Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Blood of Spain
'It was incredible, the proof in practice of what one knows in theory: the power and strength of the masses when they take to the streets. All one's doubts are suddenly stripped away, doubts about how the working class and the masses are to be organised, how they can make the revolution until they are organised. Suddenly you feel their creative power; you can't imagine how rapidly the masses are capable of organising themselves. The forms they invent go far beyond anything you've dreamt of, read in books. What was needed now was to seize this initiative, channel it, give it shape...'
So Narciso Julian, a railway worker from Madrid, remembers the excitement and euphoria of the revolutionary wave which swept Spain in 1936 in response to the fascist threat of Franco's thugs. It is just one of many inspirational quotes gathered together in Ronald Fraser's classic account of the Spanish Civil War.
Blood of Spain tells the story of the Spanish Civil War from the point of view of its participants. Here are gathered together extracts from interviews Fraser conducted with hundreds of survivors from all sides of the battle. We see the point of view of the anarchist worker in Barcelona and the Communist militant from Madrid; the Catholic peasant who supports the fascists, and a deserter from Franco's army.
The result is a unique lesson in the twists and turns of revolutionary struggle. The memories and stories bring the history alive so successfully you can almost imagine yourself caught up in the heat of the battles. Here is a member of the left wing group the POUM, for example, conveying the pace of events when workers in Barcelona rose up to fight the fascist threat: 'Time is as different as when you've got a toothache: you don't eat, hardly sleep, you forget where you've been, what you've been doing. Days are like hours, and months like days.'
Here also are vivid examples about how revolutionary struggle overthrows reactionary ideas--about women or religion, for example. The experience of the collective action of workers and poor peasants in defence of their own interests heralded a different morality: 'The war bred a new spirit in people, it was amazing', socialist Maria Solana remembered. 'I was often sent round villages on propaganda missions with other party youth and there wouldn't be enough beds. I, the only woman, would sleep in the same bed with two or three youths and nothing would happen--absolutely nothing. There was a new sense of human relationships.'
In a country previously dominated by the backward ideas of the Catholic hierarchy, considerable gains were made for women on the Republican side: 'Abortion was legalised under controlled conditions, centres opened for women, including prostitutes and unmarried mothers, birth control information disseminated and "marriage by usage" instituted whereby cohabitation for ten months, or less if pregnancy occurred, was considered marriage.'
But Fraser's book is more than just a collection of eyewitness accounts for he weaves this first hand experience into a revolutionary analysis of events.
Fraser shows how the strategies of the various parties of the left contributed to the defeat of the working class in the struggle. The victory of Franco and the ensuing 40 years of brutal fascist rule were a tragedy which need never have happened.
The civil war was not decided by military strength alone. The Republican side was militarily weaker than the fascists. Hitler and Mussolini came to the aid of Franco with bombs, planes and guns. Stalin's Russia delayed sending arms to the Republicans. Britain and France were happy to stay neutral and see the left in Spain smashed.
A revolutionary war which built on the gains of workers' power--a political fight against the fascists--could have provided the strength to defeat them. But the leaders of the Popular Front government--essentially a collaboration of those on the left with sections of the ruling class hostile to fascism--were not interested in pursuing the gains of the working class. Instead they stifled working class struggle.
When the fascists first rose up against the government, the leadership didn't reveal news of the rising for 24 hours--losing precious time to prepare for battle. Instead of calling on workers to rise up against the fascists they called for calm and refused to distribute arms to the workers clamouring for them. Francisco Cabrera, who belonged to the Communist youth in Seville, explains: 'We weren't being armed because the Republican authorities were more frightened of the working class than of the military.'
To maintain control of the fight at the front, Communist and Socialist leaders had to stamp on working class resistance. A member of the POUM tells of how they held back the struggle: '...you could almost plot it on a graph--as the masses advanced the Socialist Party and unified youth, under Communist pressure, went backwards. Into the shelter of an exclusively Popular Front, petty bourgeois programme.'
It was a disastrous policy. Rather than strengthening the fight against fascism, such class collaboration weakened it. The resulting victory was more than just a military defeat, as Fraser explains: 'For the objective was not only to castigate the defeated but to crush for all time working class militancy and the threat of socialist revolution, so that Spanish capitalism could prosper.'
