John Cornford (and Brian Pearce, and Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky’s Mercedes)

From Histomatist:

Browsing George Galloway’s site this morning, as one does, the following news announcement caught my eye:

George Galloway will be with host Matthew Parris on Great Lives – a weekly biographical series where each guest talks about a person in public life who is very special to them. George has chosen the poet John Cornford who was killed, tragically young, in the Spanish Civil War. He would like you to join him for 30 minutes to discover why he finds John’s life so inspirational.
Broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday the 18th of August at 4:30pm, then repeated on Friday the 21st at 11pm.
And also available on BBC iPlayer from 19th August.

The Communist poet John Cornford did indeed have a ‘great’ if tragically short, life – and the sacrifice of those like Cornford who gave their lives fighting fascism remains an utterly relevant inspiration for our anti-fascist struggle today. Cornford is clearly a hero for Galloway – see this characteristically short eloquent 2006 article – John Cornford and the Fight for the Spanish Republic – and his choice of a ‘Great Life’ and its timing – has to be applauded. However, one suspects that simply heralding Cornford as a ‘fighter for the Spanish Republic’ may actually miss not only some of the complexity of his politics but also downplay somewhat their revolutionary nature.

As the late great revolutionary historian Brian Pearce once noted, ‘Cornford was killed in action in December 1936, fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. His writings while in Spain suggest that, had he lived, his Marxist approach would have brought him into conflict with Stalinism.’ Pearce referred to John Cornford: A Memoir, edited by Pat Sloan (1938), which ‘consists of selections from the writings of the young man to whom the socialist movement in the universities in that period owed more than to anybody else, together with contributions by people who knew him.’ As Pearce noted,

For Cornford the struggle in Spain was ‘a revolutionary war’. ‘In Catalonia at least the overwhelming majority of the big employers went over to the fascists. Thus the question of socialism was placed on the order of the day.’ The Spanish Communist Party should ‘force recognition from the government of the social gains of the revolution’. Cornford feared that the party was ‘a little too mechanical in its application of People’s Front tactics. It is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralize the petty bourgeoisie – when by far the most urgent task is to win the anarchist workers…’

Though he had no time for anarchism, Cornford saw that the main body of militant workers in the principal industrial region of Spain, around Barcelona, were anarchists, and, being a sincere communist, that meant for him that the party’s task was first and foremost to get among those workers, establish close ties with them, and win them for Marxism. The line actually taken by the Stalinists was first to stick a label on the anarchist workers (‘uncontrollables’, the 1937 equivalent of ‘Left adventurists’), then to work up a pogrom spirit against them among the followers of the Communist Party, and finally to attack and decimate them, using an armed force recruited among former policemen and the middle class.

I do hope George Galloway’s discussion of Cornford will find time to condemn the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in revolutionary Spain, though something tells me I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much on this score.

Speaking of Pearce, those with access to a university library might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary Russia (v. 22, no. 1 (June 2009) which carries a long obituary alongside two tributes from academic historians, and those without might check out the latest issue of Revolutionary History which also has an obituary.

I am indebted to POUMista for drawing my attention to this photo of George Orwell – another witness to the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism in Spain of course – which as POUMista notes ‘highlights the fact that Orwell, although thought of by some as a Little Englander, was fundamentally an internationalist and cosmopolitan, and in many senses a postcolonial figure.’

Finally, POUMista also drew my attention to Reading the Maps on the late Leszek Kolakowski whose passing seems to have caused no end of debate and turmoil on the blogosphere.

For a similar, slightly harsher, take on Galloway on Corford, see this old post by Bob. Bob does not like George Galloway. (For non-Scots mystified by the Brigada‘s intervention: sleekit, sook.) On Kolakowski, I think I missed Peter Ryley’s excellent “cool reflection”.

Also from Histomatist:

Sorry, a bit irrelevant I know, but I was digging through some old files and, well, speaking of Trotsky, I came across this snippet on page 28 of With Trotsky in Exile by Jean Van Heijenoort which I thought ought to be shared with Histomat readers. It’s about when Trotsky tried to learn to drive at some point during the 1920s.

Trotsky, when still in Russia, had expressed the desire to have a car and to drive. Joffe, a Soviet diplomat and friend of Trotsky, sent him from abroad a Mercedes, specially equipped with a powerful engine. Trotsky took the wheel and, after five hundred yards, went into a ditch. That was the end of the driving.

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Kolakowski once more

One final Leszek Kolakowski post: Dave Osler, Trotskyist, answers the man’s hagiographers in “Contra Kolakowski: a defence of Marx“. Extract:

Surely Marxists should have learned not to defend the ruling classes of out-and-out repressive theocracies like Iran, even if they do constitute ‘regional bulwarks against imperialism’. Nor does the US embargo excuse Cuba’s lack of multiparty democracy and trade union rights.

