Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Cattle Truck
On 9 November 1938, 30,000 German Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. One thousand were murdered in this operation. Synagogues, homes and businesses were destroyed. It was the start of the Nazis' 'Final Solution' which was to see six million Jewish people murdered by Hitler's thugs in the course of the Second World War.
With the racism of anti-semitism at the core of their ideology the Nazis scapegoated Jews for all society's ills. They made them the target for the anger and despair of millions who had lost their jobs and their homes in the great slump of the 1930s, much as today's Nazis across Europe attempt to build political influence in the recession racked 1990s.
Hitler's Nazis built concentration camps and special extermination camps like Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, whose sole purpose was to commit murder on a mass scale. Of the estimated two million who entered these camps, barely a hundred survived. These are the facts that Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French National Front calls mere 'details of history', the events that the racist historian David Irving denies ever happened.
Gays, lesbians, Gypsies, trade unionists, socialists and Communists were forced into the camps along with Jews. The author, Jorge Semprun, was a Communist sent to Buchenwald camp while still in his teens and his book is the memories he has of his life in the Resistance, his journey to the camp and his release.
Semprun was a Rotspanier, a 'Spanish Red' who had fought against the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War before fleeing to France to join the Resistance. Crammed, standing up along with 119 others in a freezing and airless cattle truck, he spent five days and nights en route to the slave camp as the war drew to a close.
In pain from previous beatings, surrounded by the suffering of his fellow prisoners and with the memories of the hardships and deaths of his comrades haunting him, Semprun could be forgiven for writing a bitter story of despair. But that is not the case. Instead, even the most brutal and desperate stories he recounts have an element of resistance and hope.
The most shocking of his memories concerns a truckload of Polish Jews which arrived at Buchenwald while he was there. The men were stacked into the freight train almost 200 to a car, travelling for days without food and water in the coldest winter of the war. On arrival all in the carriage had frozen to death except for 15 children, kept warm by the others in the centre of the bundle of bodies. When the children were emptied from the car the Nazis let their dogs loose on them. Soon only two fleeing children were left and as Semprun recounts:
'The little one began to fall behind, the SS were howling behind them and then the dogs began to howl too, the smell of blood was driving them mad, and then the bigger of the two children slowed his pace to take the hand of the smaller... together they covered a few more yards... till the blows of the clubs felled them and, together they dropped, their faces to the ground, their hands clasped for all eternity.'
It is this feeling of comradeship and fraternity and the deep felt belief in the necessity of resistance that marks every aspect of the book. Semprun's socialist ideals have never left him, even after the experience of the camps and the ups and downs of struggle in the years since the war. He still retains his belief in human beings and their ability to change the world for the better.
Throughout he is very careful to draw a distinction between the racist Nazi ideology and the different sorts of people who carry it out. For the SS he has nothing but utter hatred. But for other German soldiers he shows a different understanding. After conversations with a prison guard from Hamburg, often out of work 'till the Nazis came along and started up the industrial machine of re-militarization again', Semprun says:
'We're on opposite sides of the bars, and never have I understood more clearly why I was fighting. We had to make this man's being habitable, or rather the being of all men like him; because for him it was no doubt already too late. We had to make the being of this man's sons habitable ... it was no more complicated than that... For it's quite simply a question of instituting a classless society.'
Over the 50 years since Semprun experienced the terrors of Nazism, this conclusion remains the most important fact of human life. It lies at the heart of the fight against the Nazis today and makes Semprun's book an important one for all socialists to read.
The Nazi Holocaust
Ronnie S Landauu
I B Taurus £12.95
One of the priorities for revolutionary socialists and anti-racists of all political hues is to stem the rising tide of racism and fascism across Europe. Alongside the rise of racist violence comes a propaganda campaign of Nazi lies to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. To counter these lies, the Anti Nazi League's excellent pamphlet, Holocaust Denial: The New Nazi Lie, is limited by its very nature in the amount of detailed evidence it can present.