Blood of Spain is a marvellous read. The eyewitness accounts of the participants are skilfully combined with commentary to create a complete picture of the people and forces which created the revolution and its betrayal. It is a must not only for those interested in Spain but for anyone who wants to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated.
Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy
Faber and Faber £17.50
A Fourth Way? Privatisation and the Emergence of New Market Economies
Eds: Gregory Alexander and Grazyna Skapska
Russia is an important placing for Western journalists and they usually produce a saleable book when they finish their stint. The work of these correspondents has played an important role in establishing the Western view of Russia. Before glasnost, because they had no access to the top, they could only report policy changes and official press briefings. But by weaving together pointed anecdotes, information gleaned from the press and the occasional nugget handed out at the top they were able to build up valuable pictures of Russian society below.
After 1985 more access to the top was available but, as in the writings of Martin Walker, it was the explosion of information from below that took centre stage.
Now all is different. Jonathan Steele went out to Russia to report the collapse of the USSR for the Guardian. He has had unrivalled access to the top, including getting to Gorbachev straight after the defeat of the 1991 coup. His book reflects this, drawing on indiscreet interviews with past and current players in the battles at the top of the USSR. The result is a book that anyone interested in Russia will have to read and can learn a lot from.
But there is also a sense in which Steele's book is a less satisfactory one than those of his predecessors. They had no choice but to write from the bottom up. Steele has chosen to write from the top down.
But while the top is fascinating, what we really need is an analysis of the disintegration of the middle and bottom of Russian society. This is not only because the top does not operate in a vacuum but also because it is here that the future of Russia will be decided. Steele senses this but cannot deliver the analysis. Instead, as the title Eternal Russia suggests, he resorts to the old argument that Russia's future is written in its past--centuries of authoritarianism mean there is no civil society, no democratic tradition.
It is not an argument Steele feels comfortable with, but it is all he offers. It contains an element of truth. Democratic traditions are important, but they do not hang in the air. What is needed to understand Russia in 1994 is an analysis of 1994 and not of 1894 or 1794.
Steele, like many, thought that Russia was different from the West and he is still to an extent paralysed in his thinking by a recognition that it was not.
This comes out clearly in his discussion of October 1993. Steele provides a valuable discussion of Yeltsin's manipulation of the crisis but he is caught in a trap of his own making. He seems to sympathise with the old parliament who in a legalistic sense certainly had right on their side. But he cannot abandon Yeltsin as democracy's hope. Because he looks from the top down it is the fissures in the ruling class that dominate the whole issue for him and suddenly Zhirinovsky rises like a rabbit out of a hat in the final pages.
If Steele cannot deliver, academia have no less difficulties. The Fourth Way illustrates this. As Eastern Europe collapsed there was much abstract talk about a third way between Stalinism and the unregulated market, but this was rhetorically swept aside by many new leaders with the demand for 'markets without adjectives'. Steele points out that this was based on a fantasy view of 'really existing capitalism' but for a crucial period not only was the revolutionary left squeezed out of the discussion but so was social democracy.
The Fourth Way--the phrase is clutched out of the air to get an Eastern Europe audience--is an attempt to put a weak social democracy back into the discussion. The essays question the nature of privatisation west and east and provide some (occasionally) useful information, though more about Eastern Europe than Russia.
What is ironic is that a part of the left that generally believed this area to be different should now be trying to teach Eastern European reformers how to be real capitalists rather than fantasy ones.
When those at the bottom need a real alternative to the worst ravages of crisis, the disillusioned Western liberal and social democrat stands on the sidelines shouting--capitalism shouldn't be quite like this.
The Serge-Trotsky Papers: Correspondence and Other Writings between Victor Serge and Trotsky
Ed: David Cotterill
Victor Serge was one of the very few revolutionaries to survive Stalinist persecution in Russia. He survived because his fiction and above all his account of the Bolshevik triumph in 1917, Year One of the Russian Revolution, had caused a stir in France. A vigorous campaign forced the Stalinist bureaucracy to release Serge from internal exile and in early 1936 to expel him from the Soviet Union. It was not a moment too soon. Had he remained he would undoubtedly have perished, like thousands of others, in the great purges which started later that year.
