The Point
Last updated: 24 April 2018. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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In Praise of Beethoven

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If You Build Them, They Will Come

Power: A Winter's Tale

Did you know that UK PLC nearly ran out of power during 'the Beast From the East'? Thought not. Derek Stewart MacPherson delves into the history files to explain why, and just who was to blame.


I want to talk to you about power. Not political power, or entrenched patriarchal power, but the everyday kind you get from the socket in the wall. Because I heard something very disturbing indeed recently - the UK almost ran out of gas, at the worst possible time. Now at the time I heard about this, it was Thursday the 1st of March, and I was stuck on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, where it was still uncomfortably warm. If you were in the British Isles, you were currently in the grip of the Siberian weather system known as the 'beast from the east' so that could have been a very real problem. We all know now that it didn't happen. If it had happened then you'd all no doubt be well aware of it, and there would probably be an enquiry into the reasons. And if you've read anything by me before, you may well not be entirely surprised to learn that I'm going to blame the Tories for the entire mess.

They are entirely responsible for this though, through incompetence, mismanagement and just plain greed. And I'm here tell you why (because this is nowhere near well enough understood). It's not really the present day Tories who are to blame, although it is happening on their watch, and they haven't done anything to prevent it, so they cannot escape blame entirely. No, I'm talking about the Tories of an earlier era, the 1980s, and of course one Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

As with so much of what is wrong with today's UK, it started with her. Of course privatisation has a lot to answer for, and I'll be coming back to that later, but that wasn't the start of it. It actually started in the early 80s, when we faced a number of strategic decisions about power generation. We had, at that time, a significant number of coal-fired and nuclear generators (including all of the 1950s Magnox reactors for instance) which were approaching the end of their design lives. The government still owned all of them at this point.

So, with major shortfalls in capacity expected by the early 90s, decisions on replacements had to be made, because the time lag from turn-of-sod to turn-of-key for 1GW+ power stations, both nuclear and coal-fired plants, is typically seven years. But Thatcher was determined to destroy the NUM, so she didn't want to order any new coal-fired stations at that time.

So what about nuclear, you may ask? Well, as a result of her 'price of everything, value of nothing' philosophy, she decided to build more nuclear power stations, but at the cheapest available price. So a bidding war started, with the choice coming down to the leading US design, Westinghouse's Pressurised Water Reactor, or PWR, and the British design, Babcock & Wilcox's Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, or AGR. The AGR was widely acknowledged in the industry to be the safest available design at that time, however the PWR came in a bit cheaper, so the decision was eventually made to go with that. However, due to the delay, before any actual starts could be made, Chernobyl happened, making it politically impossible to build any new reactors for many years afterwards.

So they were put on indefinite hold, but by now there was no longer time to avoid widespread shortfalls in electricity supply by going back to coal, plus by then the UK coal industry no longer existed, and we'd have been hostage to the international markets anyway. It was at that point that the decision was made to go with cheap and relatively quick to build gas-fired generators, which could be fuelled with North Sea gas.

Just one problem with that - when North Sea gas came on stream, we were told that we had 2-300 hundred years supply. But that was assuming it was used the way it was in the 70s, for mainly domestic and some industrial use only. There were no gas-fired electricity generators back then. Using it for powergen has resulted in that 300 year potential being reduced to more like 30 years, and the UK is no longer self-sufficient. Scotland would be, but not the UK.

In addition to that, the whole system has since been privatised. Also by Thatcher's government. Private companies have not found it to be in their shareholders' interests to hold supplies in reserve for extreme weather events such as the one currently being experienced. In times when demand is lower, like summer, they don't accumulate stockpiles, they sell it on the international market. Remember gasometers? Those big things you used to see on city skylines, that went up and down on periodically, and held gas reserves? Don't see those any more, do you? Plus there was a single facility known as Rough off the Yorkshire coast that represented around 70% of the UK's storage capacity. It was ageing, built in 1985, and needed a thorough refurbishment, but Centrica, the owners of British Gas, decided it was too expensive and got out of the contract that required them to do all necessary maintenance work, so they could just shut it down instead, with no alternative provision. Just like they worm their way out of every major powergen infrastructure investment that's ever needed. The private sector does not build power stations. They are happy enough to buy them cheap once the public purse has built them, and run them into the ground, but they have never built one with their own money!

That is the truth that today's Tories will never tell you, but you can check for yourself, they haven't. When they have built anything at all, it has been with government grants and subsidies. Back in the early 80s, when I first studied economics, we used to call utilities like gas and electricity 'natural monopolies,' which obviously had to be publicly owned, because they were essential services and therefore too vulnerable to exploitation if they were in private hands. The argument goes that companies (and remember, economics 101, the purpose of a company is to maximise profit), would find the temptation to profiteer from essential services too great to resist. Then along came Thatcher and said, "No, no, no, we'll open them up to competition and prices will go down!" Well? Have they? Are you enjoying the savings? No, of course you're not! My mother, an 83 year old pensioner on supposedly the lowest tariff, got a bill for over 900 quid at the end of last year!

Prices have skyrocketed, as those of us who actually understood the first thing about economics always knew they inevitably would. The system we have now has competition, yes, but what it also has is two levels of private enterprise, in both generation and distribution, sucking money out of the system to give to their shareholders. How was that ever going to result in lower prices? You'd have to be an idiot or a liar to suggest such an obvious nonsense. Now, I don't think Margaret Thatcher was an idiot. She must have known what she was doing, and that makes it fraud, on a massive scale. It's quite clear. Google the Fraud Act if you have the time. Privatisation ticks every box, and the only valid defence for anyone involved in it would be to claim that they were too stupid to understand what the inevitable results of what they were doing were. So that's the question modern day Tories and advocates of so-called market solutions must answer - are you too stupid and incompetent, or too crooked to be in charge of a petty cash tin, never mind a major economy? Because it has to be one or the other.

To use Thatcher's favourite phrase, there is no alternative!

What is to be done...about Lenin?



Solidarity Co-Convenor Jock Penman and Fife activist John Lowrie argue that the movement needs to reappraise the role of Lenin


After 100 years the question of whether Lenin was the genius who led the workers and peasants into a socialist revolution or whether his strategy for revolution was a mistake and a failure, is still being debated. It has to be conceded that the revolution crumbled into dust with the demise of the Communist Parties worldwide and, by implication, a failure of political leadership within the former Soviet Union.


Those who don’t wish to investigate for themselves or are just content to follow their own party leadership (or even bourgeois) explanations, blame Stalin. Stalin has become the scapegoat for the failures. Surely Lenin and Leninist ideology have to take as much of the blame for the failures of the revolution as much as they are praised for its successes?


What then went wrong, and what to do about it? It is all very well for those on the left with a sentimental attachment to 1917 to wax lyrical on those glorious days. Russia is now a capitalist state, and this has to be Lenin's problem. But to what extent can the persistent failures be laid at the door of Leninist ideas and practices?

In what is his most celebrated and indeed radical work,”The State and Revolution” Lenin argued that the communist revolution had to smash the bourgeois state and introduce a socialist state. This would be a democratic state that would recognise the right of all to administer that state. ” Any cook can run the state etc.!” This recalls “The Manifesto”, where Marx and Engels asserted that the proletariat had to win the battle for democracy; but in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx also proclaimed that between capitalism and communism lay the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other, to which there corresponded a political transition period ”that could be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Is there a contradiction between the concepts of democracy and dictatorship of the proletariat?

Here is part of Lenin’s argument, which is a fine piece of analysis, though it may, on the surface, appear quite dramatic.

‘Democracy is a form of the state; it represents, on the one hand, the organized, systematic use of force against persons; but, on the other hand, it signifies the formal recognition of equality of citizens, the equal right of all to determine the structure of, and to administer, the state. This, in turn, results in the fact that, at a certain stage in the development of democracy, it first welds together the class that wages a revolutionary struggle against capitalism – the proletariat, and enables it to crush, smash to atoms, wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois, even the republican-bourgeois, state machine, the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy and to substitute them for a more democratic state machine, but a state machine nevertheless, in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population.’

‘The more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it becomes unnecessary. The more democratic the “state” which consists of the armed workers, and which is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”, the more rapidly every form of state begins to wither away.’

Sadly, this is not what came to pass. Various reasons are advanced for this: the damage and losses of the ‘Civil War’, the backward state of economic development, the low level of culture, the isolation of the Revolution. One common argument is that Russia was not ripe for revolution, which had to await the development of capitalism. This was not Lenin's own view. He argued, "But what if the situation. …. gave rise to circumstances that put Russia and her development in a position that enabled us to achieve precisely that combination of a 'peasant war' with the working class movement, suggested in 1856 by no less a marxist than Marx himself, as a possibility for Prussia. Our European philistines never even dreamt that the subsequent revolutions in Oriental countries, which possess much vaster populations in a much vaster diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display even greater distinctions than the Russian Revolution'' (“Our Revolution"  Pravda 30/5/23).  

In fact, Marx himself had already warned in a letter of 1870 against ''…an all-purpose formula of a general historic-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical, to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism into a historic-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed."

Basically the Leninists abandoned democracy for the dictatorship of the party, which they wrongly designated the dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that the party embodied the class interests and historical destiny of the proletariat. So, however cogent the other reasons for the Revolution’s failure, the Leninist party must be held responsible for such persistent failures in leadership and tactics.  

With remarkable prescience Trotsky, before he embraced Leninism with all the fervour of a latter-day convert, warned of, “… the party organisation substituting itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee” (Our Political Tasks.” 1904).

But by 1920 in “Terrorism and Communism” he was writing that the Party, ” …. has the final word in all fundamental questions…. the last word belongs to the Central Committee…. the unquestioned authority of the party, and the faultlessness of its discipline.''  

A good example is given by Bernard Reichenback of the KAPP at the World Congress of the Comintern in 1921. Alexandra Kollontai of The Workers' Opposition gave Reichenback an article she intended to read to the Congress the following day. The party leaders listened in stony silence. Eventually Trotsky threatened her with party discipline, and she begged Reichenback for the return of the article. What was she advocating? ...that the working class should run industry itself, not the party and its one-man managers?!

The arguments at the time for democracy and against Lenin's concepts can be read in Kautsky's "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (1919) though Kautsky was considered a ‘phoney Marxist’. In criticising Lenin, he identifies democracy with voting, as if the exercise of the right to vote were the exercise of genuine power. In fact, the Constituent Assembly did not represent the people of Russia, only the various party leaderships. Nevertheless, it is widely appreciated among Marxists that the failure of previous revolutions owes not a little to the lack of democracy, because with ‘the last word’ belonging to the party leadership in the political arena and the first word to the one-man managers in the economic sphere, the proletariat and the other popular classes were disenfranchised and depoliticised. They do what they are told!

As for the party organisation, as Rakovsky observed (and look what happened to him!). ”When a class takes power, one of its parts becomes the agent of that power. Thus arises bureaucracy…. this differentiation begins as a functional one; it later becomes a social one. I am thinking of the social position of a communist who has at his disposal a car, a nice apartment, regular holidays, and receiving the maximum salary…. workers and employees are divided into 18 different categories.” (1928). Almost 40 years later Mao made almost the same observations, asserting that the bourgeoisie in China “…sits on the Central Committee of the Party”!

Here we can see the missing concept in Lenin's ''State and Revolution”.

So is there an alternative to Lenin's party dictatorship, which in the long run leads back to capitalism, and Kautsky's phoney 'democracy', which never leads away from it in the first place?

The Lenin Museum in Moscow is now gone. Still, those visitors to Moscow, in need of a museum have plenty of choice: there is the new museum opened by the oligarch, Putin, dedicated to the Tsar, now declared by the Russian Orthodox Church to have been a saint! Quite an achievement for a despot whose dynastic claims caused the deaths of 13 million of his holy subjects!!

We can see that the failures of Leninism and its offspring ‘Stalinism’ have allowed capitalism to take power in Russia and its former satellite states, as was the concern of Trotsky, Rakovsky and Mao.

As Marx and Engels affirmed in 'The Manifesto' the proletariat has to win the battle of democracy. This is a battle that has still to be waged!

It is incumbent on socialists to define genuine democracy so we do not make the same mistakes in future.

Women and the Russian Revolution

SSP member and Highlands political activist, Suzanne Wright looks at the role of women in the Russian Revolution and its historical effects on equality politics.


The 100th anniversary of the October Revolution is an opportunity to recognise possibly the most significant achievement of the working class to date. Pre-Revolutionary Russia embodied some of the worst extremes of poverty and wealth and the successful struggle of workers and peasants in overthrowing a powerful and rich capitalist elite is a struggle which all current socialists should rightly celebrate.

The events of 1917 saw Russia transform from a semi-feudal nation where working people were treated little more than slaves to a nation where resources were seized for the greater good of the population and the development of the first workers' state. For Russian women, the 1917 Revolution saw advancements which some women in parts of the early 21st Century world are still striving to achieve. So for women, what did 1917 mean, what was its legacy and its impact on the wider womens movement?

Women in pre-Revolutionary Russia

Russian rural life had barely changed in centuries and was deeply patriarchal in nature, confronting women with greater deprivations then their male counterparts, a lesser status and on marriage, treated as the property of their husbands. As for men, whilst pre-Revolutionary Russia was beginning to see a trend toward workers migrating to the cities it was still the case that the vast majority of working women were involved in working the land. The move to the cities was given greater impetus due to the industrial needs of World War One, resulting in more women entering the urban workforce due to the departure of men to the War.

