Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Back In Time
Nadezhda A Joffe
PC Literature £16
Nadezhda Joffe's book is a unique memoir. She was an active opponent of Stalin and a member of the Left Opposition formed by Leon Trotsky in 1923. What shines out of every page is the almost superhuman courage she needed, and had, to survive the tortures of the prisons and labour camps in which she spent most of her younger adult years.
Nadezhda was born in 1906, the daughter of Adolf Joffe, a leading Bolshevik born into an affluent home. After the revolution he represented the Soviet Union diplomatically abroad and young Nadya lived for periods in Germany, Japan and other countries. Through her father she knew all the leading Bolsheviks--Bukharin, Rakovsky, Trotsky and many others. She joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League) at the age of 13 and occupied responsible positions within it.
Her father joined the Left Opposition at its formation by Trotsky in 1923. His health deteriorated, and by the autumn of 1927, the year of Trotsky's expulsion from the party, he was suffering great pain and needed to go abroad to be cured. He had given his life and his wealth to the party and had no resources left to seek a cure himself. Yet the party refused to get him the medical care he needed. It also removed him, as an Oppositionist, from all party and Soviet work. He wrote a letter to Trotsky in which he says, 'I adopted the philosophy that human life has meaning only to the extent that, and as long as, it serves the infinite, which for us is humanity... now, evidently, the moment has come when my life is losing its meaning, and therefore the necessity has arisen for me to leave it, to put an end to it.' Shortly afterwards he shot himself.
Nadezhda was the true daughter of a great revolutionary. She says of the Bolshevik youth in the early 1920s, before Stalin suppressed their ideals and dreams, 'We wanted nothing for ourselves, we all wanted just one thing: the world revolution and happiness for all. And if it were necessary to give our lives to achieve this, then we would have done so without hesitating.' The rest of her life bears cruel testimony to that ideal. Around the time of her father's suicide, while at the university, she joined the Left Opposition: 'Of all the inner party groupings,' she says, 'it was only the Trotskyists who actively fought.'
She was arrested for the first time in the spring of 1929, being seven months pregnant at the time. On 20 August she gave birth to her first daughter. On 20 October she was sent into exile for three years. Those were 'relatively liberal' times, and her husband was allowed to accompany her.
She was released in 1930, at which time many Old Bolsheviks were writing declarations to the party acknowledging their 'mistakes'. There was tremendous pressure on her to do the same, but she resisted, until in the end Rakovsky, Trotsky's close friend, persuaded her that in the party there was a whole layer of covert co-thinkers among whom they could organise, whereas outside the leaders would 'strangle them like chickens'. This did not prevent her from being arrested again in 1936 as an Oppositionist and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Her own family of her husband, stepfather and brother--at the very least--were shot, and her mother was arrested.
Nadezhda gives fascinating pen portraits of a number of unsung heroines among the women prisoners in the camp, who were old Bolsheviks or from the Komosomol, and whom she wished, most of them posthumously, to honour. One of these was Alexandra Lvovna Bronstein, Trotsky's first wife. Having behind her 40 years of party membership, Tsarist prison and Tsarist exile, Alexandra ended up in camp branded 'an enemy of the people'. She lost the two daughters of herself and Trotsky and knew nothing of the fate of her grandchildren. But she told Nadezhda 'if you ever read somewhere or hear that I have confessed to being guilty, don't believe it. This will never happen no matter what they do to me.'
Despite the conditions the women in the labour camp went on strike to force improvements and in many cases won. She was allowed to live for a time with her husband in a neighbouring labour camp where she had her third child, and from which her husband was taken and shot in 1938.
In 1941, after the full five years, Nadezhda was free. 'Out of loneliness and exhaustion' and pregnant again, she remarried and finally got back to Moscow, her home town, where she was reunited with her daughter whom she had not seen for ten years.
In 1949 Nadezhda was arrested for a third time. A new minister wanted to leave his mark on history, so he created a category of 'repeaters', that is he arrested those who had served their sentence during the 1930s and survived. 'How much could I take?' she asks, wishing to end it all. Arrests were now undiscriminating. Anyone who had had anything to do with German invaders during the war was arrested, whatever the nature of the contact. All relatives of prisoners were being arrested--distant relatives who may not even have set eyes on the prisoner.
