Monthly Archives: December 2014

What Engels’ supporters did next



In the great split of 1884, Engels took the side of those who demanded the earliest possible break with the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF’s flaw, as he saw it, was the party’s utter dominance by its leader, HM Hyndman. An aristocrat with a distinguished record of academic publication, Hyndman was a constant intriguer. Hyndman is “petty and hard-faced”, Engels complained, “possessing a vanity in excess of his talent and natural goods”. William Morris agreed, complaining about Hyndman’s habits of “discreditable intrigue and sowing of suspicion among those who are working for the party”. The historian EP Thompson diagnoses a relationship between Hyndman’s patrician upbringing, his sneering personal style, and his determination to create a party of followers, “Supremely self-confident himself himself, he saw the question of leadership as a matter of loyalty to himself and his Executive. If only the workers could be won to follow, he would look after the leading: the workers were the club he would swing.”

To demand an immediate split was to break apart the only socialist party on the British left, at a time when the far left was seemingly better united than it had been at any time since Chartism. The faction should think twice before continuing on a course that will lead them to abandon the SDF, Hyndman and his supporters urged. The SDF was Britain’s largest and only Marxist party, not a negligible acheivement, and one that should not lightly be abandoned. With around 1000 members prior to the break-up, the SDF contained in its ranks all the outstanding individuals of the most recent period of struggle; William Morris, Belfort Bax, HM Hyndman, John Burns, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Plenty of socialists outside the party – George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells – may have looked askance on the day-to-day pronouncements of Hyndman but at just the same time they assumed that in the coming social ferments the SDF would be reinvigorated, and that it would be capable of taking the practical leadership of the mass movement, a role that an individual could never hold but could be played only by a party.

Those who repeatedly and mechanically promise unity on the left are often the most desperate advocates of private intrigue. In public Hyndman may have promised that he would allow a space within the SDF for his critics; in private, he did everything in power to stiffen the resolve of his own partisans against a reconciliation with the faction. Morris was invited to speak at meeting of the SDF in Edinburgh. Hyndman sent eager comrades to break up his meeting, heckling him, by asking him repeatedly if he accepted the party’s line on economics.

While the ground on which the internal struggle rased was the sole question of inner-party democracy, the whole left was shaped by the patriachal culture of British public life. The SDF portrayed the class struggle as the key to creating a system of general equality, it existed in a world structured by sustained gender as well as class oppression. Among the SDF’s early supporters were Annie Besant, who on the break-up of her marriage had lost the custody of her children, the High Court ruling that as a socialist and secularist she was incapable of being a fit mother. A second prominent SDFer Edith Lanchester would be forcibly confined to an asylum after telling her family that she intended to live openly with her lover, without the two of them marrying. Another SDF activist Belfort Bax insisted that an urgent task facing socialists was to refute the feminism (the term not having yet been coined, he wrote instead against”gyneolotry”). Only class, he maintained, had the power to liberate the oppressed: “The real state of the case”, he wrote “is that the condition of women has been determined by that of the men of the class to which they belonged. Women of the privileged class have always been privileged, women of an oppressed class have been oppressed, not as women, but as belonging to an economically inferior section of the population”. Bax’s book on The Legal Subjection of Men justified his approach to his comrades.

After weeks of intrigue and attempted coups and counter-coups, Engels’ and Morris’ factions quit the SDF to launch a new party, the Socialist League, with branches in Leeds, Edinburgh and Oxford. There were a preponderance of writers on the SL’s first steering committee – Marx, Aveling, the poet Tom Maguire, and the most talented of them all, not a journalist but an author of alternative imagined futures, William Morris.

The League had certain virtues – an independence of spirit, a hostility to top-down leadership, a youthful membership – but within months these strengths had become the League’s equal weaknesses. Charles Mowbray, another member of the Provisional Council, would drift into anarchism after years as an activist among he unemployed in Norwich. Franz Kitz was rumoured to have previously led a cell of East End bomb-makers. He was an extreme individualist and the an advocate of copying the revolutionary Terror in order to strike fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie.  Before long, Engels was expressing his disappointment with the decisions of the steering committee, “The League is passing through a crisis”, Engels wrote, “Morris has fallen headlong over the phrase ‘revolution’ and become a victim of the anarchists.”

Members of the SL began a discussion on the merits or otherwise of “Communist Anarchism”. The League should not become a party it was argued but should restrict itself to a “centre of relations and statistics” without initiative, or leadership. Morris himself cease to play a day-to-day role within the League. His critique of the increasingly anarchist direction taken by the League was expressed in a coded passage in his greatest novel, during which the inhabitants of the future considered the individualist anarchist ideal, “To wit, that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”. The citizens of the future “burst out laughing very heartily” at the idea.

As for the SDF, beyond the undoubted accomplishment of maintaining any organisation after a bitter split, it became a shrunken memory of the party that it once was. Besides losing members in the formal split, it also shed activists towards careers in the trade unions and the Liberal party (John Burns). It retained an industrial cadre of very senior trade unionists who continued in office, increasingly elderly and indifferent or hostile to struggle. While on paper such figures as Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, General Secretaries of the boiler makers and dockers’ unions, were still members of the SDF and therefore Marxist revolutionaries, they argued for immigration controls and against strikes, and took seats in Parliament on the centre-right and far-right of the Labour spectrum (and this in a party which had the corruptible Ramsay MacDonald at its centre).

