Issue 173 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Poolbeg Press £4.90
The release of the Birmingham Six on 14 March 1991 after over 16 years in prison was one of the biggest nails in the coffin for public confidence in British justice. In Cruel Fate, Hugh Callaghan gives a very personal account of his life up to, during and after his ordeal in British jails.
He was born in 1930 to a working class Catholic family in the Ardoyne, Belfast. Ironically he sought release through emigration to Britain. But the reality of the sectarian state back home continued to make itself felt, with the pogroms by B Specials and Orange thugs against Catholic families, including those in Hugh Callaghan's home town.
In 1972 he made a brief visit home and, like everyone else, found himself thrown into resistance whether he wanted to be or not. He and his friends were persuaded to man a bus being used to barricade a street into a Catholic estate for a night: 'It was impressive to see how the Ardoyne people stood up for themselves and their families; I felt a sense of pride and got a great lift out of being part of their efforts to defend themselves, small though my part was.'
Callaghan's origins would continue to haunt him. In 1974 they were enough for the British state to throw him and five other innocents into jail. Seeing himself as just another working man in Birmingham, Hugh never even imagined that suspicion would fall on him for the pub bombs that killed 21 young people.
Callaghan describes the brutal way in which a confession was extracted from him. This quiet, unassuming man--the most unlikely IRA 'bomber', as Chris Mullin describes him--makes no bones of the fact that his confession was the 'easiest' to coerce. He was cruelly clutched from his life and family, held incommunicado for over five days, denied food and water, subjected to all manner of mental abuse and then, at his lowest ebb, forced to sign a self contradictory confession. As soon as he regained his senses he tried to retract it, but to no avail. A gun was pointed at his head and he was told he was going to stick to that confession.
These confessions and the paltriest of 'scientific' evidence were enough for the judge, who all but instructed the jury to convict. Behind this was the wave of anti-Irish hysteria which saw attacks on Irish homes and calls for hanging.
One of the most impressive things about this book is the manner in which an ordinary working class man like Callaghan, with no particular interest in politics, could find resources within himself to resist the daily oppressions of the prison system. 'Slopping out' is designed to degrade inmates. But when a screw upbraided Callaghan for emptying his contents in the wrong place and asked if his mates hadn't told him how to do it properly, he just replied, how could they, as he wasn't allowed to talk to them?' "So you can speak up for yourself after all," the screw commented. He looked surprised. I was too.'
From someone used to obeying his 'betters', Hugh soon became the bane of the life of every official who crossed his path (including every prison clergyman who made the mistake of patronising him) whom he would invariably confront with his innocence.
On the Birmingham Six's first appearance at the Appeal Court just six months after their conviction he says, 'I was no longer in awe of the courts. The law wasn't on the side of the innocent working man--but then, was it ever?'
Instructive too is the changing attitude of other prisoners to the 'bombers'. Initially Callaghan lived in constant fear of physical and verbal abuse from other prisoners but his sheer guts and blatant innocence won at least a grudging sympathy from all around him. After one protest by 'genuine' Republican prisoners was put down by the dreaded 'mufti squad', there was a night long protest by many ordinary English prisoners at the violence of the riot squad. On another occasion ordinary inmates came to the aid of Callaghan when he was threatened by a screw who had lost relatives in Ulster.
If the first half of this book is an account of the descent into hell the second is marked by his determination to survive and to be freed. He describes the efforts of those outside who fought for their release. These included the families and in Hugh's case Mike Walsh, a member of Birmingham Labour Party and a trade unionist. He had to secretly help Hugh's wife Eileen without being able to tell anyone else he knew in Birmingham. And of course there were the efforts of Labour MP Chris Mullin and lawyer Gareth Pierce.
The judges who resisted these efforts receive scorn from Callaghan. He especially criticises Lord Denning who preferred to see the men rot rather than face the 'appalling vista' of admitting British justice had got it wrong. The judges had 'an expression on their faces that appeared to suggest they would have liked to have said, "how dare you approach us?" But even small people have a right to justice.' And with enough people marching and putting pressure on outside eventually the six got out.
This book is a very personal account. Look elsewhere for a sustained political or legal argument on the case. 'I wasn't interested in politics... I preferred a good chat about football, the films or songs.' But this man knows more about the reality of the system than any academic Marxist and this book is a brilliant indictment of it.
Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837
There is an advert on television for Typhoo tea featuring the speech from Shakespeare's Richard II which describes this 'sceptred isle'. It comes with the required image of a Britain complete with cricket on the village green, scones and, of course, tea. Yet there is a jarring note at the advert's end. Shakespeare's speech is a triumph of praise for 'this England'. In 1994 the advertisers have scored out the name England and replaced it with Britain.
It is a reminder of just how recent the notion of a British nation is. The mythology woven around the crown and the 'mother of parliaments' is that these are institutions rooted in the mists of a common past. The truth is rather different. The idea of Britain as a single nation state is little older than the creation of the United States.
Until the close of the 18th century anyone living in London would have regarded all Scots, whether Gaelic or English speaking, as aliens and would have found it difficult to communicate with the bulk of the population elsewhere in England.
Linda Colley's book is an excellent examination of how the notion of a British state was born. For her it centres on war, and in particular the long war with France in the 18th century. This war would become the first world war, with European armies fighting in North America and India and their navies engaged in battle off the Australian coast.
The final victory of this long contest at Waterloo in 1815 marked more than military success. Colley reproduces a painting by the Scottish artist David Wilkie depicting news of victory over Napoleon being brought to Chelsea pensioners. This painting was a top draw when it was first exhibited. Within it are various images of Britain--the pubs named after various military grandees, the piper from a Highland regiment, Chelsea pensioners and even a black bandsman who conjures up the idea of empire.
Yet just 50 years earlier the London mob rioted in support of John Wilkes' claims that George III was promoting Scots to rule the kingdom of England and that by their nature Scots were enemies of liberty.
Linda Colley is strongest at showing the various threads which were sewn together to create the idea of the British nation. Unlike many on the left she is absolutely clear that 18th century Britain was a capitalist economy. The ruling oligarchy may have been aristocrats but they were intimately connected to industry, commerce and the slave trade.
Agriculture was increasingly geared to feeding the growing cities and for export. The ruling class expanded beyond its earlier oligarchical core and threw up cultural and political institutions which extended down into the lower classes.
Unlike France, Britain's wars did not centre on the geographical expansion of its borders, but rather on the acquisition of ports and colonies for commercial gain.
But the book falls down in trying to carry an argument against E P Thompson and other Marxist historians who have demonstrated the class polarisation of Britain in this period, the level of repression and the rich culture of opposition to the ruling class. Colley argues, however, the majority of Britons accepted the new British nationalism and the ruling class which spawned it.
But there is a problem here when one tries to examine what is often termed 'the silent majority'. These are people who can suddenly find themselves moving sharply in different directions. The same people who might have cheered George III's jubilee could turn on his rakish successor. Those who sang of British liberty could employ those ideas in an entirely different direction when it came to demanding parliamentary reform. The London mob might riot for king and country but they could also carry through near insurrection--in what the history books call the Gordon Riots--against the symbols of the ruling order.
In her chapter on the abolition of slavery, Colley simply looks at those in the ruling class who came to support abolition. She misses the popular protests which ensured black people were freed if they set foot on British soil and that slavers could not recapture them.
It's not about a salary... rap, race and resistance in Los Angeles
Rap has without doubt been the most innovative and radical music in the last decade. A music form which has not been afraid to borrow from other styles such as jazz, funk, rock and world music, it is the sound of young black America and increasingly that of white youth.
It has not avoided criticism--much has been written by the press on the sexist and racist lyrics of some rap. In recent years the American establishment, and to a lesser extent the British, have become paranoid about the so called links between rap and violence. LA's 'gangster rap' is at the forefront of the controversy.
Brian Cross has, with the aid of interviews--with rappers such as Dr Dre, House of Pain, The Pharcyde, Ice T and Cube--photographs, documents and essays, located west coast rap within the political and economic conditions of LA and its surrounding areas.
Ever since jazz there has been a sharp division in musical styles between the east coast and west coast of America. The east has been associated with a much harder sound. With jazz it was the backbone of the bebop sound of Charlie Parker and Max Roach, with late 1960s rock the wizardry of Hendrix. The west was associated with the more laid back, mellow sound of 'cool jazz' of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan and the flower power era of the late 1960s.
