Archive for November, 2009


Chris Harman on ‘Time, tide and class struggle’

[[The profound contribution made by Chris Harman (1942-2009), who tragically passed away earlier this month, to the struggle for international socialism over the course of his life can be seen from the huge number of tributes that have appeared online since his passing. As an important Marxist theorist and activist, Chris Harman was much more than simply a socialist historian – and the totality of his contributions across the current fragmented academic disciplines of the social sciences have been discussed in many of the obituaries that have appeared. Nonetheless, as this blog is called Socialist History News, it is perhaps worth noting his contribution to socialist history, which ranged widely, from detailed discussions of the origins of capitalism, to the ‘Lost Revolution’ in Germany 1918-23 to his outstanding study of ‘1968 and After’ in The Fire Last Time. Two important theoretical essays were collected in a volume called Marxism and History. It would be an injustice to try and do justice in a blog post to his full contribution to socialist history, so instead I think it will be appropriate to simply reprint a short 1999 article from Socialist Review on ‘Time, tide and class struggle’, written shortly after the publication of his masterful A People’s History of the World.]]

We have all been brought up on myths about the ‘superiority’ of the west. These assume that there has been a single line of civilisation going back to Greece and Rome, involving over the last 2,000 years a ‘Judaeo-Christian inheritance’ which has been more ‘civilised’, more innovative or more ‘humane’ than that to be found in the rest of the world. The notion of a continuous tradition, supposedly responsible for the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe, is still to be found today, for instance in David Landes’s influential book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and in Ellen Meiskins Wood’s Peasants, Citizens and Slaves. Even some people who reject any notion of the ‘superiority’ of the west accept the myth of continuity, but in a mirror image way. Edward Said’s Orientalism, for instance, sees a single, iniquitous culture of contempt for the rest of the world as characterising European thought from the time of Aeschylus (5th century BC) through the rise of Christianity and the Crusades up to modern imperialism.

In fact, history has not developed like that at all. A thousand years ago north west Europe was one of the most backward parts of the world. It was made up of Iron Age societies with very few towns and no real cities. Homes and even castles were made of wood coated in mud, clustered together in villages separated by forests, wasteland or marshes. There were no proper roads between them, and any travel over land was along rough tracks, on foot, by mule, or sometimes on horseback. Most lords were as unable to read and write as the vast mass of peasants they exploited. What passed as literature was produced in monasteries, and mainly involved the copying by hand of old religious texts. Insofar as there was a ‘Graeco-Roman inheritance’ in Europe, it amounted to a handful of texts in Latin which might be read, at any point in time, by an even smaller number of monks.

There was a huge contrast with this state of affairs if you looked eastwards to the Arab lands and China, or westwards to Central and South America. The biggest cities in the world were undoubtedly in China, followed by places like Baghdad and Cairo. Even 800 years earlier, when Rome was at its prime, Teotihuacan (outside present day Mexico City) was as big as Rome, while in the 14th century Vijayanagar in southern India was bigger than Paris or London.

Merchant caravans made long overland journeys from northern China through Samarkand and Bukhara to northern India, Tehran, Baghdad and Constantinople. One set of sea routes connected southern China with southern India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, down the eastern coast of Africa to Zanzibar, and beyond. Another maintained regular contact between Egypt, present day Algeria and Morocco, right up into an Islamic civilisation in Spain that was to last more than 700 years.

The great mass of the population still lived in the often vast areas between the cities, working as peasants scratching the land to provide for a livelihood for themselves and paying rents and taxes to ruling classes. But within the cities there developed a level of literacy, artistic culture, and scientific and technical advance way beyond that even dreamt of in Europe. It was within the Indian and then the Arab civilisations of the first millennium that people pioneered our present numerical system, discovered the use of zero, advanced the calculation of pi, estimated the size of earth (more accurately than Columbus did five centuries later), and continued and enriched the philosophical traditions established in Greece and Greek Alexandria at a time when knowledge of these was minimal in Europe. China in these centuries was already deploying many thousands of water mills and manufacturing cast iron and steel in bulk, and went on to witness the invention of paper, gunpowder, the first clockwork clocks and the mass printing of books five centuries before Europe, as well as the development of shipbuilding and navigating techniques (the compass, for instance) that allowed long distance ocean voyages.