Nadezhda's daughter started being harassed and persecuted by the authorities. She could have avoided great unpleasantness by publicly denouncing her mother, but she never did. In 1950 Nadezhda was sentenced to ten years exile. But in 1956, after Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, she was rehabilitated via a note which simply stated, 'The decision of the Special Board of the NKVD of the USSR has been annulled due to lack of evidence concerning the crime with which you were charged.' Now Nadezhda could at last get an apartment previously denied her, gather her children around her for the first time and have some sort of family life, which she had so yearned for during her years of imprisonment, with her children and co-thinker Boris whom she lived with for 20 years till he died in 1971.
The memoirs are rich in incident and detail, giving a vivid picture of life in prison, in the camps and in exile. They describe both the horrific, inhuman torture of the regime and also the great comradeship of many of the victims in the darkest days. Her own courage in adversity shines out like a beacon.
The Black Album
'Militant Mohammedans', 'religious zealots', 'uncivilised heathens'--these are just some of the more colourful adjectives used to describe Muslims in the West. Faced with this xenophobia and racism, it is hardly surprising that some young Asians turn to their religion with a vengeance.
Six years ago the publication of The Satanic Verses came to be viewed by some as yet another example of the West battering Islam and tragically Salman Rushdie became the object of Muslim venom. These themes form the background to Hanif Kureishi's new and exciting book, The Black Album. As with much of his work, the hero is pulled in many conflicting directions in his attempt to make sense of the world. The central character, Shahid, is torn between the 'brothers', who want to kill a blasphemous author for dishonouring Islam, and his hedonistic lifestyle as a student in a London further education college.
Shahid is disillusioned with family life in middle class suburbia. His brother Chili is a boozy womaniser who deals drugs to supplement his income, his mother runs a respectable chain of travel agents in Sevenoaks and his late father believed that immigrants only had to assimilate in order to be British. In school Shahid is a victim of racial abuse.
Faced with this, he flees Kent for the bright lights of Kilburn. He hopes to avoid racism and meet new friends. Shahid is searching for something and he finds it in Riaz, a religious intellectual who appeals to Muslim students to forsake the evils of Satan and follow the 'path of God'.
Initially Shahid is attracted to the group by Riaz's uncompromising condemnation of the West, the hypocrisy of Britain--its racism and enslavement of the poor. He is impressed when the 'brothers' go to the East End to protect a Bengali family from Nazi thugs. However he doesn't want to give up alcohol, drugs, books or his girlfriend Deedee, who is also his lecturer. She represents everything the brothers detest: liberalism, promiscuity, and 'godlessness'. All these contradictions come to a head when a copy of the blasphemous book is burnt in college and Shahid is forced to take sides.
Kureishi depicts very well the contradictory nature of religion. We are shown how the brutality and emptiness of capitalism can lead someone like Shahid to look to Islamic ideas as a solution. Islam and the group appear to give him a sense of purpose as well as a means of combating racism, but it is a solution that is going nowhere. Kureishi reveals how the radical language of fighting and oppression can quickly lead to attacks on other victims in society--women, gays and radical authors. Kureishi brilliantly illustrates the complexities of the Rushdie affair and the many pitfalls liberals and some on the left fell into. He exposes the cynicism and hypocrisy with which Labour politicians denounce certain books in order to court Muslim votes.
All this makes for a very funny and exhilarating read. My only criticism of the book is its portrayal of the left. For Kureishi the 1989-90 East European revolutions and the collapse of Stalinism are synonymous with the failures of socialism. Shahid's lover and a fellow lecturer are former 'party' members whose lives are shattered by these events. One character resolves this by siding uncritically with the Islamicists, even encouraging book burning. Deedee retreats into liberalism and condemns Muslim students as irrational and intolerant. She even calls the police to arrest students on college premises. Despite this flaw, the book is Kureishi's best work--entertaining and vibrant.
Theatres of Memory
The cry that Britain has been turned into a massive historical theme park is common these days. Many feel uneasy that they are being asked to participate in the recreation of a mythical 'national heritage' which only serves to reinforce the most conservative values, and to play up the importance of our rulers and the rich through the ages.
Not so, says the historian Raphael Samuel, who in this first of three volumes about popular history and culture argues that the attempts by ordinary people to reclaim the past are to be welcomed.
Much of the movement for conservation has come not from right wingers but from the left. He points out 'The Body Shop emerged from Brighton counter-culture; the Campaign for Real Ale from beer-swilling radicals. Covent Garden, in its present form, sprang from a "community" agitation in which the newly radicalised students of the Architectural Association played a big part.'
Samuel castigates those who attack popular history and 'heritage'. He sees them as dry academics who believe history is their exclusive preserve, or as elitist left wingers who look down on the involvement of the masses. His dislike of this snobbery is woven throughout the book as he celebrates different aspects of living history from below.
