Issue 181 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Revolutionary Ideas of Frederick Engels
Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Harman, Paul McGarr
International Socialism 65 £4.50
Every great fighter in the revolutionary socialist tradition has recorded his or her massive debt to the ideas and practice of Karl Marx. Yet Frederick Engels, Marx's lifelong friend and collaborator, stands out as a great thinker and working class fighter whose contribution to socialism has often been undervalued, maligned and distorted.
Fortunately, the strength and relevance of his ideas shine through the fog of such distortions. This special edition of International Socialism commemorates the centenary of Engels' death in 1995, and is a wonderful collection of essays which examines the contribution that Engels made to Marxism.
Born in 1820 into a middle class family in Germany, Engels grew up at a time of turmoil. He was attracted as a young man to the ideas of German philosophy and especially to Hegel who saw the universe as a process of constant development and change. Progress therefore required a struggle against the existing institutions. By the early 1840s he was already embracing the idea of communism.
Engels' ideas were also greatly affected by his contact with organised workers. He worked in Manchester in 1842 at the family firm Ermen and Engels. He saw the English working class as a revolutionary class and made contact with its organisation, the Chartists. The barbarity of the developing capitalist system led him to write his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. He wrote scathingly of the ruling class: 'It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold'--a description as relevant today as is was when Engels was writing.
His relationship with Marx lasted from 1844 to Marx's death nearly 40 years later. Engels made a lifelong commitment to Marx and his family, both financially--he worked for 20 years at the family firm because Marx needed income to carry on his studies--and intellectually. Engels co-authored many books and articles with Marx, including The Holy Family, and one of their greatest statements of historical materialism, The German Ideology, as well as writing the first draft of the Communist Manifesto called Principles of Communism.
But Engels was also a great organiser and fighter--sometimes literally. Revolution erupted in Europe in 1848. Marx and Engels were active in the revolutionary movement in Germany. In 1849 Engels actually fought in the Palatine war against the invading Prussian army. Following the battles of 1849 Engels was forced into exile, with the authorities issuing a wanted poster for his arrest, and was to live in England for the rest of his life.
It was only when he gave up his job and moved to London in 1870 that Engels was able to devote more of his time to writing. His Dialectics of Nature, which he started in 1873, was an attempt to apply the ideas of philosophy to science. In 1877 he wrote Anti-Dühring from which the pamphlet Socialism, Utopian and Scientific was drawn, which is still regarded today as one of the greatest introductions to Marxist ideas.
He lived some 12 years after the death of Marx in 1883 and dedicated the rest of his life to developing Marx's ideas. The final two volumes of Capital were produced by Engels and he published his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Yet many who claim they are Marxists criticise Engels' ideas. Despite his close collaboration with Marx, he is often accused of distorting the true spirit of Marxism.
Fortunately this book destroys the misrepresentations of Engels' Marxism, which John Rees shows are based on a distorted view of his writings. Central to Engels was the theory of historical materialism, developed in the 1840s with Marx. For Engels, human consciousness was linked to and shaped by the economic conditions from which it arose. This is not the crude materialism of which he is often accused. He saw the necessity of human action as key to changing the world, but located it in the prevailing economic relations: 'Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.'
But he also saw the world as being in constant change, driven forward by the contradictions of everyday life--in capitalist society this means above all the struggle between workers and the bosses.
Perhaps the most controversial of Engels' work is his study The Origin of the Family. Chris Harman presents a detailed analysis of both this and The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Harman uses recent anthropological evidence to show that labour was central to the development of human history. What separates man from the animal world is his conscious ability to adapt to the world and to shape the world to satisfy human needs. Central to this is the importance of cooperative labour. Human beings are not inherently violent and competitive, this so called 'human nature' is shaped by the emergence of class society and the state. Harman shows how Engels has been vindicated in his analysis in The Part Played by Labour.
While some of the analysis in Origin has not stood the test of time, the book made a significant contribution to the fight for women's liberation as he locates the root cause of women's oppression in the family and the capitalist system.
Finally, Engels had a real grasp of and made a significant contribution to the understanding of science. The Dialectics of Nature has been often criticised empirically (no wonder considering that Engels was not party to some of the breakthroughs in scientific research that have happened over the last 100 years). Nevertheless, the central claim that links the development of science to the development of production, that the world is in a process of constant change and development, that scientific advances are central to changes in the world, and that the activities of people are key to changing the world, is the cornerstone to Marx's materialist theory of history. The centrality of working class activity shines through all of Engels' writings, and this is why, as this book says, he was revolutionary--both in his ideas and his practice.
