history.
A review of the events of 1914 shows that the decisions of just nineteen men, members of the British Cabinet (and among them one particular individual), had far-reaching consequences on the future history of Europe and the world. So much for Plekhanov’s description of the effect of the individual as an accident in history!

The economic and the political factors
The Marxist explanation is that the 1914-1918 war was the inevitable outcome of objective forces - the imperialist rivalries, the struggle for markets, colonies, control of material resources. And these struggles were the consequences of the development of the productive forces of capitalism having reached a certain stage. It is undoubtedly true that the whole previous development of capitalist industry provided an impetus for the acquisition of colonies and spheres of influence because of the economic advantages these provided. In that sense the 1914-18 war was a capitalist war. But it is only a part of the explanation if it leaves out of the equation the purely political factors and the crucial roles of individuals.

To describe the war as capitalist war – implying that it was a war inspired purely and mainly by the struggle for markets and outlets for the investment of capital - is an over-simplification. Certainly Britain and France were fully developed capitalist nations. But in the three other major powers involved, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, there had been no bourgeois revolution. Russia was ruled by an autocratic Tsar, Germany and Austria- Hungary by a landed-military class headed by a hereditary emperor. In none of these countries did the capitalist class, the bankers and industrialists control the state machine. The imperial governments were not primarily motivated by the desires of these industrialists but by pre-capitalist considerations of military strength. Ever since the existence of distinct nation-states based on territories – going back even to classical times – inter-nation relations had been a free for all. There were no rules, no independent arbiters, no supra-national umpire to set the rules. In this dog eat dog world survival depended on military muscle and making the correct alliances.

Of course feudal rulers and absolute monarchs and the later Russian, Austrian and German imperial governments had an interest in encouraging the development of industry and finance as this underpinned their military power. So there was a convergence of interests between the imperial governments and the industrialists. An example of this was the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany, each trying to maintain naval superiority. The manufacturers of the steel required to build the ships for the new German battle fleet, and the mine-owners who produced the coal to fuel it, paid for the flood of pamphlets and propaganda put out by the Navy League to arouse popular support for the idea of a large German navy. And the British shipyard owners were also quite pleased to profit from orders by the British navy. But the main and immediate motivations for the actions of the imperial governments were military-strategic considerations, maintaining armed superiority and concluding alliances against any possible combination of adversaries. These imperatives had existed before the growth of capitalism and continued into the new era. Military expenditure profited the capitalists, and they looked forward to exploiting any new territories their imperial governments might acquire as a result of military victory. However, this does not alter the fact that the main and proximate causes of war were not primarily and directly economic competition between capitalists but the old-fashioned military-strategic considerations which pre-dated the establishment of purely bourgeois regimes.

Who wanted war?
There was a large body of opinion in business and financial circles which did not welcome the prospect of war as it disrupted trade and created uncertainty. War was seen as inimical to the smooth flow of trade. As Joll points out in his Europe Since 1870 (Penguin Books)

‘The belief that the economic fabric of international life was too closely knit to allow war to break out found expression in the final crisis of July 1914. In Britain Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for economic policy, was well aware of the anti-war opinion in the City of London, and this contributed to his initial opposition to British intervention. As late as 31 July Grey told the French Ambassador, who was pressing for a clear statement of British intentions, ‘The commercial and financial situation was extremely serious, there was danger of a complete collapse that would involve us and everyone in ruin; and it was possible that our standing aside might be the only means of preventing a complete collapse of European credit in which we should be involved.’ In Germany while many industrialists had a direct interest in naval construction and in the arms industry, and were dreaming of an expanded zone of German economic predominance in Europe and an expanded colonial empire overseas, even if this involved a risk of war, others felt that their own economic interests were bound up with the maintenance of peaceful international trade, and the chairman of the Hamburg-America steamship line, Albert Ballin, a personal friend of the Kaiser, was particularly active in the final crisis in trying to find a peaceful way out in conjunction with the British financier Sir Ernest Cassel.’ (2)
It is over-simplistic and smacks too much of economic reductionism to describe the war as simply a war between rival groups of capitalists and to ascribe to it purely – or even mainly - economic causes.
The prime and immediate causes of the war were the political and military strategic decisions taken by non-bourgeois, i.e. imperial rulers based on land-owning military elites; and in this context the decisions of individual had great weight. This is clear if we look at the events leading up to the outbreak of war.

