Issue 182 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Persons and Polemics
Merlin Press £12.95
The socialist historian EP Thompson compiled this selection of his own historical essays and articles shortly before he died last year. The result is a mixture of brilliant, stimulating and infuriating pieces.
The brilliant pieces are those where Thompson used his historical knowledge and polemical skills to hammer present day injustice and cant. This is true, for instance, of his pathmaking defence of the jury system against a previous Criminal Justice Act and his devastating onslaught on a historical study which attempts to excuse the behaviour of the magistrates and troops at Peterloo.
The stimulating pieces are the ones which throw new light on half forgotten periods and people. Notable is the essay on Tom McGuire--a member of William Morris's Socialist League and founder of the Leeds Independent Labour Party--which shows how socialists began to get working class roots a century ago by relating to the struggles of unskilled workers. So too is the re-examination of the writings of Christopher Caudwell, who managed in two years to write four important works on poetry, culture and the crisis in physics before dying in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
The reviews of Lawrence Stone's well known work on the history of the early modern family and of Linda Colley's account of the rise of British nationalism are not quite as original in their scope. But they thoroughly question both authors' belief that you can draw conclusions about the behaviour and ideas of working people from accounts of what is known about their masters and mistresses, and will be a welcome corrective to anyone who has been carried away by the apparently awesome scholarship in both books.
There are, however, also infuriating pieces. Like most of his generation (he first became politically active in the early 1940s) Thompson received his first Marxist education from a Stalinised Communist Party. And he never fully recovered from this experience.
Not that he remained, in any sense, a Stalinist. He led the revolt against the British Communist Party's support for the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and never looked back. His record on these matters was infinitely better than latter day opponents of Marxism like Martin Jacques and Bea Campbell who were still extolling the 'socialist countries' 20 years later.
But two elements of this experience continued to dominate his thinking and writing.
On the one hand there was an obsession with the Stalinist parody of Marx's metaphor of an 'economic base' and a 'political and ideological superstructure'. For the Stalinists this meant that in general the form of property in any society automatically determined the rest of social life. In particular they claimed that nationalised property in the Eastern Europe would necessarily lead to the flowering of human values. Thompson rejected this view from 1956 onwards, insisting on the centrality of 'human agency', and of struggle from below. But his rejection was, at times, not only of the Stalinist parody but also of the Marxist original, leading him to tend to detach the formation of people's ideas from the material circumstances in which they found themselves.
So in one of the pieces in this collection he writes that the 'definition of need in economic material terms tends to enforce a hierarchy of causation which afford insufficient priority to other needs: the needs of identity, the need of gender identity, the need for respect and status among working people themselves'. What he does not grasp is that it is precisely the attempts of people to make a livelihood for themselves in societies structured around a certain mode of production that leads to them developing particular ideas about 'identity', 'gender', 'respect' and 'status'.
His failure to grasp this leads him to assert, 'Marxism has so little helpful to say about so many of the great problems of the 20th century. The tenacity of nationalism, the whole problem of Nazism, the problem of Stalinism, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, of the Cold War, which in my view does not arise out a conflict between modes of production or economies.'
Marxism has, in fact, had a great deal to say about all of these things--just think of Trotsky on German fascism, Gramsci on 'the Southern Question' in Italy, Bukharin on imperialism, state capitalism and the drive to war, Voloshinov on language and consciousness, Vance and Kidron on the permanent arms economy, Cliff on Russian state capitalism and Chinese Maoism. But all these works of Marxism lie well outside the orbit of the Stalinised Marxist tradition Thompson was educated in and rebelled against, and so hardly figure in his range of understanding.
The second element from the Stalinist experience which continued to influence Thompson's thinking was the Popular Front tendency to slip from the concept of class to the concept of 'people'. At times this was less explicit, but at others he veered a bit in the same direction, as in his famous introduction to The Making of the English Working Class where he tends to define a class in terms of its consciousness rather than its material circumstances.
The danger with such fudging of concepts is that it leads to forgetting that the power to change society depends upon finding a group that is structured inside society in such a way that it is driven by material circumstances to fight back. If revolutionaries cannot find such a group--called by Marx a 'class in itself'--then all the huffing and puffing about 'agency' and ideological struggle will get them nowhere: 'The pump won't work because the vandals stole the handle.'
