Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Old soldiers, broken promises, class prejudices

John WatsonMick Hall’s socialist blog, Organized Rage, regularly re-posts obituaries of the unsung heroes of radical struggle, often from the Guardian’s lovely “other lives” series. He published the obituary of John Watson, a British soldier, and a fascinating man:
“His battalion was posted to Palestine in 1948, as the British Mandate came to an end. Watson was appalled by the imminent destruction of the new state of Israel – attacked as it was on four fronts and wholly undefended by the British army. He thought it morally wrong that Jews, who had experienced so much already, should be slaughtered, again. Rifle in hand, he went over the wall to volunteer with Haganah and take part in front-line combat. In the siege of Jerusalem he was wounded. After the conflict he worked on a collective farm, where he met Ora, the woman he married. They went on to farm for four years.

In 1954 he and his wife resolved to return to Britain. He informed the authorities and on his arrival he was arrested and court-martialled for desertion, which he candidly admitted, and sentenced to a year in military prison, which he accepted as his due. The "glasshouse" was notoriously tougher than civilian prison. He was released, for good conduct after eight months and returned to the Suffolk Regiment.”
This was particularly interesting thinking about the recently screened Channel 4 drama series, The Promise, with its representations of British soldiers who served in Palestine, one falling in love with a Jewish girl and thus betraying his British comrades, another falling in love with an Arab people and thus honourably fighting alongside them against the Jews. I also learnt, talking to my father about it, a couple of facts about his father. Like John Watson, my granddad was a working class career armed forces man, in the Navy, who rose to petty officer (the equivalent rank, I think of Waton’s warrant officer, and often the highest rank that working class people could reach). Having an Irish mother, he was not sent to Ireland after WWI, but (and this was one of the things I hadn’t known) to Mandate Palestine instead.

Mick Hall introduces his post on Watson like this:
If anyone wishes to understand what a class prejudiced swamp the UK is, then they need look no further than the obituaries pages of what are laughing called the ‘quality dailies.’ They are full of middle class worthies who have played a role in making the United Kingdom the most unequal nation in western Europe, be they civil servants, judges, politicians. No matter what, your obituary is assured if you are a member of this elite, even if you have spent your life as a tax dodging business man, a judge who sentenced countless innocent people, a TV executive producing crap, politician who lie out of habit and self interest, or military officers whose campaign medals include such illustrious victories as the six counties of Ireland, Suez, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
True the odd middle class lefty may get a look in, along with luvies and musicians by the score, and just so we do not forget the empire where the sun never set, the occasional Gurkha squadie who during WW2, killed 81 Japanese solders in a single afternoon.
I once asked the editor of an obituaries page why he rarely published obits of ordinary people who have experienced or done interesting things in the lives. “Ah Mick,” he replied, you simply do not understand, I would love to, but you must remember we rarely have photos of such people in our libraries and an obit cannot go out without a picture alongside”
I nodded and turned away thinking, does he really believe such crap. Of course I am over egging the pudding here, but not by that much, the Guardian now has the excellent Other Lives, but even its title suggests a certain amount of class prejudice, it is as if there are those who deserve by right to be in the papers obituary page and those who lived other lives and do not.
Below is an example of what I mean, few people lived a more interesting life than [John] Watson, a man who fought tenaciously for sovereign and country, but also when a situation arose, turned away and fought for a people who he believed needed his help. His causes are not mine, but I defy any honest man not to raise his cap to this old solder.”
I agree with most of Mick’s sentiments here, but one thing slightly disturbed me: the implication that Mick’s leftist audience are likely to disagree with his assessment of John Watson, because he served in the military and because he was on the Israeli side in 1948.

Another resonance: it is Christopher Hitchens’ 61st birthday on Wednesday this week, and I am glad that he will live to see it. I am reading the new paperback edition of Hitch-22. I found the first chapters, about his parents, incredibly moving, but then found the account of his privileged education rather tedious. The Hitch’s father had a number of similarities to my granddad. As well as some geographical coincidences, both were working class men who gave their lives to the British armed forces (my granddad lied about his age to join the Navy when war began in 1914; he was just 14). Both remained committed to their sovereign and country, and saw the empire and Commonwealth as Britain’s true friends, not the Atlantic alliance. Hitchens beautifully captures the tragedy of their working class Tory worldview (“so little to be Tory about”, as he notes). 

59 comments:

Levi9909 said...

Bob - is it really only "Mick’s leftist audience" that are perturbed by a bogus rendering of history? Are there no centrists and rightists who see truth as a value in its own right?

The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians had been in progress for 7 months and 300k were already refugees by the time the Arab states mobilised against Israel (though Jordan's position was ambiguous at best). If John Watson's worldview or take on the situation at hand was tainted by prejudice or misinformation, that's very sad, but the Guardian didn't have to take the opportunity of his death to promote yet another myth of zionism.

I've seen a few potted histories or obits of Jews in the old IRA who went on to fight for the zionist conquest of Palestine and, thinking about now, republicans from the Fenian period who went on to become enthusiastic genocidaires in America. It's not so disturbing to read of their deeds where they were heroic or just interesting. But we don't seem to get such bogus renderings of the history in the case of America (or the Americas) or of Ireland as we do in the case of Israel.

BrockleyDave said...

The accusation that a worldview is tainted by the time you arrive and prejudice and misinformation is interesting.
There was no complaints from levi that the recent channel 4 series the promise on palestine and the British army started in 1945 . This of course managed to ignore the great Arab revolt of 36-39 and the massacres of jews in the 20,s and 30,s.It also ignored attacks on jews before the creation of israel and Britains withdrawl.

levi tells us that ethnic cleansing is wrong but then condemns John watsons worldview in trying to stop a similar event in Jerusalem.Or does resisting attempts to kill jews or remove them from jerusalem not count because they might be Zionists?

Levi9909 said...

I didn't see The Promise so couldn't comment.

I didn't condemn John Watson.

