Issue 183 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Communist Party and the Autoworkers' Union
International Publishers £7.95
The Big Strike
International Publishers £7.50
Black Workers in the Deep South
International Publishers £4.95
In 1931 the American Communist Party had 9,300 members. The situation they faced was bleak. Mass unemployment had destroyed many working class communities and whole sections of American industry remained virtually non-unionised. Those trying to organise came up against company unions or language barriers that appeared almost insurmountable (42 different languages were spoken in one factory in Flint). They also faced witch hunts from the union leaders and victimisation from their jobs. Many were beaten up or murdered by company agents and racism was never far from the surface.
The CP wanted to head the drive to unionise American industry and create a serious revolutionary party in the heart of world capitalism. In many ways it was successful. It led many big strikes and membership rose to 75,000 by 1938. These three books show the bravery and ingenuity of some of those involved and their attempts to overcome the problems that faced them.
The Communist Party and the Autoworkers' Union is the best of the three. The auto industry was one of the few growth industries of the depression. By 1930, 640,474 people were employed in the industry. It was argued by many at the time that because of the ruthless nature of the employers and the fact that a large proportion of the workforce was made up of immigrants, that it was impossible to unionise.
The CP dismissed this idea. With company spies always present it was often impossible to hold meetings inside the car plants. The CP would go to the community halls of foreign workers and hold recruitment drives. They also produced papers and leaflets in dozens of different languages and even spoke at black church meetings. They also found imaginative ways of distributing their material. One worker described finding his first CP leaflet in a toilet paper holder. He went on to become a key union activist.
By the time of the mid-1930s big 'sit down' strikes, the CP had a thousand members inside the auto industry. It also sold 60,000 copies of the rank and file auto workers' paper in Detroit alone.
The central plank of the CP's strategy for building unions was 'militant strike action' led by the rank and file. Management used the large reserve of unemployed workers to break strikes. The workers replied with 'sit down' strikes. Rather than walk out on strike, they would occupy the factory, stopping management removing expensive machinery and stopping the use of scab labour. In 1934 a wave of sit down strikes forced management in plant after plant to recognise the United Autoworkers Union and improve both working conditions and pay. The chapter on 'The Sit Down Strike' is inspirational and essential reading.
The second book--The Big Strike--is an account of the general strike led by dock workers of San Fransisco in 1934. It, along with the general strikes in Toledo and Minneapolis (read Farrell Dobbs' Teamster Rebellion for a brilliant account of that strike), ushered in a new era of militancy for the American working class.
Quin provides a vivid account of how a strike for union recognition and better pay and conditions in the docks spread to nearly every other group of workers in San Francisco and every other dock along the west coast. San Francisco was the hub of the strike. Massive battles between pickets and police took place and two pickets were killed. Over 40,000 attended the funeral parade of the two murdered strikers, one of whom was a CP member. In a final attempt to break the strike the National Guard was sent in. The dockers held firm and won a total victory.
From the grand heights of sit down and general strikes, Hosea Hudson's personal account of a black worker in the American South may seem tame. But it is one of the few accounts of a black Communist organising in the South. If the Ku Klux Klan got hold of a black CP member it meant certain death, members often attended their branch meetings armed with shotguns.
Hudson attempted with great success to organise both black and white workers and unemployed to stand and fight together. He played a prominent role in unionising agricultural and industrial workers. He was also involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys (nine black youth wrongly accused of raping two white women), and voter registration for blacks. He was finally forced to leave the South when Birmingham's police commissioner, 'Bull' Connor, used the police and the Klan to track him down. Some 25 years later Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement would run into 'Bull', but then fortunes would be reversed.
All the authors give an uncritical view of the American CP, which followed every twist and turn of Stalin's foreign policy. They also accepted the turn towards the Popular Front (the formation of cross class alliances) and a separate state in America for black people. These turns weakened the organisation, particularly during the Second World War when it turned its back on the best militants and used the slogan, 'Everything for victory', opposing strikes because they damaged the war effort. But don't let that put you off reading these books.
The militant tactics employed by the CP re-emerged in the new struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s in America. The sit down strike was introduced by black militants in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). The voter registration drives were used on a scale that the CP could never have matched by King and his supporters.