The final steps to war
The crisis started in the Balkans, which for long had been the scene of a struggle between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires over who would take over the region when Turkey, the “sick man of Europe”, was finally evicted. In addition the Austro-Hungarian empire was faced with national independence movements from its many subject nationalities, Bosnians, Southern Slavs, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles. The Croats and Slovenes were demanding autonomy, the Czech were demanding an autonomous Bohemia and were looking to Russia for support. And its Serb minority was demanding union with Serbia. The Balkan wars had just ended and Austria hoped to finally subdue Serbia and assert its disputed authority in the region.

In July 1914 the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, by nationalists suspected of being aided by Serbian authorities gave Austria the pretext it needed. Russia was Serbia’s ‘protector’. So when Serbia was attacked Russia mobilised and prepared to support Serbia (Russia also had a long-standing ambition to control the Dardanelles - the entrance to the Black Sea.).

Meanwhile Austria had appealed for support to its ally, Germany. The latter was anxious to strengthen its main regional ally and also felt threatened by Russian moves in the region. The Russian mobilisation triggered a German response. The Russian moves had been primarily directed at Austria, and the Tsar had originally intended to mobilise on the Austro-Hungarian frontier alone in an attempt to show that Russia had no intentions against Germany. But he was advised by his military chiefs that this was impossible as all the plans for mobilisation were for a simultaneous mobilisation along both the Austro-Hungarian and German borders.

By August 1st Germany and Russia were at war. At this stage previous treaties and military plans now dragged France into the conflict. Not only were France and Russia bound by treaty to come to each others assistance but German military strategic planning required that Germany must attack France and neutralise the French army in order to be free to throw its main armies against Russia. And in order to attack France the German armies had to march through Belgium.

So a whole combination of movements for national independence, mutual treaty obligations, strategic considerations and the rigid mobilisation and war plans of the contending powers combined to bring about war. It is evident that the main factors were political-military rather than economic.

Britain on the brink
In the light of all that had happened till then one could say that a continental war had become inevitable. But there was nothing inevitable about Britain’s involvement. There was a good possibility that Britain would have remained neutral – at least for a time. If this had happened the outcome of the war could have been very different and with it the future development of Europe and the world.

This possibility and its consequences have been explored by Niall Ferguson in his essay The Kaiser’s European Union in Virtual History (ed. Niall Ferguson, Picador, London 1997). and by the military historian, Robert Cowley in What If? (Pan Books 2001).

I am aware that the ‘what if?’ counterfactual approach to history is looked on with disfavour by Marxist historians; E.H. Carr described it as ‘parlour games’. Nevertheless, I believe that one cannot avoid examining what might have happened if certain factors in a situation had been different or absent. To avoid asking these questions means that one cannot ascertain which factors are necessary or sufficient. Without posing these questions one cannot assess cause and effect. Ferguson and Cowley put forward convincing arguments to show that British involvement was by no means certain and that Britain’s abstention would have had far-reaching consequences

It is at this stage that the decisions of a small group of individuals, the members of the British Cabinet had important consequences on future history. And among this small group one man, Lloyd George, played a key role.

The Cabinet was divided when it met on 31 July 1914. There were no overwhelming purely economic imperatives driving Britain to war. The City of London and influential industrialists were in favour of Britain staying out of the conflict. There were fears of the effect of war on international trade, fears about the collapse of credit etc. Marxists may have believed that the economic struggle for markets and spheres of investment led to war. But that was not a view held by many capitalists themselves. The views of the City of London, of the financial institutions and of many industrialists were reflected by Lloyd George and others within the British cabinet who argued that Britain should keep out of the war. (This did not of course prevent them - once the war had started - from wringing the maximum possible profits supplying armaments and uniforms for the armed forces). So the reasons for Britain declaring war must be found in non-economic, i.e. political and military considerations – and in the subjective decisions of Cabinet members about these considerations.