Early rap appeared to develop in the same way. Whilst the east coast was notorious for the political rap of Public Enemy and KRS1, all the west coast had was tame electro. By 1986 it was all to change.
If the east coast had the raw funky soul beats, the west coast had the sales. With the emergence of NWA, gangster rap was now the LA sound. Cross argues that the music of NWA, Cube, T and a host of others was the product of LA police racism--in 1986 the LAPD killed 32 black and Chicano males--immigration, poverty and a gang culture.
The LA gangs first sprang up in the 1950s to protect blacks and immigrants from racist gangs. By the 1980s they were fighting each other for control of the drug markets.
The result is a music which is angry and influenced by a variety of cultural sounds. Just a brief glance at the recently emerging rappers shows this. Cypress Hill are fronted by a Cuban, House of Pain are Irish-American and Kid Frost is Chicano. Rap is still one of the few ways out of the ghetto for black and Hispanic kids.
Like me, anyone interested in rap music will enjoy this book. Brian Cross has written one of the few decent books on the subject. The recent LA riot marked a turning point in America's history. Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' was its anthem. If future struggles develop, rap will be the cheerleader.
The Road to 1945
This book touches on two British myths. First, that the Second World War united the nation from top to bottom in the fight against the evil of fascism. Second, that the 1945 Labour government, whose reforms are still cited as one of the main reasons for electing Labour, shows the way to achieve effective change.
The Road to 1945 casts some light on both these propositions. But the light is concentrated on the 'development of politics at the top'. This is largely an account of parliamentary manoeuvres and government committees. The important strikes that took place during the war are not mentioned. Nor is there any real description of the depth of admiration for the Nazis that existed in conservative circles, although Addison does quote Lord Bocket's letter to Chamberlain in January 1940 urging peace because a long war would mean 'appalling taxation' for the middle and upper classes.
Our rulers were extremely reluctant to fight Hitler, partly out of ideological sympathy but mainly because they feared the cost and disruption of an all out conflict. It took the military disasters of 1940 to shock a majority of them into a realisation that unless they mobilised seriously they risked losing the empire. Hence the switch to Churchill.
How little this had to do with 'defending democracy' is shown by Churchill's response to Dunkirk. Arguing that a revolutionary situation was developing in the country he advocated the suspension of parliament, the introduction of martial law and the formation of a committee of public safety armed with dictatorial powers.
As a plan of action this would not do. If workers were to be pulled behind the war effort the Labour Party and trade union leaderships had to be brought into government, serious state control of the economy introduced and the population--with bitter memories of the aftermath of the First World War--given some expectation that life would be better after this one. Hence the move to coalition government and the formation of a series of committees, usually chaired by a Tory or Liberal, charged with producing blueprints for a 'new Britain'. Butler laid down the basis of state education and Beveridge the welfare state.
Addison's principal argument is that by 1945 there was already a broad consensus on social and economic issues between Tory and Labour.
Certainly the Tories accepted most of the welfare reforms with as much good grace as they could muster. The postwar nationalisations went through with only token opposition. Wartime radicalisation across Britain and Europe forced them to make concessions. There was also a growing feeling in sections of the Tory Party that the war had shown that greater state intervention was necessary if British capitalism was to compete successfully.
This broad agreement allowed Labour to run a relatively moderate campaign in 1945 presenting themselves as the most consistent supporters of the new consensus. Cripps urged the party to aim for the middle ground, Morrison recommended appealing to the 'small man' and the self employed, and Attlee worried that, 'A silly speech by Aneurin Bevan might easily be used to stampede the electors away from Labour.'
In fact the stampede was the other way. The shift to the left by millions delivered victory to Labour.
What emerges from Addison's account is that given the situation of a discredited ruling class, a massive Labour majority, overwhelming support in the armed forces and laws controlling much of industry already in place, how much the reforms introduced were near the minimum the situation allowed for. But gains such as the NHS were real and helped bring Labour to a peak individual membership of 1 million by the time they lost office in 1951.
With D Day commemorations around the corner and a VE Day bank holiday next year these particular myths are about to get another outing.
Victims of Development: Resistance and Alternatives
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels described how capitalist production was drawing every society into a single cosmopolitan and global system. But they could not have envisaged the precise forms of brutality, exploitation and misery which would mark the completion of this process in the developing world of the late 20th century.