However, Serge's problems were not over. In Belgium, where he first settled, and then in France, he was treated with suspicion by the authorities and the Stalinists continued to hound him in their press. His wife's mental illness made their lives a misery. Politically, there were few outlets. The majority of left leaning intellectuals rallied to Stalin as the defender of the Popular Front against fascism. Criticism of the Soviet Union from a revolutionary point of view was taboo.
There remained only Leon Trotsky as a figure of any stature, a survivor, like Serge, from the heroic days of the revolution and like him an opponent of Stalinism. But Serge and Trotsky did not join in agreement and common work, despite the fact that Serge had rallied to the Left Opposition as early as 1923 and refused to capitulate when many others did go. They fell out over what line to take towards the Spanish revolutionary party, the POUM; over the significance of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921; and over the creation of the Fourth International, a new revolutionary international organisation to replace the Stalinist one.
This book tells the story of their disagreements and reproduces the relevant documents--letters and extracts from articles, some of which are published for the first time.
Who was right? David Cotterill and his fellow writers tend to accept Serge's point of view and on the face of it Serge's case was strong. The tiny groups adhering to Trotsky and the Fourth International were marginal to the working class and seemed to spend more time feuding with one another than directing their energies outwards. Serge felt that their sectarianism made genuine revolutionary work impossible. Better to operate with other left parties with some roots in the working class. In Spain this meant working with the POUM, a Marxist party with real influence amongst workers.
Serge came to feel that the persecution suffered by the Left Opposition was contaminating it. Intolerance to other tendencies on the left was replacing fraternal debate. Stalinist dogmatism was breeding a similar dogmatism among their Trotskyist victims. An unquestioning defence of everything that happened in revolutionary Russia while Lenin and Trotsky were at the helm was becoming a new orthodoxy to rival the Stalinist orthodoxy. Not even Trotsky, for whom Serge continued to profess the greatest admiration, was, he felt, exempt from this tendency.
Serge appears open minded and Trotsky impervious to debate in this reading of their differences. It is easy to find evidence to back this up. There is, for instance, Trotsky's furious personal attack over the misleading summary inserted in front of Serge's translation of Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours.
But Serge's case is overall a weak one. It is clear that Serge concentrates on matters such as Trotsky's style of argument and failure to acknowledge errors of fact, to avoid facing up to Trotsky's searching political questions. Trotsky argued that the POUM's policy of entering the Spanish Popular Front was disastrous and that its failure would ruin the Spanish Revolution's chances of victory.
And so it proved. Serge preferred being 'unsectarian' but politically evasive towards the leaders of the POUM instead of reinforcing Trotsky's unsparing analysis. The result could only be, for someone so closely connected with Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition, to sow confusion.
The same is true of Kronstadt. Either the suppression of the mutiny was necessary to avoid counter-revolution or it was not. Again Serge was evasive: to read his comments is to see him trying to have the best of both worlds.
No wonder Trotsky was so exasperated. Even Serge's assessment of the Fourth International was unsatisfactory. He could have used his immense talents and his experience to work to overcome its sectarianism. Instead he frittered them on keeping in with centrist forces, which, though larger and more working class, stood the test of struggle less well than the Fourth International.
The book's value is that it gives us more of Serge's writings. Yet its implicit claim, that Serge's criticism of Trotsky has real weight, is unsustainable.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Lenin once said, 'The proletariat is the class which is engaged in the production of material values in large scale capitalist industry. Since large scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared.'
This was in 1921 and was a good rough approximation for Russia at that time and a necessary one, but it was never true for capitalism generally; not in the past, not now, not ever.
The proletariat in Marx's sense, those who lack property in the means of production and are compelled to sell their labour power in order to live, have always included very substantial numbers who never worked in a factory.
