Monday, December 28, 2009

long live the Iranian revolution

the streets of Terhan have run red with the blood of the people for too long. the Iranians will not accept their oppression anymore. long live the Iranian revolution!
let us hope that kHameni and his thugs get the same christmas present as Caecescu got in 1989

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

some thoughts on the trotmaggedon

martin smith - tight trousers, no balls

whilst the key board is working again, (at the moment my lap top writes something lk his al e ime). I think that it would be nice to write a few words about the current crisis wrackng the "premier" trotskyite franchise in the UK, the SWP.
As readers of this blg may remember, I spent 20 years a member of this cult, and although I am a lot better now I still take an interest in its travails ( even if that does sometimes express itself in breaking up a swappie meeting whilst drunkedly demanding "20 years worth of fucking subs" back from a rather scared looking Martin Smith).
I left the SWaP during the movement against the Iraq war, the popular frontism of the Rees/ German leadership of the party and the STWC sent me out of the party and begin the process of questioning the whole conceit that underpins leninism and statist socialism in general; the supplanting of the party for the class and the emphasis on leadership which so quikly bcomes a cult of personality and always relegates the working class the role of grateful objects of the party's benificence rather than the protagonists in their own liberation.
My disagreement with Rees and German might, you think, lead me to cheer on the SWP CC against the Ree/German 'left Faction', and to be frank seeing those bastards get a kicking is very satisfying. however the behaviour of the CC leaves one supremely pleased that they are never going to get close to real power.
The central evidence provided by the CC in expelling several of Rees' more prominent supporters consists of personal emails which it is claimed prove factional behaviour, and appear to have stolen from the inbox of one of the expelled. Complaints from the Rees faction have been dismissed by the CC with the declaration that the party is not bound by
Bourgeois concepts of legality

that sound you can hear in the distance is the echo of the doors of the Lubyanka prison slamming shut.

its Christmas!- lets do some bishop bashing

'Tis the season of goodwill and the journalists are more pissed and lazy than they are normally. in the search of a good filler for their newspapers and programmes they reach for that mainstay at times of vaguely religious festivals of finding a priest making some bollox argument to fill the airwaves with manufactured outrage and moral hypocrisy.
step forward the vicar of st Lawrence and st Hilda who has suggested that for families that are going without it is better to shoplift for what they need than to burgle or prostitute themselves.
the good rev goes on to say:
I would ask that they do not steal from small, family businesses, but from national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices."

however he cautioned:
I would rather that people take an 80p can of ravioli rather than turn to some of the most appalling things.

"Burglary causes untold harm and damage to people in a way that taking a can of spaghetti rings from a supermarket doesn't.

This hits all the buttons for the lefty muddle classes- a distain for material possessions by those who never have wanted for anything, opposition to capitalism (but only bad big capitalism), and a determination that the poor should know heir place(which is being shown the right way to do things by their betters), and a unwillingness to ever live in the real world.

the Rev tells the poor to steal from the big shops; because they can afford it. They also can afford CCTV, security guards, solicitors, and civil recovery firms.
These impose penalties on those accused of shoplifting (but never convicted of any crime) of hundreds of pounds more than the amounts they are accused of stealing.
the rev wants the poor to confirm themselves in his image of them; only taking a tin of ravioli. fuck that! if you are in such straits, get the fucking widescreen TV! stealing something like that might justify the risks involved.
this ecclesiastical fagin also displays his own fear; that those who live in poverty might seek to find redress by the expropriation of those who have never wanted for anything. like himself.

How typical were the attitudes of the Gunpowder Plotters of English Catholics at the time?


Before attempting to ask how typical were the Gunpowder plotters of English Catholics at the start of the 17th century one must first be clear who was a Catholic at that time; for by the time that James I, and VI, had become king in 1603 it had become impossible to talk about a single English Catholic community. The divisions that had grown within English Catholicism between the traditionalist, Catholic communities of the North and West of the country and the 'Manor House' Catholicism of the recusant gentry of the South and East who were influenced by the more intransigent and aggressive ideology of counter reformation European Catholicism were as great, if not greater than those which had divided the 'godly' and the mainstream of the, protestant, Church of England. Indeed the gulf within English Catholicism was so great that, apart their common exclusion from the national church, the differing factions would be hard pressed to recognise each other as common religionists.

The Gunpowder plotters were both the expression of the desperate extremity that the Gentry Catholics in their isolation, believed themselves driven to, and, for many of the traditionalist Catholics, a final straw that broke them from their residual loyalty to the old church and into conformity with the Church of England.

By the end of Elizabeth's reign the bulk of English Catholicism had been confined to the Northern and Western counties of the country here popular religion was Catholic and in most ways had been untouched by the reforms of Elizabeth, her father, Henry VIII, and brother, Edward IV. Queen Mary's reign had replenished the, somewhat meagre, reserve of Catholic minded clergy that served the region; the underdevelopment of the parish system in the North (which had been, before the reformation, largely religiously catered for by the great monastic communities) had impeded the penetration of these areas by more modern, and Protestant, ministers and preaching. Instead much of traditionalist practise in the North and West depended on the continuance of a 'seasonal nonconformity'; adhering to the calendar of Saints Days, feasts and fasts which were such a significant feature of the pre reformation church.

The treatment that these traditionalist minded Catholics received from the Elizabethan and Jacobean state was rather different from the image of constant and unremitting persecution promoted by the Jesuit propagandists. Instead, the persecutions of Recusants remained largely financial in nature (although these did become very onerous at times), and could be avoided by the conformity of the recusant to a very formal and minimal level of attendance. Neither Elizabeth nor James were as much interested in religious uniformity as they were concerned with ensuring as level of loyalty which could be measured through formal attendance. Radical Protestant preachers regularly complained about the toleration extended to these 'church papists' .

Elizabeth wished to avoid the reaction which accompanied Edward and Mary's reformist and counter-reformist zeal, and was content to 'outlive' the Marian Priesthood rather than risk a backlash to their wholesale replacement. Instead, far less overt pressures than Mary's bonfires were applied, whether through recusant taxes and the application of the oath of loyalty, in order to prevent Catholics being appointed to office, or the 'fudging' of elements of the Official religion, especially in the Book of Common Prayer of 1559 which allowed for a certain elasticity over crucial elements of the Eucharist, and in the wording of the question of Justification, which could allow more traditionalist and Catholic congregations to coexist with the rest within the National Church. These measures encouraged and allowed the incorporation of many Catholics into Church of England, if only in meeting the formal requirements of membership to avoid recusancy or qualify for office.In many Catholic homes the male head of the household would publicly conform whilst his wife, and other family members, remained Catholic; the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute women for recusancy was well appreciated. Both Elizabethan and Jacobean courts tended to use their anti Catholic Statutes in a very "prudential" manner; designed to be applied only when necessary against real threats, rather than against 'ordinary' recusants. The main aim of the repression, when it was intensified, was always to frustrate attempts to introduce the new, and more aggressive, Tridentine Catholicism which was being smuggled in from the seminary schools and missions of European counter- reformation. Even seasonal nonconformity was treated benignly by a state which discriminated between the imported and the indigenous.


The Reforms in Catholic theology made at the Council of Trent were designed to remove the weaknesses within Catholicism which made it vulnerable to the criticism of protestant reformers and in their construction and application they clearly show the shift in power and influence within Catholicism as the humanist philosophy of Renaissance Italy was supplanted by the aggressive determinism of Conquistador Spain, embodied in the militarist religious of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

In England, the first priority was to attempt to stem the drift of Catholics into conformity, the Papal Bull, Regnan in Excelsis was an opening shot of this more aggressive and confident Catholicism ; in excommunicating Elizabeth and relieving all her subjects from the responsibility of fealty toward her, the Papacy wished to support those who had risen against Elizabeth in 1569 during the 'Rising of the Earls', but it severely misread the reality of the rising's causes which, although couched in religious terms, were far more a response to the Tudor states centralising impulses threatening the local power bases of the Northern aristocracy. The Bull, which was over a year late for any effect intended for the support of the rebels, had the effect, as protestant propagandists were not slow to point out, of declaring that all Catholics who wished to remain loyal to the Pope could only be so as traitors to the Queen. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre provided for English Protestants a clear warning of allowing a Catholic return to power would entail.