It is in this context that The Nazi Holocaust can be used as a complementary source of hard evidence and detailed information.
All aspects of the Holocaust are dealt with, and set in the context of Jewish history from 300BC, the aftermath and impact of the Holocaust, and modern day Israel up to the Gulf War. There are many statistics concerning the mass murder of the Holocaust, but what gives terrible reality to these numbers are the many eyewitness accounts.
In a section on Nazi medical experimenters, for example, is an extract from the diary of a professor of medicine assigned to Auschwitz for ten weeks:
'12 October: A special action during the night (1,600 people from Holland) terrible scenes near the last bunker.
23 Sept: In the evening dinner in the commandant's house ...a real banquet. We had apple pie, as much as we wanted, good coffee, excellent beer and cakes...'
Another document, described by Landau as 'one of the most alarming documents of the 20th century', is a technical memorandum written by a welder to his line manager about the size of a van and its 'load'. This seems innocent enough until the context becomes clear. 'The manufacturers told us during a discussion that reducing the size of the van's rear would throw it badly off balance. The front axle, they claim, would be overloaded. In fact, the balance is automatically restored, because the merchandise aboard displays during the operation a natural tendency to rush to the rear doors...'
The writer, a minor bureaucrat using the dehumanised language of so many involved in the technicalities of mass murder, is in fact expressing his opinion that the trucks used for poisoning Jewish prisoners with carbon monoxide gas could be made into still more efficient killing machines.
The book shows how Jews were stopped by Britain and the US from seeking asylum when they could have escaped from Germany. It also accuses Britain of doing nothing, either militarily or in propaganda terms, to try and help rescue the Jews even though from July 1942 onwards it was known that they were being systematically massacred.
Many references are made to the anti-semitic attitude of the British ruling class including a statement from Churchill that could have come from Mein Kampf: 'This worldwide Jewish conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence...'
But, strong as the book is in its factual information, much of the political analysis is counter-productive in terms of building a mass anti-fascist movement today.
Only a mass struggle uniting socialist and Communist workers, as described by Leon Trotsky, could have stopped the Nazis. It is because the activity of the working class is not seen as in any way important to the overthrow of fascism, that the disastrous role that Stalin played in dividing socialist and Communist workers is not even mentioned.
Landau's book does not end with any clarion call to action, but in a whimper with justification for the state of Israel and woolly ideas about the need for the United Nations and international law to prevent the Holocaust happening again.
Labourism and the English Genius
The sorry state of Labour's current ideas make you want to scream. The desperate rush to trail Tory policies and to praise the market seems never ending. Just as right wingers fall out over whether to tax or cut spending, Gordon Brown declares his undying opposition to raising taxes. Ann Taylor has joined the Tory attack on student grants by claiming that they are a handout to the middle classes. David Blunkett describes supporting single mothers as 'defending the indefensible'.
But we cannot explain this by looking at the politics or personalities of these individuals. As Gregory Elliott's new book demonstrates, this is a phase they are going through. Unfortunately it doesn't seem that Labour is going to grow out of it.
There have been, says Elliott, three phases in this century which have marked not just Labour in Britain but all the Socialist and Labour Parties internationally: 'the adoption of a reformist strategy for socialism (up to 1945); the retraction of socialism in favour of regulated welfare capitalism (1945-75); the abandonment or attenuation of the latter in the 1970s and 1980s.'
At every stage of its development, Labour was marked by a commitment to preserving the British state, maintaining a parliamentary monarchy and, well into the postwar period, hanging on to many of the remnants of the British Empire.
Its reforms, most notably those of the 1945 government, were designed not to challenge the rule of capital, but to make it more efficient while ameliorating some of its worst excesses. Nationalisation was restricted to those industries such as railways and mines which attracted little private investment and needed massive injections of state funding to make them profitable. The health service was set up while making big concessions to doctors and consultants about their autonomy.