One of the greatest recommendations for this book is that it inspires you to go to the original writings. Everyone should read Engels because 100 years after his death he is still a magnificent inspiration in the fight for socialism.
Going for Gold
T Dunbar Moodie with Vivienne Ndatshe
University of California Press £11.95
The breaking of apartheid in South Africa has been one of the most inspiring events of the 20th century. However, the death throes of apartheid form part of a wider crisis of South African capitalism. T Dunbar Moodie's book studying capitalist relations in the gold mining industry demonstrates this.
Gold mining was one of South Africa's first major industries. The discovery of a huge reef of gold deposits deep under the Witwatersrand and later the western Orange Free State led 'to men and machinery and explosives...moved underground and massive amounts of rock brought to the surface to be treated to extract minute proportions of gold. The grade of South African gold ore is poor'. The consequence of low grade but massive quantity of gold ore was 'colossal capital investments' which could only pay off if other costs were kept low. The fact that gold had a fixed price until the early 1970s 'exacerbated the effects of already stringent cost constraints'. The capitalist class had three methods for dealing with this.
Firstly, large mining investment houses shared the cost of engineering and development of individual mines. Secondly, the Chamber of Mines intervened to hold down wages and ensure a ready supply of labour. Thirdly, the workforce was divided racially with well paid white managers or supervisors and poorly paid, compounded black miners. This was the basis of the migrant labour system.
The low wages offered only appealed to the impoverished of the wider Southern African countryside, with large numbers of Mozambicans and Malawians drawn in. Workers were housed in compounds producing a 'totally regimented' environment. This book excels in studying the effect of the migrant labour system on the culture, solidarity and sexuality of the miners.
There are interviews with black miners who graphically explain the brutal regime of abuse and violence by supervisors.
The rise in the price of gold in the early 1970s led to the collapse of the migrant labour system. By 1973 gold mining profits had trebled since 1970. However, the 1974 revolution in Mozambique destroyed the labour supply and Malawian mine recruits were withheld after a plane crash. The result was that average wages were dramatically increased.
'A different kind of individual responded to the appeal of higher wages' and the workforce became more permanent and militant. The gold mine owners now had to deal with a working class determined to organise and fight back. The National Union of Mineworkers was formed in August 1982 and recognised shortly afterwards. Moodie's analysis shows the effects of this proletarianisation on every facet of life in the mines.
This book has a wealth of material charting the rise of a militant black working class in South Africa. The interviews with black miners are invaluable in gauging the changing sense of power that workers have felt. There is, however, a big problem with this book. Its style is far too scholastic and ends up in convoluted sociological conclusions that tie the author in knots. Sections are lucid while others are virtually impassable. There is also a failure to analyse the political conclusions of much of this study. This conclusion is simple. It is that apartheid was a product of capitalism and was broken by the black working class. This working class has won an enormous victory and now needs to overthrow the system that breeds such exploitation.
In 1986 a Nottinghamshire social worker uncovered a disturbing fragment of Britain's secret history while working with adopted people trying to trace their biological relatives.
A woman attending one of her groups told Margaret Humphreys that as a child her brother had been sent to Australia on a ship with hundreds of other children. Initially Humphreys did not take this claim very seriously but when another woman approached her with a similar story she decided to investigate. She discovered that these children had been sent without their parents' knowledge or consent, and there were hundreds of other cases dating from the 1800s to 1967.
When Humphreys contacted the agencies involved in the transportation of these children--namely the Catholic Church, the Church of England, Dr Barnardo's, the National Children's Home, the Salvation Army and the Fairbridge Society--she was met with a brick wall. In Australia when she tried to verify some of the more horrific incidents of abuse perpetrated mainly by the Christian Brothers, an attempt was made on her life.
It was obvious that Humphreys had opened up a can of worms that both the Australian and British authorities would have liked to have left forgotten. They, along with the voluntary agencies and church groups involved, went to great lengths to destroy or deliberately falsify documents. Throughout her investigation Humphreys was constantly bewildered as to why children as young as three years old should be transported, not only to Australia, but also to Canada and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Although the agencies involved were quick to point out that it 'was important to put this migration in its proper historical context', the reality was that children were taken from orphanages all over Britain and Ireland. Many were not actually orphans but had been left in the church's care until their mothers found employment.
