Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Against all Hope: Resistance in the-Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-1945
The victory of fascism in Europe during the 1930s was a catastrophe for humanity. Nothing since has matched the barbarity that was seen in those years. At the very depths of this atrocity was the reign of terror that Hitler's National Socialist Party in Germany unleashed upon those it interned in concentration camps.
These murderous traps, first established for political prisoners and criminals when the Nazis seized power, by 1945 had spawned the 'killing factories' of Auschwitz and its like.
The SS attempted to turn those who were allowed to live 'into numbers, deprived of the last vestige of humanity, and transformed into the totally submissive objects of the SS men running the camps'.
The experience of those who suffered and perished during those years has more often than not been shrouded in mystery. Today you can still hear people ask in bewilderment, 'Why did you let yourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter?'
Hermann Langbein, an Austrian former member of the Communist Party, who fought with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and who ended up in Auschwitz, sets out in this powerful book to describe what really took place.
He shows how, in defiance of an 'inconceivably brutal and totally effective system of terror', resistance to 'the killing of human beings and of everything human' took place. By 'resistance' Langbein is very specific. Without in any way belittling what individuals did to survive--he points out that to survive itself was an act of defiance--his study focuses on how organised resistance took place in the camps.
This is where the strength of the book lies. It shows how at the height of their power the Nazis were not an invincible machine, that even in the most dreadful situations people resisted them.
Each act of defiance that he describes fills you with optimism. There was the mass rebellion at the extermination camp of Sobibor, where, 'although acts of violence applied a constant paralysing pressure on the majority of inmates, plans for an uprising ...were made repeatedly and never abandoned.' Norwegian students, as they were considered 'Nordic people', kept their civilian clothes, were given the same food as the SS men, and for several months received instruction and political indoctrination by the SS. Despite all this 'not a single one of them volunteered for duty with the SS' causing them to be assigned to heavy labour duties and denied their privileges.
However the SS set out to destroy any collective resistance. They used prisoners to administer the camps, played off one group of prisoners against the other by granting privileges that could mean the difference between life and death, and encouraged nationalist prejudices and anti-Semitism that existed.
It is testimony to those who resisted this terror of 'hitherto unimaginable dimensions' that they were able to overcome these divisions and build unified action to limit the fascists.
Langbein addresses the most difficult questions raised by the camps. He tackles the role of those who helped run the camps, the role of the Polish nationalists and Ukrainian anti-Semites, why in a number of instances there was little or no resistance.
However, you are left with the feeling that the author is avoiding certain questions. The Allied refusal to bomb the extermination camps, even though they were aware of their existence, is raised but never condemned.
The insane politics and tactics of the Communist Parties, particularly the German CP, are mentioned but never seriously analysed, even though he admits that the Hitler-Stalin Pact was like 'a hammer blow' to those resisting.
It is here that the major weakness of the book lies. Again and again Langbein proves beyond doubt that there was resistance to the Nazi terror, and with each example you ask the same question, how did so many brave and fearless people end up in such a wretched situation? The clues are to be found in this volume, but are never pieced together.
But a review of this book should not end in a negative note. It is a powerful weapon in our arsenal against those who would deny the Holocaust, a weapon that can be used to lay bare what the fascists of the BNP ultimately stand for.
Read this book, be inspired by those who would not go quietly, and take strength from their will to resist.
The State We're In
Jonathan Cape £16.99
This book has caught the mood of the hour. It has already been reprinted four times since its publication a few weeks ago.
Hutton has used his perch as The Guardian's economic correspondent to assemble an impressive indictment of the Tories' market mania. If you want a coherent argument about why creating mass unemployment and increasing inequality is simply self defeating for a government which is supposed to be reducing public spending; if you want the economic proof that the internal market is wrecking health care; if you want the statistics which prove how great a fraud pension funds are or what a disaster the privatisation bonanza has been, The State We're In has it all.
Since only 11 percent of the population trusts the government, even if a rather higher percentage intend to vote for them, the book was always likely to find an eager audience.