This book, subtitled 'Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo American Maritime World, 1700-1750' is about a very important section of them. Their labour, and the surplus value extracted from it, made a large contribution to that 'primitive accumulation' which made first British and then world capitalism possible. The book is limited both in time and in space, no doubt because it originated as a doctoral thesis. It is none the less valuable, provided that it is remembered that it covers a limited area. It does not discuss the immensely important traffic with Asia and South America, for example, and treats lightly the then very important Dutch, French and other mercantile operations and the repeated wars for profit between the mercantile powers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
But, given its limits, the book is full of meat. The hellish conditions under which seamen worked, the brutal rule of captains and officers, the lousy and often scanty food, scurvy, dysentery, the poverty wages, often deducted and even withheld on various pretexts, is all graphically described. So too are the terrors of the sea in an epoch before steam, when wind and weather could and often did sink perhaps one vessel in five. 'The seaman's dilemma went beyond the seemingly boundless forces of nature he confronted. The tar was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one side stood his captain, who was backed by the merchant and royal official, and who held near dictatorial powers that served a capitalist system rapidly covering the globe; on the other side stood the relentlessly dangerous natural world.'
Of course the seamen fought back. That is a main theme of this book.
But two points of criticism are necessary. First, the contrast between the merchant service and the allegedly superior conditions in the regular naval service. It is a well known fact that the British navy, in this period and for long after, was recruited in large part by the press gang, that is, by kidnapping, and that most famous of British admirals, Nelson, remarked that naval discipline was maintained 'by rum, sodomy and the lash'.
Second, the alleged 'freedom' of seamen on private vessels seems a little overdone. Under such captains as L'Onnais and Teach ('Blackbeard') even Captain Bligh might seem a better bet. And a good proportion of pirates ended up on the gallows.
Still, this is an interesting and informative piece of work and well worth reading.
The Sorrow of War
Secker and Warburg £8.99
But not one of those films, nor anything else I have come across, is a patch on this novel. Here, finally, is an account of the war from the North Vietnamese point of view. The author, a war veteran, also happens to be an exceptional writer.
The novel is based on Kien, a struggling writer who is haunted by his war experiences. He remembers the fields piled high with bodies. He relives the napalm attacks. He sees pictures of comrades dying terrible deaths.
These scenes could not possibly have been invented. They must have been witnessed.
Kien is also trying to make sense of life and love. He remembers the innocence and idealism of his youth and how both were destroyed by the war. He recalls the purity and passion of his love for his childhood sweetheart, and how they too were destroyed by the war. These memories offer lyrical and moving passages which break up his brutal account of the war. The Sorrow of War is far from being propaganda for the North Vietnamese system. Kien's father, a painter, is destroyed by the 'socialist' pronouncements on his art. He rants wildly at his son: 'Define clearly the social class for mountains and rivers and all landscapes. That's what they're demanding now!'
Kien's sweetheart is gang raped by North Vietnamese soldiers on their way to the battlefront. She is their property. They have been dehumanised.
But all is not bleak. Amidst the cruelty and barbarism are acts of kindness and comradeship. A terrified young city woman, inappropriately appointed as guide to a battalion, sacrifices herself to rape and death to save her friends.
This novel somehow captures in just 200 pages the enormous scale of destruction suffered by Vietnam during the 12 years of America's onslaught. Every character has lost a son, or two, or three. Every family has been devastated.
Ninh shows us what it was like for those who faced the anger of American imperialism. 'Dying and surviving were separated by a thin line; they were killed one at a time, or all together; they were killed instantly, or were wounded and bled to death in agony; they could live but suffer nightmares of white blasts which destroyed their souls and stripped their personalities bare.'
Ninh should know. Of the 500 people who went to war with his brigade in 1969, only ten survived.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Harper Collins £8.99
Science fiction novels generally fall into one of two categories: 'hard' and 'soft'. The first category is generally concerned to explore what is scientifically possible. It is technology oriented, features macho characters and attracts right wing writers.
The second category is more concerned with exploring personal relationships and social orders. Science is of interest only insofar as it can serve as metaphor. This category attracts the more liberal, feminist and left wing writers.
Now with Red Mars we have a widely acclaimed science fiction novel that attempts both to remain true to the direction of scientific knowledge and to explore the nature of the social and political order.
Even more noteworthy, its author, the American writer Kim Stanley Robinson, has claimed that part of his intention in writing Red Mars had been to rescue 'the socialist baby from being thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater' in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. How successful is he?
Red Mars is volume one of a projected trilogy. It tells of the first settlement on Mars, of the first stages of the terraforming process that is to make the planet habitable, of the increasingly ruthless exploitation of the planet's resources by the great Earth Multinationals and of the eventual revolution of 2062 that this provokes. The revolution ends in defeat with the surviving revolutionaries driven underground.