Hyndman was in private contemptuous of the class which his party supposedly existed to represent, “our working men are so ignorant and depressed by a hundred years of capitalist tyranny that it is hard to rouse them”, he told William Liebknecht, “the Trade Unions … stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”.

While Morris battled with the Socialist League ultra-left, a second group ex-SDFers (the ones closest to Engels’ heart) also drifted away but without in any way giving up on activity. At the 1888 conference of the Socialist League, Eleanor Marx’s Bloomsbury branch unsuccessfully moved motions called on the League to stand candidates for Parliament and to work to this end with others on the left. On the defeat of its motions, the Bloomsbury branch quit the League. Rather than give up on politics, they then attempted to work out a way of being revolutionaries that would be principled and effective and which would contribute to the renewal of the working class. In 1889, a revolt of unskilled workers began – with strikes among Beckton gas workers and East End dockers. Ex-SDFers such as Eleanor Marx in London and Tom Maguire in Leeds ignored both the SDF and the SL and threw themselves into participation in this nascent movement. In spring 1890, the boilermaker’s union, with Eleanor Marx on its executive, attempted to bring about a practical alliance of the unions and the socialist parties through a campaign for the 8-hour day. Tens of thousands of workers demonstrated jointly in Britain’s first May Day. Marx herself spoke twice a day at strike rallies. For the next four years, she would speak across Britain and internationally as a socialist but with no organised position beyond her seat on the executive of the boilermakers’ union.

At the end of the upturn of 1889-90, the remaining SLers split in three directions. A number became anarchists of the deed, while others dropped out of the movement. A third group moved rapidly in the direction of parliamentary politics. The League’s members in Leeds and Bradford swung one way and back between plans for incendiary devices to be used against local business owners and projects for standing for municipal office. A group around Maguire helped to choose the venue for the first conference of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford, while other ex-SDfers provided several of the office-holders (John Burns, Tom Mann) of the new electoral movement. A good case could be made that without the Socialist League there would have been no ILP. The League’s ultra-leftism in 1889 gave way surprisingly quickly to a longer future of mild reformism.

Morris, isolated and increasingly wooed by Hyndman, declined to write for his paper but admitted that the League was doomed, “I want to pull myself together after what has been, to me at least, a defeat”. Various branches of the SL (Hammersmith, North Kensington) defected from the increasingly anarchist parent, and attempted to hold a middle line thereafter between the SL and SDF. Their independence was at least facilitated by a healthy culture on the left of the 1890s where it was not unusual for socialists of whatever tradition (Fabian, SDF, ILP, ex-SL) to speak wherever they were invited, irrespective of the national politics of the group that was now providing their platform.

As for the Engels faction, after 10 years of independence they largely returned to the SDF,  with little enthusiasm, with no belief that Hyndman would ever change, but from a conviction that the only real alternative (the ILP) was headed in a direction which was even further from the revolutionary politics which they espoused. In this way the SDF ultimately reasserted itself and eventually passed on to its eventual child (the Communist Party of Great Britain) the old patterns of sectarianism and top-down leadership against which Morris, Engels and others had once raged. They would have done better, in 1895, to have retained their independence. And between 1884 and 1895 Morris, Maguire and all the others who had a vision of the League as a principled and democratic party of revolutionaries would have done better to have carried on working with them.

A new life of CLR James



I am grateful to Christian Hogsbjerg for giving me a copy of his account of CLR James’ emergence as a writer in the conditions of 1930s Britain (Duke UP, £16.03). It is a compelling book, of the right length for its material (280 pages), which sheds significant light on three aspects of James’ development, first his debt to revolutionary Nelson, second the impact of cricket on his Marxism, third, his (re)discovery of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

James himself stated repeatedly that he learned his revolutionary politics among the Lancashire weavers, and in particular in the small town of Nelson, to which he travelled in 1932 as Learie Constantine’s ghost-writer. Hogsbjerg tracks down details of James’s career as a visiting member of Nelson’s second XI. He finds examples of Nelson being described as a Little Moscow in the 1920s. He locates the source of James’ copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution – loaned by a fellow bibliophile Fred Cartmell. He vividly portrays the almost insurrectionary 1931-2 “More Looms” cotton strike, the immediate prelude to James’ arrival in the town. And he finds notes of James’ meetings for the ILP branch in Nelson.

Hogsbjerg revisits James’ appointment as Neville Cardus’ deputy on the cricket page of the Manchester Guardian. He places the 1933 West Indies’ cricket tour of England – James’ first major assignment – within the immediate context of the preceding ‘Bodyline’ Ashes and a hypocritical scare that the Windies might now attempt leg theory against England. He follows James’ rejection of Donald Bradman – not a builder of social movement but a mere accumulator of runs. And he digs out a later piece in which James attempted to explain bodyline in terms of the ides to be found in Spengler’s Decline of the West (another book loaned by Cartmell): “it was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”.   