For Lenin, "no revolution is possible without the participation of women", and the emancipation of women from domestic chores which still remained a female role in both urban and rural settings, was an integral part of emancipation of the working class as a whole:

"By destroying the patriarchal isolation of these categories of the population who formerly never emerged from the narrow circle of domestic, family relationships, by drawing them into direct participation in social production, large-scale machine industry stimulates their development and increases their independence, in other words, creates conditions of life that are incomparably superior to the patriarchal immobility of pre-capitalist relations." (The Development of Capitalism in Russia - V.I. Lenin)

...and so it transpired as the February Revolution of 1917 began as a result of the strike by women textile workers in Petrograd, no longer able to bear the deprivations caused by war and hunger. The integral part played by women in the February Revolution prompted the Bolsheviks to re-evaluate their approach to "the women question" re-inforcing Lenin's belief that for bourgeois society to be overthrown then women must have full an equal access to participate in society.

The role of women during the Revolution

It would be wrong to think however that the role of women in the Revolution began and ended with the strike on International Women's Day in February 1917, there are various examples of women's actions throughout the tumultuous year of 1917. It would however be wrong to think of women however as a homogenous mass – there were considerable differences between the demands of the middle-classes and factory workers – for the former, the February Revolution was much more about gaining suffrage and demanding electoral reform whilst for the urban poor the demands were more basic – demand for bread and an end to the deprivations wrought on the working class by the World War.

Following the February Revolution, the demands for women's suffrage continued and in July 1917, women over 20 were given the right to vote. Alongside this there were continued demonstrations against the War and continued hardships borne by women trying to maintain homes and work for the war effort.

Women's lives post-Revolution

The first years of Bolshevik rule saw far-ranging and far-reaching legislative changes which had dramatic effects on womens' lives. The first woman to serve in the Bolshevik Government was Alexandra Kollontai and she was the critical figure in the reforms enacted during this early phase.

The Family Code 1918 provided for women to have equal status with men, as well as legitimising the position of those born outside of marriage. Divorce became easily obtainable and the right to free access to abortion was legitimised by 1920. Steps were also taken to provide maternity rights, including paid maternity leave as well as progress made on childcare facilities. The concept of treating women as equal to men was almost unheard of at the time as was the right of women to vote.

For the Bolsheviks the decision to reduce the working day was seen as a critical factor in making the participation of women in politics possible:

"Our task is to make politics available to every working woman. Ever since private property in land and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman's position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man. The power of the working people is necessary for a change to be wrought in this situation, for then the main tasks of politics will consist of matters directly affecting the fate of the working people themselves." (The Tasks Of The Working Women's Movement In The Soviet Republic, V.I. Lenin)

In November 2018 the first All Russian Congress of Working Women was held and resulted in the formation of the Women's Bureau or Zhenotdel. Led by Alexandra Kollontai the aim of the Bureau was to engage working class women in political life as well as to provide opportunities for education – a critical requirement in a nation where pre-Revolution the vast majority of the working population had been illiterate. A number of magazines were produced aimed solely at women as a way to try and engage women and the Bureau's regional organisers worked closely with the local Bolsheviks to engage local women in the political structures established by the Party. In 1926 it was estimated that 620,000 women participated in conferences hosted by the Zhenotdel.

Impact of changes to women's lives on the USSR

Whilst the aims of the Zhenotdel were extremely forward-thinking there is debate as to the success of the project. Indeed, it has been reported that many women were uncomfortable with the pace of change in their lives brought about by the Revolution. Sheila Rowbotham in her study on Women and Revolution describes the reaction of older women to the concept of childcare and specifically, childcare:

"Almost all the older women were against it. Children had never been brought up in nurseries before — why start now? They had heard they bathed the children every day and believed this would mean they wouldn't grow up strong. The young women on the other hand, especially one girl whose child had been killed, were in support of the idea. They arranged for a house to be turned into a nursery and painted it white, hanging bright posters round the walls. The other women were shocked. "Surely they're not going to let children into a clean place like that."

The struggle to introduce Marxist ideas regarding the conduct of relationships and the importance of freeing women from the burdens of domesticity continued well into the 1920's – hardly surprising in a nation which had emerged from such a traditional paternalist past. The period of the New Economic Policy saw the beginnings of constraints on the gains made by women in the early days of the Revolution, as some of the childcare and maternity rights were scaled back and the reconstruction of societal relationships via the role of the family were to come to an abrupt end with the 1936 Family Code instigated by Stalin which re-instated the role of the family and made abortion illegal and divorce more difficult.

Impact on the women's movement in Britain

For the Bolsheviks, a critical forum for cascading the benefits of the Revolution was via the Third International, founded in 1919 with the express aim of exporting revolutionary ideas across the world. In Britain, the leading suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, by this time had split from her mother and sister in the womens suffrage movement, following her opposition to the First World War and her belief that women's suffrage was for all women, not just the middle classes that concerned her mother and sister.

The Russian Revolution was welcomed enthusiastically by Sylvia and she was enthused by the idea of setting up workers soviets and ultimately a workers revolution. How much the Revolution influenced the British Government in finally enfranchising women is a matter for debate however the various aspects of class struggle which occurred in Britain at that time, with numerous strikes, demands from returning soldiers for "a land fit for heroes", as well as the Ireland Question, emboldened the working class to demand concessions from the ruling class.


Broido V, 'Daughter of Revolution: A Russian Girlhood Remembered' Constable & Company Ltd (1998)

Lenin, V.I, 'The Development of Capitalism in Russia', (1899)

McDermid, J & Anna Hillyar, 'Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917' Ohio University Press (1999)

McDermid, J & Anna Hillyar, 'Revolutionary Women in Russia 1870-1917' Manchester University Press (2000)

Rowbotham, S, 'Women, Resistance and Revolution', Verso Books, (2014)

Venton, R, '1917 Walls Come Tumbling Down: Russian Revolution and the Rise of Stalinism', Scottish Socialist Party (2017)

Zetkin, C 'Lenin on the Women's Question'

John Reed, 10 Days That Shook the World

Wendy Goldman's valuable Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life.

What's in your jeans, in your genes, and in your socially constructed memes...

What Marx's method can tell us about gender.


So gender, what is it?

Usually I say it’s the social correlate of sex but some argue that it doesn’t exist at all, it’s a totally false ideological construct, manufactured by sociologists. There is only sex they say and some don’t even acknowledge that. When they do, they say sex is chromosomes. We might enquire, has anyone ever had an intimate physical relationship with a chromosome? And the answer would certainly be no. All this stuff is exceedingly abstract.

The idea for writing this article was inspired by a wish to set out the method Karl Marx employed in his approach to political economy. However, rather than merely set out the method, I thought it might be more useful to set it out, then attempt to employ the method to the thorny matter of gender. I thought this might be a good way to illustrate the method, open up a more considered discussion on gender, and also open up the possibility of using it elsewhere.

In any exploration of anything on Earth (or anywhere else, I’d suggest, for that matter) we have a totality out there in living breathing reality that needs to be converted into concepts, a knowledge of that world. We must attempt to model this as accurately as possible in our heads. The conventional way to do this, purposefully and methodically, is to take (or abstract) aspects of this totality and look for things that these abstractions have in common (look for abstract universals) in order to form a theory around them. But this was not the method adopted by Marx.

The problem is akin to constructing a jigsaw without a picture on the box, merely on the basis of the shapes and colours of the pieces. In this analogy the shapes represent agreement but importantly, the shades represent contradictions. Why is this piece blue and that red? We do not comprehend this immediately and not until we discern at least part of the picture.

The principle difficulty in the project of writing the current article is trying to ensure that I don’t tangle my own thoughts up in the problem of making a clear distinction between the world that we all inhabit as material beings, and the world of concepts. There are numerous traps to fall into, as we need to switch frequently from one to the other. But I also want to take the reader with me without losing the reader in those traps. The essential paradox is that these are really not separate worlds at all, but the ten pound note in my purse is very evidently not the same as the idea of a ten pound note my in my head.

Abstract and Concrete

OK so what’s abstract and concrete, what is this about? This took its conventional meaning in Western circles during the medieval period, when philosophy was heavily dominated by the church and reality was separated into the realms of heaven and earth. The separate notions of the corporal body and the spirit found its reflection in the dualism of Descartes and the vulgar materialists naturally followed this with a similar idea. For them the concrete was real and abstract was a separate reality of just about anything symbolic, metaphorical, supernatural or unknown. This is often understood in the realms of art, as an impression of what’s real, poorer in detail but richer in message. For example pictures which do not look at all like a photograph, but convey meaning poetically and attempt to show us more of the essence of something if at the same time, less of the appearance.

This remains the dominant paradigm of the contemporary meaning of the terms. However the shibboleth of dual realities met it’s first substantial challenge from Spinoza, an Italian philosopher and post Renaissance materialist in the 17th century. Spinoza probably represents the birth of materialist monism in the modern sense. Monism represents the single reality view that there are not two separate realms in total reality but one interconnected diverse essence.  Postmodernists often seem to argue otherwise but such arguments are entirely speculative and have no known connection with the historical process, so far described. Any theory whatsoever has to be founded on facts or potentially testable hypotheses. As with the jigsaw analogy, abstract has an alternative meaning: pieces of the puzzle. Concrete means the puzzle correctly assembled.

When constructing a conceptual representation of physical reality, we cannot merely throw abstractions together on the basis of facts which simply agree with each other, we have to replicate the way in which material reality itself operates, concrete reality is something in constant motion, it has developed historically and also gives rise to contradictory concepts which are part of the total fabric.

The Method

An explanation of Marx’s method appears in The Grundrisse(1), a series of seven notebooks  rough-drafted by Marx, chiefly for purposes of self-clarification, during the winter of 1857-8. Left aside by Marx in 1858, it remained unpublished until 1939. This quote can be difficult to follow because it is note form, not from material fully prepared for publication. Consequently. I’ve broken it up into 4 parts, with my comments in between, so that the meaning can be fully apprehended by the non-specialist reader coming to it for the first time:

1) “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception”.

The wording here is difficult to follow, but what I believe Marx is saying is that in order to form a concept of reality which is concrete (a thoroughly sound representation), we cannot take component concepts as abstractions without referring back to the real world, in order to understand the connections between the abstracted part and the whole.

2) “Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind”.

In one sense here, Marx is talking about the standard approach. The first path is breaking the external reality up and the second is its reconstruction in the mind. But he’s also talking about Hegel’s famous inversion, usually referred to as Marx’s inversion, rather better expressed by Marx himself, when said that he had put Hegel back on his feet!

3) “But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole. As a category, by contrast, exchange value leads an antediluvian existence”.

Here Marx is illustrating his method with the example of exchange value as a concept which is taken as read, in order to demonstrates that it cannot exist in this ready made form. Antediluvian, here is a reference to the Biblical flood, in order to further emphasise the point that exchange value has to be understood in its real historical context, not as something which has always existed in its current form.

4) “Therefore, to the kind of consciousness – and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness – for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production – which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside – whose product is the world; and – but this is again a tautology – this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.

The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world.

The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition”.

Marx makes a further comparison here between the idealist and materialist outlook. He warns against treating the movement of categories as a real act of production and tells us that the thinking head must instead arrive at a totality of thoughts, not merely the self movement of concepts, detached as it were from the reality that they are part of.


But then the assimilation of facts into concepts and theory requires logic and logic has to be fit for purpose. Emanuel Kant followed Spinoza historically, and what Kant contributed above all else, was a critique of pure reason. Despite the efforts of Kant, the logic in common scientific and, more importantly in social scientific use, remains that of Aristotle and especially the Stoics who further developed it. It was articulated in the form of syllogisms. Like the American constitution, the basic rules were subject to amendments: a further set of rules defining what syllogisms were good and which were inadmissible; so the entire basis of accepted logic remained workable but incomplete.

Beyond Kant and his critique of pure reason, we meet Hegel who in complete contrast to Spinoza, opts on the side of pure idealism. However at the same time Hegel develops an entirely new system of logic. This new sort of logic is the process of concepts in flux rather than static. The process by which yes and no, as examples of binary opposites, can reflect complex concrete reality better than the ‘still photograph’ determination of either side. Thus for and against, for example, can exist together in a concept of something moving through history. Being and Nothing was Hegel’s actual starting point (mediated by becoming) but the system works for any opposites that can be unified in this way.

Dialectical logic

Hegel thus understood the process of thought in real human heads (though he couched this in the pure idealism of Absolute spirit). The method had to be fully understood and then reconfigured in order to be realigned with a materialist view. It also needs to be stressed that human life rarely consists of isolated thinking, an essential feature of human life is our social being and our complex systems of communication. Concepts don’t remain in heads, they escape into the world where they continue to develop through unity of opposites or what we could otherwise describe as contradiction. They return to the individual subject in the form of what has been previously established (or a priori) knowledge where they are measured against our lived experience. But it should be self-evident that social concepts are rarely unified at any moment in time, they are never static and are often transcended by synthesis.