But what has assured its popularity is not just its damning indictment of the Tories. Hutton's book is also an intellectual manifesto for Tony Blair's 'modern' Labour Party. So he curses Tory privatisation, but approves of ditching Clause Four; he condemns the undemocratic nature of Tory rule, but wouldn't repeal the anti-union laws, he hates poverty, but believes that the Tories' picture of the unions 'as greedy and stupid vehicles of militant shop steward power, solely responsible for running down the country...had sufficient truth to sustain the Conservatives' political position.'
In one respect Hutton is to the right of Tony Blair. he still believes in the desirability of an electoral alliance between the Liberals and Labour.
In place of 'a tradition of purely oppositional working class culture, concerned only with conditions on the shopfloor and old memories of exploitation'--Hutton's description of the British Leyland unions in the 1970s--he holds out the old social democratic model of business, union and government cooperation.
Hutton's only originality is to weld this old Keynesian cliche on to an old constitutional cliche. He insists that what undermined the old welfare state consensus was Britain's archaic political setup--the monarchy (although he does not necessarily think it should be abolished), House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting system and the lack of a written constitution. Above all Hutton blames Britain's decline on the economic predominance of the City--the demand for quick profits by southern coupon clippers undermines the efforts of those sterling John Bull figures who run manufacturing industry in the Midlands and the north.
The State We're In therefore confirms not just what the vast majority of people feel about the Tories, but also the particular prejudices of what a section of the middle classes and some capitalists think should be done about the decline of Britain.
Such ideas also spill over into the working class--through the channel of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy, and papers like The Guardian and the New Statesman. So the left has to take them seriously.
The most obvious point to make is that the postwar consensus did not fall apart because Britain is not a republic, does not have a written constitution, an elected second chamber or proportional representation. Italy has had all these for most of the postwar period and yet it would be hard to prove that the political crisis engulfing Italian society is less severe than that in Britain.
Hutton's reheated Keynesianism suffers from a similar objection--it has been tried before and it has failed. Indeed, anyone who lived through the 1970s will experience an intense sense of deja-vu as they read how much better things would be if the 'two sides' of industry were to sit down with the government and work things out.
Hutton seems oblivious of the fact that it was precisely this Social Contract which ended in the defeat of both the unions and the Labour government in 1979. People did not desert Labour because the unions were too powerful, they did so because they were disillusioned not only with Labour's inability to deliver the promised reforms, but with its increasingly frantic attacks on their living standards.
Towards the end of his book Hutton seems to sense that the scale of the economic and political problems that have accumulated in more than 20 years of stagnation and crisis are not amenable to his kind of reform, 'the country is at a turning-point like that of the 1630s, 1680s, 1830s, 1900s and 1940s.' These are significant dates. They all, with the arguable exception of the 1940s, were years which contained or were soon followed by years of massive class struggle. In three of the five cases revolution or revolutionary movements were a palpable reality.
Hutton hopes that reformist change may win the day, but admits that 'the political base for change is still weak, and the hysterical reaction of the highly politicised business and financial community, allied with the conservative media, to reform of what they consider to be "enterprise" can easily be imagined.' And he notes, 'no state in the 20th century has ever been able to recast its economy, political structures and society to the extent that Britain must do, without suffering defeat in war, economic collapse or revolution.'
No Keynesian economist of the 1960s talked in such despondent or apocalyptic terms about their own project. It is a mark of how far the crisis has developed and how much more real the prospect of revolution has become.
An Unmentionable Man
Journey to the Border
The Mortmere Stories
Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward
The 'unmentionable' of the first of these three books is a forgotten Marxist writer called Stephen Highwood. Or rather, not so much forgotten but suppressed; a writer who the establishment has now decided is 'to be obliterated permanently'.
Although that has not quite been Edward Upward's own fate, it is a fact that he remains largely ignored--and when not ignored, disparagingly dismissed as an author stuck in a 1930s time warp. As one condescending reviewer concluded recently, Upward remains 'earnestly political and argumentative'--so clearly he's not worth bothering with.