It was a Labour government which introduced the most savage cuts ever, in 1976, at the behest of the international Monetary Fund. Since then, Labour's successive electoral failures have been matched by successive abandonment of its commitment to welfare and equality.
Elliott describes all this well. He is also highly critical of attempts to turn Labour leftwards in the early 1980s around the campaign for constitutional reform and Benn for deputy. 'For all the heady talk of a "new model Labour Party" foreshadowing a "mass socialist party", the rather more humdrum reality was a hollow shell occupied by the "rank and file democracy" of some 50,000 or fewer activists'. The Bennites as much as the right wing relied on the 'dead souls' of the trade union block vote to win victory.
But his real scorn is reserved for the ever rightward moving leadership under Neil Kinnock, seeking to occupy the middle ground which 'was forever shifting, under its feet, further rightwards--dragging the party along in its train, and therewith onto hostile territory, where its hasty and ill-organised manoeuvres proved no match for an enemy deploying on home ground and encouraged, by Labour's retreat towards it, to extract further concessions.'
Much of Elliott's analysis would be shared by many readers of this Review. However there is a weakness at the core of his argument which prevents him from drawing any useful conclusions. He believes that British society is an archaic system dominated by commercial and financial capital, in which manufacturing capital has long been subservient.
Calls for socialism are, he says, impractical and should be replaced instead by a series of constitutional changes which would allow a proper democracy to flourish. This would presumably be a stage towards some form of democratic socialism.
It is, however, a utopian project. Despite differences of interest between sections of the capitalist class, their class unity is much greater than anything which divides them.
Any substantial constitutional reforms--especially the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords--would be opposed by the vested interests of the rich and powerful represented within that capitalist class. Such reforms could not be implemented without taking on aspects of class struggle aimed at overthrowing the whole system.
Elliott roots Labour's failing in its appeal to a mythical and imperialist 'nation' rather than class. What a pity that he too falls into the trap of believing that somehow reforming the constitution can begin to overcome the contradictions of British capitalism.
Collected Works, vol 46
Karl Marx & Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £40
Reviewing the letters of Marx and Engels as they come out, volume by volume, in the Collected Works, can never be easy. They cover the widest range of issues, from the important theoretical topics to the sort of trivia anyone puts on the back of holiday postcards--what the weather is like, how the family are doing, and, in Engels' case, where to buy the best pint of beer in Bridlington. Yet they are fascinating to read, giving a much greater insight into the lives and thoughts of the founders of Marxism than any biography ever could.
This volume covers the last three years of Marx's life. It shows Marx himself as increasingly ill, in more or less permanent pain from sores all over his back and sides, unable to work more than very spasmodically because of a debilitating cough, moving from London to Ramsgate to the Isle of Wight to Algeria to Monaco and back to London in a desperate search for a warm, dry climate, devastated first by the death of his wife Jenny and then by that of his daughter of the same name.
They show Engels as increasingly carrying alone the burdens he used to share with Marx--developing and popularising the theory, advising the socialist parties internationally, especially in France and Germany, and, on top of all this, worrying about the welfare of Marx and his family.
A vast range of theoretical and political questions are addressed. So there is Marx on Russia's economic development,there is Marx and Engels' vehement opposition to the seizure of Egypt by France and Britain and Marx's denunciation of British exploitation of India.
I found three sets of letters of particular interest. First there are those about the German and French socialist parties--the one just banned by Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws after a period of legality, the other just legalised after the decade of repression which followed the crushing of the Paris Commune.
Marx and Engels found they had to deal with the problem which has always plagued the working class movement--the emergence of tendencies which believed it was possible to reform the existing system. In Germany they found themselves combatting pressure to try to placate Bismarck from sections of the parliamentary caucus and the left wing intelligentsia. In France, the 'possibilists' who preached reform were soon breaking completely with the Marxists and using the law to try to get control of their paper.
Yet for Marx and Engels it was not good enough to fight the reformists simply by using revolutionary phraseology. That could encourage a sectarianism which would cut the revolutionaries off from the mass struggle and encourage concessions to the anarchists.
