Two Sides to Every History?

For the publication of A People’s History of Modern Europe, William Pelz considers how the Brexit debate will be viewed once it becomes part of our history, and whose voices will be forgotten.

‘Recently I was paging through the weekend edition of the Financial Times, not that I have any Pelz PHOME
investments to worry about. But since a Swedish scholar called FT the ‘voice of the enlightened bourgeoisie’ I thought it might be worth a look. Jumping out at me, amidst the adverts flogging country houses in the south of France, was an article discussing historians lining up on different sides of the Brexit debate.

It is no surprise to find history scholars staking out positions in a contentious debate. Still, some of the comments were striking. One outfit called ‘Historians for Britain’, led by a Cambridge Professor, appears to think that the UK has had a ‘largely uninterrupted history since the Middle Ages’. What? No peasant uprisings? What about the enclosure movement creating an England, in the words of Thomas More, where ‘sheep devour men’? Was King Charles I neither overthrown nor executed? Was there no commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell? Not a Leveler, Ranter or Digger in sight?

What of the industrial revolution — was this not a disruption, not least for the women, men and children caught up in it? Could the transformation from a relatively isolated island kingdom to the leading imperialist power amassing colonial possessions via great levels of violence not count as ‘disruption’? One could compile a list long enough to fill volumes and many solid historians have made serious response to the “Historians for Britain” group. The problem runs far deeper than the Brexit debate or any other particular dispute for which a vote will settle the issue (at least in the short run).

The crucial defect of this can be gleaned from the article’s title — ‘Two Sides to Every History’. Two sides? Only two? In my experience, there are always many more ways of looking at history.  Amid the myriad of viewpoints possible, the one most often overlooked, if not consciously ignored, is that of the common people. Look at the way history is presented to students. The Reformation, for example, is reduced to a theological wrestling match between Martin Luther and the Pope (with Calvin thrown in on occasion to give us some theological diversity). Were those the only sides? What of the people? Were they passive subjects as the great men (and I do mean men as this was a very sexist age), decided the fate of nations?  The German Peasants revolt of 1525, whose suppression claimed 100,000 lives, suggests otherwise.

Was the industrial revolution the genius of the few or the toil of the many? Did every European march off merrily to war in 1914? Of course not. Even those who may have drank the nationalist Cool Aid later learned what war was really about. The people were not docile pawns of their rulers as many history books may lead students to believe. Did fascist demagogues, like Mussolini and Hitler, really hypnotise entire nations or were they handed power by rulers fearful of leftist revolution? Was it really a speech by Winston Churchill that caused the British to fight fascism? Did DeGaulle conjure up the French resistance by some well-chosen words broadcast over BBC? Across Europe, from within the Third Reich to the mountains of Yugoslavia, many people resisted fascism. Could that have been caused by something deeper than a few clever leaders?

History is typically presented as the story of a few men who changed the world. Of late, a small number of important women have been thrown into the mix as a sap to diversity. Even still, history is presented as ‘facts’ without social, political or even much historical context.

For example, in the same issue of the FT, there was an obituary of Margot Honecker. As wife of the last East German ruler, not to mention a power in her own right, one would expect some history. The obituary was cleverly written, not overly biased and fun to read. It was also the mental equivalent to junk food. Mentioning her father was a shoemaker was as close as the story came to mentioning class. We learn that Margot could be ‘flirty’ despite having a reputation for being ice-cold. What isn’t mentioned is how fascism or growing up in Nazi Germany influenced her. It certainly must have had an impact on her husband Erich since he spent the war in a concentration camp in reward for his anti-fascist activities. Were there a complex set of forces, pressures or power relations that caused the Berlin Wall to be built? No, it seems Margot demanded it be built as their legacy.

When future historians discuss the UK’s relation with the European Union will they discuss the complex, sometimes contradictory, feelings of the average citizen? Or, will we just hear David Cameron’s assertion, ‘From Caesar’s legions… Britain has always been a European power’.  I fear people like the current Prime Minister will have the last word… they always have.  Yet, it need not be so.’

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William A. Pelz is Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and a Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Greenwood Press, 2015), and Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March (Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).

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A People’s History of Modern Europe is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

Pluto May Day Sale! Everything 50% off

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To celebrate International Workers’ Day, we’re making all our books 50% off, until 9th May. All you have to do to activate the discount on our website is go to bit.ly/mayday50.

Every single in-print Pluto book is included in the sale, but if you’re looking for a little bit of inspiration, why not consider some of these worker-orientated titles:

1. Rebel Footprints – David Rosenberg’s ever popular guide to uncovering London’s radical history follows the stories of socialists, Suffragettes, Chartists and trade unionists; taking the reader from the anti-fascist struggles of the East End, to the intellectual hub of radical Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell.

2. Southern Insurgency – The first book in Pluto’s Wildcat Series, Manny Ness explores the new forms of worker organisations emerging in India, South Africa and China. Considering the broad historical forces at play in each country, including the effects of imperialism and the decline of the traditional trade union movement, Southern Insurgency offers a fresh perspective on the nature of the new industrial worker in the Global South.

