Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
A history of Warfare
'War is hell'. So wrote General Sherman towards the end of his life and he should have known. Sherman was one of the founders of modern 'total' warfare--war where the destruction of the enemies' fighting soldiers is no longer sufficient as a goal but where, in a modern industrialised society, victory rests on destroying the enemy's economy and the morale of its civilian population. Sherman's march to the sea and the destruction of the Confederate state's railroads, the cotton plantations on which its society was based and the burning of cities like Atlanta, effectively ended the American Civil War.
John Keegan's A History of Warfare starts with the Prussian theoretician von Clausewitz's maxim that 'war is the continuation of policy by other means'. He goes on to paint a broad historical sweep from Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt up to the Second World War and Vietnam.
Keegan is no left winger, having been a senior lecturer at Sandhurst and going on to become defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, getting an OBE in the Gulf War honours list. Yet he is also no Colonel Blimp. As in his other books he does not shirk from detailing what war entails at the cutting edge. The very breadth of his study is stimulating and it makes for an easy read.
But it is also a book through which runs a debate Keegan has not resolved. Its writing coincided with the ending of the Cold War and the widespread acceptance that the great wars between continental powers are a thing of the past. Keegan accepts that and goes on to look for a role for the modern soldier.
His answer lies in a peacekeeping role round the globe's troublespots. The brutality of the American intervention in Somalia, the inability of the West to prevent the eruption of wars which stretch from Italy to China and the futility of the West's Gulf War all blow a wide hole in such hopes.
In an argument with Clausewitz, Keegan argues that war cannot be identified with modern states or with power politics. Rather its origins lie in human nature. 'Man', for Keegan, 'is a thinking animal in whom the intellect directs the urge to hunt and the ability to kill'.
This is the most annoying part of the book.Humans have been on the globe for some 10 million years while their antecedents were around for two million years. The view that warfare emerged alongside the creation of agricultural societies is one now accepted by not just Marxists but most mainstream anthropologists. Yet Keegan's argument that the origins of war lie somewhere in our inner selves rests on an examination of societies which were already developed, like those of Ancient Mesopotamia, or tribes already in contact with more developed societies. At the earliest his examples start some 6,000 years ago.
In carrying forward this critique of Clausewitz, Keegan goes on to argue: 'Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning. The First World War was, on the contrary, an extraordinary, a monstrous cultural aberration, the outcome of an unwitting decision by Europeans in the century of Clausewitz... to turn Europe into a warrior society.' This can only be maintained by an argument that contrasts the century running up to the First World War with the rest of human history where, he argues, war had nothing to do with politics but emerged from particular military cultures.
But the First World War can only be understood through the emergence of the great Western powers and their division of an emerging world economy. The war itself ended with the explosion of the class differences on which these states rested with revolution in Russia and Germany.
Throughout his book, however, John Keegan goes out of his way to show how warfare developed in relation to the development of humanity's productive capacity. This is the meat of the book and makes its reading worthwhile.
The Sharp End: the fighting man in World War Two
John Ellis's earlier book, The Social History of the Machine Gun, has a sharp focus, showing the contradictions between technological change and the conservatism of the military establishment of the great powers. This resulted in the wholesale and useless slaughter (from a strictly military/imperialist viewpoint) of Verdun, the Somme and the Bussilov offensive--all in 1916.
That book is interesting and useful because it roots this conservatism in social causes. Trotsky once wrote, 'An army is part of society and suffers from all its diseases; usually at a higher temperature.' The military establishments of 1914-18 recruited themselves from the most backward looking and reactionary elements of the ruling class. Hence their obsession with (militarily useless) cavalry.
But Ellis's present work has a much more dubious thesis. Starting from the indisputable proposition that the overall casualties of the British army and, to a lesser extent the American one, were much lower in proportion to the total mobilised, it concludes that 'the sharp end' suffered casualties as great or greater than those of 1914-18. However the total casualties were much lower than those of the previous mass slaughter.