These books are not new, but have so far been difficult to obtain. However Bookmarks does have a limited number for sale so get them while you can. They are a goldmine for socialists today.
(Available from Bookmarks 081 801 6145)
Lawrence Hill £8.75
This reprint of Soledad Brother could not have been timed more appropriately. At times the book reads like a rage against the rottenness and racism of American society in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are even some familiar names amongst the cast of characters. Governor Reagan of California was later, as president, to become the architect of the exploitation and oppression that was finally to explode in the LA riots of 1992. Bill Cosby, now one of the world's richest and most powerful performers, is denounced as an Uncle Tom figure 'transmitting the credo of the slave to our youth'.
In fact, this collection of letters was written between 1964 and 1970, while Jackson was serving a prison term for stealing $70 from a gas station.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Jackson pleaded guilty in order to receive a light sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to between one year and life and remained incarcerated for the next ten years, the majority of which were spent in solitary confinement, until his murder by a prison guard in 1971.
Jackson's story is shocking and remarkable, but the experiences he describes--the constant harassment by the authorities, denial of opportunities and, especially for men, the expectation of spending long stretches in prison--are common to successive generations of blacks. In the 1950s and 60s some of the most successful blacks were those holding down regular jobs as bartenders, shoeshine boys and sandwich vendors on trains. For many others, petty crime or gambling seemed the only alternative to unemployment and the ghetto.
George Jackson admits that he was something of a tearaway as a youngster who caused innumerable problems for his long-suffering parents. As a black teenager with two previous convictions, he could not expect to be acquitted on the theft charge. However, he could not have anticipated the draconian sentence and savage treatment he was to receive. These experiences politicised Jackson. He began to read voraciously whilst in prison and was to become a renowned political prisoner and spokesperson against the injustices of the American criminal justice system.
Much of the correspondence is intensely personal letters to family members in which Jackson expresses extremely frank and scathing opinions about his parents and the way they raised him as a child. At the same time, these letters reflect Jackson's frustration at what he considered the apathy and 'lack of spirit' of blacks in America. He set himself the monumental personal task of shutting out all emotions in order to concentrate his mind on his determination to secure his release and his political commitment.
His fury at his own incarceration must have been heightened by the growth in black struggle in these years. However, he was clearly encouraged by them and revised his previous opinions. Whilst respecting Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he was critical of its non-violence. His own philosophy was close to that of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. In one of his later letters he remarked: 'When a sucker gets so foolish as to warn you in advance that he is going to kill you, the next sound he utters should come through swollen lips.'
Thanks to his reading of Marx, Lenin, Engels and even Trotsky, Jackson developed a highly sophisticated understanding and hatred of capitalism as 'the enemy. It must be destroyed. There is no other recourse.' However, he wrongly characterised 'Amerika' (sic) as fascist and had illusions both in black African leaders and Chairman Mao, whose Little Red Book he considered a seminal work.
These attitudes mark Soledad Brother out as a product of its time. We can but speculate that later struggles would have changed the opinions of this thoughtful and intelligent man, just as his dismissal of women as weak and irrational was challenged by his dialogue with the black Communist Angela Davis.
A number of key changes have occurred in the years since George Jackson's death. The black struggles of the 1960s did force open the door for an emergent black middle class and for a layer of blacks to rise to prominent political positions. Far from leading to an improvement in conditions, the plight of most blacks has worsened over the past 20 years. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, the life expectancy of a young black man in Harlem is lower than in Bangladesh and more blacks can expect to go to prison than to college.
The other key change is that the United States has become more integrated as have most societies. Most fundamentally, working class blacks and whites suffered together during the era of Reagan, Bush and now Clinton. But they have also fought back together, as the LA riots in 1992 showed.
Soledad Brother is a fitting testament which should inspire anyone who wishes to continue that fight for the liberation which so many millions, both in prison and outside, have been denied.
It was possible 30 years ago to hear people saying, 'British justice is the best in the world'--not a claim heard much nowadays. Even so, miscarriages of justice are still believed to be exceptional. Mike Mansfield shows in Presumed Guilty that they can happen to anyone.
