Archive for the ‘history’ Category


  In lieu of actually writing about the anniversary of one of the most important and tragic events of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, here is a book, available fully and freely online, by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick. I Saw A Nightmare is an excellent and (so far) thorough study of the June 16, 1976 riot by students against the new government policy of teaching Afrikaans as a primary language in school; in response to the peaceful protests and strikes of the students, 26 people were killed by indiscriminate police fire into a confused but mutinous crowd.  I haven’t finished Pohlandt-McCormick’s book yet, but she makes excellent use of the html format, providing easy links to running commentary, supplementary essays and key segments from other chapters.  Pohlandt-McCormick’s is aiming for a kind of total history, much like Paul A. Cohen’s History in Three Keys; she starts with a detailed attempt to reconstruct the narrative of what exactly happened on June 16, using the conflicting and fragmentary stories told by official documents, memories, interviews and testimonies.  The next section concentrates on the crafting of a narrative around the uprising by both the South African government, the ANC and other groups at the time, and then explores the conflicts and problems of historical memory, of who remembers, or is allowed to remember (publicly) what had happened, the appearances and disappearances of archival materials, and the failures or interpretations of other historians, followed by deep historical analysis of the long-term build-up to, and aftermath of, June 16, 1976. I Saw A Nightmare is a fine book, and an important contribution to historical memory in its own right.

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Living History

Vulcan B2s at Wittering RAF, 1964

Today, I met a man who had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force.  Currently, he leads walking tours of the historic districts of Kingston, Ontario, attired in the top hat and dress clothing of a well to do Upper Canada bourgeois. The people of the 19th century, especially the best dressed, must have smelt tremendously.  The movies that form our main mass cultural consumption of the past generally never deal with the stink and the sweat.  And they sweated.  A lot.  Their clothes must have been deeply stained and yellowed  especially if you, like most people a hundred years ago, couldn’t afford the labour to keep it clean, or new. This man was constantly wiping heavy dew from his smooth pate, and I was gently smouldering in three layers of canvas and cheap linen, jacket, vest and collared shirt, with a much appreciated straw hat for shade.  His beaver fur was an oven.

Our attire displayed, quite by accident, the dramatic class divisions of the time, though it seems unlikely our dichotomy made anyone think hard about themselves. Besides this man, I looked a dreg, in the one-size-fits all, standard issue uniform of a United Canadas convict: number 7041, Alfred Albion Welch, a 17-year-old highwayman sentenced for seven years to Portsmouth Penitentiary for highway robbery, north of what is now London, Ontario, in Middlesex County.  Welch was the antithesis of the anonymous (indeed, phantom, for he never existed) elite inhabited by the British tour guide.  A butcher’s son, foul-mouthed, cocksure, who took by violence the wealth of the rich of our colonial state, Welch was a troublemaker of a familiar sort: he delighted in breaking the strict code of silence used as part of the penitentiary disciplinary regime, singing, whistling, skipping church to spend time with friends, and unbroken by dark cells and bread and water diets.  Today, a simulacrum, hobbled, play-acting being humbled and beaten, was paraded in chains, themselves replicas of 1850’s screw handcuffs and leg irons.  I shrunk and disappeared into my overlarge collar.  7041, Welch, was a very real human, a man whose life was ever so briefly rendered legible by the Canadian state: through his arrest, punishments and release he was given a biography preserved to the present in archives and on microfilm.  His crimes and his incarceration are the only reason why Welch is even remembered to us today, a number picked at random from a hat. If he had lived a less desperate life, he probably would have lived and died without ever being noticed, certainly not by the historical ancestor of that sweating phantom bourgeois.  The tour guide, whose historical personality is a fiction imparted and animated by clothes and books, appropriate, respected and admired even in 2010 for his impeccable clothing and English accent: Welch, who was born in England in 1850, a source of laughter and amusement to comatose tourists.


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Marxists.org has done a wonderful job putting up, with the original colour covers scanned to boot, the run of the International Socialism quarterly, from 1958 on into the 1980’s.  That is a fairly exciting development, if only because the complete collection is a fine example of why online archives must continue to expand.  On the other hand, IS is rather dowdy compared to the sexy and ephemeral avant-garde, counter-culture and Situationist publications that grew in prominence during the 60’s, stealing the thunder of the ‘Old Left.’ Nor was IS a theoretical juggernaut, full of new ideas on organisation and ideology of the student movement, aside from what seems an interminable debate about bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalist that filled the letters and debate page.  Nonetheless, it’s an incredible treasure trove, especially for a fellow traveller and historical enthusiast.