Hegel also introduced the idea of sublation whereby a record of the original contradiction is preserved in its resolution. Hegel doesn’t explain how this happens but from a materialist view, this cannot be anything else other than memory, in the case of an individual, and recorded history in the case of humanity in general. Dialectical reason, or conceptual dialectics is not the same as the sort generally attributed to the dialectics of nature where it’s harder to define, gets mixed up with the philosophy of Heraclitus and becomes some sort of spooky ‘matter in motion’.

The dialectic of the concrete and the abstract is not something I’ve seen explored in detail anywhere other than by E V Ilyenkov (2).  This is however entirely consistent with dialectical reason. If the abstract is a part and the concrete the whole, then it’s perfectly reasonable to study their relationship in this way. Hegel even devises the concept of a concrete universal abstraction but buries it, not in The Logic, instead in his Philosophy of Right. Marx takes this up when considering how to present a critique of political economy. Nether Marx nor Hegel understood the abstract and the concrete in the same framework, as previously described and as in the contemporary paradigm.

Abstraction is firmly established by Marx as the removal and study of the parts. Concreteness for Marx was the diversity of interrelated aspects which made up the whole. Thus in complete distinction to the standard empirical approach, the diversity and internal relations with their apparent contradictions, were more important and more representative than the points of general uniformity.

When modern science investigates the human body, it doesn’t read palms or map out the shape of a skull. It takes x-rays and conducts blood tests in order to find the concrete universal concept of the illness. Medical diagnosis employs dialectics in the sense that it doesn’t just look for connected systems but also searches for differences which rule out alternative conditions.  So we can conclude at this point that rising from the abstract to the concrete presents possibilities, and that concrete means what’s real and complex in material reality. We are always attempting to model this in our heads but this necessitates that we know what we’re doing with our abstractions.

Briefly, I should mention Althusser who clearly considers that the Marxist dialectic has been lost. This is very obvious in his preamble to his thesis (3). He seems to engage in an earnest search for it in Marx’s Capital but he doesn’t approach the problem as a dialectician (somebody who practices dialectics). He follows formal reason and neologisms (new strategies of formal reason). He constructs (as would seem reasonable for a structuralist) an argument of explanation, entirely novel in Marxist literature.

Ilyenkov explains the method without recourse to novel constructs and does so not only with greater clarity, but also within the framework of established Marxist paradigms. The important point here is that dialectics is not a shibboleth, it’s a method. It’s a different logical framework which needs to take its place alongside formal reason and for example, Boolean computer logic. It’s an extra spanner in the toolbox and one that’s particularly useful when grasping the social being of a decision making species of a social animal such as ourselves with its linguistically articulated, cognitive and historical framework.

Ilyenkov tells us something very important when he says:

The general (concretely universal) stands opposed to the sensuously given variety of separate individuals primarily not as a mental abstraction but as their own substance, as a concrete form of their interaction. As such it also embodies or includes the whole wealth of the particular and individual in its concrete determinateness and that not simply as the possibility of development but as its necessity”. (2)

Before I make an assertion about Marx’s method a further quote may help substantiate it. This is from the Preface to the First German Edition of Capital 1867 (4), Marx here is drawing on the analogy between the study of animal biology as it is built from the concrete concept of the cell :

In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy”.

So let’s briefly illustrate this. The concrete universal in Capital is the commodity. It’s an abstraction, in the sense that it doesn’t immediately tell us all there is to know about capitalism, but it unlocks the whole mystery inductively, employing both dialectics and  formal reason. It’s not an abstract universal because it deals with essence not merely appearance, not what things look like but what they are. It’s also concrete because it contains diversity of aspects and the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist system, need as against exchange.

The commodity is examined in its various forms and in terms of specific examples. Marx uses the coat and the linen required to make the coat. But a commodity must in general have both use value and exchange value, sometimes one sometimes the other. The special commodity money, is the one that realises the equivalence. The equivalence of commodities in exchange is essentially the socially necessary labour time, but the transformation of quality into quantity (measure) is performed by money.

Generally speaking we don’t exchange what we need for something that we don’t need. This is why barter has been replaced by money but it transpires that money doesn’t completely remove the contradiction between use and exchange (this actually reappears in capitalist crisis).

The contradiction is (in the Hegelian sense) sublated. The movement from the commodity as a concrete universal, sits at the core of capitalist production and the conceptual model of the totality is dialectically constructed from this seed. Marx rises from the abstract to the concrete, progressing from commodity exchange in section one, volume one of Capital, to the circulation of capital in the money form in section two, thereafter so on and so forth. He corrects Ricardo’s mistakes and vindicates the labour theory of value but he does this because his methodology is the only appropriate one.

Gender as the Universal Concrete

Hence to an experimental excursion into the contemporary minefield of gender. But before I do so, I think it’s important to emphasise once again, the difference in the standard concepts which distinguish materialism from idealism. In appearance, thought and substance seem irreconcilable and so the default position is generally the ghost in the machine. This belief is prevalent and culturally hegemonic. In essence however, this antinomy is irreconcilable and unsubstantiated because it really doesn’t exist.

The Marxist view is that spirit emerges from matter and thinking is the physical activity of  organic nervous systems. The means to establish this proposition is beyond the bounds of formal reason and belongs in dialectics. This is why I suspect that dogmatists who operate on the surface appearance of Marxism, fail to grasp its essence. Many of them are Dualists and unaware that they are as such, when they offer vulgar materialism on the one hand, yet idealist dogmatism on the other.


First and foremost it has to be made abundantly clear that when I deal with the issue of gender in any shape or form in this article, I do not mean gender stereotypes! 

So in what sense is gender concrete? Well to be concrete in the Marxist sense, it has to be a diversity of interconnected aspects. No concept would be concrete on the basis of being a simple fact or list of facts. Biological sex for example cannot be concrete under this scheme of things. As an abstraction (something removed and examined) it’s a simple dichotomy which hasn’t moved or transformed on a monumental geological time scale. Here we need to remind ourselves that dialectics is the logic of concepts undergoing historical change.

Gender on the other hand, is a social construct but a real one. It’s not (as many argue) something imposed by class system, religion, private property or the family. It precedes these things, is ubiquitous throughout recorded history and arises out of necessity.  This is because it brings together the facts of biology, which in antiquity was in any case poorly understood, and places those facts in the development of real social relations in material existence.

Simple gender concept:

Social organisation around sexual dichotomy with the following dialectics:

1) Gestation and non gestation, corresponding strategies: male and female dichotomy of concepts; the sharing of mutual concepts within the dichotomous conceptual framework, masculine and feminine theoretical models. These are social, so not merely dichotomous according to biological sex. They undergo real historical changes with consequences for material reality. They do this whilst biological sex remains constant.

2) Testosterone or Oestrogen, both present in either sex but acting in tandem and deferentially balanced between sexes. These hormones have powerful effects not just on body structure but also on body chemistry in general. The effects include behavioural responses which are key components of praxis (the combination of what beings think and what they do). There’s a large body of empirical data to support this assertion. Here again the emergent concepts are not individual but social.  (5)

3) Parenthood. This emerges from the first dialectic but at a higher stage. It’s biologically important but not immediately of political significance. It reaches maturity only when private property emerges and male dominance has been established. This cannot be otherwise, since there is no alternative explanation of patriarchy from a scientific perspective, given the evidence that both gender equal and matriarchal societies existed in antiquity. At a certain stage, male humans shared the common concern or anxiety about paternity. Evidence of this is abundant in the religious belief systems of the iron age, which accorded divine superiority conferred on human males.

4) The dialectic of sexual orientation. Gay or straight. Our distant ancestors or ourcousins, the bonobos don’t seem to share the same anxiety about this. Reverse back several hundred million years in the course of evolution and we encounter animals which probably don’t conceptualise life much at all. They conduct their affairs very much by instinct. Intelligence is something that has developed over some 3.5 billion years or so, a vast span of time, and social intelligence doesn’t really take form until the first mammals.

Primates, as far as we know, are the only animals (less is known about whales and dolphins) who are both wilfully intelligent and social to an extent beyond, for example dogs (wolves) or the individual problem solving capacity of a crow. It’s reasonable to conclude therefore that the anxiety about a diversity of sexual orientation emerges not immediately from nature, of which our social intelligence is a part, but because this is a development of the dialectics, point 3) above.

The concept of sexual orientation therefore only arises when sexual encounters become regulated. Gender has now become significant in the inheritance of private property, an inheritance which is patrilineal but the same development is not seen everywhere across different cultures at the same time. Ancestor worship seems to be fairly common place in great antiquity but a strict patriarchy doesn’t come into being until the development of monotheism. Here the concept of father figure is ideologically transformed into the belief in a super-natural all powerful entity, personified as a male human.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Judaism (which later branched out into global religions, Christianity and Islam) did not develop until well into the iron age by which time patriarchy was well established. The dialectic of parenthood, particularly in a relatively small and emerging tribal culture, surrounded by much larger and more powerful neighbours, may have made progeny more crucially important. It would make sense therefore and provide a materialist basis for an ideology which proscribed same sex (particularly male same sex) relationships. Of course property would by this stage have developed into a class structure but as in modern times, the dominant ideology is always that of the ruling class.

The dialectics of bisexuality

Here we move from the simple opposition between gay and straight, through a process of bifurcation. Once the dialectical concept of straight and gay emerges, the possibility exists for a new contradiction, that of the middle to the one side, and the middle to the other.  It’s important to remember however that the real sexuality of bisexual people precedes any development of the concepts. At a certain stage in modernity, the bisexual was perceived as a threat to both camps in the ideological battle between heterosexual orthodoxy and the emerging struggle of gay liberation. Bisexual people gained their acceptance but only after a further struggle.

But the interesting question raised about bisexuality, is that if a person is attracted at one time to a person of the same sex and then at another time, to a person of the opposite sex, what then is the basis of that attraction? Clearly, it is not the cold abstract biological category of sex but something more complex, something more concrete.

Earlier we saw that the Marxist definition of concrete was that it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It’s again gender, not sex, which fits this description. Gender contains not just the social and cultural correlates of sex but also all its individuated diversity: the shape of the face, the behavioural traits, the apparent size of the eyes, the fullness or thinness of lips. In sum, every conceivable diversity which can be found immediately attractive or unattractive (fancied) in the other.

All the various complexities of the feminine or the masculine are both biologically and sociologically determined. 

The dialectic of identity

Here matters become more difficult and perhaps that is why we can build more easily to the point of LGB with a general consensus in terms of the outcomes. There’s a bourgeois liberal consensus of concept here of course but that flows from an ideology which promotes the individual and is hence suspect. Marxism in a distorted and dogmatised form cannot comprehend this and treats it accordingly, as a bourgeois aberration.

There is no problem here in terms of dialectical reason, once we understand that dialectics is a form of logic and not something far more mysterious, ‘matter in motion’ and all those speculative, metaphysical articles of faith. Marx did not just apply dialectics to the real world but he was thoroughly critical in his approach, expressing material existence in concepts but not leaving any metaphysical and mystical residue in his wake.

Identity isn’t something invented by sophists or by bourgeois ideologues,  it is a fundamental reality of nature in higher organisms. Reality of course precedes the concept but any biological entity with any sort of means to react to its environment, acts in accordance with the principle that this is me and that is you.

In dialectics, this is the opposition and unity between the general and the particular. In bourgeois ideology, individualism is fetishised and worshipped with the result that the left wing dogmatist cum vulgar materialist, who places themselves in ideological opposition, denies its existence completely.  This relationship between the person and the people is dialectical, precisely because we are profoundly social as a species. We actually identify ourselves, not in isolation but in relation to others. For example a French person has a French identity because they see themselves as belonging to the sub set of people who are French. A lover of sci-fi may see themselves belonging to a sub set of people who like sci-fi, the possible examples are almost infinite.

The fact that an individual may identify as one gender, another gender (or none for that matter) is as important to that individual as anything else which defines their personhood, often decisively. Even though we can employ dialectical reason to the development of a concept of transgender identities and we can employ gender as a concrete universal in developing that concept, clearly there are different issues involved. because the concrete universal in this instance is itself undergoing a dialectical transition. This cannot be a problem for the logic, since the commodity, as the concrete universal of capitalist political economy, undergoes such a transition.

We also need to be clear that in advocating dialectical reason, we are not dismissing science based on empiricism, rather we are supplementing and enriching it. In this context transgender individuals clinically present with a condition described as gender dysphoria. This is an accepted medical diagnosis, widely recognised. An explanation of the condition is beyond the scope of this article. However, what it isn’t is a patriarchal conspiracy hatched by medical professionals (as suggested by Janice Raymond in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire).

Whatever the causes of gender dysphoria, it could be described as conflicted and deep rooted contradiction between sex assigned at birth. Here I mean sex not gender. Though the brain of the new born cannot be considered to be a blank slate, the individual at this stage in life has genetic traits and perhaps some experience of its gestation, but has not yet developed fully human conceptual frameworks or experienced the real impact of a social existence.

As the child develops she will form a sense of her own gender, This academic paper by Eleanor E. Maccoby of Stanford University takes a similar approach to mine in terms of the way that dialectics play out in the setting of groups.  From the age of 3, gender identity seems to be well established and the choices made by children, given a free option of how they associate, demonstrates clearly distinct and different strategies between boys and girls. (6)

Those who present with gender dysphoria are conventionally subject to a lengthy process of psychological and psychiatric assessment before embarking on gender reassignment. None of this is trivial and is designed to filter out the most effective and appropriate treatment. Those that are considered to be likely to benefit from gender reassignment are subsequently given hormone treatment and expected to live their lives in the reassigned gender role before any reconstructive surgery is considered.