Traditional 'survivalist' English Catholics tried to square the necessity of conforming to the demands of the Elizabethan and Jacobean state and their loyalty to Catholicism by arguing that such a confrontational course would destroy the catholic community's ability to sustain their priesthood thus condemning the church to death. The emphasis on the spiritual importance of suffering and Martyrdom as a price necessary for salvation which rested at the heart of the new muscular interpretation of Catholicism made the attempts at conciliation by the traditionalist communities incomprehensible to the Jesuits. Jesuit teaching transformed membership of the Catholic Church from a Universalist church to an exclusivist one. The idea of a 'Universal and Catholic Church' within which all were accommodated was abandoned and in its place an exclusive identification of true Catholicism, outside of which the majority were damned and only the true believers saved. Where the protestant reformers replaced the pre reformation doctrine of justification by faith and works with one of faith alone and their trust in being counted among Gods Elect, the Jesuits effectively developed a new justification, where belief and absolute obedience to the Church's tenets would alone bring salvation. The insistence of the seminarians and the Jesuits in the total separation of Catholics from compliance with the Church of England brought them into sharp disagreement with the traditionalist Catholics.

The small number of Jesuit missionaries' active in England in the late Elizabethan /early Jacobean did not diminish the influence that they had upon the manorial Catholics; the seminaries, such as that at Douai and the English school in Rome, which trained priests for the Manorial Catholics, imbibed in them Jesuitical principles. Thus it is not unreasonable to treat both, secular, seminary trained, priests and regular, Jesuit, missionaries as having generally the same theological/ideological position.

At the heart of the disputes between the different Catholic communities was a fundamental difference over the nature of Catholicism and of how England was expected to return to the 'True Faith'. The 'survivalists' remained universal in their conception of the Church; England may have strayed, yet it may still be returned to the bosom of the church. Just as their fortunes had changed when Edward was succeeded by Mary, a new change of monarch perhaps with a tolerant, or even Catholic, Stuart King, would see England's return to Rome under the principle 'cuius regio, eius religio'. In the meantime, whatever compromises have to be made in order to keep their faith alive are justifiable; as the worst thing that could happen was for Catholics to become associated in the populace's mind with treason and servility to foreign courts.

For the Jesuits, England was lost; it had gone far too long outside of the Church to ever voluntarily return to the rule of Rome, only force, a new crusade, could bring the heretical English back to Catholicism; thus it was a true Catholic's duty to assist in any and all acts which would aid and assist the invasion and overthrow of the Protestant State. It would be mistaken to suppose that either approach had reconciled itself to the continued existence of English Catholicism as a Minority sect, both expected England to eventually to be reconciled with Rome.

Haigh has considered that the role of the Jesuits was an entirely pastoral one, a view which has been strongly challenged . Whilst it is true that the Jesuits were catering exclusively to an already Catholic audience, rather than actively seeking out converts from among the Protestant the nature of the Jesuit mission makes claims of a passive, or pastoral, intent untenable. It is not necessary to accept that all Jesuits and covert priests were actively involved in plotting insurrection and regicide to note that the intransigence of counter- reformation theology inevitably, and deliberately, brought themselves and their flock into conflict with the Protestant state.

Whilst in the North and west of England Catholicism retained its pre-reformation popular character closer to the heart of royal power in London in the South and East it became largely confined to the homes and manors of the older aristocracy, who had gained their power and influence before the dissolution of the monasteries and thus did not owe their wealth to Tudor largesse. Here proximity to the continent allowed for a more ready access to the new ideas that were being developed in response to the European wide threat of Protestantism. Independent in wealth and with considerable local power bases, these gentry Catholics could afford to pay for their own personal priests and had the space and influence to hide them from the purview of the authorities. From being used to having a prominent say in the running of the state, they now found themselves shut out of the corridors of power in favour of more 'politically reliable' parvenu gentry, merchants and foreign schismatics. With avenues to education and advancement closed to them the sons of the old gentry journeyed to the continent; to serve in the armies of the counter- reformation or to study in the seminarian and Jesuit schools.

Without wishing to overstretch modern parallels, there are certain comparisons observable in the development of modern Western Jihadiism; a small and self isolated minority within a larger minority community replacing a universalist theology with an exclusivist one, in which violence and Martyrdom are sanctioned and extolled as religious duties, sending its sons to foreign schools to train to become the ideologues and fighters in an international Holy War.

The prospect of the end of Elizabeth's reign concentrated the minds of both Catholics and Protestants. Many of the traditionalists began to expect a more sympathetic treatment from James. Alongside attempts to gain James' support for official toleration, they made protestations of loyalty to a Jacobean monarchy (with the inference that their protestant adversaries would be less loyal) For the gentry Catholics, the thawing of relations between the papacy and Elizabeth in the last years of her reign and the reestablishment of a less confrontational diplomacy with the Spain crown, threatened the rationale of enforced conciliation which had justified for the recusants their repression and isolation. Without a prospective invasion and with a new Protestant monarch with new policies which further encouraged conformity, a section the Catholic Gentry began to adopt an extreme version of 'cuius regio, eius religio', believing that the violent removal of James, and his replacement with his more pliant, and Catholic, daughter, the 9 year old Elizabeth could return England to the Catholic faith, or possibly more preferable, that the resultant civil war would force a Spanish intervention.

James disappointed the hopes placed upon him that he would grant full toleration for Catholics, but those hopes were always over optimistic, as ruler of Calvinist Scotland as well as new king of Protestant England, the granting of legal toleration for English Catholics would have created problems throughout his unified realms. However his informal tolerance toward Catholicism, through non enforcement of recusancy, and later benign tolerance of Early Arminian thought created a more conducive environment within the Church of England for the traditionalist minded old Catholics alienated by the dogmatism and exclusivity of the Jesuits, and repelled by the Identification of Catholicism with treason and regicide. Sir Henry James' rejection of Catholicism whilst in Rome in 1606 in shock at the revelations of the Gunpowder plot showed how the association of recusancy with treason widened the gulf between the Jesuits and the 'survivalist' laity. In the period after the plots exposure there was a massive increase of conformities, as erstwhile recusants reacted to the revelations, or to the accompanied repression.

The policies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchies permitted traditional Catholics to adopt a formal conformity without demanding much more than loyalty to the state in return. In itself this did inevitably mean that the majority of traditionalists would adopt the Church of England and not remain a level of loyalty toward the Papacy- it was the refusal of the Jesuits and seminary priests to allow for any form of cooperation with the state no matter what the cost, that broke the possibility of the development of a network of sympathisers of Tridentine Catholicism amongst the traditionalist community. Instead the Plot, and its failure, revealed the isolation and weakness of the Gentry Catholics. The threat that they constituted to Protestantism in England was effectively negated and from then on concerns about 'Popish Plots' would be directed not at the schemes of Catholics but instead of developments within the Church of England.

Fawkes and his co conspirators were certain that they were representative of their Catholic community; however that community was one which, through its ideological intransigence and theological purity, had broken its ties with wider English popular Catholicism and had become an isolated aristocratic cult, as exclusive as any Calvinist Brethren. It is an irony that the counter- reformation, which rearmed and revitalised European Catholicism on the continent, in England had the effect of alienating the mass of existing English Catholics and assisting in their reconciliation with the National Church.











Bossy, John. The English Catholic Community 1570-1850 (London 1975)


Carrafiello, Michael, J. English Catholicism and the Jesuit mission of 1580-81 the Historical Journal 37 4 (1994)


Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional religion in England 1400-1580 (London2005)


Haigh C. The fall of a Church or a rise of a Sect? Post reformation Catholicism in England the Historical Review vol 21 no. 1 (March 1978)


Lake, Peter and Questier, Michael. The Anti- Christ's Lewd Hat: Protestants Papists and Players in post Reformation England (London 2002)

R. Po-chia Hsia
The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770 (Cambridge 1998)

 Questier, Michael C. 'like locusts all over the world': Conversion, Indoctrination and the Society of Jesus in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England in McCoog (Ed.) The Reckoned Expense: Edmond Campion and the Early English Jesuits (Oxford 1986)


Questier, Michael C. Conversion Politics and religion in England 1580-1625 (Cambridge 1996)

Questier, Michael C. Catholicism and community in early modern England: Politics, aristocratic privilege and religion, C. 1550-1640 (Cambridge 2006)


C. Walsham, Alexandra Church Papists:
Catholicism, conformity and confessional polemic in early modern England (London 1993).




















