Sunday, 1 July 2018

'Fuck May 1968'.& Anthropological Illiteracy

 The distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor once wrote that he was a vain rather than ambitious historian. Radical historians, one would have thought would be vain rather than ambitious, yet my dealings with the radical historians recently suggests that they are both vain and ambitious. My review below reflects upon how the new wave radical historians may have become corrupted in their own studies to a degree in which they are now becoming part of the problem:
ACADEMIC righteousness prevails most among those of us to whom the truth is revealed. So many PhD's doing papers on this and that, so many historians in receipt of grants and bursaries. Vernon Richards, the former editor of Freedom - 'the anarchist weekly', once called for exporting the PhD's.

Ian Gwinn, who was organising the event Liverpool on the 8th, June which was rather coyly entitled 'F*ck May 1968, Fight Now: Exploring the Uses of the Past from 1968 to Today', welcomed participants at the CASA Club. The first session was 'History is a Weapon' addressed by Christopher Garland on 'Circumnavigating the past, foreclosing the future: commemoration of the radical past in the amnesiac present'. The title of the event, I learnt, was based on a bit of graffiti from Athens in 2008.


Marshall claimed that unlike other French revolutions, which had been mainly concerned with overcoming economic scarcity, 'the French revolutionaries in a society of abundance [in 1968] were preoccupied with the transformation of everyday life.'

As General De Gaulle correctly noted, they were 'in revolt against modern society, against consumer society, against technological society, whether communist in the East or capitalist in the West'.
The then editor of The Times, William Rees Mogg, came to the same conclusions in his editorials at that time, and had supported the Rolling Stones, who according to Keith Richards, would have been destroyed at the height of their notoriety more than 40 years ago if The Times under William Rees Mogg had not not launched its famous attack on their jail sentences for drugs offences.'

The program for the Liverpool event quotes Walter Benjamin’s maxim that ‘nothing that has ever happened can be regarded as lost for history...’. With in Spain the ‘Memoria Historico’ movement drawing on evidence from the Spanish Civil War that the families of victims of that war are still trying to recover.

Eric Azera from Barcelona talked about the recent threats to squatting in Catalonia and elsewhere. Tim Briedis addressed the 1994 National University occupations in Australia, and student radicalism which had developed beyond the 1960s.

Piotr Paszynski and Joaquin Armanet spoke on Jacques Ranciere’s concept of ‘Radical History and Proletarian Experience’. Jacques Ranciere was a student of the Marxist thinker Althusser, but clashed with his teacher over the events of May ’68. While Althusser and other Marxists were asserting the importance of Marxist academia in the French student revolts, Ranciere began to break away from this traditional mode of thought. Marxist intellectuals accused the revolts of being bourgeois and undisciplined. To which Ranciere accused Marxists of being a bunch of little shits.

From a criticism of Althusser and orthodox Marxism, Ranciere’s message soon became ‘Philosophy – it’s a big bag of dicks.’ Writing Hatred of Democracy, Ranciere attacks the Platonic tradition and ties it to practically every Marxist philosopher. He argues that everyone in the Western tradition, from Plato to Marx, wants to become a philosopher king to shovel Truth into the mouths of the blind ignorant masses. Ranciere carries this line of thought to his other books such as “Disagreement” where he accuses every theorists of democracy of being a Platonic saboteur.

Hannah Arendt in an essay entitled ‘Communicative Power’ wrote: ‘We have recently witnessed how it did not take more than a the relatively harmless, essentially nonviolent French students’ rebellion to reveal the vulnerability of the whole political system, which rapidly disintegrated before the astonished eyes of the young rebels…. they intended only only to challenge the ossified university system of government power, together with that of the huge party bureaucracies - ‘une sorte de desintergration de toutes les hierarchies”. It was a text-book case of a revolutionary situation.’