He describes in detail a case which could have resulted in a young Asian man being given a life sentence for something he did not do. His solicitor believed in his innocence sufficiently to take on the initial legal expenses himself and was experienced enough not to allow the police and Crown Prosecution Service to hinder his investigations. However, by the time the jury had cleared him, this young man had spent 15 months banged up in a remand centre 200 miles from his family.
Mike Mansfield uses this case to illustrate the weaknesses of the British legal system, one of which is that police carry out investigations of a crime. This, he says, leads to their deciding the guilty person is the one they have arrested and making their evidence fit their case. He says that police are likely to be believed in court, despite having been known to falsify confessions, terrorise, torture, discourage suspects from calling a solicitor and hinder the defendant's solicitor from investigating the case.
Defence solicitors face further difficulties: some of the evidence in the hands of the prosecution may never be released to them, even if it would prove the client's innocence, and legal aid is inadequate, difficult to get and due for further cuts.
Mansfield compares the British legal system unfavourably with the French and American. Judges are almost exclusively from a public school, Oxbridge background in Britain, whereas he would like to see them drawn from all walks of life as they are in France. He thinks magistrates' courts should be abolished. Magistrates are 'virtually untrained... predominantly affluent, conservative and middle class'.
He would also like to see improvements in the system of bail, remand and forensic science. Yet he does not explain why there are still innocent men on death row in America, or racist murders by French police. Although he points out that 17 year old Katherine Griffiths spent considerably longer in a closed prison for stealing a bottle of milk than Ernest Saunders for the Guinness fraud, he does not conclude that injustice arises out of the class system.
The chapters dealing with the murder case were alternated with chapters discussing details of other cases, legal systems or proposals for reform. This meant that, fascinating as the story was, it was constantly interrupted and I found this distracting and confusing. Despite this, since the book is full of useful information, exposing the brutality, incompetence and arrogance of those who administer the legal system, it is well worth reading.
Collected works Vol 34
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £40
This is the fifth volume of the manuscripts and notes Marx wrote on economics in the years 1861-64, immediately before embarking on the final draft of Capital. Some of the content has been published previously as Theories of Surplus Value, the planned fourth volume of Capital that Marx himself never had time to put together. It is not easy reading, consisting as it does of a massive number of quotes from the classics of bourgeois economics together with Marx's comments on them--fascinating if you are already studying the history of economics but not for newcomers, who would be best advised first to read Rubin's History of Economic Thought.
The rest of the content of these volumes is made up of the various drafts written by Marx as he collected material and worked out his ideas for Capital. Some passages appear in a scarcely altered form in its three volumes--presumably because Marx considered them the clearest and most accessible renderings of this argument. But most have never appeared in print before.
It is invaluable to have them at last, because by reading how Marx formulated and reformulated particular arguments several times in slightly different ways we can see where some people have misinterpreted the passages which finally appear in Capital.
In this volume you can find passages where Marx counters decisively the alleged refutation of his theory about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall which was taken up and used by Steedman and Okishio more than a century later. They argue that the tendency cannot hold because no capitalist will introduce a new technique that cuts his profits. Marx pointed out that the first capitalist to introduce the technique will raise his profits at the expense of other capitalists in the same line of business, but that when they follow suit all of their profits will fall to a lower level than previously.
Again, in dealing at length with the difference between what is productive and what is unproductive labour for capitalism, Marx enables us to clear away many misconceptions that still bedevil discussion on the subject.
And the volume should dispel, once and for all, one of the most prevalent myths of the late 1960s and early 1970s--the claim that a 'mature Marx' abandoned the notion of human alienation to be found in his early writings. These myths were used to try to save the idea that Stalinist states, in which working people certainly did not control their own future, were somehow the inheritors of Marx's life's work.
But in this volume he uses formulations, remarkably similar to those of his early writings, which make it clear capitalism is about human alienation and socialism overcoming that alienation to establish a genuinely human society.
With the appearance of these volumes there can no longer be any doubting the continuity of his basic approach from the mid1840s right through to his death.
The only people who really stand in the tradition of Marx are those who fight for the self-emancipation of the working class, not those who are nostalgic for dead tyrannies that still ruled a third of the world until five years ago.