From the perspective of a socialist activist living in Weimar Germany, Spengler might have been a bitter reactionary; but for someone who had been educated in the British colonies, the idea that the direct rule of the French and British empires was doomed to an imminent end had a different, more optimistic meaning. James rediscovered Toussaint, Hogsbjerg argues, in 1934, after moving to London, in a period where he was surrounded by both Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist friends, and was attempting a complex merger of these two strands of left-wing politics. Hogsbjerg detects other socialist influences on James’ Black Jacobins, including the French historiography of 1789, Marx, Jaures, and Kropotkin. James had a vision for the immediate future in colonial Africa, predicting what Hogsbjerg characterises as “a fluid and confused situation … with some whites immediately fighting in the ranks alongside black Africans”, in a single process of “international permanent revolution”.

I enjoyed the book, and recommend it to anyone who cares about James’ life and intellectual development. It is pleasing to find that even after three decades of James scholarship there are still new things to be said about one of the most inspiring and iconoclastic of the Trotskyists.

Why not have a maximum rent?


'End Revenge Evictions' protest

In the 2015 general election, various parties of the left promise to introduce rent controls. Labour’s police are the most detailed. They would extend the minimum term of private sector tenancies to three years, during which a landlord could only increase rent once a year, and there would be an upper ceiling to rent rises in accordance with the general increase in any particular area. Allowing increases but capping them to an amount above inflation would, it is said, strike a fair balance between owners and renters. The Green Party’s proposals are more radical: they would allow rent rises but cap them at a level below inflation. Left Unity’s are more radical still; they would allow no presumption of a rent rise, but to increase their rents landlord would have to show some necessity, for example to repair and refit the rented property.

While all of those policies are admirable, and all are have a connection to the UK’s very long history of rent control (c1915-1989), which worked by a similar mechanism of capping rent rises, I wonder if any of them go far enough.

The mathematics of private renting are staggering. Between 1991 and 2013 the proportion of renters more than doubled from around 7% of household to 16%, representing 3.8 million homes and 9 million people. By November 2014, the average private sector rent in the UK was £10,488 a year. At this level it represents over 40% of the average gross salary of £25,080 and a shocking 52% of the average net salary of £19,962.

Now all of these figures are averages, and no-one lives the perfectly average life. The typical renting home comprises a little under 3 people; probably a couple and a child – ie with any luck two incomes. So the number of people actually spending over half their disposable income on housing “should” be in the hundred of thousands rather than the several millions. Then again, both incomes and rent figures will also be heavily distorted by London, where rents are double the national average and incomes are higher (although not double the average). Certainly, in London, it must typical for single renters to be spending over half their net income on rent.

In a context where wage growth is low, an offer to cap rent rises is a proposal to keep things as bad as they are now.

Here then is my alternative suggestion. In an economy where millions of wages are increasingly fixed by national measures (the national minimum wage the living wage, etc), we should extend the same principle to housing, and say that no landlord should be allowed to charge a rent greater than a maximum of £50 per bedroom per week.

For a single person on the national minimum wage of £6.50 per hour, and working 40 hours per week for £260 per week gross and £233 per week net, this would have the virtue of capping all single bed properties at a budget which is broadly within their reach: £50 per week is 19% of their gross salary, and 21% of their net salary.

Assuming that the present average rent of £10,488 per year is charged for a two bedroom home; my suggestion is that the maximum rent for a property this size should be £100 per week or £5,000 per year altogether – ie a bit less than half of the present market level.

It may be said that these proposals would disadvantage those families of the wealthy such as the Camerons who only “get by” through making a profit on around 6-8 owned homes. But – bluntly – why should anyone be subsidising very wealthy individuals in stockpiling houses and using their private wealth to force millions of much poorer people into debt?

Avoiding Apocalypse



It is not easy to review a book written by a comrade; John Cowsill was a member of RS21 (as I am) from our foundation and has been a member of the North London branch whose meetings I have previously posted. Earlier this year, he published Safe Planet, an attempt to bring together two potentially disparate elements of Marxist theory – first, an explanation of the mechanics of how it might be possible to power the world by the use of renewable electricity, and second, an argument that the people most likely to make this transition happen were the world’s workers. “Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, Lenin wrote in 1920Safe Planet updates this message.

The first half of John’s book explains that the world already has a problem with generating sufficient energy, and that this problem will get worse in successive generations as (for example) hundreds of millions of people in East Asia enjoy the more affluent lifestyles which are likely to follow the massive expansion of industry in China. Our economy is still based on the assumption that this electricity can and will be generated principally by the extraction of fossil fuels, hence the adoption of technologies such as fracking which are intended to extend the lifetime of coal, oil and gas. A problem with the continued use of fossil fuels is that they are enormous polluters, principally by producing excess carbon dioxide which is causing the world’s temperature to rise. Our collective dependence on carboniferous capitalism is already causing droughts, famine and extreme weather conditions and every indication is that its destructive consequences will only get worse.

