There may well be a term in rhetoric or in art criticism for what is going on in this cartoon, though I don’t know what it is: What is remarkable about is that the actual meaning of the cartoon (image+text) is the exact opposite of what is clearly its intended meaning. Yes, I’m aware that there are issue in the notions of actual meaning and of intentional meaning, but we’ll leave those.

It’s from Punch, 1921. This was a satirical magazine, something like Private Eye, though without its investigative journalism. Like the Eye it prided itself in taking nothing too seriously, in mocking each and all with equal force – see the episode with the Eye’s founders in the BBC4 series Reunion (available on the BBC website) for a clear statement of this. But, as with the Eye, this claim for Punch is utterly bogus. Despite their occasional mocking at the pretention and corruption of the elite, their political stance has always been with the bossclass. On this, in relation to the whole 1960s ‘satire boom’ see Stuart Ward, ‘ “No nation could be broker”: the satire boom and the demise of Britain’s world role’, in Stuart Ward (ed.), British Culture and the End of Empire, Manchester University Press, 2001.

The political context to this cartoon is the drastic reduction in wages forced upon the miners by the owners, to whom the mines were returned from state ownership during the Imperialist War; note the pit winding-gear in the background. The capitalist has doffed his top hat and tails and is squaring up to the miner; he makes a claim of the same kind that was made in the 19th C when legislation was introduced to limit working hours: that what is at stake is not a matter of choice over which there can be negotiation, bargaining and even physical coercion; no that there are ‘iron laws’ operative here which have the same impersonal implacability as those of the physical world. This is the ‘champion’ to which the capitalist refers.

But what we actually see, round the corner, is a hired thug, labelled ‘economic law’. In other words the situation is not at all that of the actors in class war fighting within the framework of objective laws; these ‘laws’ themselves are a mystified, reified expression of human action. So what the cartoon actually illustrates is a point which is completely the opposite of the one it appears to be making. It’s tempting to say that the latent meaning subverts the manifest meaning; but the trouble with this is that the meaning which does the subverting is up there, on the surface, in yer fuckingface. I find it hard to see how this point was missed by the editors of Punch; but unless we presume that they had a level of awareness of the critique of political economy which – given their milieu – is implausible, it obviously was missed.

It’s one of Clio’s best jokes that just that political voice which never tires of asserting that marxism believes in impersonal, iron laws of history (see, for eg Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Inevitability’) is itself in thrall to the notion that human action is constrained by ‘economic laws’. It’s worth noting that whilst those of Berlin’s kidney always have recourse to the explanation that the marxist theory of history is a crypto-religion; marxism has a very different kind of explanation for the illusion of the objective nature of ‘economic laws’.

This explanation uses the notion of ‘fetishisation’, ie the ascription to an object created by humans of powers that actually inhere in the object’s creators. The model for this explanation is, of course, the pivotal chapter of Capital Vol 1’The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’. This is a notion which is routinely vulgarised into a kind of moralistic sociology on the lines of ‘people make too much of material things’. I believe this is the thrust of Slavo Zizek’s use of this term. Funnily enough, a prominent member of Oxford Philosophy in Pubs had scheduled a session on ‘Is Commodity Fetishism, not Capitalism the Enemy ?’. He wisely withdrew this, as he doubtless realised that even by his standards of arrogantly ignorant bombast he would not be able to present anything on it.

Marx ‘Wins’ a Vote

Marx Comes First, And Looses


So, Marx has come first yet again. Marx has been voted ‘The Greatest Ever Philosopher’ for a BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, following an online poll taken over five weeks. The show, one of the most respected intellectual shows on radio, offered the public an open vote on the 10 greatest philosophers. Marx polled 28% of the vote, easily outstripping second-placed David Hume with 13%, followed by Wittgenstein (7%) and then Nietzsche (6.5%). This has clearly excited a lot of people on The Left, with commentators being trawled out to bear witness to Marx’s relevance, his insights into globalisation, or why philosophy should take Marx seriously. In all cases an air of jubilation presides: what better proof of his importance, that Marx wins the BBC poll for the greatest philosopher. Continue reading “Marx ‘Wins’ a Vote”

‘True Spies’

‘Honest, Guv – we ain’t no subversives’

Sadly, that’s the truth.

Last night [written 28 October 2002] on BBC2, True Spies, the first in a series on the extent of the infiltration by state agencies of organised labour and the Left from the late 1960s. We were told that the State realised in 1968 that its intelligence was inadequate as a result of the ferocity of the demos outside the American embassy against the Vietnam War. One response was to establish a special unit whose members went into deep cover for years on end, with new IDs – they were known as the ‘hairies’ because they would grow their hair long in order to ‘go native’. The programme consisted of contemporary news footage and interviews with activists, ex-infiltrators and an ex-Special Branch senior officer.

