Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Part of the union

Strike Back
Ernie Roberts
£5.95 (available from Bookmarks)

Strike Back

The recent death of Ernie Roberts at the age of 82 will have saddened many readers of Socialist Review. Over a continuous span of 60 years Ernie was directly involved in most of the campaigns of the left in Britain.

Astonishingly his first political involvement was during the election campaign of 1924 after the first minority Labour government had been bundled out of office by Tory and Liberal alliances. Blacklisted and repeatedly victimised as a young engineering worker, he became Coventry's youngest ever AEU district president in 1944, a Labour councillor a few years later, and assistant general secretary of the AEU in 1957.

At the age of 67 he became Labour MP for Hackney North until 1987 when he was discreditably deselected in favour of Diane Abbott. Co-founder of the Anti Nazi League, he played a central part in encouraging significant numbers of the parliamentary Labour Party and many trade union leaders to sponsor the ANL. One of his last speeches in public was at the ANL conference this summer.

When in parliament in 1982, he moved the writ for the by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone after the death of the sitting MP Bobby Sands while on hunger strike. He was actively associated with many other issues including Ireland, unemployment (both in the Unemployed Workers' Movement in the 1930s and the Right to Work Campaign in the 1970s), CND, Vietnam and the Institute for Workers' Control.

Fortunately an account of this very active life was completed by Ernie a few weeks before he died. What emerges is that Ernie was shaped by the intensely political character of the engineering union during much of his life. By far the most democratic union in Britain at the time, all full time officials from national president to district secretary were subject to regular election. This democracy within the AEU rested on its strong shop stewards' organisation established during the First World War, and which received a further impetus during the Second World War and the long economic boom that followed it.

In conditions of near full employment and expanding world and domestic markets the bargaining power of a shop steward was immense. Typically a strike only lasted one or two days, and it was an unwritten rule among AEU members to get a settlement before the national officials could step in and negotiate a less favourable deal. One of Ernie's proudest achievements was the Coventry Toolroom Agreement which was made on this basis during the war, lasted for 30 years and became the benchmark for skilled engineering rates across the country. When I lived in Wolverhampton in the early 1970s, the self confidence of engineering workers was obvious. Over 350 shop stewards from every major engineering factory in the area would attend the shop stewards' quarterly meeting and you had a real sense of a militant and confident rank and file movement.

But the contrast with the right wing national leadership of the AEU could not be greater. The long serving president was William Carron (later knighted), backed by Catholic Action and other right wing organisations. Those on the left in the union, Ernie Roberts amongst them, were systematically harassed and witchhunted by Carron's followers. Those today in similar unions should take heart from the fact that right wing control was at least partially broken by the election of Hugh Scanlon as AEU president in 1967. However, as events were to prove, the do-it-yourself reformism of the shop stewards, which had been outstandingly successful during the long economic boom, proved no match for the employers when circumstances seemed less favourable, unemployment started to rise, and the employers switched tactics. A more political approach was required. The failure of trade union activists and the rest of the labour movement to adopt such a political approach opened the way for 'Thatcherism' in the 1980s.

The reasons for the inadequacy of the response from our side are many. Part of the answer lies in the fact it was the left winger Hugh Scanlon (now a life peer in the House of Lords) who was, along with Jack Jones, the architect of the Social Contract. There was also the compromising attitude of the Communist Party who while commanding a real following among militants refused to provide a focus of opposition for those who were becoming increasingly alienated and disillusioned by the Labour government.

Although Ernie's book Strike Back does not deal with such questions, it does convey a real sense of the struggle and concerns of the labour movement as experienced by an active participant. This insider's view makes the book both interesting and valuable.
Paul Holborow

Chinks in the armour

The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism
Ralph Darlington
Mansell £18.99

The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism

In the world of conventional industrial relations, you would need to go a long way to come across a totally convincing account of what really happened to the unions in Britain during the Thatcher years.

At the time most experts in the field tended to bend with the wind to one degree or other, the response to the audacity of the Tories' attack ranging from grudging admiration to outright promotion of Thatcherite ideology.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few attempted to hold the line by suggesting that, while unions may have been thrown onto the defensive by the government, it was possible through the development of a more 'sophisticated' bargaining approach for unions to preserve their organisation. They could also make significant gains through trade offs on issues like shorter hours, equal pay and pensions.