So, the world needs to move to alternative forms of energy production, including greater use of renewable energy. But a principal problem with the greater use of wind, solar and tidal power is that the energy they produce surges, and is not generated continuously (there is no solar energy production in the middle of the night; while it is easy to site wind farms far out to sea such farms are relatively less productive than land-based turbines…) and any electricity can only be stored with difficulty. John argues for the adoption of a system of energy storage based on a model proposed nearly twenty years ago by Willett Kempton and Steven Letendre – in effect, that we should replace the engines of every oil-burning motor car with electrical motors which can double-up at night-time as a series of millions of batteries holding all the unused electricity. I find this model intriguing even though it does raise further questions. What would the carbon costs be of tens of millions of adapted car batteries in Britain or billions of them worldwide? And who be the advocates of the movement that would be required to make this change happen?

The most impressive parts of Safe Planet involve the critique of other writers who you might term “pale green” (my phrase, not John’s), in that they call for greater use of renewable electricity but portray themselves as moderate and make unnecessary concessions to the fossil fuel lobby by stating that renewable energy cannot be the majority source of electrical generation for many years to come. In particular John criticises David Mackay and George Monbiot who, John argues, have been unnecessarily pessimistic about how quickly the transition to renewables could be made. Mackay has argued that no more than 15% of UK energy production could ever come from renewables; and John argues that this assessment is based on a series of wrong assumptions – about the generating capacity of wind power in particular. I have no independent knowledge of climate science, neither of the mathematics of transport use (a key factor in John’s equations) nor of the efficiency of wind farms, but I found John’s arguments persuasive.  Since his book was published, life itself seems to have born out their accuracy: for example, in one day in October 2014, 24% of UK electrical generation was from wind power. While this was an exceptional day, bringing together outages in the nuclear sector, unusual meterological conditions, etc, this happened, and was far beyond the outer reaches of Mackay’s model. Even if it is treated as a relative anomaly, the direction in which we are all (too slowly) heading is clearly towards the greater use of renewables and (seemingly) the eventual disproof of the pessimists.

The second half of John’s book is an argument that the transition to a system of renewable electricity will only happen, at the necessary speed, if it is accompanied by a successful social revolution in which the world’s workers take over the means of production.

I agree, but it is easier to persuade readers that the major oil producers are an obstacle to a necessary change than it is to persuade them that the world’s workers in particular have an overwhelming reason to make this revolutionary transformation. In the first half of the book, John’s focus is on a single group of capitalists, those involved in the production of fossil fuels, whereas in the second half of his books he pits all capitalists against all workers. More work needs to be done to show that reformist solutions to ecological catastrophe are utopian. At least at the level of hypothetical possibility, it is conceivable that capital in general could recognise that its collective survival rests on the defeat of a particular capitalist layer and therefore that fossil fuel capitalism should be subordinated. In the last 150 years, many things which were previously thought to be essential to capitalism have been wilfully diminished – the airborne polluting technologies that horrified the civil society of nineteenth century Manchester, the big tobacco companies which were so important to postwar America, the CFC technologies that caused the hole in the ozone layer. None of these technologies were entirely defeated, none of these pollutants have altogether gone away. And yet none of them are as dominant within the world’s economy as they once were. If, as John seems to believe, that there is a different relationship at stake, a deeper relationship between oil production and capital itself so that only a revolutionary alternative could enable the shift to renewables then this needs to be directly argued.

The final sections of Safe Planet set out with clarity and in an accessible way, a series of ideas which will be familiar to longstanding readers of this blog, ie the tendency of capitalism to go into periodic cycles, the role of workers as revolutionary agents, the limits of the trade union bureaucracy, the necessity of an independent rank and file and of a revolutionary party. These are good arguments rooted in a vision of collective emancipation and John is to be congratulated for putting them in a different format so that they will be read by people by a new audience probably motivated more by ecological concerns than with the nuance of the socialist tradition. But my honest reaction to reading – in a new place – arguments that I myself have made often enough in other places was to feel a strong need for their updating.

The analysis of socialist transformation rests far too much on analyses generated in the heroic period of the postwar working class. In contrast to the world in which I was born, unions are weak, and we are all told repeatedly that education rather than collective struggle will maximise an individual’s life chances. The price of labour has become implicated with the price of the social wage, which capital has waged a 50-year struggle to reduce, manipulating scares around immigrants. Bureaucracy is no longer a problem experienced only by unions but by a large number of other social movements. In an epoch where technologies tend to separate people rather than binding us together, struggle still takes places but class consciousness is falling not rising. There is no longer a clear majority of people employed in full-time permanent jobs, in which any individual worker can maximise their economic worth by being part of social movements to increase the price of their labour, so that a revolution can be portrayed as simply the inevitable final product of a series of militant workplace struggles. The link between protest and class consciousness needs to be remade.

It is unfair to expect a short book on the very specific topic of global warming to contain the answers to everything. But I am not singling out John’s book; all of us who come from an IS tradition need to be aware that the metaphors we employ risks becoming drained with repetition. And if they seem tired to us, it is likely that others will feel their exhaustion with even greater conviction.

