Monday, 20 September 2010

Comment fron C Thompson

Ann Talbot has misled you. Luddism was a phenomenon of the late stages of the war against Napoleonic France, which ended in 1815. Chartism and opposition to the new Poor Law came after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The People's Charter was published in 1837 and Chartism itself lasted until c.1850. The New Poor Law creating Unions of parishes was passed in 1834.


Friday, 10 September 2010

Review: Reckless Opportunists-Elites at the end of the Establishment-By Aeron Davis- Manchester University Press- March 2018

“The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out. In countries where it has already been forced to stake its last upon the card of fascism, it now toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe. In the historically privileged countries, i.e., in those where the bourgeoisie can still for a certain period permit itself the luxury of democracy at the expense of national accumulations (Great Britain, France, United States, etc.), all of the capital’s traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on a paralysis of will”[1].

Leon Trotsky was describing the condition of the ruling elites in the 1940s. Fascism had established itself in three major European countries, and a global war had already killed hundreds of thousands of people. As Aeron Davis shows in his new book history is not only repeating itself, there is a real danger of the world not existing in a few years.

It must be pointed out that Davis is no Marxist but has in a limited way exposed how rotten the British and for that matter global ruling elite has become. The guiding principle for what passes as policy or perspective today by political parties, leaders of the big business is whether it is right, not for the vast majority of the population, but for the super-rich.

Readers looking for a Thomas Pickety style exposure of growing social inequality and the reasons behind are going to be disappointed by this book. Whether Davis has an understanding of the social forces at play or downplays them is open to debate. The fact that he mentions the word capitalist once in the book gives us a clue.

Davis’s book is based on at least twenty years of research and interviews. He has interviewed and observed over 350 members of the ruling elite. As Davis points out “as an academic studying how power operates, I have spent the past 20 years researching elite figures in five areas associated with the modern establishment: the media, the City, large corporations, the Whitehall civil service and the major political parties at Westminster. After interviewing and observing more than 350 people working in or close to the top during that time, my sense of this evolving long-term crisis has become clearer. I have come to believe that the establishment is no longer coherent or collective or competent. Its failings are not only causing larger schisms, inequalities and precariousness in Britain; they also threaten the very foundations of establishment rule itself”.

During that twenty year period, the world capitalist system has witnessed a significant economic and political crisis not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The majority of the book deals with the implication of the September 2008 global economic breakdown. Davis highlights in his book that very few of the highly paid representatives of the bourgeoisie saw the crisis coming or how close to the banking collapse came to bringing down the whole capitalist system.

Another aspect mentioned in the book is how the corporately controlled titans of the media not only did not see the crash coming but the words of one writer “celebrated the reckless financial speculation and reckless self-enrichment that define the business activities and personal lifestyles of the ruling class “.

Davis believes that too many of today's leader are “reckless opportunists” hell-bent on making as much money as they can regardless of the consequences. Davis points out that this recklessness is endangering the very existents of the capitalist system.

One striking example of the process of degeneration blighting many bourgeois leaders was described by Andrew Turnbull, a former head of the civil service,Turnball described the 1970s which witnessed a series of economic collapses Turnball points that the more perceived members of the ruling elite believed that this crisis could not be handled by “privileged amateurs”. As Davis points out “Meritocracy” and expertise – represented by grammar school education, the professions and PhDs – began dictating the new recruitment policy.

Turnball concludes “Gradually the classics and humanities people got replaced,”when I arrived we used to have people who were experts on Byron and musicians – rather refined people. Then, rather hard-nosed economists gradually took over, and the dominant culture became football and golf, rather than music.”

While Davis would lead us to believe that the majority of the ruling elite are reckless opportunists a weakness in the book is that he does little to examine the more conscious elements in the ruling elite and what they plan to do about the crisis of leadership amongst them.

Aside from piling on more misery to the working class, there are firm plans amongst the bourgeois for war on a global scale and with nuclear weapons. As the document entitled “Fractures, Fears and Failures,” from the WEF’s 2018 Global Risks Report Warns

“Democracy is already showing signs of strain in the face of economic, cultural and technological disruption. Much deeper damage is possible: social and political orders can break down. If an evenly divided country sees polarised positions harden into a winner-takes-all contest, the risk increases of political debate giving way to forms of secession or physical confrontation. In these circumstances, a tipping point could be reached. A spiral of violence could begin, particularly if public authorities lost control and then intervened on one side with disproportionate force. In some countries—with widespread ready access to weapons or a history of political violence—armed civil conflict could erupt. In others, the state might impose its will by force, risking long reverberating consequences: a state of emergency, the curtailment of civil liberties, even the cancellation of elections to protect public order". 


Davis like philosopher Thomas Hobbes believes that leadership does not have to be  “nasty, brutish and short. The system can be reformed and regulated and can be “nice". Whether Davis had his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek when he said that is open to debate. This is a system and leadership that is rotten to the core, and if it is not removed, it will propagate a global war that will make the 2nd world war look like a tea party.

[1] The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International-The Transitional Program-

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Danton's Death at the National Theatre

I went to see Danton’s Death at the National Theatre in London. The play has generally been well received and reviews have been favorable although some of the more right wing press have been critical. Not really a surprise there.

Buchner was only 21 when he wrote Danton’s Death. He wrote it in 1835 in under five weeks. Being a revolutionary himself he was in constant fear of arrest. The play is all the more significant for the fact that it was written by one so tender an age and in revolutionary terms still a baby.

One word of warning is that you need as one critic put it “you need to do a bit of homework if your knowledge of the French Revolution is as patchy as mine, He was also critical which I agree with him in that “far too many of the dramatis personae fail to come to satisfyingly rounded dramatic life” Also in the book of the play the cast lists Thomas Paine as a Deputy of the National Convention yet unless I am mistaken nothing was heard from him in this production. Please, someone, correct me if I am wrong.