How did such developments occur? And why were parts of Europe in the next millennium able to catch up, overtake and eventually conquer the heartlands of the older civilisations? There are currently fashionable explanations which see things in terms of the different ‘cultural’ features of the different civilisations. This runs through, for instance, David Landes’s account, and has been the rationale for the BBC’s series on the millennium. But this does not explain where the different cultures came from. It does not explain why Hinduism, rather than, say, Buddhism, came to dominate the Indian Middle Ages, why Confucianism defeated rival ideological systems in China, or why medieval Islam differed in important ways from Islam at the time of the 7th century.

The different ‘cultures’ were, in fact, the product of historical development, not its cause. And they were not separated off from each other. We can trace the spread across Eurasia and Africa (and, separately, across the Americas) of the great innovations which increased the ability of human beings to make a livelihood and transformed the societies they lived in. So wheat first domesticated in the Middle East made its way to the Atlantic coast of Europe, north Africa and the Pacific coast of China; rice from southern China reached west India; iron spread out from Asia minor to the whole of Eurasia over a 1,500 year period; steelmaking from west Africa diffused down into the centre and east of the continent over a similar time span; the camel domesticated in Asia about 1000 BC opened the way to commerce through the Sahara and to the transformation of Arabia in Mohammed’s time; horse harnesses from central Asia and gunpowder, compasses and paper from China were essential prerequisites for the development of late medieval Europe.

Civilisation and exploitation

Each culture arose as a transitory facet of a single process of world history (or possibly of two similar processes, one in the ‘old world’ and one in the ‘new world’, until they clashed in the time of Columbus and Cortes). At different times and in different parts of the world the development of human control over nature was accompanied by the concentration of wealth into the hands of ruling classes, and with this the growth of ‘civilisation’ in the full meaning of the term–the growth of towns, the use of writing, the establishment of full time groups of traders and artisans, the rise of organised religion. Humanity’s level of material production was such that without an exploiting minority squeezing wealth out of the toiling majority there could he no concentration of the resources needed for civilisation to take off. This is why the successive civilisations and accompanying cultures to be found in Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America were all based on such exploitation.

But in every case a ruling class whose initial rise was associated with advances in the creation of wealth later became an impediment to further advance. Typically, civilisation expanded up to a certain point, but then began to go into reverse as the level of exploitation by the ruling class made it difficult for the mass of people to produce the things needed to keep society going. So the first great civilisations of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt, Crete and mainland Greece had all experienced ‘Dark Ages’ of greater or lesser severity by 1400 BC. There followed the rise in the first millennium BC of the classical Greek, Roman, Indian and Chinese civilisations. But these in turn ran into great problems by AD500. Europe fell back into its ‘Dark Age’, with virtually no industry, trade or literacy. In India trade and the towns declined, artisan production deprived of markets retreated into virtually self contained village units, where it became organised by castes, and literacy became a virtual monopoly of Brahmans and entangled with superstition. It was at this point that Hinduism finally ousted Buddhism as the dominant religion and the fully formed caste system took root. China did not experience a relapse on anything like the same scale, but the empire fragmented in the 3rd century AD, and there was a 200 year gap before there was a revival of trade, urban life and learning.

In the Middle East and Mediterranean region the advance of civilisation was associated, for the best part of half a millennium, with the rise of a new religion, Islam. In the towns of the Arabian peninsula a new trading class had emerged, unencumbered by old parasitic classes. The prophet Mohammed had provided it with a worldview which enabled it to defeat the decaying empires around it and establish a new empire which encouraged trade, artisan industries and urban life. Literature, science, art and philosophy flourished here as nowhere else for several centuries, developing traditions established in ancient India, Egypt, Greece and Rome, and passing them on to subsequent civilisations.