In the context of strategic and military policy there were arguments for and against British involvement. We can dismiss the argument that Britain was bound by treaty to come to the defence of Belgium neutrality or to the aid of France. Both the Prime Minister, Asquith, and Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, strongly emphasised in their memoirs that there was no contractual obligation that obliged Britain to intervene in the war between the continental powers. In Asquith’s words ‘We kept ourselves free to decide, when the occasion arose, whether we should or should not go to war…There was no great military convention [with France]: we entered into communications which bound us to do no more than study possibilities.’ Nor did Grey make any secret of his opposition to any ‘precipitate attempt to force a decision’, which prevented him making any commitment to France in July.(3) A former Foreign Office Permanent Under-Secretary Sanderson, noted that the 1839 treaty with Belgium was ‘ not a positive pledge…to use material force for the maintenance of the guarantee of neutrality in any circumstances and at whatever risk.’ As Ferguson has pointed out a careful scrutiny of the contemporary documents reveals how very near Britain came to standing aside. ‘While it seems undeniable that a continental war between Austria, Germany, Russia and France was bound to break out in 1914, there was in truth nothing inevitable about the British decision to enter the war.’(4)

The main argument in favour of British intervention was that, for strategic and military reasons Britain could not afford that one power should dominate Europe. It was therefore necessary to prevent France from being crushed and Britain having to face, alone, a rampant, expansionist and potentially hostile Germany. The build up of German naval strength in the years immediately prior to the war were seen by many British strategists as a serious potential threat to Britain’s imperial power. The need to defend ‘poor little Belgium’ was a post-facto justification for Britain’s intervention.
However, there were equally potent factors that made British neutrality conceivable. Ferguson makes the following case.

‘At this point, it is worth asking once again an older counter-factual question which German liberals used endlessly to ponder: what if Britain had reached such an understanding, if not a formal alliance, with Germany? Despite some contemporary British anxieties about German commercial rivalry as German exporters began to challenge Britain in foreign markets and then to penetrate the British consumer market itself, the idea that economic rivalry precluded good diplomatic relations is nonsense. Disputes about tariffs are only harbingers of war to the incurable economic determinist….Moreover there were numerous overseas areas where German and British interests potentially coincided. In 1898 and 1900 Chamberlain argued for Anglo-German cooperation against Russia in China. There was serious though inconclusive discussion of an Anglo-German-Japanese ‘triplice’ in 1901. After much British grumbling, agreement was reached to give Germany Samoa in 1899. The period also saw cooperation between Britain and Germany over Portuguese Mozambique and Venezuela (in 1902). Even in the Ottoman Empire and the former Ottoman fiefdoms of Egypt and Morocco, there seemed to be opportunities for Anglo-German collaboration, though here opinion in London was more divided. A priori, there is no obvious reason why an ‘overstretched’ power (as Britain perceived itself to be) and an ‘under-stretched’ power (as Germany perceived itself to be) should not have cooperated together comfortably on the international stage. It is simply untrue to say that ‘the fundamental priorities of policy of each country were mutually exclusive.’ (5) ‘…neither colonial issues nor naval issues were leading inevitably to an Anglo-German showdown before 1914. As Churchill later put it ‘We were no enemies of German colonial expansion.’ Indeed, an agreement between Britain and Germany, which would have opened the way to increased German influence in the former Portuguese colonies in southern Africa, came close to being concluded. Grey himself said in 1911 that it did not ‘matter very much whether we ha[d] Germany or France as a neighbour in Africa’. He was eager to bring about a ‘division’ of the derelict Portuguese colonies ‘as soon as possible’ ‘in a pro-German spirit’. […] Even where Grey inclined to give French interests primacy – in Morocco - there was not a complete impasse with respect to Germany […] In any case, the German government backed down after Agadir; and when they turned their attention to Turkey, it was much harder for Grey to take an anti-German line without playing into the hands of the Russians with respect to the Straits […] Relations were further improved by Germany’s conciliatory response to British concerns over the Berlin-Baghdad railway.’ (6)
It comes out clearly from all accounts of the run-up to 1914 that all the major powers were constantly maneuvering for position and willing to change alliances whenever it suited them. It is also clear that in Britain there were opposing points of view – some favouring alignment with France and some accommodation with Germany. As far as Britain was concerned the options were open. In the end the Cabinet opted for war with Germany but this was by no means a foregone conclusion.

