Historical Materialism in Canada

In the shadow of the economic crisis in Greece, inspired by Occupy, the Arab Spring, and Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, the 2012 edition of the Historical Materialism Conference in Toronto, was a resounding success. More than 400 people attended the 80-plus panels during an intensive three-day event stretching from Friday, May 11 through Sunday, May 13.

Historical Materialism saw an important series of discussions on indigenous politics, involving eight sessions, a plenary and a Long Table discussion. There was a well-attended session on the relationship between Marxism and Feminism and several sessions on key issues in political economy. The complete program can be seen here.

Historical Materialism originated as a journal 1997. Subscription information is available here. Annual conferences associated with the journal have been happening each November in London, U.K. since 2004. This year’s (the ninth annual) will be held between November 8 and 11, 2012.

Toward the United Front

One of the highlights of the 2012 Toronto HM conference, and of last year’s HM conference in London, was the launch of John Riddell’s 1310 page Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. At that congress, 350 delegates from 61 countries (Riddell 2012, 55) grappled with the political challenges of building a united anti-capitalist movement in the post-war era. Three panels at Historical Materialism Toronto addressed issues relevant to Riddell’s book, with 150 people in total participating in those discussions.

Riddell’s book – which was also the subject of multiple sessions at the HM conference in London in 2011 – is the seventh in an ongoing series making available the proceedings and documents relevant to the construction of an international socialist movement in the difficult years before, during and after World War One. An outline of the six earlier works is available here. Central to this project were the early congresses of the Communist International, the first being in 1919. Bringing together activists from around the world, these congresses grappled with the key political issues of the day, in very difficult circumstances.

The first congress took place while Russia suffered under a terrible blockade which fuelled civil war and caused untold suffering. This blockade – imposed on the country by Britain, France and the Allied powers from the spring of 1918 until it petered out in 1920 – began in two phases. After the October Revolution, “the allies stopped the flow of supplies to Russia”. But the full regular blockade “was established after the Brest-Litovsk treaty” (Carr 1978, 3:126). In other words, Russia was being strangled by the victorious democracies, as punishment for Russia bringing to an end the carnage of World War One on Germany’s eastern front. Blockade went along with military invasion to fuel the destructive civil war aimed at overthrowing the new Russian workers’ state. The military invasion proved futile. In February and March of 1919, there were mutinies among British, French and U.S. troops (Carr 1978, 3:127–127). By the fourth congress – the subject of Riddell’s book – the blockade had been lifted and the civil war was over. The Russian workers’ state emerged victorious – but suffered horrendous casualties.

Riddell’s translations – and his superb 59-page introduction – bring to life this 90 year-old gathering of activists. The hard cover version will be difficult to buy for many individuals, as its list price is €199 ($283). But it is an excellent volume to recommend to a library, particularly if you are associated with a university. And, a $55 paperback version will be available later this year, published by Haymarket Books in Chicago.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg


Carr, Edward Hallett. 1978. A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Volume Two. Vol. 3. 14 vols. Macmillan.

Riddell, John. 2012. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

How not to remember World War I

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2008 • Some wars are controversial. There is a huge debate, for instance, about World War II – which may have been the most destructive war in history, but is nonetheless justified by many as a “necessary evil” – the war to stop the Nazis. That is a debate that should be had. But about World War I there is little debate. It was a senseless slaughter, poor boys dying for the greed of the rich, fighting over the imperialist carve-up of what today we call the “Global South”.

Apparently not. British academic Gary Sheffield was given the honour of kicking off a week-long retrospective on World War I, by the usually “progressive” editors of The Guardian.[1] Sheffield – a professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham – tells us that “this war was no accident.” But to make his case, he throws the study of the “Great War” back several generations – returning to the oldest argument in the book – that it was a war by the civilized democracies against expansionist Germany.

Sheffield discusses the “world policy” of the Kaiser of Germany, his Weltpolitik which “was an attempt to gain colonies and expand German power and economic influence.” Well, that is true. Germany was trying to gain colonies. But the “civilized powers” – Britain and France – didn’t have the same imperative. They already had their colonies. Sheffield glosses over this detail.

Sheffield warns us that the Kaiser was “mentally unstable.” Perhaps that is true. But why no mention of the interestingly limited mental capacities of the Czar of Russia – key ally to Britain and France? Or perhaps a long discourse on Rasputin the very interestingly unstable “adivsor” to the Czar’s wife Alexandra. Not a whisper.

The war professor tells us that the German parliament was “largely toothless” – to make the point that this was a war of democracies (England and France) against autocracies. But what teeth did the Russian Duma (parliament) have? About this not a word.

The method is an old one – the use of selective information to reinforce an idée fixe. This was a war of democracies against autocracy. So we will ignore the fact that the biggest army on the side of the democracies was that of the autocratic Russian Czar. This is a war of good against evil, so we will emphasize the instability of the German Kaiser, and stay mute on the capacities of the Russian Czar and one of his principal advisors.

“Britain entered the war because it, too, could not afford to see Germany triumphant.” That is true. It couldn’t bear another imperialist power encroaching on its territory in Africa and Asia. The world was already divided up – Germany was not allowed into the party.

Most outrageously, Sheffield tells us that “the drafters of the Versailles treaty had it broadly right after all” when it stated that “ ‘the aggression of Germany and her allies’ was responsible for the war.” So as well as showing us that the war was necessary, he is rehabilitating a treaty that many analysts see as laying the basis for World War II – a treaty so punitive toward the German people in the war reparations demanded, that it created fuel for the racist nationalism that would lead to the creation of the Nazis.

This is no way to remember the ten million who died in the horrible slaughter of the “Great War” – including 65,000 Canadians. Their deaths should remind us of why we need to build an anti-war movement. Their deaths are dishonoured when used for articles that amount to pro-war apologetics. For a more balanced account, Sheffield and others should study Marc Ferro’s sobering and authoritative The Great War 1914-1918.[2]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “First World War,” insert in The Guardian, November 8, 2008
[2] Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918 (Routledge, 2002)