In this book Jeremy Seabrook gives us an impassioned traveller's tour through that world. Story after story, in sometimes overwhelming succession, blurs into a single, infinitely repeated nightmare of traditional rural communities uprooted, torn apart and left to struggle for their survival at the gates of the new industrial plants, the construction sites or the peripheries of the cities themselves.
The book's title, though, speaks volumes about Seabrook's analysis of this latest cycle of capitalist modernisation and proletarianisation. For one thing, there is his insistence on terms like 'the poor' and 'victims'. Their effect is to obscure and neutralise the class character of the new urban populations and their forms of resistance, lumping indiscriminately together the slum dwellers of Bombay and Rio de Janeiro, the street vendors, rubbish sorters and prostitutes of Manila, the textile workers of Penang in Malaysia and the Kamani tubes workers of India.
If they share an identity, for Seabrook it lies not in their common potential and interest in fighting to control and exploit rationally the resources and technologies that capitalism has squandered. Rather it is to be found in their common impoverishment, their common loss of traditional forms of community and of a special relationship to the 'natural rhythms of the world'.
This brings us to the second problem with the book's diagnosis. It argues that it is not so much capitalism but industrialism, development itself, which is the cause of Third World misery.
As a result Seabrook finds the struggles of industrial workers against dangerous working conditions or for union rights ultimately less inspiring than those initiatives which advocate a return to self reliant, communitarian village systems. So the September 1991 demonstration of IFTU trade unionists through New Delhi is described as dignified, moving but sadly ineffectual.
The 'alternatives', then, of the book's title lie in a lost 'third way'--India's 'Gandhian tradition of modest consumption, voluntary austerity and a decent sufficiency for all'. Seabrook's admiration for pre-industrial subsistence cultures allows him, astonishingly, to balance the catastrophic poverty produced by natural disasters or crop failures favourably against their 'rational austerity, a not joyless, but limited claim on the riches of the earth'.
Seabrook eventually reveals the reason for this pessimistic retreat into self imposed underdevelopment. He has accepted wholesale the 'new world order' defeatism of the late 1980s, that the struggles of the working class have ended in defeat, that 'there is no longer any threat to the existing order' and that the market reigns supreme.
These are conclusions that look premature, to say the least, both in the crisis ridden economies of Europe and North America and in those parts of the world where Seabrook looks for consolation. Recent weeks have seen an extraordinary uprising of Mexican peasants against the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a strike wave in Indonesia over pay.
These fights are for more, not less, of the capitalist cake, and if Seabrook believes that the parallels and similarities between North and South are growing, then rather than reinventing old forms of poverty he should be looking out for signs of the renewal of anti-capitalist struggle worldwide.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
I was rather apprehensive on picking up this book. Claiming to be a Roots for the human species, it tries to locate the source of society's problems in our evolutionary past.
But I found Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors a fascinating, if flawed, read. Although it does not succeed in its aims, failing to understand the features that distinguish humans from other animals, it offers an excellent account of our biological origins.
Two major themes of natural history emerge. The first is the importance of chance. For instance, the earth was once much larger than it is today. A chance collision with another world split it in two, creating the moon in the process. Had the collision been more severe, it is probable that there would be no earth today.
Another planetary collision was probably responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, which in turn created a space for the rise of our mammalian ancestors.
The second theme is that, whilst evolution is generally characterised by slow, gradual change, it is also true that the most far reaching changes have occurred through revolutionary transitions. Such transitions may be caused by unforeseen catastrophes such as those already described, but more interesting is the fact that they are often the result of contradictions that emerge in previous conditions and which overturn those conditions in the process.
The earth's history is full of such examples. Environmental crisis is not new and is not confined to human activities. What is different is that we now have the power to do something about it.
Which brings me to the second part of the book. What makes us different from other animals, in particular from our closest relative, the apes? There is a problem here. On the one hand there is apparently very little biological difference between humans and apes. We share an incredible 99.6 percent of our active genes with chimpanzees.
On the other hand there are the obvious differences between humans and apes--our language, society and culture. Is all this skin deep? Clearly the authors think so.
I felt that this book misses the one crucial difference between humans and apes--our ability to consciously change the environment--because it fails to understand the nature of human consciousness.