The idea that it was Arab behaviours prior to the zionist conquest and ethnic cleansing of Palestine that led to the conquest and ethnic cleansing of Palestine is a self-serving absurdity which ignores the ideology and practices of zionism from the founding of the WZO and the JNF and of its UK allies from 1917.

The obituary in The Guardian doesn't just invoke danger to Jews in Jerusalem. It asserts a threat to destroy the fledgling Israel and ignores that the zionists had already been attacking, killing and ethnically cleansing Palestinian Arabs for seven months prior to the Arab mobilisation. It also ignores the apparent confidence with which the zionist movement initiated hostilities, the sheer backwardness of the Arab forces (armies and irregulars) and the fact that the zionist forces actually had the Arab armies outnumbered in terms of soldiery and outgunned in terms of equipment.

But my question was to ask Bob why he assumes it is only leftists who would be "perturbed by a bogus rendering of history". It looks like an exercise in red-baiting, that's all.

Levi9909 said...

Sorry, I keep missing that email update thing.

bob said...

Here we go again.

This is what I said: "I agree with most of Mick’s sentiments here, but one thing slightly disturbed me: the implication that Mick’s leftist audience are likely to disagree with his assessment of John Watson, because he served in the military and because he was on the Israeli side in 1948." I did not say anything about what readers would say about the version of history here, but about Watson's military service and about the side that he was on in 1948.

Most readers, of whatever political stripe, know too little about 1948 to know whether they're reading an accurate or bogus rendering or not. (If they watched The Promise and assumed it to be an accurate rendering, then they will no doubt find John Sutherland's account here bogus.)

I am assuming that most of Mick Hall's readers are left-wing, because it is a pretty un-ambiguously left-wing blog, and most leftists (like most political people) are pretty tribal in their reading patterns. The only non-leftist blogs on Mick's 'roll are Irish themed, incidentally.

Mick makes the point that Watson's cause was not his. He is referring, I think, both to Israel and Ireland: Mick is both an anti-Zionist and a Republican. Yet he is moved by the heroism of this working class man.

Most leftists, I believe, are wired to feel contempt for soldiers. That's the first thing.

The second thing is his position in 1948. Sutherland's one sentence rendering is of course a simplification and like all simplifications it distorts. I also find Levi's reduction of it to an endless one-sided process of Israeli ethnic cleansing to be a simplifying distortion, even if expressed in more sentences. (British deserters who wired up car bombs against Jewish targets in Palestine in 1947 would be another piece of the mosaic; Glubb Pasha's leading of the Arab Legion in the siege of Jerusalem would be another.)

As for the Guardian taking the opportunity to promote a myth, I think that's nonsense. Sutherland is a regular Guardia contributor, but not a payroll employee. Scrolling back quickly over his archive strengthens the sense I had: that this is probably the first time he has mentioned Israel in one of his articles. If he is a "Zionist", I suspect only in by the distorted definition of some paranoid anti-Zionist imaginary.

The obit is not an official Guardian obit, but in the "Other lives" column, where people send in their own obituaries of the less renowned. A wonderful thing the Guardian does. Sutherland knew Watson: they served together at some point. (Sutherland was born in 1938 and graduated in 1964, so presumably did National Service before he went to university.)

None of us here can know whether Watson went to Palestine with what prejudices, and we have no right to comment on that. Accounts I've read suggest that antisemitism and anti-Arab racism were both rife in the British armed forces in that time, although there are lots of instances of philosemitic and philo-Arab sentiment (both, especially the latter, more amongst officers than teenaged privates). Antisemitism was widespread in English society in the period when he was growing up, but he didn't come from an area where there were many Jews. Those who had served in Europe in WWII had a particular slant; Watson was too young to have done so. I think you'd be very ill-advised to speculate on this one man's prejudices.

bob said...

I didn't, by the way, want this to be a post or a comment thread about Israel, but about both left-wing and establishment attitudes to working class lives, and to their military service in particular. I'd be very interested to hear what people think about that. Is Mick barking up the right tree? (Paul Stott and Ian Bone have both said things along similar lines, to more consternation than not from their anarchist comrades.)

Prolisk said...

"The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians had been in progress for 7 months and 300k were already refugees by the time the Arab states mobilised against Israel..."

As Brockley Dave points out, you do of course have to factor in the Arab Revolt. That was a turning point for many Jews in Mandate Palestine, and the lesson they took from the Holocaust which followed - not to mention the Hitler cuddling of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem - is that Jews require a state and self-defence.

Bascially Levi, if you had been there you'd almost certainly have been a vociferous Zionist. You'd have been scolding the Arab population for not being more welcoming of the stateless and persecuted. Those Jewish immigrants and established populations who wanted to live without borders simply did not succeed in convincing their majorities, and were unable to immunise that corner of the world from the violent spasms affecting the rest.

Bob, interesting piece. Bollocks about needing a portrait - all you need is an image that evokes the spirit of the obituary.

Do you know what your granddad experienced in Mandate Palestine? I had a grandparent there too (a refugee from pogroms, got Palestinian naturalisation under the British - but it was tough making a life there and she hotfooted it to London as soon as she could, which was pre-WW2 (she was of a metropolitan, not ideological, bent) and supported Israel from there ever after.

Prolisk said...

As Brockley Dave points out, you do of course have to factor in the Arab Revolt. That was a turning point for many Jews in Mandate Palestine, and the lesson they took from the Holocaust which followed - not to mention the Hitler cuddling of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem - is that Jews require a state and self-defence.

Bascially Levi, if you had been there you'd almost certainly have been a vociferous Zionist. You'd have been scolding the Arab population for not being more welcoming of the stateless and persecuted. Those Jewish immigrants and established populations who wanted to live without borders simply did not succeed in convincing their majorities, and were unable to immunise that corner of the world from the violent spasms affecting the rest.

Bob, interesting piece. Bollocks about needing a portrait - all you need is an image that evokes the spirit of the obituary.