Tuesday, December 22, 2009

these three posts

These three posts are essays I have written recently and am pleased with, any, and all, comments and criticisms are of course welcome. they are all in various ways concerned with the way in the politics of medieval, and early modern, religious movements have been interpreted by modern historians. I have tried to overcome the habit of historians, whether marxist or otherwise, who have imposed modern attitudes upon people and movements in very different times and circumstances. I have tended to describe this approach as 'being temporally sensitive', a clunky expression but the best I can come up with at present.

"The problem of Heresy was a creation of a developing, empire-building Church. Discuss.

The generally accepted model of the development of the medieval church describes how the reforms, which were began by Gregory VII and continued by his successors, liberated the church from the control of local princes and in the process amassed such earthly wealth and temporal power in the hands of the church to make it richer and more powerful than any individual earthly prince. The motor of the Gregorian reforms were the Monastic orders; they strove to return the church to its original state of purity- free from the taint of the corrupt world and in doing so they extended the austere rule of their own Order on to the entire church. The ideology upon which the reformers built their "Papal monarchy" was, like their Monasteries, hierarchical and doctrinally rigid, and hostile to dissent.

There is a problem that confronts any historian who attempts to understand the Medieval mind and its relationship to religion; When a historian investigates a subject he brings to it his own perspective; whatever his intention a historian cannot entirely escape from reading evidence through the lens of his own biases, mores, politics and, not least, knowledge of 'how the story plays out'. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as current interests can stimulate new directions, new avenues for historical study and new questions for historians; for example, the growth of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s stimulated an expansion in interest among historians in the previously hidden, and overlooked, role of women within history. As Christopher Hill observed, history has two meanings: "the past as we believe it to have existed, and second the past as we attempt to reconstruct in our writings." Historians, who attempt to tease out the stories of heretics who left little or no record of their own, have to do so from the archives of their masters and inquisitors have to be especially aware that the same evidence in different hands can be interpreted in widely different ways. Hill noted that "...the questions which each generation of historians asks inevitably reflect the interests of that generation." However he cautions "It is right and proper that historians should ask new questions, and such questions may well be stimulated by happenings in our own society. I see no harm in this so long as our answers do not derive from the present."

Thus a historian should beware of ascribing modern forms and attitudes to very different historical conditions. Just as Protestant martyrologists attempted to discover in every outbreak of medieval religious dissent a proto-reformation in potentia; so historians have found their own worldviews transplanted onto deciphering the meaning of medieval heresy, there is a temptation to insert anachronistically modern and materialist interpretations of class and gender and graft them on to the medieval experience. There are four identifiable components in heretical movements which fall into this trap;

  1. The "privilege of poverty". There is a common assumption that heresy springs directly from dissatisfaction at the discrepancy between the material wealth and temporal power of the Roman Church and the vision of the brotherhood of simplicity and poverty envisioned in the Gospels and the chronicles of the Church fathers. There was a real hunger throughout Christendom, in expectation of the coming Millennium, to reject the sinful and corrupt world and return to an idealised apostolic existence- but his was not an impulse which led to heresy. Despite the occasional discomfort that individual churchmen may have felt at criticism at their official or individual wealth, the church as a whole displayed a surprisingly accommodating approach toward mendicants and "poverty of Christ" movements; for example the sympathetic attitude of local churchmen to the early activities of the Waldensians, and following their denunciation, the opening of alternative routes for former Waldensians through the 'Poor Catholics'. Monasteries and other institutions adopted and provided protection toward, beguinages.

    Each new development within the church itself were driven by enthusiasm for attaining the ideal of poverty; there was a profusion of new mendicant orders founded in the 13th century, and these were immensely popular across society. These were formed in protest at the worldliness of the Cistercians, who were themselves formed because it was felt older Benedictine orders were not applying rules on poverty strictly enough.

    The apogee of officially sanctioned was the order of St. Francis of Assisi; the intensity and austerity of the Franciscans, although gaining Papal sanction in 1209, so disturbed authorities across Europe that two Franciscan envoys were imprisoned when entering England in 1228 until they were able to prove their orthodoxy.

    The medieval heresies were critical of the wealth of the Church, and advocated a simpler apostolically derived path, but this was not a source of heresy, rather it was a general tide throughout the religious life of the time.

  2. Mysticism. As Western Capitalist imperialism expanded across the world it was accompanied by an idealistic reaction which was repelled by the science and rationalism (and growing democracy) of the age. This reaction was fascinated by the esoteric and mystical religions of the east and embraced (carefully sanitised) elements of them. The Medieval heresies, combining mysticism, links with exotic eastern sects, and oppressed by state and church because of their access to a inner secret knowledge, became a part of a wider new age mythology which has in recent years has multiplied massively through the medium of the internet.

    However, the idea that there was something unique about the Mysticism of the Cathars, or the heresy of the free spirit or any other heresy which set them apart from mainstream Christianity. Elizabeth Petroff describes mysticism as "... the direct experience of the real, an unmediated experience of God". In the Middle ages there was little differentiation made between the spiritual and profane worlds, the realms of God and Satan were as real, if not more so, than that of Man. Mysticism was a central aspect of the Medieval Church; In a world where men and women had little or no control over their environment the search for signs and portents and their interpretation was a central part of Medieval Christianity and prophesying seers and visionaries were to be commonly found living in hermitages attached to many churches.


  3. Pacifism. Another factor highlighted by some historians as being a particular feature of Medieval heresy has been pacifism; both Cathars, and especially, Waldensians have been notable for their pacifism; the Waldensians rejection of Church authority was partially a result of the church's willingness to countenance, and endorse, violence and war. However here also not everything was so clear. The church had played a major role in attempting to halt the arbitrary violence and chaos of the early middle ages. The peace of god movement which spread rapidly across France and Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries was designed to set strict limits over who could, and who could not be the target of violence, and placed nearly all Christians under the protection of the Church. This movement, that galvanized popular support for church reform, made all war between Christians subject to papal anathema. Even conflicts that received papal sanction; such as Duke William's invasion of England in 1066, which sailed under a papal banner, were compelled to do penance for the Christian blood spilled (the building of Battle Abbey was William's own contrition for Hastings). The declaration of Crusade did not mean the abandonment of the Pax Dei; Urban II extended the peace across all Christendom, even as he declared Holy war on the Infidel.


  4. Female expression of Spirituality. The significant and visible role of women in Medieval heretical movements have led historians to see in the heretical movements an expression of female spirituality denied to women by a misogynistic church. It is undoubtedly true that the medieval Church was an institution drenched in distrust of the female sex. However despite this there were attempts within the Church to open opportunities for women to play an active religious role. Robert of Abrissel attracted large numbers of women and men to his wandering preaching and established Fontevraud Abbey in 1101 as a joint monastery with buildings for both men and women. The close associate of Francis of Assisi, Claire established the Order of Poor Ladies, a women's monastic order modelled on St. Francis' austere rule. Outside of the closed orders avenues for women's spirituality were limited but not completely closed. Beguines, though associated with the heresy of the free spirit by Marguerite Porete, were adopted by Religious orders, protected by local lords and city communes and received Papal approval from Gregory IX in 1283. The church did attempt to provide women with outlets for expressing their spirituality but the church could not step out of the greater society around it in which there was no role, no room, for a woman who wasn't under the control of a man; husband, father master or priest.

If the desire for Poverty and distain for the material world, mysticism, and striving for Universal peace (amongst Christians) were all central to the practice of the Catholic Church, and, despite its limitations, there were a few open doors to women within the church, what then was the essential point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Medieval heresies?

Catholicism was a Universalist faith; at its heart was the conviction that every Christian who in accepting the sacraments, confessing their sins, and doing penance would in the Last Days be resurrected, and accepted into the kingdom of Heaven and gain eternal life.

A common feature of the heresies was a route to salvation separate from that offered by the church and was exclusive to the elite, of those initiated into the secrets of the cult. The perfecti of the Cathars and the Barbe of the later Waldensians formed an elite already guaranteed salvation, and only through them could the converti reach spiritual perfection. The heresy of the Free Spirit also had its own special elite, of adepts who having attained the sixth stage of spiritual development were above all concerns of sin.