There were many reasons for this horrific treatment. The British government was eager to get rid of as many hungry mouths as possible. As victims of illegitimacy or poverty, these children were regarded as deprived and a burden to society. The authorities believed that this 'urban flotsam' would grow up as 'thieves and hooligans' and probably finish up in jail. In the 19th century it cost £12 per year to keep a child in a parish workhouse, but for a single payment of £15 these children could be sent overseas and the authorities would thus be absolved of any further financial responsibilities. This made obvious economic sense and also disposed of undesirable elements within society. The colonies, on the other hand, were desperate for people to colonise their uninhabited open spaces which otherwise, according to the Archbishop of Perth, were 'leaving themselves exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races'.
This book exposes some of the most horrific abuses perpetrated by those from within the 'caring professions'. It shows just how anything or anybody can be turned into commodities by capitalism. The book is marred, however, mainly by Humphreys' mawkish style and at times comes over as a glowing profile of herself.
But Humphreys does continually ask the question, what sort of country sends its children to these conditions and what kind of country accepts them? The answer is that any country driven by questions of economics will treat its children in this way. The truth of this shines through the sentimental fog.
Nor Meekly Serve My Time--The H Block Struggle 1976-1981
Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O'Hagan
Beyond the Pale Publications £9.95
The date will remain with me for ever. In the early hours of Tuesday 5 May 1981 I was woken by the sound of dustbin lids being beaten on the small streets off Belfast's Falls Road. After a few moments the realisation of what had happened sank in. Bobby Sands, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, had died on the 66th day of his hunger strike. As the senior IRA officer in the H Blocks he had volunteered to lead the second hunger strike demanding Republican prisoners were given political status.
Over 100,000 people attended Bobby Sands' funeral two days later. When he had won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat with 30,492 votes a few weeks before it had been a slap in the face to Margaret Thatcher who had boasted that Sands and his fellow hunger strikers had little or no support.
Throughout that spring and summer people took to the streets, workplaces walked out on strike, two prisoners (one the hunger striker Kieran Doherty) were elected to the Irish parliament, while Sands' election agent Owen Carron held his parliamentary seat. None of it was enough. Nine more would die.
Francis Hughes' funeral took place in the countryside. Going by bus from Belfast meant running the gauntlet of Loyalist stone throwers and having to march across fields when the RUC halted the coaches. Martin Hurson died suddenly and shockingly after just 46 days. Joe McDonnell's funeral procession was attacked by troops with plastic bullets. Kieran Doherty died after an agonisingly long 73 days.
As the weeks dragged on there was more and more a sense of powerlessness. If this was true on the outside it must have been a hundred times more so inside the H Blocks. The prisoners knew comrades and friends were dying just a few yards away in the hospital block. This book tells of the hunger strike as they experienced it. I cannot do it justice. Their words speak for themselves.
What remains with everyone active over the hunger strike is the bitterness towards Britain's political establishment. Margaret Thatcher coldly watched ten men die while Labour's Don Concannon flew in to spend a few minutes with a dying Bobby Sands, tormenting him with the information that Labour was backing Thatcher's line.
These men and women--women in Armagh jail joined the first hunger strike which was called off when the Tories seemed to offer concessions which were withdrawn--were not acting on orders from 'the evil IRA godfathers' the British press bleated on about. The leadership of the Republican movement argued against the hunger strike. It was the prisoners who decided on this course of action.
In the end the hunger strike set its own deadline. Once Bobby Sands and the other three original strikers had died it was difficult to see how victory could be achieved.
The strike ended when relatives started insisting on medical treatment when their sons slipped into comas. This must have been a terrible decision. The relatives had been the ones who had begun the protests when the first H Block Republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniform or accept prison discipline. They had seen their sons and husbands live for months and even years with only a blanket to wear in an empty cell (a mattress was only thrown in at lights out) and suffering beatings. They had gone through the worries of the first hunger strike and the brief elation when it seemed to have achieved a successful conclusion.
This book began as a pamphlet for the tenth anniversary of the strike. It is a tribute, as are Bobby Sands' writings, to how ordinary people can not only take everything the establishment throws at them, but how in the process they blossom into fuller human beings.
The Experience of Defeat
'In the internal history of Great Britain, the principle of peaceful and gradual evolution is by no means as prevalent as stated by some Conservative philosophers. In the last analysis, all of modern England grew up out of the revolution in the 17th century.'
