5 March 2007

JUDT, Tony - Postwar

Heinemann 2005

Bought Oct 2006

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly; it should be compulsory reading for everyone who is interested in the society in which we live.

Judt sets out in this massive enterprise to tell the history of Europe (both east and west) from 1945. The book is both thematically and chronologically organised. While the focus is on political, and to a lesser extent economic, history, Judt also covers culture and especially film in some detail, all of which helps give the reader an all-round understanding of period and place. Judt’s approach is not to dryly list facts and dates, but to link events into meaningful narratives.

The great advantage of Judt’s book is that it enables reader to set his or her historical prejudices against Judt’s erudite judgments. As Judt says so much in this book, there will be times when you think his assessments are wrong, but often you will be convinced by his argument. Being persuaded is also a matter of perspective. Most English readers will have become politically and socially aware in the Wilson to Blair years, and Judt enables us to conceptualise and comprehend the period as a whole, not just as British history, but also as a part of a wider European canvass.

The writing is sharp and engaging throughout. The only disadvantage of the book is the weight of its 890 pages which make it hard to read in bed.

February 2007

hdsoaw

February 2007 Comments

Britishness 2007.02.01

In the on-going debate about ethnic diversity in Britain, the Blair government has resorted to a chauvinistic assimilations stance (‘They should become like us. ‘Britishness’ is good’) in an attempt to garner support among the white Anglophone majority. Opponents of the government rally around two polls: universal liberalism and policy multiculturalism. The first, universal liberalism, has two demands: first the establishment of a fully secular state which does nothing either to uphold or to penalise religious belief; and second, an modus operandi that individuals, not ethnic communities and their traditions, are right-holders in society. This is the tradition of individual liberty and equality. The alternative is 'policy multiculturalism' in which ethnic groups are encouraged by the state to live according to their traditional norms and other groups are required to 'respect' those cultural norms. If a film, for instance, offends the sensitivities of one ethnic group then there is a case for banning or restricting it. On this view the job of the state is not to uphold individual rights, but the integrity of ethnic communities. My preference is for universal liberalism.


Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia 2007.02.02

Some people want to compare traditional anti-Semitism in Europe with the current, politically generated, moral panic against Muslims. As with any comparison there are points of similarity and points of difference.The major area of similarity is the chauvinistic desire of the political elite to deploy ideological misnomers like 'the clash of civilisations' and 'alien threat' to drum up support among the ethnic majority in favour state power. One key difference, though, is this: the ideas which Jews played a role in promoting (socialism, internationalism) were not Jewish per se and were addressed to the wider human community. Sadly one feature of the Muslim community in britain today is that it has not thrown up new radical ideas that are addressed to the wider world, but instead much of its thinking is concerned with with 'going backwards' to religious dogmas.


Not all Jews are Zionists 2007.02.05

Brian Klug has written an excellent article in the Guardian today.Mr Klug rightly points out that because one is ethnically Jewish it does not mean that one is committed to defending the actions of the state of Israel. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists (e.g. George Bush) are Jews.Jewish people have made valuable contributions to the history of humanity, not because they were Jews, but because they addressed their concerns to humanity in general. Examples abound: Marx, Freud, Zamenhof (Esperanto), Chomsky, and Kelsen (law). Many of the actions of the state of Israel are criminal, and one such crime is the government of Israel's attempt to make Jewish people around the world accessories to those crimes.


In defence of liberalism 2007.02.05

From a liberal socialist viewpoint, I argue that an ethnic group (majority or minority) should make no demand on the democratic polity for recognition as a group - at least in so far as the determination of legislation and state policy is concerned. Before the state, citizens stand as individuals. Associations of Christians, Muslims, Jews or whatever are voluntary civic organisations which have no legal demand on the state, nor should they have legal power over citizens who are their members (or indeed non-members). This principle can be broken down into three parts. First, ethnic groups have no right to demand a legal right to respect for their culture, religion or practices from other individuals society. That, for example, many Muslims find the depiction of the prophet Mohammed offensive is irrelevant from a legal point of view. Equally, Christians have no complaint against the art exhibition depicting the crucifix in a glass of urine, nor of a play portraying the buggery of Christ on the cross. In short, the right of free speech is not restrained by ethnic sensitivity.Second, ethnic groups have no right to exemption from universal legal norms. If it is held, for example, that ritualised slaughter is contrary to the norm of minimal suffering in animal butchery, then the fact that orthodox Jews and Muslims demand it is irrelevant. If schools can demand a uniform, then it is legitimate to exclude veils form that uniform. If people can wear what they want in a college, then it is illegitimate to ban students from wearing veils.Third, in the exercise of its powers the state should not recognise ethnic groups, except in one clearly defined circumstance. In so far as an ethnically defined group of citizens faces economic discrimination, social exclusion and/or attack, it is legitimate to recognise the groups in order to remedy the state of affairs. The struggle against racism, bigotry and discrimination is, however, the property of the whole society, not just of group concerned.

On Blair, Brown and Hain 2007.02.07

The current cabinet is full of moral bankrupts (i.e. people who are quite prepared support a war that they didn't believe it). However, I think none of that displaces Blair as the main criminal; i.e. the man who used every lever of his office to ensure that a war took place.

Cuba 2007.02.08

Let me start with this comment: 'a truth suppressed among friends is the readiest weapon of an enemy.' The truth is that Cuba is not a democracy and does violate political and civil rights. Having said that, Cuba has nevertheless achieved many social rights for its people particularly in health and education and has thus been a 'shining path' in Latin America. We should support Cuban socialism against US imperialism because if Washington gained the upper hand in Cuba, globalised capital would return the Cuban working class to poverty and penury. So socialism yes; human rights yes.