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Machinisme (1913)

Extract from the first part (“What socialism wants”) from How We Are Socialists, by Sixte-Quenin (Socialist Encyclopedia, Quillet, 1913)

Today we can perceive that ‘mechanisation’[1] has rarified human labour.  Nonetheless, it has not begun its full development and capitalist concentration is not at its apogee.  When mechanisation has penetrated all production, and we cannot predict the multiple inventions that in the future will still create productive forces that abolish human labour, if man continues to work hours as long as he does currently, it will suffice that perhaps 20% or 10% amongst them will work to produce enough to meet the needs of all.  Problem: those that will not work, because the machine has replaced them, will not be able to buy from the capitalists what they need, so that there will be more and more accumulation of merchandise; the capitalists see that there is overproduction still abolishing work, even as they continue abolishing purchasers.  Eventually, we will one day see productive forces, of a power without equal that, if brought to bear, will furnish to Humanity all that will be necessary, resting absolutely inert, unproductive because the capitalists that possess them will have an interest in not producing.  The use of their machines will actually cost them, for they will not be able to sell their products, not out of lack of want by consumers, people die of hunger at the side of well-stocked tables after all, but because consumers lack the means, money, needed to buy.[2]

Additionally, it must be said that the workers who were shown the first machines had a vision of the misery it would bring; they burnt and destroyed and if there really was no other way to escape the impasse in which the proletariat was driven, if truly mechanisation would continue to be in the hands of the capitalist class a means of exploitation against the working class, we should return, to combat it, to the brutal and simple means employed against it at the very beginning.

Thankfully, it is not so; the mechanisation that, today, creates misery amongst the workers perhaps can, and surely will be, the instrument of its emancipation.  For them, it suffices that the means of production cease to be the private property of a privileged class and become the collective property of all.  The machine therefore will not deny some men of work, as it does presently, but it will diminish the amount of work of all, at the same time leaving production at a level wherein the needs of all can be satisfied.

Meanwhile, capitalist society puts on the mass on un-propertied a regime of misery and servitude that no long corresponds to mentality of today’s Man, and this contradiction between the needs of equality and liberty for which the modern world labours, and a social system that is the source of inequality and oppression, is the cause of the great troubles and convulsions we are witnessing, and will only end along with the regime that causes them.

[1]               I doubt that the work, strictly speaking, was in use: machinisme sounds more like machine-production-isation or machinising

[2]               This section proved difficult to translate: I’m not sure if I was missing the full meaning, whether it was vague and poorly worded to begin with, or the jargon of hundred year old socialists was too much for me.

Translated from an excerpt posted on Bataille Socialiste.  Part of my first attempt to do some translating work to spruce up and practice my French.  More on the way.

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A classic of British empire history, nearly fifty years old and still eminently readable and valuable as a contribution to the study of an idea with global clout. The Imperial Idea is complex, with a loose chronological narrative tying together a series of analytic and interpretative sections on the defence and opposition to Empire. Thornton’s book is sometimes frustratingly tangential, straying frequently away from the central preoccupations suggested by its title.  Power, as a concrete expression of police and armies, capital and law, class and bureaucracy, is elusive and not an end of the study in itself: consuls and armoured cars certainly appear, and his chapter on nationalism and the racism and discrimination is certainly enlightening, but what the reader will not find is a study of policing and military administration, as in Anthony Clayton’s or David M. Anderson’s work, nor much on the mechanisms and men who governed in Africa or India, nor any appreciable analysis of the financial and commercial sinews of empire found in Hutton and Davis’ Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire, or a thousand other deeply researched and heavily footnoted monographs. Perhaps it is the slipperiness of the subject: “imperialism has suffered from a working definition,” something that Thorton is obviously trying to rectify by studying the ideas of the imperialists and their opponents.  His focus on a coterie of important men is necessary because imperialism’s “translation into practice” demands “a political expertise that must be looked for amongst the few.” (264) Certainly many will disagree, and a great deal of excellent scholarship has been written about those ‘on the ground’ as it were and how they saw their duty, from Sarawak to Ghana.

