Issue 177 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

BOOKS

Unlocking the prison house

The resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or nationalism?
Ahmed Rashid
Zed £14.99

The resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or nationalism?

This fascinating book stands in stark contrast to virtually anything else you are likely to read about the southern belt of the former USSR. Writers from the left, like Eric Hobsbawm and Boris Kagarlitsky, as well as the new breed of Russian nationalists, have portrayed the region as irredeemably backward. Its peoples were apparently only raised out of barbarism by the Russian presence, which supposedly encouraged national rights and provided the region with material benefits. Any nationalism today is presented as a result of manipulation by corrupt 'clan' leaders put in place during the Brezhnev years. And the revival of Islam is the ultimate evil that has to be combatted.

The real picture is very different, as Rashid shows. Cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Merv were centres of civilisation, with some of the world's most advanced literature and science, centuries before Moscow was founded. They declined from the 16th century onwards, as the great trade routes through central Asia lost their old importance. But the region was far from 'backward' until its conquest by Tsarist Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The conquest brought wars which decimated the population, and Russian settlers who treated the local peoples as racial inferiors. It was followed by a pillaging of resources, with the local population forced to pay enormous compensation for the 'crime' of resisting Russian rule, and the destruction of local agriculture in the interests of producing raw materials, especially cotton, for Russian industry. By 1916 conditions were such as to produce a string of uprisings against Russian rule through the region, under the flags of both pan-Turkish nationalism and Islam.

Stalinism continued what Tsarism had begun. Cotton production spread relentlessly at the expense of foodstuffs to feed local people. 'Collectivisation' was used to break any resistance from peasants. Huge gulags were built to hold those who protested. And no attention was paid to what pollution, salinisation and depletion of water resources were doing to the land fertility and health.

When the truth came out in the late 1980s, it revealed that 15 to 25 percent of people were unemployed throughout the region, that wages in the cotton fields were a quarter of the USSR average, that most hospitals did not have running water and that infant mortality rates were as high as 10 percent.

But it was not only in its material exploitation that Stalinism copied Western imperialism. It did so too in the political structures it imposed, designed to cut the colonised peoples off from any knowledge of their own history or culture.

So Stalin replaced the Arabic alphabet, in which all previous literature had been written, first with the Roman alphabet and then, in 1940, with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. He executed virtually the whole of the local intelligentsia, including the active Communists, during the great purge of the mid-1930s. He put Russian bureaucrats from Moscow in all the key positions of power. And he divided the region into different republics, with borders designed to divide and rule.

Brezhnev continued with the essentials of Stalin's policy, but amended it slightly so as to get a layer of local figures to identify with Russian rule. Individuals, usually descended from the pre-Russian ruling classes, were brought in to front the local party and state machine.

A whole superstructure of oppression, corruption and nepotism grew up on the base of state capitalist exploitation. In the background the Soviet armed forces remained available to crush dissent, as with the bloody reprisals against the demonstrations in Kazakhstan in 1986.

The political structures in each republic were rigid enough to survive, virtually unchanged, as the rest of the USSR was swept by protests and demonstrations during the glasnost years of the late 1980s.

But beneath the surface the discontent bottled up under Tsarism and Stalinism was beginning to find outlets. The whole region was the frontline in the USSR's war in Afghanistan. As that war went wrong, the region's peoples were increasingly influenced by those speaking similar languages across the border. For the first time since the early 1920s people had the chance to learn about their own history and to explore the political and religious ideas of their forebears.

The process has been full of contradictions--sometimes bloody ones. The old traditions in Central Asia mean Islamic traditions, and so groups influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Wahabism and the Iranian republic have all been able to grow. But Islam, like Christianity or Hinduism, is as easy for the rulers to adopt as the oppressed.

The Islamic revival has not produced a unified movement against the old rulers. Nor has the growth of nationalist ideas. Again the rulers have been quick to don the nationalist garb, and, as with religious ideas, the nationalism divides as well as unites, turning the different ethnic groups within each republic against each other.

Above all, neither the religious revival nor the nationalism offers an answer to deepening economic crisis, an answer which depends on the workers and collective farmers learning to fight a class battle against both the Russian and local wings of the ruling class.