The latter strategy, of course, very much reflected the prevailing view of Labour politicians and trade union leaders, while the former came from SDP types, outright Tories, or others of mischievous intent. But, academic impartiality being what it is, direct political allegiances are always wilfully obscured.

In this book, by contrast, Ralph Darlington has set out not only to make his own commitment to revolutionary politics crystal clear but to identify and try to explain carefully, and in close detail, the fundamental weaknesses in the bureaucratic response.

The materials for the study are the first hand accounts of shop stewards and activists working in three Merseyside factories, taken predominantly from interviews conducted over an extended period in the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s, and from local union records.

But this is not so much a narrative, as an investigation into the way in which a commendable level of rank and file militancy and independent organisation evident in each workplace at the start of the decade, had been chipped away by degrees by the end.

And that, in the long run, although superficial gains had often been made usually in the form of 'enhanced' status for leading stewards or even material rewards for major productivity improvements, ultimately these could in no way compensate for the erosion of elementary traditions that occured in these three workplaces.

For many years the Bemrose printworks had an awesome and not entirely undeserved reputation for union control, on a par with anywhere barring Fleet Street. But after Wapping, and takeover by News International, it suffered much the same fate.

The Bird's Eye factory was similarly regarded by many as the best organised anywhere in the UK within the giant Unilever combine. And to this day Ford Halewood is remembered for its early history of unpredictable, and often explosive, strike episodes.

But an important shift began to take place. It may have seemed advisable, expedient or even incredibly shrewd to play down for the time being such customs as regular reports back to members, support for sectional stoppages, collections for other workers or refusal to cross picket lines. But faced with any real trial of strength, a solid and energetic rank and file response could no longer be relied upon.

Also, as Ralph Darlington illustrates extremely well, differing approaches to the most effective forms of shopfloor organisation are essentially a political rather than technical matter.

The role of the union leaders has a particular relevance in Merseyside where, for historical reasons which are properly explained, a purely syndicalist current gained some influence during the late 1970s, especially in the car plants.

More generally, the special role and influence of the trade union leaders (so routinely denied out of hand as mere SWP polemic, but transparently obvious to even a trainee personnel manager) is clearly documented.

As the title implies, the interplay or 'dynamic' between all of these elements is traced and teased out with patience and tenacity. Any activist, in any workplace, will recognise immediate parallels with their own situation and, despite the occasional highflown terminology, will find the read well worth the effort.

The conclusion is by no means pessimistic for the future of workers' struggles. On the contrary, the case put is that even recognising the disabling impact of anti-union legislation and constant threat of redundancy, it is nevertheless quite feasible to argue for a form of aggressive rearguard action against management. This in fact is a much more 'realistic' strategy than the 'new realism' which advocated an identity of interests with the employers, or a form of unilateral disarmament.

Today, Ford Halewood is the only one of the three factories in this study to have survived. But in 1988 the workforce was centrally involved in the wave of unofficial strikes which not only took management and union leaders completely by surprise, but gave the rest of us the first glimpse that there was a chink in the armour of even the most formidable opponent.
Jack Robertson

Paramilitary pressure

Fourteen May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974
Don Anderson
Gill and MacMillan £7.99

Fourteen May Days: The Inside Story of the Loyalist Strike of 1974

It was a pleasure to watch Ian Paisley marching out of 10 Downing Street after being rebuffed by John Major over the IRA ceasefire. Despite all his huffing and puffing his threats can no longer hold the British government to ransom in the way that the Loyalists were able to in 1974.

Don Anderson's behind the scenes account of the strike that succeeded in scuppering an attempt at power sharing--the Sunningdale agreement--has been put together from interviews and documents that he gathered as a journalist at the time. It makes fascinating reading, firstly because it dispels the myth that the strike was won because the support of Protestant workers was so solid and secondly, because it puts the events of this past year in some sort of perspective.

At the beginning of 1974 a new Northern Ireland executive was set up including members of both the Unionist and the middle class Catholic party--SDLP. After 50 years of Unionist domination and discrimination against Catholics, the rotten Stormont administration could no longer rule in the old way in the face of the mass social upheaval of the movement for civil rights on the streets.

The strike was called by Harry Murray--a Loyalist shop steward in the shipyard--in the name of the 'Ulster Workers' Council', yet in reality the strike was run by the Protestant paramilitaries without whom the result would have been very different. For instance in Murray's own workplace--Harland and Wolff--much of the workforce turned up for work as normal on the first day of the strike, and only a handful attended a strike meeting called that morning. Many workers only left work when threats were made that any cars still in the car park that afternoon would be burnt, and that street barricades would stop workers reaching home that night.