The rise of the parasites
By 1000 BC the Islamic Empire was decaying at its heart. Mesopotamia had known the most fruitful agriculture anywhere in the world for some thousands of years, based upon a network of canals linking the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Islamic rulers had initially cleared and refurbished canals neglected by their predecessors. After three centuries, however, the Islamic ruling classes too had become bloated and parasitic, willing to ravage the countryside in order to provide for their own luxury consumption. The land around the old Islamic capital, Baghdad, became barren and desolate, and the Islamic world was torn apart by revolts and civil wars. Islamic culture, now centred in cities like Cairo, Cordoba in Spain, Bukhara in central Asia and Timbuktu in west Africa, remained in advance of any in Europe for some time, but had lost its old dynamism.

The revived Chinese civilisation was still very dynamic in 1000AD. Under the Sung Empire, there was a growth of trade and industry such as humanity had never known and was not to know again until after the European Renaissance of the 16th century. Indeed, without the advance of Sung China, the Renaissance–and the rise of capitalism which it heralded–would have been impossible. But by 1200AD Chinese civilisation too was beginning to be stifled by the sheer opulence of a parasitic ruling class. A Turkic people established a rival empire, the Chin, over northern China, leaving the Sung dynasty with the south alone until, in the 13th century, both were conquered by a former herding people, the Mongols.

The same centuries saw the Mongols tear into the vestiges of the Islamic Empire in Iran and Mesopotamia and ravage northern India and eastern Europe. The name of their leader, Genghis Khan, has become a byword for wanton savagery. Yet they too were the product of circumstances, not a cause. Living and herding on the edges of great civilisations, they could learn from them, especially when it came to military weaponry, and then use their learning to great effect against the bloated ruling classes of neighbouring states. Nor was the effect of the Mongol rampage from one end of Eurasia to the other wholly negative. It helped transmit knowledge of techniques developed in the civilisations of the east to the lands of the west.

The Mongols were not the only people whose past ‘backwardness’ left them unencumbered by the parasitic baggage. A new chain of civilisations flourished in this period in Africa, stretching below the Sahara from the Nile westwards across the continent and putting the past advances of the Islamic civilisations to new uses. And in western Europe advances in agriculture learned from the east combined with a new way of organising exploitation, serfdom, to produce a couple of centuries of rapidly growing food output. This soon produced, in turn, traders, towns and urban classes capable of taking up the industrial as well as the agricultural practices of the older civilisations. By the 13th century cathedrals were being built where there had not even been stone houses 380 years before, and pioneering intellectuals were making the long trek to Toledo in Spain to get access to the writings of Islamic philosophers and mathematicians, along with Arabic translations of Greek and Latin classics.

Even then, however, Europe was still far short of leading the rest of the world. In the 16th century its technology was only at about the same level as that of the Mogul Indian Empire, of the Ottoman Empire that had arisen in Asia minor to conquer the Middle East and most of eastern Europe, of the Islamic states along the Niger in Africa, and of the Min Empire that ruled China. If it eventually overtook these to carve out world empires it was because its past backwardness made it easier for its merchant and artisan classes to transform the whole of society in their own image. They had the advantage over their Chinese, Arab and Indian equivalents of arriving late in the game of world history. Even so, it took more than 300 years of political, ideological and economic struggle before they could enjoy full success.


Stop Press – Talat Ahmed meeting cancelled

We regret to announce that we have had to postpone the meeting on Indian writers addressed by Talat Ahmed which was scheduled to take place on 25 November. We hope to reschedule it for the new year. The SHS would also like to convey its sincere condolences to Talat Ahmed on the recent untimely death of her partner, Chris Harman.


Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Report of SHS public meeting by David Morgan

Iraqi-born Haifa Zangana has long been known as a courageous and independent voice against the foreign occupation of her country. She has used her considerable talents as an activist and as a writer to make people aware of the unendurable suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people over decades of war, oppression, economic sanctions and occupation.

Haifa is justly and widely admired for her tenacity and outspokenness, qualities which were much in evidence when she spoke to the Socialist History Society on 16 September. The SHS organised the meeting at the Bishopsgate Institute in cooperation with Women for an Independent and Unified Iraq with Haifa speaking on the theme of “Iraqi Women’s Role in the Anti-colonial Resistance”. Khatchatur Pilikian, a SHS committee member who was also born in Iraq, chaired the meeting (we have taken the opportunity to include his spirited opening address in this newsletter).