Karl Marx: activist and improviser



Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx (Liverlight, £9.91) has received a critical pasting from the revolutionary left. One American journal accused its author of “short-changing” Marx, while among the British Marxists one newspaper criticised Seperber for failing to appreciate the liberating potential of “revolutionary socialist leadership”. A socialist monthly (on whose editorial board I once sat) urged its readers to ignore Sperber without reading him: “There are many bad books on Marx – this one in particular sets out to prove that he was out of date even in the era in which he was working.”

As it happens, there are problems with Sperber’s book, starting with its style which is drier than its material deserves. The author is a serious academic historian and has a talent for finding neglected sources, but the Marx with which he is most comfortable is a writer in the company of his peers. The result is like a history of the Gospels in which the reader is reminded of Jesus’ debt to the millenarian sects of Second Temple Judaism, and it is shown that the ideas that we associate with early Christianity could also be found elsewhere. This indebtedness was also true of Marx but it the combination of ideas although with the skill of their expression that makes Marx better read even now than his contemporaries. Sperber’s organising approach to Marx it to place him firmly in his nineteenth-century setting, which – here I agree with his critics – does reduces him. But if you care about who Marx was and what he stood for, then surely the appropriate response is not just to criticise a biographer’s general approach but also to try to learn from him, as from anyone (whether Sperber, Lars Lih…) who has found documents of which the left has been ignorant.

In that spirit, it is more useful to highlight a few aspects of Marx which Sperber explains better than anyone else I have read.

Marx grew up in a family setting which was receptive to his early ideas. This is a surprising discovery; Marx’s father Heinrich appears in most previous biographies as a champion of absolutist rule, a “Prussian patriot” (Mehring, 1936 edn, pg 2), or a “monarchist” (Wheen, 1999, pg 18) baffled by his son’s politics and fortunate to die on his son’s 20th birthday before the two men ended up in total conflict. But Sperber, who has access to the MEGA (ie the full, German-language version of Marx’s Collected Works, including the letters of Marx’s correspondents) shows that Heinrich had read Voltaire to his son while the latter was at school and written to Karl when he was a student encouraging him to read the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Leibnitz, Locke and Newton. Heinrich’s libraries included a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (Sperber, pg 19). Heinrich, Sperber argues, expressed his lifelong commitment to rationalism by converting not from Judaism to Catholicism (the almost universal choice of his successful Jewish contemporaries) but to Protestantism. In 1834, when his son was 16, he was one of a group of 15 Prussian state officials who – scandalously – celebrated the New Year by getting drunk and singing the Marseillaise and waving a small revolutionary tricolour flag (pg 29). This sounds suspiciously like the Karl Marx of the 1850s with his pubcrawls and drunken discourses to friends on the merits of revolutionary anthems.

When you think that Marx is polemicising against other writers, Sperber insists, he is really (if tacitly) also criticising himself. Hence the assaults in Communist Manifesto on Fourier, Owen, Grun, and the lengthy destruction by the Young Marx of the theories of Proudhon and Feuerbach. Generations of readers trying to find their way in to Marx through his most accessible short books have been baffled by their multiple references to these contemporaries who (from the view of the present) seem even harder and more obscure than Marx himself. If the ideas of these writers are really so puny and ridiculous, a sensitive reader may ask, why does Marx waste so much time on them? Yet all of these writers had been a mentor at one time or another in Marx’s (very lengthy) journey of self-discovery. Repeatedly, Sperber shows, Marx expresses the deepest scorn in relation to views which Marx himself had held just a year or two before. So in The Eighteenth Brumaire, when Marx criticises those who had expected the revolution of 1848 to replay the revolutionary dynamic of 1789, Marx’s bitter rejection of this approach only makes sense if you understand that for much of 1842-1852 Marx had promoted that very revolutionary alliance between socialists and liberals which he was now rejecting.

Between his mid-20s and mid-30s, in the favourable context of the prelude to the 1848 revolution and then during the revolution itself, Marx built for himself a career as a newspaper editor which was surprisingly conventional (when set against the well-known history of Marx’s later penury in London) and – in the same terms – successful. Wheen speeds through this period as quickly as he can, preferring to concentrate on the development of Marx’s ideas and the human of his early marriage. Mehring knew Marx’s success but insisted that it was the unstable product of continuous conflict between Marx himself and the “extremely moderate” Rhineland bourgeoisie (Mehring, pg 35). Sperber takes the revolutionary desires of the Rhenish liberals more seriously. He shows that Marx’s 1842-3 editorship of the Rhineland News was marked by the young writer’s willingness to polemicise on behalf of the historic causes of the German liberals (ie free trade, an elected assembly, an end to censorship by the Prussian bureaucracy), and that his journalism was popular with a moderate, middle-class audience. Under his editorship, the paper’s subscription trebled. On the paper’s closure by the Berlin government, the stockholders petitioned the Prussian Emperor himself asking him to change his mind, and a list of wealthy patrons collected together a total of 1,000 talers as a pension to thank Marx for his efforts for the democratic cause.

