Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Science for socialists

The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology
R C Lewontin
Penguin £5.99

The Doctine of DNA: Biology as Ideology

If there were a molecule for the 1990s it would be deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the stuff that genes are made of. Genes are the science fad of the moment. Most recently we've seen the reported discovery of a 'gay gene', but the argument that genes determine our behaviour is much older and much more all-embracing.

Men are naturally aggressive, women are naturally passive. We can't escape it, it's in our genes. People are naturally selfish, naturally scared of outsiders, some people naturally have more talent than others. Competitiveness, racism and inequality are all encoded on the human gene. Any hope of a more equal society, let alone socialism, must clearly be utopian nonsense.

Countering these arguments about genetics must be an important part of the socialist's armoury. This short book of radio lectures by a leading geneticist is extremely welcome. In it Lewontin does not simply demolish the specific arguments used to link human behaviour to their genes. He launches a scathing attack on the simplistic assumptions which underpin most genetic research.

Lewontin's starting point is to attack reductionism in science. He attacks the idea that essentially the world works like a giant clock, with every observable effect having a simple single cause. Much of science is concerned with the search for such simple monocausal explanations.

For example, in the 19th century scientists spent a great deal of time searching for the cause of tuberculosis. Eventually they found a germ, the tubercle bacillus. No one can get TB without ingesting this bug. But while TB raged in the sweatshops of Britain's cities, it was virtually unknown in the ruling class. It's reasonable to argue that the cause of TB was the social conditions of early industrial capitalism. The declining rate of TB in the late 19th century had more to do with the changes in these social conditions than any advances in medical science. The cause of the TB epidemic was the complex economic and social changes brought by the industrial revolution, not simply a bacterium.

Lewontin traces the rise of reductionism in science to the bourgeois revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries. He argues that the science of the Middle Ages saw nature as a mystical whole. It could not be understood by being taken to pieces. This reflected the relation of the individual to society. Individuals were seen as merely representatives of wider social classes, 'individuals were seen not as the causes of social arrangements, but their consequence'.

With the rise of industrial capitalism a new view of society emerged. The individual was seen as primary and independent, the worker 'free' to sell his or her labour. From then on 'society was thought of as the consequence, not the cause, of individual properties'. Only by looking at the properties of the atoms, molecules, genes and cells could we understand the whole organism.

Reductionism in science led to huge breakthroughs in our understanding of the world. Where previously much of the world remained mystical and inexplicable, science began to give answers. The idea that natural substances contain some vital life-force and were hence impossible to isolate or synthesise was discarded. The development of drugs and modern medicine was made possible.

But nowhere in modern science are the weaknesses of reductionism more apparent than in biology. It has lead to the numerous attempts to justify the prevailing order by explaining human behaviour as resulting from our genes. Thousands of millions of dollars are being poured into the Human Genome Project, the attempt to chemically map the human gene. Its backer, the US government, expects to be able to use this information to explain the behaviour of 'social misfits' like the Los Angeles rioters. A leading proponent of the project was asked if the money would not be better spent on the homeless. His reply was 'What people don't understand is that the homeless are impaired... lndeed, no group will benefit more from the application of human genetics.'

Lewontin explains how even the 'behaviour' of the simplest bacterium can only be understood by looking at how the whole organism interacts with its environment. Whether or not genetic information is expressed is often determined by the environment. In turn, the environment an organism experiences is determined by its behaviour and its physiology. To understand complex systems we have to consider the whole and the parts together.

If predicting the behaviour and characteristics of a bacterium from simply reading its genetic code is a non-starter, how much more difficult for a human being! He argues: 'we are not determined by our genes, though surely we are influenced by them. [Our] development depends not only on the materials that have been inherited from parents--that is the genes and other materials in the sperm and egg--but also on the particular temperature, humidity, nutrition, smells, sights, and sounds (including what we call education) that impinge on the developing organism. Even if I knew the complete molecular specification of every gene in an organism, I could not predict what that organism would be.'

This is not a dry scientific text book. It is an exciting and political account of the state of modern genetic research. It contains a detailed attack on the Human Genome Project, and on the 'infallibility' of genetic fingerprinting. It debunks the ideas of sociobiologists like Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately it was written before the most recent 'gay gene' claims. Nevertheless it's a useful addition to any socialist's bookshelf. Non-scientists should not be put off. It is simply written and contains some absolute gems of information.
John Baxter

The big chill

British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government 1945-46
John Saville
Verso £34.95

British Foreign Policy and the Labour Government 1945-46

How did Britain in 1945 under a Labour government get involved in a Cold War for nearly 40 years? John Saville shows how little it had to do with the 'Soviet Menace' and how much it was the responsibility of the ruling class.