This narrative of universal salvation, but only through the prism of the Holy Catholic Church, or, the exclusive revelation and salvation of the sects is broken in the 14th century. The simple message of Wycliffe and the Lollards who gained inspiration from his writing of offered the possibility of salvation for all through an individual relationship with God through study of scripture. While the Lutheran and Calvinist vision of predetermination may have been more restrictive, more exclusive, than any Cathar Perfecti or Waldensian Barbe yet the Protestant insistence on an individual relationship between man and his God, and justification by faith alone removed both the need for a institutional intermediary to the divine nor a mystical elite.

As with all such ideas there is a danger of over extending the argument; there were class antagonisms in the medieval world, which sometimes erupted into violent uprisings which specifically targeted the wealth of the church. These movements were often religiously inspired, although the religion that inspired them was not always heretical; the Fratelli in Northern Italy were motivated by a radical version of Fransicanism, the Peasants revolt of 1381 was aroused by Preachers, such as John Ball, who employed Wycliffan ideas (Wyclif may have been later condemned, but at that time was comfortably ensconced at the heart of the English establishment), the Anabaptists adapted wholesale Luther's theological criticisms of the Church and attempted to apply them practically (much to Luther's horror!).

There were those who were condemned as heretics by Magistrates and prelates who were venal, fearful or ignorant, and whose only crime was to attempt to apply the church's teaching sincerely and practically; there were mystics whose visions fell afoul of the Inquisitors, Pacifists who were hunted down and women religious who were denounced purely for the fact of their gender and the fear it engendered in this misogynistic age. Yet none of these, in themselves, constituted a heresy in the eyes of the medieval Church.

The medieval Catholic Church was constantly developing and seeking to extend its authority over all Christians and over all aspects of their lives because the church considered itself the only conduit for the salvation of all mankind. It came into conflict with the heresies of the age, both because of the cults' assertion that they offered an alternative path to salvation and also that salvation was exclusive to the elite. The Catholic Church was universal and monopolistic; the cults were narrow and exclusive.








Hill, C. A Nation of Change and Novelty London 1993

Holland, T. The end of the world and the forging of Christendom London 2008

John of Joinville, The life of Saint Louis. Trans. Caroline Smith in Joinville and Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusades London 2008

Lambert, M. Medieval Heresy; popular movements from the Gregorian reform to the reformation 3rd edition London 2008

Leff, G. Heresy in the later middle ages: the relationship of heterodoxy to dissent. C. 1250- C.1450 Manchester 1999

Morris, C. The Papal Monarchy: the Western Church from 1050 to1250 Oxford 1991


Petroff, E. A. Body and soul: Essays on Medieval women and Mysticism Oxford 1994

Sayre, R. and Löwy, M. Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism, New German Critique 1984


Trentmann, F. Civilization and Its Discontents: English Neo-Romanticism and the Transformation of Anti-Modernism in Twentieth-Century Western Culture, by Journal of Contemporary History 1994


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'the poor Catholics' at accessed on 7/11/2009


CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 'Franciscan order' at accessed on7/11/09



MEDIEVAL SOURCEBOOK Reinarius Saccho, Of the Sects of the Modern Heretics 1254 accessed 7/11/09


Graham-Leigh, E. The Cathars: Heretics who can inspire us today


Why were lepers excluded from medieval society?

Medieval European society was an extremely fragile one; unable neither to understand nor to protect itself in any significant way from the effects of either natural disaster or disease, and constantly under threat from the random violence of that society's own warrior elite.

This awareness of the fragility of medieval society lent impetus to the veneration of an ideal of an ordered, stable, and static society in which every man and woman had a place and a rank and where everyone, no matter how lowly or exalted, knew the rights and the obligations that their place demanded of them. Each was happy and content with his lot and stayed where he was put. However this was an unworkable and unachievable ideal; the reality of the Middle Ages was of a society that was more mobile, dynamic and with far more social mobility than is usually believed, and Journeymen, pilgrims, tinkers, gypsies, mendicants, beggars, entertainers, merchants and many others thronged the roads of Western Europe bringing to the communities that they visited news of the wider world, rare goods and services and, occasionally, trouble to be moved on.

Even if the idealised stable community could have been attained it could it could have done little when confronted with the manmade and natural tragedies that constantly threatened to overwhelm it. The only solution was to attempt to force those who stood outside to take their proper position within society.

In this world the leper was triply an outsider: often a wanderer, compelled to live by begging, her own body seemingly in revolt against herself, and her fate caused by God's wrath at her sins. The leper should have been the consummate figure of medieval loathing and fear. The medieval world was a place which was full of superstition, ignorance and cruelty, yet the medieval experience of leprosy was far more complex and subtle than just the fear that the leper might instil as an outsider.

Robert Moore's book, 'The formation of a persecuting society' treats the fate of the lepers as being a part of a wider change within medieval society in which Christendom began to define itself as exclusive and intolerant of all dissenters. His account of the lepers leans heavily upon an anachronistic account of the medieval attitude towards lepers which was created in the latter half of the nineteenth century, by western European physicians who, whilst working in the new colonies of the burgeoning European empires were encountering leprosy (mycobacterium leprae, or Hanson's disease), and were attempting to find historical justifications for the eugenic and social Darwinist polices which they advocated to counter both this disease in the Empire, and the perceived weaknesses within the populations of their own countries. The myth of a determined society, which through the complete isolation and exclusion of the leper was able to defeat the disease, matched closely to their own agenda but not the reality of the far more complex and sympathetic treatment that medieval lepers received.

The leper was simultaneously a figure that might instil fear but also compassion and charity, the leper in the abstract may be seen as a threatening outsider, but in reality as long as leprosy remained a living disease, the diseased individual would be a son, a father, a sister or a daughter- in other words, a part of the community.

The central ideological bulwark of the medieval world was the Church: its approach to the leper was similarly contradictory. In the Old Testament Leprosy was an affliction visited upon disobedient wives (Numbers 12) and insolent kings (Chronicles 26), whilst in the New Testament, Jesus associated himself closely with lepers, embracing them and curing them and, in the midst of his Passion, becoming Christus quasi Leprosus, taking on the likeness of a leper.

Leprosy was a disease that was directly linked to moral degeneracy; the church linked each separate disease to different sins, and imbalances in the humours that were believed to regulate the body. In leprosy's case these were sins of anger, envy and avarice, the sins which were punished by being made leprous in the Bible.

However Christ's association with lepers in the New Testament led the church to see in the suffering of the leper a direct relation to the sufferings that all mortals would suffer after their deaths whilst being purged of their sins in purgatory. The humble leper who meekly accepts the trials sent by God became a holy figure and lepers were held to be paupers Christi in the same way as Monks and hermits were and in their leper houses to form a quasi religious community. Job's story in the Bible, humbly accepting the travails and trials visited upon him by God and devil became in the Middle Ages an exemplar of the ideal of a humble acceptance of adversity and there are numerous accounts of religious figures who not only accepted without demur contracting leprosy, such as St. Alice the Leper but actively sought out infection as a means of proving their devotion.

The leper seemed became a 'fashionable cause' amongst the privileged of the age; Matilda, wife King Henry I kissed the sores of lepers as did Philip the Pious of France and Theobald of Blois, and donations to the building and maintenance of leper houses were considered particularly useful in offsetting the sins of the benefactors. Matthew Paris estimated that here were 19000 leper houses across Europe and over 100 in England; however one should be cautious before inferring that this profusion of charitable provision was evidence of large numbers of lepers in need of seclusion from society, At St. Giles Hospital in Norwich there was a master, 8 chaplains, 2 clerks in holy orders, 7 choristers, 2 sisters... and eight Lepers!

It has been suggested that only those who contracted the disease and were of noble birth were considered to be virtuous, although they may have assisted in the acceptance of the idea of the holy leper, much of the religious adoration of lepers, for example the embracing of lepers by Philip the Pious long predated Baldwin IV of Jerusalem or the Leper Knights of the order of St. Lazarus.

