International Women’s Day 2017

One hundred years ago today, a march in Petrograd to mark International Women’s Day set in train a series of events that culminated in the October Revolution, the best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.

It’s heartening to see that today’s women still have the fighting spirit shown by their sisters all those years ago; they might yet save the world from the mess we men have made of it.

Long to reign over us

Around 5.30 this evening Queen Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, beating the 63-and-a-bit years managed by her great-great-grandmother Victoria. She shows no signs of flagging, so the second Elizabethan age is likely to run for a while longer, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.

It’s easy to view British royalty as a quaint and essentially harmless anachronism, given that Elizabeth has largely refrained from directly interfering in politics, and the country is effectively a typical bourgeois democratic republic, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the institution of the monarchy underpins the conservative structure of our political culture. There is a big psychological difference between being a subject and being a citizen, and the deference to authority that is inherent in a monarchical system is a major barrier to progressive change.

Generations have grown up seeing Elizabeth on the throne as a fact of life, and her longevity has meant that the patent ridiculousness of choosing a head of state by bloodline hasn’t been a live political issue in recent years. Even queens are mortal though, and some day the country will have to consider whether the royal charade should go on. I can’t believe that the succession, when it comes, will be a smooth one; surely reason will prevail and Elizabeth will go down in history as not only our longest-serving monarch, but also our last one.

They were defeated, we won the war

The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago today, and the anniversary has been marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Europe; here in the UK we have had reenactments and services of thanksgiving, while the French, perhaps unsurprisingly, have more or less ignored it.

Napoleon’s final defeat is generally remembered, in this country at least, as a stirring British victory over French tyranny; this overlooks the fact that, over the course of the Napoleonic wars, Britain contributed relatively little to the fighting on the ground, preferring to subsidise continental allies. Napoleon was undone by his disastrous campaign in Russia, and his real climatic defeat came at the Battle of Leipzig; the 100 days leading up to Waterloo was just a bloody coda.

It’s understandable that the British establishment, facing present-day worries about its place in Europe, should turn to the past for comfort. At the time of the battle the UK was little over a century old; Wellington’s victory cemented the nation and ushered in an era of British dominance that didn’t begin to falter until the First World War.

Whatever one thinks of Napoleon, the defeat of the French Republic at the hands of an alliance of monarchies was hardly a victory for progress. The Congress of Vienna saw the Bourbons restored in France, and entrenched absolutism across the continent, hastening the rise of Prussia and setting the scene for the tragic century that was to follow.

The ideals of the revolution could not be held down though. It wasn’t long before the French people rose again, and after years of struggle, a Second Empire, and another war against the Prussians, they were eventually done with kings for good. The Paris Commune, cruelly suppressed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, was the high point of this period, and is still inspirational today.

So perhaps the French, who, in my experience, know their history very well, are right to be ambivalent about Waterloo. The Ancien RĂ©gime can win a battle, but the war goes on.

Playing History

I had planned to post a WW2-themed piece on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings earlier this month, but for one reason and another I missed the deadline. I’ve another chance today though, since June 22nd marks the start of the other great Allied offensive of 1944; Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s drive into Belorussia, which destroyed an entire German army group and opened the way for the Soviet advance to Berlin.

Watching and reading the media coverage of the D-Day commemoration, I was struck by how the Second World War is now a properly historical event, with little more immediate emotional resonance for today’s generation than the Somme, or the Napoleonic wars, or Agincourt.

It was very different when I was young. Though the conflict had been over for a quarter century it was still a part of the live culture; in the films and programmes we watched on TV, in the comics we read, and in the games we played after school. Most of the boys preferred to be British commandos in our imaginary gun battles, though there were a few who were suspiciously OK with being Nazis. I was pretty much alone in wanting to be a Red Guard, so I usually ended up storming a make-believe Stalingrad single handed. When I was a little older I had a whole division of miniature T-34s which I would pitch against my friends’ Tigers and Panthers in epic reenactments of Kharkov and Kursk.

Of course in those days there were still a lot of people around with direct experience of the conflict; both of my grandfathers served overseas for most of the duration, and while they didn’t talk about it much it was one of their formative experiences. More importantly perhaps the Cold War had frozen Europe in 1945, and it wouldn’t thaw out until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, finally allowing Britain to start to move on from its imperial past.

I guess kids today still play WW2 video games, but I never see boys running around the neighbourhood pretending to shoot each other with Sten guns and Lugers like it really means something. Which is for the best I suppose, but I do think a childhood without toy tanks is probably missing something…

Into the valley of Death

It was just a couple of months ago that I was fondly reminiscing about the political landscape of the 1980s, but events of the past week have reminded me that the Cold War was actually pretty scary at times. It might seem unlikely that we would go to war over Crimea, but that’s probably what they said back in 1854 too.