3. Hesitant Comrades – Published just before the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Geoffrey Bell’s new book is an original and vivid appraisal of the relationship between the Irish national revolution and the British labour movement between 1916-21. Bringing to bear a wealth of original archival research,  Bell paints a picture of ambivalence and hostility on the part of the British working class to the question of Irish independence. Prominent figures are appraised alongside the full range of acronymed unions and parties; from Ramsay MacDonald and Sylvia Pankhurst, to Lloyd George and Lenin.

4. The Mythology of Work – Peter Fleming’s treatise on the joylessness of working under neoliberalism pulls apart and analyses the impact of a society that has been transformed into a factory that never sleeps; with work a universal reference point for everything else, devoid of any moral or political worth. Blending critical theory with recent accounts of job related suicides, office-induced paranoia, fear of relaxation, managerial sadism and cynical corporate social responsibility campaigns, Fleming offers a morbidly compelling vision of what it means to be a worker in the 21st Century.

5. Economics for Everyone (2nd Edition) – Life-long trade unionist Jim Stanford’s guide to the economics of capitalism is back in a lovely new edition. Described glowingly by Naomi Klein as ‘a book with the power to change the world’, Economics for Everyone offers an antidote to the usually abstract field of economics, in which key concepts such as finance, competition and wages are explored, and their importance to everyday life is kept in the foreground.

 

Violence in the Pacific: The effects of US bases in South Korea

Elisabeth Schober’s new book Base Encounters: The US Armed Forces in South Korea is published this month. She is currently conducting anthropological fieldwork in South Korea, and sends us this dispatch, which explores the effects of violence, sexual or otherwise, that occurs around the extensive network of US military bases in the region.

The Korean peninsula has made it into international news again. Once Kim Jong Un’s regime Base Encountersthreatened to destroy Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb on March 13 of this year, the annual Western media ritual of shining a brief light onto the complex and long-standing conflict between North and South Korea has fully kicked into gear. In early April, North Koreans added fuel to the fire by releasing another propaganda video, this time showing an attack on South Korea’s capital Seoul. A North Korean assault targeting US soil is a most improbable scenario, given the country’s absence of long-range missile capabilities. Strikes against the mega-city of Seoul, however, are within the realm of the highly unlikely, yet technically possible, events: the capital of South Korea, home to some 25 million people within its larger metropolitan area, is less than 60 kilometers away from the border with North Korea, thus well within reach of its opponent’s missiles.

Without fail, every year it is early spring that turns out to be prime time for such threats of annihilation and destruction coming from Pyongyang against Seoul and its Unites States allies. One of the reasons behind the timing of such war-crazed rhetoric from the North is at times overlooked: the annual joint military drills involving US and South Korean troops. This year’s exercises began on March 7 and will continue until the end of April, and with 300,000 Koreans joining 17,000 US military personnel, the ongoing drills are said to be the largest ever held. And while these megalomaniac displays of military might are certainly a reaction to nuclear and other missile tests conducted by the belligerent Democratic Republic of Korea on a semi-regular basis, they are also a key component of what US president Barrack Obama has termed the ‘pivot to Asia’: that is, the ongoing large-scale ‘rebalancing’ of US political and military interests away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s military rise is now to be held in check. This April, for instance, also sees an additional 10,000 Philippine and US troops joining forces in the annually held Balikatan-exercises on the Philippine archipelago. And last month, the U.S., India and Japan have also announced that they will hold joint naval drills in the South China Sea in the near future – a strategic area that, together with the Korean peninsula, is increasingly becoming a hotspot for the ongoing struggles over military hegemony in the larger region.

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Modern Journalism and The Pay Wall Conundrum

This month we’re publishing the 20th anniversary edition of the classic Universal Journalist by David Randall. Now in its fifth iteration, it’s been updated to reflect the changes, both positive and negative, to the journalistic climate. For this post, the author discusses what he considers to be the main issue destroying international journalism today – free content and the ‘dreaded’ pay wall…

‘It’s April, and so time for one of my twice a year visits to a training centre in the north of EnglandThe Universal Journalist
to speak to the young journalists on its course. I’ve been going there for  seventeen  years and it’s always rewarding, not least because, unlike most lectures I do, there’s time to sit down and chat afterwards and hear what young journalists think about news, newspapers, and the state of UK media. I’m used to being mildly surprised by some of what they have to say, but this time I got a real jolt.

Most of the sessions required me to pass on the best tips about journalism I’ve received or stumbled upon in my forty years as an editor and reporter. This trot through my personal history wound up with me telling the trainees about the gathering I went to in March to mark the final press night of my old paper, the Independent on Sunday. It has now died and gone to join other defunct publications on the great landfill site in the sky.

A sadder event in a London pub I have yet to attend. It was not so much young reporters asking me if I knew of any jobs going, or talking to senior staff who have no idea if they will ever work in newspapers again. Nor was it even the death of my paper (its daily counterpart, the Independent, continues only online). It was the thought that the forces which are helping to see off such newspapers (and smothering many jobs on those that remain) are now everywhere weakening journalism and its scrutiny of the powerful by professional reporters – essential to any democracy. At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old guy ruing modern circumstance, I told the trainees of these forces.