A passionate advocate of the full participation of women in Iraqi and Muslim societies, Haifa chose the occasion to celebrate the role of women in the building of a modern Iraq, whose secular society and social gains for women she described as the most progressive in the Middle East in the sixties and seventies. Latterly, successive wars and the ongoing occupation of the country have proved a disaster for women in particular despite the fact that the American occupiers used the promotion of women’s rights as one of their main justifications for the US-led military intervention in 2003.

While passionate and angry about the terrible treatment of the Iraqi people today, Haifa was careful to situate the current resistance within the history of Iraq since the creation of the modern state in the 1920s. She cited numerous examples of heroic individuals and described the participation of women in progressive organisations such as the once highly influential Communist Party of Iraq. By means of this evidence, too often neglected by commentators on contemporary Iraq, she demonstrated that Iraqi women have had a long history of political activism and social participation throughout the 20th century and even before.

In Haifa’s perspective, the Iraqi women’s movement undeniably played an integral part in the construction of the modern identity of Iraq as a progressive secular state, an identity that she understands must continually be remembered and defended against the negative images of dictatorship and ethnic divisions that too often prevail today. The role of Iraqi intellectuals, many of whom were Marxists, had been crucial to the development of the progressive national movement including the women’s movement, she argued. As regards the Marxist influence in Iraq, Haifa told the meeting that the first Marxist study group was established in 1924, publishing the short-lived journal, As-Sahifa. Meanwhile, the first Iraqi women’s magazine, Layla, appeared in October 1923. A particular important role had been played by poets given that poetry in both its written and oral forms has traditionally had a special public place as a genre in Iraqi society. As an example, the woman poet Um Nazir, was a pioneer in calling for women’s liberation in Iraq as well as in the fight against colonial occupation and injustice.

Women had taken part in the struggle against colonial domination under British rule and were in the forefront of the fight for national unity, social justice and legal equality. The gains made by women’s struggles had eventually led to Iraqi women becoming among the most liberated in the region and their country’s social policies among the most progressive in the world. A key event was the 1958 Revolution, when Iraqi people for the first time won control of their own lives. Haifa saw this moment as one of jubilation for Iraqis, women especially, because the revolution ushered in a new constitution that established important legal rights for women. International Women’s Day on 8 March was celebrated as a public holiday as was International Workers’ Day on 1 May. The great tragedy of modern Iraq is that wars, conflict and outside intervention have led to a situation where the Iraqi people have lost many of the social gains that they once enjoyed. It is vitally important for Iraqis to remember their history in order to show that there is nothing inevitable about their present plight. Haifa Zangana provided an illuminating talk with much food for thought and a lively discussion followed.

For anyone who was unable to attend the meeting, many of the themes that she dealt with are treated in much more detail in her recent book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Welcome address to Haifa Zangana

by Khatchatur Pilikian

I met Haifa for the first time in November 2006, at a Conference in the Friends House, Euston. In her end-of-Conference talk, she exposed the hypocritical nature of most of the so-named Non Governmental Organisations, NGOs, engaged in occupied Iraq. Her detailed analysis of the NGOs functioning, as she thought, as an “integral part of the US strategy in Iraq,” brought her to conclude that the NGOs “represent US colonial policy rather than the interests of Iraqi men and women.” The two quotations above are from Haifa’s latest book, The City of Widows, which includes her analysis of the mission of NGOs in Iraq.

Jumping the queue, I should mention that Haifa is scheduled to be in New York on Sept 22, to launch a new edition of her first book, Dreaming of Baghdad, for the Feminist Press NY. In the next couple of months, before the end of the year 2009, she will be presenting papers on the evolving role of colonial feminists in occupied Iraq, first on October 4-7, in Beirut, at Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective, then on December 9-12, in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies.