Do you know what your granddad experienced in Mandate Palestine? I had a grandparent there too (a refugee from pogroms, got Palestinian naturalisation under the British - but it was tough making a life there and she hotfooted it to London as soon as she could, which was pre-WW2 (she was of a metropolitan, not ideological, bent) and supported Israel from there ever after.

Prolisk said...

There was an interesting documentary on the radio maybe six months ago where a former soldier, now academic, commented that the working class nature of the UK army's rank and file is a source of a lot of the prejudice and misconception about the army, and if it were a citizen army things would be different.

Levi9909 said...

Bob - thank you for what was almost a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. It's a pity you preceded it with a little display of tetchiness.

I don't know about Paul Stott at all and not much about Ian Bone but it might not just be their portrayals of working class people (or references to the same) that trouble their readers.

Prolisk - you can factor in the Arab revolt but you really ought to note what they were revolting against. Most of the victims of the subsequent ethnic cleansing had nothing to do with any revolt.

Bob mentioned Juliano Mir Khanis in an earlier post and decently lamented his treatment by Angry Arab and Harry's Place. Khanis's mother Arna had been a zionist in 1948 and participated in the Daled Plan but left the movement complaining that she had been duped.

See this interview:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAQYKvxO3vs&feature=player_embedded

Prolisk said...

"Most of the victims of the subsequent ethnic cleansing had nothing to do with any revolt."

Don't really get that. Most of the Jews victimised by the Arab Revolt were similarly undeserving - but they got it in the neck anyway. Think of what a precarious existence it was. That's one of the reasons I say that as a Jew in Mandate Palestine you'd have perceived little to lose and everything to gain by fighting for that, and that needs to be acknowledged in discussions about this matter.

I would like to caution against your casual use of the term 'ethnic cleansing', but I hope you'll agree we shouldn't indulge ourselves in that way when our gracious host Bob has indicated a preference for discussing working class military lives. I'll be reading rather than contributing from now on because on that subject I've everything still to learn.

Levi9909 said...

All I was querying was what I (wrongly) thought was Bob's red-baiting. I too want to honour Bob's wishes but I don't like to let a working class history be used for an exoneration or excuse for war crimes.

Noga said...

I left a comment which disappeared into the nether regions of the Internet, again. It included a quote from this letter by Benny Morris:

"It is true that Plan D gave the regional commanders carte blanche to occupy and garrison or expel and destroy the Arab villages along and behind the front lines and the anticipated Arab armies' invasion routes. And it is also true that mid-way in the 1948 war the Israeli leaders decided to bar the return of the "refugees" (those "refugees" who had just assaulted the Jewish community), viewing them as a potential fifth column and threat to the Jewish state's existence. I for one cannot fault their fears or logic.

The demonisation of Israel is largely based on lies - much as the demonisation of the Jews during the past 2,000 years has been based on lies. And there is a connection between the two.

I would recommend that the likes of Norris and Landy read some history books and become acquainted with the facts, not recycle shopworn Arab propaganda. They might then learn, for example, that the "Palestine War" of 1948 (the "War of Independence," as Israelis call it) began in November 1947, not in May 1948. By May 14th close to 2,000 Israelis had died - of the 5,800 dead suffered by Israel in the whole war (ie almost 1 per cent of the Jewish population of Palestine/Israel, which was about 650,000)."

http://jeffweintraub.blogspot.com/2008/02/benny-morris-on-fact-fiction-propaganda.html

Red Noga said...

Bob, the rabid, Zionist, red-baiter!

Levi9909 said...

Demonisation of Israel is a tad imprecise but most solidarity opposition to Israel is based on a thorough knowledge of history, a knowledge of zionist aims, objectives and behaviours (current and historical) and sympathy for the plight of the primary and most numerous victims of zionism, the Palestinians together with profound suspicion (at best) as to the motives for western establishment support for Israel.

Most defences of Israel seem not even to be based on lies around the history anymore even if we accept old Benny Morris - the new historian or new Benny Morris - the old historian. They tend to be based on smears and irrelevances.

Anyway, apologies to Bob for suggesting he was red-baiting rather than simply pointing out that Mick Hall's readership is left leaning. If Bob had have said, Mick's readership rather than "leftist audience" I don't think I would have commented at all.

skidmarx said...

Here's John Sutherland on Rachel Corrie.
I know there are quarters in which the tone of that article would be interpreted as wanting the terrorists to win. Here he suggests that Israel shouldn't actually get the Mafia in to exterminate the Palestinians.

I think Mick Hall's argument is bollocks: Middle-class press ignores working class dead, and to prove it here's an obituary from...The Guardian.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Most defences of Israel seem not even to be based on lies around the history anymore even if we accept old Benny Morris - the new historian or new Benny Morris - the old historian. They tend to be based on smears and irrelevances."

But of course.

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2011/04/conscience-and-terror-in-jewish-thought.html

bob said...

Checking in quickly, just got time for a couple of quick random comments.

I know nothing about what my granddad's experienced in Palestine. I intend to ask my father more about it. I'll report back! Oddly, by the way, he died of the same type of cancer Hitchens now has.

On the other side of the family, the Jewish side, my great-uncle, if I recall the family narrative correctly, although an American citizen, served in the British army during WWII (I think possibly in the East Kent regiment? is that plausible?) and then joined the Haganah afterwards, and then the IDF.

On the other subjects, I think that there is widespread middle class hostility to soldiers, a form of the class conceit that middle class people direct against builders etc, an extreme form of which being "chav" hate. There is completely separate left-wing ideological opposition to militarism, which is totally legitimate, but often this becomes intertwined with the class conceit. You see this in the politics that plays out over the red poppy every year - Stott and Bone being anarchists who wear red poppies.

Anonymous said...

"I don't like to let a working class history be used for an exoneration or excuse for war crimes."