The medical knowledge of the medieval world was extremely limited; like the image of heaven and the ideal of society and the ancient Greek idea of the elements the combination of which made up all of the physical world- Earth, water, air and fir. The health of the body was believed to depend upon the maintenance of a temperate balance of coldness, wetness, heat, and dryness. Within the body of man was believed to be four humours, the mixture of which would determine both health and temperament- the melancholic was cold dry and earthy, the phlegmatic cold and wet, like water, the choleric, hot and dry, like fire, and the sanguine hot, damp and airy. A preponderance of one humour over all others would result in disease. Moral behaviour and the eating of foods which were considered to contain the qualities lacking in the afflicted person were the preferred remedies offered by medieval physicians. Despite the severe limitations of medieval medical knowledge the physicians did recognise at least that leprosy was contagious, a fact that was missed by the 'scientific' social Darwinists of the 19th century who did so much to rewrite the history of medieval lepers.

It was this recognition of the contagious nature of leprosy that was the real reason for the exclusion of lepers from wider society; however the 19th century impression of the nature of the leper houses as being austere, enclosed, and remote virtual prisons was far from the reality for most such houses. Firstly, the Idea of leper houses being remote was based on a misconception of what was meant by being outside in medieval terms. Leper houses were situated in liminal positions, outside of city walls, or at crossroads and on untillable lands but not on the whole in remote places which would have been impractical for the provision of the residents. When the incidence of leprosy had fallen to such an extent that the leper houses were lying empty they were converted into alms houses and hospitals, uses that would not have been practical if situated far from civilisation. Neither were the conditions in which the residents' were kept austere and penitentiary; although the physicians attempted to cure or alleviate the symptoms of leprosy by altering the diet and thus the balance of the humours, the provisioning of lepers was not miserly- the abbot of Reading provided for each resident of the hospital of St. Mary Magdelen to:

"...receive as a daily supply half a loaf of bread and half a gallon of middling beer (cervisie mediocris); also 5d. a month for buying meat. In Lent the bread was to be of barley. The scale of clothing was generous; each one was supplied with hood, tunic and cloak, and with two woollen vests and under-linen. The hood or cape was to contain three ells of cloth, the tunic three, and the cloak two and a quarter; these were supplied as often as required. Each inmate also received ten yards of linen yearly, and one yard of serge for shoes. Fifteen yards of linen were supplied every second year for covering the tables."

Neither were lepers treated as prisoners inside the leper houses, instead they were encouraged to travel to sites of pilgrimage in the search of a miraculous cure, and were able to come and go from their houses with the permission of the house. The houses were organised on a religious model with strict rules which if broken would lead to expulsion from the house:

The rules of the house were strict. For incontinence or striking a brother the punishment was expulsion; for defamation or disobedience to the master, fasting on bread and water in the midst of the hall, the culprit's portion of meat and drink being placed on the table and distributed by the master. No one was allowed to leave the house or stand at the gate without a companion. Anyone desirous of leave of absence for one, two, or three nights had to obtain permission of the master and of the whole convent, but if for longer the master's consent was necessary, and then only with a companion. The brothers were to prepare to rise at the first ringing of the bell, and when it rang for the third time to enter the church. If anyone found anything on the premises it was not to be concealed, but shown to the brethren and placed in the common fund; but if it was found outside it might be considered the finder's if he so willed. Alms given by anyone to an inmate on the roadside for infirmity were to go to the common purse. No one was to enter the wash-house without a companion, nor was anyone to send the servant of the house any long distance without leave.

Some of the evidence presented to support a persecuting approach toward lepers depends upon a particular interpretation of evidence, for example, the third Lateran council is presented by Moore as a defining moment in the construction of a persecuting society. However Colin Morris reads the council as ensuring that lepers who were living within leper houses were provided with churches and cemeteries of their own.

Most notoriously was the case of the 'Leper's Mass' a liturgy allegedly intoned over the newly diagnosed leper cutting them off from the rest of humanity and the communion of the Church. Cited repeatedly in histories of Leprosy, this has been exposed as a 16th Century innovation by Carole Rawcliffe which there is no evidence of ever being used by the Church

While there is no doubt that there is an increase in the efficacy of central state and church power in the period after 1000AD, Moore is mistaken in seeing this as being driven by an urge to exclude those who failed to conform; Catholicism, as the universal Church, considered itself the only route to salvation, and that to stand outside of the embrace of the church was to court eternal damnation. As shepherd the duty of the Church and of its loyal servants in the state was to save those members of the flock who stray; the improvements in the ability of the state and the church to police the general population were aimed at enforcing inclusion, not exclusion. Moore attempts to impose an anachronistically modern interpretation on the motives of "the princes and prelates" who he describes as being the architects of his 'persecuting society'; they were not motivated by greed for pecuniary gain nor lust for power, but in order save the transgressor from Hell. Reaching for scare stories about lepers may fill the pages of horrible histories but teach us nothing about the real fate of the leper and those who lived around them.








Grigsby, B.L. Pestilence in medieval and early modern English literature London 2004

McCall A. The medieval underworld London 2006


Moore, R. I. The formation of a persecuting Society: Authority and deviance in Western Europe 950-1250AD Oxford 2007

Morris, C. The papal monarchy: The western Church from 1050 to 1250 Oxford 1991

Rawcliffe, C. Leprosy in Medieval England London 2006

Richards, the medieval leper and his northern heirs London 2000


'Hospitals: Reading', A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 97-99. URL: Date accessed: 07 December 2009


Sunday, December 06, 2009

No Mr Blog, I expect you to die.

I notice that since I recomended people read the MATblog rather than have to post anything myself it has died on it's feet.
I am sure that this now means I have the power to kill blogs with a single glance.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I am not in at the moment

I am aware that not much has been going on here recently.
I hope that I will add more comments soon.
In the meantime I recomend the blog meanwhile at the bar which says much of what I would, but both more wittily and more intelligently.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Andy Abel 1962- 2009

through the pages of Socialist worker I have just learned of the shocking and sudden death of my friend and comrade Andy Able.
Andy was a diamond, a true socialist who despite his life long loyalty to the SWP retained a true belief in the vitality of a socialist vision which transcended narrow party loyalty. He was a real friend who would stick by his friends and comrades no matter what.
Although it is many years since we have been in regular contact Vicky and I valued our short time in Southampton, and Andy was a central part of making those years so good.
Our hearts and deepest condolences to Lorraine and to Andy's Family.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shiver me Timbers!!

Interpol are on the alert and the Russian Navy have been mobilised to try to find out the whereabouts of a freighter carrying a Million pounds worth of wood from the Baltic to North Africa. It is believed that the ship has been boarded and taken over by pirates.
The last sighting of the ship was when it entered the English Channel.

14 words

at the heart of modern Nazi politics are the 'fourteen words';

"We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

Originally coined by the paedophile American Nazi, David Lane, the slogan is repeated again and again in neo nazi and white power propaganda.

What it means in practice has been less clear until now.

The ending of a court order has revealed that the scum who tortured 'Baby P' to death; Brothers Jason Owen and Steven Barker were National Front activists whose taught the baby to make the Hitler salute as a part of their obsession with Nazism.

Hopefully in prison they will receive a welcome similar to that their fascist heroes got-

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Give Up Anti Fascism

I really wish that I wrote this, instead it was written by a friend of mine and will be appearing in the new edition of Red Pepper:

Give Up Anti-Fascism

The election of two BNP MEPs in the European elections has propelled the party onto the national stage and initiated a debate about why they’re achieving historically unprecedented results (or in some cases, even whether they are doing so), what is driving their recent performances and crucially, how they may be stopped and what the lefts role is in this - in a nutshell what our relation to anti-fascism is and should be in today’s conditions. There is one question that is not being asked though - is anti-fascism the answer to the BNP?

Some brief facts and figures to situate the debate first. The BNP now has 60 local councillors and around the same number of Parish councillors. By comparison previous fascist groups had managed 3 councillors in total in the previous 80 years - this is without counting the seats won and lost by the BNP. It has one member on the London Assembly, and it has two MEPs. It’s vote in Local, General and European elections has risen from a non-existent level to averaging around 15% in the first, winning deposits in the second (there are three constituencies where the aggregate ward votes at the 2008 local elections puts them in first place) and polling a million votes in the last. They had 10 000 members at the end of 2007 - a figure that will have risen since then, providing them with an expanding national activist base. They are, by national standards not a huge party, they are ‘a large small party’ - at best the 6th biggest in the country. They are not an immediate threat, they have zero chance of gaining any serious power - their real danger lies elsewhere - as will be outlined later. If their absolute vote is giving pause for concern it is its trajectory that is truly worrying, indeed, one anti-fascist group in 2007 estimated that it’s vote in local elections had risen 97-fold since 2000. [1] This trend has continued in the elections since then - the European elections seeing a circa 20% rise in their national vote from 800 000 to 950 000 - them and the Greens being the only serious national parties to actually increase their votes, and this in a falling turnout. The tiny meaningless fall in the two areas in which they returned MEPs (2000 and 6000 votes) is more than compensated for by the successful elections themselves and the large rises in their other target areas.