In a whole number of ways, the novel is superb. Robinson's Mars is marvellously realised: the sheer scale and grandeur of the new planet captures the imagination. His exploration of the politics of the settlement, of the various factions that form among the colonists, is also a success. There are those who only reluctantly come to embrace the cause of independence, who take up a position clearly modelled on that of the American colonies in the 1770s. They want an independent Mars, but one going down the same road as the Earth. More radical factions, however, want not just independence but a new social order, one where profit does not rule.
The radicals consist of two main factions: the reds led by Arkady Bogdanov and the greens led by Hiroko Ai. They both share a libertarian socialist perspective.
Less successful is Robinson's handling of personal relations. He never really manages to rise above the level of a rather melodramatic soap opera.
Nevertheless Red Mars is essential reading for anyone who enjoys science fiction. It is another demonstration that socialist ideas were not extinguished with the collapse of Stalinism and that the struggle goes on.
The Language of the Genes
Genetics and evolution have always been controversial subjects. Recent advances in our understanding of how genes work have opened up new arguments.
For anyone interested in these debates Steve Jones's book will provide a lot of useful background material. Although some of the early chapters may be a bit tough going for those with no scientific knowledge of the subject, it is worth persevering.
Jones takes the reader through the ground rules of genetics, on to the latest developments in genetic engineering.
It is here that the book is at its best, covering a wide range of subjects in a readable and informative way. If the aim of the book was to encourage more people to understand and take an interest in the subject, Jones has succeeded. However, the treatment of some of the more controversial debates is a little disappointing.
The development for which the greatest scientific claims are being made, and the greatest sums of money pumped into, is the Human Genome Project. Scientists are sifting through the 3,000 million bases of human DNA (genetic material) to make a 'map' of what each one does. The race is on to patent genes for inherited diseases. Many of the advocates of the project have shares in biotechnology companies.
In return, there is the promise of cures for all genetic diseases. So far the results have been unimpressive. Most medical advance is made by studying the disease itself, and the effects of both biology and environment on it. These are precisely the projects--such as cancer and Aids research--that are having their funds cut.
Jones falls into trap that he himself warns against--occasionally espousing the virtues of genetics and underemphasising other effects, such as in his treatment of genetic influence on social behaviour. Although he is clearly opposed to the idea that behaviour is genetically determined, the environmental aspect tends to be treated in a rather offhand manner.
Perhaps these defects are understandable in a book that is, after all, about genetics first and foremost. For those with a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, it's a very good read.
The Hite Report on the Family: Growing Up Under Patriarchy
'What we are witnessing now--and participating in--is a revolution in the family. The way we live our lives, with whom and how, is being questioned and debated in a ground breaking and important revolution.' So says Shere Hite in her new report on the family.
The Hite report is based on over 3,000 completed essay questionnaires received from men and women, boys and girls from different countries, over a period of 15 years. The result is often fascinating reading--we learn what mothers tell girls about menstruation and sex, how boys' roles are defined within the family, and the role of violence--including incest and rape.
However, underlying all this is a running commentary which tries to place these revelations into a context of 'patriarchy'. Hite believes the family started with 'patriarchy' several thousand years ago and has changed little since.
But the family plays a crucial role within capitalism--a radical change from the role the family played under feudalism, for instance.
The beneficiaries of the family aren't 'all men' but the bosses. The reality behind the family is hidden, like most exploitation, by the fact that the family is seen by most people as a 'haven in a heartless world'. The role model family is what we are supposed to aspire to. In fact the pressures of life make sure these aspirations cannot be fulfilled.
But the Hite report does point out the complexity of family life which is changing. There are more single parents--nearly half of all kids are now born 'out of wedlock'.
How do we respond to these changes? Hite has no problem--she 'salutes the gentler and more diverse family system that seems to be arising'. But violence within the family is still there. The availability of divorce doesn't make it any easier to get out of a bad relationship when you haven't got the money to escape.
And this is the problem. Unless we fight--working class men and women together--to end the system which benefits from the family and women's oppression, there will be no respite to the horrors Hite describes.