The Role of Individuals
It is therefore no wonder that when the Cabinet met on 31 July 1914 the nineteen members were divided. Lloyd George was from the start opposed to war. At least five others, Morley, Burns, Simon, Beauchamp and Hobhouse, were for an immediate declaration of neutrality. Only two members (Churchill and Grey) were definitely in favour of declaring war on Germany. The rest, including Asquith, were still undecided. The day before twenty-two Liberal members of the backbench Foreign Affairs Committee had warned that ‘any decision in participation in a European war would meet not only with the strongest disapproval but with the actual withdrawal of support from the Government (7)

With the Cabinet split and Grey threatening to resign if non-intervention was definitely decided the Cabinet agreed that ‘British opinion would not now enable us to support France…we could say nothing to commit ourselves.’ Then when Churchill persuaded Asquith to let him mobilise the navy in response to Germany’s ultimatum to Russia, Morley and Simon threatened to resign and the majority once again opposed Grey’s plea for a clear declaration. The most that could be agreed was that if the German fleet came into the Channel to attack the French coast or shipping the British navy would give all protection in its power. But even this – which was hardly a declaration of war as such German naval action was unlikely – caused Burns, the President of the Board of Trade, to resign. As Samuel noted, ‘Had the matter come to an issue, Asquith would have stood by Grey…and three others would have remained. I think the rest of us would have resigned.’ At lunch at Beauchamp’s that day, seven ministers, among them Lloyd George, expressed reservations about even the limited naval measures. When Grey finally secured a commitment to Belgium only by threatening to resign, Morley, Simon and Beauchamp countered this by now following Burns in offering their resignations.

So why did the government not fall?
Because, at the last minute, Lloyd George, Simon and Pease changed their minds and appealed to the resigners to stay and say nothing. Why did they do so? The answer they gave was Belgium. But as Fergusion points out this has to be viewed with some scepticism: As we have seen the Foreign Office view had been that the 1839 treaty did not bind Britain to go to war ‘in any circumstances and at whatever risk’.

Lloyd George had earlier tried to argue that the Germans would pass ‘only through the furthest southern corner’, and that this would imply only a ‘small infraction of neutrality’. “You see,” he would say (pointing to a map), “it is only a little bit, and the Germans will pay for any damage they do.”

So what made Lloyd George and his supporters change their minds? Party politics might have been a factor. The Liberals depended on the support of the Irish Nationalists. A cabinet split would let in the Tories. The Tories were pro-war. If the resignations had gone ahead Churchill and the pro-war Liberals might have invited the Tories into a war coalition. Alternatively a general election would have been called and a decision on war would have had to be postponed until afterwards. Maybe Lloyd George and his supporters were finally convinced that in the long run Britain could not afford a French defeat and a Europe dominated by an expansionist Germany. But whatever the motives it is still the case that Lloyd George and the others finally voted for war.

In this first week of August 1914 several possibilities existed. Either the Cabinet opted for neutrality, or it split and a Tory-Liberal coalition declared war, or the decision was put off until a general election. That none of these alternatives actually happened and the Liberal government declared war on 3 August was due to the change of mind of six or seven men out of nineteen in the British Cabinet.

The Consequences
It is clear that in some historical conjunctures the role of a few individuals can have far reaching consequences. And among these few individuals the role of one or more key ones can influence the others.

