Thursday, July 06, 2017

Down House: A unique place in the history of science and evolution

by Carole Barclay
The works of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx shook and shocked Victorian Britain. Although they lived less than 20 miles apart from each other they never met. But Marx genuinely admired Darwin's On The Origin of the Species despite its “crude English style” and even sent Darwin a personally inscribed copy of the recently published second edition of Das Kapital in 1873.
            Down House was Darwin’s home for 40 years until his death in 1882. Darwin and his wife Emma remodelled the house and its extensive gardens, which Darwin used as an open-air laboratory. Here Darwin worked on his theory of evolution that was first published in 1859.
In Darwin’s day the house was in the village of Downe, a parish in Kent. It later became a girls’ school and the home of the Darwin Museum. Now part of Bromley in Greater London, the house, gardens and grounds is run by English Heritage and open to the public throughout the year.
            There’s plenty to see. Anyone interested in the life and times of Darwin will be fascinated by the gardens and the exhibits in the museum as well as rooms that have been restored to appear as they would have looked in Darwin’s day. There’s the inevitable visitors’ shop for books and souvenirs, and a very welcome cafĂ© in the courtyard.
But beware – plan your journey unless you’re driving because it’s not easily served by public transport. Although you can get trains from central London to Bromley South or Orpington you’ve then got to get a bus for the rest of the journey.
Down House is in Luxted Road, Downe, Kent, BR6 7JT. The house, garden and grounds are open to the public at the usual English Heritage rates. There’s free parking and Down House opens daily from April to the end of October, and on weekends only from November until the end of March.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Fidel Castro 1926 -- 2016

By Robert Laurie

Revolutionary Democracy Volume XXII, No 2 April, 2017. £5.00 + £1.00 p&p from NCP Lit, PO Box 73, London SW11 2PQ.

The latest issue of Revolutionary Democracy has just arrived in Britain. The latest one (the first published since April of last year) contains the usual mixture of articles on contemporary India, news and views from around the globe and important historical material from Soviet sources.
            The first quarter of the journal is taken up with articles on present day India. The main ones concern the dire effects on workers of the recent sudden withdrawal of 500 and 1,000 Rupee banknotes, a move that was supposedly aimed at corrupt businessmen but which instead hit the poorest particularly severely. There is the first of a two-part detailed dissection of the latest Indian budget and another on the 2014–15 drought that has driven many desperate farmers to suicide. This time there are two articles concerning Kashmir, one of which deals with student protests in Delhi.
 Not for the first time with this journal, I found some of the articles on India a bit difficult to follow. It is difficult to know if some politicians mentioned are national or provincial figures, and some of the terminology is obscure to non-Indians. Perhaps the editors could have short introductions for each article giving the background or a general introduction to this nevertheless useful section.
 Turning to the wider world, Sergei Golovchenko, a Russian film-maker, contributes an account of recent events in the Donbas describing how an area prosperous in Soviet times has been devastated by Ukrainian fascism, but he also records the heroic resistance to the fascists.
The Labour Party of Turkey (EMEP) provides a short account of how Turkey is “Step by Step Moving Towards a Dictatorship” and a longer critique of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) whom it accuses of being “reformist”, not a position the New Worker agrees with.
This section concludes with a recent interview with the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa in which he deplores the “ideological bankruptcy and cowardly behaviour of the SACP [South African Communist Party]”, and sees the present crisis within the ANC [African National Congress] as being largely a battle between established white capitalists and an emergent capitalist class.
            The archival material begins with another instalment of documents pertaining to discussions between the Soviet and Chinese parties. This time there is a report on a mission by Anastason Mikoyan to Mao Zedong in early 1949, just as the Chinese civil war was coming to an end. The most important revelation is that Mao himself hoped for orders and directions from the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. In contrast, Stalin declined saying that it was not permissible for one party to rule another, although advice might be proffered.
There is another example of Soviet advice in the form of a newspaper article on mistakes by the Japanese Communist Party who saw the occupying American forces were playing a progressive role in Japan. Although published in 1950, under the pseudonym “Observer”, its author was in fact JV Stalin.
The editor contributes a brief piece that refutes the claim that Soviet industrialisation was built by exploiting the peasantry, but that the sacrifices made during the first Five Year Plan that built the industrial economy which defeated Hitler were borne by the working class.
In addition to a detailed 1932 conference report criticising a recent book by the Trotskyite economist Preobrazhensky, we have an Indian Communist Party report on the 22nd CPSU Congress held in 1960 and an historical account of the widespread protests in the Soviet Union that defended Stalin against Khrushchev’s notorious 1956 attack on him. These were naturally most common in Stalin’s native Georgia but the article also describes protests in Sumgait in Azerbaijan in the early 1960s.
In contrast to my grumbles about the lack of context of some of the Indian material, the editorial introductions to the archive material are excellent.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Bloodier Battle of Valence