Haifa’s courage of her convictions reminds me of the phenomenal grandeur of miniature art in general, and in particular of the images of Sumerian, the ancient Iraqi-Mesopotamian art of the cylinder seals. Miniscule images notwithstanding, they essentially have monumental and impressive presence. As you all can witness, Haifa Zangana is a tiny little woman, but she has a monumental personality and an impressive talent to tell what really is happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and particularly what is happening to the Iraqi women. But most fascinatingly, Haifa also tells us what the Iraqi women used to make happen to the Iraqi society and to their feminist, humane aspirations. They  waged, for decades, impressive anticolonial resistance for independence and persistent struggles for genuine democracy, not the latter-day imperialism’s camouflaged, nay deranged version of it that reflects the servile ethics of by-gone colonialism. As John Milton, the revolutionary republican poet, once declared in his Apology of 1648: “they who have put out the peoples eyes, reproach them of their blindness”. And yet, Haifa tells us how good the Iraqi women have seen and continue to see and grasp the reality, both the causes and the effects of their tragedy. Moreover, they continue to act upon it, thus refuting the masquerading of that reality by the occupying powers and their local junta, both still adamant to oblige their Grand Master’s dictating roar.

Once upon a time, well fifteen hundred years before the original Odyssey was written down by Homer, the king of Uruk in Sumeria, named Gilgamesh, “went on a long journey” and “brought us a tale of the days before the flood,” and, finally, he  “engraved on a stone the whole story. ” (N.K.Saunders. The Epic of Gilgamash. Prologue. Penguin Books 1972) That most archaic odyssey also tells us about a haunting predicament worth ‘lending our ears’ to, especially in our own turbulent times. Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks the Heavenly father of Gods, Anu, the following: “Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction.” Ishtar’s plea kindled a paradox, as she herself was arrogance incarnate. Ishtar knew herself well. Unlike Gilgamesh, her safety was secured by her ‘divine immortality’.

How true this quinto-millenial wisdom of Sumeria sounds today. Uttered in the land now an occupied Iraq, the arrogance of the most powerful military power the world has ever witnessed, is doing, it seems, its utmost to destroy itself, after having decimated the heritage of the land and its culture, annihilated over a million of its population and left behind nearly a million displaced children and close to five million Iraqi refugees roaming around both in neighbouring countries and in their own homeland too. And all, because of the occupying power’s “addiction to oil,” as confessed, not long time ago, by the arrogant, supreme commander of its awesome military conglomerate, the pre-Obama US President, now in the dustbin of history, so decreed by US voters. Arrogance is indeed a Hara-kiri power. Ishtar is proving to be right.

The City of Widows of 2009 is the odyssey not only of its author Haifa Zangana, but also and essentially of the Iraqi women and their resistance to the unjust war and occupation, not devoid of a graceful yet taciturn eulogy to their resilience and tenacity for survival. Perhaps tinged with wishful thinking, I could also read in between the lines, a compassionate, warning advice to the occupying powers to stop their indulgence in the brutal Hara-kiri arrogance. Would they ever believe they are not divinely immortal, unlike Ishtar? Inshallah! Otherwise, Bertold Brecht’s theatrical aphorism will continue to pinch our alter ego: “If sharks ruled the world they would teach the little fish that it is a great honour to swim into the mouth of a shark.” Let us welcome Haifa to tell us her tale.


discussion on 1989

A discussion has been underway in the pages of the SHS newsletter about the significance of the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The contributions to which Tom Bailey is responding (see below) can be viewed here.



– Tom Bailey

I disagree with Mike Squires’ claim that the Eastern European states were not Socialist. Yes, there were major faults and shortcomings in these socialist countries, but fundamentally, they were still Socialist. Capitalist restoration in these countries should be seen dialectically, as a process. These countries took many quantitative steps towards capitalism, I believe, after the death of Joseph Stalin. Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of ‘reforms’ were implemented. Most notable is Khrushchev’s “State of the whole people” and the “Party of the whole people”, replacing the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, effectively ending the class struggle against bourgeois influence and ideas.

Another notable reform was the economic reforms of 1965, or the ‘Kosygin Reform’, making enterprise profit the guiding principle in investment decisions by planners, rather than putting politics into action. However, these were not qualitative changes. As Stalin explained in Historical and Dialectical Materialism: “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.”