Second, there are those letters dealing with the question of nationalisation. One form the pressure to reformism took in Germany was to see something 'socialist' about Bismarck taking the railways into state ownership. Engels' letters contain arguments which remain relevant today as governments right across the globe carry through denationalisation.
His central point is that state ownership by a capitalist state is not socialism. He recognises that in certain circumstances nationalisation can make the arguments for socialism easier to put across. But he also stresses that it is no harder qualitatively for a socialist revolution to deal with privatised rather than nationalised industries.
Finally, there are Engels' comments on the national question among the South Slavs--or, as we would call them today, the ex-Yugoslavs.
Engels has been much attacked in recent years because he was insistent all his life that the nationalism of the South Slavs could not be treated in the same way as that of those who fought on the side of revolution in 1848--the Poles, the Hungarians and the Italians. It is claimed that he was motivated by prejudice rather than by any consistent theoretical position.
But in one of his letters to Bernstein he insists it is not sentiment but theoretical reasoning which underlies his position: 'Everyone of us, insofar as he has first gone through a liberal or radical phase, has emerged from it with... feelings of sympathy for all "oppressed" nationalities, and I for one know how much time and study it took me to shake them off.'
What the 'time and study' had taught him was that objective conditions meant that the South Slav movement was necessarily weak, and its weakness ruled out any possibility of a South Slav state (at that time referred to as 'Greater Serbia') not dependent on outside forces to sustain it.
The nationalist movement was, he wrote, 'simply the product of the "educated classes" in the towns and universities, the army and the civil service'.
The bulk of the population were, he noted, 'divided into three denominations: Greek Orthodox, Catholics, including the so-called Croats, Mohammedans. Where these people are concerned religion counts necessarily more than nationality, as it is the aim of each denomination to predominate. So long as there's no cultural advance such as would at any rate make toleration possible, a Greater Serbia would only spell civil war.'
Engels was, of course, writing at a time when the level of the means of production was much lower in the Balkans than today. He himself would no doubt have been astonished to see conditions still leading to civil war more than a century on. And for him, the outside force which alone could sustain a South Slav nationalism was Tsarism, which led him to consider the Slav nationalists as the enemy.
'We must', he insisted, 'cooperate in the work of setting the West European proletariat free and subordinate everything else to this goal... To stir up a general war for the sake of a few Herzegovians, which would cost a thousand times more lives than there are inhabitants in Herzegovina, isn't my idea of proletarian politics'.
Such comments show that Engels had a much more perceptive view of the national question than those who criticised him both at the time and since--and a much greater understanding of how to fight oppression than those who back military intervention by the present day centre of reaction worldwide, US imperialism acting under the guise of the United Nations.
The Slow Plague
The still popular myth that Aids is a 'gay plague' is once again demolished by the facts, and these facts make appalling reading. When the disease is looked at on a worldwide scale two conclusions stand out: that it is a disease of poverty and that there are few areas of the globe still untouched by the virus.
This book is described as a 'geography of Aids'. What is different about its approach to much of the existing writing is its emphasis not just on how fast the virus is spreading and to how many people, but where infection is rising and how it 'travels' across continents. Gould claims that by ignoring this angle and being mesmerised by 'rates of infection' mainstream research has been dangerously blinkered.
This argument seems a strong one. He puts across often quite complex ideas in a language that is both powerful and easy to understand. At one moment he quotes infection rates in the millions and the next describes the day to day experiences of a Thai commercial sex worker.
His studies on the geographical diffusion of HIV encompass sexual behaviour, religious beliefs, increasing worldwide air links, women's oppression and, underlying it all, poverty.
For that reason Africa commands the most frightening statistics--still likely to be underestimates. From the big cities, like Nairobi where virtually all prostitutes are HIV positive, to the small rest stops for long distance truckers up and down East Africa where 30 to 80 percent of the bar girls are infected. Condoms are rarely used where for a rural African, 'popping to the local chemist might take several days and the price of a packet of three would feed a family of 10.'