Upward's Marxism is naturally one aspect of his writing which should endear him to readers of Socialist Review. Unlike his contemporary stars of the 1930s, Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden, Upward did not move to the right when it was politically comfortable, or when he became disillusioned with the Communist Party. On the contrary, when he left the CP in 1948 he remained true to the ideals which he had embraced before the war. Today, in his nineties, he seems as intransigent as ever.
The continuing commitment of a veteran socialist makes you feel good, but is not in itself a reason to read his books. The reason Edward Upward deserves our attention is, above all, because he has consistently striven to achieve truth in fiction.
This is a lonely and exacting struggle for any writer. In the 1930s it was made far harder by the stifling grip of Stalinist politics and the CP's insistence on socialist realism as the only legitimate form for literature, art and even music.
Upward's approach to writing was entirely different. In collaboration with Isherwood, he had become a master of the fantastic, drawing on the styles of writers such as Poe, Conan Doyle and Joyce.
There was thus an enormous tension between Upward's political commitment and his creative work.
The struggle to resolve this tension is at the heart of all Upward's subsequent writing, notably his three volume autobiographical novel The Spiral Ascent. Here he mixed realism and the imaginary in an account of the corrosive degeneration of the CP, and the struggle of an activist, Alan Sebrill, to 'live the poetic life'.
However, Upward's style, above all his dazzling use of words, is most suited to shorter, more concentrated works, particularly Journey to the Border, first published in 1938 and now appearing in a new, revised version. This is an extraordinary, surreal journey of the mind in which the central nameless character, a private tutor, hovers on the edge of madness--by turns tempted and repelled by competing ideologies and 'lifestyles'--before deciding that a commitment to the working class and revolutionary politics offers the only way out.
The unique quality of Journey to the Border is the way the book conveys a political message through an account of the inner working of the mind in a language which is more like painting or film than writing. Upward's new collection of short stories, An Unmentionable Man, uses this style to great effect but also demonstrates his special ability to mix realism and the fantastic.
His dreamlike stories are never escapist. They are full of menace, confronting a world of hospital closures, fascist resurgence, the commercialisation of art and human relations, civil war, and political and personal betrayal.
Yet Upward is not a pessimist. At the end of this book are two contrasting stories. The first is a touching chronicle of a couple growing old together and about the way ordinary, decent people live unmemorable but admirable lives.
The second might be described as Journey to the Border Part Two, where Upward chooses a dreamlike sequence of events to make a political statement.
As the critic Frank Kermode says in his introduction to this book, Upward 'remains convinced that the artist cannot escape the world of political strife, that if he declines the commitment to that as well as to his art he will fail.'
It is not surprising that Upward's gritty battle to be true to his art and to his political beliefs is disparaged by those who find politics and commitment an unwelcome intrusion in literature. For our part we should celebrate it--and look for more to come.
What a Carve up!
Perhaps this only goes to show what a philistine I am, but in my experience politically right-on experimental fiction is often pretty dull. Encouraged by people whose opinion I respect, I've dutifully soldiered through some of the novels of Toni Morrison, but have found in them mainly an admirable substitute for mogadon.
This helps to explain why I found Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! such a delightful surprise. Vastly praised by reviewers, this is the rare case of a product living up to its hype, a novel that manages to be inventive, funny, and fiercely political. It is a very carefully wrought book, constructed by means of a variety of narrative devices, and written from diverse subjective viewpoints. Biography, autobiography, straight narration, diaries are woven together into a vast and complex circular structure. What a Carve Up!, a comedy-horror film of the early 1960s starring Kenneth Connor, Sid James and Shirley Eaton, provides the novel with its title, the main character's most important childhood memory, and the storyline of its climax.
The point of all this formal invention isn't, however, to produce yet another postmodernist pastiche. Coe's target is quite simply Tory Britain. Its corruption, greed, and selfishness are ruthlessly exposed in the shape of the Winshaws--a peculiarly obnoxious upper class family who eagerly seize on the opportunities offered by the Thatcher era to add to their already considerable wealth. Coe zestfully paints the portraits of a vile pack of ruling class gargoyles--a right wing columnist, an ex Labour MP turned NHS privatiser, an arms dealer, a factory farmer and a voyeuristic merchant banker.