In fact support for the strike at the start was reckoned to be no more than 10 percent. But the intimidation that was to follow soon shifted the balance. Anderson describes petrol bombs being thrown into the Gallagher factory car park and women workers at the Michelin plant at Mallusk being attacked and injured by pickets. A bogus car bomb was used to stop the Metal Box plant in Portadown. All over Belfast groups of paramilitaries roamed around closing shops, pubs and factories with veiled or open threats of violence. One young engineering worker was hospitalised after being severely beaten up at two successive street barricades. The campaign of violence was not restricted to stopping people from going into work. Only days into the strike three car bombs went off in Dublin and Monaghan in the middle of the rush hour killing 33 people.

Though hundreds of complaints were made about intimidation, the police and army seemed happy to stand by and just watch cars being hijacked and barricades going up. The port of Larne was sealed off by paramilitaries. Rather than confront the thugs, the police actually met a deputation of them complaining about ill treatment, while a hundred hooded men in paramilitary dress were allowed to stand in ranks outside the police station!

The book spells out in all its awful detail how Harold Wilson's Labour government sat back and seemed both unwilling and unable to intervene in support of parliamentary democracy against armed gangs and their political allies. It wasn't long before Paisley and his cronies came out in public support for the strike leaving no one in any doubt just how close the UDA was to the Loyalist politicians.

Yet as Anderson points out none of this was inevitable. Andy Tyrie of the UDA and Glenn Barr, who chaired the strike coordinating committee, admitted after the strike was over that if the army had intervened decisively from day one to keep the roads clear, the open intimidation and barricades would have been difficult to maintain without wholesale confrontation.

Instead the hardline Loyalists were able to smash their way through the newly formed power sharing government which fell on the 14th day of the strike. They had brought the six counties to a standstill: electricity was at dangerously low levels--in Belfast power was only on for 90 minutes for every five hours off. Petrol became a most precious commodity, only available to those with a pass issued by the UWC. Queues would form outside the strike headquarters of everyone from managing directors (who normally didn't get passes) to nurses (who normally did).

This book is useful for showing how the Unionists managed to pull off such a strike but also points out that Paisley was unable to repeat the tactic only three years later. It is even more clear today that far from being puppets of the paramilitaries, Protestant workers have shown their willingness to oppose sectarian killings.

Don't read this for any serious political analysis of either the Protestant working class in particular or the troubles in general. Any British journalist who can write without irony: 'Where the political wildcats of Northern Ireland seek to divide and embitter, all the major parties in Britain have sought to heal and unite,' has to be read with some scepticism.

But this book does demonstrate just how much has changed in Northern Ireland since 1974, not least weakening the image of the monolith of Unionism as a permanent block on the Protestant working class.
Judith Orr

The flickering flame

An Honourable Defeat: A History of the Resistance to Hitler
Anton Gill
Heinemann £20

An Honourable Defeat: A History of the Resistance to Hitler

One of the most commonly held beliefs about Nazi Germany is that the majority of German people supported the regime or at best ignored the atrocities committed by Hitler and his followers.

The strength of Anton Gill's book is that he dispels this myth. He shows there was a wide range of opposition to the Nazis in the factories, universities, the army and even in a youth movement--Edelweiss Pirates-that grew up in opposition to the Hitler Youth Movement.

It is hard to measure the level of resistance that took place. You were not only executed for plotting to overthrow the Nazi regime, you could also receive the death penalty for writing 'Down with Hitler' in chalk on a wall. As if this was not enough, those sentenced to death had to pay the cost of their trial and execution.

The opposition developed under the most difficult circumstances. By 1933 the working class was smashed and all the political parties, with the exception of Hitler's NSDAP, were banned. By the mid-1930s even individuals belonging to conservative organisations like the church and army found themselves at odds with the regime. Gill sees the opposition developing in two main ways. Firstly from below and secondly from within the regime.

Even though working class organisations were smashed, the flames of resistance still flickered. Auto union workers in Berlin struck during the Olympic Games in 1936 to bring to the attention of the world's media and foreign athletes the true nature of the regime. Gill traces the growth of the underground cells who distributed anti-fascist propaganda and who were also involved in industrial sabotage.

