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:
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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.

In his book 'DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE: A history of Anarchism', Peter Marshall talked of graffiti on the walls of Paris in 1968 declaring: 'NEITHER GODS NOR MASTERS; THE MORE YOU CONSUME THE LESS YOU LIVE; ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION; IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID; BE REALISTIC DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE.'

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.

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