But these errors flow from the stupidity and reductionism of the leaderships of such far left currents as embrace these positions, rather than being in any way intrinsic to Marxism per se.

Marx, remember, was a German public intellectual living in exile in Victorian London. That specific class-divided social formations are riven with internal tensions, which consequently explode with ugly results, cannot meaningful be attributed to him, or to any other individual.

Myself, I agree with Osler’s defence of Marxism, but disagree with his dismissal of Kolakowski and of Kolakowski’s supporters Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm, Harry’s Place. The critique is important.

This was also posted at Harry’s Place,which is rather decent, no pun intended, of the Harryites. As usual there, the comment thread is toxic, but scroll down to Michael Ezra’s comment.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 4:22 pm  Comments (1)  
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Leszek Kolakowski

First and second hand links to appreciations of Leszek Kolakowski, some for the first time, some the second time around.

Via Terry Glavin: “A free mind, no longer among us: Leszek Kolakowski. Nick Cohen remembers him here, and the other day, Christopher Hitchens eulogized him here. From the great Yank heartland, Stuart posts an essay from Kolakowski’s Modernity on Endless Trial, here.”

Via Martin in the Margins: Norm defends Marx against Oliver’s Kolakowski-inspired dismissal of his legacy. Michael Weiss gives his own take on the Polish philosopher’s spat with E.P.Thompson.”

[Here, by the way, is a pdf of Kolakowski’s reply to Thompson, via a post at History Today, which also mentions Ignacio Silone.]

Earlier, at the start of Martin’s own nice appreciation: “There’s a terrific guest post by Andrew Murphy over at Harry’s Place, about Leszek Kolakowski, who died last Friday. Andrew links to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the great Polish thinker, which you can find here. I also recommend this post by The New Centrist, who in turn links to this fascinating conversation between Kolakowski and Danny Postel (whose work I recommended here).”

From Jonathan Todd: “Top stuff from Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian today, which alerted me to the death of a great man, Leszek Kolakowski, whose description of social democracy was one that Denis Healeymuch liked and which I do too:  “An obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy”. It concisely presents social democracy as it is: a creed not just for our times but for all times.”

Reading the Maps: “Leszek Kolakowski liked to talk of Marxism and socialism as dogmatisms that had beem made obsolescent by the history of the late twentieth century. He was inclined to see anyone interested in Marx and in socialist politics as a quixotic anarchronism. In truth, though, it was Kolakowski who had become an anachronism with the end of the Cold War. Like the Stalinists he had so often condemned, he had adopted a worldview which relied upon an interpretation of Marx and Marxist history that was ballasted by the Cold War, rather than by facts. When the Cold War ended, and Marx was released from the rival simplifications of Stalinists and right-wingers, Kolakowski found himself with nothing interesting to say. Perhaps he should have listened more carefully to his old friend Thompson.” READ THE REST.

Ragbag: “Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski died on Friday. The Telegraph’s obit is good, capturing his influence as well as his attractively sceptical and mordant approach to life. I think he was one of the heroes of the twentieth century. I went to a seminar he gave in All Souls College once, on communism, about fifteen years ago. I left liking the man very much – as dry as talc but with a warm wit that revealed itself in asides made whilst sipping black coffee – but also with a feeling of disappointment: I hadn’t heard anything new or revelatory.” READ THE REST, including comment on Hitch and religion.

The Israeli water engineer: “In 1972 I had to spend a night in Posadas, Misiones, Argentina so I bought a bottle of red wine and a book in a second hand shop. The book was a collection of essays, among them “What are philosophers paid for?” which explored the issue why a Communist regime maintained philosophers and what he – Kolakowski – was being paid for. The Communist regime maintained that everyone had to do productive work – no parasitic intermediary luftgescheftn permited – and everyone had to produce something tangible for society. Why, then, were philosophers like himself being allowed to do “nothing”? His conclusion was that Marxist philosophers satisfied a basic necessity of the Communist regime: the theoretical, intellectual infrastructure (justification?) of the regime. READ THE REST.

Leiter Reports: “Rather than a younger version of Herbert Marcuse (who at the time used to raise his fist and intone “Power to the people!” when he lectured), Kolakowski was an urbane ironist of immense cultivation.” READ THE REST.

UD: “Leszek Kolakowski’s death reminds us that Terry Eagleton‘s recent attack on the atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is only the latest instance of a curious but now familiar trajectory, in which a left thinker in his or her latter days (think of Christopher Lasch among Americans, and, among the British, Gillian Rose) embraces, if not the truth of religion, the validity and endurance and even inescapability of its cultural power.” READ THE REST.

