23 January 2007

Three Questions for Socialist Historians

Any socialist historian of Britain will in future years have to answer three fundamental questions. First, how did someone like Tony Blair become leader of the Labour Party; second, why, even after the Iraq fiasco, was the Labour Party unable to get rid of him; and third, given Blair’s policies why didn’t a serious party emerge to Labour’s left. Why, in short, has social democracy in Britain been killed and political liberalism been serious wounded.

It is not that I cannot furnish answers to these questions, but it is only by writing full answers, and discovering and articulating all the evidence that would support answers to these questions, that we will come to understand the neo-Liberal consensus in Britain. Who is doing that work?

22 January 2007

Britain's White Trash: an ugly term

"White trash" is a term of abuse applied to victims of New Labour's capitalism

One starling fact is how quickly working class people at play have been reclassified as ‘white trash’ – a rather nasty term which is borrowed like much else from across the Atlantic. While of course I would say nothing to defend the racism, bigotry and ignorance of the women on ‘Big Brother,’ the lot of their class is not an easy one.

The assault on working-class communities gathered pace in the 1970s. Job security disappeared in the 1980s with unemployment, and the job creation since then has been of the flexible here-today-gone-tomorrow sort. Globalisation sped up geographical mobility and commercialised most areas of life, destroying the fabric of working class communities. Immigration – Black, Asian or Polish – has intensified competition for work and housing.

The upswing of capitalism, however, since the late nineties has increased working class disposable income which has furnished more people with consumer durables, leisure and touristic opportunities. The middle class has been able to accumulate sufficient resources to guarantee for itself a measure of security and has adapted its lifestyle to the rhythms of globalism both economically and ideologically. By contrast a large part of the traditional working class is swirled around like confetti on a turbulent ocean. It is thus significant to note that it is these victims of globalisation who are the portrayed as the trash of the system.

2 January 2007

SINGER, Isaac B - Scum

Vintage 2005

First published 1991

Read December 2006

Again Bashevis Singer shows himself as the master storyteller. Once started the book is hard to put down. While ‘Scum’ lacks the weight of ‘The Moskat Family’ and the beauty of ‘The Slave’ it nonetheless is an excellent read.

This time we meet an utter scoundrel, Max Barabander, who having made a fortune in Argentina sets off to Russian Poland, the land of his birth. He uses his wealth to join in the affairs of the local Jews of Warsaw, and in particular with several women around whom he creates a web of lies. This amoral man, Singer is at pains to remind us, is still a Jew and therefore has a conscience, although it never affects his behaviour, but weighs down on him. Singer, as usual, paints a stereotyped picture of Warsaw, this time in 1906, where everyone is either ‘lowlife’ or else pious; women exist for men; and key defining characteristic of every character is his (or her) identification as Jew or Gentile.

The book ends in Max Barabander planning a brutal murder of a woman who has tricked him out of his passport (though in fact he retrieves the passport non-violently). Singer seems to want to say that a man of this kind deserves a Russian jail, and it was the destiny of God to bring it about. Yet for me two things were troubling; first that a delusional character of this kind had acquired such wealth and prestige legitimately in Argentina, and second, that his insane violence just appears from nowhere.

December 2006


MILIBAND Ralph - Marxism and Politics

OUP 1977

Re-read December 2006

In the last few months I have been perusing my library and re-reading some of the many books written about Marxism in the 1970s. Much of the material seems of have aged in the thirty years; and it certainly feels as if it were addressing a previous era. Authors such as Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, who I once thought – in so far as I understood them – held the keys to the political theory of the future, now appear like obscurantist clowns who believed that a stream of technical terms and distinctions wrapped up endless metaphor could constitute serious analysis.

Ralph Milibands’s work is in a different class altogether. His book, ‘Marxism and Politics,’ is not only a sympathetic probing of the validity, logic and issues surrounding Marxist politics, but is also written in a wonderfully clear style. Admittedly, time has moved on since 1976 and nowhere today in the advanced capitalist countries is socialism on the immediate agenda. Yet, the book, I believe, retains its value in the twenty-first century. Why?