Though this approach is far from perfect what it does at the preoperative stage is to emerge the subject in the real world dialectic of the person and the social group, the particular and the general. This is important because it is how real identity works. As social animals we need others to confirm who we are.


Here we’ve explored human sexuality and gender identity from a dialectical and historical perspective. But this was also an exercise in the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, as practiced by Marx and dealt with in depth by the Soviet philosopher E V Ilyenkov. I would highly recommend his work for further reading.

Of course, first I needed to set out what the concepts of abstract and concrete mean. I’ve attempted to show that the meanings are not obvious and that the conventional meanings correspond to a large extent with the Dualist philosophy of René Descartes. I then turned to Marx’s monist view and suggested that dialectical logic is the method to be used when dealing with the total reality of a social species moving through its own history.

Thought is a product of matter and there are no known and proven examples which suggest otherwise. When the practical activity of human beings is included with material existence, social being and concepts, we have the entire essence of dialectical and historical materialism. I’ve tried to give a succinct outline of dialectical reason which I think needs to be understood as a form of logic and needs to be stripped of its mystery, especially that of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

Using the method described in the first part of the article, I have applied this to the development of LGBT theory using gender as the concrete universal. I have not taken this analysis further since I’m a materialist and I leave the developing ideology for others to comment upon.

Trans exclusion is certainly a hot topic and I’ve listened to both sides of this argument. I think there needs to be more reasoned dialogue and less intolerance. The personal identity, I’ve placed in a dialectical relationship with both the social and the biological, which I think is both correct and in many ways revealing.

A critique of identity politics, from a Marxist perspective, is a project for a future article but what we should not try to do is throw it out in its entirety. To do so would risk aligning ourselves with right wing bigots.

 Joanne Telfer, November 2017

Originally published (in a slightly different form) in International Green Socialist  


(2) The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, E V Ilyenkov, 1960

(3) Louis Althusser, On the Materialist Dialectic, On the Unevenness of Origins,


(4) Capital Volume1, The Preface to the first German edition, Karl Marx, 1867
(5) The Sex Hormone Secrets Sherry Baker 2007

(6) Gender and Group Process: A Developmental Perspective Eleanor E Maccoby 2002

Red Star Rising: Overthrow, Art, Culture and Betrayal in the Russian Revolution

Regular contributor, writer of the Viridis Lumens Blog, and Green Left activist Adrian Cruden gives a free thinking perspective on the October Revolution of 1917

The Dream of Leon Trotsky...

"Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming - so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians - such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbour, sympathy, will be mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry.... All the arts - literature, drama, painting, music and architecture - will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge, new peaks will rise." (from "Literature and Revolution")

The aspirations of this key architect of the October revolution were not only ambitious but, to a modern western reader they likely seem surprising, especially the references to physical changes in a post-revolutionary Homo Sovieticus. Yet their very antithesis to the realities of the early 20th century for the mass of Russian serve to illustrate just how barbaric Czarist society was.

For Russia in early 1917 was uniquely different to all the other major European powers that had been at war over the previous two and a half years. Unlike Imperial Germany, it had only a small industrial base - largely owned by either the Czarist state or by foreign investors - amidst an ocean of great rural estates and tens of millions of peasants. Unlike France, it had only a statistically insignificant bourgeoisie class which was completely incapable of demanding or consolidating even a mildly representative government.

And unlike Britain, although he was Queen Victoria's grandson, there was no constitutional limitation at all on the authority of the Czar. Nicholas Romanov ruled by the Divine Will and was answerable only to God; any claim otherwise was a sin against the Creator - the Orthodox Church said so. Indeed, the title Czar was derived via the medieval Christian Byzantine Empire from the Caesars of the Roman Empire and Moscow was deemed to be the Third Rome (after the New Rome of Constantinople, which had succeeded the eponymous one on the River Tiber).

Western propaganda has often sugar-coated the Russian Empire and its ruling class, epitomised by sickly sentimental cinema outings like Nicholas and Alexandria and the BBC 1970s TV drama Fall of Eagles. How awful, we are told, were the fates of the Imperial family and so many of the nobles and fellow-travellers, dispossessed of their lands and at best forced into exile or shot by firing squads or, even worse, forced to work for a living alongside everyone else in the new Soviet state.

But, in truth, Russia was a dreadfully under-developed society. As well as a political system that subordinated everyone to the Emperor's Will and crushed all dissident political expression, it remained mired in medieval feudalism right up to 1881 when the peasantry was finally released from the bondage of serfdom. This meant that the predominant economic form was agrarian and indeed when Napoleon had invaded in 1812, he found a land with only three cities of any note existing - Kiev in the Ukraine, Moscow in the Slav heartlands and St Petersburg, the sole modern city, deliberately founded by Peter the Great in the extreme west of his domains to occidentalise the Russian elite.

From Peter onwards, the Imperial Government often tried to modernise Russia from the top and so developed state-owned heavy industry from the 1880s onwards, drawing several million peasants off the land and into giant factory complexes and the grinding poverty and disease of 19th century urban life. To link these, railways were built across the Empire, often using prison labour, with the Trans-Siberian line being one of the greatest, and bloodiest, achievements of its time, stretching from Moscow in the centre of European Russia all the way to distant Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.

There was no Empire-wide education system and illiteracy was rife. There were middle class professionals like doctors, lawyers and technical specialists, but they were few in number. There was a larger group of notaries employed around the Empire to run the Imperial bureaucracy, but given their position they were dependent on the state and so posed no challenge. Universities in the cities and larger towns did produce some open-minded students and teachers, but they were met with suspicion and surveillance by the authorities.

Okhrana secret police 1905

Nervous of any challenge at all, the Czarist government created a secret police bureau - the Okhrana - which employed a huge range of methods to neutralise the opposition. This included setting up police-run trade unions to undermine the labour movement, routinely intercepting mail, torturing suspects and deploying agents provocateurs to infiltrate everything from revolutionary cadres to famine relief charities. Sometimes this reached ludicrous depths - one possibly apocryphal account from the town of Kazan claimed that the local Social Revolutionary Party committee disbanded after its 12 members gradually realised that they were all secret policemen.

This repression extended to imprisoning hundreds of thousands of real and imagined opponents in distant penal colonies in Sibera where a huge proportion perished in appalling conditions. Closer to the heart of the Empire, strikes were routinely crushed by the clubs of the police, and Jewish communities, already largely confined to the south of Ukraine, were singled out for bloody pogroms by the Czar's paramilitary organisation of Christian stormtroopers, the chillingly named Black Hundreds. Indeed, it was the Okhrana agent Matvei Golvinstei who is credited with creating the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, subsequently employed by Adolf Hitler to demonise the Jews and justify the Holocaust.

Jewish pogrom victims in Odessa, 1905

So at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was a repressive, under-developed police state ruled by a despot who reneged on the limited political reforms of his grandfather and whose governance was a mix of arrogance, incompetence and sheer sloth. It was the epitome of imperialism, a Prison of the fifty-odd nations its borders encompassed, and its only impetus to modernise stemmed from its desire to match the military strength of its more developed rivals. It well deserved the name given to it by Daniel Beers' book on the Czarist penal system, The House of the Dead.


The End of St. Petersburg, film 1926

In this House of the Dead, people still dreamed and schemed of better times. Das Kapital was passed by the Czarist censors who clearly failed to grasp its significance, and it became required reading among opponents of the Czarist system. Anarchism and Marxism became the main strands of thinking among revolutionaries – the absence of any parliamentary outlet or a significant bourgeoisie class meant that liberalism was eclipsed from the outset by more radical beliefs.

Unsurprisingly, it was in cultural activities that revolutionary feeling was first expressed – sometimes the censors caught it in time, other times not. And in the 19th century, it was in novels that socialist writers began to bring their hopes of new societies to wider audiences than the small study groups of professional activists.

Russian literature was beset for a long time by turgid novels praising the Slavic nation, wrapping up vaguely mystical concepts of race with Orthodox religion. It was relentlessly conservative in its values - even if some like Tolstoi challenges the corruption of the moneyed classes, he looked backwards to an imagined community than forward. This changed in 1863 when the writer Nikolai Cheneyshevsky published "What Is To Be Done?" – a novel that inspired Lenin to political activism and famously gave him the title for his own polemic in 1903 when he outlined his view of the Bolsheviks' strategy. Chernyshevsky was himself in prison when he wrote it but was given permission to send it to his former newspaper employer to publish it.

Cherneyshevsky's central character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes a traditional family and marriage to make her own way in the world. As she makes her way, he introduces her to co-operative societies based on the traditional peasant commune, gender equality and above all the duty of the wealthy intellectual to work for the revolution. This latter theme of an intellectual vanguard bringing enlightenment and liberation to the poor was to feature from then on all the way up to and through the 1917 revolutions and its influence on Lenin's own thinking was to have a crucial impact on the fate of the revolution.

What Is To Be Done? introduced the concept of the dedicated revolutionary in the form of a character called Rakhmetov. To him, the end justified the means and he was prepared to both inflict and endure great suffering in the cause. He comes from a noble family but lives a life of poverty in order to spread revolutionary thinking to the masses, working as a boatman on the Volga and sleeping on a bed of nails just to prove to himself the extent of his devotion.

Chernyshevsky wrote a number of other political tracts about ideal societies and he even developed thinking on the architecture of self-contained communes that influenced a lot of Soviet planning in the 20th century. But it was the character of Rakhmetov that had the greatest immediate impact – it led to the founding of the Land and Freedom society.

This was an organisation of younger middle and upper class revolutionaries who in the 1870s went out among the peasantry to educate them in revolutionary thinking. It was very paternalistic and failed fairly quickly to engage the masses, but unlike previous groups, it was the first to use violence to pursue its aims and an offshoot of it, Narodnaya Volya, the Peoples Will, went on to assassinate the mildly liberal Czar Alexander in 1881. It was also bound by a tight comradeship and centralism. Among its members was Alexander Ulyanov, brother of Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, later Lenin, who was executed after a failed plot to assassinate the next Czar. Lenin himself praised both the organisation and Chernyshevsky's book, and he read it many times during his younger days.

Unsurprisingly, just as revolutionary thinking was not monolithic, nor were revolutionary organisations. Very broadly, they divided between the Social Revolutionaries, who advocated a Russian agrarian socialism developed on from Marxism by the exiled noble Alexander Herzen and founded very much on the peasantry. It was like the Peoples Will and Land and Freedom still run by middle class activists – but unlike the Social Democrats, they tended to be people whose work took them among the poorer communities – so doctors, nurses and teachers were often in local SR leaderships, whereas the Marxist Social Democrats founded by the wealthy industrialist Plekhanov and joined by Lenin drew more heavily from lawyers, university lecturers, journalists.

So, very broadly, by the time of the 1905 revolution, the Social Revolutionaries were well established among the rural peasantry, while the Social Democrats were organised among the smaller but economically vital urban working classes. They had ideological differences over the status of peasant smallholders and whether to communalise or collectivize the land; they disagreed as well on tactics – the SDs confined their use of violence to sending Stalin, or Koba as he was known then, out on bank jobs to raise funds; the SRs on the other hand loved nothing more than a good assassination and they even set up the SR Combat Organisation to lead this – and the party's Maximalist wing rejected the idea of two stage revolutions between bourgeois democratic and proletarian socialist phases, calling instead for immediate revolution.

The failure of the 1905 revolution was a blow to all revolutionaries even though nearly all their leaders from the outset were both surprised by its sudden emergence and sceptical about its success. Lenin and many others were in exile in western Europe at the time and the only prominent returnee was Trotsky, who chaired the St Petersburg Soviet and ended up in prison after a show trial staged by the Czarist state but directed by Trotsky – he even arranged for the defendants to have a group photo taken relaxing in the courtroom. Had TV existed then, who knows how it might have then played out. However, it didn't and he was sent to jail and then Siberia, before escaping for a second time.

Trotsky and other Soviet members at their 1906 trial

The Social Democrats had themselves ruptured at their 1903 Congress held in Brussels and London between the Bolshevik faction – which means the majority although they were in fact the minority – led by Lenin and the Mensheviks under Martov, which means the minority although they were at first the majority. The nub of the dispute was over Lenin's proposal for a small, tightly controlled party of full-time revolutionaries and Martov's vision of a mass party engaged in street demonstrations and strikes.

Among the Bolsheviks, Aleksander Bogdanov had been in Russia throughout the 1905 events and was a rival for the leadership until he was expelled in 1909. His background was in psychiatry and science, and he was attracted to the logic of Marxist systems and he is now himself seen as an originator of systems theory. Like Chernyshevsky, he used literature to advance his political ideas to a wider audience and in 1907 he used the new medium of science fiction to produce the book Red Star, now largely forgotten but which became one of the best selling novels of pre-first world war Europe.

In this, Bogdanov's narrator is taken off to Mars in a spaceship by an interplanetary socialist called Menni who introduces him to an egalitarian world where individualism has been largely extinguished, there is no hierarchy, gender is fluid and love is free. The plot centres around an environmental crisis faced by the Martian Soviet and it is a good, if different, read.