By Carole Barclay

 The 17th century came to life in the middle of a council estate in Dagenham last weekend courtesy of the Valence House Museum and the English Civil War Society. The two-day free event in Valence Park included displays of musketry and horsemanship, and a living history camp showing what life was like during the English Civil War. But the highlight was an hour long portrayal of a skirmish between Royalist and Parliamentary troops, which involved over 500 re-enactors on both sides of the civil war.
During the struggle between Parliament and the King, which finally ended with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart in 1649, Valence House was held by the Royalist Fanshawe family. But most of the people in this part of south Essex were staunchly for Parliament throughout the civil war. It’s a pity that this was not reflected in this imaginary battle in which the Royalists were depicted as the victors. But this was entertainment – not an open-air lecture on the nuances of 17th century politics. The grown-ups filmed the costumed drama and kept the beer tent going. The kids were predictably more attracted to the burger and ice-cream stalls outside the historic moated manor house that goes back to the 13th century!

Thursday, June 01, 2017

People Power: Fighting for Peace

Imperial War Museum: The history of the peace movement in Britain

by New Worker correspondent

THE IMPERIAL War Museum in south London is currently staging an exhibition on the history of the peace movement in Britain, running from March until 28th August (£10 entry to the exhibition; £7 concessions).
One of the main purposes of the museum from its foundations has been never to allow the horrors of war to be forgotten, so promoting peace has always been part of its agenda. The exhibition on the history of the peace movement, starting from opposition to the First World War and the rise of conscientious objection, has therefore been long overdue.
The exhibition, on the third floor of the building that used to house a mental asylum, begins with the opposition to the First World War and a faded dark red banner hung from the ceiling with the image of a dove and the message: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
From March 1916, military service was compulsory for all single men in England, Scotland and Wales aged 18–41, except those who were in jobs essential to the war effort, the sole support of dependants, medically unfit, or “those who could show a conscientious objection”. This later clause was a significant British response that defused opposition to conscription.
Further military service laws included married men, tightened occupational exemptions and raised the age limit to 50. There were approximately 16,000 British men on record as conscientious objectors to armed service during the First World War. This figure does not include men who may have had anti-war sentiments but were either unfit, in reserved occupations or who had joined the armed forces anyway.
There are many letters and documents from men who refused to be conscripted to fight at the front, even though they faced prison, where harsh as the physical conditions were, it was the harassment, jibes and being branded cowards that hurt the most.
Many of these objectors were either very religious or socialists who objected to being used as cannon fodder by an imperialist government.
Some objectors were offered a non-combatant role within the armed forces and others were offered essential war work at home to replace workers who had gone to the trenches.
Many went to the front line as ambulance workers, pulling wounded soldiers from the thick of battle. The exhibition has uniforms and identity documents from the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) – formed by the Society of Friends (Quakers), who are pacifists. Their passes had international recognition amongst the allies and the exhibition includes a Croix-de-Guerre medal awarded to one FAU worker. The FAU also operated in the Second World War.
The exhibition also includes a painting by Paul Nash and a poem from Siegfried Sassoon – two serving soldiers whose opposition to war developed from their experience of it and who used their talents to convey the horror of it to those at home.
In the inter-war period there was a strong peace movement – a reaction to the slaughter of the First World War. But this was put under pressure with the rise of the menace of fascism and particularly of Nazism in Germany.
The exhibition includes a letter from AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, agonising over the dilemma of opposing war yet recognising the need to stop Nazism.
It also includes an identity document from Paul Eddington, the actor made famous in the sitcoms The Good Life and Yes Minister. He was registered as a conscientious objector and ended up as a non-combatant with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), where he began his acting career.
The exhibition goes on to cover the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the origins of the CND symbol, the foundation of the Committee of 100, the Aldermaston marches and Greenham Common women’s encampment against cruise missiles being kept at the US military base there.
There is a screening of an excerpt of the 1960s film The War Game about the effect on the population of a nuclear bomb being dropped in Kent.
Opposition to the war in Vietnam is given a small space in the exhibition, mainly devoted to American youths refusing to be drafted.
Then it moves on to opposition to the wars in the Middle East and the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain when, in February 2003, between one to two million people marched through London to protest at the war against Iraq that was just about to be launched by George W Bush and Tony Blair.
There is the famous image of Tony Blair taking a selfie against a backdrop of burning Iraqi oil wells.
It finishes with a screening of the poignant ceremony last summer when three members of the British Veterans for Peace organisation marched in uniform to Downing Street and threw down their berets, badges and medals, renouncing these symbols of war and oppression and the roles they had been ordered to play in in the Middle East in oppressing the people there.
The symbolism of this is very powerful; when rank and file troops refuse to obey their imperialist masters and walk away from war en masse – as in Russia in 1917 and in Vietnam in the 1970s – the imperialists are rendered powerless.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

