Issue 170 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Worm in the Bud
'The best mothers, wives and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children and domestic duties are the only passions they feel... She submits to her husband, but only to please him; and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions.'
This statement from a 19th century doctor--who studied reproductive organs!--is our received view of Victorian sexual attitudes. Sex is a miserable experience for women, to be undergone only when absolutely necessary.
Most people, apart from the Tory neanderthals Redwood and Lilley, would regard such ideas today as completely fantastic, adhered to by only a tiny number of bigots. But even in Victorian times this view of women and sex simply did not match reality.
Ronald Pearsall's book--written in the 1960s and now reissued--is a comprehensive study of every aspect of 'the world of Victorian sexuality'. That world is pretty remarkable for the prevalence of sexual activity on the one hand and of hypocrisy on the other. Pearsall studies every aspect of his subject from menstruation through divorce to flagellation. His sources include popular songs, bawdy poems set to hymn tunes and health statistics.
He builds up a picture of a society marked for its very sharp class divisions, in attitudes to sexuality as in all other matters. The study of prostitution in the book is a fascinating example of this. Pearsall draws on Henry Mayhew's study London Labour and the London Poor, written in the mid 19th century, which places prostitutes in six categories: kept mistresses and prima donnas, convives, low lodging houses' women, sailors' and soldiers' women, park women and thieves' women.
One contemporary authority on prostitution argued that £8 million a year was spent on prostitutes. Out of a London population of just under 2.5 million, it was estimated that there were 80,000 prostitutes. The vast majority of them were very poor and lived a short and hazardous life of disease and danger. The minority of rich prostitutes mixed with royalty and politicians and were well looked after.
Single parents were widespread. In 1851, a total of 42,000 illegitimate children were born. 'Many thousands more were killed, and dead babies in the Thames were so common that attention was not drawn to them'. Women turned to prostitution because it was better than the alternative. 'The fruits of vice were, in fact, what should have been the fruits of virtue--reasonably clean living conditions, food and good clothing.'
The overwhelming impression the book gives is that the people who suffered most from sexual repression were the respectable middle classes. Working class people appear to have had a fairly healthy contempt for Victorian values when it came to their own sexuality. Similarly, the 'top ten thousand' of the aristocracy and their hangers on spent much of their time in extra marital sexual liaisons.
The middle classes too had their fair share of sexual scandals but these were much more likely to be hidden and public exposure of them usually meant disgrace. It was this class, however, which more than any other stamped its morality and narrow outlook on the family and society.
Dip into Pearsall's book if you are interested in the arguments about Victorian values. Its style and attitudes are somewhat old fashioned for the 1990s, and some of the detail can get a bit much. But you will find a great deal of information to help you fight those descendants of the Victorian moralists who today dominate the Tory Party.
The Trade Union Question in British Politics
'The first comprehensive one volume analysis of the crucial relationship between Britain's governments and the country's trade unions.' That is the publisher's claim and up to a point it is a justified one.
This is a solid account by a bitter enemy of workers' self activity and militancy. It is mercifully largely, although not entirely, free of 'post-Fordist', 'farewell to the working class' nonsense. The author's position as labour correspondent of the Financial Times has left him in no doubt that the unions are potentially a force to be reckoned with.
He quotes Sir Denis Barnes, a top civil servant at the Department of Employment:' 'Since 1945 all governments have been concerned about the consequences of trade union power. Between 1969 and 1979 three successive prime ministers have been prevented from pursuing policies they declared essential in the national interest. All lost the elections which followed.'
Taylor concentrates very much on the relations between government and union officialdom. There is little or nothing of the sound of the battle at Saltley Gate, Grunwick, Orgreave, Wapping and all the other victories and defeats that have determined the balance of forces between bosses and workers. He isn't blind to the conflict between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. Taylor details the efforts of postwar Tory and Labour governments to deal with the problem of shop stewards, all of which involved an attempt to shift control towards the officials.
But when he regrets the weakness of British unions he has in mind their 'lack of authority and control over their own members.' His ideal is the German model of highly centralised union organisations in 'partnership' with employers. Ironically this is a model in the process of breaking down as the German boom grinds to a halt.
This perspective produces some grotesque judgements. The Social Contract of the mid-1970s is lamented as a lost opportunity, with the greedy rank and file again thwarting a sensible outcome. The familiar right wing lies about the 1984 miners' strike are given another outing. Scargill's 'irrational element... in defiance of economic logic and common sense... condemned his members to total defeat.'
All of this limits the book's usefulness, but the focus on the higher ups in the unions does produce some interesting insights. The barrage of anti-union laws in the 1980s, far from being the unstoppable juggernaut of TUC rhetoric, emerges as a much more tentative operation accompanied by considerable Tory infighting. James Prior, Thatcher's first employment secretary, feared that further laws 'could become the cement of union solidarity.' Unfortunately the union leaders' consistent cowardice left those fears unrealised.