How the two wings can fight together to smash an uprising of the oppressed has been shown bitterly in Tadjikstan. The democratic and Islamic opposition groups rose together against a government which had remained virtually unchanged from Brezhnev's days. What began as peaceful, carnival like demonstrations ended up in bitter gun battles.

The old regime survived by arming those clans to whom it had traditionally provided patronage and then calling on Russian and Uzbeki troops to 'restore order'. About 50,000 people were killed.

Rashid tells the story of the awakening of nationalism and Islam in this region brilliantly. His book does have a few faults. It equates Leninism and Stalinism, and so sees the genuine mistakes of revolutionaries in the years 1917-21 as being of the same order as the systematic crimes that came later. It shares the fashionable view that privatisation and the market can solve the crisis of state capitalism. Its early chapters stress the peaceful character of change in the region with the collapse of the USSR, while its later chapters bring out how chaotic and bloody the future can be. But none of this should stop anyone interested in the future of much of Asia from buying, reading and learning from the book.
Chris Harman


Path of revolution

Rosa Luxemburg
Paul Frölich
Bookmarks £9.95

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg was an active revolutionary socialist during the end of the 19th century and up to her death in 1919. Paul Frölich's biography covers Rosa Luxemburg's political life from school in Poland fighting against the anti-Semitism in the school system to the time when she was murdered at the hands of the counter-revolution in Germany in 1919.

But it is not just a life story. It covers the ideas and events which took place in her lifetime. They are brought to life in a way which is fascinating and easy to get to grips with. Paul Frölich includes all Rosa Luxemburg's political ideas and criticisms of the politics of that period but in a way which relates to the day to day struggles in her life. Because she was always active in the class struggle, this book gives us an insight into the excitement and turmoil, and also the frustration, of being a revolutionary during that period.

Many of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas and political positions are still extremely relevant today. Many which were either opposed or ignored during her lifetime have been proved correct with events which have taken place since. The arguments and ideas which Frölich covers are therefore invaluable for socialists today.

Rosa Luxemburg delivered her first attack against reformism in the 1890s. It was a time when many on the left felt that capitalism was becoming tame and reasonable, and so for the first time reformism developed as a theoretical concept inside the Marxist working class movement.

She summed up her ideas brilliantly when she said, 'Whoever opts for the path of legal reform, in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power, actually chooses not a calmer and slower road to the same aim, but a different aim altogether.'

Probably one of Rosa Luxemburg's greatest contributions is her pamphlet on the 1905 revolution in Russia, The Mass Strike. At that time a general mass strike was unimaginable and was generally opposed by the majority of socialists.

It was not until after her death that the importance of this pamphlet was generally accepted. Rosa stressed the importance of the mass strike in the revolutionary process. Not just an outward political challenge, but an economic challenge was needed to strike at the heart of the capitalist system. Frölich shows, through looking at the opposition Rosa had to meet around these ideas, how she reached her conclusions. This pamphlet revealed how she formed her opinions on the forms and methods of action and how she succeeded in solving problems at a time when the most basic conditions for their solutions barely existed.

In her pamphlet on the mass strike, but also on many later occasions, Rosa Luxemburg emphasised that revolutionary movements did not come about as a result of a decision made by party officials, but broke out spontaneously and under certain historical conditions. She also pointed to the importance of a conscious leadership to lead such movements in the right direction.

Unfortunately, although Rosa Luxemburg always argued that an organisation was important, she never really thought through what sort of organisation was, and is, needed. This was one of her major weaknesses and she did not change her mind until very late on in her life.

From the first moment that Rosa Luxemburg arrived in Germany, until the formation of the German Communist Party, she was a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Although the SPD initially claimed to be a revolutionary party, ultimately even some of the best socialists within it moved towards reformist politics.

Because Rosa Luxemburg spent most of her life in the SPD, Frölich's book charts the progress of the SPD during this period. He shows how the SPD moved steadily rightwards with the majority of the party ultimately supporting the First World War and German imperialism.