Palestine Mandate, 1920, British Locomotive

Thorton’s book is instead much more of a history of ideas, ideology and political culture, one of the best I’ve read, that uses the conflicting discourses[1] of imperialism to get unfold its central tensions and ‘iron’ certainties.  Thorton thankfully writes fluidly and engagingly, a man so thoroughly familiar with the debates, sources and personalities that he rarely indulges in footnotes.  And like other great synthesising historians from the same period like Hobsbawm or Thompson, the editorial and polemical voice is never far.  Thorton can present the ideas, intimately and sympathetically, of a Milner or Churchill as if he himself holds them, and then by the next paragraph pull the curtain back on their venality, brutality or hypocrisy.  Careful reading is often necessary, as it can be easy for the unwary, as I was when I first read this book two years ago, to confuse Thorton with his subjects of study. The chapters on ‘The Imperial Idea at its Zenith’ and the two very loosely organised around the impact of the Boer and Great Wars are solid and probably some of the best condensed analysis of high-politics imperialism; Viscount Milner is the only major figure of stature who emerges unscathed, a man who seems to have genuinely felt that the Empire was a redeeming institution and worked to that end.  These chapters don’t reveal anything particularly new other than in the lightly incredulous treatment of bluster and hyperbole combined with high ideals.

Thornton’s treatment of British power in retreat are the strongest chapters.  He, for instance, identifies quite clearly the need of imperialism to “preserve its own moral content, its imaginative range, or its grip on the imaginations of its subjects,” wary of ever having the curtain pulled aside and the illusion shattered.  Imagination and emotion were necessary for imperialism to justify itself: “justification was therefore a term used emotionally.  The moment an imperialist began to use it rationally, he could not but see himself – in his private moments at least – as his enemies had always seen him: as a cynical power-grabber who would make use of any humanitarian or sentimental argument that happened to suit him at the time.” (213) Hence why emotional nationalism, either English or of the colonised, had less problem with emotional imperialism, with cricket or army barracks: it was the manipulative power behind the charade, profiting off empire while professing sacrifice.  The problem was that, aside from Milner and a few other prominent imperialists, imperial power, despite its imaginative appeal, had no real imagination.  It was run as a technocracy, of sorts, an administrative dictatorship that confirmed “there must always be a group of experts – the distributors, the co-ordinators, the trainers” running the show. The natives could not be trusted to run their own affairs, after all, nor would they be allowed.  The Radical and Liberal supporters who looked to the empire as a bastion of civilisation and education were uncomfortable with “the government of one people by another” (265) and had trouble reconciling the implications of their own enthusiasms, especially when it was  men from professions and classes often politically associated with Liberalism who ended up becoming those distributors, trainers and co-ordinators.

The penultimate chapter on democracy is unsettling for this reason, and contains a great deal of sometimes well-earned jabs at the opponents of Empire. What worried the opponents of empire was “the reckless inculcation by the imperialists of an unthinking jingoism – the lust of the spectator – in the masses” and how “dangerous it was to beat on a big drum.”  They feared their own populism because so much of what was ‘popular’ seemed so repellent and conservative.[2] This is analogous in the Empire: they feared the colonial peoples even while they claimed to work in their name.  A little of this discomfort is actually on display in Orwell’s Burmese Days, in which the Burmese and the Empire compete equally for Eric Blair’s loathing. The Radical critique of empire was never a critique of empire, but instead a call to recognise that “the British people…[were] the largest race that imperialism had cognizance of,” and their oppression, misery and mal-education needed to be cured as readily as that of Central Africans or Fijians.  (269)  Again and again, an uncomfortable parallel is obvious in The Imperial Idea between imperialists and Radicals, who both pushed for schemes of human betterment; indeed, the irony should not be lost that, “even by the 1930s, when the leading imperialists were generally held by public opinion to be ‘Die-Hard and reactionary to the bones, it was still amongst their group that the most far-reaching ideals of human progress, as conceived by Conservatives, were to be found.” (270) Colonial administration looks all the more ‘apolitical’, like any good technocracy, when conceived in this way, a system designed and organised for human betterment that has little time and enthusiasm for the humans it aims to better; the difference being in the British empire paternalism reduced colonial subjects to children instead of numbers.


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Tariq Tell, “Guns, Gold, and Grain: War and Food Supply in the Making of Transjordan,” in War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East, ed. Steven Heydemann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

A train in the Hijaz, 1905.

