Thursday, 3 November 2011

History. Honesty. Tribalism. And PhD's.

Amongst the various wild geese that I have been chasing in my current  unemployed state, one possibility I considered was doing a PhD. Not because I seriously considered a new career as an academic but because it's something that I've always figured on doing at some point as a bit of self indulgence.

Having looked into some of  the practicalities, and got some very helpful advice from friendly academics I've decided not to pursue it. Quite simply there's a world of difference between having a pet subject you research a bit when you've got nothing else to do and a consuming passion that will keep you (and your family)  going for three to five years of poverty without much prospect of employment at the end.

My particular hobby horse (one of many I pick up and put out down regularly from time to time) was British Trotskyism and the Second World War - with a particular look at its disconnect with how Trotskyism in recent anti-fascist campaigns has appropriated the mythology of the 'People's War'. 

That may well sound like a typically academic 'angels dancing on pin heads' subject - but it also highlights a much more important and practical point - the invention of tradition and the honesty of organisations about their own history. I'll admit that a lot of this was aimed at the IS/SWP and the ANL /UAR tradition - but it also applies to some extent my own organisation and its predecessors.

There's not exactly a body of scholarship on this subject - which can be interpreted as hole in the market - and what there is falls pretty much into the category of 'party family histories'. These seem to consist of tortuous and labyrinthine attempts to demonstrate a continuity between an organisation's antecedents and its current position - and it goes without saying - the correctness of these positions on every occasion. This strikes me as basically ahistorical - but worse than that - fundamentally dishonest.

It reminds me of when I first got involved with Trotskyism having come from a very brief flirtation with  the YCL / CPGB as a teenager. I was given a book by Alan Woods called 'Lenin and Trotsky - What They Really Stood For'. It was a pretty good rebuttal of the Stalinist misrepresentation of Leninsm. But it also perpetuated the idea that Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were some kind of holy trinity - a single indivisible being of one mind in three incarnations. Even at the time I was uneasy about this - nowadays I'm still more so.

On a purely facile level I quite surprised myself when I took one of those daft online 'what kind of Marxist are you ?' quizzes - and  I came out as a 'Luxemburg-ist'. Thinking about it, these post-everything days I'd rather define myself (if I really have to) as a 'Libertian Marxist from the Trotskyist tradition'. I don't think it undermines  my continuing membership of the party I've been in for the past twenty-something years - but it's certainly more honest.

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