Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast; or, How to have a Fake World War One Centenary

I suppose it was inevitable that, in a broadcast on the theme of ‘reconciliation’, the Queen would celebrate the informal truce that spontaneously broke out in the trenches between British and German soldiers in the First World War at Christmas-time 1914; and we have had the Sainsbury’s television advert over the last month or so to give some vivid visual imagery to this evocation (with football thrown in too, which the Queen did not mention). It’s good that there was such a truce, of course; at least it stopped the industrial-scale carnage for a few hours.

But if only it had gone much further. In his 1914 pamphlet ‘Common Sense about the War’, George Bernard Shaw recommended that the troops on both sides should shoot their own officers and go home and get the harvest in. Lenin knew that you had to go one stage further still and shoot your political leaders too. For him, you should take the weapons the ruling class gave you and turn them, not against each other, but against those ruling classes themselves, turning international wars into civil wars. So never mind cheery Christmas football, it would have taken uprisings on this scale by ordinary troops to bring down the capitalist elites whose competing imperialisms caused the unprecedented mass-slaughter.

As I've noted previously in this blog, my grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney fought with the Royal Artillery in France in the Great War, and though he didn’t actually turn his guns on officers or rulers, he did later join the Communist Party of Great Britain, which I take it was his way of saying that you had to hate and fight the entire economic system that had sent working men out to die in their millions to protect its imperialist super-profits. If you do not name, hate and fight that system, if you only mourn the deaths of so many individuals – the ‘fallen’ or the ‘warriors’ who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice', in that repulsive late-Victorian rhetoric - then you can have an enjoyably poignant emotional wallow, as did all those who admired the great flood of poppies at the Tower of London, but you show no real respect at all to those who have died in capitalism’s wars, then or since. I guess we are going to have to repeat these points frequently over the next three or four years!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Teachers of Lore 2: John Goode

In June 1978 John Goode interviewed me for a place on the MA in Literature course at Warwick University, where I met my wife Makiko Minow, and at the end of that academic year he sent me down the road to Oxford to work with Terry Eagleton, so he certainly played a major role in shaping my personal, professional and political life. He co-taught literary theory to us on the Warwick MA course, and I did not then fully grasp what an important nineteenth-century scholar and critic he was. It was only later at Oxford, as my own thoughts turned to William Morris, that I began to take the measure of Goode’s significance as a Morris scholar in particular. His work mattered so much because – unusually among that generation of Morris critics – he brought the lessons of the ‘theory revolution’ of the 1980s to bear upon News from Nowhere and other key works. Under the impact of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, he had moved from a ‘reflectionist’ to a ‘productionist’ concept of the literary text, and he produced his most important work on Morris in the light of the latter.

I attended John Goode’s inaugural professorial lecture at Keele University in February 1992, and learnt of his death in January 1994 at the age of fifty-four with great sadness. I heard later from Keele colleague Charles Swann that on his death-bed John had been reading, in such moments of respite as he had, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove and volume two of J├╝rgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, both immensely formidable texts in their different ways even if you were in the very best of health. So he leaves us not only an important body of writing about Hardy, Gissing, Clough, Morris and other Victorian literature topics (partly gathered in the Collected Essays of 1995), but also that moving example of intellectual dedication even in the face of great adversity.