His explanation, which is valid so far as it goes, is that the mechanised armies of Britain and the US required enormous 'tails' of transport, supply, maintenance and repair--soldiers rarely, if ever, actually saw their opponents. He fails to note that before 1943-44 they were rarely engaged in major operations.
Ellis quotes an American survey of 1945 showing that a substantial majority of US soldiers never fired a shot in anger, and no doubt a British survey would have produced a similar result.
It is a very Anglo-American view. If Ellis had chosen to examine German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese casualty figures his thesis would have been unsustainable. At the battle of Kursk in 1943 (commonly labelled 'the greatest tank battle in history') the casualties on both sides approximated to the norm of 1914-18. And this was a highly 'mechanised' encounter.
Moreover, Ellis ignores the civilian casualties--British (substantial), German (enormous), Russian (catastrophic), Chinese (worse than that) and Japanese (remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
In short, it won't do. Most important, this book is very weak on the social and political side. He quotes various generals (all British or American) without reflecting that, at least since the 18th century, casualties (his essential subject) have been very low at this level in every army.
Not that our author entirely ignores the class basis of military operations. Anyone who has ever been in an army knows very well the gulf between officers and what are called 'other ranks'. It is even recognised in so called 'international law'--the Geneva Convention. Officer prisoners of war are segregated from their corresponding lower orders and cannot be made to work for their keep. Other ranks can be and usually have been--often under lousy conditions.
Again officers eat, socialise and sleep separately from the common herd. This reviewer has no up to date information about pay scales, but during the Second World War and for at least two years after the private soldier (overwhelmingly conscript) received three shillings a day (15p). The bottom ranks of the officer corps received 21 shillings a day.
So how do you get to the privileged position of officer? John Ellis is comparatively candid about this: 'Education seems to have been the prime determinant of whether a man was deemed suitable officer material, though this has obvious class implications in both Britain and the USA in that it was only the better off who had been able to afford to attend grammar or public schools, colleges or universities. A Commons reply after the war revealed that three samples of 5,000 OCTU (officer cadet training units) consisted of '25 percent public school boys with almost all the others from grant aided grammar schools.'
There is some interesting material in the book, not least the data on disease, which caused far more casualties in the British and US armies than enemy action. But as an account of the life of the common soldier in the Second World War, it cannot be recommended.
The Tragedy of Bukharin
Pluto Press £9.95
Bukharin, a victim of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, was finally rehabilitated during 'Glasnost' and posthumously readmitted to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Some Western scholars have also tried to rehabilitate Bukharin as the leader who presented an alternative to Stalinism.
Making Bukharin the acceptable Bolshevik has the advantage that it avoids the need to examine the revolutionary tradition of Trotsky. Bukharin is safer because he left no political tradition. Much of the recent praise of Bukharin has only been sustained by a highly selective study of his life and work.
The great benefit of Donny's book is that it deals with Bukharin's legacy as a whole. Written as a contribution to revolutionary thought it seeks to examine and judge Bukharin warts and all. As the anti-Trotskyist who developed the theory of 'socialism in one country' for Stalin, but also as the theorist who advanced Marxism by his analysis of imperialism and the tendency towards state capitalism.
The ultra-left who urged continued war with Germany in 1918 was later the cautious economist who proposed leaving the pace of economic development to the rhythm of peasant agriculture.
Donny shows how Bukharin had a tendency towards an overly mechanical understanding of Marxism. As Lenin wrote in his 'Testament':
'...his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve...(he has never made a study of dialectics, and I think, never fully understood it).'
Donny's book is the best single study of Bukharin there is. Because Bukharin was so centrally involved in his times the book acts as an excellent introduction to many of the key events and debates of the time.
The first chapter, 'World Economy and Imperialism', shows Bukharin at his most innovative. Many socialists argued that the outbreak of the First World War meant postponing the struggle for socialism. Bukharin showed that the tendency towards war was inevitable under capitalism. Processes within capitalism itself led to a greater and greater concentration of capital. This results in an intermingling of the state and capital.