Well, if you're honest, Levi (and we all know, because you've told us many times, what a glowing tribute to honesty you are) you are incapable of giving consideration to anything other than Israel. That you have chosen this blog to incontinently spray with misinformation is our misfortune.

Noga said...

Just for the record, "anonymous" who uses a favourite word of mine ("incontinent") is not me.

bob said...

Well done Skid for semi-refuting my belief about Sutherland - hope you didn't have to trawl all the way back to 2003 to find the articles!

More on yr refutation of Hall's argument tomorrow - off to have my tea now. (Or dinner, as more Guardianistas would probably say.)

Also, should say I don't mind people arguing about 1948 here, only that it wasn't my intention to focus on Iz/Pal again.

BrockleyDave said...

Sometimes the truth about what soldiers think isn,t based on which side is wrong or right .
Just a simple desire to get back in one piece ,spend time with your mates and have fun where you can get it.
if this dosen,t seem like a Ken Loach film on the Spanish civil war thats because it isn,t.
As it happens i see nearly every day a veteran of the British Army in Palestine.He still wonders if the Irgun were shooting at him or the searchlights on his position.
He talks alot about his mates the fun he had and his admiration as soldiers for the Jordanians under Gulba pasha .
On who was right or who was wrong dosen,t seem to be of much interest .
I,m not sure he is a working class hero ,perhaps he was just a young man doing his time and making the best of it in a difficult situation.

Levi9909 said...

anonymous - just a note on etiquette. if you're accusing someone of misinformation, you should say what the misinformation consists of.

I'll give you a couple of worked examples.

You have misinformed the thread in that you accused me of misinformation.

You also say that I am "incapable of giving consideration to anything other than Israel."

That too is misinformation in that my first comment to the Guardian/Libya thread addressed all or most of the points in the post.

See? Two worked examples of misinformation and both came from you.

bob said...

Getting on two Skid's comment.

1. I read the two Sutherland articles you link to. I am sure that over-vigilant ultras in the Zionist and anti-Zionist camp would find both articles offensive, but most normal people would see them as not really taking any sort of position, or certainly not any sort of plumping for one camp or anther position, on the conflict.

2. On the Guardian obit for Watson being proof that Mick Hall is wrong. I get the point, but Mick has partly already answered it, when he says: "the Guardian now has the excellent Other Lives, but even its title suggests a certain amount of class prejudice, it is as if there are those who deserve by right to be in the papers obituary page and those who lived other lives and do not." I think this is true.

Like Mick, I commend the Guardian for this great series, but it is very much the exception rather than the rule.

The Guardian as the Manchester Guardian was always a little removed from the metropolitan Oxbridge classes that ran the other "qualities" (or "unpopulars", as Kelvin Mckenzie rightly called them). I think a really core element of its readership is composed of people from working class backgrounds who benefited from the Robbins report and the mass expansion of higher education in the post-war years (some after their national service), and developed a loyalty to the Manchester Guardian while undergraduates at the redbrick universities of the North and Midlands, like Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds. It is often that generation who are celebrated in the Other Lives series. It is only more recently that the Guardian has come to be associated with the latte-drinking classes and synonymous for a certain sort of metropolitan liberal elitism, and the old Guardian still shines through in patches.

skidmarx said...

1. Yeah, that's what I thought too.

2. It isn't conclusive evidence that he's wrong, but it's not supporting evidence for his case. If he wanted to make a case, then some analysis of the general obituaries to support his assertion would be called for.

As would be the case for associating the Guardian with the latte-drinking classes, etc. Again I'd tend to associate the working class with a considerable majority of the population (going for that Marxist definition of class thang) so perhaps there is a wider disagreement here. I would be willing to accept as a working hypothesis that the Guardian has had more of a tendency to employ talentless gits in recent years, and there be some correlation with university and school attendance.

Anonymous said...

In fact, Levi, in your case I've decided to try simply asserting things and seeing if they stick. You've demonstrated how effective this is - you can sow a lot of mistrust and uncertainty and without much effort.

Please think of this as a tribute to your good self - it's entirely inspired by your own technique.

Re the Libya thread - I assumed that was simply a preamble to bringing up Jenin. Didn't take you long. I should also allow though that you do have another great interest - your own credentials.

Levi9909 said...

anonymous, you are attributing a motive to me simply to support an earlier false assertion of your own.

And the only time I have ever mentioned anything that could be described as my "credentials" was a facetious and fairly spontaneous response to a lengthy, detailed and highly personal diatribe from a detractor who, like you, appeared not to be able to make a positive case for their own position.

Still it's very clever making personal remarks about me and then using my defence to make out I am self-obsessed or, if I don't respond, to make out that the false allegations are true.

And all that under cover of anonymity.

Well done that person!

ModernityBlog said...

"I think Mick Hall's argument is bollocks: Middle-class press ignores working class dead, and to prove it here's an obituary from...The Guardian."

Mick Hall's argument essentially is that the Middle-class press, overall, tend to ignore, downplay or have tokenistic obituaries.

Now someone who reads them probably more than I should, I would tend to agree with him, the range that I read is varied but the commonality is class.

Middle-class.

Every now and again they throw in the odd working-class hero, but that doesn't detract from the essentially middle-class outlook of the obituaries.

Even in death the British class system shows itself.

Of course, if you've been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, or have a particular middle-class outlook you might not agree with Comrade Hall, but that doesn't detract from his point.

Hall has a sensitivity to class, however, that is not true of everyone nowadays, so he sees things differently.

skidmarx said...

Modernity misses the point once again.In multiple ways. Maybe Mick Hall could have a point to make, but having your one piece of evidence being contradictory to that point makes the argument invalid as it stands.
And your usual stupid swipe about an Oxbridge education shows that you don't understand that students aren't reducible to being middle-class or that such a think pre-determines future class position.
Along with your claim that it's all middle-class but can't point to anything that is your comment is fairly value-free.

ModernityBlog said...