History – it’s how you look at it

by Ray Jones

Review: Sweet William or the Butcher?: The Duke of Cumberland and the '45
Author: Jonathan Oates (2008), 224pp. Publisher: Pen Sword & Military. ISBN: 9781844157549

As Karl Marx said, it’s the material world that forms consciousness not the other way around. Ideas and concepts arise from our interaction with the world and most fundamentally from how humans make their living – how they survive.
And as they only survive by working together, collectively in societies, the ideas that predominate among people will be the ideas that are the main ones created by the economic/political type of society in which they live. For example, slave society, feudal, capitalist or socialist.
            It is rarely simple because in all societies there are divisions, tendencies, classes that interact with each other, they clash and cooperate in many ways. And within these they may have their own divisions.
The ideas of the fractions, while having many similarities with those of the dominant forces, will not be the same and will often contradict them. If not for these differences (contradictions) nothing would ever change.
This can make the study of history complex. But when evaluating historical events and processes (evaluating, not merely recording) Marxists must keep the main division in society, the division that defines them, in the front of their thoughts.
That is the class division, the different relationships to the means of production. Those who own the land, factories, machinery and so on, and those who don’t. We must always see things from the view of the working classes and oppose their oppressors.
Just as with ‘democracy’ when we always ask “democracy for whom?”, when evaluating history we must always ask “which class does it serve?”
To try and stand aside and be ‘objective’ is not only impossible but almost always leads to a reactionary position in the end.
The idea for this opening came to me as I was reading a book by Jonathan Oates called Sweet William or ‘the Butcher’?
This is an attempt to rescue William, Duke of Cumberland (second son of George II), from the nickname ‘the butcher’, which became attached to him after his part in putting down the Jacobite rising in the battle of Culloden in 1746 and its aftermath.
In spite of proclaiming his aim from the start, Oates still attempts to appear objective.
Oates summarises the cases historians have made for and against Cumberland and I will summarise his summary.

For Cumberland:
·        Many of the stories of terror are lies told by Jacobites.
·        The social context: it must be taken into consideration, eg the amount of violence in society, wide spread hatred of Jacobites amongst English and Lowland Scots..
·        ‘Necessity’: the ruling group needed finally to end the long-standing threat of Jacobinism. William as a member of the Hanoverian dynasty had a personal investment in this.