Alexander Bogdanov's Red Star

Lenin was not at all impressed but the influence of the novel in exploring how a new world might work and what life could be like for its inhabitants had a deep resonance in contemporary Russia, where the Czar was quickly unravelling the limited concessions given to stem the revolutionary tide of 1905 and 1906.

Still, all these cultural initiatives to challenge the status quo remained the preserve of professional revolutionaries. Many were in exile and those that were still inside Russia did not develop extensive links with trade unions nor did they bring large numbers of workers and peasants into the party. Indeed, in January 1917, Bolshevik membership was a mere 24,000 people.

The Vanguard?

Lenin himself saw nothing contradictory in this and he was far from alone in his vanguardism. Yet his language was far from comradely towards the workers. In his own What is to be done? he wrote:

"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively of its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness - i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and compel the government to pass necessary legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the properties classes, by intellectuals."

Like all elitism, this was very out of step with the reality. In late January 1917, Lenin in Zurich exile told some young revolutionaries that he doubted he would live to see revolution in Russia. Yet when it came about just days later, the Russian Revolution was to be a world away in its form from that he had anticipated.

For a start, it was begun not by the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or SRs who had been banging on about it for years. Nor was it begun by a bourgeois vanguard. Instead, it was women factory workers, ignoring the demands of the local Bolshevik committee that they stay and work, who marched out on International Women's Day from the Vyborg district and proceeded into the city centre calling for bread and peace and for the overthrow of the Czar. When troops blocked their way across the bridges on the river Neva, they bravely clambered down to the riverside and walked across the ice. Within three days, joined by huge crowds of workers and soldiers, they swept away the Czar's regime with barely a shot fired and just a handful of deaths.

The hated professional police literally disappeared, changing out of uniform to run down the street, while peasant conscript troops confined their officers to barracks and released political prisoners from the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Centuries of autocracy just melted away. All the levers of power, the Court, the judiciary, the secret agents and all the humiliating subservience they demanded vanished in just four or five days.

And this moment unleashed a dramatic change in Russian society, one that felt itself across all classes and all walks of life - for a time, almost like the transformation predicted by Trotsky. The author of Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, later recounted his own feelings via his lead character when he ruminated that:
"Revolution erupted forcibly like a breath held too long. Everyone revived, became transformed, transfigured, changed. Everyone seemed to experience two such upheavals - his own personal revolution and second one, common to all."

This liberation was expressed in many ways from February onwards.

Politically, it led to the creation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies within hours of the resignation of the last of the Czars Ministers. This council was a recreation of the Soviets that revolutionaries had spontaneously created during the 1905 revolution and while the revolutionary parties all participated, it was joined by people from far outside their orbit. And this model soon expressed itself across much of the Empire.

Parallel to this, former members of the Duma, which the Czar had suspended in 1915, emerged to create a Provisional Government which was populated by liberal and conservative Ministers under Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. Only one social revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, took part as Minister of War and without the formal support of his party. This was as much as the old regime could muster in defence of some form of continuity and from the outset it was in competition with the soviets as it attempted to defend private property, continue the war and repeatedly asked the country to wait for a Constituent Assembly to be elected to draft a new constitution.

So the deference of the Empire was gone and this reflected itself in thousands of individual and collective acts against the old ways of things – palaces were requisitioned by crowds of homeless and hungry people. Workers and soldiers began to walk among the bourgeoisie and nobles promenading down Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd, something they would never have previously dared to do. And when the Provisional Government continued with the war, even mounting a new offensive in the spring which collapsed almost before it began, the response was more and more strikes and large demonstrations in the cities demanding peace, land and bread.

The Tide

In July, this rising tide led to a Bolshevik demonstration for a transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviets almost running away with itself, much against the wishes of Lenin and Trotsky, and the party was subsequently outlawed and Lenin fled to Finland shaved by Stalin and disguised in a wig.

Briefly, it seemed like a fatal reversal, but at this point the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks made on their part a huge error – rather than join the Bolshevik demands for a transfer of power, they backed and joined the Provisional Govt and supported its policies on the basis of waiting for the Constituent Assembly, even though elections for it had been repeatedly delayed. Kerensky now took office as Prime Minister and heartily embraced his personal delusion by installing a bust of Napoleon in his office in the Winter Palace in Petrograd.

But Lenin caught the mood of the masses far far more effectively with his pamphlet The State and Revolution, which outlined a programme for change involving peasant control of the land and workers control of the factories, and peace. Especially after an abortive coup against the Provisional Government by its own military appointee General Kornilov during August, the Bolsheviks, who had rallied the workers against the militarists, saw their representation on local Soviets rise dramatically, gaining outright majorities over the SRs and Mensheviks in Petrograd and Moscow and in many other cities.

So by the time we reach October, or early November under the new calendar, while the storming of the Winter Palace by Bolsheviks under the direction of the party's Military Revolutionary Committee can be exaggerated in terms of its drama, there can be little doubt that the mood of the majority of the population was firmly in favour of ending the Provisional Government and transferring all power to the Soviets.

Freeing the mind

In less than eight full months, we see the politics of the Empire transformed into the nascent Soviet Union. But it is far, far more than a change in form of government – it is a change in how society works and how people think about themselves and others. And this is a question for socialists down the ages – how to challenge successfully the deeply embedded mindsets in anyone who has been born and raised in a culture of deference and repression towards the self-autonomy and collectivism of a socialist or communist form of society. It goes far beyond constitutions or even forms of ownership – the Russian State already owned a far larger proportion of industry than most capitalist states – but about how people express themselves, work with each other and think.

This question brought into sharp relief two different strands within the Bolsheviks: those around Lenin who saw the revolution first and foremost as focussing on politics and economics; and those around Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, who believed it needed to challenge much more deeply held social and cultural norms and values.

Lenin's view of literature and culture were originally expressed in "Party Organisation and Party Literature" in 1903 and although at that time it was referring to party literature, once a one-party state was established, it was in effect extended to wider society:

"It is not simply that, for the socialist proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups; it cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog and a screw of one single, great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the politically conscious vanguard of the entire working class."

In contrast, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became the Commissar for the education and culture ministry Nakompros from 1917 to 1929, held to a much more libertarian approach and one focussed on enabling the self-expression of the working class. They had collaborated on this in exile and Bogdanov now returned to public life to organise the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisations – Proletkult, which was an independent federation of leftwing communists which Lunacharsky granted one third of the national adult education budget – over 9 million roubles to begin with. It grew by 1920 to 85,000 members with 300 multi-media studios operating across the state.

Proletkult conference 1918

Lunacharsky emphasised this independence:

"The people themselves, consciously or unconsciously, must evolve their own culture...The independent action of workers', soldiers' and peasants' cultural-educational organisations must achieve full autonomy, both in relation to the central government and the municipal centres."

Proletkult had its own internal tendencies and contradictions. Many bourgeois artists tried to climb onto easy funding to push their own patronising agenda on the working classes, and taking ballet and orchestras to factories and farms had a mixed reception from the workers, who Trotsky openly declared "usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture in regards to tidiness, instruction, punctuality, etc."

But many in Proletkult took a different view – the absence of a working class culture of music, books and art was because it had been repressed and downtrodden. Proletkult to them offered a means to liberate the inherent potential of the workers. Some took this to the extreme of wanting to burn down libraries and smash up the artifacts in museums to represent a complete break with the past, but Lunacharsky intervened to preserve these.

Proletkult itself and the whole atmosphere that surrounded it unleashed a huge range of creativity.

Art was developed that was the forerunner of agit-prop, with artists such as Alexander Apsit developing revolutionary poster art – this was particularly effective in a society where illiteracy meant that pictures were the most powerful means of bringing ideas to many people.

So you find developed new art styles expressing political slogans like this:



The state developed a series of Agit-trains which trundled around the Soviet rail network with these on their side as mobile posters, stopping to show films and plays to workers and peasants who had never seen the like before. There was also the brilliantly named Agitational Ship Red Star, which sailed up and down the Volga. During summer 1919, these methods took the revolutionary message to nearly 3 million people and were crucial in winning over the volunteers who later that year began to turn the tide in the civil war with the White, Black and Green armies.

Much of the cultural activities of both Proletkult and Nakompros were on mass participation: on the anniversary of the revolution from 1919 onwards, huge tableaus involving thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers drew on traditions from the French revolution to bring genuinely popular participation into the events.

In music, instruments like the thermin were deliberately adopted to break with the past and the Soviet Union can rightly lay claim to be the birthplace of electronic music. One of the more avant garde efforts was Arsenij Avraamov's Symphony of Sirens, which involved thousands of people in the Caspian port of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for the Fifth Anniversary of the Soviet Republic on 7 November 1922. This used a huge cast of choirs, the foghorns of the entire Soviet Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. Conductors were posted on specially built towers with coloured flags and pistol shots. A central "steam-whistle machine" pounded out "The Internationale" and "La Marseillaise" as noisy vehicles raced across Baku for a gigantic sound finale in the festival square. It was later repeated in Moscow and can be heard in full on Youtube.

Schematic for Symphony of Sirens

Writers also responded to the revolution with new styles of writing. Maxim Gorky had been a massively popular dissident writer under the Empire with his works like Mother and his reputation enabled him to establish the House of Arts as an independent force in literature. This was also sponsored by the Bolshevik Government through Nakompros and for three years it gave lodgings and food to writers to protect them from the privations of the civil war while they developed new revolutionary ways of writing.

Translations of socialist writers such as H G Wells and Jack London were published by it, while Russian authors like Yvgenny Zemyatin, returned from exile in Newcastle, wrote plays that were intended to shed the verbose sentimentality of traditional Russian literature. By developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as Zemyatin put it.

Similarly, in theatre, although Nakrompos protected traditional performances of Shakespeare, Proletkult Theatre brought avant-garde plays to the stage as well as adaptations of plays and prose by progressive western writers. Platon Kerzhentsev, a playwrite and ally of Bogdanov, headed this section of the movement and encouraged among others the later film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to direct and stage satirical pieces.


First Workers' theatre

But the fostering of independent thinking and experimentation didn't last.

Late 1920 into early 1921 saw the end of the civil war as the last of the Whites were expelled from Crimea and Vladivistock fell to the Red Army. The Soviet Union was exhausted and, although the fighting was largely over, the challenges it faced were potentially overwhelming.

Trotsky, initially opposed by Lenin, argued that rather than demobilising the Red Army, the state itself should be militarised to repair the economy and infrastructure: the "war communism" adopted in 1918 primarily to ensure the Red Army was supplied would continue – so the ban on all parties but the Bolsheviks remained in place, strikes were prohibited, workers strictly disciplined, rationing continued, and any food surplus would be requisitioned from peasants by the central govt. Taylorism, the man-machine management philosophy of Henry Ford, was experimented with at Lenin's instruction and Alexei Gastev, Head of the Institute of Soviet Labour proposed re-imagining workers as "proletarian units" with designation codes replacing their names.

It was in this environment that within the party, groups like the Left Communists and the Workers Opposition agitated for a return to grassroots democracy, while in the military fortress of Kronstadt soldiers and sailors mutinied and demanded that the Bolsheviks restore free elections to the soviets.
The response within the party was to ban all factions, while infamously Red Army units crossed the ice to retake Kronstadt and suppress the mutiny with over 3,000 mutineers killed in the fighting or executed afterwards.

In the midst of this crackdown, Lenin condemned Proletkult as dominated by petty-bourgeois intellectuals imposing decadent artistic schemes on the working class and in a notice in the party paper Pravda announced that from December 1920 it was to be subsumed into Nakompros. His wife, Nedezda Krupskaya, who was Lunacharsky's deputy in charge of adult education had always opposed the Proletkult and she was heavily involved in developing cultural and education policy after its effective dissolution.

The change could be seen soon after.

Zemyatin tried to publish his science fiction novel WE in 1921. It is a satire on totalitarianism and Aldous Huxley admitted that it inspired him to write Brave New World. George Orwell denied ever reading it, but if you read We, it is quite obvious that he did.

In any case, WE became the first novel to be officially banned in the Soviet Union by Glavlit, the government body for literary policy. It was not published in the USSR until 1989 and Zemyatin had to get a single copy smuggled to Prague to get it published in his own lifetime. He was subsequently arrested several times but was allowed to go into exile in France after Gorky interceded on his behalf with Stalin.

The Commission for Newspaper Supervision was set up in 1922 as was the Commission to Monitor the Private Book Market. The head of AgitProp, Bubnov, every article and book published by non-party publishers was checked for subversion and authors were categories as revolutionary, Menshevist or Kadetist. Their fate was typified by the arrest of 61 non-party authors in September 1921. Although Gorky secured Lenin's agreement for their release, the Cheka, the new state security organisation, shot all of them without trial.

And so, as time went by, the authoritarian nucleus at the heart of Bolshevism gradually suppressed much of the freedom of expression that was unleashed in 1917. Lenin's own cultural tastes were very conservative – he admired Pushkin and classical music, and was baffled by much of the new forms in art and literature. Stalin was to continue this theme of falling back from the mass democracy of February 1917 through the leadership of the vanguard of October to the Red Tsar of the 1930s.