Vladamir Putin may have in mind a more recent conflict; the USSR’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, when his predecessors allowed themselves to be drawn into a bloody quagmire which hastened the collapse of Soviet power in Europe. The CIA had more than a little influence in the instigation of that conflict (though of course it would later come back to haunt the US), and Putin may be thinking that a similar trap is being laid for him in Ukraine.

There seems to be no need for the Russians to start an actual shooting war though, since they have already demonstrated that they could if they wanted to, and that there is nothing that the US or the EU would do about it, which should be enough to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. That’s the sort of realpolitik that stopped the Cold War from ever getting too hot, so hopefully similar logic will prevail today.

Pete Seeger RIP

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of folk music, (though I did enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis on a rare trip to the cinema this weekend) but I was sad to hear that Pete Seeger had passed away today, at the grand old age of 94. His songs seemed to soundtrack much of US radical politics in the last 70 years, from pre-war labour struggles, through McCarthy witch-hunts, civil rights marches and anti-war movements, right up to the Occupy protests of the last few years.

I’m not sure that the protest ballad as a cultural form is quite so popular on this side of the Atlantic, but hearing Seeger deliver a fine old union song like Which Side Are You On? certainly still rouses some revolutionary fervour.

All power to the Soviets!

Today was the 90th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Bolshevik revolutionary and first Premier of the Soviet Union.

Regular readers will know that I count myself a committed communist, so it will be no surprise to learn that Lenin is one of my political heroes. What he had – and what is missing from much of radical scene today – was an understanding that the central questions in any political struggle concern power – who has it, and what they do with it. “Who, whom?”, as Lenin succinctly put it.

This insight was given practical form in Lenin’s famous April Theses, delivered to the Bolsheviks on his return to Petrograd from exile in 1917. These few paragraphs, outlining a programme for action in the tumultuous days following the fall of tsarism, form one of the most influential documents in history – without them the October Revolution would not have happened, events in the 20th century would have taken a dramatically different course, and the world we know today would never have come into being.

I know from experience that my enthusiasm for Leninism is not widely shared, even on the left, which is perhaps understandable in light of how the Soviet Union developed in the years after Lenin’s death. It’s a shame though, because the key question that faces those of us trying to change the world today is the same one that the Bolsheviks grappled with a century ago – what force can we mobilise to counter the power of capital, which keeps us in subjugation? The answer, now as it was then, involves the organisation of the working class through a revolutionary party, a task that Lenin successfully accomplished. We could do worse than try to follow his example.

Nelson Mandela RIP

I’m not going to try to summarise Nelson Mandela’s many contributions to the progress of humanity; that’s been well covered elsewhere, though it should be noted that much of the mainstream media have presented a rather toned-down take on Mandela’s politics, glossing over his more radical side. More than a few of the world leaders now rushing to eulogise Mandela have more in common with his oppressors than the man whose legacy they seek to appropriate.

Mandela’s passing has reminded me once again what a long time ago the 1980s were; looking back at some of the political questions that seemed so important to me in those days – the fight against apartheid, the Cold War, the war in Ireland, and no doubt others I’ve long forgotten – it seems like another planet. On the other hand, the fundamental injustices that underlay the struggles we were involved in back then are still around today; some of them in new forms, but others depressingly familiar.

It can seem that the fight to make a better world is endless, and that our foes hold all the advantages, but the greatest lesson that Mandela taught us was the necessity of taking the long view; it may take decades, and at times things might seem hopeless, but history is on the side of progress, and we will win in the end.

September 11th 1973

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the US-backed military coup in Chile, which overthrew the left-leaning government of Salvador Allende and ushered in the brutal rule of General Augusto Pinochet. The suffering endured by opponents of the junta in the years that followed has been well documented, but despite this Pinochet escaped justice, thanks to his friends in the West.

Still, it’s heartening to know that workers in this country were on the right side, even if the government was not; while Pinochet was praised by the powerful for his early adoption of monetarist policies, weapons shipments to his regime were stopped by union action. Many Chilean refugees were welcomed into working-class communities and some remain here to this day – I count their children among my friends. The memory of that solidarity will continue to inspire long after the dictators are forgotten.

Ha Ha Thatcher is dead

I know that dancing on the graves of the newly deceased isn’t very classy, but I’d be lying if I told you that my reaction to hearing today’s news was anything other than a broad smile.

I’m actually a little dismayed by this – not due to any respect I had for the woman, but rather because I’m sure she would have seen the fact that her demise is being celebrated by the likes of me as a badge of honour. My brain wants to rate this event as a footnote in history, to condemn her to the obscurity she deserves, but my heart is saying otherwise.

Oh well, I guess the cool rationalism will win out over the next few days, but tonight we party…