Roger Ball of the Bristol Radical History Group seems to be always trying to turn history into agitprop, and capture the headlines. His latest offering is based on an old theme: Unseating the local influence of the Society of Merchant Venturers and pointing to their trade in slavery: ‘Kick over the statues: using history as a weapon’. More recently their efforts have led to a ‘Countering Colston campaign’ in Bristol, which in turn has inevitably resulted in a doctoral paper ‘IS IT WRONG TO TOPPLE STATUES & RENAME SCHOOLS?’ by - Dr. Joanna Burch-Brown* Perhaps radical history has now itself become an industry from which various academic hangers-on are now profiting: even my friend Roger Ball a pioneer of radical history has now been anointed Dr. Roger Ball, and is currently employed as a Research Fellow at Sussex University.

Kerrie McGiveron discussed the part played by the New Left and the rise of Big Flame in the early 1970s, with particular reference to the Kirby Rent Strike (1972-73). She gave an ethographic account of the Rent Strike with the help of a film documentary produced by Nicholas Broomfield. At one point in the film a woman interviewee between puffs on her cigarette in the setting of what appeared to be her front-room, said:
You can take your film, but the position of the working class won’t change’
To which the interviewer responded: ‘Why do you think I’m making this?’
She then said: ‘Just for your personal satisfaction!’

Ms. McGiveron, when questioned about this exchange in which it was suggested that the woman was displaying ‘apathy’ and a claim to ‘privacy’, claimed to have background information in which it was suggested that the interviewee was a member of a far-left party and was in fact very active. Ms. McGiveron had already made clear she was conscious of the dangers of post-facto rationalisation in doing this research. So can we take this special claim to background knowledge seriously?

Terry Wragg of Leeds Animation Workshop showed an animated film which was designed to portrayed male sexism. What began with building site banter, randy pestering and innuendo, concluding with more full-on approaches of the #Me Too variety. What was important here about the animated film was that a picture of reality is much more powerful than saying something; that’s why a docu-drama film like ‘Three Girls’ about the grooming scandal in Rochdale was so effective. But while one can do a feminist-take on predatory men in a social context, it would be just as anthropologically appropriate to do an animated film on ‘Pancake Tuesday’ and the initiation ceremonies, the ritual ‘de-bagging's’ and ‘ball greasing’ of apprentices, that were indulged in widely in the factories and mills in the North of England by both working-men and women in the last two
centuries. But when we talk about radical history in this context we are really, I suspect, joining the bandwagon of the fashionable addicts and the politically correct crowd.

The case of Geoff Brown who took part in the Round-table discussion ‘Remembering 1968 & After’ is significant in this respect. Geoff claims he is ‘active as a historian of Manchester “from below” ’, a softly-spoken Southerner and someone who moved up North in 1972. The jury must still be out over his claim to be a historian ‘working from below’. His publication record as presented in the program for the Liverpool event is rather sparse, he has written something for International Socialism entitled ‘John Tocher and the limits of commitment’ for the North West History Journal (2017/2018); ‘Il Principe, a handbook for career-makers in further education’ and ‘Pakistan, failing state or neoliberalism in crisis’ in International Socialism.

What we are getting here in the sphere of the fad for radical history is something like what Proust showed us in Sodome et Gomorrhe, and what Wyndham Lewis described in ‘The Art of Being Ruled’ as ‘an analysis of the powerful instinctive freemasonery of the pederast’. Dr. Ball wants us to kick over the statues to cleanse the architecture of Bristol and beyond of former historical adventurers, Penguin Random House want to diversify to the nth degree to take care of talented minorities such as the trans community this year, and, who knows, perhaps the necrophiliacs next year.

* Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Bristol.


Ian Gwinn said...