Mick Hall could have also made a comment that the middle-class are often condescending, sneering and dismissive of criticism, but he didn't, however, *I* would.

The indoctrination that takes place in Oxbridge makes its recipients feel that they, and they alone, have a point.

However, to understand the class nature of Oxbridge requires a degree of self-awareness which is sordidly missing in Skidmarx's case.

Anyone consciously reading the British media would see a similar attitude time and again, but it does require a degree of class consciousness to get that particular point.

Mick Hall reads the obituaries he made a value judgement based on his own sampling.

If we were to read all obituaries in all quality papers, what would we see?

The predominance of the middle-class.

Occasionally, a bone thrown to some working-class hero, but that's it.

Those who understand class would see that, and those who don't, won't.

skidmarx said...

"Indoctrination" , missing "self-awareness" - these describe nothing but the nonsense in your own head. Once you understand my last comment, particularly "Maybe Mick Hall could have a point to make, but having your one piece of evidence being contradictory to that point makes the argument invalid as it stands", then it might be possible to have a sensible discussion, but as it is you're just pissing into a headwind.

bob said...

Civil language please. Calling names, calling people stupid, etc will result in deletion from now on.

ModernityBlog said...

Mick Hall's point is perfectly rational for those with the ability to see it.

The gist of his argument is that the quality papers' obituaries are dominated by middle class.

The key word here is, dominated.

A single *counter* example does not detract from the domination.

If one is sensitive to middle-class attitudes and their stranglehold on society one can see that, and if one isn't, one won't, as it were :)

bob said...

In a simplistic Marxian analysis, the term "working class", meaning any one who works, is very broad, and many middle class people fall into it (including e.g. any SWP members, or a Guardian journalist). Mick and Mod are using "working class" in more of a cultural or sociological sense. In this sense, the middle class, even if only having its labour power to sell, has enormous social power in our highly culturally stratified society. Whose death counts in the "quality" papers is one expression of that social power.

skidmarx said...

A single *counter* example does not detract from the domination.
But having a counter-example as your only example in no way validates his argument. I did originally think of writing that his premise was false, but then thought that precisely the opposite might well be the case, but that he's not just as he admits "over-egging the pudding"[Strange coincidence that I accused Bob of that a couple of weeks ago], but making noughts out of crosses.

Bob - yeah, and they might be right to some extent (though not with their arguments or lack of them, see above), though when cultural attitudes are ascribed to a class and then the expression of those attitudes is taken as a class marker I feel that an unreasonable jump of explanatory substance has been made, let alone whether class should be judged as a relationship to the means of production (my fave)rather than by a rag-bag of social indicators.
But then trying to explain to mod that certain educational institutions don't have a brainwashing mechanism to transform students into reliable middle-class members of an effete cosmopolitan elite may prove challenging. This may appear to the moderator as unwarranted abuse, but I really would be at a loss as to why he keeps referring to Oxbridge in every discussion. At least he is talking again, rather than trying to get those he has trouble arguing with from every blog he can, which is a step forward.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Skidmarx

though when cultural attitudes are ascribed to a class and then the expression of those attitudes is taken as a class marker I feel that an unreasonable jump of explanatory substance has been made, let alone whether class should be judged as a relationship to the means of production (my fave)rather than by a rag-bag of social indicators.

The two analyses are complimentary, not contradictory.

As a Marxist, surely you'd accept that the ruling class do have a certain ideology, as a class? From that, it's not a massive leap of logic to suggest that there are specific values and culture that are primarily, or even exclusively, working class. Not crossing picket lines and not grassing are both attitudes I would argue are attitudes that spring from working class culture.

And people's social indicators spring from their relationship to the means of production anyway. I'm not saying it's a conscious process, more a matter of osmosis.

Which is why you see middle class people in political campaigns subconsciously assuming that they are entitled to leadership positions and acting accordingly. It mirror the role of the middle classes in society and the confidence instilled in them from very early on. Another example of this process is the more lifestylist wings of anarchism, which are overwhelmingly middle class.

That isn't to say that no middle class activists transcend their class background on this (in the same way as some working class people buy into the dominant ideology), but it's still a notable pattern.

But then trying to explain to mod that certain educational institutions don't have a brainwashing mechanism to transform students into reliable middle-class members of an effete cosmopolitan elite may prove challenging.

Are you seriously arguing that there is no difference between Oxbridge and an ex poly as far as cultural attitudes go?

It's not a "brainwashing mechanism" as that suggests conspiracy. In fact, the process is entirely organic and unconscious.

But, first of all, a tiny minority of Oxbridge students come from working class backgrounds, even in comparison to other redbrick unis.

And the minority that do are under a great deal of ideological pressure to adopt Oxbridge values. An ex of mine was a working class student at Oxford and she very much found that was the case. In particular, they were indirectly encouraged to see themselves as a societal elite.

bob said...

This is an enormously complex topic, about which whole rooms' full of books have been written .(Pierre Bourdieu is essential reading theoretically, and I'd recommend Bev Skeggs on the UK.) Here's a few thoughts.

There was once a time when relationship to the means of production almost approximated other differences in terms of culture and social power, but they have become increasingly unmoored, as working class consumer power has increased, as new social and economic layers have emerged between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and with mass education and new forms of social mobility. To reduce class and social relations to a simple relationship to the of production is completely untenable today, if it ever made sense at all.

It is also surely undeniable that certain forms of accreditation, distinction and qualification, including whether you went university, which university you went to, which school you went to, how you speak, how you deport yourself, etc - count for an awful lot in our society, often more than simple wealth or relationship to the m.o.p. While some "bourgeois" social scientists might try and reduce this to a ragbag of social indicators, most sociologists, and more ordinary people who do their own sociology all the time, recognise that it is much more complex than this, but nonetheless not an abstraction. [continued...]

bob said...