North Korea 2007.02.14

The US that was in a corner and was forced to deal with North Korea, thus denting US unilateralism and unconditionalism in foreign policy. The reason is clear: nobody outside a lunatic asylum could contemplate initiating a nuclear conflagration in Asia involving Korea, China, Japan, Russia and, of course the US.This tells us something about Iraq, too. The US attacked Iraq, not because it had weapons of mass destruction, but because it did not. The point has been well understood by Iran. Everyone should realise that American unilateral belligerence, backed to the hilt by Blair, is the major impetus for world nuclear proliferation.


The limits of historical materialism 2007.02.21

The social science part of Marxism, as opposed to its politics, is known as historical materialism. What historical materialism studies, i.e. what its subject matter is (in philosophy called its ‘object’) is the history of human society which is conceived as the history of social humanity's production of the means to life from nature. In other words, how we humans made our society from nature over history explains how our society works. The object of historical materialism is wide indeed. Quite obviously, this raw formulation, though, leaves many questions to probe as we move from such abstract considerations to the analyses of any actually existing society, e.g. Britain in 2007. But one question to ask is this: are all the concepts for analysing social reality reducible to, or deducible from, historical materialism? If the answer is yes, then historical materialism occupies the whole 'cognitive' space and we don't need to look for explanations outside historical materialism. If, as I believe, the answer is no, then two questions arise. First, what are those theoretical sources required for understanding society apart from historical materialism? And second, what are the boundaries between historical materialism and other sources of knowledge?


Two uses of the term multiculturalism 2007.02.2007

I have to say that I wasn't so impressed with Terry Eagleton's article in The Guardian today I think he was making an easy point which all the contributors to this discussion would endorse. Blair, and his New-Labour acolytes seek to confront multi-culturalism because they construct it as a dilution of Britishness (which they equate with all that is good). The issue, they say, is for other ethnic groups to be educated in Britishness and change their ways. This discourse is merely intended to appeal to the base prejudices of the white Anglophone majority. Two uses of the term 'multiculturalism' need to be distinguished. The first use is to describe a sociological result, i.e. to say that we live in a multicultural society. This is a statement of fact, and I have no objection to that being so. The second is a policy, i.e. to use the state to bring about and sustain multiculturalism through the adoption of collective rights or otherwise. I do not agree with this. (One ideological contortion of New Labour is that they promote multiculturalism through certain policies, e.g. support for faith schools, and then bemoan the consequences)


The oxymoron of militant secularism 2007.02.26

I have read Stuart Jeffery's muddled article in the Guardian (26 February 2007) and would like to make the following points. It is helpful to distinguish the sociological fact from comments about what ought to be done or not done. The sociological fact is this: after many years of gradual secularisation in England, religious practice and identification is rising, albeit at the margins. There are two sources fuelling the revival: one is Christian fundamentalism crossing the Atlantic; the other is Muslim fundamentalism driven by the economic and other failures of Islamic countries and the attacks on them by the West. Religion has also been given an unexpected and unwelcome boost by the Blair government's perverse decision to embrace faith schools. In reaction, a somewhat exaggerated sense of fear that religion might pose a threat to science and individual rights has led some (one particularly thinks of Richard Dawkins) to proclaim and write about the case for atheism.The term 'fundamentalist (i.e. militant) secularism' as a policy is an oxymoron and a deliberate red herring in the debate. Secular state institutions are agnostic: they do not take any view on faith matters. Put simply, they expel religion to the private sphere where it belongs; and fail to recognise religion as a criterion for public policy. It is certainly not the job of such institutions (e.g. schools, legal systems) to promote atheism any more than it is to endorse religious belief. So to argue that secularists are as fundamentalist as religious bigots is either a mistake or a deliberate attempt to muddy the water. Atheism should not be seen as a fundamentalist doctrine in the sense that Christianity or Islam might be. All atheism means is a denial of the existence of God; beyond that atheists have no agreed doctrine and are as varied as the stones on a beach. In a free society atheists have as much right to stridently put their case as religious believers do. And of course I and, I hope you, would support them.


Does God Exist? 2007.02.27

The point has been made that I can no more prove the non-existence of God than believers can prove His existence. It is implied from this statement that the case for and the case against the existence of God are somehow equally balanced. This, however is pure casuistry. Indeed, it is true that I can no more disprove the existence of God than I can disprove the existence of demons, fairies, goblins and ghosts. As the proposition, 'God exists' is neither necessary nor impossible, it has the capacity for either truth or falsehood (i.e. it is contingent). That tells us nothing, however, about whether the statement is actually true. As with any other proposition, its truth depends on the evidence for the statement. If someone posits that something exists, he is under an obligation to furnish evidence. I say, for instance, 'there is a coffee cup in front of me on the desk right now.' Well, what is the evidence? The evidence is my testimony based on my direct observation. It may not be conclusive (I could be lying or be having an optical illusion), but my statement about the coffee cup is as strong as the evidence that supports it. Now when we turn to the proposition 'God exists,' religious believers support the proposition by saying that its truth is based on faith. But why should we accept that faith proves the existence of God when this criterion of truth (i.e. faith) supports no other proposition. For example it would be absurd for me to support the proposition, 'A socialist revolution will occur in Britain' on the basis that I have faith that it will happen (though, of course 'religious-like' Marxist do just this). In fact, it is only by the removal of faith as a criterion of truth that truth can be established; e.g. proving that the Earth is spherical against faith which said it was not. As there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, so I tend to believe that He does not exist outside of man's imagination. God as the creation of man's social being certainly does exist but that is another matter.