But Aids is not spread by sexual contact alone. Lack of hygiene in cashless hospitals and unavailability of clean needles can lead to scores of children being inoculated for one dangerous disease only to be infected by another fatal one.
HIV infection of blood banks is sometimes so high that US Embassy officials are flown out for any invasive treatment, including dental care. For ordinary Africans this is not an option. Gould argues that the blame for the scale of infection must be firmly placed at the door of governments who, for political and economic reasons, have denied vital information and warnings on the disease, and at a system where even the knowledge that does exist cannot be used to save lives because of funds. The story is repeated from Bangkok to the Bronx with devastating consequences.
Gould counterposes the suffering and lives lost through lack of money to the huge sums made in the Aids industry. Here research grants and government funds are furiously fought over by well heeled academics who regurgitate dated and useless statistics and rarely rock the boat of assumed wisdom. It is they he claims who are 'making a killing' out of Aids.
Short of a cure, Gould suggests controversial solutions--such as compulsory testing and quarantine--yet throughout manages to maintain a human compassion in his science makes his book compelling reading.
Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People
One of the many luxuries Europe's rulers have given themselves is that of reflecting--in retrospect, of course, not at the time--on the pathos and tragedy of the various peoples they have conquered. In southern Africa the destruction by Britain of the great Zulu kingdom has attracted the most attention.
Arguably, the story of the Xhosa people, the confederacy of chiefdoms in South Africa's eastern Cape, is an even greater tragedy. They formed the first organised African political unit of any strength which the Dutch settlers encountered as they expanded beyond the original white colony at the Cape during the 18th century.
It took almost 100 years of war, from 1781 to 1878, for the Cape Colony finally to defeat the Xhosa people and to incorporate them and their land. No less than nine wars--white historians used to call them the 'Kaffir Wars' but they tend now to be known, more euphemistically, as the Frontier Wars--were required to break Xhosa power.
They began as minor border skirmishes over land and cattle between Xhosa chiefdoms and trekboers, settlers straying outside the control of the Dutch East India Company at Cape Town and developing a way of life based on cattle herding and hunting quite similar in some respects to those of the Xhosa and other African peoples. As the Marxist historian Martin Legassick pointed out in a pathbreaking essay, relations on the frontier in the early days were not ones of naked racism, but involved cooperation as well as conflict, and sometimes intermarriage among Afrikaners, Africans and Khoikoi (the ancestors of the modern 'Coloureds').
It was the incorporation of the Cape Colony into the British Empire, temporarily in the 1790s, definitively in 1806, which changed this pattern. Although the British colonial authorities introduced legal equality between the races and abolished slavery, they also planted a large settlement of British colonists in the eastern Cape in 1820. English speaking sheep farmers in the eastern Cape, producing wool for the booming British market, began to assert their need, in even more strident terms, for Xhosa land and labour.
It was indeed British military power, directed by a succession of Peninsular War veterans such as Benjamin D'Urban, Charles Napier, and Harry Smith, which gradually broke the Xhosa. Xhosa leaders such as Magoma waged brilliant guerrilla campaigns against the lumbering redcoats, but British firepower, and the use of methods to become familiar in 20th century counterinsurgency warfare--the destruction of crops and the seizure of cattle to starve the Xhosa into surrender--wore them down. Each war left the Xhosa worse off than the last. They and their cattle were bottled up on less land, with magistrates and missionaries interfering ever more intrusively into their traditional way of life.
The most tragic episode of all came in 1856-8. A young woman called Nongqawuse claimed to have had visions which announced that if the Xhosa killed all their cattle and emptied their cornbins, the dead would be resurrected, the slain cattle would be replaced with interest, and the whites would be swept away. It is a sign of the deep despair into which the Xhosa had fallen--cattle played an absolutely indispensable economic and cultural role in pre-colonial African societies--that many believed the prophecy and slaughtered their cattle.