Taylor's conclusion, that the tensions between the state and organised labour will 'not be spirited away during the 1990s', is underlined by the comments of Labour's Denis Healey, describing a previous period of wage controls: 'Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.'
Regrettably, though unsurprisingly, this is not a book that will help fan the flames.
This latest novel by the author of Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof takes us for another adventure into the nether world of the American legal system. This time we see it through the eyes of Alcoholics Anonymous member Mack Malloy, a 50-ish Irish ex-cop turned corporate lawyer who is past his peak. His future in the company depends on him finding his partner Bert, who has apparently done a runner with $5.6 million of the major client's money.
His search takes him from the grimy Russian baths on New York's West Side, where deals are struck around the steaming coals, to the sunshine paradise of a little known Latin American tax haven. As he gets pulled deeper into an underworld of secret bank accounts, big time gambling and the obligatory stiff he bumps into his one time partner in the force, Pigeyes.
There is no love lost between them as Pigeyes still has a score to settle and has the policeman's knack of being totally unconcerned about the contradiction of investigating corruption while being deeply involved in practising it.
Mack is disdainful of the values of his circle--financial greed and self preservation--yet is sorely tempted too. His personal anxieties are less interesting than his sharp and ultimately damning descriptions of this world where legal and illegal transactions conveniently blur.
His language is crude, cynical and self deprecating but never dull. He prefers to refer to his 18 year old son as the 'Loathsome Child' '...he was my only kid and his insular ways as a little boy had led me to refer to him with what I thought was tenderness as the lonesome child. When adolescence set in, however, the consonants migrated.'
The plot has enough twists to keep you guessing to the final pages. This is one of those unputdownable books that you both want to get to the end of yet regret it's finished when you do! Watch out for the paperback edition and the inevitable big screen adaptation.
The Weimer Republic
The key question in the history of the Weimar regime in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s is: why it was that the ruling class were prepared, however reluctantly, to work with the Socialist Party (SPD) in establishing the republic at the end of the First World War, but had turned decisively against it by the end of the 1920s even to the extent of embracing the Nazis? 'There is,' Detlev Peukert writes, however, 'no clear or simple answer to this question.' Not true.
In 1918 Germany was gripped by revolution and the ruling class was weakened and discredited by defeat. All that stood in the way of a workers' takeover was the SPD which called for law and order, opposed the workers' councils and promised to introduce socialism peacefully after parliamentary elections had been held. Instead of trying to fight the Socialists the ruling class entered into a unholy alliance with them, agreeing to tolerate parliamentary democracy as long as the SPD guaranteed that there would be no socialist revolution. This alliance was sealed with the blood of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the other Communists killed by the right wing Freikorps early in 1919. It was on this somewhat unreliable foundation that the Weimar Republic was erected.
By the end of the 1920s the German ruling class decided, first, that the new alliance was no longer necessary and, second, that it could no longer be afforded. With the onset of the Great Depression, German capitalism required wage cuts and welfare cuts on such a scale that trade unions, the Socialists and the Communists, indeed parliamentary government itself, had to be smashed. To achieve this they changed their alliance with the Socialists for an alliance with the Nazis.
The key to understanding the downfall of the Weimar Republic is the changing requirements of the German ruling class, the existence of which Peukert does not even acknowledge. From this point of view the only way to have effectively broken their power was through socialist revolution.
But according to Peukert what we are confronted by is 'a crisis of modernisation', 'a failed experiment with modernity' that finally falls victim to the totalitarian temptation from both left and right. This theoretical flourish is really only a thin disguise for what is a standard liberal account written from the perspective of how parliamentary democracy could have been saved, rather than from that of socialist revolution. Indeed, according to Peukert, socialist revolution in an advanced society like Germany was a utopian nonstarter.
One last point. Most criticism of this period focuses on the criminal policies of the Communist Party (KPD) that campaigned against the 'social fascist' Socialists and ignored the growing Nazi menace. This is quite right. What must not be forgotten, however, is the consistent refusal of the SPD to offer any resistance to the German right in this period. Their cowardly opportunism was the other side of the KPD's ultra-leftism.
The KPD's sectarian assault on the Socialists meant that they could not win SPD supporters over to the need for joint action to fight the Nazis. This reinforced the Socialists' passivity. This was a fatal mistake for which both the German and the European working class paid the price.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Secker and Warbug £12.99
Roddy Doyle's star has been rising ever since the publication of his brilliant first novel, The Commitments, in 1990. This, like his second novel The Snapper, was turned into a successful film. His third, The Van, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and his latest, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the most accomplished and serious of his books, won it this year.
Set in Dublin in 1968, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha tells the story of a ten year old boy, Paddy, through his own eyes and with his own misconceptions. Although we are still in the Barrytown of the previous trilogy, this is quite a different kind of novel. Doyle's style is less centred around the characters' speech and this is far from being a 'feel good' book.