When Labour's Prime Minister Attlee put Ernest Bevin in charge of foreign policy, he omitted to throw out the public school trained first division civil servants who administered Britain's foreign and colonial policies. Sir Alexander Cadogan, head of the Foreign Office under the Tory Anthony Eden, was kept on the team in the same job under Bevin, and wrote of another Labour minister, the left winger Aneurin Bevan, 'He and his kidney are mere barnacles on the bottom of the "ship of state". In any decent country they'd be bumped off. To that extent am I "Fascist" and proud of it!' Cadogan and others like him maintained great influence over the direction of the Labour government's foreign policy.

Bevin's stupidity comes across clearly in Saville's book. Only seven weeks after the war Bevin told the Russians that their policies resembled Hitler's. Millionaire imperialists had worked on Bevin before the war, taking him on world cruises and convincing him of the need for Britain to continue to extract cheap raw materials and oil from its colonies. After the war, Bevin agreed with his Tory advisers that the Arab Countries threatened to cut the empire in half, and Britain should continue to keep bases in Egypt, Iran and Iraq. Bevin and his advisers thus set in motion the policies whose failure resulted in the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, helping to create Israel as the only state that would protect Britain's claim to cheap oil and a safe route to the empire east of Suez.

From Saville's history, it is clear that Britain's ruling class was able, under Bevin and Attlee, to extend its claim to a position as a world power. British imperialism continued even more successfully than before the war to bleed the wealth of the Third World into the banks of the City of London.

Saville graphically describes one outcome of Labour's anti-Communist strategy. British intervention on behalf of French imperialism sparked off the bloody 28 year long struggle of the Vietnamese for their independence. In the final days of the Japanese occupation, the Vietnamese leaders under Ho Chi Minh thought that in Japan they had gained an Asian ally against the return of French control of the region. However after the defeat of Japan, a united force was set up under British control of French, Japanese and Indian forces to suppress the people's struggle for independence in Laos, Kampuchea and Vietnam. Japanese troops, at that time being reviled in Britain for war crimes, fought a short and bloody war, alongside the British and the French, to put a corrupt and racist group of colonialists back into power.

As a series of essays in the exposure of British hypocrisy about the aims of the Second World War and on the origins of the Cold War, Saville's book is excellent. However, he doesn't make clear that it was the policy of the Communist Party that led to the failure of the working class to support Vietnamese liberation in 1945. The right of self-determination, clearly advocated by Lenin during the First World War, was abandoned by the parties loyal to Stalin after the Second World War.

Thus the French Communist Party supported the resumption of French power in Vietnam after the defeat of the Japanese invaders. The movement for Vietnamese independence was led in Saigon by Trotskyists and was under way before the British landed in September 1945, to take over power from the Japanese. The Vietminh, led by the Communists, crushed the Saigon workers' uprising, arrested and killed the Trotskyists and imposed order with the help of the Japanese occupation forces until the British arrived.

Saville argues correctly that Britain's policy under Labour was strongly determined by its economic dependence upon the United States. Labour sought to rebuild trade with the empire on terms that would favour the sale of its raw materials to the US in order to pay off the debt Britain incurred during the war. The US made this policy unavoidable for British capitalism when it withdrew Lease-Lend aid to Britain on the very day that Japan surrendered. In 1944, Churchill's war time coalition accepted the US demand that all British overseas trade should be conducted in pounds freely convertible to dollars. Thus the US was well on the way to opening up the British empire to US capital, even before the war was concluded. In return, British capitalists were able to convince the Americans that any insurrection in the British colonies would open up the way to Communist expansion.

The origins of the Cold War lay in the great global crisis that came at the end of the Second World War. In the US in 1946, war production dropped suddenly from 41 percent of the nation's output to 9 percent. The effect on living standards was dramatic. Workers' wages fell by 10 percent as employers tried to save their profits by inflating prices by 16 percent. A huge wave of strikes broke out, which the employers attacked as a Communist plot. But far from being in a position to take power, the Communist Party in the US faced an overwhelming onslaught headed by mass sackings and witch-hunts.