A lesser one first: the transfer of spending from commercial media to the public sector which has led to the relentless trend for newspapers to shed staff at the same time as national and local governments and other public services employ ever more public relations people to spin, dissemble, and, if necessary, cover up negligence and failings. When I edited a British provincial paper more than thirty years ago, I had twenty-one reporters and there were almost no PR staff at any public body. We spoke directly to the senior officials and politicians running things. Today, that same paper has just five reporters, who must deal in the main, not with top officials, but press offices. In Britain, there are now 37,000 PR staff, and 37,000 full-time employed journalists, most of whom are not reporters. So for every news reporter trying to find out what’s happening there are at least a couple of media relations people whose job, in part, is to stop them. Less information, less reason to buy a paper, less scrutiny, less real democracy.

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Economics – Unfit for Purpose

The heterodox economics movement aims to dispel and combat the myths perpetuated by the majority of economics courses around the Western World. Ben Fine and Ourania Dimakou’s two new books Macroeconomics and Microeconomics add to the growing literature surrounding this movement. In this blog post, Ben Fine, Professor of Economics at SOAS, University of London expresses the sorry state of the economics establishment today.

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‘No one can now doubt that economies are currently unfit for purpose after the failures to recover Microeconomicsfrom the Global Financial Crisis that began to break in 2007. Both the hardship inflicted across the majority of the population and, yet, the support for, prominence of, and rewards to finance remain astonishing. This is despite the undoubted role of the over-expansion of finance in causing the deepest crisis and recession since 1929. About that time, Baron Josiah Stamp had this to say:

‘Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take it away from them, and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create money.’

Nor was Stamp some raving lefty as his Baronetcy indicates; he founded one of Britain’s most successful companies, was reputedly its richest private individual, served on the Board of the Bank of England, and much more besides.

We do not seem to have learnt Stamp’s lesson and we continue to remain the slaves of bankers, with just hundred financial firms alongside fifty or so others, more or less dominating the world economy, through their interlocking ownerships and networks, and, at times, opaque operations.

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Video: ‘The Rent Trap’

 

This month Pluto published a devastating new book on private renting in the UK, called The Rent Trap: How we Fell into It and How we Get Out of It. In this short video, the authors, Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj,  look at the history of private renting and how UK renters’ rights compare to the rest of Europe.

To see some of the statistics cited in the video, plus many more, check out our lovely-yet-depressing Rent Trap infographic.

Rosie Walker is a writer and researcher interested in housing, poverty, employment rights and debt. She has worked as a researcher for LSE, University of Bristol and University of Brighton, and as a journalist for the Independent and Third Sector. While writing an MSc dissertation on private renting, she was evicted by her landlord for asking for a new chest of drawers.
Samir Jeraj is a journalist who specialises in housing and worked as a city councillor. His work on housing has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Inside Housing and the New Internationalist.

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The Rent Trap is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

Egypt and the Dialectic of Passive and Permanent Revolution

First published on the Progress in Political Economy (PPE) blog, this article by Brecht De Smet discusses the themes in his book Gramsci on Tahrir:  Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt.

‘Although it is always difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern the emergence of a new epoch Gramsci on Tahrirwhen you find yourself right in the middle of the process, there are strong indications that we are experiencing a watershed moment in the development of capitalism. Conjunctural crises such as the 2008 financial meltdown reveal the structural instabilities of the neoliberal system of deregulated capital flows, while the tendency toward increased authoritarianism and securitisation in both core and peripheral capitalist countries show the limits of bourgeois democracy to absorb mass discontent. At the same time, episodes such as the ‘Arab Spring’ sharply posit the relevance of ‘old’ categories such as revolution and counter-revolution for the 21st century. As moments of political hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, succeed one another rapidly, activists’ consciousness and understanding of unfolding events often tail-end the almost bipolar ebb and flow of popular initiative. In order to intervene successfully, activists have to make sense of the direction of the process as a whole and of the various instances of agency at work – their own included. Therefore, radical theory has to extend beyond the sphere of mere philosophical, political or economic critique – the unveiling of relations of power – and into the ‘interventionist’ domain of concrete emancipatory strategies and imaginaries.

Arguably Antonio Gramsci is one of the key figures within this revolutionary tradition. His notion of a ‘philosophy of praxis’ challenged the rigid and mechanical framework of the dominant stream of Marxism in the late 1920s, advocating the development of an intellectually sophisticated, but also practice-oriented theory of social change. The last decade has witnessed a renewal of Gramscian theory in the Anglophone world. Key works such as Adam Morton’s Unravelling Gramsci (2007) and Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment (2009) are moving away from leading postwar interpretations that cast the Sardinian Marxist in the restricted role of a ‘reformist’ and of a ‘cultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ thinker, re-appropriating his thought within the context of a new era of global capitalist crisis and struggle. My book Gramsci on Tahrir is a humble contribution to this ongoing debate. I investigate the process of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt and its relation to the broad historical development of capitalism through the combined lens of permanent and passive revolution. Conversely, the Egyptian experience is deployed as a means to think about general changes in state and class power.

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