Failed approaches

Contemporary anti-fascism is represented by two main groups with broadly similar approaches. Firstly, Hope not Hate, an umbrella group for unions and individuals within the broad area of the labour movement but open to all. This group was formed by the Searchlight Network. Secondly, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) an SWP front group designed to continue in the same vein as the now mothballed Anti-Nazi League (though not shy of relying on the ANL’s reputation). Both groups concentrate their activities on two main activities/approaches; 1) exposing the criminal records and political beliefs of leading BNP members and local candidates and activists and 2) calling on people not to ‘vote Nazi’ - to vote anyone but BNP (with slight differences in how this is interpreted by each group) in an attempt to raise turnout and block the BNP electorally this way - this approach formed the basis of both groups failed intervention into the London Mayoral and European elections.

What is wrong with these two approaches? The most obvious objection to an anti-BNP strategy centred around these tactics is that they don’t work today and they haven’t worked for some time. This isn’t to say that they haven’t worked in the past, just that they cannot form the central core of an anti-BNP strategy in today’s conditions.

Exposing the BNP’s various criminal and political records has had no discernible impact. In a country in which over 40% of all males have a criminal conviction [2] pointing out to voters in the sort of areas the BNP targets that a candidate has a conviction for assault or theft is likely to have zero impact. If this were not the case then we would today be seeing declining BNP votes and councillors not being returned post-exposure. But we’re not, we’re seeing a steadily rising vote and increasing re-elections.

This tactic has been pursued over the last 10 years on a scale never seen before - every section of the mass media has got in on the game, every candidate has been hammering home their oppositions convictions. If it was ever to make an impact it would have done so in these almost ideal conditions, instead the far right vote continues to rise. We have to conclude that this approach is ineffective.

Exposing past political views - for instance, Griffins flirting with Holocaust denial in the 90s - has suffered the same fate. Griffin simply points out that he no longer believes what he once did, that he was wrong to do so. Issue effectively neutralised, but at this point the interviewer is likely to press on regardless allowing griffin to turn the tables and ask the interviewer if they want to talk about politics. The same thing happens on a larger scale electorally. As above, if this approach of bringing up death camps or Nazi Germany was going to have any impact it would have done so in the especially favourable conditions of current fevered mass media scrutiny of the BNP by now. This approach did find success in the 3 or 4 decades post WW2 when a real folk memory of the sacrifices made by millions was kept alive - today, in different conditions, it cannot, has not and will not make any inroads.

Appealing to the status quo

These, though, are merely tactical problems, bred by past success and turned into conservative substitutes for real active intervention - but precisely as such, they can be developed into more substantive forms of exposure. (More on that later) Far more damaging on a strategical level is the second approach, calling on the electorate to ‘vote anyone but BNP’. This is a de facto status quo position that effectively calls on people to support the social conditions that have given rise to their radical discontent and to support the very same parties that have introduced and are pledged to maintain these conditions. In the bluntest terms, people will simply not vote for the parties they now blame for their situation and no amount of cajoling or mentions of the holocaust will change that. The collapse in the labour vote over last 5 years makes this patently clear (figures here). This position helps ensure that the conditions which are producing the BNP are going to remain in place and we’re back at square one. And it allows the BNP to make all the running as the anti-establishment party during a once in a lifetime time opportunity for anti-establishment parties to make a real breakthrough.

The way to undercut this is to work towards dealing with the root causes of the BNP support - the political abandonment of much of the working class in pursuit of a tiny C1/C2 swing electorate and their interests (interests that are rarely the same as those of traditional labour voting areas), the deliberate setting of parts of the same community at each others throats in the fight for resources under the name of multi-culturalism, the closing down of schools, hospitals, wages being driven down, debt, sub-standard housing, rising rent, under funded services - all the conditions of our social life being attacked and commercialised by a class that’s shown itself incapable in the most basic terms of being able to run the system for the benefit of all. This what needs to be challenged as a priority, not peoples reactions to those planned and deliberate failures know as neoliberalism

And this is where pro-status quo anti-fascism is falling down and demonstrating both a misunderstanding of where we are today and a real lack of political courage. A call to ‘Vote Anyone But BNP’ or Vote to Stop the BNP’ is, in most areas where it is raised, a disguised call to vote Labour - that is why the unions are funding the millions of leaflets delivered by Hope Not Hate. (We can dismiss the suggestion that this slogan is also a call to vote Green, the BNP and Greens are not competing for the same vote. Nor will we dwell on those areas where the slogan translates into ‘Vote Tory’ or ‘Lib-Dem’ beyond asking you to imagine how an implied call to ‘Vote Thatcher to Stop The National Front!’ would have been met?) An anti-fascism tied to support for the parties that have imposed the conditions people are protesting at is already a failing anti-fascism that is sacrificing all credibility by joining hands with the very establishment that people are fed up of and working to get rid of. In conditions where large sections of the electorate have abandoned all the mainstream parties, (combined party membership of mainstream parties has dropped from over 3 million in the late 60s to barely half a million today and is still falling, whilst the drop in labour party votes is not met with substantial rises from the lib-dems and Tories, whilst popular participation in non-formally political organisations is skyrocketing [3]) for anti-fascists not be supporting or initiating local projects that confront rather than support the labour party is to politically abandon these communities to the BNP in the same way as the Labour party already have - albeit they’re now belatedly waking up to the dangers. Being involved in those activities aside from election times does not square the circle either, the same contradictions are there writ just as large. Open participatory public confrontation with these conditions, not collaboration or lesser-evilism, is the key to re-energising the political life of working class communities on a path that logically and dynamically leads to squeezing the BNP out. Sharply put, it’s time to shit or get off the pot.

No platform?

This brings us onto ‘No Platform’ - since Griffin’s egging the day after being elected it’s become evident that beyond the confines of those already politically opposed to the BNP this has very little popular support, and in a country where the myth of democracy has a great hold over public political imagination it’s potentially dangerous in a number of ways. Firstly it, via the functioning of that democratic myth, associates the left with authoritarianism, violence and telling people what they can and cannot hear/read - exactly the sort of high handed arrogance that many people are rejecting the mainstream parties for. Secondly, it acts as cover and support for top-down or state led manoeuvres such as the closure of the BNP’s bank accounts by Barclays, which led to a Palestinian Solidarity Committee’s accounts being closed as well, or the plans by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate the parties constitution and membership rules. How easy to turn these initiatives against us? Already there are calls for a Berufsverbot for public sector workers, this plays directly into the hands of the establishment. Of course, a community led and supported refusal to allow the BNP to operate in their area is a very different matter, but we’re currently seeing the first two forms of ‘No Platform’ substituted for this effective one.

On a related note Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) are an attempt to continue the cultural fight of the ANL by holding music festivals and similar type events - again, questions need to be asked. The problem being that today they simply attract those who are already against the BNP. In the past they were real arenas of conflict, battle grounds for the hearts of young people, and they were battlegrounds because the fascists, at that point, clung to their ‘control the streets’ strategy, to staging highly provocative marches that were attracting sections of young people. Today that context no longer exists and the far-right has no hold whatsoever over the young - they lost that battle years ago. Energy and resources channelled in LMHR would be better off directed at helping deal with the problems working class communities face as part and parcel of squeezing the BNP.

Missing the real danger

What the current anti-fascist approaches have in common is in missing the real danger here. It doesn’t lie in the BNP taking power, in the possibility of concentration camps or any of the other scare stories we’ve been hearing recently. It lies in them colonising the anti-mainstream parties vote and loyalty, thereby blocking the development of an independent working class politics capable of defending our conditions and of challenging neo-liberalism. Their approach is the one that is being normalised nationally at the minute with the consequent racialisation of social issues and a massive shift to the far right as the default starting position for politics. Each step they take forwards knocks the 'left' backwards. This situation represents an immense defeat for the left one that could take us decades to recover from and leaving us as outsiders (even more so than today) in working class communities - the very places that we all recognise as being key to real social change, unless the job of defending the needs of working class communities is seriously taken on and a counter-productive out-dated anti-fascism is discarded. And this needs to be done now whilst the BNP is till soft in many areas - although being rapidly hardened by the economic climate, a situation which is not going to go away for years yet.