[...continued] No-one worth arguing with would talk about "brain-washing", but any working class person who has gone to an elite university can tell you the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, pressures to confirm and fit in, including at the level of attitudes. And the huge weight of reinforcement this gets in the rest of society - in terms of the doors that open when people have been to the right college or university, the power of connections, the insider knowledge people who have been trained in the ways of the ruling class - keeps this going long afterwards.

--

This is an aside, and I'm thinking aloud: I find it interesting that the SWP, which has the most middle class of memberships of left groups (in my purely anecdotal experience going back nearly a quarter of a century!) should most strongly push the populist idea of the working class as basically more or less anyone who works, or might one day work, or at least who doesn't own a company. (That's oversimplifying, but I've heard it more or less expressed like that.) This is politically appealing, of course, but it is particularly appealing to middle class people.

But at the same time, again speaking anecdotally, the SWP implicitly realise the sociological dimension of class, as reflected in the non-place-specific workerish comradely accents the cadre are somehow trained in.

(I think, also, that if the SWP thought through the notion of state capitalism properly, in the way CLR James did, they would need to think more carefully about state capitalism's class base, which James so well identified, and which is heavily represented in precisely the social layers where the SWP is most over-represented.)

[continued...]

bob said...

Finally, I recognise there is a danger in talking about "working class culture" in too essentialist a way. Red Action and Class War both did this, and it has licensed some unpleasant behaviour in both parties.

More recently, in a world where the multiculturalist framework - society as made up of a series of descrete, autonomous, static "cultures", and culture as the private property of particular ethnic groups - teh notion of working clas culture can take a more dangerous twist.

Michael Collins blazed a trail here (see links in my Friday post), in calling for a multicultural celebration of white working class culture.

But right-wing politicians and journalists have picked up the meme, seeing the white working class as a beleaguered tribe in need of protection (see Rogaly link in my comment at Paul Stott's place). And by liberal policy-makers, in talking about white working class boys' education failure (see Gillian Evans' brilliant book about Bermondsey.)

--

Sorry to go on. Going outside into the sunshine.

skidmarx said...

As a Marxist, surely you'd accept that the ruling class do have a certain ideology, as a class?
Yes, sometimes more than one.

Yes there's a general correlation between social attitudes and class, but I don't have time right now to go into it, for now think PCI block-booking opera tickets at La Scala didn't stop Italian workers being proletarian.

Bob - even less time, but it's the job you're doing after university that generally determines the class you're in. Callinicos and Harman wrote a book called "The New Middle Class" in the 80s which has a more complex spin on class than "we are the world (except for a tiny minority)".

bob said...

Thanks Skid. I have to confess I can't recall reading SWP literature on this topic, and am just going on impression from conversations with members and the paper and mag.

In purely economic terms, of course it is the job you do that counts. But in social and cultural terms, that is not true; your upbringing and eduction are crucial.

skidmarx said...

Callinicos

skidmarx said...

As I was looking through the ISJ archive to find the above, I noticed an article on North Korean state capitalism, and Cliff on the Arab regimes.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

Finally, I recognise there is a danger in talking about "working class culture" in too essentialist a way. Red Action and Class War both did this, and it has licensed some unpleasant behaviour in both parties.

What specifically are you referring to here?

I disagree with some of what the IWCA have come out with about immigration but I'd see it as a political mistake as opposed to springing from an essentialist approach to working class culture. (And it is different to some arguments that I've heard ex RA people making, which is one of the issues with the fact the IWCA is still overly secretive in its approach to debate. That stems from the AFA background, not the approach to class I think). But the IWCA/RA have definitely rejected the "white working class" meme. It was on the old site, but I recall them criticising the BBC on this precisely because they didn't believe that the white working class in any way had a separate class culture to the class as a whole. So they're at least consistent about rejecting a racial analysis.

Class War are even more complex. I think you've got a stronger argument here with them than you have with RA. A lot of it stems from their tabloid approach to propaganda which always risks reproducing fashionable prejudices. While their stance on the middle class in Unfinished Business was relatively sensible, that hasn't always been reflected on the streets. A particular 'highlight' was the article in the paper where they called all teachers middle class wankers, back in the 90's. (That isn't, to be fair, something I can imagine the IWCA doing). The other major thing that springs to mind was the infamous burning of a Mohammed effigy (alongside Jesus, to be fair). But I'd see that as springing from their auto anticlericalism as opposed to their class analysis.

There is obviously the bollocks that was the Openly Classist analysis, but it's not really fair to blame CW for the views of a group that split off, anymore than the SWP are responsible for RA.

I find it interesting that the SWP, which has the most middle class of memberships of left groups (...) should most strongly push the populist idea of the working class as basically more or less anyone who works, or might one day work, or at least who doesn't own a company.

Actually, they don't quite push it the most. The SPGB don't believe the middle class exists at all, if I recall correctly.

bob said...

Re RA/CW, I was thinking more of a certain type of macho culture, including low-level homophobia and sexism.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Fair enough. I never had any experience of that from either group, but RA weren't that big where I was and were some of the mellower members of the group. (The issue I saw more, especially on national stuff, was certain RA members being a bit quick to throw punches for no good reason).

I'm somewhat surprised at the homophobia allegation re Class War. That really does run entirely counter to my experiences of them, either locally or nationally. If anything, they tended heavily towards the "everyone is actually bisexual" stance.

ModernityBlog said...

"In a simplistic Marxian analysis, the term "working class", meaning any one who works, is very broad, and many middle class people fall into it (including e.g. any SWP members, or a Guardian journalist)."

WS has explained it well in his comment of 16 April, 2011 21:18.

I am somewhat surprised that this is a contentious issue amongst those on the Left, particularly those who might consider themselves to be socialists, or that way inclined.

It is a bit like a carpenter wondering what a nail is, something that they should have worked out ages ago.

Nevertheless, I shall enter into the spirit of educating the ex-Swuppies, as surely they don't receive any education when they're in that particular Party, or learn anything useful.