Tariq Ali – then leader of the International Marxist Group, a leading force in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – was told that someone who must have been a close friend had copied his keys to burgle the offices of the IMG. His comment was:
‘A form of fundamentalism – you are prepared to use all your energy to further your political aims .. This is amazing, I just felt betrayed.’
This struck me as a stunningly naïve remark, as at that time Ali was a proponent of Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary party, whose cadres would behave in precisely that way. A common term for an infiltrator is ‘mole’ – the name of the IMG’s paper was The Red Mole. I wonder how the name-change from earlier The Black Dwarf came about, I wonder if the infiltrator had a sense of humour. Continue reading “‘True Spies’”

Zikek on Lenin

Unpubl. Letter to The London Review of Books on Slavo Zizek.

‘Lenin and Lacan eh ? wot a pair – fnaar, fnaar!’: as a Viz character might say. Indeed, Slavo Zizek’s review of d’Encausse’s book on Lenin reads like a parody out of an upmarket Viz. He offers a classic hack defence of Lenin, spiced up with references to various bourgeois cultural dissidents whom Lenin himself would have despised (Bataille, Junger, Oshima, Lacan).

It is clear that, for Zizek, Lenin figures entirely as a symbol. He tells us, following d’Encausse, that Lenin destroyed the ideas of his opponents, but not the opponents themselves. The anarchists murdered by the Cheka, and the Kronstadt dissidents slaughtered by the Red Army might well disagree. Continue reading “Zikek on Lenin”

The Central Image in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’

The Telescreen and Bentham

So many accounts of Nineteen Eighty Four miss much of what is distinctive about it; namely that is not just in the abstract about ‘government control’, but is a very particular satire on British Stalinism during the 1940’s, which yet draws one of its central motifs (the telescreen) not from the USSR but from the bourgeois writer Bentham, via Dostoyevsky via Zamyatin. The motivation of the rulers in that world is actually the self-conscious joy in the exercise of power, which merely uses the State as the best instrument for this. Further, in that book, the inhabitants of it are not known by numbers (I originally wrote this as a response to a blog-post on why it is thought dehumanising for persons to be identified by numbers). Continue reading “The Central Image in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’”

The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist

E P Thompson, regarded as one of the greatest of the ‘British Marxist Historians’, argues that the model of base and superstructure is essentially inadequate:

This metaphor from constructional engineering .. must in any case be inadequate to describe the flux of conflict, the dialectic of a changing social process … The model [i.e. base/superstructure] has an inbuilt tendency to reductionism..( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79).

( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79.)

Marx and Engels did use the term ‘superstructure’ in The German Ideology (For example, MARX/ENG German, p 57). However the terminology of base/superstructure attained the status it had in the marxist tradition through its use in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This text itself attained its canonical status through Engel’s review of it in Das Volk, August 1859, there ‘Engels invented dialectics, the progenitor of unresolvable ambiguities within the Marxist tradition’. (CARVER Marx & Engels, p 117, and Ch 4.)

An immense load has been place upon this text, more than is justified by the remark in it that its propositions have been ‘a guiding thread’. (MARX 1859 Preface, p 181) For example, G A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History is almost entirely devoted to defending this text, and it quotes the ‘substantive’ portion of this, beginning with the words ‘In the social production of their life ..’ as a frontpiece. What is remarkable and important here is that this Preface was composed by Marx entirely for tactical purposes and, as such, cannot be taken as a serious statement of his position. Continue reading “The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist”

A Tradition We Must Renounce

A short while ago I came across a note in a socialist historians’ journal from a sixties student ‘radical’ reflecting on student politics then. It helped me to crystallize why I loathe everything about that tradition, whose pale embers are still all about us.

Here is a representative selection from that letter:

We protested; … we burnt an effigy of a British passport … We held discussion groups and Marxist theory classes … Many of the women at those meetings later made national contributions to the women’s movement and equal opportunity. … our generation carries a light .. for radicalism.

The actual – as opposed to the rhetorical – way in which sixties’ radicals related to workers was as manipulative and patronizing as that of the despised Fabians. They mouthed phrases about workers’ power, but this was never about real workers; it was about the tame pets of their own imaginations. Sixties’ student radicals were proud to be ‘vanguardists’. It was they who told people what they “really were” and where their interests “really lay”  Continue reading “A Tradition We Must Renounce”