Tag Archives: History

Whose History

Only last year, without any expert input, the Texas Board of Education approved changes to history textbooks which included the rehabilitation of Joseph McCarthy (saying subsequent revelations had vindicated him), the minimization of Thomas Jefferson, and removal of references to the Enlightenment (TJ was likely a deist rather than a mainstream Christian, while many thinkers associated with the Enlightenment were devoted secularists and, in some cases, flat out atheists). The Board also stipulated that the phrase “the slave trade” would be replaced with the “triangular Atlantic trade.”
From a NYT article:

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Commie Notes


Wednesday I lectured in a somewhat coherent fashion on the relevance of the Communist Manifesto for the study of US history and culture. Let me recapitulate the most salient aspects of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ pamphlet (which, as I said in class, is globally the most significant political tract ever published).

The CM opens as a ghost story: the “specter of communism” has appeared, frightening the owners of capital, those Marx calls the bourgeoisie, a French term for capitalists. Why would capitalists be frightened of communists? According to Marx, because the latter are dedicated to the absolute overthrow of capitalism– in a word, revolution.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At one time the bourgeoisie itself was a revolutionary class, destroying the old order of feudalism and building a new system based on private property and investment.

The first section of the CM is primarily concerned with history, and to that end Marx gives us a model of historical change, a theory of history that would eventually come to be known as “the materialist conception of history.” In another text Marx had claimed that

“We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process.”

At issue here is a philosophical principle, one which holds that in order to understand the world– and, indeed, to change it– we must begin not with our ideas about things but those things themselves. The study and criticism of history, then, is above all concerned with material forces: how people subsist and reproduce themselves through their labor, the movement of populations, the rise of new technologies, etc. Who we think we are and what we think we are doing are outgrowths of our  basic material condition, a product of the way that society is organized. Marx encapsulates this idea with the assertion that

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

What follows is a brief and pungent history of the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, “the modern bourgeois society [which] has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society,” a transformation that, far from dispelling the antagonism between classes, has, in fact, simply deepened those contradictions. As the bourgeoisie grows in size and power, so does another class, the proletariat, which Marx describes as those “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” Proletarians “must sell themselves piecemeal, [they] are a commodity… and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The bourgeoisie own, and by owning increase their wealth. The proletariat own nothing but their capacity to labor, which they are compelled to sell as a commodity in order to survive.

Note that for Marx one of the watershed events in the rise of capitalism is the “discovery of America” and the ensuing extraction of massive amounts of wealth from the western hemisphere which was then funneled directly into Europe. We talked about this development in passing on Wednesday, and it bears repeating: the production of raw commodities such as tobacco, sugar, tin, silver, cotton, etc. with slave labor essentially built the great cathedrals and cities of Europe. The opening of what was at that time called “the antipodes” for intensive agriculture and mineral exploitation provided an incredible boost for early capitalism, ultimately creating fortunes which would be invested in new technologies and fueling the industrial revolution.  Let’s be clear: America was indispensable to the development of global capitalism.

New forms of labor arose and new ways of organizing that labor, from the closed shops of “guild-masters” to the advent of manufacturing centers. The character of work changed: the division of labor separated different activities in the productive process. Work became more specialized. If at one time a craftsman might, for instance, build an entire chair himself, in the new system one worker might lathe the chair’s legs while another wove its seat and yet another assembled the finished parts.

As these changes in labor transpired, a world market was rapidly emerging, an example of which might be the triangular trade. New transportation and communication technologies emerged, such as steam power and, in the 19th century, telegraphy.

Yet this new economic system was rife with contradictions and depended on ceaseless transformation:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

A key characteristic of capitalism, then, is an unending ferment, what Joseph Schumpeter identified as a dynamic of “creative destruction.” That principle of constant change is related to another core trait of capitalism: the absolute necessity for growth. As local resources are depleted new sources of raw materials must be obtained. As local markets are saturated, new markets must be created or conquered in order to absorb surplus. The expansion of trade begets new desires:

“In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction….”

Now this last passage might sound something like globalization, and indeed it is. Globalization is a process that has been operative since at least the opening of the Silk Route, one that was massively amplified by the industrial revolution and later phases of capitalism.

The development of capitalism over the last 400 or so years, Marx continues, has led to unprecedented demographic changes, to urbanization, to a world-system of economic power in which those nations which are most developed dominate those which are less developed. Capitalism has changed the political character of countries as well, leading the State to centralize its powers and to codify laws, in effect creating governments which reflect the values and ideals of the bourgeoisie.