Those tyrannies used to publish Marx's works in order to disguise their own anti-socialist social relations. It is an irony of history that one result of their publication is that today we can have access to what Marx himself really thought about human liberation.
Coming Back Brockens: a Year in a Mining Village
Jonathan Cape £16.99
Coming Back Brockens is a depressing book and not, as the title may imply, about the miners' strike of 1984-85.
The author goes in search of his forebears who were mine workers in the Durham pit village of Horden which once employed 5,000 men.
Durham, like the rest of Britain's coalfields, has been laid waste by the closures of 1992 and before. Horden pit went in 1986 leaving behind high unemployment, high crime and low expectations for the future. As Hudson searches for the history of his family, which is not particularly interesting, he starts to recognise the bitterness and despair of people's lives, but time and time again his contempt for working class people comes through.
Not only is his book patronising, but at times it is downright insulting. It reaches its depths when he claims that Viz characters such as Biffa Bacon populate the nearby town of Peterlee, or when he refuses to make way for a group of schoolgirls on a narrow pavement, 'Not in this shithole.' As if to say he would play the gent if walking down Oxford Street. He rails against a community that could pull together during the 1984-85 strike but can't come up with a collective solution to crime and who refuse to 'shop' local youth to the police. This is something common enough in working class communities, in particular mining ones. The police's role in the strike means they are more hated than the kids who nick and vandalise through desperation and boredom.
Hudson is obviously a member of the school of thought that believes the working class is dead--he tells us that the 'great British public rallied to the miners in 1992 because the power of organised labour was no longer a threat to them'.
Hudson does most of the talking throughout the book, but the only decent part of it is where he gives over two chapters to political activists, one an ex-Communist Party member and the other from the Labour Party, who give an account of being involved in local politics.
Instead of giving us such a shallow view of working class life maybe Hudson should have followed his friends' advice. They could not understand why, he wanted to go to such a place as east Durham, 'where they all vote Labour but when you examined what they believed in most of them were fascists'.
He should have listened to them and done us all a favour.
To look at the former Soviet Union today is to see a society lurching ever deeper into social and economic chaos as the artificial restraints of state capitalism give way to the full blown anarchy of the market. As if this is not enough, Zhirinovsky's fascists are waiting in the wings, gratefully harvesting the sour fruit of shattered expectations.
Against this background, any book which can provide an intelligent analysis of the situation in the former Soviet Union and contribute to our understanding of its downfall is extremely welcome. Sadly, however, David Remnick has not written such a work. His is one of a number of recent books by Western journalists (Remnick worked for the Washington Post) describing the downfall of 'Communism' and the creation of a brave new society. Not surprisingly then, like so much of the journalism on the subject, Lenin's Tomb is stuffed with cliche, anecdote and unsubstantiated myth.
This is not to say that it is completely without value. Much of the book relies on interviews with both victims and upholders of the Stalinist regime and provides a damning catalogue of its crimes. More importantly, despite Remnick's wholly inadequate Jackanory history of the October Revolution and his obvious distaste for socialist ideas, he is frequently frustrated in his attempts to link Lenin and Stalin because of the overwhelming nature of the evidence which suggests a fundamental cleavage in Soviet history after 1928.
In addition to this, Remnick illustrates well the hypocrisy and repulsive extravagance of the Stalinists alongside the sheer degradation they inflicted upon ordinary working people.
Neither is Remnick afraid to expose the excesses of the free market currently wreaking havoc in the former Soviet Union, if only because of their terrible magnitude. Yet in a society where the old ruling class of apparatchiks has by and large remained in power, Remnick still holds firm to the assumption that the Soviet Union was in some way socialist. For him, its tragic history was an inevitable result of the Bolshevik revolution rather than a consequence of the counter-revolutionary measures brutally administered by Stalin which, nonetheless, Remnick has recorded.