Sperber’s Marx is an improviser. Mehring’s Marx was a prophet and philosopher who had emerged from the womb fully-formed and the role of history was to provide no more than a canvas for the inevitable working out of the vision he had already crafted. It is more persuasive to see Marx’s ideas as emerging negatively, as a series of potential plans for political advance, which were then defeated by other factors which Marx then recognised as having greater weight than he had originally envisaged. So, after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx came to the view that the European middle-classes had a greater fear of social revolution (by the workers) which might emerge within political revolution (for democracy) than they had of their old, authoritarian rulers. Accordingly, in any future revolution, it should be expected that they would side with the counter-revolution (as they did indeed in 1871). This was Marx’s consistent analysis thereafter. But it is most clearly not the view that Marx championed before those revolutions had gone down to defeat, and he reached it only because of his great let-down as the revolution was slaughtered.

Finally, Sperber’s Marx is an activist. He formulates plans and then refines them. He takes to the streets; he encounters the hostility of the repressive apparatus of the state, both in Germany and later in exile. He is a political animal trying to shape his immediate present. He is not infinitely wise, he is not principally a writer concerned with the limits of political economy (although he became that writer during the long period of the revolution’s defeat). Sperber’s Marx is in fact the very same person that his best friend Frederick Engels once described in the funeral speech he gave to just a dozen of Marx’s friends: “Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.” To see Marx in these terms is not in the least to dismiss him. Nor, at a time when activism is widespread, should it provide a barrier to championing Marx among a new generation of fighters.

David Widgery, Agitprop and the SWP (1978)



[from issue 2, Wedge magazine]

This quick history of the rise, fall and rise again of the Agit-prop Committee in the Socialist Workers over the last three years is prompted by two agit-prop objections to the first snore-worthy issue of Wedge. The first is the stated perspective that there are the editorial “we”, an elite of cultural revolutionaries, and the excruciating economistic berks who lumber along in the less enlightened left, obsessed with tedious, uncreative things like strikes and demos, badly in need of the elite’s expertise. The second is the timeless, academic tone of your journal, too much like a left alternative to Red Letters, when what’s urgently needed is some forum for reporting and sharing the practical experience we do possess of cultural action. I like to read a trenchant critique of late David Sequiros or a dialectical scrutiny of Walt Disney as much as the next person, and I especially enjoy the pleasingly irreverent cultural critique of North Americans like Georgakas, Baxendall, Buhle and the divine Rosemont, and great theory mags like Cineaste, Women and Film, middle-period Radical America and Cultural Correspondence. But there’s too many people making an academic living here in the UK on that scene anyway, and what we need is not another generation of tyros staring at the words “Art” and “Marxism”, trying to figure out some finished diagram of their relation, but a sharing of the half-wrought, human efforts so many of us have been making in different mediums since ’68 to get our revolutionary ideas across in new cultural-political forms.

So, on to the saga of Arties v Hacks in SWP, or, more accurately, How does a modern grouping of conscious revolutionaries develop a policy towards art and propaganda? This interests me personally because I joined IS ten years ago, after disenchanting spells in the CP and SLL, because of an obituary of André Breton written by Ian Birchall in the journal International Socialism. Quite something, I thought:  post-Trotskyists who liked Surrealism and had 300 members into the bargain. The electrician who joined with me turned out to have been bribed with free saxophone lessons after meetings, and IS even then had quite a distinctive graphic flair and the only half-way funny cartoonist on the left. But it was only in 1975, on the initiative of Roland Muldoon of CAST and the proletariat’s Oliver, that we set up an informal committee to co-ordinate agit-prop work. Roland, with pre-Women’s Movement Sheila Rowbotham and pre-playwright John Hoyland, had set up the original agit-prop office in the acid-dropped flurry of the May Events. Psychedelia v Ian Smith at the Roundhouse, the Black Dwarf Christmas Party. I’d always been involved a weird kind of headshop Marxism in the underground press as well as trying to liven up the ‘Arts’ coverage of Socialist Worker. Nigel Fountain, who has a world record of working on failed left culture magazines from Idiot International to Street Life, Roger Huddle, SW’s designer, Pete Marsden, the paper’s infintely patient sub, and Toni of IS Books were other supporters of the ‘post-electronic faction’, as the Agit-Prop Committee got labelled.

Our first outing was entrepreneured by Roland. Karmitz’s reconstruction of a women’s textile factory occupation, the film Blow by Blow, was a gift: four stars for the subject, crisply edited, topical, a sensitivity to feminist ideas not bad for the times and in colour. “We’ll just have to keep quiet about the sub-titles”, counselled Muldoon. We tried it on an after-conference audience in St Pancras Town Hall, acoustics as bad as ever, bar worse, mistake to precede it with too long Chile movie. Still people loved it, cheering and booing along – and we made money. One month later, we sent it out, on hire from The Other Cinema on a tour of Britain, from Glasgow to Southampton with IS stops on the way. The heroic projectionist was his own driver, cashier, electrician, and often made a speech at the end. We organised posters, tickets and advance publicity from London, and depended on local enthusiasm to carry it through. High spot of that tour was a hurriedly arranged showing of the film to an audience of women strikers whose dispute has many parallels with the film, in a Salford GEC factory.