So, can we tie these brief criticism together some positive suggestions?

1) The formation of ‘community unions’ not connected to labour, possibly funded by trade unions but with organisational independence assured, that work directly on helping to meet the needs of those politically abandoned working class communities where conditions are deteriorating by the day. Based around the self-identified needs and plans of those communities - which can only pit them head to head against the BNP and the rest of the political mainstream. The types of small victories than can be won on this terrain should be viewed not only as being worthwhile in themselves but also as contributing to the re-emergence of community confidence in its political self assertion, the necessary first steps towards rebuilding a meaningful change. The are already existing groups engaged in this practical activity such as LCAP, Haringey Solidarity, the IWCA and so on.

The need for these to be open membership union type organisations rather than party membership type groups is a simple practical one. People will join unions at work as they recognise collective needs that exist over and above the heads of political disagreements, and the same is true of community needs. And once there is widespread identification (even passive) of the needs of the area/workplace with the existence of the union it becomes very hard to shift, that identification becomes a power in itself. Parties are too narrow to play this role under today’s conditions - they exist on a different level - there’s no reason why they cannot play a role within these broader open groups though.

2) Developing the ‘expose them’ model into one that instead of revealing ineffective details instead concentrates on why their polices will not deal with the social problems driving people into their arms - if we cannot make this clear to those already intensely concerned with these issues then our propaganda is failing and is at best talking to those who would never vote BNP anyway. This will require a direct challenge to Searchlight/UAF and other mainstream anti-fascists as they continue to empty their publications of all but the most inane type of content we’ve criticised above. This, of course, needs to be linked to the activity of the ‘community union’ type groups mentioned above.

3) Searchlight need to abandon their default pro-labour position and use their existing networks and resources to get behind local campaigns, actively challenging the conditions that are breeding support for the far right. This is unlikely to happen.

4) Stop the marches/labelling/shouting etc Marching into an area that you do not know and have no continuing interest in, shouting what’s right for that area is alienating and counter-productive. People do not like being told what’s best for them and will kick back against or simply ignore this sort of activity.

All of this can be performed without capitulating to racism of any kind whatsoever and without writing off vast swathes of the population. It has to be.


1) The BNP and the 2007 Elections - Unite Against Fascism
2) Social Policy Research #93, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
3) Power Inquiry, Power, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, 2006.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

why has marxism had only limited influence in Britain?

Account for the limited influence of Marxism in Britain

Before examining the extent of the influence of Marxism in the British Labour movement it is worth defining what is meant by Marxism. There are many possible definitions, but for the purposes of this essay only two will be employed; firstly, at its simplest level Marxism is an attempt to provide a materialist explanation of history, showing how human society has developed alongside the development of productive forces, and how the struggle between the classes act as the motor of history, and as a deconstruction and critique of the industrial capitalism which Marx considered as the latest, and last, form of class society. British Marxist organisations were from the first, educators and disseminators of this form of Marxism.

The second definition of Marxism is as a panoptic political movement, which aimed to embrace its members in a movement that would provide for them every aspect of their lives while the party itself would subsume and eventually replace the state itself. The template for this form of Marxism was the mighty German SPD.

The pre war Marxist sects and parties of Britain always remained numerically small but their membership was in constant flux; the rapid turnover of members meant that there were always a far greater proportion of Marxist educated workers at large in the British Labour movement than can be gleaned through exclusive attention to the subs lists of individual branches.

It is thus an understandable mistake to see the difference in size between organised Marxism in Britain, whether in its pre Bolshevik, or later communist incarnations, and the mass Social Democratic and Communist Parties of the continent as an indication that Marxism has had only limited influence inside the British Labour Movement. Size, as they say, doesn’t (always) matter. The British Marxists were an integral part of the British labour movement which even if it didn’t always agree with them or even found them uncomfortable bedfellows recognised them as a part of the larger whole.

The nature of the Marxism that was taught within British Marxist groups should also be examined; the pejorative “crude” is almost universally applied when considering the Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation and its splits and successors, but this is an unfair one justified only by the Leninist conviction that their extension of Marxism as an overarching world view, makes it more sophisticated. In reality the pretention that Marxism can provide the answers to every question of Human existence transforms it into a quasi- religion, with its own priesthood and readymade sets of anathema, witch hunts and heretics.

Hyndman’s role, as founder of the SDF, is a major part of the argument for the crudity of early British Marxism, while it is true that he often allowed his old Tory prejudices to colour his interpretation of socialism Hyndman was not ‘the’ SDF and was often challenged and overturned from within the federation. Debates within the SDF often came to conclusions that pre-empted the debates within the wider socialist International, but were often ignored and others would be become associated with the concepts; notably, the bitter arguments that took place after the outbreak of the Boer war, in which Hyndman’s attempts to oppose the war within a overall pro- imperial standpoint led him to assess it nakedly anti Semitic terms whilst his opponents developed an internationalist approach which directly associated the Boers with the interests of the working class, and pre-empted later development of the theory of imperialism undertaken by the Second International and even Lenin’s evocation of ‘revolutionary defeatism’[1].

The vitality of pre war socialism is often overlooked; Ken Weller describes how in one borough of North London no fewer than a dozen different groups and organisations were operating, with their own public meetings, literature and educational classes[2].

The British Labour movement predates all others in the world, it was born in the ‘blood and filth’ of Industrial capitalism’s own birth and its formative years, well described by Thompson[3], were tumultuous and violent as Capital attempted to impose ‘the tyranny of measured time’ and the factory system on the new proletariat. The new working class built its organisation without benefit of the advice of Marxist Intellectual and ‘professional revolutionary’.

Marx and, especially Engels took a rather dim view of the proletariat of their adopted country. After the waning of the Chartist movement both Marx and Engels became increasingly critical of the ‘conservative’ nature of the British Trades unionists. The unions gained strength in the conditions of the long boom in British industry and were able to win for their highly skilled membership real material advantages, which ran counter to Marx’s insistence that Capitalist development would inevitably result in the immiserization of the proletariat. These unionists found that in the conditions of economic growth there was real advantage in supporting free trade economics and freedom in collective bargaining, but found it necessary to seek international solidarity in order to defend their members’ conditions[4]. Even as the same trades’ unionists were creating the International Working men’s Association which would provide Marx with a political platform from which to propagate his views, Engels was condemning them as labour aristocrats[5]. After Marx had destroyed the International to prevent it falling into the hands of his Bakuninite opponents, their interest in the British working class dried up altogether, to the extent of not even bothering to have their writings published in English.

The publication of England for all annoyed Marx for not acknowledging him by name, and instilled a lifelong animosity for Hyndman in Engels, who extended this enmity to the SDF, encouraging the Socialist League’s split[6], and exulting at the mistaken prospect that the split would destroy the federation[7] and in the last years of his life providing support to the foundation of the ILP. Kendall argues that Engels’ hostility to the SDF, in isolating Engels from the British socialist movement, prevented Marxism from taking proper root in the labour movement[8]. This is rather overplaying the influence of one individual, even if that individual is Engels, but Kendall is undoubtedly correct in arguing that by precipitately splitting from the federation the Socialist League left Hyndman and his supporters in complete control, and that the democratic and federal composition of the SDF, meant that a split was unnecessary and set an example which became common for oppositions, and ensured that Hyndman’s control continued till the Great War[9].

Notwithstanding Hyndman, British Marxism developed in a peculiarly working class fashion, a part of, and extension of, the self improvement and autodidactic impulse which has been such a feature of British working class life. Within Socialist education classes Marxism was taught not as a totality but as a part of gaining a wider understanding of the society in which they lived and was studied alongside sciences, literature and history. In 1909 Marxist education became more organised and expanded with the formation of the Central Labour College and the Plebs’ League. Formed following a dispute between the working class students and the traditionalist tutors of Ruskin College the League brought together tutors and students from across the Labour movement, teaching an explicitly Marxist and socialist curriculum.[10] The Plebs’ League produced educational material of an extremely high quality, some of which are still of value today.[11]

It is interesting to note the similarity between these circles of autodidactic workers in Britain and the early Russian workers study circles that were so disliked by Lenin for their habit of knowing more about Marxism than the young revolutionary intellectuals who sought to use them as “cannon fodder”[12].

