Delayed disgratification

Not for the first time, what promised to be a decisive day in the Brexit saga has turned out to be anything but. For reasons that I can’t summon the energy to summarise, the meaningful vote on Boris Johnson’s deal has been delayed, perhaps until next week, but possibly longer.

Theoretically, Johnson should now be required to request a further postponement of the departure date, which, reports suggest, the EU will grudgingly grant. Johnson is still insisting that he will do no such thing, but he is probably just waiting until his hand is forced by the courts, so that he can burnish his populist credentials by claiming that he is the victim of an establishment plot.

As someone who wants to see the whole Brexit project consigned to the dustbin of history, I should be feeling pleased by this development, but I can’t help feeling that the continual deferment of the day of reckoning is just allowing the left to avoid facing up to the fact that we have lost this particular battle, and we need to be getting ready for the rest of the war. If the right want to use Brexit to ramp up the class struggle – which they do – then we should tell them to bring it on, because, history tells us, when it comes to that fight, we will fuck them up.

Unenabled

If we’re going to keep our 1930s analogy going, I guess this week’s parliamentary manoeuvring will be the equivalent of the threats and cajoling that Hitler deployed to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag in 1933. While the Nazis directed the worst of their violence towards their political enemies, Boris Johnson has turned his anger on his own party, warning potential rebels that they risk ending their careers if they support efforts to stall a no-deal exit.

Despite this it seems highly likely that MPs will vote tomorrow to compel Johnson to request a further extension, something he has vowed he will never do. Whether this will actually stop the country’s headlong drive towards the abyss is another question; the government has strongly hinted that it doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to follow the law. That may be a step too far for Johnson; this evening he seemed to be leaning towards attempting to win a mandate to leave in an October election.

That in turn will depend on Labour agreeing to an early poll, which is not a sure thing, since no one trusts Johnson not to renege on a promise of a pre-Brexit election date and delay voting until after we’ve crashed out.

It’s going to be an interesting week, though it’s deeply frustrating that the fate of the nation depends on a handful of Tory dissidents putting the public good before personal ambition. The sooner an election comes, and lets us all have our say, the better.

Eternal vigilance

Eighty years ago today German tanks rolled across the Polish border, starting a conflict that in the following six years would kill at least 70 million people, and touch nearly every corner of the globe. By 1939 it was clear that the rise of fascism had made war inevitable, but the decade leading up to then had presented numerous opportunities for the Nazis to be thwarted, and disaster avoided.

Looking back on the political turmoil of the 1930s from the perspective of our relatively peaceful times, it’s tempting to conclude that concerns about the behaviour of the current government are ridiculously overblown – Boris Johnson may be showing scant regard for constitutional convention, but actual political violence is rare, there is still a free press, and no one is getting sent to a concentration camp.

The Nazis didn’t come to power overnight though; the road to dictatorship involved a gradual chipping away of democratic rights. At every step contemporary observers convinced themselves that, once in government, Hitler would abandon his populist extremism and adopt a more moderate approach, or, failing that, that those around him would ensure he didn’t cause too much trouble. History tells us how well that worked out.

Admittedly the Weimar Republic was hardly a model of stability, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that British political institutions might prove to be a bit more resilient. Still, I’d rather not leave that to chance; that’s why I was out on the streets this weekend, and I’m guessing I’ll be on a few more demonstrations before this sorry business is over.

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

Battle for the past

Back in 2014 we wrote about the 70th anniversary of D-Day, noting that the event had started to take on the character of distant history, as it slipped beyond the reach of living memory. Five years on, the surviving veterans are fewer in number, and the connection between the reality of their experience and the role it plays in present-day political discourse has grown correspondingly tenuous. This is especially true in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly; given the state into which the country has descended in the last three years, we can hardly be blamed for looking back fondly on a time when we could still claim to be a global power. This does require some re-writing of history; even the normally-reliable BBC has been attributing the defeat of the Nazis entirely to the battles on the Western Front, without even mentioning the significant contribution of the Soviet Union. (Recognising this does not lessen our respect for the bravery of the troops who stormed the beaches in 1944; the action in Normandy may not have been on the scale of Stalingrad or Kursk, but it still involved a ferocity that is almost unimaginable in our more peaceful times).

Politicians using history selectively to further an agenda is not a new development of course, but it is depressing to see the sacrifice of those who fell in the titanic struggle against fascism being exploited to advance the petty schemes of the modern-day right. It shows the importance of defending the internationalist spirit that should be the true legacy of that generation, and opposing those who would see Europe once again divided.