Our next tour was with Berwick St Film Collective’s Ireland: Behind the Wire, not an ‘easy’ movie and with some rather indistinct sound which, we discovered all too easily, gets lost in a tall, bare meeting room. But the film was harrowingly authentic, especially the testimonies of the internees and interrogees and the film-maker had clearly won the trust of their subjects. This time the tour was broken up in stages and, on the Yorkshire leg, where I was doing the projecting, we got large and very attentive audiences. I was especially impressed by the large number of Irish people in the audience, often whole families, nodding in agreement with the film. An important feature of this still very subversive film is that it made its own political analysis, and a good one, as it went along. We later ran into problems or rather ran out of films when we toured movies whose politics we had reservations about. Last Grave in Dimbaza is a solid but dated film and since we made a special effort on this tour to visit industrial areas where firms operated who were heavily involved in South Africa, we had to supplement the film with prepared speakers’ notes. Spain: Dreams and Nightmares, made by a retired American building worker, working through his own feelings about modern Spain and his memories of the civil War, in which he fought, has a good class line, but it’s got a pretty terrible account of the Civil War, so again we provided background material. Predictably on all our tours some idiotic hack would ring up in fury and complain that our films “didn’t have the right class line” and we were misleading the class … again. We’d explain that we didn’t have the resources to produce our own politically kosher films, even if this was possible or desirable, and that, for Chri’sake, we were involved in films to reach out to a wider political audience of the usual circle of the already converted and over-committed.

We also tried local tours and specialist tours (I humped Cinema Action’s Miners Film on British Rail round the Yorkshire coalfield) and wrote a section for the IS Handbook on the practical problems of organising film shows. But Pete Marsden was virtually collapsing under the strain of being tour organiser as well as SW sub-editor. We succeeded in our first aim: taking left films to people who would never venture into arts cinema or college; and we’d established as SWP network of over 25 towns of people who had experience of setting up the venues. We’d done something to raise the politicos’ consciousness about film as a weapon; and we’d tackled the mundane but absolutely vital problem of distribution. Otherwise, as The Other Cinema debacle has demonstrated (see elsewhere in this issue of Wedge) you can show leftist films to lefties in the metropolis and still not break into new audiences. One regret is that we didn’t link in with the Newsreel Collective, probably because we (wrongly?) regarded them as a Big Flame front, although their more topical work would have brilliant as a sort of Marxist Pathe News, preceding their big movie. We did have some success showing the Portugal newsreel alongside Spain: Dreams and Nightmares. The national tours served their purpose, enough people got the message to set up their own shows and there are not two SWP-based cinema clubs.

Our first national Agit-Prop conference was held in Manchester in September 1975 with about 200 people including many non-IS folk joining in. We had workshops, many of them practical, with Penny Morris of North West Spanner on theatre organising, John Sturrock advising budding photographers; Eve Barker printing a special conference silk-screen poster; Andy Weistreich on organising song-swapping for socialist minstrels; Roland on ‘hotting up live events’, a blistering attack on that appalling left-wing institution ‘The Social’; Mackie and Evans cartooning; and much free-for-alling. We attempted a discussion on the relationship between the ‘classical’ Marx / Trotsky analysis of high art and the Mayakovsky / Brecht / May Events school of art-as-action, introduced by Ian Birchall and the much-abused Paul O’Flynn, who socked everyone, especially me, by hailing Richard Neville’s Playpower as revolutionary in form (if hollow in content). At least that was what the debate was supposed to be about, but it went all over the place at high speed, not getting us anywhere except a blazing row about whether digging up Headingley cricket pitch to free George Davis was a surrealist act or a form of working class self-defence. Out of habit, we passed a motion at the conference, which was duly handed on to the Central Committee, which gives the flavour of the meeting:

This first national Agitprop meeting wants an end to drab socials, colourless meetings, boring education, unconvincing education and bad jokes by uncovering and organising the creative potential of our members and supporters as designers, printers, sound recordists, actors, photographers and musicians.

We also had grand plans to set up self-financing local agit-prop resources centres and a million other things. A bulletin was started to co-ordinate work but only appeared once. People did things usually off their own bat and without our knowledge.

In London, we organised tape-slide shows for political education; we started a cassette-hire service (SW Recordings) so that people could hear our popular and/or specialist speakers at their convenience (which we now sell); we operated an agi-prop enquiries service at the Finsbury Park Bookshop which was itself trying to improve co-ordination between the nine or ten SWP-operated bookshops and trying to establish the ‘Bookmarx’ book club. We battered away at Socialist Worker, starting, for example, the highly successful ‘Under the Influence’ series, in which socialists recalled the books that had first converted them, and encouraging agit-proppers like Muldoon and O’Flynn to take on review columns and build on the strong arts coverage that Roger Protz had developed. Success here was not encouraging, partly out of sheer pressure on space, partly through a certain crassness among the political leadership (we thought). We organised benefits and concerts ad hoc. Roland put CAST back on the road – strictly roots – ignoring the scaling-up in size and cost that the broader left groups were entering, by reinstating the old, economical and highly mobile gymanstic style of the original Muggins shows. The group of designers at the SW printshop who turn out a prodigious amount of agitation design in political emergencies formed a group called ‘Red Wedge Graphics’ (not to be confused with your august journal) to try and push for more exciting design work. Red Wedge Graphics is a deliberate engima and contains many factions constantly feuding and demanding the suppression of their rivals’ work in best Agit-Prop tradition. One section, the Hot Pink tendency, the most fanatically pro-punk element are now working with the Tom Robinson Band.