States grow through war, are indeed designed for war, and it is usual, in studying the history of the formation of states in Europe and Asia in the early modern era, to focus on the act of warfare and its links to the growth in taxation, bureaucracy, markets and even citizenship and nationalism.  So what happens when a state is built by actively attacking and challenging the very processes that are supposed to be tied to a strengthening, centralised state?  This is the subject of Tariq Tell’s essay on the origins of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or Transjordan as it was called between the world wars.

Tell attempts to move beyond the narrow historiographies of Hashemite propaganda of a patriotic people’s war rallied behind the sharif of Mecca, and the Arab nationalist counter-argument that Hussein’s revolt was a narrow, reactionary affair, the Bedouin tribes fighting for gold and not for a wider Arabist ideal.   Instead, “it is precisely the social and economic conditions of war, local strategies, and material incentives, rather than the high politics of British treachery and Hashemite ambition, that hold center stage” in his narrative, focussed upon the way in which food supply “shaped patterns of participation.” Where the Turks controlled adequate supplies of food or the markets, “tribal leaders displayed a greater reluctance to join forces with the anti-Ottoman campaign of Sharif Hussein.” Only good harvests or material success in capturing those points of supply ensured widespread tribal backing for the Arab Revolt.

Tell lays the success of the revolt on “the inhabitants of the province, whether townspeople or Bedouin…united in their hostility to the centralizing bent of Ottoman reform.” Ottoman rule was extended into the Transjordan between 1851 and 1893 by forts and outposts, reinforced by loyal settlers from the Caucasus, Circassians and Turcomen implanted along the frontier.  These settlements became centres for Arab merchants and professionals, who turned a former Circassian village, Amman (the current capital!) into a market town.  Grain farming increased due to booming prices, while the collection of taxes “created excess demand for liquidity and, therefore, an opportunity for merchants to accumulate capital through money lending.”  From the 1880’s onward, land transfers increased as communal Bedouin pastures were bought by settlers, merchants, moneylenders and bureaucrats, who, along with some Bedouin shayks, imported Palestinian and Egyptian sharecroppers; the surplus of this expansion of farming helped to solidify a new local elite.  What, in some anthropologies of the Middle Eastern state, is called a ‘dual system’ of settled agriculture alongside nomadic husbandry, developed uneasily, with frequent raids and revolts well into the 1890s.

Tell stresses that Transjordan was an unlikely place for Arabist ideology to develop, as it was relatively backwards, a frontier where the state was actually seen as being ‘progressive’ or at least superior to the alternative.  But both the Bedouins and the Sherif of Mecca feared the centralising efforts of the Ottomans, especially the expansion of the railway, which curbed their significant autonomy. Tell notes, for instance, that Hussein’s call to revolt “appealed to educated Hijazi opinion in traditional rather than Arabist terms…and the articles and editorials of his mouthpiece Al-Qibla, accused the “atheistic” CUP [Commitee of Union and Progress, ruling party of the Ottoman Empire] of tampering with the Islamic legitimacy of the Ottoman state and called for the preservation of the ancient privileges of the Hijaz.”  The fighting forces assembled by the Hashemites in 1916 and after were mostly, almost entirely Bedouin or Arab tribesmen: few deserters from the Arab officers or ranks of the Ottoman army played much of a role in Hussein’s forces, except in training and administration.  The centrality of Bedouins and Arab nomads “stamped the Arab Movement with a tribal character. This ensured that whatever the motives of its instigators, the form and content of the Arab Revolt reproduced traditional patterns of political change in the rural hinterlands of the Middle East.”


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Heard a strange little show on the CBC today, on Family Day, our lovely government mandated holiday round this province wherein we get to take a day off and not spend time our families in lew of drinking and such like. Rewind, hosted by CBC regular Michael Enright which repeats old shows from the CBC archives, had a special for the day, on the definition of the family from the 1940’s until today. A rich part in the beginning: Mr. Enright affirming with all seriousness that the CBC once was dominated by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and stars, but no longer; the misses quipped rightly ‘sure, now they have call in show occasionally.’ Then the segments, all of them interesting for the particular attempts to deal with the changing role of the fathers, the freedom of teenagers and woman’s place in the home and workplace. The first dealt with….well, with not much at all, just interviewing a couple about the possibilities of post-war prosperity in 1945, but the way in which the CBC framed their interview is a telling sign of how much ‘the middle class’ was a construction even then. The CBC opined that this small shopkeeper, who runs a shop out of the front of his house and makes (in 1945 dollars) $2000, is part of the largest social group in Canada, the middle class, and is a part of that great prosperity that so distinguishes Canada. The actual shopkeeper and his wife seem less certain, but eagerly agree that they are just like everyone else, privileged, wealthy, happy, bourgeois. They are the backbone of society.