Yet the story of the Winshaws, told with brilliant zest and wit, is interwoven with another, that of the moral toll Thatcherism took of everyone who lived through the 1980s--the wasted lives and stunted horizons. Michael, a moderately successful novelist who's hired by a renegade Winshaw to blow the gaff on the rest, is one of the casualties of the decade. Unable to break with the past, obsessed with his own personal family history, Michael squanders his talent, dwindling into a stupefied couch potato fixated on the fantasies of sexual happiness offered by films like What a Carve Up!
Finally the horrible Winshaws get their comeuppance, each in a way that reflects his or her own particular evil. And Michael fulfils the wishes embodied in all his main childhood dreams--though in a way that denies us and him a happy ending. But then, if the Winshaws have got their just deserts, the Tories and their class haven't. Perhaps that is one of the things that Coe wants us to remember in this wildly enjoyable but very angry book.
Socialism for a Sceptical Age
Polity Press £11.95
Since the East European revolutions of 1989 many left wing academics and intellectuals have accepted the idea that socialism is a spent force in society. Many of them proudly embrace capitalism and the market, appear on television as respectable establishment pundits, and some have even become apologists for Western imperialism--notably Fred Halliday of the LSE who supported the US in the Gulf War. Ralph Miliband, who died last year, declined to join the new liberals and never gave up his commitment to socialist politics.
His final book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, is in many ways Miliband's manifesto for what socialism is about and how it is achievable. As such it maintains a hatred for the system we live in and the inequalities and injustices that are built into capitalist society. He urges both the necessity and possibility of socialism and argues that the social democracy of parties such as Labour rarely amounts to even piecemeal reform.
It is when the book turns to Miliband's own vision that it runs into trouble. His view of socialism is one created by an elected government carrying out the very piecemeal reform he has attacked as insufficient--a more democratic society, based on citizen power; the election of some (but not all) officials; the establishment of a mixed economy, with emphasis on public ownership. It is a vision very much affected by the retreats of the 1980s.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the collapse of the Stalinist states has confirmed for him that workers' power is utopian and has led him to dismiss the possibility of revolutionary change--Marxism is a good idea but leads to a one party dictatorship. Whilst professing sympathy with the ideals of Marx, his attack on Lenin and Bolshevik type organisation is done by distortion and sleight of hand.
The other reason for his vacillations is the fact that he played no active part in daily building an opposition to the reformism he attacked in his earlier book, Parliamentary Socialism (1961).
Though Miliband declares that class is as relevant as ever, this understanding is little more than a description of society and its inequalities, rather than the key dynamic for change.
It is this which means that the book talks of a socialist government carrying out fundamental change, with ordinary people given little more than a supporting role. Indeed when he talks of the prospect of building socialist organisation, he believes we should look to middle managers and professionals, saying that the battle for socialist ideas must shift to this layer of society. He does so in the belief that winning the elite of the state machinery will prevent the bringing down of a left wing government!
In the context of the crisis of capitalism and the inability of reformism to solve the problems that crisis creates, Socialism for a Sceptical Age has too much pessimism about winning the battle for socialist ideas and too limited a vision of the ability of workers to transform the world.
This is a novel about philosophy. Yet, like Will Hutton's book on the British economy, The State We're In, it is in the best selling non-fiction lists.
The form the novel takes is the story of two teenage girls, one getting letters about the history of ideas from a mysterious middle aged man, the other with a father serving as an officer in a United Nations force in the Lebanon.
But the storyline is mostly a pretext for expounding the successive stages philosophy has gone through in the last 2,500 years. Chapter by chapter the girls are introduced to the questions philosophers from Heraclitus to Sartre have asked--How can we have certain knowledge of the external world?', 'What is the connection between mind and matter?', 'How do we decide what is good and bad?', and so on--and the successive answers they gave.