In its own anarchic way, punk has had a critical influence on our Agit Prop work, not only confirming many of our cultural ideas but fuelling Rock Against Racism, perhaps the best initiative by the ‘post-electronic tendency’. RAR was the gut reaction of Roger Huddle and Red Saunders the photographer and Kartoon Klown (who is not in the SWP) – who describe their street status as “ageing mods” – to Eric Clapton’s drunken racialist ramblings at a Brum concert. They wrote a letter of protest, signed by friends who could be reached on the phone, to the music press, announcing the existence of a campaigning organisation, Rock Against Racism. The reaction swamped them, not just from closet music freaks on the left but, more importantly, from literally thousands of kids who ‘Love Music And Hate Racism’, are sick of rich super-stars and bored with 90% of what the Left offers them. This is not time or the place for a full  history of RAR but already there have been over 100 gigs, 20,000 badges, four issue of the political fanzine Temporary Hoarding selling out 5,000 copies a time, and just amazing new energy. If you’ve been to a RAR gig, you’ll know. I think its critical important is that it really is the first white anti-racialist initiative which has clicked with black youth, its medium is its message, and it fits and influences the punk rebellion. RAR deserves a lot of credit for getting the punks to come our so hard against the NF. For a while it looked as it it might easily go the other way. If Mayakovksy was alive today, says Patti Smith, he’d play in a rock band. So maybe John Rotten out to go back to writing poetry, which he used to do very well when still at Kingsway FE college.

Punk ironically led to the revival of the Agit Prop Bulletin when Lucy Toothpaste, feminist-punker and editor of the fanzine Jolt took it over and renamed it Rentamob. You can get it from 27 Clerkenwell Close, London E1, c/o Counteract, and it’s full of our current agit-prop ideas. Life inside these dreadful left-wing parties isn’t quite as dead as you seem to think.

Auden explaining neoliberalism to Byron’s ghost


I try not to share things on this blog which are widely available already on the internet, but I make an exception for this poem. I first read it in 2008 and, although I have not read it again until today, since I first found it I have always know it was there. I have played back repeatedly in my conscious mind the message of the second, third and fourth stanzas: that there is always a reactionary force in politics, that it constantly finds new ways of expression, and (my addition) that unless we watch ourselves even those of us who think we are immune to it can fall under its spell.

You never were an Isolationist;
Injustice you had always hatred for,
And we can hardly blame you, if you missed
Injustice just outside your lordship’s door:
Nearer than Greece were cotton and the poor.
Today you might have seen them, might indeed
Have walked in the United Front with Gide,

Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and today he still
Swinges the horror of his scaly tail.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

Milton beheld him on the English throne,
And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;
The hermits fought him in their caves alone,
At the first Empire he was also there,
Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:
He comes in dreams at puberty to man,
To scare him back to childhood if he can.

Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,
Whenever he’s lost faith in choice and thought,
When a man sees the future without hope,
Whenever he endorses Hobbes’ report
‘The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,’
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.

Every ship needs a helmsman (Sedgwick)


sedge castle


Every manic needs a depressive
Every depressive needs a manic
Every dominant needs a recessive
People think we’re so aggressive
Underneath our front there’s panic
Let’s not get depressed or obsessive
or let
ple see

Every conman needs a sucker
Every sucker needs to be conned
You don’t have to be a stupid mucker

If you don’t count your change don’t squeal if it’s wrong.

We have got a special pedigree
From Karl Marx’s holy family tree
With an Engels-pure heredity
– then we cross:

Four voices:
1, 2 & 3:     Lenin fucked my grandma.
2:                    Trotsky fucked my mam.
1:            Uncle Ho,
3:                And there’s Uncle Jo
1:            Not to speak of Chairman Mo,
4:                And that sexy old Makhno,
1, 2, 3, & 4: All the great bods had a go
I AM!!!

Every junkie needs a mania
Every politician needs Tanzania
Moscow, Castro or Albania:
Make your vow.

Every setback needs a victory
Every doubt must have a mystery
We’re hooked on history now.

Many thanks to John Rudge for sending me a copy of the York IS magazine from 1970. It includes some treats, such as a letter back from Peter Sedgwick in New York, a second piece by Sedgwick warning against a default position of assuming that socialists should vote for Labour, Juliet Ash on the women’s liberation movement, and a sympathetic piece by Dave Gibson on skinheads.

It also includes the above song, which although unattributed (“Anon Trad.”), from its humour and themes of  mental illness and (anti-) Stalinism, strikes me as almost certainly by Sedgwick