Fortunately Thompson was anything but consistent, either in his aversion to 'base and superstructure' or in his confusion of 'class' and 'people'. You will find in this collection excellent examples of the Marxist method properly used as well as maddening examples of a failure to understand what Marxism is really about.
One final point. The pieces are not all written at the same level of accessibility. A few are a treat for newcomers to socialist ideas, but many others presuppose an acquaintance with historical and theoretical questions. So readers who are new to Thompson's work should not start with this book but with his wonderful The Making of the English Working Class.
None to Accompany Me
This is a novel about a journey--the personal journey of its principle character, Vera Stark--and the journey of South African society as it moves away from apartheid towards the future.
It is set in the period after February 1990, when opposition groups such as the ANC were decriminalised, and takes us up to the historic elections of last April.
It is a time of uncertainty which is focused through the experiences of two families with a common history of struggle against the racist state. Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma are ANC activists who were forced into exile. They have done heroic service in the fight against apartheid but return to South Africa changed by their experiences overseas. They arrive eager to assist in the process of change, but are no longer willing to share the poverty they see all about them.
Following the lead of a movement that has agreed to accept capitalism and all its structures, they use their political connections to procure a home and jobs. They go on to manoeuvre for high office and continue to distance themselves from the masses whose power brought apartheid to its knees. They also renew their friendship with Vera Stark.
Vera is a lawyer in a legal foundation fighting for the victims of apartheid. At the outset of the novel she is involved with a group of squatters who have occupied a white farm. It is the squatters' new confidence and militancy, articulated through their representative Zeph Rapulana, that begins a process whereby Vera is forced to reassess her whole life. Under the fixed certainties of apartheid Vera was able to define herself in relation to her husband, her lovers, her children and grandchildren. The new period of transition shakes her faith in all these relationships. Just as South Africa must discard its past to go forward, Vera finds she must do the same with her own life.
But to go forward to what?
This is a beautifully written novel in which the fictional lives of its characters mesh with real events--white businessmen eat in expensive restaurants and nervously discuss the latest strikes, the fictional career of Didymus is regenerated by the actual murder of Chris Hani, and Vera is selected to help draft the impossible constitution.
Like all the major characters in this novel, Vera accepts that South Africa's future is a capitalist one, 'there's no millenium, only the IMF and the World Bank.'
Even Rapulana, the squatter camp leader, becomes an advisor to big business, finds acceptance in those expensive restaurants and worries whether post-apartheid South Africa can compete on the world market. After all 'what other solution was there to try for the present?'
Yet in the background of the novel we catch glimpses of an alternative in the black working class, a class which wonders why whites still sit behind the desks of power and why stolen land has yet to be restored. Nadine Gordimer calls the final section of this moving book 'arrivals', but you leave the novel certain that South Africa's journey has just begun.
Huxley: The Devil's Disciple
Michael Joseph £20.00
The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, and the debate it sparked, marked a turning point. Nobody promoted Darwin's views more enthusiastically or to greater effect than Thomas Henry Huxley. He earned a reputation as 'Darwin's Bulldog'; a soldier of science, slaying the bishops and clerical naturalists who clung to their creation stories with the same resolve that they held onto their positions of influence.
Yet Huxley's conversion to evolutionary thought was far from smooth and, as with many other converts to 'Darwinism', never total. For years he resisted the evidence of the progression of living forms shown in fossil record. Even after he had become reconciled to the idea of evolutionary descent Huxley expressed doubts about Darwin's central mechanism of natural selection.
The real value of the Origin to men like Huxley was its convincingly naturalistic explanation of our world. In the hands of the new men of science evolution was a weapon in the struggle to create a new meritocracy.
It is difficult today to appreciate the influence the Anglican Church and its political allies exerted on official life. When Darwin first formulated his theory, access to parliament, Oxford and Cambridge and all manner of official bodies was restricted to those who could swear to the 39 Articles of the Anglican faith. Jews, Catholics and Dissenters were all excluded. Political influence too was largely confined to an elite of 'old money'. Science was generally the preserve of gentlemen of leisure and wealth.