Nowhere is Remnick's analysis shown to be more painfully inadequate than when he is describing the magnificent miners' strikes of 1989 which signalled the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, he says, was a real '"working class" rebellion' impatient with the revolution from above offered by Gorbachev. And then preposterously, 'nothing so vividly illustrated the disintegration of the workers' state'.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Lenin's Tomb is worth reading for the insights provided by Remnick's interviewees. The strike committee at one of the Ukrainian mines in 1989, for example, was able to clear up any confusion Remnick has left us with about the nature of the Soviet Union and provide us with a refrain as relevant now as it was then: 'Let's get rid of the bosses, we don't need them.'
The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800-1850
Pluto Press £6.95
In the spring of 1848 a tremendous fear gripped the English middle classes. Would the Chartist demonstration at Kennington, planned to deliver a huge petition to parliament, see the French revolutionary events of that year repeated in England?
In fact, the threat was seen off with a mobilisation by the government of some 97,000 men to prevent any march on Westminster and the Chartists were defeated. This was to be a decisive turning point in the battle between the classes to dominate the new industrial society. It marked the moment when the final obstacles to the free rule of capitalism were removed. The first half of the 19th century saw the state moulded to the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie and the challenge from below overcome, albeit temporarily.
John Saville's short book, part of a new series from Pluto on 'A Socialist History of Britain', is an excellent commentary on these events. His theme revolves around two central events, the political reforms of the early 1830s and the defeat of Chartism in 1848. These events were intimately linked.
The significance of the 1832 Reform Act has long been the subject of debate by historians--did it really bring the bourgeoisie to political power? After all, landed aristocrats continued to dominate government posts and civil service jobs for long after.
In fact, the parliamentary reform of 1832 was a compromise, a deal struck by the old landed classes and the emerging bourgeoisie in both their interests. The latter gained a voice in parliament whilst the former retained their monopoly of political office. Three years later local government was reorganised. Control of the local state in the major cities was given to the bourgeoisie. Aristocrats might still rule but the industrial magnates governed.
The alliance of the middle classes and working people in the cause of radical reform was broken to be replaced by a growing consensus between the propertied classes against the threat from below. One vital result was that the revolutionary crisis of 1848 took a markedly different character in Britain from events on the continent. The absence of middle class leadership was perhaps one of the main reasons why Chartism emerged as the first independent political movement of the working class. On the other hand the state was stronger. Middle class support allowed a strengthening of the coercive machinery of the state. The introduction of the first professional police force in 1829 in London was one sign of this.
John Saville hints at the political weaknesses of the Chartist leaders which allowed the state to crush them. Too few were prepared for a real confrontation.
Saville's book is a rich suggestive discussion of the transformation of the state in the interests of capitalism in this period. Anyone interested in the history of Chartism will find it offers valuable illumination of the broader political and economic context within which the first mass working class movement arose and fought.
In Pharaoh's Army
Bloomsbury Press £12.99
Reading Tobias Wolff's memoirs In Pharaoh's Army is like reading a literary equivalent of The Deer Hunter or Platoon. It is his way of getting over the Vietnam Syndrome. Wolff tries to come to terms with this by writing a book in which a strange sense of guilt prevails. He finds himself in the American army as officer material and feels guilty that his friends are being sent to Vietnam while his training continues.
While he can't wait to get out there, his friends are dying, and when he finally does arrive in Vietnam he feels a sense of guilt for not being in the middle of all the action.
You do get a picture of what it is like to be at war, always on edge, never trusting anyone, having a routine that you keep to simply because it got you through the day before. A good illustration is the way Wolff puts sandbags under his seat in the jeep, so if he drives over a mine his 'butt' would stay with the rest of his body, though he knows this to be a waste of time.
This could be any war, it is not portrayed as the war in which America dropped more bombs on Vietnam than the total that were dropped in the Second World War. There's little mention of the mass napalming of areas causing massive destruction and death. This is written from a purely American perspective. There's no attempt to explain what the war was about or the general feelings of those involved. When you're waist deep in a paddy field with machine gun fire all around, you can understand a lack of clarity, but 20 years on we can expect a more considered opinion.
The North Vietnamese play no part in the book at all except as the enemy burrowing like rats all around the American camps or infiltrating the bases as peasants sending out details about the camp to the Vietnamese.