Trotsky wrote these words in 1925. The English Revolution of 1640-60 is certainly a problem for defenders of the status quo. How are they to admit that the entire basis of the British constitution--parliamentary sovereignty--derives from Charles l's defeat and execution at the hands of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army?
One way round this difficulty is to deny that the events of the mid-17th century were a revolution. Much recent historical scholarship has been devoted to this end.
Standing firmly against the current of academic fashion is the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Starting with his 1940 pamphlet The English Revolution, right up to The Experience of Defeat, he has insisted on seeing the Civil War as arising from the clash between developing capitalist relations of production in agriculture and commerce, and the efforts of the Stuart monarchy to establish an absolutist state along continental lines.
Now in paperback, The Experience of Defeat widens the focus to consider how revolutionaries responded to the collapse of their hopes. In doing so, he dramatises the dilemma which they faced. For in what sense was the English Revolution defeated? Its social and economic achievements were taken over by the restored monarchy as part of the price of the Stuarts' return.
To dismantle the absolutist regime, the propertied classes of town and country had to mobilise the lower classes, especially the urban poor. By the outbreak of the Civil War, probably a majority of the gentry had abandoned the parliamentary cause for the King out of fear of the masses. Those who did not, and especially the tough-minded lesser gentry around Cromwell, found themselves faced after 1645 with the Levellers, who championed the cause of the small property owner and demanded that he be enfranchised. Until they had got rid of the king, Cromwell and his allies leaned on the Levellers. Once Charles was dead, the Levellers were crushed, soon to be followed by the Diggers.
Hill shows how in the 1650s the radicals came increasingly to fear the masses. If given the vote, the people might vote for the restoration of the monarchy or demand an end to enclosures. The radicals opted instead for the rule of an enlightened minority--the 'saints'. Just before the Restoration, Milton argued that the only way to preserve the republic was through an oligarchy.
The radicals looked to the army as the guarantee that the 'saints' would rule. Hill in his book Milton and the English Revolution draws an analogy with the Bolsheviks' substitutionism after the disintegration of the Russian working class: 'Similarly the New Model Army substituted itself for the people of England, for whom in 1647-49 it might possibly have claimed to speak and act.' But the revolutionary army was systematically purged in the 1650s.
Military rule by Cromwell's major-generals added to the revolution's unpopularity. The 'avarice and ambition' of the generals became a constant target for the radicals. In 1660 their fears were realised--a Cromwellian general, George Monck brought back the King on behalf of the propertied classes.
Hill argues that, for the honest revolutionary, there were two choices after 1660. One was that adopted by those influenced by the philosopher James Harrington. This was to see the revolution as a victory for a certain form of property, which survived the return of the monarchy. In other words, 1660 was not a defeat for capitalism. This was the view of the Civil War taken by those who benefited, the Whig oligarchs of the next century.
The other choice was Milton's. The great poet is for Hill a contradictory figure--an elitist with a 'strong sense of the necessity of bourgeois society' but one who shared the milleniary hopes of the late 1640s, when many believed that Charles's fall was a portent of Christ's return to overthrow all earthly thrones. Hill sees 'Milton's confidence in the ultimate victory of good over evil' as bearing fruit in the rebirth of radical politics at the end of the 18th century.
Lenin during the years of reaction after 1905 is cited as a parallel to Milton. Disillusionment with Cromwell is compared to the lost illusions in Stalinist Russia which Hill himself shared. The Experience of Defeat concludes with these words: 'In 1644 Milton saw England as "a nation of prophets". Where are they now?'
This concern for the present is both a source of strength and of weakness. Hill has not sunk into bourgeois complacency, like so many ex-Communists. His loathing for the society which emerged from the English Revolution is absolutely evident. Yet he draws too readily parallels between bourgeois and socialist revolution.
Bourgeois revolutions, such as England 1640 and France 1789, are necessarily minority affairs. They are carried out to create the political prerequisites for the accumulation of capital--in other words, to lay the basis of a new form of class society, ruled in the interests of a capitalist minority. The ambivalent attitude of a Cromwell or a Milton towards plebeian radicalism--readiness to use it, yet fear that it might escape control--was absolutely rational from their standpoint as bourgeois revolutionaries.