Although the Nazis were able to block most traditional methods of protest, other forms quickly developed. During the early years of the Third Reich mass protest often took the form of enormous religious gatherings. Over 800,000 people made a pilgrimage to Auchen in 1937 to protest at the murder of a Catholic who spoke out against political oppression. The entire population of Bamberg (60,000) attended mass despite threats by the Nazi regime. However, with the exception of some brave individuals, the church turned a blind eye towards the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Although Gill provides a fascinating insight into the resistance to Hitler from ordinary people, he spends much of the book looking at Stauffenberg's failed attempt to blow up Hitler in the 1944 July Plot. Gill sees this as the only realistic method of removing Hitler. But in my view there are several problems with this. Firstly, to remain inside the Nazi hierarchy, the opposition was forced to carry out the policies of the Nazis. For example Nebe, one of the leaders of the plot, maintained his cover by leading a force of SS troops who carried out the 'final solution' behind the frontlines. He admits to having been responsible for the death of 45,467 innocent civilians.

Secondly, many of those involved in the plot were not even anti-Nazis. Another of the leaders, Canaris, was involved in the murder of German socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Their vision of postwar Germany differed greatly from that of the socialist underground.

The tragedy for the resistance was that by 1943 the Allies had already decided Germany's fate. They were not interested in supporting those resisting the Nazis. Instead they decided to destroy Germany and divide it between themselves. In fact the carpet bombing of Dresden and Berlin by the Allies pushed many away from the resistance.

All those interested in the struggles against the Nazis should read this book. It is a testament to the courage of the men and women who stood up to one of the most vicious regimes of the 20th century.
Martin Smith

Push or pull?

Immigration, Ethnicity and Racism in Britain 1815-1945
Panikos Panyani
Manchester University Press £7.99

Over the past two decades there have been a number of studies of the impact of immigration into Britain since the Second World War. There has been comparatively less research about patterns of immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This book is a useful survey of the politics of immigration during that period.

It charts the migration of different groups--mainly Jews, Irish and Germans--the ways in which each group faced racism and the degree to which they became integrated into British society. Panyani states that 'Marxist interpretations of population movement' which explain migration as due to economic expansion in the host country are insufficient. They need to be supplemented by considering what he calls 'push' factors, like political repression in the country of origin. Despite this the evidence he provides shows a clear correlation between economic boom and immigration. The 'push' factors, for instance the Tsarist pogroms against the Jews, explain why particular groups of people are prepared to uproot themselves and move across the globe, but it is the demand for labour throughout this period that determines the total flow of numbers and where they move.

One fascinating aspect of the book is the hidden history it uncovers of small immigrant communities, for instance Italians and the early 'Spanish Quarter' of Somers Town in Camden. Such facts provide valuable ammunition against the racist myth of an unchanging homogenous 'English race'. It is noticeable how many of these communities intermarry and become assimilated after two or three generations. The author succeeds in doing more than just documenting the racism faced by particularly Irish and Jewish immigrants and the changes in government policy which led to successive tightening of immigration controls starting with the 1905 Aliens Act. He shows how the different class structure of the immigrant communities played a crucial role in how they developed. The fact that Irish immigrants, by far the largest in number, were disproportionately working class single men meant that despite the high level of anti-Irish racism they became quite rapidly integrated into working class communities.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe tended to be whole families with a small but significant number of small businessmen. This shaped the structure of the Jewish East End of London.

Whatever the class composition of different groups it is clear from this book that all of them have been pulled into the class divisions in British society with each section having its own class interests. As the author states, in Leicester today working class Asians live in Evington and Highfields 'while Oadby is the area of settlement of the Asian bourgeoisie'.

Panyani does not pursue the political implications of these class divisions for the fight against racism and at times his arguments are left undeveloped with no overall analysis drawing the threads together. Despite this the wealth of information and insights he provides add to our understanding of racism.
Kevin Ovenden

Death knell of democracy

Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile
Mary Helen Spooner
University of California Press £23.50

Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile

One of the arguments that has faced socialists over the years is the idea that a parliamentary transformation of society is possible: socialism can be brought about peacefully by voting.

This is far more than an academic debate. At certain times in history this theory has been tested and then the question has been, literally, a matter of life or death. Nowhere is this more true than in Chile.

This is a book about what happened to that experiment. Salvador Allende's left wing government of Popular Unity took office in 1970. After a series of plots it was finally overthrown by a military coup in 1973.

