Monday, 28 February 2011

'The Lumpenproletariat Make Marvellous Music' Eric Hobsbawm Talk, London 25/02/2011

Well just as those elections were going on I had the opportunity to see Eric Hobsbawm, the most famous Marxist historian of our age, deliver an increasingly rare talk in London's wonderful Bishopsgate Library. Given Hobsbawm's age I was lucky to have this opportunity to hear him speak considering that his talks are likely to become fewer. About 150-200 attended, a mix of the old London Socialist Historian stalwarts and quite a few young people, to hear him promote his new book: 'How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism' (reviewed over on Cedar Lounge.) My notes are, er, patchy at best but I tried to summarise the talk as best I could. The whole thing was only about an hour long and stuck to a format where a theme would be mentioned to which Hobsbawm responded, followed by questions from the audience. Themes and audience questions are in bold while summaries of his responses follow. Any comments of my own are in italics.

Interpreting the world and changing it.

When I last spoke to Dotty Thompson she mentioned that 'an awful thing about getting old is that people don't listen to you. They merely regard you as an historic source.' The majority of Marxists become so because of political engagement. The same is true of anti-marxists. The fortunes of Marxism have always depended on people's real situation. When capitalism finds itself in trouble, a critique and a guide to action become vital. This was true of Russia in 1890s, Europe in the 1930s and with the rise of mass working-class parties from the 1880s onwards. When Marxism doesn't seem directly relevant to people's lives, as in the last two decades, it goes into decline.

This period coincided with a decline in the working-class and saw the parties derived from Marxism, Social Democratic and Communist alike, either abandon their traditional politics or enter into decline. This situation has changed though and only an analysis of where we are going and what sections of society are capable of being agents of change can provide a path forward for the socialist project.

I disagree with Hobsbawm's interpretation regarding the working-class. His definition of what a worker is is, to my mind, far too narrow and indeed, much narrower than Marx's own view. The working-class has changed considerably and its political and industrial representation has declined, as has class consciousness more generally, but the working-class remain the most important force in society in terms of enacting change. He is correct about employing a Marxist analysis to see what other sections of society can also perform a progressive or even transformative role though.

Marxists in the 20th century had to 'make it up as they went along.' This is applicable both to social-democratic parties and the old communist states. Marx wrote little about building a socialist economy or society due to the fact that he and Engels took a pragmatic, political approach, focusing on a critique of capitalism and politically organising the working-class as a transformative force. Even the Gotha programme doesn't get you far in enacting fundamental socialist change. 20th c. Marxists couldn't go back to the classic texts but make it up as they went along.

However, they did have some guidance in the form of state and municipal enterprises under capitalism. There was also the experience of the first world war economies, which were planned and managed in order to prosecute the war. Lenin was influenced ny the Russian electrical industry where he had some supporters. Because of this you can't blame Marx or Engels for 20th century developments. When Lenin faced issues that other Marxists hadn't, he didn't return to the texts but analysed the concrete situation. Imperialism for example has very few quotations from any of the classic Marxist texts and quite a great deal of new research.

Changing the world in the 21st century / The Revolutions in the Arab World / Experience of the last 100 years / Can History be changed in a conscious direction?

Marx was not a voluntarist. He didn't believe change could be willed but that people, classes and even organisations could intervene meaningfully into historical events and processes. Problems could not be solved simply by historical process but by human action.

The terrible consequences of the October revolution was that of a mass Marxist party coming to power in a country not yet ready for socialist revolution and the failure of this to spark successful revolutions in those countries that were capable of doing so. The problem after the end of the post-war revolutionary wave was that of 'Storming Heaven', creating the conditions for socialism to flourish by will alone. This was wrong and flew in the face of Marx's ideas and analysis.

Human intervention is key to historical development. Building railways and continental cables were actions undertaken by human beings that caused massive historical changes. Political action hasn't been that effective, but it has been powerful. Revolutions have been effective in the short-term and powerful in the long term.

The current situation in the Arab world brings me back to the my youth, with masses of ordinary people organising to effect profound political change. It is, to my mind, to the modern Arab world what the revolutions of 1848 were to Europe, events that irrevocably changed European politics forever.
This is an interesting comparision. It would have been great if he had expanded on this.

Environmental Catastrophe

Capitalism is utterly incapable of solving the modern environmental crisis. It is a problem that cannot be solved by entrepeunerial actions or be growth. Indeed the opposite is the case. It can only be solved by public and global action. The environmental situation is so grave for countries and for people (possible agents of change) that change must be achieved to prevent catastrophe. To do this requires global action.