But new wealth and new professions were increasingly undermining this aristocratic and clerical domination. Manufacturers, engineers, doctors, were all aware of their own growing importance. Most too were frustrated by a society where success, acclaim and material rewards depended more on birth than merit.
Huxley was born above a butchers' shop to a struggling middle class family. Merit was his only hope of advance and he was quick to develop a healthy contempt for deference and forelock tugging. Working as a drug grinder in the East End of London, he witnessed some of the most brutal and miserable conditions to be seen anywhere in the world, and his dissatisfaction with society (unlike many Whig reformers) extended to the miseries of the poor.
His first break came with his appointment as assistant surgeon on one of Her Majesty's surveying ships, the Rattlesnake. This was real work in contrast to Darwin's position as 'gentleman companion' to the captain of the Beagle, but Huxley found the time to dredge for specimens, for dissection and writing up his findings. Quickly he began to build a reputation, as he rewrote the work of some of the most respected naturalists, regrouping classes of sea creatures according to new physical criteria. His classifications depended purely on form and structure rather than historical development and evolution.
Despite his lack of an evolutionary perspective, Huxley was quick to lock horns on his return with England's most respected creationist, the anatomist Richard Owen. His determination to carve out a place for professional 'men of science' was strengthened by personal considerations--the need to bring his fiancée over from Australia.
Respect for Huxley grew but his greatest prominence came with the debates around the Origin of Species. He wrote reviews and essays and lectured ceaselessly. He lectured as much to working class audiences as to the wealthy. Evolution had long been in the armoury of working class radicals (one of the reasons the ideas were feared). Huxley's interest was not in socialism, but in a world dominated by a British Empire run on rational scientific lines. The victory of Huxley's project was also a personal victory. He became president of the Geographical and Ethnological Societies, and of the 'Parliament of Science', the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Anyone who has read Desmond's Darwin (co-authored by James Moore) will know what to expect of this book: a well paced enjoyable account, placing scientific ideas and personalities firmly in their historical context. The Huxley biography doesn't have the broad historical sweep of their Darwin, but still has much to recommend it.
Right On: From Blues To Soul In Black America
Causeway Press £12.95
The influence of both blues and soul on contemporary popular music is difficult to underestimate. Both have been incorporated into the mainstream of American culture to the point where no nostalgia trip is complete without them as part of the soundtrack.
Right On is an attempt to analyse what conditions gave birth to and sustained blues as a music form. It seeks to explain why blues stagnated and was replaced by soul as the dominant popular music form in black America. It is a fascinating study conducted by someone more famous for his A level sociology text books than for his love of black American music.
In the cotton states of America's southern delta region conditions for black Americans were appalling. Economic exploitation had long replaced slavery but the levels of poverty, racism and the repression of those who fought back made the Delta comparable to South Africa. It was in these states that blues developed toward the end of the 19th century.
The songs that were sung typically did not talk of a bright future in a promised land, nor of the racism that existed all around them, nor even of the resistance which occasionally broke out, but of the pain of existence in a world where the odds were stacked against you. Blues dealt with the results rather than the causes. Roy Brown sang Hard Luck Blues, 'I've got so much, so much trouble / Sometimes I sit and cry / I'm gonna find my mother's grave / fall on the tombstone and die.'
The ending of the First World War saw the beginning of the move north for many. Those from the delta took their musical traditions with them and harshness of life in the south was replaced by harshness of life in the ghettos of Chicago and Detroit. Initially blues was still a reflection of the conditions that people found themselves in, but by the mid 1950s the social and political position of black Americans was beginning to change.
The year 1960 is described by some as 'the year of the massive awakening' for black America. Four black students from a college in North Carolina sat down at an all white lunch counter in Woolworths and refused to be moved. One year later more than 50,000 people were involved in civil rights demonstrations. The 'awakening' is reflected in the music of the time, soul music.
As a music form, soul owes more to gospel than it does to blues not just because the 'call-response' structure which is typical of soul but because of its optimism. Gospel always offered the hope of a better life after death. Soul reflected a feeling that a better life could be had before death and a degree of determination and pride which could be interpreted in a variety of ways. James Brown sang it in Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud: 'But we'd rather die on our feet / than keep living on our knees / Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.'