Taking that simplistic notion that working classes anyone who works then you end up in a bit of a pickle, if you were to pick for example Bob Diamond, a Barclays employee.

Or if we take that supposed hard worker, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, does he or Diamond count as working-class?

On the above simple measure probably, but as those examples illustrate it would be stretching beyond breaking point the words 'working-class'.

Why particular political parties choose these type of definitions I can't say, but it might be politically convenient if they have a largely, er, middle-class membership to redefine themselves, at least in part, to the working class.

However, when you consider it in depth it is all sophistry and nonsense, and has no relationship to the material existence of the working class, but that's what the middle-class are rather good at, playing with words.

You might go further and say that it is extremely insulting as it negates the real working classes experience of life.

I could go on and pick other examples which drive a coach and horses through this crude sub-vulgar Marxism, but that should suffice.

bob said...

Reading the Callinicos piece. On the whole, an interesting article, and not much to disagree with. Within the terrain of Marxian analysis, he is more or less right in my view.

But some problems start to set in for me around about here:
Can we simply conclude that all white-collar employees are members of the working class? Unfortunately not. The fundamental reason for this is that, as I have already stressed, white-collar employees are a very heterogeneous category. One indication of this is the difference in their earnings.

At this point Callinicos uses "a rag-bag of social indicators" to argue that some white collar workers are not proletarians.

The disagreement with the Ehrenreichs that follows shows Callinicos is unable to actually see class a social relationship, and sees it only economistic structuralist terms. The bus driver analogy is so stupid, that he either cannot grasp the Ehrenreichs' basic and obvious point, or he is being wilfully disingenuous.

I also find his critique of Wright a little bizarre. He accuses Wright of missing power relations at work, which seems to me precisely what Wright is focusing on.

Callinicos also asserts at this point the essential similarity in structure between the state enterprise and the private capitalist enterprise, which needs a much more careful argument, as the reality is more complex.

I liked the bit about two thirds of the way through when what is probably the whole purpose of the article is revealed: the bit that deals with lecturers. These two paragraphs briefly make the case that lecturers are basically proles, with a few minor caveats.

Oddly, when the more difficult issues about people like that are addressed, he switches to teachers. That is where he shows, in my view, some of the limits of the Marxian position. He discusses how teachers' subjective consciousnesses might lead them to identify the wrong way, upwards rather than downwards. Essentially, he is talking about a variety of "false consciousness", and their subjective consciousness being "wrong" in relation to the objective truth which the Marxist theoretician can discern guided by the right principles (those of the Party).

What this misses, what a purely Marxian analysis necessarily misses, is an understanding that the economically determined class structure is not the only thing defining the field in which we move. There is also a set of social and cultural relations which are not, even the final analysis, determined by the economic base.

Teachers don't just "feel" superior to manual workers, they actually are superior in terms of the social and economic power they hold.

(Because the Ehrenreichs stretched Marxist analysis further, they were stronger in this regard.)

Having said that, the final part of the article, where he talks about NMC radicalism etc, and takes on the SDP and the Bennites, is very interesting and useful, and particularly makes interesting reading now three decades on, in the post-Blair age.

It would be even more useful and interesting, in my opinion, if it thought through what it means when all Trotskyist parties, and especially the SWP, are totally dominated by the NMC. At the time he was writing, recent re-organisations of the SWP had more or less purged it of its working class elements, I believe. I'm wondering what role this theoretical work had in relation to that process.

bob said...

Re CW/RA,

I don't want to overstate my point: I'm not talking about constant acts of sexism etc. With RA (which I experienced mainly in London), there was a general macho attitude, that was not particularly comfortable for more, well, effete men or for that matter for women, and a culture of wind-ups, name-calling and homophobic banter, that on one level is just good fun, but on another level is, well, not. And there was also the quick with the fisticuffs when political temperatures boiled too high. (Although I don't blame many of the protagonists in that: the unbelievably irritating behaviour of the main victim, from Trot sects like WIL and RIL (I can't even remember which was which) probably deserved it!

With CW, which I mainly experienced outside London, there was a lot more give and take culturally, and acceptance of sexual dissidence of various kinds, and CW was probably a much more woman-friendly space, but still you'd get some of the sort of macho posturing. And also i found the intensity of the anti-middle class rhetoric a bit much at times: stringing up social workers etc!

---

One more thing on Callinicos. Interesting that he calls feminism a form of lifestyle politics. Not completely untrue, but I wonder if he'd have said that even a couple of years later?

skidmarx said...

Taking that simplistic notion that working classes anyone who works
Not taken from anyone I know.

Bob - I think you're wrong on Callinicos. I think this could have better grammar:
In reality, white-collar employment embraces three distinc¬tive class positions. At the extremes there are, on the one hand, those senior managers and administrators who are effectively salaried members of the capitalist class, and, on the other, there are those white-collar employees who are actually members of the behalf of capital in the process of production, form what I shall call the 'new middle class',
but he is distinguishing the groups according the the relationship to production and thus the class system.

"There is also a set of social and cultural relations which are not, even the final analysis, determined by the economic base."
No.

"Teachers don't just "feel" superior to manual workers, they actually are superior in terms of the social and economic power they hold."
They don't have greater economic power in most analyses. And the motive forces that drive them together as a class are in times of struggle for important than petty status jealousies.

I don't recall the SWP flip-flopping on feminism in the early 90s.

ModernityBlog said...

Again you end up with loads of economic reductionism from SWPers.

In the example of the teachers, you require a degree to become a teacher at the starting point and then further an educational qualification and probably an MA.

So having marshaled the resources to achieve that end, which would be exceedingly difficult for most of the working class, then you might well feel a bit superior and because you don't have to do manual labour, which causes the body to deteriorate by the age of 40-50, you might have a better life, quality wise, overall.

I wouldn't want to attack teachers, who I have masses of time for, and theirs is an incredibly difficult job, but which is where the working class steps in, and class consciousness.

Clearly, the wider distinction should be seen in the difference between salaried and hourly paid.