If Lloyd George had not changed his mind, and not dissuaded his colleagues from resigning, Britain’s abstention or belated entry and the absence of a British Expeditionary Force in France in August and September might have drastically altered the balance of forces. The Germans might have won the battle of the Marne. The possibility of a repeat of 1870 might have forced France to negotiate.

The conclusion of a negotiated peace in 1914 or early 1915 between the continental powers would have meant that however onerous the conditions imposed on France and Russia by the victorious Central Powers, the productive forces and wealth of the warring countries would have been largely preserved. More important millions of soldiers would not have been killed, millions of women would not have been widowed, millions of children not orphaned. A not unimportant consideration for these millions of human beings!

An early peace between Germany and France might also have resulted in an early end to the war with Russia. If that had been the case there might have been no Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Some sort of revolution in Russia was probably inevitable; the Tsarist regime would sooner or later have been overthrown or forced to concede reforms. But there might not have been the complete breakdown that another three years of war brought and which made possible the Bolshevik seizure of power. Tsarist absolutism might have given way to some type of bourgeois democracy or constitutional monarchy. And even if a socialist revolution had occurred it would have been in far more favourable conditions. The degeneration into a Stalinist police state might have been avoided.

What would have been the consequences for Germany? The factors which made possible the triumph of Nazism included the traumas of the November 1918 defeat, of the occupation of the Ruhr and the hyper-inflation of 1923. If Hitler had not come to power in 1933 would there have been a war in 1939? And if sooner or later Germany had once more been at war it would have been a different war with different consequences.

All this, of course, is speculation. The consequences of Britain staying out of the war in 1914 might have been other than those envisaged above. But there is no denying that the course of the war and its outcome would most probably have been different to what they actually became.

The future course of history would have been altered if the nineteen members of the British Cabinet had acted otherwise than they did. The decision could have gone either way. The crucial influence was that of Lloyd George. He was the most adamant opponent of Britain’s participation and the most influential mamber of the Cabinet. It was his belated change of mind and influence on his colleagues that swung the pendulum to war.

Plekhanov downplayed the influence of individuals as accidents in history. Some accidents – involving the lives and deaths of millions!!

Reconciling Determinism and Voluntarism
Even if one takes a determinist view, even if one argues that the 1914 war was determined by large scale, impersonal, historical forces it is a fact that for it to take place the actions of individuals were necessary.

The armies did not spontaneously march to the front, the guns did not go off by themselves. SOMEBODY had to give the orders for the armies to be mobilised, SOMEBODY had to give the order to fire. And that somebody was not an abstract entity called capitalism or imperialism. These somebodies were flesh and blood human beings, a Tsar Nicholas, a Kaiser Wilhelm, an Emperor Franz Josef and their close advisers; or a group of individuals, the British and French cabinets. Of course these individuals did not act in a vacuum. They were embedded and part of complex social and political structures and hierarchies. For the decisions of these individuals to have effect they had to have the power and authority to have their orders carried out; they had to be embodied in power structures with material means.

It can be argued that these individuals and sets of individuals represented social forces, classes, nations etc. But these social forces could only act and express themselves through the agencies of flesh and blood people. These people had to make decisions, carry out actions, give orders to other flesh and blood people and in turn these had to accept the orders and carry them out. Objective factors might well have made the war possible, even inevitable, but before the potential could become actual the decisions and actions of individuals were a necessary part of the network of cause and effect.

The decisions and actions of small groups of individuals or even of one key individual can be critical importance. The entry of Britain into the First World War was one instance. We can think of many more. For example the role of Lenin and the Bolshevik Central committee in 1917, Hitler’s order to the German 6th Army not to retreat from Stalingrad, the decisions of John F. Kennedy and his advisers and of Krushchev and his Politbureau during the Cuban missiles crisis of 1962. In this crisis one finger pressing the nuclear button would have had immeasurable consequences for humanity. To quote Plekhanov again – some accident!