The Stalinist rulers in Eastern Europe meanwhile were faced with the outbreak of massive opposition. Stalin forcibly moved hundreds of thousands to Central Asia, and sent equal numbers of ethnic Russians into the areas demanding self-determination. In all the East European countries later to be incorporated into the Warsaw Pact by the force of Russian tanks, measures were taken under pressure from Moscow to incorporate the workers' parties into coalitions with the remnants of the bourgeois parties, many of whose members had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Stalin's occupation forces denied workers the right to independent unions or to the use of the strike weapon in their own interests.

Saville, despite the breadth of his analysis, ignores the totality of this global attack on workers and peasants, east and west, during which the Labour government acted to advance the oncoming Cold War. Even in countries like Italy and Greece, Stalin helped the British and American armies to crush workers' power, or by directing the powerful Communist led movements into accepting ministerial offices in coalition governments.

American capitalism's greed for an open door to world markets forced its Russian competitors to set up an iron curtain to keep American goods out and the refugees in. But the view of the Americans as the most powerful initiators of the Cold War was used, not to build working class resistance east and west to US expansion, but to justify the building of the Berlin Wall with all the exploitation and oppression that went on behind it. The Cold War was the product of the vicious competition inherent within capitalism and state capitalism worldwide.

Though he unrealistically suggests that patient negotiation with Moscow might have created a different outcome to the Cold War, and does not extend his analysis to the causes of the crises that forced all the contending powers into 40 years of wasteful military competition, John Saville has given us valuable insights into the realities of history that created the disastrous state of today's world.
Nick Howard

Facing both ways

De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow
Tim Pat Coogan
Hutchinson £20

De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow

Of all the figures to emerge from the Irish revolutionary nationalist movement in the first decades of this century none was to have a more profound impact on Irish society than Eamon de Valera.

He sprang to prominence in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. He was the last IRA commander to surrender to the British, he was the only one of the commanders to escape execution, and he was the figurehead of the movement that fought against the British in the years 1918 to 1921.

Following the treaty which brought that phase of the struggle to an end, de Valera became leader of the anti-treaty Republican forces in the Irish Civil War. His defeat at the hands of the pro-treaty forces seemed to leave him in a political wilderness. Jailed a number of times by the British, he now found himself imprisoned by his erstwhile comrades.

Yet de Valera was far from finished. Released from prison in 1924, within two years he had broken from the IRA to form a new 'slightly constitutional' party Fianna Fail.

Within five-years his party was in power and he was Taoiseach (prime minister), his slightly constitutional party was well on its way to becoming the main party of the Irish capitalist class.

For 21 of the next 27 years he would hold the position of Taoiseach, and was then elected president for a further 14 years, before retiring from public life two years before his death in 1973.

His period in power was marked by a series of contradictions. His party Fianna Fail was presented as a party beyond classes, a party which could be trusted by worker and boss alike. Its very successful populism was all the more surprising given the profoundly conservative and reactionary nature of its governments.

His party wrapped the green flag round itself with gusto, playing on the Republican roots and its leader's heroic past, whilst at the same time dealing with the IRA with the utmost severity.

Dev claimed that his whole life was devoted to ending the partition of the country, yet at the same time he introduced a Southern constitution that gave unprecedented power and privilege to the Catholic Church. This could certainly do nothing to entice the Protestants of the North.

Although frequently preaching the value of the simple life, both he and the class he represented enriched themselves, whilst tens of thousands of the population were forced to flee unemployment and poverty on the emigrant boats.

All of this has left de Valera one of the most controversial figures of Irish politics. For the generations that grew up in his era he was usually regarded as either saint or devil. There is little doubting which camp Tim Pat Coogan falls into. He clearly has little time for his subject, and has exposed every last wart on the de Valera countenance.

Coogan is a leading Irish journalist and writer, former editor of Ireland's biggest national daily paper the Sunday Press. This book follows on from his biography of the other major Republican leader of these years, Michael Collins, who did a deal with the British in 1921, and led the pro-treaty forces against de Valera's Republicans in the civil war.

Coogan is clearly an admirer of Collins, who continually is contrasted favourably with de Valera. Herein lies the main problem with this book. Regardless of whether Collins was (as Coogan argues) a nicer, braver, more talented, more honest and less self seeking man than de Valera, the fact remains that he did a deal with the British which brought into being the rotten Northern Irish state.