In the last desperate hope it represented a leap back into the past. The cattle killing resembled the Ghost Dance movement among the American Plains Indians at the end of the 1880s. It had even more disastrous consequences. Perhaps 40,000 people died in the ensuing famine. The British governor, Sir George Grey, unscrupulously used the Xhosa's appalling plight to incorporate many of them as wage labourers within the colony. Although one final war was to follow, the Xhosa were finished as an independent people. Their chiefs were imprisoned on Robben island, where Nelson Mandela--himself a prince of the Xhosa speaking Thembe--was to spend so many years.
The conquest of the Xhosa is an epic story, and Noel Mostert does his best to give it an appropriate treatment. Himself a Cape Afrikaner, he writes of the Xhosa and their suffering with great sympathy. His book has, however, been overpraised. The Wall Street Journal compares it to Gibbon and Macaulay. But Gibbon and Macaulay were superb prose stylists, writing vigorous and elegant English. Mostert's sentences, by contrast, tend to cut themselves loose from the rules of logic and grammar, and meander on until they make very little sense. He is overgiven to fine writing, repeats himself, and includes much irrelevant material. The result is a book which, at more than 1300 pages, cries out for a good, tough editor.
Self indulgent writing tends to reflect sloppy thinking. Gibbon and Macaulay had behind them the self confident rationalism of the Enlightenment. Though Mostert makes quite good use of the latest historical research, his head is full of the intellectual bric-a-brac of the 20th century. Behind his babble about Jung and the African 'sense of wholeness' looms the shadow of Prince Charles's asinine South African mentor, Sir Laurens van der Post. The Xhosa deserve better than this.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the great joys of travelling is the sharpening of the senses. We are flung into a strange environment, full of new smells, sounds and colours of which we become intensely aware.
This challenging of the perceptions is captured magnificently by Marquez in these 12 short stories about Latin Americans in Europe.
The stories were written, discarded, lost and rewritten over an 18 year period. They finally came together as a book after he revisited some of the European cities in which they are based. They provoke questions about the distinction between reality and imagination and, more particularly, memory.
He explains in the prologue:
'None of [the cities] had any connection to my memories. Through an astonishing inversion... true memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories were so convincing that they replaced reality. This meant I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia... At last I had found what I needed most to complete the book...a perspective in time.'
All the stories are flavoured by the touches of mystery and magic familiar to all Marquez lovers. The weightless body of a young girl, dead for 11 years, still smells of freshly cut roses. A woman makes a living selling her dreams.
Another woman's car breaks down. She hitches a lift on a bus full of strangely quiet women. On arrival, she joins them as they file into an imposing building. It is a mental institution, from which she never escapes. She only wanted to use the phone.
Marquez' fascination with dictators leaves its mark in the first and longest story, 'Bon Voyage, Mister President'. It is a good enough tale, although it lacks the political bite of his earlier works such as No One Writes to the Colonel and The Autumn of the Patriarch which in my view are by far his best.
Perhaps age has mellowed him. Or fame. Or perhaps it is just that the political climate in which he is writing has changed.
For those who have read Marquez' previous books, Strange Pilgrims will probably not offer many surprises and may well even be disappointing. But for his admirers, and for those new to his style, all 12 stories will be a delight.
Women in Prehistory
British Museum Publications £9.95
It looks quite promising when the blurb on the back states that a central theme of this book is 'the relationship between the role of women and economic production'. And, indeed, this book largely lives up to that promise.
Ehrenberg puts forward three main arguments. Firstly, the part played by women in prehistory (that is, before the advent of written records) was much greater than mainstream archaeology has usually acknowledged. Secondly, for most of the time that human beings have existed, until only a few thousand years ago, there was almost certainly equality between women and men. As Ehrenberg herself puts it: 'So, throughout human history, the great majority of women who have ever lived had far more status than recently, and probably had equality with men.' Thirdly, women's status in any society depends largely on their economic role. The more important and independent their economic role, the higher their status.