The “insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes” being the post-Stalin reforms, and the “fundamental changes” being the events of 1989-1991. Concerning the class character of 1989-1991, yes the working class was the primary force on the streets demanding change; but what change were they demanding? In 1990, in the referendum asking people whether they wanted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the overwhelming majority, 76% said “No”. In May 1991, an American poll found 54% of Russians wished to keep Socialism, 27% wished for a mixed economy and only 20% wanted a free market economy (Monthly Review 12/94). A similar poll, reported in the New York Times (12/1/89) found that 47% of Czechoslovakians wished for their economy to remain state controlled, 43% wanted a mix and 3% wanted majority private ownership.

It would appear, the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods (exacerbated by market reforms in the late 80s). This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party and the explosion of the black market (in the case of the USSR) under Brezhnev. The roots of the black market are a result of policies such as Khrushchev’s mechanical levelling of wages, decreasing motivation (as “bourgeois right” was still existent), creating shortages. This problem was made worse by the large increases in wages, despite nothing to buy with them from the formal economy.

The extent of this problem can be seen in 1969 when Soviet citizens would save 70% of their income (Bahman Azad – Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat). A shortage of goods available, combined with large amounts of unspendable income created the conditions for a black market. This black market created a class whose interests lay in private property and free markets. It was this class and their intellectual and political representatives, many of who were in their respective Communist parties, that led the movements of 1989-91 and made the qualitative leap to Capitalism. I was born only one month before the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle in Moscow, so I do not know what affect this must have had on Communists and other progressive people over the world, but I can only imagine it was a disaster.


A L Morton Lecture 2009

It was the Peasants what done it

The major changes in Latin America examined – report by Willie Thompson

The Society’s 2009 A L Morton lecture was held in the Conway Hall on Saturday October 3, with the speaker being Dr Francisco Dominguez, member of the Venezuela Information Centre and head of the Latin American Studies Centre at Middlesex University.

His theme was an interpretation of the history of Latin America extending up to the present. In particular he emphasised the role played in it by the disregarded masses and, in the countries where they were numerically great, the descendants of the indigenous population.

The point from which he began was the independence revolutions of the nineteenth century. These, with Simon Bolivar as their principal inspirer, were led by enlightened middle class revolutionaries strongly influenced by continental Freemasonry (a very different creature from the British version) and opposed by the Creole aristocracies of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

To win these revolutions the exploited masses had to be mobilised, but having fulfilled that role were expected to return to working in miserable conditions for landowners, mine-owners, traders and occasional manufacturers, and be content with a state independence which brought them little if any material benefit. In addition the ruling classes of the new republics were terrified of the example of the thoroughgoing slave revolution in Haiti as a warning of what could happen if the masses got out of hand.

At the same time, the masses, principally peasants and miners, had had their aspirations ignited by the independence revolutions. Bitterly conscious of the grotesque inequalities in wealth which prevailed throughout the continent, they were not disposed to accept their subordination, and Latin America became famous for its revolts and revolutions.

To stabilise this unstable equilibrium the Latin American elites turned to the great power in the north, the USA, which backed them up in their repressions and itself often intervened directly, sending in the Marines to secure a safe social and political environment for its overseas investors.

By the 1930s communist parties were being established throughout Latin America. However, Dr Dominguez, argued, their rather mechanistic concentration on the industrial working class and relative neglect of the peasant masses meant that they failed to become the force they might have been with a more effective political strategy. Cuban communists, for example, played little part in the revolution – though they certainly helped to ensure its survival.

Current developments, though, are probably the most encouraging anywhere in the world, particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Dr Dominguez explained the social strategies being adopted by the radical governments there to win mass support – and, most importantly, to keep it. These are countries with an especially high proportion of indigenous ethnicity and the development of indigenous traditions and values in new circumstances are a most important aspect of revolutionary success.

These complexities, both historical & contemporary were all explained by Dr Dominguez in a most clear and stimulating manner. The talk was followed by lively discussion which could have continued much longer had time been available.