Capitalist competition is therefore reproduced at the level of interstate conflict. In the development of this argument Bukharin rediscovered the Marxist theory of the state.
At this stage Bukharin was in advance of Lenin, who only later developed his own work on imperialism. But Bukharin's ability to grasp general tendencies encouraged a schematic approach. This could lead to political errors. For example, his understanding of world economy led Bukharin wrongly to oppose struggles for national liberation. 'The slogan of "self-determination of nations" is first of all utopian (it cannot be realised within the limits of capitalism) and harmful as a slogan which disseminates illusion.' The ultra-leftism of Bukharin in this period--either socialism or imperialism--stands in stark contrast to the political stance of Lenin.
The weakness of Bukharin's thought is shown by his move from the left to the right of the Communist Party during War Communism, the period of civil war which necessitated harsh measures of control and of direct expropriation of grain from peasants. Bukharin celebrated this necessity as representing the direct transition from capitalism to socialism. The danger of revolt forced a retreat from War Communism to the 'New Economic Policy'. Now Bukharin decided that this represented the transition to socialism.
The core of Donny's book is made up of four central chapters that deal with NEP, Bukharin's approach to the peasant question, Bukharin as the key ideologist of anti-Trotskyism, and Bukharin's role in the economic debates of 1920s Russia. They are all admirably clear, and bring together much material that is otherwise only available in more specialist studies.
In dealing with difficult economic arguments Donny supplements the differing approaches of Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and other Communists with those of more recent commentators. This makes the critique of Bukharin's peasant-based policy particularly thorough.
The theory of 'socialism in one country' was developed by Bukharin for Stalin's campaign against Trotsky. It also underlay Bukharin's disastrous stewardship of the Communist International. 'Socialism in one country', developed as an ideological cover for the Russian bureaucracy's transformation into a ruling class, led to avoidable defeats in Germany, Britain and most horrifically in China.
Recently some of Russia's pro-market economists have described NEP as: 'without exaggeration one of the most brilliant pages in the history of our fatherland, indeed in world history.'
Donny shows the failure of NEP. Bukharin, despite the wishful thinking of many, had no solutions. It is ideologically useful to present him as a viable alternative to Stalin--but it is bad history.
By mid-1928 Bukharin was purged by Stalin. But 'just as a guttering candle has one last burst of flame so too did Bukharin at his show trial in 1938'. By exposing the absurdity of the charges against him he exposed the nature of the prosecution.
Donny ends this book by saying 'Bukharin will be tried in the practical test of the international working class struggle, which can use both his great strengths and learn from his terrible mistakes. It is here that judgement will be made.' This book will help us in that judgement. All comrades should read it.
Free to hate: the rise of the right in post-Communist Eastern Europe
The rise of the far right across Europe has horrified millions and left them desperate to understand this phenomenon. Hockenos' book will be warmly welcomed by many such people. It, I predict, will sell well. Which is both good and bad.
Good, because he so vividly describes how the euphoria and hope of the revolts and revolutions of 1989 have turned to bitter despair and disappointment for the inhabitants of Eastern Europe. He exposes the hypocrisy of politicians who will wear any political colouration (from Communist to free marketeering) to achieve their own personal ends of money and power, while leaving a path of destruction behind them.
Hockenos takes us on a journey of hatred. He travels Eastern Europe reporting gangs of racist thugs in every country, racist ideas which seem omnipresent and political 'thugs' who are willing to dice with fascism to keep power.
It leaves you with a bitter taste. This is the result of one sidedness, lack of clarity and political confusion which, frankly, left me depressed.
This is where you hit the downside. The bad side of the book is that at the centre is his, mistaken, belief that the ideological glue that binds nation states is stronger than the class divisions which rack them.
So Hockenos says, 'diminutive progressive left or social democratic parties have been unable to compete against the roar of nationalism'.