Right On chronicles the development of two music forms in relation to the economic and political periods in which they emerged and the result is a book which offers many insights and a fascinating read at the same time.
The War of the Words
Ed: Sarah Dunant
Over the last few years, the press and the establishment have found a new 'loony left bogey' to attack in the shape of 'political correctness' (PC). What began as an argument about positive discrimination and language codes has now blown up into an ideological and political battle over many of the gains made by the movements for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. From protests against the Nazis to attempts to highlight date rape as rape, those of us who want to end oppression are attacked as 'the PC thought police', curtailing people's freedom and democracy.
Of course the reality is somewhat different as many of the contributors to this new book adequately demonstrate. The various ways of opposing oppression that have been lumped together as 'PC' by those who perpetuate such oppression, in reality, are about trying to give a voice to those readily denied it in capitalist societies. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes the attack on PC as 'a kind of back to basics campaign...an instant way of discrediting anybody who talks of the need for change, redress or equal rights.' This book sets out to examine the pros and cons of PC as a method of redressing discrimination.
It contains some eloquent and interesting defence of measures such as anti-racist policies and positive discrimination. Meera Syal, the writer and director of the film, Bhaji on the Beach, explains how the equal opportunities policies of Labour left councils such as the GLC in the mid-1980s allowed many oppressed groups access to education, politics and the arts that had previously been denied them by racist institutions. She roots the impetus for such policies in the anger and injustice people felt at the rise of the National Front in the late 1970s and the riots against poverty, unemployment and police harassment in the early 1980s.
Professor Lisa Jardine describes how questioning the notion of a superior Western civilisation has opened up the study of literature and history in universities outside of a previous narrow 'great tradition'. Other contributors argue that changing language can change attitudes and that PC challenges sexism.
There was much in some of the pro-PC articles I disagreed with, however.
Many of the strategies proposed concentrate on changing education and language rather than the actual society that produces inequalities. None of the articles even glanced at the possibility that ordinary people themselves hold the power to transform society in the way that, for example, organisations like the Black Panthers or the Gay Liberation Front did when they challenged oppressive institutions in the 1960s.
However, when put alongside the articles in this book which attack PC, it is easy to see what side socialists should be on. The anti-PC articles are not about alternative ways of fighting, rather they end up siding with bigots and Tories on both sides of the Atlantic who use their attack on PC as a cover for their decimation of welfare services and attacks on the rights of minorities. Melanie Phillips continues the attack on anti-racist training for social workers she began in her column in the Observer and argues that the failure of our education system to cater for the poorest, disadvantaged and ethnic minorities are more to do with 'liberal' teaching methods than Tory cuts. Phillips spends much of her article proclaiming how brave she is to stand out against the 'intellectual lynch mob' of the left and liberals in her defence of things such as the 'normal' family--obviously allies like the Sun and Peter Lilley are not enough to protect her views!
It is sad to see the often sharp critic of capitalist society, Christopher Hitchens, missing the real point of the attack on PC and arguing that the task of genuine liberalism in the 'defence of free thinking from its false friends'--rather than from the people who would ban Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers or the explicit work of the gay artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
The book is not a bad starting point to examine the controversy around PC, but for a clear socialist analysis read John Molyneux in International Socialism 61.
The Lost Soldier's Song
Sinclair Stevenson £14.99
McGinley's new novel is set in 1921 and follows a young IRA recruit in his fight against the British. The period has been described by modern Republican leaders as the 'four glorious years' when the IRA took up arms to rid the south of Ireland of British troops.
The struggle was launched on the upswell of hatred provoked by murderous repression against the Irish people. McGinley describes how Declan, a young graduate, joins up. His reasons--he hates the British, is desperate to escape the tedium of unemployment and is drawn by the legends of past Irish freedom fighters--are reflected by other fighters Declan encounters along his path through low key military engagements, escapes and eventual capture by the British.
The novel captures the brutality of the Black and Tans, a force put together from the most bigoted and murderous elements of the British army. Civilians are murdered, villages and towns kept under curfew and IRA fighters hunted down, tortured and killed. Against this, Declan's comrades are poorly armed, poorly trained and often led by total crackpots.