Yet the capitalist mode of production– in perpetual agitation, constantly expanding, establishing creative powers that dwarf the abilities of all prior civilizations– is prone to crisis. Recessions and depressions follow periods of unprecedented economic growth. Fortunes are made and lost. Whole sectors of the economy become redundant. Industries are plagued by over-production. In order to escape these crises the bourgeoisie must remake the economy, locate new markets, intensify the exploitation of old ones, adjust wages, develop new technologies.

In the coming weeks we’ll be studying a period of history known to scholars as the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (also identified with the unfortunate acronym GAPE). The industrializing landscape of burgeoning American cities were the scorched earth of maturing, late-nineteenth century capitalism. The awesome productive powers of that rapidly consolidating economic system were accompanied by some of the worst depredations of which capitalism is capable. It was in these years that ideas about the relationship of the State to its People were formed. Should Americans be left to struggle individually or did the government have some obligation to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable? Was capitalism synonymous with the national identity or character? Was democracy at the risk of subversion because of economic inequalities? The ways that ordinary people approached such questions will, I think, give us a fuller understanding of the past and  insight into our own historical moment.

Vietnamese Diaspora (calicult)


On Friday we’ll wrap our discussion of In Dubious Battle and, time permitting, begin to talk about the Vietnamese Diaspora as a way of backgrounding le thi deim thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For.

Currently there are about 1.5 million people who claim Vietnamese descent in the United States and of that number probably about 40% live in California. The fall/liberation of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) provoked the first major wave of emigration to the United States and in the years following that event– a second wave lasting from roughly 1978 into the 1980s– two million more Vietnamese people left their country of origin, many of them in small boats, which gave rise to the term “boat people.” As with prior periods of immigration (the Irish in the mid-19th century for instance) the arrival of Vietnamese caused a plurality of responses by “native” Americans, from welcome to backlash. 

Currently San Jose City College is hosting The Smithsonian’s “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” exhibit. You can see a flyer for that here (pdf).

Also, check out the first part of a four part segment for a PBS program created by Andrew Lam on the Vietnamese Diaspora:





More 300 (contcult)

On Monday I mentioned the notion that in the current “Clash of Civilizations” context the film version of Frank Miller’s 300 virtually begs to be taken as some sort of geopolitical allegory. Gary Leupp, a professor at Tufts,  has written on this issue, as have many, many others. Whether or not 300 represents the apotheosis of Hollywood homoeroticism has also been addressed in Nathan Lee’s “Man on Man Action” and elsewhere. Indeed, a keyword search of google using the terms “300” and “homoerotic” will get you over a quarter of a million hits not to mention gems like this:

After the hard work of unraveling Belsey and entering the dark chamber, we can, perhaps, luxuriate in the suds of Pop– never for a moment, however, allowing our critical faculties to go slack. To that end I highly recommend that you peruse the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Iran. We’ll need that background as we move from the 5th century BCE to the 20th century CE.

300 (contcult)

We’ll be talking about music on Wednesday and with any luck we’ll get started on 300. Here’s an older map of Greece at the time. If you’ve not read Herodotus’s account of the Battle of Thermopylae you might glance at the following passages.

201. King Xerxes, I say, was encamped within the region of Trachis in

the land of the Malians, and the Hellenes within the pass. This place

is called by the Hellenes in general Thermopylai, but by the natives

of the place and those who dwell in the country round it is called

Pylai. Both sides then were encamped hereabout, and the one had

command of all that lies beyond Trachis[208] in the direction of the

North Wind, and the others of that which tends towards the South Wind

and the mid-day on this side of the continent.[209] Continue reading

Soundtracking (calicult)

Critical Methods: Soundtracking

To our critical toolkit we can add another method, soundtracking. Let’s think of the latter part of that term, tracking, not only as background music or the noises generated by human activity, the natural world and the movement of machinery but as the activity of tracking, as in the way a hunter might track her quarry. For the period of the 1930s, then, soundtracking becomes the critical method of following the development of social sounds: from Delta Blues and lefty folk to the pop of tear gas canisters fired at strikers, the thrum of turbines generating electricity, the scratch of chaff blown across the dustbowl wasteland or the tintinnabulations of the city. The trail of California—and more generally, American—culture provides us with clues about how we arrived at the future that is our present.

A secondary valence of ‘tracking’ might relate to the idea of a track as the determined trajectory of cultural practices and social changes. Think of railcars clacking along: they move through time and across space, but barring derailment there’s very little leeway. This sense of the word brings us to a confrontation with historical necessity. In a way, history isn’t what happened; it’s what had to have happened in order for us to be here to talk about it.

This weekend, research some of the sounds of the Depression on the internet. Youtube might be useful, particularly in terms of popular music of the period. In class I mentioned Woody Guthrie, Son House and Robert Johnson but there is a cacophony of notes, noises and voices to consider: Swing, Dixieland, James Cagney’s gangster snarl, the syncopated beat of apples raining into a wooden bin.