He accepted British weaponry and followed British bidding to crush the Republicans. In doing so he aligned himself not just with the British, but with the most reactionary sections of Irish society. Some of his followers of that time would later create the Blue Shirts, the Irish fascist movement. He did this deal at a time when the British were cornered and knew that their centuries' old oppression of Ireland was coming to an end.

Irish society was in a state of revolutionary turmoil. Sinn Fein, on a policy of a complete break from Britain and support for armed struggle, had won a huge election victory in 1918. The attempts to crush that struggle through a British terrorist mercenary force had failed despite dreadful atrocities, and the Irish working class was growing in strength and confidence, as a series of major strikes and occupations swept the country.

The British, however, played the Orange card, allowing the Loyalists in the North to arm and drill, and said that they could not possibly allow Ireland to be united. Collins and his supporters bowed to the pressure of British bluffs and threats.

Coogan is right to accuse de Valera of fighting a civil war on questions of principle which he later abandoned. Having sworn that he would never enter the Irish parliament because it meant taking an oath of allegiance to the king, he promptly did so. Having sworn he would never accept partition he in reality did so. Having argued that as long as partition existed it was legitimate to wage armed struggle, he promptly turned round and viciously crushed those who took him at his word.

To accuse him of betrayal is one thing, but to argue that he was wrong to wage the struggle in the first place is quite another. It is in this accusation that Coogan's book falls down.
Pat Stack

Babylon's burning

Inside Babylon
Eds: Winston James, Clive Harris
Verso £12.95

Inside Babylon

The issue of racism has catapulted up the political agenda in Britain in recent months.

Inside Babylon is a collection of essays which chart the very real oppression which blacks have suffered at the hands of the state and authorities since the 1940s.

The immediate postwar period is generally characterised as a time when Britain welcomed immigrants from the West Indies. Most notably, Enoch Powell, Tory Minister of Health and later to become Britain's most famous racist, enthusiastically encouraged blacks to come over to work in the National Health Service. Clive Harris argues that both Tory and Labour governments were in fact much more reluctant to allow black immigration.

Those immigrants who were allowed in were given the least skilled, worst paid jobs. There were few promotional opportunities and thus blacks found themselves in a vicious circle. They were forced to live in the most deprived areas and to send their children to schools with the least resources. Consequently, those children received, and continue to receive the worst education, get the worst jobs and so on. Inside Babylon is not the first book to highlight this development of institutionalised racism, but it does provide a wealth of historical evidence.

Errol Francis argues, in the chapter on psychiatric racism, that blacks are 'massively overdiagnosed as mentally ill.' He provides a detailed account of the ways in which blacks in mental institutions are invariably characterised as dangerous and violent. Consequently, blacks have been criminalised, incarcerated and, in a number of cases, killed whilst in the 'care' of the authorities.

The book offers a sympathetic account of the specific experiences of black women, and attempts to analyse the various cultures of people from different islands. These analyses highlight the fact that there is no uniform identity among black people and no automatic unity. Cultural differences, sexism and of course class, are all barriers that must be overcome.

In the final chapter, Winston James looks at the question of repatriation. Clearly, the current debate which Bernie Grant has generated is not new. In fact, many of the first wave of immigrants always intended to 'return home'. Furthermore, the sickening experience of racism in Britain will have made many tens of thousands of others wish to leave. James argues that repatriation was never a serious option either for that first wave of immigrants or for subsequent generations of blacks. It was economic necessity, not a desire to forego the sun and the beaches of the Caribbean for the damp drizzle of Brixton or Slough, which brought people to Britain in the first place. James finishes by arguing that blacks are 'Here to stay. Here to fight'

This marvellous conclusion comes at the end of a book in which none of the authors offer any strategy for fighting back. The omission, and ridiculously complicated language and terminology used in the book, are its biggest weaknesses.

Marx once wrote that philosophers have interpreted the world but the point is to change it. Sadly, this book will prove to be of most use to people in pursuit of degrees and research grants than those whose aim is to smash this rotten system.
Brian Richardson

Monument to an age

The Cathedral Builders
Jean Gimpel
Pimlico £9.00

The Cathedral Builders

Most people will have wandered into a Gothic cathedral, built hundreds of years ago in the Middle Ages, and marvelled at its size and splendour.