It has long been an argument, voiced as much in Barthes and Sontag as in any classic or canonical Marxist text, that the bourgeoisie assumes universalism, assumes that its mode of life, aesthetic sense, cultural mores and political beliefs are universal and shared by all; actually, this is more likely a liberal bourgeoisie attitude, because I can’t imagine the conservative or monarchist financiers of Paris arguing they ever had much in common with the shopkeepers. That the majority of the CBC’s reporters now, as then, are bourgeois, upper middle class, educated, professional, travelled and mostly intelligent, should be a given. That they impose their own sense of what is right about politics, war, society, the economy, on what they report, without doing so actively or even in some cases realizing it, and assume that their listeners all hold stocks, think politics is about soundbites and image, care about the Dalai Lhama and the employer’s eye view of the world, is not as popular an explanation. It makes more sense, I think, though it would need to be sketched out much more, than the Chomsky thesis from Manufacturing Consent (I suspect his later works are better than this), that all media is bought out and controlled by governments and corporations; I’d argue that plenty of reporters for a figurehead of the liberal, business establishment like the CBC don’t need to be bribed to follow the narrative of the War on Terror or fret over employer’s and their problems, because they genuinely assume those issues are of universal concern and are approached in the same way by all Canadians. It isn’t an agenda, it’s just being upper-middle class professional reporters. Now, this analysis can and should be more complete, and far be it from me to discount the fact that their political editorial lines at Canwest or the CBC, or that many reporters are deeply moral people who care actively about reporting injustice and corruption;  but try telling me when they ramble on about stocks in the business reports that that isn’t for a specific, privileged demographic who actually has an extensive portfolio they manage themselves.

Back to the 1945 middle class. The concept of the middle class is ideological, a product of a universalising assumption and tendency integral to the bourgeois. That there is a middle class is beyond question, of course, and its existence can be objectively proven, as much as possible, through census data on incomes, mobility, jobs and such. But far more people, just like those shopkeepers in 1945, belief they are middle class than is actually demonstrable by any census data. This may very well be an artifact of the post-war world, the result of a prosperity that allowed even millworkers like my dad to afford a big house, televisions and two cars, and that continues to inform many of our assumptions to this day, that owning a computer, an iPod or a car is a symbol of being ‘one of us,’ that universal middle class. The inscription of objects with class values has a long and storied history of its own, from sabots and sans culottes to peaked caps or tails to denim and bow ties, so it isn’t really a surprise that it still occurs to this day. But it is a confused identification, for the costs of those items have gone done, most obviously in the cases of appliances and electronics, and because so much of our culture is popular, and denim is no longer a class signifier.  It is a confusion that leads Labour governments in Britain to argue ‘we are all Middle Class now’ even if such uniformity is bought by cheap tricks on censuses and the manipulation of poverty measurements, so that the lower you go, the more middle you are (and this just isn’t in stats and figures, I remember reading an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee in which City bankers were certain an employee would ‘only’ need 20,000 pounds a year to live, which is below the official poverty line). And even if Canada is more egalitarian and less class conscious and allows for more ‘upwards mobility’ than Britain, or even ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite’ France, or the United States, that a universal middle class does not make.

That the project to make a middle class is so old did surprise me, as ten years earlier in 1935 it was quite clear there was something called a working class, which made up a good percentage of the population; ten years and one depression and one world war later, we are all middle class. The shopkeeper, the miner, the lumberjack and steel worker and textile worker and professor and doctor, all middle class, all friends, the bedrock of our democracy. That was what the CBC said in 1945, telling the petty shopkeeper he is now a member of the good class, it does the same now, in 2009. There are some potent democraticising elements there, especially when compared to the fierceness that Tories, capitalists and the Church clung and endorsed hierarchy and aristocracy even today, and rail against popular culture, that is to say working class culture, of a sort, which has triumphed against all odds over its more rarified but universaling bourgeois antecedents; indeed, popular culture now makes those same claims, that it is represented by all, and counter culture and subcultures are placed in the position of railing against their own forebearers.  There is something very nice that my father is no longer as openly snubbed by doctors and teachers, even as they both behind each others back mutter curses.

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