It was common on the European left to argue that the coup was inspired and financed by the CIA. But this argument conveniently lets the left and Allende's government off the hook. As this book makes clear, the coup was a Chilean affair, and Pinochet, the nominal coup leader, was put in charge of the army by the government. The military's chief backers weren't the CIA but Chile's own ruling class.

The coup destroyed the idea that the military was the 'neutral' force the government imagined it to be.

Allende's government had desperately tried to be all things to all people and therefore satisfied nobody. Price controls and union legislation horrified the bosses and the process of reforms had been far too piecemeal to satisfy the workers.

The country was polarised with the government in the middle. When the coup came, the government gave the workers no lead. There was no call to arms, yet the other side was well prepared and the military took power in a sea of blood. The working class quarters were bombed by army planes while the rich districts celebrated with champagne.

Spooner gives many instances on how the regime penetrated and controlled all levels of society and corrupted relations between people. Homes and offices were bugged, a chance remark could be dangerous, thousands of socialists and trade unionists were tortured or put to death. Life under Pinochet's junta was one of arbitrary terror. As Spooner says, the only Chileans safe were 'diplomats and businessmen.'

The strength of the book is that it attempts to give an outline of the dynamics at work in society during the years of the dictatorship. The economy was run following the guidelines from the International Monetary Fund--austerity measures, wage cuts and unemployment.

However by the 1980s the regime was lurching from one economic crisis to another. The free market capitalism the junta had followed so carefully had brought chaos to the country, leading to a programme of interventionism. This meant the government inherited massive foreign debt and the capitalists began to withdraw support. At the bottom of society the hardships suffered by ordinary working people was forcing the trade unions out into the open after years of terror. By the end of the 1980s the regime had fallen apart.

However, there are problems with the book. It says practically nothing about the Chilean left nor does it offer much about Allende's regime. There is little overall analysis in the book. But what it does provide is a wealth of material, including many eyewitness accounts, of the military regime--from the coup plotting, through its years of murder and dictatorship, to its final disintegration.

The Pinochet regime meant years of misery for Chilean workers. How that regime took power should be a lesson hard won, not only for the Chilean left, but for every worker and socialist who wants to change society. The military coup was a tragedy paid for in the blood of thousands of workers. The belief in the peaceful transformation of society was the death knell for those workers.
Pat Riordan

The vicious circle

Poverty and the Planet: A Question of Survival
Ben Jackson
Penguin £6.99

Poverty and the Planet: A Question of Survival

The recent United Nations conference in Cairo on population growth has helped recycle the old argument of a world destined to implode under the strain of too many people fighting for rapidly diminishing resources. In the light of this widely touted doomsday scenario this updated version of Ben Jackson's well researched and highly accessible book is not to be missed.

Jackson systematically smashes the myths of overpopulation, limited resources and the protection of the environment through restraining further development. He does so by not only posing the question who suffers but who is benefiting? He shows clearly how famines and even most 'natural' disasters are man made. In the process he demolishes arguments that ordinary people are to blame for the environmental degradation that often produces such disasters.

Famine itself occurs in a world with an abundance of food that in the West is routinely stored, dumped, piled into mountains and left to rot. Even in those countries racked by drought there is food. In Tigray in 1989 at least 50,000 of the 300,000 tonnes of grain needed to alleviate the famine was available on the market. But the starving were too poor to purchase it.

Western technology has the power to prevent mass starvation and hunger. Genetic engineering promises to produce crops with massively increased yields, pest resistance and so on. But who holds the key to this technology? The transnationals are motivated solely by profit.

Jackson's analysis, however, is not merely one of Western companies and governments bleeding the Third World dry. He illustrates how the entire system of the world market dictates the behaviour of its players--rich and poor.

The solution forced upon Third World countries by the IMF and the World Bank, of opening up to the volatility and inequalities of the world market, is an impossible option. Trade itself is growing fastest between the industrialised nations themselves, particularly with the substitution of synthetics for raw materials. Entire Third World economies devoted to one export, such as coffee, can be devastated when the world price plummets. Even if they tried to diversify, the opportunity to find a trading niche is denied.

Meanwhile such countries, just to keep afloat, become increasingly indebted to Western banks, governments and their front institutionsthe IMF and World Bank. In 1991 alone, $21.46 billion more flowed out of the Third World in debt repayments than it received in aid and loans. What is Jackson's answer? He rightly says, 'there will be no change unless we challenge the entrenched interests' of the whole rotten system. He emphasises, 'the poor must be the agents of their own destiny.'