The novel's strength is in McGinley's portrayal of tension between the IRA fighters and their officers. We see how the army is organised by a rigid hierarchy, where the rank and file obey orders or face the firing squad. It is this threat, often in the face of suicidal plans, together with loyalty to Irish nationalism that leads many to death or capture.
The tension is always around in the IRA hideouts, fighters either ignoring their doubts or becoming cynical. But the truth of that cynicism is a powerful lesson for today. As one fighter says, 'We're fighting for a nation of second-rate shopkeepers and for generations of shopkeeping politicians to come'.
Unfortunately, the novel focuses only on an isolated group of fighters in south west Ireland, who never hear of the impact their struggle has on the outside world. The guerilla war was also accompanied by an explosion in the working class that threatened those 'second-rate shopkeepers' leading the IRA and the movement for Home Rule.
A number of general strikes, North and South, suggested that the nationalist struggle might spill over into class war. Tragically the likes of Declan and his comrades never made the connection with these workers, and were in fact used by their leaders to put down a wave of land occupations by agricultural workers.
The argument that Irish workers needed to wait first for independence before putting their own demands crushed all hope for equality in Ireland. McGinley's book is an enjoyable way to start chipping away at the myths of the 'four glorious years' as part of the struggle for socialism in Ireland today.
Jonathan Cape £12.99
This is the first novel of a Sri Lankan author, now based in Canada following the 1983 riot. The story is relayed through the eyes of Arje, a seven year old who is part of one big, wealthy and seemingly happy Tamil family. Arje wishes away time in anticipation of 'spend the days'--a day when the entire family of cousins, aunts and uncles spend the whole day at the home of his grandparents.
Arje looks forward to this as it is the time when rather than play cricket with the boys he chooses to dress up in full bridal regalia and play 'the bride game'. To Arje and his cousins, this is a harmless and innocent game and they are shocked at the reaction of horror from the rest of the family.
The story follows a series of events which have a dramatic impact on Arje in terms of shaping his view of life. He develops a special relationship with an aunt on her return from America. Radha Aunty not only allows but encourages him to dress up and play with makeup. Arje is delighted when he is allowed to take part in the production of The King and I alongside Radha Aunty.
It is through the play that Radha Aunty meets and falls in love with Amil, a Sinhalese. Arje finds out about the struggles between the Tamils and the Sinhalese by accident.
Arje is exposed to racism when Jegan, the son of his father's best friend, comes to work for the family. Jegan had at one point fought for the Tamil Tigers, and as the political situation intensifies, the family is forced to sack him.
The book tackles issues of racism and sexuality in a refreshing way. The eyes of an innocent and naive child are used to show how simple and ideal the world could be.
Arje is first awakened to racism when he is told that the hero and heroine do not live happily ever after in the play The King and I because they are of separate races. Although he remains unsatisfied with this explanation he begins to see it for himself when his aunt is forbidden to talk to a Sinhalese.
Through snatches of overheard conversations about the historical and ongoing struggle between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, Arje becomes increasingly aware of life around him and for the first time begins to notice the deliberate separation of the two at school.
Seeing his aunt being forced into marriage makes him face the harsh realities of life as he slowly loses sight of his ideal that if two people loved each other then all would be well. He gains a growing awareness that 'the world...where good was rewarded and evil punished seemed suddenly false to me.'
The book realistically deals with Arje's conflicting feeling of confusion and disgust and at the same time love and desire as he has his first sexual relationship with a boy at his school. Arje's idea of love is destroyed as he realises that this is something which his family will not understand and cannot be a part of.
The book's portrayal of Arje's parents is also excellent. The mother increasingly gathers strength throughout the book as she attempts to come to terms with living under a corrupt and repressive regime. The book shows her sympathies shifting towards the Tamil Tigers. One incident shows her defiantly scrubbing out racist abuse when everyone else is afraid to do so. In contrast, the father remains determined to maintain the status quo and does not want to rock the boat. He leaves racism unchallenged as he sees this as the only way to maintain his position as a wealthy businessman, 'As a Tamil, you soon learn how to play the game.'
This book is beautifully written and is accessible to those with no knowledge of the civil war in Sri Lanka. The story is not unique to Sri Lanka, this could be any young boy or girl trying to come to terms with and find explanations for a chaotic world where things do not make sense and injustices prevail.