Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review


Don't rubbish the left

The article on the Labour left (June SR)--makes the same mistake as you describe the Labour left making.

'It is obvious', you say, 'where the Labour left's priorities lie: in parliament'. Yet you deduce this solely on the basis of left MPs, and ignore the activist rank and file.

Three hundred and fifty of the latter met recently at the Socialist Campaign Group Network conference, and called for a left candidate in the leadership election as well as commitments to scrap VAT on fuel, increase higher rate income tax, extend trade union rights, close Campsfield and to repeal the Asylum Act, Criminal Justice Bill and Child Support Act.

Of course the Labour left is weaker than it was. But that's no reason for you to rubbish us at a time when all the left should be making common cause against Major, Blair and all the other Tories.
John Nicholson

Not a question of guilt

I was very moved by Michael Ross's article (July/Aug SR) about the racism in capital punishment in the US. Yet I think that John Rees's reply missed some very important points. Rees pointed out that every execution the US state gets away with strengthens their hand, and people who are innocent may end up being punished. An important argument, but not the only one.

It is surely not right to take the life of another human being. If a person is a danger to others they should be kept apart from society in some way--although I strongly believe that prison is not the right way.

If someone killed my child, should I have the right to kill them? Neither should the state have the right to kill someone, even if they have killed. But it is not just a question of 'two wrongs don't make a right'.

Two hundred thousand Iraqis died so American oil companies could keep their hands on Kuwaiti oil.

It is not the inmates on death row who are responsible for these crimes. The people responsible for the killing are the ones making the decision to send people to the chair.

Capital punishment is not a question of whether the accused actually committed the crime or not. It is a question of pointing the finger at the real criminals. Capital punishment is a crime. It is the bosses, politicians and judges who deserve the chair, not Michael Ross.
Susie Helme
North London

Life on the ocean wave

I write to take issue with your review of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Marcus Rediker.

In the early 18th century there were some 5,000 active pirates in the North Atlantic, at the peak of their effectiveness, organised into several federations for mutual support. Bourgeois history has always painted them as utterly cruel and depraved outlaws, but I believe that Marxists should see them as an extreme form of the rebellion of alienated naval labour.

To have up to 5,000 armed proletarians completely free of ruling class control was enough to scare the authorities out of their minds, especially as the pirates could rely on at least the passive sympathy of a large number of those still in the merchant navy. The cruel reputation that the most famous pirates had is based on their treatment of captured merchant captains and their rich passengers.

I am not saying that a pirate ship was a haven of delight, but the arrogance of a captain must have been constrained by the ease of their potential removal if they overstepped the mark. Our rulers call cruel those who treat them as they normally treat us.

Your remark about rum, sodomy and the lash is, I believe, more properly attributed to Winston Churchill. The incidence of cruel and inhuman punishment in the merchant service was just as prevalent as in the royal navy and, as for rum and sodomy, some people find these to be their greatest pleasures.
Steve Cushion

History's rich cocktail

Sabby Sagall's article 'Bursting the Chains' (July/August SR) obscured vital differences between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions.

Long term economic growth certainly underlay the English, American and French revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. It meant that in each case the bourgeoisie had acquired great wealth in the decades before the crisis, and, with it, the social weight, political confidence and ideological influence necessary to make a revolution.

Workers' revolution is quite different. The power of workers comes not from the ownership of wealth but from the fact that workers are its producers. It is certainly true, as Sabby points out, that Russia experienced huge economic development in the decades before the revolution.

However, this is influence of a different kind from that necessary in bourgeois revolutions. Moreover, once industrial capitalism has developed and created a working class, there is no inevitability about a period of economic growth preceding a period of revolution. In fact, there are numerous contrary examples in 20th century history.

The mid-1930s saw an explosion of workers' struggle across the Western world, with the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37 as the high point. This had nothing to do with any long term economic growth.

This is not to say that economic growth, rising living standards and the expectation of further improvement do not sometimes lead to radicalisation when the system cannot deliver on its promises.

But let's not imagine that the workers' revolutions of the future will be like the bourgeois revolutions of the past, and that there is some mechanical relationship between economic growth and revolt from below. History, thankfully, is a much richer cocktail.
Neil Faulkner

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