3 Aug 2017

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves in on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. (Baldwin 2001:24)

I have been thinking of reading some James Baldwin for quite a long time; he looked so iconic and I am always interested in the intersection between literature and politics.  Politics is more than a language game I tend to think but it is certainly very strongly influenced by questions of identity that are shaped in part by language.  Our assumptions are shaped by the culture we live in and a key part of culture is literature.  So while I don't think that a more sophisticated understanding of Jane Austen will lead to liberation, I do think Jane Austen is important in shaping British culture, which in turn shapes British politics.

James Baldwin was an important novelist and writer, both gay and African-American, he might be seen as an early exponent of what is now called 'intersectionality', noting that both oppression and liberation have multiple aspects and one aspect such as class or sexual orientation is not necessarily the most significant.

So walking along the shelves of the literature section in Goldsmiths College library as I like to do, Giovanni's Room leapt out at me. I borrowed and read it.  It's a tale of an American in Paris, short, clear and somewhat grim.  It's maybe difficult to use the term enjoy for a book centred around a murder but it diverted and provoked me.

In the 1950s writing frankly about gay and bisexual lives was a scandal. It is said that the first publisher Baldwin approached told him to burn it; he should stick to being an African-American novelist, he was told, and not 'alienate' his audience.  He persisted.

I am looking forward to reading 'Go tell it on the Mountain', which I believe is semi-autobiographical, looking at Baldwin's youthful experience of the Pentecostal Church in Harlem, New York, as both a source of oppression and one of community.  Again we might note that religion both informs literature and is closely bound up with politics.  Baldwin was a teenage preacher before rejecting the Church.

The prophets in the Bible challenged established power and were usually killed or exiled for doing so, the role of the prophets inspired political preachers all the way from Thomas Muntzer to Martin Luther King.

I get the impression that Baldwin wrote much in the way of lectures and letters on social and political matters, significant in the USA of the 1960s and 70s but still significant today.  He was, of course, a key figure in the civil rights movement.

Baldwin is very quotable. I liked his words about free will at the top of the page, 'autonomy' is often delusion!  Understanding how we are shaped and determined is the best way, perhaps, of being able to participate in the process.

James Baldwin (2001[1956]) Giovanni's Room. Penguin Classic.

2 Aug 2017

Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within

I have just finished reading Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within, originally published in 1994, the fourth edition is from 2014.  It examines the media campaign against National Union of Miners leader Arthur Scargill during the 1980s

Its quite a read!  Highly recommended. And lets not forget Milne in 2017 is one of Jeremy Corbyn's closest political associates, an important mover and shaper...

1984-85 saw the bitter strike that pitted Britain's most disciplined and effective trade union against right wing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  After the end of the strike when the NUM was defeated, the television programme The Cook Report and the Daily Mirror newspaper, ran a campaign accusing Scargill of corruption, initially suggesting that he had used money meant for the trade union to pay off his mortgage.

When it was revealed that Scargill did not have a mortgage the campaign eventually collapsed!  Before collapsing the script was rewritten with new accusations against the NUM leader being proposed, revised and falling apart.

The complex story is discussed over 445 pages of lucid prose by Milne and is not easily summarized.

What it shows is a case study in how a right wing British media,  the Labour Party, a Conservative government and the security services, worked to discredit a trade union defending its members jobs.

I think anyone who wants to understand how Britain works and how the media is often part of active campaigns to discredit opposition voices should read The Enemy Within with care.

Seumas Milne is currently Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communication, very much Jeremy Corbyn's key advisor.  Milne is routinely attacked by the media and most Labour MPs, it is astonishing that such a key critic of Britain's media and security services is at the centre of Corbyn's campaigning.

It certainly shows that the Corbyn network has a shrewd understanding of the realities of power in Britain.  A key insight is that media attacks from the supposed left, in Scargill's case from the Labour Party supporting Daily Mirror, are more effective than those from right wing sources.

It is also clear that while conspiracies can exist, they often fail and events are the product of over lapping forces.  Thatcher wanted to get Scargill but from personal grudges to shifting Labour Party politics a variety of influences were at worked.  Events might be seen as 'over-determined'.

Milne notes ironically that in recent years evidence of secret state infiltration of environmentalists critical of coal has also come to light. This is covered by The Independent here http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/were-police-spies-behind-mass-arrest-of-activists-1668252.html

I am not uncritical of Scargill and I am happy to see a shift away from coal (but not at the cost of brutal closure without the construction of a workers plan for alternative production) nonetheless while a coal dispute is discussed, this is a case study in how power is exercise in modern Britain.

I bought my copy from the wonderful Peoples Bookshop in Durham and its published by Verso.

A review in Red Pepper noted:

It’s an account that is both persuasive and disturbing. It provided the framework for David Peace’s GB84, bringing together the two worlds of the strike. Central players in Milne’s account are the prime minister, head of MI5 Stella Rimington and the owner of the Mirror Group, Robert Maxwell. Those who opposed the miners were ably abetted by spies within the union and Labour Party.