In one you can have a day off and not lose much money.

In the other you get what you work, if you don't work an hour you don't get paid, put crudely, and it tends to reflect on how much money you have, and how work takes its toll on your body, physically and mentally.

But these distinctions go beyond vulgar economic determinism, so beloved by Swuppers, they fail completely to understand the subtleties of class and how it divides British society.

The primary class divider in British society has been for centuries a piece of paper, a degree.

Without it you are effectively barred from many exceedingly well-paid jobs.

A further refinement of this, in terms of upper-class perception is a degree from a prestigious university, Oxbridge, etc.

So class is multifaceted but who ends up on the top of the pile is not.

There is a correlation between parental position and education and the offspring's chances in life, that's not to say that everyone born with a silver spoon will end up on the board of a company or running the BBC, but in the majority of cases they do rather well, and end up running much of British society.

bob said...

I'm with Mod on this one. It's not that I think Callinicos is "wrong", but that there are limits to what he says.

Take this:
[B:]"Teachers don't just "feel" superior to manual workers, they actually are superior in terms of the social and economic power they hold."
[S:]They don't have greater economic power in most analyses. And the motive forces that drive them together as a class are in times of struggle for important than petty status jealousies.


The fact is that regardless of whether or not they have greater economic power or not, teachers are fundamentally divided from the social working class, not in an antagonistic way (as with class in the Marxist sense) but by virtue of a social relationship that gives them very real power vis a vis the social working class. And this, not just some kind of false consciousness, stops a great many of them from being driven together with the common folk, even in times of crisis.

--

Actually, changing tack, I'm struck by this phrase: "effectively salaried members of the capitalist class", which I don't think makes sense in strictly Marxist terms either. What does it mean?

skidmarx said...

Chairmen and chief executives of companies,owe their class positions not to the shares they may own, but because their jobs make them effectively salaried members of the capitalist class. As with the nomenklatura in state capitalist countries.
Further down the food chain lower management, heads of department etc. are the equivalent of foremen, drawn from the working class but acting as agents of the bosses to control the working class, are part of the middle classes (but obviously unlike the petty-bourgeosie in that they are not significant property owners).
I don't know what the "social" working class is when its at home. I might bother to rip into this "horny handed son of toil" definition, I might just for the moment observe that if we are talking about marxist definitions, it is a scientific definition of exploitation rather than a moralistic look at who's the most oppressed we're looking for.
Teachers might have some apparent power over the next generation of workers but I fail to see how they lord it over the current one.

ModernityBlog said...

Perhaps instead of concentrating on vulgar economic power, I wonder if the SWP has ever considered the purpose of Oxbridge in the wider British class system?

So what is Oxbridge?

Why is it elitist? What attitudes does it try to instill?

And more importantly, why is elitism bad?

skidmarx said...

There's time for every purpose under Heaven as the Byrds would put it.

ModernityBlog said...

Bob,

Surely Skidmarks' last reply illustrates the futility of trying to argue with SWpers or ex-SWPers, as

1) they're not very intellectually resilient
2) are rather immature
3) prefer flippancy to the issue of discussing class.

I suppose if I was being charitable then I'd say, you can understand their reluctance, to investigate class in Britain requires a degree of intellectual honesty and commitment to real politics.

Whereas we know historically the SWP are essentially toytown Trots, big on rhetoric and shouting, but short on original ideas.

If they weren't, they would see how the education system in Britain is one of the pillars of the class system, and instrumental in keeping the working class in 'its place'.

Then again if your organisation is largely composed of the middle classes, with some working-class footsoldiers and they sent a committee stuffed full of graduates it's probably not the type of topic you want to look at, critically. (This applies to both the SWP and New Labour)

In fact, even the Tories know the position of graduates and Oxbridge in the class system of Britain, which is why they try to restrict access, to better the chances of their favoured class.

Whilst the rest of British society has changed dramatically we can see Oxbridge hasn't in 200+ years.

Oxbridge, the institution that dare not speak its name!

bob said...

I can't believe that Skid really does not recognise the social and cultural dimensions of class, and thus have to say that Mod's explanation as to why he denies it has some traction.

I dispute the ortho-Marxist distinction between Marxist "science" and the rest being "morality". While I am a Marxist and think that the relation to the means of production and in particular exploitation are primary, to say therefore that there is no such thing as oppression or that talking about it is moralistic is utterly wrong, intellectually, politically and, if I am allowed to say so, morally.

skidmarx said...

Exploitation can be primary without oppression being wished away with a shrug of the shoulders. I think I heard John Molyneux speak on Trotsky's "Their Morals and Ours" and his support for Trotsky's thesis seemed to make sense at the time, but I'm quite happy to be fairly pick-and-mix about the language I'd use to describe moral and political phenomena, you evil bastard.
I did struggle a bit with the number of negatives in your first part, but no I can't believe I don't recognise them, either.

Surely Modernity's last reply illustrates the futility of trying to argue with him, when he suggests he is being charitable in establishing motives for an avoidance that is purely in his own head (Chanie Rosenberg wrote a pamphlet on education once, I don't really recall it as I didn't really like her style, but stop making stuff up ), not forgetting then that when pointed out to him that his assertion that the SWP thinks that anyone who works is a worker is more nonsense fails to acknowledge his mistake in any way.

skidmarx said...

The German revolutionary Karl Marx said “the ruling ideas in every age are the ideas of the ruling class”.

Gramsci developed this idea to show how the ruling class maintained “intellectual and moral leadership” through the structures of civil society.

Gramsci described civil society as being made up of institutions like churches, schools, the media, political parties, and even trade unions.

Together, they act as “a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” protecting capitalism. Ruling class ideas – the ideas that sustain capitalism – become “common sense”.

To that you could throw in the universities, though one right -wing economics lecturer I had a university entrance interview with once did find it difficult to believe my contention that he was an agent of the ruling class, but still let me in.