Consciousness arose in human evolution when our ancestors first began to use tools. Tool use must have evolved as a social activity because at some point early on it became linked with the growth of language. We know this because one of the distinguishing features of human brains is the way that the centres controlling language and the hands are connected. Social interaction coupled with tool use stimulated the evolution of the brain.
Human evolution did not require a great deal of genetic change, involving as it did a restructuring rather than a rebuilding process. However, the differences that do exist are crucial. Although apes can use tools, it seems that they will only use objects that come immediately to hand in a particular situation.
This book views us merely as 'civilised apes'. It draws the pessimistic conclusion that we are prisoners of our animal instincts. Worse still, we have lost the mechanisms that other apes have evolved to preserve social harmony. The authors completely miss the point that we are social beings and as such it is society rather than biology which is the dominant factor in determining even our most basic functions.
City on the Edge: the Transformation of Miami
Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick
California Press £?
For Damon Runyon Miami was a city that 'hot shots' went to in winter to lose their 'potatoes' on the crap tables or racetrack. Miami was a typical southern city of veterans and retirees, its sole activity the exploitation of tourism in the sunny winters.
The Cuban Revolution of December 1958 and the influx of Cubans fleeing Castro changed it into 'the most internationalised American city'.
This book tells the story of that change, how successive groups of immigrants--from Cuba, Haiti, Cuba again and Nicaragua--arrived in Miami and how their reception and resettlement were influenced by the policies of the US government.
The anti-Castro refugees arriving at the height of the Cold War, seen as victims of Communism, 'received one of the most generous benefit packages ever offered to arriving foreigners.' In contrast working class Nicaraguans attempting to flee the US sponsored Contra war were told, Nicaraguans belong in Nicaragua. Those who did manage to get to Miami were encouraged to return and battle against the Sandinistas.
City on the Edge records how these groups of refugees were met with hostility and racism by the established Anglo community, and suspicion by blacks worried about competition for jobs and housing.
The authors have written an informative book full of quotes which bring it alive, but they concentrate too much on how different Miami is from other US cities.
They report glowingly on the success of the Cubans once they enter the political scene and they clearly see that as the way forward for the black population of Miami, but they conclude that 'Blacks still depend on outside initiatives to determine the future of their community.'
They see a Miami defined by its racial division along ethnic lines, and fail to see the more fundamental division of class, although the evidence is easily found in this book.
Far from being 'dependent on outside initiatives', black people have won improvements for themselves. In 1980 riots were sparked by the acquittal of four white policemen of the murder of a black insurance agent, Arthur McDuffie. A decade or so later a similar acquittal sparked the Los Angeles riots.
You Are, Aren't You?
Jewish Socialist and Mushroom Bookshop £4.99
Anyone overly apprehensive about approaching Michael Rosen's most recent volume of poetry can take assurance from his introduction: 'Just in case there is anyone out there bothered about whether what follows really is poetry, can I say, don't worry--just call it "bits" or "stuff".' And this is the flavour of the book--a small volume of 45 poems, which brings together previously published pieces alongside many new poems.
The poems take you through a gamut of emotions--reminiscing with 'Bubbe and Zeyde' (granny and grandad); childhood mischief in 'Don't tell your Mother'; the irritation of parental habits in 'Ice Cream'.
Michael Rosen is probably best known for being both an accomplished broadcaster and children's writer, and is a valuable voice in anti-racist and educational campaigns. His poems reflect his strong anti-racist sentiment.
The racism experienced in 'New School' and 'Easter' is countered by the optimism of a mixed relationship in 'Maths'. His sense of outrage at war is clearly illustrated in the graphic 'Fighters for Life' and 'Let's Play Tyrants.'
From the intimacy of personal relationships and family life to the arena of international politics he evokes memories of the past and yet succeeds in providing poems relevant to today.
My personal favourites include the poignant 'How Many' for Mordecai Vanunu and the superb 'Jewish Museum', which skilfully exposes the way in which Zionist propaganda is used.
'The Promised Land' critically examines the (sometimes tragic) reality of Aliyah (emigration to Israel). Finally, 'Duckslager'--a poem which in just 61 words evokes an image of the concentration camp that shouts out from the pages.