The audience were now given the opportunity to ask questions

Why has Marxist economics been so marginalised?

Marxist economics' marginal status cannot simply be attributed to suppresion or anti-communism. As economics established itself in academia, dissident economists of all stripes, not just Marxists, were cut out and limited from becoming part of this process. Marxism and socially engaged economic theories were marginalised by those based primarily on mathematical technique, which could be employed instrumentally by states and by businesses. Marx did not think of economics as a tool for running enterprises but as something much broader.

However Marxist economics went wrong by ignoring real changes in the social economy. This started after the war when effective analysis declined in favour of quotations. In the 50s and 60s a new type of social economy was recognised by dissident social democrats, but not by Marxists.

The official economic theories that have dominated academia for the last few decades have, basically, refused to recognise the existence of crises. They simply didn't fit in with the orthodoxy. With the current global crisis, the more technical side of Marxism should become more relevant.

A return of fascism?

Fascism was a uniquely 20th century phenomenon, as indeed was Russian style communism. However, the possibility of reactionary demagogic regimes is very much on the cards. We have cause for optimism but also for caution, particularly due to the weakening of the left as a mobiliser of rebellion.

The USA has massive power but doesn't know what to with it. Elaborate.

The U.S power bloc was designed to keep another power bloc at bay. This is not the situation today. For example, what good are nukes in Iraq or Afghanisatan? The U.S.A is in decline both as a state and a world power. It's high technology base doesn't help it when it is not the number one hegemonic force.

Has the role of the lumpenproletariat been neglected in Marxist analysis?

The lumpenproletariat produces marvellous music but is not an agent of change. For example the youth in France in 1968. They didn't lead a revolution but pretended they were.
Note: There seemed to be some confusion between the audience member who posed this and Eric himself over the definition of 'lumpenproletariat', which has always been hazy at best. Eric took this to mean bohemians while the audience member seemed to be using the term in the Frantz Fanon sense. However, the claim that the mass rising of 1968 was simply students and bohemians pretending to have a revolution is deeply insulting and, quite simply, wrong. Were the people left permanently blinded by tear gas cannisters thrown into crowded spaces in Paris just having a laugh? Were the occupations of workplaces across the country just pretend? As much as I enjoy Eric Hobsbawm's work, his politics are still deeply defined by his experience in the Communist party and it is far easier to denigrate the '68 revolutionaries then face up to their betrayal by the Communist Party.

20th Century Communism. What should we take from it and what should be abandoned and left die?

The spirit hasn't died. The dream of liberating the world through liberating the working-class and the dream of a better world remain very much alive. What also remains is the materialist conception of history, the best way of understanding the world. The other legacy we have inherited is the Marxist critique of capitalism and the discovery that capitalism isn't permanent but is a particular historical phenomenon. This is absolutely essential. Finally, we have still with us today the hatred of injustice, the anger that a small minority have wealth beyond contemplation while billions live in poverty, and most of all, the desire to change this.

Standing Ovation

So yeah, it was an interesting talk all in all and, significantly, one with a far more optimistic tone than Hobsbawm's work in the last two decades. He seemed particularly inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia etc. and when talking about these events seemed to have the spirit and hope of a much younger man. I'm glad I was able to attend this, even though it meant missing election day (living in Cork East meant I would probably have simply spoiled my vote though.) Speaking of elections, it goes without saying that I'm delighted by the performance of the ULA and left-independents and by Labour's decision to expose its bankrupcy by entering office. Expect a post later in the week on that.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Mick Murphy - Diary of the GAMA Strike

Some of you may remember the GAMA strike from a couple of years back. I certainly do, as it was the campaign that convinced me to join the Socialist Party. The strike was significant for two reasons: Firstly it exposed the corruption and exploitation at the heart of the construction boom and secondly, it was one of the few major industrial actions throughout the era of the Celtic Tiger and Social 'Partnership'. An excellent film made about the strike is still available for free here. While Joe Higgins was by far the most prominent figure in the campaign due to his Dáil seat, SP councillor Mick Murphy played a particularly crucial role in uncovering the scandal and establishing a connection with the workers. Anyway, here is Mick's full diary of the strike. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mick Barry Interview

Interview with Socialist Party Councillor Mick Barry from about 4 years ago. Mick now stands a chance of being elected as T.D for Cork North Central.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Political and Economic Consequences of the Crash

Excellent article in the current edition of New Left Review by Daniel Finn. It dispells a lot of the myths about the public sector being propounded by Ireland's myopic right-wing commentators and argues in favour of an alliance between the PIGS to resist the IMF-EU dictats. Check it out here.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Report from Limerick ULA Launch

Over 120 people crammed into the hall in the Absolute Hotel for last nights launch meeting in Limerick of the United Left Alliance election campaign for their candidate, Cian Prendiville.

Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP, speaking speaking at the rally said "We are 24 days away from the most significant general election since the foundation of this state. At the end of these four weeks, politics in Ireland can have taken a big step towards being transformed, with a death blow struck against Fianna Fail and the Greens, and a historic break through for the genuine left with the election of a whole layer of socialist and left TDs. Out of the United Left Alliance can very quickly develop a strong, new mass party for workers and the unemployed. "

Limerick City United Left Alliance candidate, Cian Prendiville, commented "I think in the last week the need for a real alternative in this election has been underlined. Fianna Fail had a leadership contest where no one disagreed with the failed policies of the last years, they just wanted a better spin doctor to front the war on working class people. Fine Gael & Labour showed their true colours by assisting the passage of the Finance Bill which brings into effect the brutal budget they claimed to oppose. Sinn Fein still haven't made their mind up whether they're opposed to cutbacks like they are saying in the south, or whether they would be 'pragmatic' and implement them like they are in Stormount. Now more than ever we need the principled opposition to the cuts and bail outs offered by the Socialist Party and the United Left Alliance. And the evidence from polls and feedback is that the ULA can do very well in this election, winning up to as much as 6 or 7 seats."

Cian Prendiville,s campaign received a big boost yesterday when former independent socialist Limerick City Councillor and Mayor, Joe Harrington, announced that he will join the campaign and encourage people to vote for Cian. In a statement he said "Labour, after its astonishing complicity in getting the Finance Bill through, must not further betray socialist principals by joining Fine Gael in a new government to push through austerity programmes. That would be a further disaster for working class people.  A vote for Cian, Joe Higgins and the other ULA candidates around the country will provide a strong alternative to this disastrous approach."

Cian Prendiville welcomed the support saying "this endorsement just goes to show that our election campaign is picking up steam, and can really shake the political establishment in Limerick. Joe Harrington was a strong community campaigner, and was central to the non-payment campaign that defeated water charges in Limerick. The United Left Alliance and the Socialist Party will now seek to carry that banner, and give a voice to working class people of this city."

Full Statement by Joe Harrington

I will be supporting and campaigning with Cian Prendiville in the forthcoming election.  Cian is a candidate for the United Left Alliance, a group putting forward a real alternative option for working class people. 

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has dropped any sort of a socialist banner it may have been carrying and now offer no fight back against the attacks by the rich and powerful on workers rights and jobs in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.   Labour, after its astonishing complicity in getting the Finance Bill through, must not further betray socialist principals by joining Fine Gael in a new government to push through austerity programmes.  That would be a further disaster for working class people.  A vote for Cian, Joe Higgins and the other ULA candidates around the country will provide a strong alternative to this disastrous approach.

The ULA is part of the development of movements and organisations across Europe and internationally which fight the attacks on workers, the unemployed and the poor and to fight for a new vision for society.  Since the days of the Limerick Soviet, Limerick workers have a proud history of independent action on their own behalf. It would be a shame to now lie down under the worst attacks on our living standards and rights.  I believe working people should now vote for Cian Prendiville and set about building the movement to take back what is ours.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cyprian Brady: Myth and Reality

AK of the Irish Election Literature Blog has posted FF TD Cyprian Brady's letter to constituents. To the lay observer, this piece of literature seems disconnected from the lives of ordinary people to the point of farce. However, to the best of my abilities, I have endeavoured to reconcile this document with reality.

'The Strong New leadership of Micheál Martin'
We have chosen a very talented captain for our sinking ship

'Dublin Central needs politicians who are local and experienced'
I don't have much going for me but I'm old and not a culchie.

'We have many reasons to be hopeful'
Only a few months until the second series of the Walking Dead.

'This country has a strong base on which we can build' 
More houses?

'An education system is in place that allows our young people to realise their dreams'
Please note, these dreams must involve either emigration or working in a call centre.

'We have a modern transport infrastructure that stretches from one end of the country to another'
Now you too can experience the joys of Leitrim!

'If elected I will continue to work with people as people - people living in a real community'
For several years I was under the impression that I was working with werewolves in a shoebox.

'My priorities will continue to be . . . to work closely with schools at all levels to make sure our young people have choices about their future'
London or Manchester?

'I hope to meet you in the course of the campaign to discuss what I can do for you and the community'
Unless what you and the community want is for me to fuck off.

'I thank you in advance for your courtesy and support'
Please don't hurt me.