It is clear that there was an enormous gulf between this Marxism; “ultra democratic, opposed to leadership in principle (and) opposed to professionalism of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.”[13] And the all encompassing European movements: While the British labour movement, in both industrial and political forms had been largely the creation of workers themselves, who were suspicious in the extreme of those few Intellectuals and other members of the middle classes who supported the cause of the workers, across Europe the later industrialisation meant that the intellectuals were, more often than not, the instigators of the socialist parties and the unions were the creation of the parties. The European intelligencia; educated and trained for the role of managing a Industrialised Capitalist society but excluded from any say in the running of that state, they adopted Marxism as an ideology for a highly state centred and bureaucratised Socialism, in which the Educated and managerial Classes would take their rightful place as rulers[14]. The German SPD formed the most fully formed of these parties, creating a parallel society of clubs, unions, papers entertainment and education for its members, and a parallel bureaucracy to run that parallel society, while at the top of the party Marxist intellectuals adorned the party like a crown, with Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism”, as their chief jewel. Kautsky and the other Intellectuals produced Marxist literature which promised much for the coming socialist Nirvana, whilst simultaneously preaching passivity and the inevitability of socialism. Among Kautsky’s many international disciples Lenin was the most devoted and committed in applying Kautsky’s Marxism[15].

In Britain the democratic reforms of the nineteenth century and the needs of Imperial administration provided for the emerging educated and managerial class opportunities for both representation within the established political system and employment and advancement across the globe. There was no major involvement by the educated managerial class in the British Labour and socialist movement until the 1950s as the needs of the Welfarist state led to the rapid growth of highly educated people who were expected to fit into increasingly limited and frustratingly mundane roles.

The Russian Revolution galvanised and united the bulk of British Marxism into the new communist party around support for Lenin’s very different version of Marxism, however the CPGB unlike it’s continental sister parties was not born of a bitter, and all too often, blood soaked, split, but instead from the unification of most of the old ‘revolutionary’ parties, an aspiration which had long existed within the British left. British communism’s relationship with the wider British left also did not change markedly; Local activists were still the same, whether as members of the BSP or CPGB, and the Party remained essentially within the wider labour fold; Harry Wickes in his autobiography described the early years of the communist party in Battersea where the close cooperation between Communist and Labour was extemporised by the election of Indian communist ‘Sak’ Saklatvala as the Labour MP in 1922[16]. The efforts of the Communist International to ‘Bolshevise’ the party, whether organisationally, educationally and, finally, through the hothouse education of a new cadre of leaders in the Lenin school in Moscow, and the parallel efforts of the Labour leadership to proscribe the Communists and the Minority Movement inside the Labour Party that supported them, largely failed to breach the continuity of relationships between Communists and Labour.

On aspect of the Communist International attempts to break the CPGB’s peculiar relationship with the larger movement was in its approach to Marxist Education. Wicks described the nature and breadth of the Plebs’ classes in the early 1920’s;

“Bill Ryder a foundation member of the communist party introduced us to Marx’s Capital...

Frank Horrabin on Economic geography made use of maps to bring alive how continents were divided in the search for markets and raw materials. ...

Raymond Postgate attracted a wide audience with his series of 12 lectures on revolution from 1789 to 1905. His class was held at the lavender hill labour club and coincided with the attack by Morrison and Macdonald on the presence of communists in the labour party. Its central issue- parliamentary road or revolutionary road? - was then live...

Those classes were widely attended and enjoyed by young and old- apprentices, skilled workers, Cooperative Guildswomen. From there emerged a group of people who became the backbone of the left wing of the Labour party. Historical materialism, Industrial unionism and elements of Daniel Deleon constituted the Marxism in that period of Plebs’ education in the 1920s...”

This eclecticism could not be allowed to stand for the recently Bolshevised CPGB and from 1922 onwards attempts were made to take over the movement and impose a curriculum with the intention of; “correcting defective (non communist) understandings of Marxism and turning the plebs league and labour colleges into adjuncts of party activity”[17]

This failed takeover led to a exodus of some of the CPGBs most able and talented educators, Raymond Postgate, Frank Horrabin, Mark Starr and Morgan Philips- Price all left the party and a great deal of damage was done to its standing.

The final breach between organised Marxism and the Labour movement was the Third Period; This was a new revolutionary offensive decreed from Moscow, in which the only force that was holding back the revolutionary impulses of the workers was the reformist parties and unions, who it was claimed, had become as firm supporters of reaction as the fascists, and should be therefore denounced as social fascists, shattered the relationship between the Marxists and the wider labour movement, that organic continuity was lost and never again regained. When the communists again looked for unity, in the cause of the popular front, it was as an outside organisation, appealing or condemning in turn the leadership of the Labour Party and trades unions, moreover, the assumption that the Communists and the wider movement had the same interests, and the same loyalties could never again be made.

As an integral part of the Labour movement, Britain’s Marxists gained a wide audience, however this was a very different form of Marxism than that pursued by the mass socialist parties of the continent. The introduction of such politics after 1917 caused the steady collapse of the influence of British Marxism.



Barrot, Jean The renegade Kautsky and his disciple Lenin Paris 1977 translated by Wildcat 1987 on accessed 25/02/09

Cliff, Tony Lenin Volume 1: Building The Party, 1893-1905 London 1975

Crick, Martin The History of the Social Democratic Federation Keele 1994

Jones, G.S. Some Notes on Karl Marx and the English Labour Movement History Workshop Journal 1984

Kendall, W the revolutionary movement in Britain: 1900-1921 London 1969

Miles, A workers education: The Communist Party and the Plebs league in the 1920s History workshop Journal 1984 18 (1)

Post, Charlie The Labor (sic) aristocracy myth International Viewpoint 381 September 2006 accessed at on 25/02/09

Shatz, Marshall S. Jan Waclaw Machajski A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligensia And Socialism Pittsburgh 1989

Stekloff, G.M. history of the First International London 1928 Ch. 3 accessed at on 25/02/09

Thompson, E.P. Making of the English working class London 1968

Weller, Ken Don’t be a Soldier, radical Anti war movement in North London 1914-1918 London 1985

Wicks, Harry Keeping my head; memoirs of a British Bolshevik London 1992

[1] Crick, Martin The History of the Social Democratic Federation Keele 1994 pp. 158-163

[2] Weller, Ken Don’t be a Soldier, radical Anti war movement in North London 1914-1918 London 1985

[3] Thompson, E.P. Making of the English working class London 1968

[4] Stekloff, G.M. history of the First International London 1928 Ch. 3 accessed at on 25/02/09

[5] Post, Charlie The Labor (sic) aristocracy myth International Viewpoint 381 September 2006 accessed at on 25/02/09

Jones, G.S. Some Notes on Karl Marx and the English Labour Movement History Workshop Journal 1984 18 p. 128

[6] Crick, M 1994 p. 39

[7] Kendall, W the revolutionary movement in Britain: 1900-1921 London 1969 pp.6-7

[8] Kendall, W 1969 p.5

[9] Kendall, W 1969 p.7 and p.21

[10] Kendall, w 1969 p.69

[11] See specially Starr, Mark A worker looks at history London 1917

[12] Cliff, Tony Lenin Volume 1: Building The Party, 1893-1905 Ch.2 on accessed 25/02/09

[13] Kendall, W 1969 p.300

[14] Bakunin was probably the earliest critic of Marxism to identify its tendency to become an ideology for a state bureaucracy, for the first fully formed critique see the work of the Polish revolutionary Jan Machajski in Marshall S. Shatz

Jan Waclaw Machajski A Radical Critic of the Russian Intelligensia And Socialism Pittsburgh 1989 accessed at on the 26/02/09

[15] Barrot, Jean The renegade Kautsky and his disciple Lenin Paris 1977 translated by Wildcat 1987 on accessed 25/02/09

[16] Wicks, Harry Keeping my head; memoirs of a British Bolshevik London 1992 Ch.1- 3

[17] Miles, A workers education: The Communist Party and the Plebs league in the 1920s History workshop Journal 1984 18 (1) p. 107.