Socialist revolutions, however, are carried out by the mass of workers in their own interests. There is therefore absolutely no reason to slip into thinking, as Hill tends to, that any revolution must inevitably rely on an enlightened minority of 'saints'.
None of this is to take away in the slightest from Christopher Hill as a historian. Anyone who hasn't read The World Turned Upside Down has missed a great deal. Anyone will enjoy The Experience of Defeat.
Inside Yeltsin's Russia
John Kampfner is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph, so this book is based on the view that what happens at the top of society determines what will happen to that society. The lives of the vast mass of Russians are seen as incidental, a backdrop painted in to add some local colour to the main events. Despite that, his portrait of the machinations, criminality and greed of those ruling Russia is intense.
The opening section describes the rise of 'General Dima' Yakubovsky, 'a metaphor of modern Russia at its sleaziest'. He made his fortune by acting as a middle man in the business of selling off USSR real estate in East Germany, assets that 'were never accounted for'. His career is linked to other such entrepreneurs, the new super rich with their connections to each other and to politicians.
Everyone who is anyone (particularly in parliament) has been on the make, and government is seen to be more about revealing the corruption of your opponents and preserving your own position than about the health of the country.
Throughout the book there are indications of the weakness of Kampfner's viewpoint. He comments in the preface that 'anyone who did well under Communism had all the prerequisites for doing well under capitalism'. Later he refers to Solzhenitsyn's comments on the 'two different systems, but one relationship between the rulers and the ruled', and he gives explicit figures showing that the old bosses are running things again.
At the same time he notes that in 1991, 100,000-250,000 people went on the streets to support Yeltsin during his battle with parliament over the proposal for elections, but they ignored his calls for a strike during the coup against Gorbachev in August. Similarly in 1993, 100,000 people demonstrated for Yeltsin during his battle with parliament over proposals for elections but they turned their backs on his party, Russia's Choice, in December. By March 1994 the local elections attracted as few as one voter in four in St Petersburg, despite an illegal extension of polling to a second day.
Lastly he quotes the security chief under Nicholas I ('law is for the underlings'), Rutskoy ('laws, laws and laws again--then society will be stable'), and towards the end remarks that 'for the previous two years [1992-93] the law had been a political instrument'.
These three elements speak volumes: the same corrupt people in power, the same chasm between rulers and ruled, bridged by the same vain reliance on law. The conclusion becomes irresistible, that Kampfner's view of Russia moving to 'long term stability' is impossible, and that instead only the name of the system has changed and further upheaval must be brewing.
Behind the Screens
Ed: Stuart Hood
Lawrence and Wishart £12.99
In the 1970s and 1980s some left wing academia in media studies did useful research. Stuart Hood, James Curran and Jean Seaton examined how the ruling class controlled the media--killing off the 19th century radical press and later creating a tame broadcasting system with 'the illusion of independence'. Meanwhile studies like Bad News and More Bad News by the Glasgow Media Group systematically exposed the media's class bias.
Though this book is partly the result of a conference billed as 'Broadcasting and the Left', the excitement and radicalisation has gone. With the exception of Colin Sparks' excellent essay on management's offensive against the broadcasting unions, there isn't even any attempt to analyse the motives behind the ruling class broadcasting reforms of the last ten years.
Instead we merely get a description of television output. Though there are some complaints--Mike Wayne makes some interesting points about why the ratings war makes for bland television--most of the authors seem to think today's television is not too bad. The once radical Sylvia Harvey ends her essay on Channel 4 quoting the channel's boss Jeremy Isaacs favourably and saying, 'it will take considerable managerial skill and a clear cultural vision to hold onto the genuinely pluralistic programming policies established in the 1980s'.
The contributors are uncritical of public service broadcasting but their defence of it is feeble. Graham Murdoch sometimes used to be called a Marxist but his defence of the BBC is pure Blairspeak: 'Public broadcasting must negotiate the new economics of the television marketplace...it also needs to respond to shifts in the cultural landscape represented by the new politics of difference'.
Many of them were radicalised by the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s but never accepted that workers' struggle was the key to social change.
When the struggle receded, they believed they could fight on regardless, inside the 'ideological apparatus' making programmes that would radicalise people from on high. In fact they were isolated and easily tamed.
Their expectations are tragically low. The once inspiring playwrght John McGrath can only whimper, 'in terms of struggle I think the only place people can anchor themselves, though it's a rather threadbare hope, is to the Labour Party'.