For most of prehistory, humans lived by gathering plants and hunting wild animals. Because women would often be breast feeding young children or pregnant, it would be difficult for them to hunt large animals. Therefore it seems that in most hunter-gatherer societies, women tended to do the gathering and men the hunting. But this did not mean inequality for women, because their gathering would usually provide more than half of the food consumed. Their important economic role was a basis for their equality with men, in societies which were generally egalitarian.
The development of agriculture (the domestication of plants and animals) about 10,000 years ago brought about tremendous social changes. But in the early stages of agriculture women continued to have high status. Women probably developed cultivation out of their gathering role, and they would have done the early cultivating themselves using the 'horticultural' technology of hoes and digging sticks, while men carried on hunting.
When hoes were replaced by large ploughs pulled by oxen, when people began to keep large herds of animals, often some distance from the home base, and when raiding became common, men began to take over the dominant economic role.
These economic changes not only led to women losing out, they also paved the way for the development of class divisions. Agriculture created a surplus which enabled a ruling class to live in luxury on the backs of the majority.
Ehrenberg tends to talk vaguely about inequality and stratification rather than class and exploitation. She also fails to discuss the extent to which war and trade might have contributed to men becoming dominant. But despite its weaknesses, this book is full of ammunition for Marxists.
The Republic of de Gaulle
Cambridge University Press £30
General de Gaulle came to power in June 1958 because the French Fourth Republic could not solve the Algerian question.
His authority rested on his past reputation and the fact that he was an outsider to the discredited political establishment.
Now he was being recalled to his destiny, as the Gaullist myth had it. De Gaulle exploited his mystique to impose a new constitution which downgraded parliament and turned the hitherto largely ceremonial office of president into a position of real power.
De Gaulle masked his authoritarianism by manipulating universal suffrage. He got away with this because he imposed solutions which French capitalism as a whole needed but which no fraction of the ruling class had the confidence or support to bring about.
The first and most pressing problem was Algeria. De Gaulle played to both ends of the spectrum. To the far right he let it be known he championed an Algeria which would remain French. To the centre and left he let it be known that the present colonial arrangements would have to go.
De Gaulle tamed the army apart from a few extreme right wing diehards he then smashed. He realised that whatever his personal sympathies Algeria would have to be given its independence.
With the Algerian question out of the way by July 1962, de Gaulle was well on the way to solving the problems of France's place in the international economy. Traditionally France had been a mainly agricultural country, dominated by the small producer and reliant on protectionist tariffs. The key was rapid modernisation of the economy via the state.
The postwar Fourth Republic had begun this process of modernisation. But its political structure acted as a brake.
The concentration of power in de Gaulle removed these constraints. Economic planning was streamlined to create semi-monopolies (both private and public) in key sectors like steel, aviation, chemicals and cars. The currency system was reformed. Protective tariffs were abolished.
Though the working class bore the brunt of the costs of modernisation, it took some time to become a real threat to the regime.
Partly this was because the composition of the working class changed. But it was also because the left itself was in trouble. The Communist Party was on the defensive from the fallout over the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. Its opposition to de Gaulle was blunted.
The reformists were still demoralised by the role they had played in the Fourth Republic and like their counterparts elsewhere mesmerised by the apparent ability of modern capitalism to overcome crisis.
The author of this book tends to accept the idea that France was so transformed under de Gaulle that the working class became marginal.
So for him May 1968, with its ten million strong movement of strikes and factory occupations, was not a reminder that the working class was alive and kicking. Rather it is to be explained by the inability of society to cope with the new aspirations it had fostered. It could not be a 'working class revolt' in the Marxist sense because it bypassed the CP and the trade unions.
De Gaulle survived the revolt but departed the next year. The ruling class had discovered that the advantages of the Fifth Republic now outweighed the advantages of de Gaulle himself.