In the process there are fairly uncomplicated explanations of terms like 'idealism', 'atomism', 'materialism', 'empiricism', 'rationalism', 'dialectics' and 'existentialism'. Such terms are usually presented as a dry list of definitions to be learnt. Here, by contrast, they are introduced in the context of dealing with the problems which anyone encounters in trying to come to grips with the world around us.
That is why many people with little previous knowledge of philosophy have picked it up and read it avidly. It has opened to them a world of ideas from which they were previously excluded.
There are faults with the book. A quick tour of any ideas is bound to treat some superficially and to distort others.
More importantly, the author tends to present the history of ideas and cultures as having a life of its own. But in reality people develop their ideas in response to problems which arise as they try to come to terms with them in practice as well as in theory. The great philosophers were people who were best able to express the confusions felt by wide social groups at particular historical moments. If you don't grasp this, you cannot understand why, for instance, the question of how we can have certain knowledge arose whenever a particular form of society entered into great crisis--first in Ancient Greece, then in 17th and 18th century Europe, and finally throughout the world in the mid and late 20th century.
Marx famously insisted that 'philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways, the point is to change it'. By this he meant that only by dealing with the wider social crisis can we come to terms with the uncertainty of ideas in the society around us.
But this is not the same as saying the history of philosophy is irrelevant. It is about how people questioned things which had previously been taken for granted, asking questions rather than simply repeating, parrot fashion, what they had been taught. It is about having a critical approach to the existing world and existing ideologies.
That is why Marx's own materialist dialectic builds upon the insights of successive generations of philosophers while showing their inadequacy.
Sophie's World won't tell you all this (the section on Marx gives only a brief account of his ideas and makes the mistake of presenting Stalin and Mao as his 20th century heirs). But it will provide you with some of the background knowledge you need better to understand some of the more 'philosophical' writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and Lukacs.
In Excited Times
Bewick Press £5.95
History is usually presented as a few historical facts, names and places with the occasional atrocity thrown in. Ordinary people rarely get a look in, let alone influence the events that took place, which is why Nigel Todd's book In Excited Times is important. It is about a previously unrecorded episode in the fight to prevent fascism gaining influence in Tyne and Wear in the 1930s, and it exposes a well financed bid by Mosley and his British Union of Fascists to penetrate the north east of England.
Behind the fascist street gangs and thugs was a sophisticated network of bosses and big business, many of whom took a keen interest in Mussolini's fascism in Italy and went on to fund Hitler and his notorious death camps.
A principal spokesman for the Nazis on the Tory right was Lord Londonderry, a County Durham coal owner and former cabinet minister who was on first name terms with Hitler and Goering.
Mosley's chief objective in Tyne and Wear was to try and break the back of the labour movement. The two key lieutenants he chose for the job were Tony Moran and John Beckett. Moran was a former Labour Party councillor in Newcastle and Beckett had been an Independent Labour Party MP for Gateshead and private secretary and election agent for Clement Attlee. Both had become 'disillusioned' with parliament and both also admired Mussolini!
While fascism appeared attractive to the bosses, workers were beginning to realise what the BUF was really about.
Mosley's campaign was gutted in 1934 when demonstrations of 10,000 in Newcastle and Gateshead tried to throw the Blackshirts over the Tyne bridge into the river. Not surprisingly the police protected the fascists.
Still the fascists did not give up. William Joyce, the wartime Lord Haw-Haw, was sent to inspire the troops in 1935 in South Shields. Instead he was beset by young Jewish anti-fascists and was last seen fleeing from a crowd of 800 stone throwers who were singing the Internationale and shouting, 'Down with fascism.'
The second part of the book is dedicated to those who went to Spain to fight Franco and his fascists. Many Tynesiders fought heroically to their death with the International Brigades--those who did return were greeted with a hero's welcome.
In Excited Times concludes with the message that fascism won't go away if it is just ignored. It provides a comprehensive illustrated account of how fascist ambitions were thwarted in the 1930s. As fascism is again raising its poisonous head across Europe it is crucial to learn the lessons of history and the difference ordinary people can make when they organise to fight back!