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Falling standards

I know that the passage of time tends to smooth off the rough edges of history, but it’s still been rather disconcerting to read the obituaries of the late George Herbert Walker Bush, in which he is portrayed as a wise statesman who skilfully navigated the treacherous international waters of the early 90s, and not, as I remember him being thought of at the time, as an out-of-touch elitist who oversaw an economic nosedive, and suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of office after only one term. Establishment commentators have generally downplayed his domestic shortcomings, and focused on his role in cementing US hegemony in the post-Soviet world, as demonstrated by his orchestration of the 1991 Gulf War, taking for granted that this development was a good thing, which is of course debatable.

I guess the present incumbent has reset expectations to such a degree that the 41st President’s failings now seem more forgivable, and, to be fair, he was clearly dedicated to public service, albeit in a patrician fashion, rather than personal enrichment. Still, I suspect that, when posterity draws up the rankings, HW will be firmly mid-table – not as bad as Harding or Buchanan, but no Lincoln or Roosevelt.

Remembrance Day 2018

When I was younger there seemed to be a clear distinction between the general cultural perception of the two global conflicts of the 20th century; while everyone agreed that defeating the Nazis in WW2 was an unequivocally just cause, WW1 was almost universally viewed as a senseless affair that had sent the youth of the nation to their death for no particular reason.

A century on from the end of the Great War everything is much more fuzzy. The tone of today’s Remembrance Day events, while not exactly celebrating war, does convey the idea that there was a nobility to the sacrifice of the fallen, and that no further comment is needed, certainly nothing that questions why they fell.

This is understandable to some extent; the political upheavals of the 19th century which primed the conflagration that finally ignited in 1914 are all but incomprehensible today, and simple human stories of loss and resilience are much more accessible. However we must not allow our instinct to support the men and women who went off to fight in that war (and all the wars since), commendable though it is, to be used to silence criticism of war itself.

There is an irony in the fact that, as our leaders gather to put on a show of respect for the millions who died in WW1, the structures that have kept the peace in Europe for the last 60 years are being dismantled, and the world is moving back towards the sort of Great Power politics that led to disaster a century ago. We owe it to the dead, and the living, to oppose this, and ensure that never again do workers kill workers in a capitalist war.

Full Marx

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx, and the papers are full of articles noting that his profile is higher now than it has been since the end of the Cold War, mainly because everything he said about the development of capitalism is vividly reflected in the world around us.

I read a lot of Marx’s work, and a lot about Marx’s work, back when I was a student, and, while the fine details have become a bit hazy as the years have passed, the main themes remain central to my political thinking. I remember feeling, when I first grasped the concept of historical materialism, that I had an insight into the hidden mechanisms of society, an understanding that allowed me to see things as they really were. Of course I was young and impressionable then, and vulnerable to the allure of all-encompassing world-views, but, even with the cynicism that comes with another thirty-plus years of life-experience, the key idea – that our consciousness is shaped by our material conditions, particularly our relationship with the process of production, but that consciousness can in turn change our material conditions – still seems to me the most useful way to look at our modern age.

The promise of progress is, I think, what keeps successive generations coming back to Marxism. As the man himself said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it“, and my favourites among the works of Marx are those which show him grappling with the issues of the day, issues that are mostly still relevant in our times, for, as Marx also commented, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce“.

So I’ll raise a glass tonight (for, by all accounts, old Karl liked a drink), in memory of a visionary mind, and in hope that I might yet live to see that vision realised.

Red October

Today marks the centenary of the events in Petrograd which would culminate in the foundation of the world’s first workers’ state. Plenty has been written about this subject over the years, and it would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there are a multitude of opinions on the nature and legacy of the October Revolution, from right-wing hostility to the whole project, through the standard liberal view that a Bolshevik coup derailed the progress promised by the bourgeois overthrow of Tsarist feudalism, to the embrace by the left, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of the vision of communism proclaimed by Lenin and his allies.

I’ve been consciously involved in political activity for more than three decades now, and the arguments about October 1917 haven’t changed much in that time, though perhaps the “Bolshevik coup” theory has become more solidified as accepted wisdom, even among elements of the left.

What is different these days is that the debate doesn’t seem as vital as it once did. While the centenary has exited activity in academic and left political circles, the mainstream media has more or less ignored it, and it would be hard to say that it has impacted on popular consciousness at all.

Of course the degeneration, and eventual demise, of the Soviet Union, along with the general decline of the left in the West, does seem to confirm the idea that the October Revolution is nothing but an episode of distant history, no more relevant to today’s politics than the intrigues of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, the class struggle, which so animated the workers and peasants of Russia at the start of the 20th century, is still with us, and in a form which is not so different from that which was so successfully waged by the Bolsheviks.

Perhaps I’m just an aging revolutionary, clinging to dreams of the past, but I still think that that October 1917 represents the most progressive period in human history, one from which we can learn a great deal. The problems facing the world today, stemming from levels of inequality in wealth and power not seen since the days of the Tsar, call out for an upheaval in social relations on a similar scale. One hundred years on, armed with a knowledge of how things went wrong last time, it’s time the workers took power again.