Against Cumberland:
·        Prior to Culloden, the decisive battle, he urged civilians to kill Jacobite stragglers.
·        After Culloden he allowed his troops to kill wounded Jacobite troops on the battle field and his cavalry showed no mercy to those fleeing.
·        After Culloden his campaigns in the Highlands killed Jacobite sympathisers and destroyed property, stole and killed cattle; the results of which have been called ‘genocide’. Even non-Jacobites were sometimes affected.

In spite of the book’s title, Oates never seriously thought that ‘Sweet William’ was an accurate term for Cumberland and concludes that Cumberland may have been harsh but, all things considered, he does not deserve the name ‘butcher’ either. What should Marxists make of all this?
            Well, they would be interested in any new facts but Oates does not really produce any.
But his type of arguments are interesting. They could be called ‘relativism’.
Cumberland should not now be called a butcher, he argues, because by the standards of his time he should not have been. If he behaved that way today it would, presumably, be all right to call him one.
The gaping hole in that argument in the case of Cumberland is that he was called a butcher at the time and not just by Jacobites. His own elder brother was part of the campaign against him.
But, more importantly, if we accept relativism it leaves historians as mere collectors of facts, unable to make judgements.
Relativist arguments are often used by liberals not liking some events but unwilling to condemn them. Ritualised cannibalism in tribal societies is perhaps a common example. But they can be used for reactionary purposes as Oates shows.
The opposite position to that of relativism however, is ‘absolutism’. This is when the historian starts from a preconceived set of principles and judges historical events by them – ignoring the social context. So when in some societies some babies were killed at birth this was evil, no matter what the circumstances. Some things just are wrong and that’s all there is to it.
But of course that’s not all there is to it. Many absolutists are coming from a religious position that itself has historical and social roots. Often their positions are reactionary but sometimes positive, depending on the circumstances.
Both relativism and absolutism are approaches that are often used, consciously or unconsciously, for a political purpose.
It must be recognised that individuals cannot step aside from their society and upbringing and be totally unbiased, we see things through our experiences, culture and education – we can do no other.
Marxists, through their experiences, choose to see things from the view of the working class. They see that the working class is the progressive class and what is best for it is the best, in the long run, for humanity.
Early on in his book Oates mentions other writers. One of these is John Prebble and his book Culloden, which he dismisses in a couple of paragraphs although he admits it is a powerful work and probably the most influential on the subject.
Prebble was a member of the old Communist Party (CPGB) until after the Second World War, and the contrast between his approach to history and Oates’ is stark. Prebble sees things in terms of class conflict and openly chooses a side – the side of the working people, of the oppressed.
He doesn’t support  ‘bonnie Prince Charlie’ or the ‘butcher Cumberland’. but paints them from the view ordinary people.
I think his book is an example of how you can write good history, full of emotion and colour, and not pretend to be writing looking down from some god-like position.
Of course this Marxist approach, which is neither relativist nor absolutist, should not just be applied to history. It is the core of Marxist ideology. Whatever we do, whatever we study, we should approach it from a class view.
All this is not to say that individuals play no active part in the making of history. It’s not all about the working of universal laws.
Masses of individuals make up the forces of history – there are no forces outside or beyond them.
And within these masses there are individuals who played more of a role than others. We can all think of examples – Cromwell, Marx and Engels. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and many others.
But even the most gifted individuals cannot work successfully against the historical laws explained by Marx.
As G Plekanov says, they cannot “foist on society relations which no longer conform to the state of the productive forces … or do not yet conform to them.”
In other words, you cannot retreat to a rural tribal idyll from advanced capitalism, or spring to socialism from tribalism.
The very gifted person understands the direction society is moving, is embedded in their class, they “possesses qualities which make them most capable of serving the great social needs of their time, needs that arise from general and particular causes.” And they can have great influence.
But I would like to emphasise the words ‘most capable’ because, with the aid of Marxism-Leninism and as a part of the revolutionary party and the labour movement, we can all play a part. We are not just cogs in a machine.
There is a world to win and we can help to win it!