Yet he does not understand nationalism, its appeal or its origins. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War are described as shifts in nationalism, which is seen as natural... 'While all the far right movements in Eastern Europe are nationalist, not all nationalism is right wing. The free expression of national identity and culture also has a place--and arguably a constructive one--in modern societies.'
But to examine nationalism outside of the class divisions which spawned it is not only stupid but very dangerous, because it leads you to conclusions which bypass those you are trying to understand.
This is what Hockenos does. His book stinks of the corruption, filth and cynical manoeuvring of politicians. This is its strength. But don't read it looking for answers. For Hockenos wants people to live in peace and accept 'citizenship' and not chauvinism. This would be achieved if the West invested in Eastern Europe and the IMF and the World Bank behaved themselves.
I think it is better achieved by the example of the East German steel workers who struck for parity with their counterparts in the West and in doing so united workers from all ethnic groups behind a common banner and against a common enemy--their rich and corrupt bosses. These workers produced strike leaflets in eight languages and held meetings addressed in all languages.
It is action like this, and that of the airline workers in France or the public sector workers in Italy, that can ultimately defeat the hollow nationalism of the Nazis and their friends in government and give people the real sense of society they so desire--building for real socialism.
Black, White or Mixed Race
Baebara Tizard and Ann Phoenix
'For centuries people of mixed black and white parentage, rather than being seen as the fortunate recipients of two diverse inheritances, have been stigmatised. This is because of deeply ingrained beliefs that human beings are "by blood" divided into a small number of races, of which the white race is superior.'
Indeed the very existence of mixed race relationships and children has proved so potent a threat to racist ideology that vast amounts of scientific energy have been invested in a vain attempt to prove that mixed race children suffer from genetic disorders.
Since the advent of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, open talk of people's biology being adversely affected by the 'mixing of races' has been limited to those on the extreme right. Yet it took until the early 1950s before UNESCO could issue a statement which suggested that mixed race relationships should not be prohibited on the basis of any existing scientific knowledge.
The debate about race in the last few decades has primarily hinged on a notion of culture. People no longer argue that children of mixed race suffer from biological disorders, rather, it is suggested that they suffer from psychological identity problems. They don't know whether they are black or white.
This book is a frontal attack on the notion that there are biological consequences for mixed race children and, perhaps more importantly, the idea that mixed race children are unable to develop a comfortable self image.
Its authors make their points in two ways.
Firstly, through a history of mixed race people in Britain. The point of this exercise is to show the reader that for centuries mixed race people have battled not with their genes, nor the colour of their skin, but with the racist society which has surrounded them.
Secondly, through a survey of young people of mixed race which is, represented by a mass of excerpts from the interviews, to show that the majority of those sampled are, by their late teens, happy with the racial mixture they have inherited.
In many ways the great strength of this book is that it allows people to put forward their own experience in a well structured fashion. So many different aspects of these young people's feelings about their lives are represented that if the book comprised these alone it would still be extremely valuable.
The most serious weaknesses of the book seem to stem from its political outlook. As well as an attack on those who have stood out against the mixing of races it also advances the idea of a specific mixed-race racial and cultural identity, suggesting that the use of the term 'black' to describe people of mixed race is often misleading. It does this without adequately assessing the value of a term that can unite all people who suffer racism because of the colour of their skin.
The use of the term 'black' was developed as a political response to racism by a movement which aimed to smash it. Despite its obvious limitations it should be regarded as a gain won by the anti-racist movement.
Another problem is that the authors neither outline nor develop a serious strategy for fighting racism, but are concerned with addressing various issues of social policy where race is a factor, like adoption. I find myself wondering how the authors, who have spent over 150 pages telling us that racism is the biggest problem in young mixed race people's lives, can leave the book without the means to challenge that racism.
If questions of race, racism and their relationship to people of mixed race interest you then you should not leave this book on the shelf. I don't necessarily think that it will have the answers you are looking for, but it will probably help you think the issues through for yourself.