Büchner's original play is a rarity these days in the sense that even at the tender age of 21 his grasp of the complicated history of the French revolution is very striking. The play focuses on the French Revolution's year of terror, 1794. The central theme of the play “is the art of Insurrection” and the use of terror in a revolutionary situation. The play's director tries hard to show this but there severe weaknesses in this production as Billington said cutting two scenes which showed the scope of the revolution, the scenes cut for instance showed crowd scenes and even the national convention was sparsely populated.

Another reviewer also picked up on this Ann Talbot said in her review “the immediate problem is that Brenton has removed two small scenes from the original play. Both of them are crowd scenes. They are brief scenes in an already short play, and it is difficult to see that there was any good reason for dropping them. Running time is hardly a question. The play gains nothing in clarity without them. In fact, it loses something crucial. The effect of taking them out is to unbalance the whole work because omitting them removes a character that has a vital role to play in the conflict between Danton and Robespierre.

That character is not an individual, or instead it is the many individuals who make up the crowd, the mass of the population, the sans-culottes, the poor who must get their living by selling their labour and their bodies on the streets of Paris. Once this element is removed from the play, we are left with a mostly personal drama in which two individuals are pitted against one another in a conflict that lacks any substantial basis in the broader framework of social relations. Danton without the crowd is not really Danton. He is left as a somewhat effete, weary man who just cannot be bothered to take the necessary action to defend himself. What brought Danton to the head of the revolution was his relationship with the sans-culottes. He expressed their material interest in overthrowing the different state of affairs that existed in France under the ancien regime and establishing a more just society. Robespierre was able to defeat him because he still reflected the interests of that social layer. If that relationship is left out of the play, then Robespierre loses his historical stature and is reduced to a slightly dogmatic man.”

Again commentating on Buchner’s method “The fact that such a small piece of editing can have such a major effect on the play points to the masterly precision of Büchner’s technique. He was by training a scientist and doctor. When he died in 1837 he had just won a teaching position at the University of Zurich. The play was written on his dissection table and it has something of the character of a dissection about it in which each organ, each social element, is laid out before us in an entirely objective manner. Büchner is offering us an autopsy of the French Revolution performed at the moment when it reaches its fatal impasse. He allows us to examine his meticulously prepared specimens and draw our own conclusions rather than beating us over the head with his message. It is a powerful dramatic technique so long as all the parts are present. Those two missing scenes, small though they are, are essential to the play”.

I am not saying that the play is not worth seeing and lacks dramatic tension but by cutting out the people scenes according to one review it “thins the dramatic texture and turns the play into a character study: one in which the sensual, death-haunted, strangely passive Danton confronts the repressed, life-fearing, remorselessly active Robespierre. That is a vital part of Büchner's play; but to focus so exclusively on that element is to miss the larger point that they are also history's puppets”.

The question of Danton and Robespierre being “history’s puppets” is a piece of crude determinist verbiage. I prefer Engels description.

Engels beautifully describes how the laws of a revolutionary insurrection intersects with its human participants. “Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. 

The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l'audace, de l'audace, encore de l'audace!

Although only two hours in length this production still has enough in it to show some psychological insights into the minds and action of the two leaders of the revolution. It would be useful to record some insights gained from the Wikipedia article on the play. To explain Buchner’s method “

“Its use of numerous historical sources and extensive quotations from original political speeches meant that the play was seen in the 20th century as the precursor to documentary theatre. Until 1979 no one had explored the themes and inner connections within Buchner's work between Eros and Violence systematically - that year saw Reinhold Grimm treat it in text und kritik, Georg Büchner, and it was continued in the present Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 11 (2005–2008)”.

I will agree with a number of critics who have described the design of the stage the fantastic, the use of lighting gives the play a stunning look. Perhaps the most gripping scene was the technically astute use of the guillotine, with one critic remarking “with executions so convincing that you are surprised that several prominent members of the cast don’t take the curtain call with their heads neatly tucked beneath their arms”

Clearly from the audience’s reaction the play has still a very contemporary feel to it. At the end when the actors took a bow some members of the audience hissed at Robespierre and applauded more when Danton and his supporters appeared. It is clear that the play deals with all the range of themes that are around us today. Danton’s Death looks at the dialectic of revolution, the relationship between men and women, friendship, class, determinism, materialism and the role of theatre itself.

But am I the only one who left the theatre feeling that a lot was missing was this really just a debate between Danton and Robespierre. Did Danton really resign himself so pathetically to his death? Why did Brenton refuse to elaborate on Danton’s relationship with the Sans Culottes? Because in the end were left with a somewhat disappointing debate over morality.

Ann Talbot has this answer on Brenton’s idea or none idea of revolution “It is an interpretation that says more about the outlook of the current intellectual world and one time left-wing playwright Brenton than it does about Büchner. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in trade union activity in the West, it has become extremely difficult for writers to imagine a revolution in anything other than the most disastrous terms. There is a sharp contrast here between Brenton’s foray into the 18th century and Trevor Griffiths’ A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine. 

The American and French Revolutions provide Griffiths with a context in which revolution can still be imaginatively recreated and a connection made with contemporary class concerns. But for Brenton, the French Revolution only offers further confirmation of the hopelessness of the entire revolutionary project whether in the 18th century or the 21st".


1. Michael Billington The Guardian, Friday 23 July 2010

2. Ann Talbot Danton’s Death

3. Marx and Engels Collected Works XI 85-86

4. The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx Alex Calinicos Bookmarks.


6. Ian Shuttleworth July 25 2010