The revolution in Germany 1918-19 was the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of the SPD and reformist politics. From the beginning they were conscious opponents of the revolution. Although Rosa Luxemburg did finally break from the SPD at the outbreak of the revolution to form the German Communist Party, it was far too late. It meant that there was not a revolutionary party rooted in the working class. The majority of those looking for revolutionary ideas still looked to the SPD who in the end sold out the revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg had many other arguments during this period--on imperialism and war, her theory of the accumulation of capital and her criticisms of the Bolsheviks and Lenin's conception of the party. All of these are explored in Frölich's book in an accessible way which is related to the day to day struggle.

There's no doubt that Rosa Luxemburg came to some wrong conclusions in her arguments, and ultimately she herself suffered through her political isolation in the SPD. However, she has a special place in history and stands in the tradition of revolutionary socialism. Paul Frölich's book is an excellent start to exploring that tradition.
Sharon Geoghegan


Rapping good yarn

Cop Killer
Don Gorgon
X Press Books £4.99

Cop Killer

The black Hackney based publishing company X Press has enjoyed a meteoric rise since the publication of its first novel, the controversial Yardie by Victor Headley in 1992. Yardie, a tale of Jamaican drug running gangs in inner city London, has sold over 12,000 copies and helped explode the myth that working class blacks are either illiterate or disinterested in reading.

X Press attempts to provide accessible black fiction and this is reflected in its promotional techniques. By contrast with the wine and cheese parties which accompany 'high brow' book launches, X Press advertises its books by flyposting target areas such as Brixton and Stoke Newington and the books are often sold directly outside clubs.

The success of Yardie has enabled X Press to provide a launching pad for other black writers 'who didn't know they had a novel inside them'. Four of its most recent publications are Excess, Headley's sequel to Yardie, Peter Kalu's Lick Shot, Don Gorgon's Cop Killer and Baby Father by Patrick Augustus.

The best of the quartet by far is Gorgon's Cop Killer, a book no doubt partly inspired by Ice T's controversial rap song of the same name. Like its musical equivalent, Cop Killer is a tale of fury and revenge against the victimisation, incarceration and violence that blacks suffer at the hands of police.

The plot may not be entirely convincing, but we can certainly empathise with Lloyd, the hero of the book. The police murder of his mother calls to mind the shootings of Cynthia Jarrett and Cherry Groce, but also acts as a wider comment on the contempt with which black people are treated. The shooting of an innocent black mother is covered up, whilst a £100,000 reward is offered for the capture of the cop killer.

The book also provides some perceptive insights into the reality of life in Britain for most blacks. At one point Lloyd and his brother discuss the meaning of the term 'black British'. They discuss warmly how many black people seek to identify with their roots, speaking patois and wearing red, gold and green.

However, the conclusion is that there is no going back--'it would be like going to another world'. This then raises the question of how we deal with our oppression. Gorgon offers us a choice between organising campaigns, the preferred option of Lloyd's brother, or Lloyd's personal mission for revenge. The book's subtitle 'There ain't no justice--just me' shows where the author stands.

None of the other books compare with Cop Killer, despite the fact that they deal with matters such as the threat of Nazism and single parenthood which are central to the lives of many black people in Britain.

However, these issues are tackled from the standpoint of affluent blacks, a sharp suited black detective, successful 'baby fathers' and Jamaican drug barons--figures who are hardly representative of the majority of blacks. It would be depressing to think that these were the only avenues open to black people.

The great merit of these books is that they do attempt to root themselves in the squalid racist society which denies a decent life chance to millions of people. The new encouragement of black authors which X Press has kickstarted should be welcomed and hopefully the united black and white struggles which we build can provide them with fitting themes and subject matter.
Brian Richardson


Do's and dont's

The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of the Movement for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990
Radha Kumar
Verso £12.95

The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of the Movement for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990

Radha Kumar's interesting book on the history of feminism in India shows how fundamental political arguments--the nature of the system we live in, reform versus revolution, class versus sex--cover the globe.

And it inadvertently shows how the movement for women's liberation is tied to the mass movements of all the oppressed.

She divides her book between movements for reform of the position of women during the period of the empire, and the period after India's independence. The first reformers were solidly middle class, often male, and sought legal reform. But Kumar shows how, as mass struggles against the British--and against Indian landlords and employers--developed, they often raised the question of women's oppression.

Thousands of women were active in the strikes and demonstrations of the sharecroppers' movement in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, in the late 1940s for example. Around 2,500 villages were 'liberated', sharecroppers' debts were cancelled, rent payments suspended and land was redistributed. Within the fight, questions like wife beating were raised and fought against. Women joined the guerilla armies.