In cultural form, this was parallelled by the progression from the mass collective cast of the film The End of St Petersburg through the mix of leaders and people in Eisenstein's 1927 celebration of the Bolshevik takeover October to the single prince-hero of his 1937 Alexander Nevsky. It was a trend that culminated under Stalin, but the gradual closing down of all but a single strand of party orthodoxy in politics and in culture began earlier, and to return to Lenin's original quote on the powerlessness of the working class in the absence of bourgeois leadership, it is a trend that it is fair to say was inherent in bolshevism from its inception.

Eisenstein's heroic noble Alexander Nevsky

But while we might lament the failure of true socialism in the Soviet Union, it would be wrong to suggest as some do that it was a complete failure or that there was some viable alternative in October 1917. Russian society was as a whole under-educated and under-developed at the time. The other socialist revolutionary parties were hopelessly compromised by their collaboration with the war parties and it was they, not the Bolsheviks, who excluded themselves from the revolutionary government in November 1917. There were real threats from foreign powers and internal rightwing forces who would have shown no mercy at all if they had triumphed. Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the other commissars of Sovnarkom faced existential crises for more years than they did not.

So in the end, that they created a society that dragged what had been the backward Empire up to superpower status in barely 20 years, eradicated illiteracy, developed the sciences to the point it was Soviets who were first in space, and hugely improved the living conditions of the average Soviet citizen at work, in health and in housing, was an achievement unparallelled in history. It is one which, albeit with many qualifications, we should have some cause to celebrate - and to remember the spirit that rose in 1917 and which we can only hope will soon rise again.

"Proletarian creation guarantees the world commune!"


"No Less Than Mystic" - John Medhurst, Repeater Books, 2017
"Trotsky", Edited by Irving H Smith, Spectrum Books, 1973
"Russian Writers and Soviet Society" - Ronald Hingley, Methuen, 1981

N.b. - the core of this piece was orginally one of several contributions to a Wakefield Socialist History Group meeting on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.


by Rob Dewar


The notorious Highland Clearances ingrained poverty in the Highlands, a poverty that lasts to this day, with a sizable percentage of the working age population dependent on badly paid seasonal work in the horribly named “hospitality industry”, and in other work largely dependent on the seasonal tourist trade. For the remainder of the year (and topping up their wages during the holiday season to a bare living standard), they rely on social security payments, benefits which have been progressively reduced and fenced around with ever more limitations by the southern Tory government, which is today engaged upon an even more brutal “clearance”, in this case, a systematic culling of the poor, the sick and the halt, via want, deprivation, and (were it not for the charities that run food kitchens) outright starvation.

The numbers of Highlanders who suffered eviction, so that the land they worked could be turned over to sheep, ran into the tens of thousands. In many cases, the evictions were sudden and violent, affording their victims not even the opportunity of gathering together their belongings.

In some cases, victims of brutal landowners were bound as they stood, and delivered to emigrant ships there and then. In 1851 the infamous Colonel Gordon of Cluny cleared the Hebridean island of Barra. The Colonel’s tenants were summoned to a meeting, supposedly to discuss rents. There, more than 1 500 tenants were overpowered and loaded immediately onto ships for America

The English were not directly responsible for the Clearances. In the main, those responsible for subjecting the Scottish Highlands to what would become many generations of poverty, were themselves Scotsmen, members of the landed class, including many clan chiefs.

For the Clearances were, above all, a manifestation of grossly inequitable distribution of the land.

True, the transformation of clan chiefs into landowners and landlords was a direct consequence of the Anglicisation of the Scottish gentry, particularly after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

Following the horror of Culloden, the Hanoverians, urged on by English - and Lowland Scottish - advisors, initiated a tranche of legislation, the consequence of which was the collapse of the clan system, the conversion of clan chiefs and their agents into a landed gentry (or in some cases, aristocracy), and the downgrading of clansmen and women – in many cases claiming descent from the same name-father as the clan chief - into mere tenants and sub-tenants on their own land. (A process the Irish were already well acquainted with).

In most cases, clan chiefs were eager to seize upon the new cash economy that resulted. Many took to living far from their clan kin, in Edinburgh or London, with a consequent need to boost their incomes. And this was also the age of Malthusian “land improvements”, of adopting a “scientific” approach to squeezing the last penny from your estates. Enter the sheep.

Sir John Lockhart-Ross of Balnagowan is usually considered to be the first landowner to bring sheep into his estates, in 1762. Along with the sheep, he imported Lowland shepherds. He raised his tenants’ rents, and fenced the land. However, MacLeod of MacLeod (The Chief of the MacLeods) had already begun experiments with “improving” his estates in Sky as early as the 1730s. In 1732 and 1739, Macleod of Dunvegan and MacDonald of Sleat set a useful precedent for the future in selling selected Clan members as indentured servants to landowners in the Carolinas.

This first phase of the Clearances culminated in “the Year of the Sheep”, 1792, when so many estates were given over to sheep runs, so many clansmen and their families uprooted and cleared from the lands they had occupied for generations, that a great wave of emigration occurred. Nova Scotia , Canada, and the Carolinas were the most frequent  destinations for Highland emigrants.

However, the clearances increased in both scale and brutality during the 19th century, and continued in some cases into the 1880s. That infamous couple, Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, and her husband Lord Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland), ordered massive clearances from their Highland estates between 1811 – 1820, with as many as 2000 families evicted within a single day. Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengary, a MacDonald chieftain, was another infamous exponent of industrial-scale clearances of his tenantry. 

The picturesque Highland vistas much admired by visitors to the Highlands today, are the consequence of giving the land over to sheep, to forestry, and to sporting estates (primarily deer shooting). The landscape is denuded of folk. Dotted across the Highland landscape are ruined settlements: sometimes their walls are still evident, at other times there can be seen just a jumble of stones.

The Clearances helped disseminate Highland genes across the world, with most Highland emigrants heading for the Americas, and after that, Australia , New Zealand , and elsewhere in the Empire. The British (that is to say, the English), found an almost inexhaustible source of recruits for their armies, in the form of Highlanders who joined the British army. Sometimes they would do so under the leadership of local Highland gentry, at other times, they joined up individually, rather than starve. The many wars fought by Britain to establish her empire could not have been successfully concluded without these Highland recruits.

(An historical aside: during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the be-kilted Highland soldiers were even more feared by the Indian freedom-fighters than were the Nepalese Ghurkas, who up to that time were considered the exemplars of bellicose fierceness).

The history of the Highland Clearances is a dreadful indictment of a socio-economic system that viewed the rural working class, or clansmen at large, as dispensable: a system that encouraged a landed Highland ruling class towards acts of callous, brutal indifference to the welfare of their tenants, sub-tenants and dependents. It could only have taken place in a socio-economic environment that prized ownership of land above common humanity; it took place, moreover, in an economic environment whereby a very few people owned almost all the land – and were thus able to exercise feudal suzereinty over the common folk who lived on, and worked, the land.

How much has changed today?

Bear in mind that England , Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are the only European countries that have not undergone major land reform during their modern histories.

Fewer than 500 individuals own more than half of Scotland ’s private land – both in the Highlands and the Lowlands . Such a figure can only be arrived at through dedicated private research, for remarkably, there is no definitive register showing who owns what in Scotland . Nor are owners of land obliged to reveal their identity. Nor are they subjected to any scrutiny before acquiring vast chunks of Scottish (invariably Highland ) real estate. Scotland ’s Highland estates are much sought-after internationally, traded like commodities; available to anyone who has the means of buying a sizable piece of Scotland .

Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, is Scotland ’s biggest individual landowner, with 241 887 acres, most of it in the Lowlands and Borders.

After him (though preceded by the National Trust of Scotland) comes Danish retail magnate Anders Povlsen, who owns more than 170 000 acres in the Scottish Highlands. He owns vast swathes of Perthshire, Inverness-shire, and Sutherland – indeed, much the same regions in which the notorious 19th century Countess of Sutherland owned so much land, and from which she cleared so many thousands of people.

In Anders Povlsen’s native Denmark , individuals may buy only a maximum of 620 acres of rural land, and if they wish to buy a rural holiday home, they must live in the rural countryside.

In Norway , which is seven times larger than Scotland , there are only 23 estates larger than 10 000 hectares. In Scotland , there are 144.

A host of private companies and corporations, many of them global, own many 100s of 1000s of acres of land in the Highlands. The Far Eastern conglomerate, GFG Group, through its subsidiaries, Liberty House and SIMEC (having concluded a deal with the previous corporate owners, Rio Tinto Alcan in November 2016), owns more than 100 000 acres of Highland land in Lochaber: a swathe of land stretching from Fort William right across the Mamores range to Kinlochleven, and including much of Glen Nevis and the foothills of Ben Nevis. (The nearest boundaries of this vast chunk of land are located a mere couple of hundred yards from the writer’s village home, and to reach their furthest limits would take the writer over an hour’s driving by car).

But to return to large private foreign owned landholdings in the Highlands : The Van Vlissingen family owns 87 000 acres in Letterewe, and other locations.

“Mr. Saleh”, said to be a Malaysian businessman, owns 71 383 acres in Glen Avon and other locations in the Highlands .

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen owns 69 845 acres at Strathconon and elsewhere.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum owns 61 961 acres at Killilan and Inverinate estates.

Yuri Shefler, a Russian businessman, owns the 21 000 acres comprising the Tulchan estate.

The Scottish (SNP-led) government voted through a Land Reform Bill in March 2016. Although it brought in new protections for tenant farmers, and an end to tax relief for sporting estates, and has set up a Scottish Land Fund with funding of £10 million to assist with community buy-outs, amendments that would have restricted the amount of land that just one individual can own, and which would have prevented land ownership via offshore tax havens, were not passed.

We may regard the Highland Clearances as mere History now. Yet the fundamental issues of land ownership, where just a few individuals, many of them based abroad (and including foreign corporations also) are able to affect the lives of thousands of Scottish people living on the land, have barely been addressed.

We need a far more radical land bill passed, with far more social ambition, than the Scottish government land bill passed earlier this year.

We need the large estates broken up and taken into community, and public, ownership.

We need the issue of “community ownership” as it is currently understood, itself re-examined. If a “community” takes over ownership of, say, several thousands of acres of land, is that land any the more equably distributed in real terms than it was when in single private ownership?

We need the ownership of sizable tracts of land by foreign-based owners – be they private individuals or corporations – banned outright.

We need an upper limit on the amount of land any single individual or corporation can own in Scotland, set at a figure far below 1000 acres. (The precise figure(s) can be debated: it may be that a much lower upper limit for land ownership should be applied in the fertile, arable lowlands, than would be applied in the rock-girt highlands).

We need the identities of land owners, great and small, to be placed on a national register.

We need would-be land owners to be scrutinized, before land can be transferred.

And such a land bill should also seek, at the same time, to address the desperate shortage of homes in Scotland for those of us who are the humble folk of Scotland: for those of us who do not dream of owning some vast tract of Highland real estate, but merely seek a secure, safe, home in which to live and raise our families.

I have explored Scottish housing issues earlier in The Point. Essentially, I advocate above all a massive building program of social housing units. I advocate a very low limit on the number of residential units a single individual or corporation may own. I advocate a prohibition on second home ownership against non full-time Scottish residents.

I advocate legislation aimed at driving the rentier and rack-renter class into absolute, outright extinction.  

The Ghost of Michael Foot: How the Left were Proved Right, 34 Years On

Derek Stewart Macpherson takes heart from the outcome of General Election 2017, and delivers an emphatic lesson from history.


Spin Cycle - The Wash Up

What if they held an election, and nobody won? That's the question everyone's asking as the horse trading continues. We can all try to read the entrails, but the truth is a number of things could still happen and nobody really knows yet how it will pan out. We could go back to what we said, and wrote, before the election and try to avoid saying 'I told you so,' and there may indeed have to be a little of that in due course. The part of the wash up from this election that I want to look at is indeed an 'I told you so' but it's a very old one indeed.

Laying the Ghost of Michael Foot

Yes, this is an 'I told you so' from 34 years ago. Some readers may not remember that far back, but don't worry, I'll explain. A long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, there was a time before neoliberalism. It snuck in the back way, in the form of the IMF, in the Callaghan years, but in 1979 it kicked in the front door, in the form of Margaret Thatcher. She quickly acquired a nickname amongst her cabinet colleagues - she acquired many nicknames of course, this one is not so well known, but very revealing - TINA. It's an acronym. It stands for 'There Is No Alternative.'

It became her mantra, and that of all the neoliberals. What they were doing was radical (the opposite of conservative), revolutionary even. They were overthrowing the post-war economic settlement. There was a lot of resistance. So it was in their interests to keep repeating 'there is no alternative' because if you repeat something long enough, and loudly enough, and with the megaphone of the mainstream media repeating it too, people forget there ever was another way. A way that had produced the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the recorded history of capitalism. And since then a generation and a half have grown up never knowing anything else. This is the only way. There is no alternative.

There was a lot of resistance at first though. Thatcher and her policies were deeply unpopular. Labour's initial response was to move to the left. They elected a leader who was to the left of his predecessor, and they produced a fairly progressive manifesto, which Geoffrey Howe characterised as 'the longest suicide note in history.' So what happened? Well, conventional wisdom says that Howe was right, that Labour lost the subsequent 1983 election by being too left wing, and that left wing ideas (which were then redefined to include anything that wasn't neoliberalism) were unsellable, and left wing leaders unelectable. I've never bought that argument, and I've been saying so for 34 years. So what really happened?