John Saville (1916-2009)

Remembering John Saville (1916-2009)
Personal reminiscences of a great Socialist historian by Professor David Howell

“Why don’t you write to John Saville; he’d be interested in your work?” To a very new academic in the early seventies concerned about how his ideas could ever be presented in publishable form this suggestion from a colleague proved a lifeline. John responded suggesting that I submit some entries to the Dictionary of Labour Biography. When I did so I rapidly experienced a practical course in Marx’s insistence that “to leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality”.

My carefully crafted pieces came back through the efficient agency of Joyce Bellamy decorated with John’s queries and scepticisms. I underwent a rapid induction into the rigours of scholarship that had been lacking in my three years as a doctoral student. Such was my initiation into the DLB.

John’s scholarship was outstanding. His early writings on Ernest Jones and Rural Depopulation and his much later books on 1848 and The Politics of Continuity 1945-6 demonstrate the effective co-habitation of a respect for sources and rigorous exposition. Entries by him in successive volumes of the DLB reconstruct with sensitivity the outlooks of those whose politics were far from his own. Yet his scholarly influence extended far beyond his own writing. It articulated his political values in that intellectual work should be expressed through the construction of solidarities.

Much academic life is blighted by individualism. John’s life as scholar and political activist emphatically rejected this mentality. His 22 years in the Communist Party from 1934 until his significant part in the exodus of 1956 remained a reference point. He never disowned those years, frequently referring to them with pride whilst seeking to come to terms with the dark side of that experience.

He retained the intellectual and organisational strengths of the tradition – careful preparation for discussion, intellectual self-discipline, egalitarianism, and a belief that intellectual life must not remain cramped within the discreet confines of the academy. The rigours of military service and of the Cold War gave him a toughness. He was no precious liberal who would shift his position if life became uncomfortable. His exemplar remained the Communist Party Historians’ Group. John’s belief that solidarity was a virtue central to intellectual work was expressed in the DLB, the Socialist Register, the Northern Marxist Historians’ Group and much else. John’s subsequent influence lacked the popular impact of Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson but in the durability of its scholarship and its articulation of socialist values it has few equals.

John seems not to have minded the lack of a political home after 1956. He remained robustly sceptical about the Labour Party and he was not persuaded by any of the profusion of left groups. His most enduring commitment from 1964 was his editorship with Ralph Miliband of the Socialist Register. John’s many contributions could be read in Gramscian terms as an extended war of position. He explored the limitations of Labour politics and critiqued both Encounter and Marxism Today. When A J P Taylor published his English History 1914-1945 in 1965 most reviews were laudatory and students flocked to buy what was widely seen as a radical and iconoclastic text. John differed;
rather Taylor was a conservative historian whose use of sources was partial, whose exposition at critical points was vague and who reduced everything to the same minor key. Characteristically, a critical assessment of scholarship carried a political significance.

After I moved to York in 1995 I met John regularly for lunch in the Plough Inn at Allerthorpe, half way between York and Hull. Often John rehearsed what would eventually be published as his memoirs. Student politics at the London School of Economics, India, 1956, his memories of George Hardy and Philip Larkin were interwoven with critical comment on Ken Loach’s film on the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom. John even acknowledged some  enthusiasm for the imminent slaughter of the Tories in the 1997 election. A tolerant landlady allowed us to linger over coffee. When I remember John I hear his voice in that bar on those slow East Riding afternoons not just bringing alive a rich past, but with his blend of rigour and passion personifying what a socialist historian should be.


Public Meeting on the All India Progressive Writers Association, 25 November 2009

TALAT AHMED speaks  on Mulk Raj Anand and the All-India Progressive Writers Association, 1935-37
Wednesday 25 November 2009, 7.00 – 9.00 pm. Venue: Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy Square, London, W1. (5 minutes from Warren Street Tube)
Dr Talat Ahmed teaches in the Department of History, Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and a member of the British Association for South Asian Studies. She is the author of Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: the Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932-56 (Routledge 2009). Her current research is focused on intellectual and cultural history of modern South Asia and radical literary and cultural projects in twentieth-century SouthAsia.

November 2009
« Oct   Dec »