Similarly she shows how battles against a number of issues, from price rises to environmental destruction, have involved thousands of poor and working class women.

But rather than being seen as acting as members of a class, their battles are always placed in the context of the need to build a broader, stronger alliance of women.

Yet as the 1970s and 1980s saw the birth of a whole number of women's organisations in India, the divisions between women became clear.

To hear the descriptions of the first all India feminist conference can only remind you of reports of the first similar event in this country--the participants' relief and joy that it had happened combined with a realisation of the massive differences, social and political, that existed between them.

Kumar describes the shock of facing a fundamentalist Hindu demonstration--with many women on it--in favour of sati (the burning of widows). It should be no surprise--the fascist Shiv Sena in Bombay has its own women's wing whose primary activity is to put out anti-Muslim propaganda.

What makes the book more intriguing is the way it is broken up with copies of leaflets, reprints of posters, boxes with the life histories of some of the women involved and lots of pictures of activities.

Just to see the women workers from Bhopal demonstrate, in saris, with their fists in the air following the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in 1984 tells a story in itself.

They are inspiring glimpses of what the liberating power of mass activity means.
Sam Ashman


Tales from the front line

War in Eastern Europe: Travels through the Balkans in 1915
John Reed
Phoenix £9.99

War in Eastern Europe: Travels through the Balkans in 1915

John Reed's account of his travels through the countries of Eastern Europe in the midst of the First World War in 1915 makes fascinating reading--especially given the armed conflict in Bosnia.

Reed writes starkly about the horror of illness and death from typhus in the Serbian hospitals, and of the devastation in the towns and villages of Serbia. His travels take him to a Jewish ghetto in Russia (Galicia) where he describes the poverty and oppression suffered.

He visits Istanbul where he is taken to wine and dine amongst the wealthy of many countries whilst the local Turkish people are starving and not many miles away their compatriots are dying in the trenches of Gallipoli.

As John Reed himself said, '...Robinson and I have simply tried to give our impressions of human beings as we found them in the countries of Eastern Europe, from April to October, 1915.' That is both the strength and unfortunately the weakness of this book.

It gives a valuable insight into the lives of Eastern Europeans during the war. It describes in great detail the complexity surrounding the history of the vast variety of different ethnic peoples and of their intermingling. He describes the different nationalist aspirations of these peoples.

However, it falls short of drawing the obvious conclusion that there can be no nationalist solution, though in 1915 there was little evidence of what that solution might be.

We get glimpses of John Reed's class consciousness and sympathy for a people 'ripe for revolution' in Romania. Glimmerings of that solution appear in descriptions of the defeated and demoralised Russian soldiers and of attempts to organise opposition to the war in the army.

There is a revealing conversation with a Russian officer behind the Russian retreat in the Galician steppes. '"So the peasants think that by beating the Germans they will get rid of poverty and oppression?"... Robinson and I both had the same thought: if the peasants were going to beat any one why didn't they begin at home? Afterward we discovered that they were beginning at home.'

Two years later in 1917 that Russian officer would be very surprised and John Reed was able to experience at first hand the success of a workers' revolution which he describes in Ten Days that Shook the World.
Jackie Sprague


Flaws in the grand plan

Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play
Ben Watson
Quartet £25

Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play

Frank Zappa was one of the most creative and original artists to emerge from the rock explosion on the West Coast of America in the 1960s.

Unlike most of his contemporaries Zappa continued to produce interesting and ambitious work transcending the barriers between rock, jazz and classical music until his tragically early death at the end of last year.

He went far beyond the blues and Hendrix influences of his contemporaries, his music being heavily affected by avant-garde classical composers such as Varese and Stravinsky, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and the doo-wop sounds of West Coast rhythm and blues. His records and stage performances with his band the Mothers were a heady and chaotic kaleidoscope of all these styles topped off with Zappa's sardonic humour.

Biting send-ups of middle American values and hilarious satires on the idiocies of flower power were a key part of the Mothers' repertoire. Satire remained a central part of Zappa's work into the 1990s. Targets included born-again Christianity, the new right, US militarism and the yuppies.