That is not to say that it lacks Doyle's sharp humour, for example in his description of the Grand National--the local boys' dash over hedges and through gardens--their reaction to the word 'fuck', or when we are introduced to Alan Baxter: 'He was a sap. But he had Scalextric.'
Yet it is the detail and authenticity of what Paddy sees and feels that sets this book apart. Paddy watches The Virginian on television, their fridge is a Kelvinator, and from the news he thinks that the Americans are 'fighting gorillas in Vietnam'. The confusion and helplessness of a young boy, especially during his parents' arguments, are convincingly and compassionately expressed, for unlike in the other books, where the family remains solid and secure despite everything, here we see it shatter. 'It wasn't lots of little fights. It was one big one, rounds of the same fight. And it wouldn't stop after fifteen rounds like in boxing.'
The contradictions of the love and tension found by a child in the family, which is perhaps the theme of this novel, and the painful decisions that child has to make, are written about with great subtlety and sympathy. Here is a book about childhood, then, which is touching without being sugary or sentimental and which is never simplistic or just boyish.
Every one of Doyle's books is a gem. This is the best. It is worthy of much more than a literary prize handed out by a union busting multinational.
A time to kill
John Grisham, author of the bestsellers The Firm and The Pelican Brief has had his first novel, A Time to Kill, republished. The book is a riveting read.
A Time to Kill is set in the deep south of America and the centre of the plot is the trial of a poor black, Carl Lee Hailey, who murders two white men in revenge for the rape of his daughter.
The strength of the book is its portrayal of the modern South, showing how the establishment uses racism to manipulate the political process and rig trials. The book covers the complexity of life for blacks and whites. It shows that the law is simply a reflection of society and that mass direct action has an impact on the judicial process. Guess which of John Grisham's books is not being made into a film?
The English Gentleman--the rise and fall of an ideal
'Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master,' wrote George Santayana at the turn of the century. The Spanish born American philosopher, whose perceptive work has influenced none but the severely mentally disadvantaged, was describing the English ruling class of the time which was then exercising its paternal care over one fifth of the inhabitants of the globe.
From the squalor of city life in England to the squalor of city life in India, our masters treated us all equally--with total contempt. But just what was it that enabled our betters to maintain such high standards of behaviour throughout the length and breadth of that great empire? At last someone of stature and bravery, a Captain Oates of the literary world, has stepped forward to give us the definitive answer--it was the concept of the 'English Gentleman.'
Philip Mason, who was born in 1906 and educated at Sedburgh and Balliol College, Oxford, before carving a career in that force for civilisation the Indian Civil Service, has skillfully traced the development of this elusive phenomenon from the works of Chaucer down to today. He has distilled out the very Englishness from this historic experience through painstaking research. One example takes in his relationship with one Minoo Masani, an opponent of the British Raj who then became a critic of the Indian government after independence.
'He was by profession an adviser to one of the largest businesses in India,' Mason tells us. 'His employers told him that he must either leave the firm or give up criticising the government. "But I used to oppose the British and you raised no objection." "Ah, but they were gentlemen," his employers replied.' Who can argue with such clear headed empiricism?
Trotsky had a slightly different line on the English gentlemen of the likes of Mason and his chums.
'All the viciousness of the ruling classes, every form of oppression that capitalism has applied against the backward peoples of the East, is most completely and frightfully summed up in the history of the gigantic colony on which the British imperialists have settled themselves like leeches to drink its blood for the past century and a half. The British bourgeoisie has fostered every remnant of barbarism, every institution of the Middle Ages which could be in the service of oppression of man by man.'
You should buy this book for when you're feeling tired and a bit like you can't be bothered. Flicking through this pathetic idiocy will not only reflame your class hatred, it will make you wonder just how it is that a class whose best education can produce such a plonker as this has managed to hold on for so long.
Bringing the News from Nowhere
Songs by Leon Rosselson
Fuse Records £14.95
Leon Rosselson has been writing songs for more than 30 years. Throughout my revolutionary time of life his songs have been there, part of the struggle.
What is exceptional about Rosselson is the quality of his song writing.
His straightforward 'protest songs' are all here. Songs like 'Palaces of Gold', familiar, but worth remembering afresh, and 'Coats off for Britain' with its roll along chorus which brings back memories of a 'Manchester against the Missiles' benefit concert. But these are not the best.
'A song, after all, is not a statement, a manifesto, a bulletin, a confessional or a message board,' says Rosselson in the introduction. What I like most about his songs is the way they portray the complexity of the world, which lifts them above the level of manifesto or message board. There's a life giving tension within each song, between reality and dreams, between defeat and rebellion, between dance and order.
,There are 125 songs in the book, and so many shit hot favourites amongst them crowding each other out. I can only mention the very best which are the songs Rosselson has created from the writings of past revolutionary heroes. Abeizer Coppe 'a ranter till he died' is resurrected from his sermons.
And finally, 'The World Turned Upside Down', Rosselson's famous song about the Diggers, rightly placed as the very last song. Like so many in this book, a sane song about a crazy world.