Yet he is unable to carry through these statements to their logical conclusion. Instead he relies on contradictory and implausible ideas. He speaks of 'democratising' the IMF and World Bank, of 'regional autonomy', of governments focusing aid on small peasant farmers and of concerned people in the West forming pressure groups to demand this is done. Jackson's problem is that although he understands the total interconnection of international capitalism, he dare not speak its name. Consequently, he fails to recognise the other side of the coin--the interconnection of a world working class born out of capitalism and upon whose labour the system depends.

Throughout the book he ignores not only the power but even the existence of a Third World working class. Yet recent massive workers' struggles throughout Africa refute the idea of a continent without the muscle to challenge the system. Most importantly, those struggles connect in an immediate way to the battles of workers in the Western nations. We are all fighting the same enemy.
Fran Cetti

Early learning

Vygotsky's Collected Works Vol II
L S Vygotsky
Plenum Publications £42.50

Progressive teachers have long argued against the segregation of children with physical and mental disabilities in so called 'special schools'. Now the Tories say they want to do away with such schools and reintegrate special needs children into the mainstream. Lack of resources, however, means that in practice special needs children will be left in a much worse position than previously.

The resistance to such proposals will centre on the fight for resources but socialists can also point to our own alternative vision of special education, and can learn a lot from what went on in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

One of the most important figures in these developments was the revolutionary psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the founder of the Centre for the Study of Handicapped Children, which remains the leading institute in Russia dealing with learning difficulties. The latest volume in Vygotsky's collected works brings together his writings in this area.

Vygotsky's approach to learning disability was radically different from that of his contemporaries. Vygotsky argued that children learn best through shared social activities and when education is geared towards the child's everyday experiences. Such an approach is especially important for children with learning difficulties. An apparent lack of motivation and intellect in some children may conceal an inability to connect the abstract content of school lessons with their own experiences. Another theme in Vygotsky's writings is the vast potential which exists in every child. He was fond of quoting the example of Helen Keller who, although born a blind deaf mute, nevertheless became a famous philosopher and scholar.

This book covers three areas. Firstly, there are those children who have been labelled 'learning disabled' but whose difficulties stem from a deprived social environment. This was particularly important in 1920's Russia as civil war and famine had left as many as seven million homeless, orphaned, abandoned and neglected children, many of whom were severely disturbed in their mental development. In extremely forward thinking for the time Vygotsky argued that addressing social problems was central to solving children's learning difficulties.

Secondly, there are those children whose learning difficulties are an indirect consequence of a disorder such as deafness or blindness. According to Vygotsky, despite the undoubted physical origin of these conditions, it is nevertheless their effect upon the child's integration into society which is most important. He campaigned for entry of disabled children into mainstream education and for their participation in the Komsomol youth movement, but was quite clear that such integration should not come at the expense of extra resources for special education.

A central feature of Vygotsky's work is the idea that human consciousness has been transformed throughout history by cultural innovations such as reading and writing. He believed that society has a duty to develop and propagate the sort of innovations that would allow disabled children to benefit from the wealth of human culture. In Vygotsky's time there was only Braille and various forms of sign language but computers now have revolutionary potential as a powerful interface between severely disabled children and the outside world.

That Vygotsky started from the potential of disabled children rather than from their disability is shown most clearly in his work with children with severe mental retardation, the third area covered in this book. Such children are often 'written off' as being incapable of complex reasoning and thus are given only the simplest of learning tasks. Yet in Vygotsky's opinion, such an approach only reinforced their handicaps. Instead, if children lack well elaborated forms of abstract thought, the school should make every effort to push them in that direction.

Vygotsky found that such children best acquired the motivation to take on abstract learning tasks in what he called a cooperative learning strategy. This was designed as a division of work in which the children would work on a number of different tasks in a group with a shared motive for the entire activity. He found that this provided not only the opportunity but also the need for cooperation and joint activity by giving the children tasks that were beyond the developmental level of some, if not all, of them.

Vygotsky's work can only be understood within the context of the great 'educational experiment' which took place in Russia in the 1920s. Stalin put an end to this exciting period of creativity and experimentation. In 1931 special schooling was absorbed into the mainstream education system at the same time as extra resources for special needs children were cut. Yet Vygotsky's writings remain as a legacy for the future and as a reminder that only in a society based on the principle 'each according to their needs' will every child be able to reach their rightful potential.
John Parrington

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