Zappa fought a running battle with giant record companies such as Warner Brothers on whom he was forced to depend to retain a relationship with a mass audience. He was an active opponent of censorship.

However Zappa's politics had their dubious side. Many of his songs bordered on the sexist and homophobic. As a small employer of musicians and road crews, he was openly hostile to trade unions.

Ben Watson's book is an ambitious and complex analysis of Zappa's work and career. Watson attempts a Marxist analysis of his music citing cultural theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin in his support. Watson believes that although Zappa's explicit political attitudes are typical of the liberal middle class, sandwiched between the big capitalists and the workers, his work was inherently anti-capitalist. He argues that Zappa's work was 'anti-ideological' using shock, satire and the juxtaposition of contrasting musical styles to overcome the artificial divisions in bourgeois culture and undermine the values of capitalist America.

Zappa's critics argue that he was finished by the early 1970s, along with the hippy counter-culture with which they wrongly identified him.

Watson rejects this, arguing that the anti-ideological thread in Zappa's music continued unbroken until his death. He argues that even the apparently reactionary message of songs such as the homophobic 'Bobby Brown' are only reflecting values held by many in contemporary US society and not Zappa's own views. Watson himself admits that this could sound like the typical special pleading of a self-centred pop musician ducking the effect of his actions on a mass audience. Shades of Morrissey's flirtation with fascism.

Watson's attempt to apply Marxist theory to a major figure in popular culture certainly made me go back and listen to Zappa's music with new ears. Watson has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Zappa's music and influences, but I feel that he is insufficiently critical of Zappa's work and the attitudes which lie behind it.

Zappa's vast output includes a fair amount of dross as well as many brilliant moments. While agreeing with Watson that good or bad art cannot be judged by its proximity to the party line, for my money Watson goes too far in his efforts to claim Zappa for our side. He is too ready to see his musical and political faults as all part of the master's grand plan.

In spite of this, however, anyone interested in Zappa's music will find this a fascinating, if demanding book, one that does full justice to the range of Zappa's work, putting it in its social and cultural context.
Tony Phillips


Expect the unexpected

No Night is Too Long
Barbara Vine
Viking £15

No Night is Too Long

That Ruth Rendell can write a string of the most readable and original detective books and then, under the name of Barbara Vine, take you a world away from the domestic lives and local murders of Inspector Wexford, shows how easy and mistaken it is to pigeonhole writers.

For those only familiar with the Wexford tales, opening up one of the Barbara Vine novels can be a shocking experience. The worlds she describes are not in themselves out of the ordinary--bedsit land or students at college. But the actions, motives and imaginations of her characters shock all the more effectively for their everyday appearances.

Her latest novel is no exception. A young man in a small seaside town on the coast of Suffolk tells the story through his account of the previous two years. He is haunted by a murder--a murder he has committed. Two years on, someone else may have discovered his guilt. He receives sporadic letters, newspaper cuttings and stories, all with the same Robinson Crusoe desert island theme, all anonymous.

He writes to, in some way, banish the nightmarish memories of a cruise and an island the letters connect him to. The plot unfolds both through the description of past events and their effect on the present.

This is a story of repressed and confused sexuality. The writer had only slept with two women by the time he was 20 and felt he was odd. When his student girlfriend comments in passing that he talks about things like fashion, decor and hairstyles the way gay men do, he is horrified.

Yet he is soon to become obsessed and involved with a man. He initially glimpses him through the open doorway of a flat in the house where his tutorials in creative writing are held. We see how his new found passion is both a thrill and a torment as his relationship with this man is revealed through the pages of his diary.

The exploration of sexuality is not new for Rendell and some may be unhappy at how she portrays this individual's feelings towards men and women. But Rendell is never a writer who sets out to satisfy preconceptions or expectations.

Like other Barbara Vine novels this is a disturbing book that leaves the reader distinctly unsettled. It is not simply about good versus evil in some abstract sense nor is it a straight 'crime' story. Instead it portrays a view of society and its pressures and how individuals cope in a harsh and contradictory world.

Few books have you turning the pages with your breath held in anticipation and suspense or gasping audibly as you read. This is one of them. A great holiday read, unless, that is, you plan to go on a cruise around Alaska...
Judith Orr


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page