As for your the points you and Chris have made, yes I agree - and I have been thinking about these issues for a long time. The university has had a destructive effect on the production of radical intellectual work since the 1980s. I've spent a lot of time trying to organise events that have had activist and academic components. The Liverpool event was in that mould. It wasn't perfect, but I found your comments in your blog lacking any real foundation. Where's your evidence that we're all so vain and ambitious? If I had been that career minded, then I wouldn't have held it in the Casa and I wouldn't have advertised it widely across political and radical blogs. Only three people who spoke on the day had Ph.Ds (one of whom was Dr. Roger Ball); though granted half were research students. But the other half had no institutional affiliation at all. I could have simply held it at the university and made it invitation only and kept out the unruly plebs.

There has been a great 'academisation' of radical history since the days of EP Thompson and his ilk, but the problem is much greater and more structural than either your or Chris have acknowledged. That's not say that things cannot be done a whole lot better - more engaged, more political etc etc. That's what I've tried to do from the inside out as it were. But obviously my own position - like a lot of other people - is pretty tenuous. I have no work after September. There is truth in the reality you describe, but if you're using the Liverpool event as evidence, then I'd suggest you're aiming your guns in the wrong direction.

bammy said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this. I'd been off-line and away for some weeks in Norfolk when you wrote, and since I got back I've been involved with various devious local goings on in the Rochdale Labour Party. I've given what you say some thought, and I've forwarded your reply to Chris who is in touch with Ruth Kinna on these points.

Interestingly, Ruth defends the academic approach to Chris's criticisms along similar lines to what you seem to be arguing:
"I'm not sure how to respond to the specific issues you raise, since I don't think that 'academics' form a coherent group or that those who work in universities are entirely detached from the rest of the anarchist movement, as you suggest. And if there was such a group, I wouldn't dream of talking for it.

"I'm looking forward to the conference - it's a university space made by the people who participate. These are not all academics (ie. in regular, paid university work) even if the conference attracts a significant number. As I tried to explain in the editorial, decolonising has been chosen as a theme in order to address questions of exclusivity and participation."

People like Geoff Brown, I fear, are part of a mind-set that belongs to the kind of cook-book thinking that is closer to Hegel than Wittgenstein. See a recent post on the Freedom Press Blog is entitlred 'Developing an Anarchist Theory of Activism while Encountering Academic Thieves...'

The trouble is that there is a lack of moral compass among the anarchists and the left in general. For example you may not want to comment on Dr. Goodway behaviour. Fair enough, but the fact is that both he and Peter Marshall, the supposed cream of the current anarchist intellectuals, are esconced on a body 'Friends of Freedom Press' which oversees an institution which has established a blacklist with both mine and Chris's name on it plus 2 others, & the grounds for having this blacklist is that I tried to present a plan which they disagreed with at a FoFP meeting which Dr Goodway attended and which in turn led to the Angel Alley attack. So far as I know Dr. Goodway has done nothing to get this blacklist taken down. It was only by chance that you didn't end up on that now degraded body FoFP.

Some months ago I was discussing doing a review of Chris Knight's 'Decoding Chomsky', and he got back to me as follows: 'Your effort all those years ago, attempting to bring out that special issue of RAVEN, was in my view an all-too-rare act of political courage. There is such wretched timidity on the left these days that I sometimes come close to despair.'

He was referring to my determination in 2001, to bring out a series of essays which formed the basis of the booklet entitled 'Chomsky & His Critics (Language, Mind & Society)', which the great man disapproved of and, indeed, did his best to prevent the publication of.

Why do you think Chris Knight takes that view about 'such wretched timidity on the left '? I suggest it is because too many people think in terms of preferment and their own advancement? It's not that 'there doesn't seem to be much demand for anarchist political commentary', it's that these days there is such a lack of moral fibre on the Left that anything they say lacks credability. What's the use of anarchism if it doesn't have a moral leg to stand on? Let the FREEDOM PRESS blacklist stand. For the longer it is in place on the Freedom Blog the greater the discredit it will bring upon the likes of Dr. Goodway, Peter Marshall and the rest of the Friends of Freedom Press.