Steven Hayward: “In my forthcoming Reagan book I quote Kolakowski’s prescient prediction made in May 1983 (two years before Gorbachev and his wrecking crew arrived in the Kremlin): “We can imagine that the Soviet rulers, under the combined pressure of self-inflicted economic disasters and social tensions, will accept, however grudgingly, a genuine verifiable international disarmament plan and concentrate their efforts on a large-scale economic recovery, which they cannot achieve without a number of social and political reforms. This might conceivably usher in a process of gradual and non-explosive disintegration of the empire.” In that same article he anticipated the “velvet revolution” of 1989: “Certainly in Poland or Czechoslovakia (or in Hungary) Communism would fall apart within days without the Soviet threat.” ”

More:

Published in: on July 24, 2009 at 1:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Leszek Kolakowski/UCLA Labor Center

Two posts from The New Centrist:

Polish Anti-Authoritaran Leszek Kolakowski Passes On

Leszek Kolakowski

“Freedom is always vulnerable and its cause never safe”–Leszek Kolakowski

Polish anti-authoritarian historian and theorist Leszek Kolakowski has passed away on Friday, June 17, at the age of 81. Kolakowski was Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at All Souls College, Oxford. The Library of Congress awarded him the first John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences.

If you are unfamiliar with the man, he was a supporter of Solidarity and penned the magnificent three-volume Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1976-78), one of the best texts I have ever read on the subject. Kolakowski argued that the barbarity of Stalinism and other communist states were no aberation from Marxism but the logical conclusion of the application of Marx’s concepts. Some of his other works are The Individual and Infinity (1958), The Philosophy of Existence, the Defeat of Existence (1965), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), If There is no God (1982), Metaphysical Horror (1988).

The Library of Congress website notes:

The relationships between freedom and belief, examined in many different contexts, have been lifelong themes of his scholarly work, and are displayed fully in a wide range of essays written in a non-technical language and accessible to a wide range of readers. In his, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” (1983), he explains his view of philosophy:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it.

What Kolakowski exemplifies and defends is the treatment of every individual as a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, able to have faith, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort. It is the essence of a vibrant human culture to honor the universality of human rights while welcoming conflict of values, and repeated self- questioning, with what he calls “an inconsistent scepticism:” [READ THE REST.]

More, with good links, at Martin’s place. AND MORE. UPDATE: MORE OBITS HERE.

UCLA Labor Center Faces Possible Closure

ucla labor center

Regular readers know I can’t stand the Huffington Post or Ariana Huffington. Nevertheless, I received a link to this article about the possible closing of the UCLA Labor Center by political scientist Peter Dreier through the H-Labor listserv that I thought was worth sharing.

Our society is so dominated by corporate culture that we hardly notice it. Every daily newspaper has a “business section,” but not a single paper has a “labor” section. Politicians and pundits talk incessantly about what government should do to promote a healthy “business climate,” but few discuss how to improve the “labor climate.” Most economics courses treat businesses as the engines of the economy, workers as a “cost of production,” and unions as an impediment. Most universities in the country have a large, well-endowed “business school,” but only a handful of them have even a small “labor studies” program.

Among the small number of labor studies programs, the one at the University of California-Los Angeles is one of the best, and now it has been targeted for extinction by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the UCLA administration. Allies of the UCLA Labor Center have mounted a letter-writing campaign to persuade Chancellor Gene Block to reverse this decision and restore funding for this cutting-edge program. Block can be reached at: chancellor@conet.ucla.edu.

Each year for the past five years, Schwarzenegger — egged on by the state’s corporate powerbrokers and right-wing Republicans — has tried to kill the University of California’s labor research and education programs at UCLA and Berkeley, but has been thwarted by resistance from its supporters and its allies in the state legislature.

This year, with the worst state budget crisis in memory, anti-labor forces think they can prevail. UC labor studies, a minuscule part of the state budget, is the only UC program that the Governor specifically targeted for elimination. The combined budgets for these programs is only $5.4 million a year. The UCLA Labor Center has 20 staff members involved in research, teaching, and community outreach.

UCLA Labor Center director Kent Wong learned about the administration’s plan to eliminate the Center from a July 11 article in the New York Times.

[read it all here]

More from the center’s website:

As part of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education plays a unique role as a bridge between the university and the labor community in Southern California.This role has grown in the past few years with the dramatic changes that have overtaken the Southern California economy.

As part of the university, the Labor Center serves as an important source of information about unions and workers to interested scholars and students. Through its extensive connections with unions and workers, the Labor Center also provides labor with important and clearly defined access to UCLA’s resources and programs. An advisory committee comprised of about forty Southern California labor and community leaders (representing more than one million members in the public and private sectors) provides advice and support for the center.

The Labor Center also hosts a downtown office just two blocks from the L.A. County Federation of Labor, amid the majority of L.A.’s union halls and worker centers and in the heart of a diverse immigrant community.

Laborers-Artwork


Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 9:34 am  Comments (3)  
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