The South Vietnamese army are shown as unhelpful jokers and ignorant. On an exercise one day a Vietnamese soldier finds a dog and keeps it. When Wolff asks him what's it called the soldier replies, 'Canh Cho', or dog stew. This horrifies Wolff who knows a dog is a man's best friend and buys it off the Vietnamese soldier.
The problem with the book is you're not sure whether Wolff's guilt for serving in Vietnam is genuine or not.
I wanted him to survive and work everything out but by the end there was this hollow feeling that he doesn't feel guilty at all--just that he wants to forget all the bad things that happened and remember his lost friends in some way.
If you want to know more about the Vietnam War then read Vietnam, the 10,000 Day War, or try to find a copy of Dispatches, which is a collection of American soldiers' letters--or from a Vietnamese perspective the excellent Sorrow Of War. All of these explain the horror of this war much better than Wolff's hollow account.
Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crises
Pluto Press £10.95
The complexities of Zionism and a secular Jewish idenitity are reflected in the passions surrounding the debate on Zionism and racism. This collection of essays examines the politics and ideology of Zionism and the state of Israel. In a powerful and at times controversial book, Orr reveals sources and material on Israeli politics previously suppressed by the Israeli political and academic establishment.
He argues that the state of Israel is the creator of the Zionist movement. That does not mean that all Israelis are conscious Zionists. But it does mean that the political, civil and social institutions in Israel are conscious constructs of Zionism. Israeli aspirations and attitudes are therefore shaped by these institutions. Although Orr applauds the work of the anti-Zionist groups within Israel (for example Matzpen of which he is a founder), he admits that the anti-Zionist left in Israel invariably bows to demands from the Israeli establishment.
This book provides the reader with a detailed and lengthy critique of Zionism. Orr traces the history of Zionism, analyses fragmentations within the movement and examines the role of anti-Zionist groups--both secular and religious .
He uncovers the many problems with Zionism and its application in Israel today and links this argument to the whole question of Jewish identity itself. He therefore exposes the growing divide between religious Jews and secular Zionists.
Orr has a passion for the Palestinian people. He followed the course of the Palestinian struggle from the horrors of 1948 up to the inspiring Intifada and the present day situation. He outlines a strong argument for a solution involving one single state for Jews and Arabs, but unfortunately fails to elaborate further on the vital role of the Arab working class.
The final chapter provides a valuable insight into attitudes to the recent 'peace deal': 'The Palestinians are allowed to run their internal affairs, they're relieving the Israelis of the task of policing them'. The tragic scenes of the massacre in Gaza recently (where 13 Palestinians lost their lives at the hands of the Palestinian police) come to mind.
This is an emotional book. Orr is no stranger to persecution (he escaped from Auschwitz) and, controversially, he devotes a large portion of his book to Zionist collaboration with the Nazis.
He offers an illuminating and unique anti-Zionist perspective. Certainly not a beginners' book on Israel, but a refreshingly honest attempt at creating debate on this tragic conflict.
John Grisham's latest book, The Chamber, is a very good read. In keeping with his other books it is set in the deep South of America. The way it deals with racism and the legal system is reminiscent of one of his earlier books--A Time to Kill.
The plot revolves around the character Sam Cayhall who, after being convicted of the murder of two Jewish children, is sentenced to death. After being on death row for several years he is due to be executed in a month's time.
It is then that the bizarre legal battle starts in order to save his life.
What becomes clear is that the decision to execute Sam is based more on local politics than any idea of justice. His grandson, who hasn't seen Sam for many years, is a lawyer and he convinces Sam to let him fight to save him from the gas chamber.
Sam is a racist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Through the investigation, and as his relationship with his grandson develops, we find out some of the horrific activities that Sam was involved in as a Klan member.
This is where the contradiction takes place in the book because, although Sam is an absolutely despicable character, at the same time the idea of the death penalty is abhorrent.
Grisham deals brilliantly with the brutality of the death penalty and with life on death row. Just as you find yourself feeling sorry for Sam, you find out what he did as a Klan member, and you despise him again.
What I like about the book is the way it gives you an insight into racism in the deep South of America, and the hype which surrounds death penalty cases and executions. Although it doesn't have the suspense of some of Grisham's previous novels, this book is well worth a read.