Recognition of the sometimes critical role of the individual does not, however, contradict a determinist view of history. Even if we accept the hard determinist view that EVERYTHING in the universe is determined right down to the minutest decision - what Lloyd George and the Kaiser decided to have for breakfast - it is still a fact that neither the British nor the German armies would have moved, nor would guns have gone off unless these individuals had made the decisions they did and issued orders the orders they did. And unless other individuals had decided to obey these orders.
Why does a determinist view not lead to fatalism and quietism? This is a question that Plekhanov also asked.

The answer is twofold. Firstly, one’s actions do affect events. It may be determined that I pass my driving test. But I will not do so unless I actually get in the car and drive. Human beings (and other sentient animals) are imbued with wants and desires which can only be satisfied by their actions. It is their subjective perception of the best action to satisfy these desires and further their interests (even if they are mistaken) that is the immediate cause of their actions. Secondly, even the most convinced determinist does not have absolute knowledge of everything. In particular he or she does not know in advance what the next decision will be until makes that decision is made. And that decision is a conscious decision because the human brain has evolved over the millennia to be capable of consciously choosing between alternative actions in the light of the objective circumstances in which the possessor of the brain finds himself or herself.

This most convinced determinist cannot, therefore, help acting in the same way as if he or she had free will. Faced with choices he or she has to consciously choose between them. This is what Lloyd George and his colleagues, and the Kaiser and Tsar Nicholas and their advisers did. This is not altered by the fact that – objectively speaking – their actual decisions were determined by a combination of all previous events, the situation in which they found themselves and their characters (determined by their genetic make-up).

Where does this reconciliation of determinism and voluntarism leave the lowly socialist activist, the rank and file member of the Labour Party, of the Socialist Workers Party or any other organisation? At the beginning of this article I asked why should thousands of socialists and communists have risked their lives, suffered torture and imprisonment if it was all predetermined and their actions made little difference?

Let me repeat what I wrote in a previous article, Historical Materialism; a Critical Look at Some of its Concepts, in New Interventions, Vol.10 No.2, Autumn 2000. I wrote

‘The individual can make a difference. How much of a difference depends on the overall objective situation and the individual’s position in the social context. A Lenin has more influence than a rank and file party member. A Tony Blair or Gordon Brown has more influence than a member of his local Labour Party. But no one can tell in advance how much influence he or she may have in the future.’
Even a marginal individual can have a considerable effect on history at second hand by being a decisive influence on some one who, later, reaches a position of power. Lenin was one of these individuals whose actions had far-reaching consequences. But what influences formed him? Obviously the whole historical situation in which he grew up. Part of this was the activity of the Narodniks, the terrorist group to which Lenin’s brother, Alexander Ulyanov, belonged. Alexander was executed after a failed attempt to assassinate the Tsar. The Narodniks’ adoption of individual terrorism failed to overthrow the autocracy. Alexander Ulyanov was a marginal individual who failed in his objective. Yet all biographers of Lenin agree that this failed enterprise by his brother greatly influenced the young Vladimir Ilyich, not only by convincing him of the need for other methods but no doubt also by imbuing him with the psychological determination that drove his subsequent career.
Hitler was not born a Nazi. It is interesting to speculate the influences his parents, schoolmates, early acquaintances exerted on the young Adolf which drove him along the paths he took. One cannot know in advance what consequences one’s actions may have. One can only hope that one’s contribution together with that of others will make a difference.

In his The Role of the Individual in History, Plekhanov described the views of the subjectivist historians of the eighteenth century who reduced everything to the conscious activities of individuals as the thesis. He called the fatalistic views of later historians, Guizot, Mignet and others, who completely denied the role of the individual, the antithesis.

The recognition of the role of the individual within the framework of large-scale social forces, and the reconciling of free will and determinism may be described as a synthesis of the determinism and voluntarism that coexist in Marxism and historical materialism.


1.The Role of the Individual in History, G.V..Plekhanov, Lawrence & Wishart, p42
2.Europe Since 1870, James Joll, Penguin Books, 1990 p186
3.Virtual History, (ed) Niall Ferguson, Picador, 1997, p236
4.Ibid p237
5.Ibid p238
6.Ibid p247-9
7.Ibid p267