In the early part of 1983 I found myself in the Maclellan Galleries for Michael Foot's main campaign rally in Glasgow. He had quite the reputation as an orator and I was looking forward to hearing him speak. From the start, however, it seemed to me that something was not quite right with him. He rambled, went off on tangents, and at one point launched into a lengthy dissertation on the evils of competition and the virtues of co-operation (much of which I agreed with philosophically, but it's not exactly what you want to hear from a leader who is about to represent you in the biggest competition of them all). Furthermore the rhythm of his speech was odd. He kept putting his emphasis in all THE... wrong places. I came away with an impression of someone suffering dementia, at the stage it's just starting to become obvious. Subsequent events lent substance to this impression.

So Labour had a wounded leader, further handicapped by the insistence of some on the right of the party that he root out certain elements of the left and expel them, causing a great deal of internal division and angst.

                      Remember 'the witch-hunt'?

And he didn't have the 'right look.' This part of the campaign against him was conducted, as always, by the media, and should be immediately familiar to anyone who has watched their treatment of Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader. Foot just didn't conform to the stereotype of what they think a leader is supposed to look like, from his windswept, unruly hair, to his unfashionable Deidre Langton glasses, to his duffel coat (sometimes done up incorrectly), he was just all wrong.

Despite all of these problems, in my opinion, he might still have won had it not been for one more factor. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what is the last refuge of a scoundrelly (yes, it is a word, I looked it up) Prime Minister? A patriotic war! And in 1982, just as Thatcher's unpopularity eclipsed that of any Prime Minister's since records began, we got one. And it was all a little bit too convenient. It started innocuously enough, with some Argentinian civilians landing somewhere remote on the islands, in a sort of passive challenge to UK sovereignty. David Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and by then defector, having been one of those who set up the SDP on my 16th birthday in 1981, said that this had happened several times during his tenure, and that Foreign Office officials had told him they did it regularly, and that the usual response was to send a frigate on patrol there, which he did. Each time that was it, it came to nothing. It's hard to conceive that those same officials didn't give the same advice to Thatcher's Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, yet her government conspicuously failed to act on it.

It always seemed a bit of a devil's bargain to me. Two deeply unpopular governments at opposite corners of the Atlantic. As things stand they are both going down within a year or two. But if they have this war, one of them will survive. Some people think it was a foregone conclusion, but it wasn't. Yes, British forces had a technological edge, but supply lines were stretched 8,000 miles. It was a close run thing. A gamble. They had to conscript a number of civilian ships, one of which they lost along with its cargo of Harrier jets, and bring a bunch of 1950s long range bombers out of retirement. And the way it started, the first shot of the actual conflict, is still considered by many to have been a war crime.

There was once a ship the Americans referred to affectionately as the 'luckiest ship in the navy.' Her name was the USS Phoenix. She was the only capital ship at Pearl Harbour that was not significantly damaged during the Japanese attack in 1941. She went on to have a long and distinguished career with the US navy before being sold to the Argentinian navy where, as the General Belgrano, her luck ran out on the 2nd of May 1982 when she was sunk by the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror (the only ship ever to have been sunk in combat by a nuclear sub). The order to sink her was given by Thatcher personally. The Argentinians, possibly emboldened by the lack of response to their previous landing, decided to test the 200 mile exclusion zone she had declared around the islands. They did so by sending the ship on a zig zag course which intersected with the zone a number of times. Having completed this manoeuvre, she was on a direct heading for her home port when she was sunk with the loss of 323 lives.

Anyway, it's all history now. The war was won with a good old fashioned 'yomp' over wind and rain-swept hillsides and some conspicuous acts of individual bravery. There was a big parade and a 'thanksgiving' service at Westminster Abbey. The what? The wounded veterans? Oh, they were there too, just tucked away up at the back, where the cameras couldn't see them. And when the election was held the following year, a year earlier than it needed to be (wouldn't want the afterglow of victory to wear off), Thatcher duly delivered the largest of her election wins and Labour, their vote further cannibalised by the SDP, was reduced to a miserable 28%, still their lowest vote since their emergence as a major party. And the myth-making began. Labour lost by being too left wing. Not because of the media ridicule of Foot, not because of the SDP split, not even because of the war. No, it was all because of that left wing manifesto.

And then a strange thing happened. Instead of seeing the truth and waiting for the voters' natural distaste for extreme right policies to deliver government back to them at the next election, people in the Labour Party started to believe the myth. The party was torn apart in an orgy of self-recrimination, ensuring they were out of power for a generation. By the time they did eventually win government again, neoliberalism had become so entrenched that even they themselves had embraced it. That was 20 years ago. The neoliberal orthodoxy was not questioned to any great extent until the aftermath of the crash of 2008. The orthodoxy that left wing policies were inherently unpopular and an electoral liability was not seriously questioned even then. Until last week.

Last week all of that went out of the window, and I, and all those who believed as I did for the last 34 years, were spectacularly vindicated. A Labour party with an old leftie leader who didn't look quite right (not to suggest he had any intellectual impairment as I did with Foot), internal divisions, a left wing manifesto promising to undo some of the worst excesses of Thatcherism, and coming from a poll deficit in excess of twenty points when the election was called, pulled off an astounding campaign win. No, they didn't win the election, but they smashed it in the campaign, pulling back 20 points and causing the Tories' leading strategists to resign - to an old campaign strategist like me, that's absolutely a win. And they proved those policies could be extremely popular and energise a lot of previously disengaged young people.

It's just a pity (here's the more recent 'I told you so' bit) that more young and left wing voters in Scotland didn't see, weren't aware of, or didn't respond to calls by me, by The Point and, to be fair, most of the non-aligned left, to vote tactically for the SNP in Scotland. If they had, Jeremy Corbyn would be in No.10 today.

The Tories have of course tried to claim Scotland as a victory, but really their apparent rise had very little to do with them at all. The Corbyn effect was undoubtedly the reason Labour recovered some seats, however in seats where Labour were running third their votes effectively pushed Libdem and Tory candidates over the line. Just enough of them to enable Theresa May to cling to power as it turned out. That's a pity. It calls for another attempt at creating a Left/Yes Alliance, and it calls for the SNP to embrace the new politics and work with the rest of the pro-indy movement towards our common goals. These things will unfold over the months ahead and we will return to them again many times, I'm sure.

In amongst all of that however, let's not lose sight of the momentous nature of what has happened here, for the left in these islands and in the wider world. Left wing policies do sell. This will be seen in the future as an important nail in the coffin of the neoliberal project.

Last week we finally exorcised the demons of 1983 and laid the ghost of Michael Foot to rest!


The British Empire: Was It All Bad?

The Point is a socialist online platform that opens itself up to a wide and broad - even 'heretical' - range of viewpoints from all those who would describe themselves as progressive lefts. It's in that spirit we offer this argument from Rob Dewar.


The getting of the British Empire, a process riven through by greed, treachery, inhumanity and violence, (whose earliest roots lay deep within the institution of slavery), and its ultimate historical legacy, are two very different things.

It may be argued that the genuine legacy of British colonialism is a largely positive one (although, for such an argument to stand, there must exist a willingness to explore the negative consequences of Empire also), having gifted many now independent countries in the world with much to be proud of: in many cases, their existence as single, national sovereign states, for one (I think in particular of India, and of many African countries); and after that, of having bequeathed to them the rule of law; an end to the local, indigenous, slave trades; the pacification of once warlike regions; one or another form at least of democratic government; the opportunity for peoples to engage safely in peaceful pursuits, and thus, via more secure trade, for many to improve their material lot; along with the spread of basic healthcare, and of improved methods of agriculture, and often, of basic education for all who wished it.

All this is possible, because the colonial legacy usually included an infrastructure sustaining these advantages, an infrastructure which almost certainly would not have developed in many parts of the ex-colonial world, had the British not brought their rule to these regions.   

Then there's the popular contemporary view of the British colonial legacy, in which it was all bad: no exceptions, no debate. 

In this viewpoint, regions such as India (a collection of, quite literally, hundreds of princely states before the sub-continent came gradually under British rule; many at war with one-another almost all the time; all ruled by more or less despotic rulers; many districts prey to bandits and robbers), would have been far happier doing without such advantages as the rule of law, an end to the internal slave trade, the pacification of warlike regions, the institution of the semblance of democracy, and the opportunity, through more secure and wider-reaching trade and commerce, for people to work to improve their lot.

Just as the popular contemporary view of the British Imperial legacy would have it that how much happier, before the British arrived, were the peoples of Africa and India, when they were still subject to cruel, despotic rulers; frequent victims of the famine and destruction that accompanied endemic warfare; at risk (should their homelands be overrun by foreign conquerors) of becoming enslaved and sold to cruel masters far from home; prey to bandits and robber-gangs; and free to wallow in the blissful ignorance that accompanies a total lack of wider educational opportunities.

But then, this is how history so often works: invariably, it is a vicious, cruel process in which conquest is visited by a greater power upon weaker entities, by peoples whose arrogance and presumption of inborn superiority to the conquered peoples is, today, repellent, and this, without any advantages accruing to the conquered peoples: only a transfer of the absolute power over them, by one or more indigenous regimes, to an alien regime greater and crueller and more violent than all the rest.

If the British Empire of such contemporary ill repute was different to all the great empires that preceded it, it is not so much in its getting, and often, not in its keeping, either (I think of the brave defence of their religious freedom against an ever more aggressive and officially sanctioned Christianisation process, by the people of northern India – Hindustan, which gave rise to the Indian Rebellion of 1857; I think too of the MauMau rebellion in Kenya, which was put down with even more brutality than that of its progress): no, where the British Empire was arguably different to the rest was (1) that it officiated over its own demise as a matter of imperial policy; and (2) in its tangible, material legacy to the ex-colonial peoples.  

As to (1), it was this controlled demise, which of course was the consequence of a more or less rationally applied policy agreed upon at the highest levels of British Imperial government, of the granting of freedom to ex-colonial subject peoples, which differentiated the British Empire from, say, that of France (think of the agonizingly drawn out battle by Metropolitan France to hang onto Algeria: the tens of thousands of deaths: the legacy, a shattered Algeria, a country that was to lurch into a long-drawn out civil war between more or less moderate forces of government and the forces of Islamist extremism); or Portugal’s African empire (in particular, Mozambique and Angola), which was abandoned almost literally overnight, in such haste, and in a condition of such disarray, that almost immediate civil wars, that were to last the next 2 decades, broke out, with hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths their consequence.   

As to (2), that is, the tangible, material legacy of the British Empire to the ex-colonial peoples; a legacy which was beneficial in so many ways for so many (though not all) of the peoples within the Empire: perhaps the most obvious of these benefits, was the bequeathing to newly independent sovereign states, of well-embedded institutions of government that promised at last the possibility of serving all the peoples of these countries, and not just their elites. Along with well-trained, well-functioning civil services, the British Empire bequeathed a form of democracy, at least, to its ex-colonial possessions: that is, theWestminsterparliamentary system, which is still honoured (though more in abeyance than in operation) in even such ill-ruled and ill-managed countries as Zimbabwe.

Where this democratic legacy has taken root most successfully, is of course, in India, where it supported even the development (for several decades) of a democratic socialist state (Even today, despite the siren-songs of super-capitalism and of corporatism, elements of the democratic socialist tradition are still embedded within Indian institutional life: the Indian railways, for example, are still state-owned; the cost of rail travel is still heavily subsidized).

Then too, the Westminster parliamentary system has taken root successfully in most of the once-British Caribbean island nations, and after them, more or less successfully, in certain ex-colonial possessions in Africa, such as Kenya and Botswana.

However, the British Empire bequeathed more than civil services and a form of democratic government to its ex-colonial possessions: in many instances, it bequeathed a solid foundation of infrastructural development – of manufacturing, processing, and the institutions that encourage and regulate peaceful national and regional trade and commerce. Operating within perhaps that greatest of all imperial legacies – the rule of law – the pursuit of trade and commerce by the peoples of the ex-colonial possessions held a promise (and in many cases did indeed fulfill that promise) of improving the material lot of many more citizens than would ever have been possible within the traditional, pre-colonial cultures.

One might mention also, as part of this tangible, material legacy of British colonialism, the creation of nation-wide basic health services (more or less developed, region by region), and the opportunity of acquiring an education along European lines that would equip some at least of these independent countries’ people with the skills and patterns of thinking necessary to grow their country’s wealth through participation in a global economy.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I remember as a child seeing my first Maasai moran (young Maasai cattle-herder), when my family visited Maasai Mara in 1959/60, and he stood as proud and straight, a pair of spears in one hand (for there were lions, then, in that land, to guard against), as a true lord of the land, not (as today, with his shades and his cellphone, and his ill-thought out items of Western garb) like a neglected child of global European cultural and social influences.

There is a beguiling allure, to at least some of us, of a world in which Europe had never intruded, and in which that world’s peoples had been permitted the freedom, over time, to evolve and apply their own answers to the ages-old human problems of achieving justice, equality, and brotherhood.




The Eternal Dark Heart of Empire

Adrian Cruden reviews Adam Hothschild's searing indictment of Belgian colonialism in the Congo

"Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Cameroon have been beaten, tortured and forced off their ancestral lands to clear vast tracts of forest for a trophy-hunting company owned by the banker Benjamin de Rothschild, activsts claimed yesterday. At least three forest camps have been burnt to the ground by guards, according to survivors, while Baka pygmies caught hunting bush animals to eat said they were tortured by police guarding the forest on behalf of game hunters." (The Times, 3/11/16)

It must be noted that the Rothschild’s strenuously deny any involvement in the incidents and insist they have good relations with the Baka; but according to Survival International there seems evidence that they happened, whoever was responsible.