Jean Gimpel starts his book with a few facts: in the 300 years after 1050, 80 cathedrals, 500 churches and thousands of parish churches were built in France alone. By the end of this period there was a church or chapel for every 200 people, and cities like Norwich--with a population of between five and ten thousand--had 50 churches.

The cathedral at Amiens in northern France could accommodate the city's entire population of 10,000.

Gimpel describes the fervour and enthusiasm with which the cathedral builders set about their constructions, and the competition to build the highest and biggest. He describes the battles between those bishops who wanted to pack their cathedrals with jewels, gold and colourful statues and those who demanded austerity.

But most importantly, he describes how the relative social and economic stability of this period provided the wealth needed to build these huge constructions.

It was a time when often runaway serfs could find work on the sites. There developed a workforce of stone-masons, plasterers, smiths and labourers which shifted not just across a country but over borders to work on different cathedrals.

As time went on, many of these workers--who included a large number of women--became highly skilled and organised themselves into guilds. They standardised measures, building blocks and so on.

Artists as such did not exist. Sculptors emerged from the ranks of stone-cutters and some began to initial their works. People who made the magnificent stained glass also signed their windows. But it was not until the Renaissance, which developed in Italy towards the end of the Middle Ages, that they were identified with their objects.

Architects too emerged from the workforce. Gimpel's book has fascinating early architectural drawings, not just of bits of cathedral but of practical devices and gadgets for building them.

He also makes the point that much of the vital geometry needed to build the vast constructions had been lost to Europe during the centuries of barbarism. As Gimpel says, most architects gained their knowledge from Arab science of hundreds of years before.

This book is a fresh and unique view of medieval Europe.
Alan Gibson

Survival of the fittest

The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945
Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman
Cambridge £12.95

There are a growing number of books on the Holocaust, all of which give the lie to the 'Holocaust denial' garbage peddled by today's new Nazis. What makes this one distinctive and particularly welcome is the way that it places Nazi anti-semitism and its murderous outcome within the overall context of their racial fantasies.

The first victims of systematic mass murder were the mentally ill. In the summer of 1939 Hitler ordered the killing of patients in mental hospitals throughout Germany, a programme of murder that involved the gassing of its victims. By September 1941, some 90,000 people had been killed. Public protest led to the formal abandonment of the programme but in practice it continued throughout the war and even in the weeks immediately after on a decentralised local basis.

The sick, the old, even severely wounded and shell-shocked servicemen were killed on the order of doctors implementing the programme. Many of the men involved in gassing the mentally ill and others were later sent to make use of their expertise in the death camps.

Less well known than the murder of the mentally ill was the Nazis' compulsory sterilisation programme that was introduced in January 1934. This was intended to improve Germany's racial stock by preventing those considered racially unfit from having children. Panels of doctors (half of Germany's doctors were Nazi Party members) took the decision to sterilise both men and women on the basis of feeble-mindedness, anti-social behaviour, habitual drunkenness, promiscuity, social inadequacy, even laziness.

In practice middle class prejudice with a gloss of scientific racism was given free rein to 'improve' the genetic stock of the German nation by sterilising large numbers of working class men and women. By the outbreak of the war, a staggering 320,000 people had been compulsorily sterilised, that is half of 1 percent of the German population.

This figure was regarded as just the beginning. Nazi experts placed the number of sterilisations necessary as anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of the German people.

The Nazis were engaged in a murderous attempt to create a 'racial community' that would somehow transcend class division and class conflict. Burleigh and Wipperman argue the Nazis were well on the way to achieving their objective. This is not true. The attempt was always doomed. The Nazis were attempting to find a racial solution to problems that had nothing whatsoever to do with race, and everything to do with ruling an advanced capitalist society in deep crisis.

Nazi rule in the 1930s rested not mainly on racial policies, but on the economic recovery of German capitalism. Any success they may have had in creating an appearance of 'racial community' rested on their ability to deliver economic growth. Meanwhile, class conflict continued beneath the surface.

Much of the authors' own material clearly contradicts their argument, showing that even the supposed Nazi racial community was a class phenomenon. It was not just a coincidence, for example, that nearly a fifth of senior SS officers were members of the German aristocracy. Despite this criticism, the book is invaluable both for its contribution to our knowledge of the Nazis and their crimes and as a weapon against today's Nazis.
John Newsinger

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