Miliband, neither as an anti-Marxist polemicist nor as a disciple of sect, excellently manages to tell us what Marxist politics is; and why a specific theory of Marxist politics is worthwile but has never been written. He then deals with the key concepts of Marxist analysis, e.g. class, superstructure, ideology, civil society, state, reform, revolution, not by uncritically laying out a doctrine, but through raising the issue and debates which surround these concepts. It is, of course, only by fully understanding Marxism that we can develop and apply it to the politics of today when certain aspects of capitalism – though not its central nature – has changed. Doctrines come and go as fashions of an age, but logically worked out analyses have stronger roots and therefore greater staying power.

Interestingly, Miliband dedicates his book to his two sons, David and Edward, both of whom are now senior Blairite politicians. If Ralph Milibands’s politics stood for anything, it was a rejection of the idea that capitalism could ever provide the basis in which freedom, democracy and human worth could prevail. Obviously both sons turned their back on their father’s contribution to politics. But they are not alone; Tony Benn’s son Hilary sits in Mr Blair’s cabinet, an irony all the stronger in that Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn were neighbours, socialist colleagues and friends.

December 2006


BOLGER, Dermot - Emily's Shoes

Viking 1992

Read December 2006

The book seems one of many which are set against the background of the socio-economic revolution in Ireland. The childhood is set in parochial poverty-stricken Catholic Ireland, while the adulthood takes place amidst the trapping of 1990s bourgeois Dublin.

There is certainly the air of ‘L’Entrager’ in this book featuring an isolated and alienated individual, who lost his father in infancy and cares little when his mother dies when he is on the verge of becoming a teenager. The key driving force of his personality is his predilection for wearing women’s shoes, which he first experiences when, after his mother’s death, he is shipped to Aunt Emily in 1970s Birmingham for the summer. His marginalised existence is reinforced when he resumes a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, Maggie, who turns out to seriously mentally ill and finally needs hospitalisation in an insane asylum.

Alone but safe in his well-remunerated job as a library manager, he is haunted by his ‘perversion.’ Yet, though, the reader can understand his isolation and inability to build human contact, it is hard to believe that his shoe fetish is as problematic as he makes out. One almost feels like asking, ‘Well, so what!’ In a crazy scene at the end, involving throwing shoes over cliffs, the protagonist finally agrees to settle down with a single mother whose sanity is very much left in doubt.

In all this is a well-written and engaging book.

December 2006


Fighting Forgetting

Something rather disturbing happened to me the other day for the first time. I went to my bookshelves, picked up a book and was then unsure whether I had read it or not. At the age of forty-four I certainly don’t like to think that I am becoming senile; and to try to prove to myself that I was not, I started to think back to earlier stages in my life and recall the details. The jury, I’m afraid, is still out.

Here I would like to propose two simple exercises which aim to keep one’s personal history recorded, at least in outline.

For books it is a chore, but a worthwhile one, to write a personally oriented review of each book which one has read or consulted a major part of. These reviews - along with the author, title, publisher and publishing date - can easily be kept in word or text documents on the computer. Of course if one re-consults the book at a later stage, further notes can always be added.

One’s own personal life is not so well compartmentalised. My own memory of the forty-four years I have spent on this earth is rapidly becoming muddled at the edges. We tend to remember either what we can’t help remembering or what we find convenient to remember, but the truthful timing or juxtaposition of events becomes confused. To counter this difficulty, I created a simple two-column table in a word file. The left column listed each year since my birth; the right-hand column was for entering in key personal events. These include: births and deaths of friends and relatives, beginnings and ends of personal relationships, schools and colleges started and left, dates of educational qualifications gained, beginnings and ends of employment, holiday destinations, etc. I found this surprisingly difficult to do with a certainty of accuracy, but the table is more than a record for the future because the very process of inserting events onto the table recalls memories and creates time juxtapositions which had been forgotten.

I certainly don’t want to suggest that dwelling on the past is the first priority of the present, but my atheistic temperament tells me that we are nothing more than the sum of things, moral or otherwise, that we have done – and if only for that reason they are worth remembering.

December 2006