For much of Africa, such occurrences are nothing new and indeed the happenings in Cameroon pale in comparison with the imperialist destruction of the Continent that has been airbrushed from western histories, which increasingly recast the Age of Empires as a time of progress and glory as opposed to the squalid exploitation that, in the end, is common to all empires of whatever origin.

Joseph Conrad's best known novel is the comparatively short "Heart of Darkness", published in 1902 and originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine. Telling the tale of a steamboat captain, Charles Marlow, sailing upriver in an unnamed European colony, whose purpose is to reach a trading station run by a  well-regarded Company Agent by the name of Kurtz, it documents in chilling and graphic narrative the appalling conditions of the indigenous people: chained together as they carry great loads, reduced to bipedal beasts of burden, left to die under trees and by track sides. And, when the clearly psychopathic Kurtz is finally encountered, his hut is decorated by the decapitated skulls of Africans mounted on stakes. Filmed most powerfully as "Apocalypse Now" and transposed to the Vietnamese conflict, what many don't realise is that it is, in fact, founded on the truth.

Conrad, born in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent several months as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1889 and Marlow is in fact the author himself. What he encountered was enough for him to quit his job and return to his adopted England to write and campaign against the growing horrors of imperialism throughout the colonial world, but especially in the Congo. In this, he worked closely with the great Irish campaigner Roger Casement and the largely forgotten but perhaps most effective human rights campaigner in history, Edmund Morel. Like Conrad, Morel had originally worked on Congo trade, but left his job when he realised that serious abuses were taking place and it was to campaigning against them that he was to devote much of his life.

Their real-life stories and those of many others, not least the previously silent African voices of the Congo basin, are powerfully assembled and recounted in Adam Hochschild's powerful history,"King Leopold's Ghost", originally published in 1998 after years of painstaking and often blocked research. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the dynamics of imperialism, especially that of a commercial type - for, unlike every other European colony, the Congo was not held in the name of a country, but the personal property of Leopold, King of Belgium, who acquired his private fiefdom nearly eighty times the size of his native country via subterfuge, deceit, propaganda and immense, bloody violence.

Hochschild traces the rise of the ironically titled "Congo Free State" from its pre-colonial days when the verdant rainforest basin was home to millions of Africans organised into several states, some of them highly sophisticated with advanced systems of justice, semi-democratic consultative assemblies and an advanced level of material culture. Their way of life was much attuned to respecting and living within the environmental capacity of what, along with the Amazon basin, has been described as one of the lungs of the world. The only things the indigenous societies lacked were the guile and powerful weaponry of the Europeans.

As France, Britain, Portugal and latterly newly-unified Germany began the imperialist "Scramble for Africa" in the 1870s and 1880s, Hochschild examines how the vain and arrogant Leopold felt Belgium was far too small for a man of his ambition. Under cover of Christian philanthropy, he hired the narcissistic explorer Henry Morton Stanley to open up the one area of Africa at that point unclaimed by any colonial powers: the great basin of the Congo river, which cuts across central Africa from its mouth on the Atlantic coast through to just south of the headwaters of the Nile.

Supposedly carrying the "white man's burden" of improving the lot of the primitive native races and freeing them from the tyranny of Arab slave traders from the eastern coast, Stanley tore a path through the rainforest, his expedition consisting of African porters and several hundred well-armed mercenary troops. He slaughtered thousands who got in their way or did not hand over their food stocks on demand, torched scores of villages and forced African kings and chiefs to acknowledge Leopold's pseudo-charity, the International Association of the Congo, as their overlord. Stanley travelled through the area several times and is remembered in the region today as a white-hatted harbinger of death. But back in London, where he published several tomes on his liberation of the lesser races, even today he is celebrated as the man who found fellow colonialist entrepreneur Dr David Livingstone. He was knighted in 1899 as a member of the Order of the Bath (if he ever took one, the water must have run deep red) and served as a Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North before dying in 1904.


Victims of Leopold's "civilising mission".

After Stanley established Leopold's presence in the area, the King, who never travelled to the territory himself, used mercenaries and free booting "entrepreneurs" to open up the area, first to slaughter hundreds of thousands of elephants for ivory and later tap forest trees for rubber. Local men were impressed into brutal service, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the kidnapping of their wives and children, often by both means. Failure to meet quotas often led to the rape and mutilation, or worse, of the hostages. The colonial police, the Force Publique, was renowned for its brutality and its liberal use of a whip called the chicotte claimed the lives of many of their victims, men, women and children. Leopold even established state orphanages run by Catholic clergy for the children of his victims - the boys were raised to be soldiers in the FP; the girls to be servants and in a handful of cases to join the nuns.

The casual nature of the brutality was endemic: Conrad's Kurtz character was based potentially on several officials of the Free State, the most likely being Leon Rom, who edged his lawn with the severed heads of Africans. Paradoxically, Rom also busied himself sending home his landscape paintings of the rainforest, collecting butterflies and publishing a book on African customs. Another inspiration for Kurtz may have been Guillaume Van Kerckoven, who paid the equivalent of half a shilling for each African head brought to him during a military operation.

As well as body-breaking forced labour on ivory and rubber collection and on constructing dams and railways, Africans were indentured simply to serve the bloated white colonials who arrived in the area. Hothschild recovered one Free State official's diary of a journey where African porters hauled his luggage over inhospitable territory: "A file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes... There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful of the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds... No matter! They were all up for the job."


Nsala of Wala with the remains of his butchered 5 year old daughter, her hand and foot.

To portay this as a great civilising mission, Leopold permitted various Christian missions to be established. Most were content to go along with the "necessary" violence and validate the propaganda of the chicotte being necessary to rouse "lazy" natives to work. Initially at any rate, his efforts paid off with humanitarian awards showered on Leopold. Even Mark Twain was moved to write in defence of the King's great works.

But some opened their eyes and began to challenge. Notably, the first two incomers to do so were African Americans. First, George Washington Williams, a remarkable man who fought in the civil war, studied law, served in the Ohio state legislature and became an author, all before the age of thirty. In his historical work, he became one of the first to use the oral history and memories of ordinary people to find the truth of the past, and it was with this mindset that he travelled to the Congo. There, Willaims soon realised that the Free State was far from the philanthropic paradise portrayed by Leopold and his associates and began to write on the abuses to a disbelieving public back in the USA and Europe.

He was followed by a fellow African American, the Rev William Sheppard, who was sponsored by the Presbyterian church to work in the Congo. He similarly, began to expose the brutality of the regime, leading to Leopold having him arrested and put on trial - though he was ultimately acquitted. Other dissidents, like Hezekiah Andrew Shamu, were less fortunate - executed, murdered or hounded to death by the Free State.


Edmund Morel

But of course, however powerful their testimony, black voices were little heard in 19th century Europe or America and it was not until the British activist Edmund Morel came along that the campaign against the Congo became the truecause celebreof the liberals and socialists of Europe.  After realising that the ships he was auditing carried troops and weapons to the Congo but returned empty, Morel quit his job for a shipping firm, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an international campaign to highlight and end the abuse. At great loss and some risk to himself and his family, he almost single-handedly built a coalition that in 1908 forced Leopold to surrender his private state to the Belgian Government, which was at least slightly more accountable for its actions. The King was of course handsomely compensated for his losses. By this time, however, as many as ten million Congolese Africans had died from the brutality of the free state or the starvation and diseases that followed in its wake - around half of the entire population; a genocide unsurpassed even in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Hochschild however highlights the inconsistency of many of those liberals who campaigned vigorously again the horrors of Leopold's Congo but turned a blind eye to similar, if less blatant, abuses by other colonial powers (Stanley's violence was neither the worst nor an isolated example of contemporary practice). He challenges the narrative of "improvement" that imperial powers allegedly brought to the so-called Dark Continent - the narrative not of truth, but of the victors. This, as he explores, is at least in part because few African voices from the time have been recorded. He was himself able to recover a few second hand, but the thousands of records he unearthed for this erudite and well-written piece of work are nearly exclusively those of white imperialists ornpaternalistic if sometimes sympathetic missionaries and visitors.

This is a striking contrast to what could be almost be a companion volume - Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", an account of the final destruction of the Native Americans which does draw on scores of first hand accounts set down by survivors at the turn of the 20th century. It too portrays richly diverse cultures deceived and violently destroyed by descendants of European settlers whose concept of the white man's burden was couched in the equally arrogant and racist notion of their god-given "Manifest Destiny" to overcome indigenous peoples. A combination of imperialist historians and Hollywood populism subsequently crafted a very similar narrative to the Victorian tale of philanthropic imperialism kindly bringing civilisation to ingrates. (Notably, in his lengthy genocidal career, Stanley, as well as serving on both sides in the American Civil War, briefly worked as a journalist in frontier country to assist the US Cavalry with its anti-Native American propaganda.

And it is in this spirit, as much of the rich world reinvents its history to look back ever more nostalgically at empire, that "King Leopold's Ghost" should be read as a warning of the here and now as much as an account of the past. The overt imperialism of European powers ruling African and other states is of course long gone. But, in our globalised, neoliberal world, the truth is that private corporations are buying up huge swathes of poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries. Perhaps even more thoroughly than the Victorians' great Scramble, the Rothschild hunting estates in Cameroon are far from an isolated example: in a new African land grab, European, American and Chinese "investors" now own massive estates with the blessing and naked power of the political elites of the host states. Local people are excluded, alienated from their lands and rights removed and force used to ensure it stays that way. As resource scarcity gathers pace, including food and water supplies, this neocolonial pattern is set to spread ever further and its pathology is ultimately unlikely to deviate fundamentally from the template of exploitation set by Leopold and his contemporaries.

The phrase "those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it" may be well overused, but is often true nevertheless. First of all, however, history has to be written and set straight. In this remarkable dissection of privatised imperialism, Adam Hochschild does a great service not only to the past and the millions slaughtered in the forgotten holocaust in Leopold's sadistic state; he reminds us too that no imperialism, of whatever type or origin, is ever benign.

Adrian Cruden us a member of the Green party in England and publishes the blog 'Viridis Lumen'.

Strike a Light - Story of the Matchgirls Strike of 1888

One of the most significant and important industrial actions in UK history took place in 1888 in East London. Not only did it represent one of the first successful strike actions by organised Labour, it was significant because it was mainly carried and out and organised by teenage girls.

The practice of using White Phosphorous in the Bryant and May factory in Bow, led to suffering for the workers from a degenerative disease known as 'phossy jaw'. Despite their public reputation as philanthropists and Quakers, the factory owners Francis May and William Bryant subjected their workers to awful conditions.

Sparked by a newspaper article by women's rights activist Annie Besant, Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a statement denying Besant's claims. The workers refused, leading to the dismissal of one of them and that sparked the strike, with 1400 workers walking out by the end of the first day.

It's a famous story that has inspired activists and socialists since and became the natural setting for this collaboration between playwright Fatima Uygun and poet Colin Poole. A conversation between the two about their shared love of music hall songs developed into the play, to be premiered at Govanhill Bath's Steamie next month as part of the Southside Fringe.

Poole is a well known poet originally from London who has, through his work that can be found in his book "Verse Versus the Bourgeoisie", often tries to highlight the radical past of London's East End rather than the popular imagery of Pearly Kings and subservience:
"We wanted to create a show that combined the rich history of Music Hall with a political message. Fatima and I were big fans of Harry Champion and other working class song-writers of the time, a chat in a pub about a potential show found it's focus when she brought up the Bryant and May strike, and the idea for the show was born."
Poole and Uygun brought in musician and composer Gavin Livingstone, who had collaborated on several music projects with Uygun's late husband Alistair Hullet, and work began to build what has turned into a traditional music hall musical.

Uygun, who's award-winning play "Three Women" toured working class venues across Scotland last year, explains:
"People love the songs they have come to know through the years associated with music hall and London's East End. We adapted characters and songs from well known shows. We have Burlington Bertie from Bow, songs from My Fair Lady, alongside new music and songs. The story of the matchgirls strike is still one of the most important events in trade union history, but it's important to place that it an entertaining frame. We wanted to create a show that people would enjoy first and foremost, something that wasn't didactic or preachy."

The result is a music hall extravaganza full of surprises. The basic story is of Kathleen and Mary, two matchgirls who get involved in the strike but all of the classic music hall characters turn up. The aforementioned Burlington Bertie, a strongman, sand-dancers and puppets join a cast of 12 on stage.

It's a political story of women's empowerment, of trade union organisation but essentially it's a musical designed, like all musicals, to tug at the heart strings. Colin Poole sums it up:
"We want people to know the story of the matchgirls strike, to celebrate that history but, mostly, we want people to enjoy the show, sing the songs, to laugh and to cry."

Strike a Light is a Pitheid Production written by Fatima Uygun, Colin Poole & Jim Monaghan, original music by Gavin Livingstone and Colin Poole.

May 19th – May 23rd at The Steamie, Govanhill Baths tickets from

Further details of Southside Fringe can be found at and the venue at

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books

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