As Milne puts it, ‘The government unleashed the full force of the state: a militarised police occupation of the coalfields, a commandeered and manipulated criminal justice system, mass sackings and jailings – and the use of MI5, GCHQ, the NSA and Special Branch to bug, infiltrate, smear, manipulate the media and stage dirty tricks against the union and its leaders.’

Milne is routinely vilified in the media but lurid accounts often ignore his authorship of The Enemy Within, Milne's role in the Labour Party shows that Corbyn is providing a radical break from Labour past.  Whether like me you see hope in this or like the mainstream express anxiety, if you want to understand Milne a starting point is The Enemy Within.  Well researched, beautifully written, nobody on the left in Britain in 2017 can ignore it.

22 Jul 2017

The Philosophy of Marx by Etienne Balibar

The Philosophy of Marx 
By Etienne Balibar (translated by Gregory Elliot and Chris Turner)
Verso, 2017
240 pp., $38.95

Etienne Balibar notes ‘The general idea of this little book is to understand and explain why Marx will still be read in the twenty-first century, not only as a monument of the past, but as a contemporary author - contemporary both because of the questions he poses for philosophy and because of the concepts he offers it.’ (p.1).  And with some reservations, I feel he achieves this goal.
While is a thought provoking book, it may disappoint readers who seek either an introduction to Marx’s philosophy or a straightforward account of how Marx’s ideas can inspire focussed political action in the 21st Century.  There is a very useful guide to reading more about Marx’s philosophy and some very clear panels describing key thinkers and themes from Gramsci onwards.  However Balibar discusses some very complex and subtle ideas, that demand a good knowledge of Marx’s key works, as well as those of such far-from-easy thinkers as Kant and Wittgenstein, along with structuralist, aleatory and post-modern thought.  In short, this is a sophisticated and in depth examination of the topic, but not the first place to look if you are new to Marxist philosophy and want to find a way in!
Despite being neither directly politically practical or an easy book, it is extremely stimulating.  It richly rewards the effort to read and is full of original insights and exciting notions.  Balibar has condensed the last fifty years of his work closely reading Marx’s text to very good effect.
Balibar hints that it is wrong to read Marx’s work and to extract one clear and unambiguous set of principles from it.  Both academics and sectarians are tempted to argue that they have the correct reading of Marx and that other readings are wrong.  Balibar argues that Marx was driven by a number of shared passions, advocating communism, class struggle, materialism and human liberation.  Marx sought to show how political change might be possible in a particular context.  Because the context changed, so did Marx’s philosophy; if it is possible to construct a Marxist philosophy (a task that Balibar rejects), this philosophy, far from being fixed, will change with changing circumstances.
Balibar argues that it is wrong to seek a Marxist approach based on the texts of Marx to all political, social and indeed philosophical questions.  It was once said that only religion pretends to know everything, a thesis strongly echoed here.  Balibar argued that attempts have been made to fix the meaning of Marx’s work, from Engels' synthesis after Karl’s death to Stalin’s Dialectic Materialism.  Yet Marx’s pursuit of liberation was, according to Balibar, a product of an open and ever changing system.
Two historical contexts are seen as particularly influential on Marx’s philosophical work.  The first is the series of uprising in the early part of the 19th Century, which shaped the construction of the Communist Manifesto.  The second was the creation and bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, when in 1871, the workers created their own self-governing society.  The defeat of the revolts of the 1840s made Marx focus on the emergence of capitalism.  The Paris Commune strengthened his belief that working class self-emancipation was possible.  Bailbar notes that Marx was always rethinking his ideas, so any fixed doctrine of Marxism does not reflect his efforts.  Equally Marx was not an academic but a communist; he kept rethinking because liberation requires a constant effort to recalibrate revolutionary thought.
Balibar, even though he rejects the concept of a philosophy of Marx as a complete set of ideas, identifies a number of important themes.  One is the notion of transindividualism, Marx rejected both structuralism and pure individualism.  We are not trapped by unchanging structural factors, this would make social change impossible, but we don’t act as pure individuals. We are influenced by wider forces.  Noting Marx’s use of the French word ‘ensemble’, Balibar stresses that human society is collective because it is the product of human interactions, thus transindividualism is an appropriate and useful concept.  The ways in which we come together in particular social classes, is also stressed as a continuous historical force in the book. 

Given this rather post-modern interpretation of Marx’s approach and the difficulty of many of the ideas, it would be easy to reject the book as irrelevant to the political tasks we face in a world of climate change, violently mutuating capitalism and right wing political monsters such as Donald Trump.  In fact, while it requires effort and doesn’t produce simple answers I would certainly recommend it.  The German Marxist scholar and prominent ecosocialist Frieder Otto Wolf provided a foreword for the German edition. It’s a shame it is not included in this edition; I am sure it would have been of interest to many Greens and ecosocialists.