But there is a problem here. There is a difference between the various attempts, current especially since the 1960s, to express history from the point of view of the poor, the oppressed and exploited, and the portrayal of the past as a golden age of pastoral cottages, home baking and cobbled streets.
Most of what passes for 'heritage' today hinges on the second interpretation, and even when it focuses on the farm labourer and mill worker rather than on the stately home owner, it tends to sanitise the past rather than give a more rounded view.
Surely this is precisely the point of the critics of the heritage industry. The past is presented as a comfortable never never world, without misery or destitution, let alone class struggle or conflict.
And those who seek to present it in this way have their own political agenda. It is usually the people who defend 'heritage' who also believe that history is a packaged past, not something which living men and women are constantly in the process of creating. Samuel half recognises this. He says for example, 'The historicist turn in British culture coincided with the decline of Labour as a mass membership party, with the demise... of socialism as a worker's faith.'
This should lead him to extreme caution about the whole heritage industry, but it does not because he somehow conflates 'heritage' with popular history or culture. This makes Theatres of Memory a frustrating and in the end unsatisfactory book.
There are also some technical problems. Do we really need two chapters on Dickens, or, more particularly, Samuel's critique of the film Little Dorrit (they are reprints from two different publications)? His criticism of the film does, however, provide a good example of the double bind he is in. Here he argues that the present perception of Victorian 'heritage' prevents us from seeing an accurate view of Dickens's London.
Christine Edzard's film may be accurate in its period detail but 'the critical and radical intentions... are continually betrayed by the prettiness of the scenic properties.' This is because of 'an imaginative revolution which has taken place in perceptions of the Victorian past, and the altogether new value conservationism has given to "period" setting.'
The analysis strikes me as basically correct--but isn't it what Patrick Wright was arguing in On Living in an Old Country? And doesn't it contradict much of Samuel's earlier thesis?
Socialists should surely welcome and applaud much conservation and any revolutionary struggle will involve defending much which is under threat from the ravages of capitalism.
But there has to be a distinction between preserving and rediscovering much of what has taken place in history and allowing those who want no change in the future to impose on us their version of the past.
The Gypsy and the State
Derek Hawes and Barbara Perez
SAUS Publications £12.95
Last month Gypsies in the Austrian town of Oberwart came across a placard planted by the roadside declaring 'Gypsies go back to India'.
They went to uproot the offensive object and triggered a bomb that killed four of them. The local police immediately dismissed the bomb as a result of a feud between rival Gypsy groups. After a howl of protest they were forced to admit that the murder was the work of an Austrian neo-Nazi gang.
This terrible episode exposes not just the Austrian authorities' perception of Gypsies, but the present precariousness of Gypsies across Europe. Not only are they discriminated against by the state, but they are a useful scapegoat for the right.
A new book--The Gypsy and the State--examines the prospects for the 120,000 Gypsies who live in Britain. Presently they are bearing the brunt of Tory bigotry enshrined in the Criminal Justice Act. Reports are beginning to come in of Gypsies arrested or threatened under the act. Specific clauses in the Criminal Justice Act have been designed to force anyone with a nomadic lifestyle onto the wrong side of the law.
This discrimination is compounded by the simultaneous scrapping of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act which previously obliged local councils to provide sites for encampment.
The book is useful in shedding light on the history of British Gypsies. It also contains useful surveys and tables, and chapters on past legislation and the evolution of provisions such as education and healthcare. Quite rightly the book refuses to distinguish--in terms of rights--between Gypsies, travellers and New Age travellers. In all these ways it illuminates its subject.
However there are major flaws in the book.
The authors assert that modern treatment of Gypsies is part of a reaction to 'the perceived threat to society which Gypsies have apparently presented since their first recorded appearance here over 500 years ago'. But is it really the case that the level of hostility has been constant for the last 500 years?
It is important to distinguish between suspicion towards outsiders in a closed feudal society and the way in which capitalist society benefits from the divisions fostered by scapegoating minority groups. Unless you make this distinction then you are drawn to the conclusion that nothing can be done about discrimination against Gypsies. It is timeless. The best that can be done is to fight for protective legislation.
Of course legislation does matter. The authors rightly say that the 1968 Caravan Sites Act was an important advance, but then characterise it as a 'brief flowering of consensual liberation which is the aberration'. This misses the point. The date 1968 should not be viewed as an 'aberration'. Surely it is no accident that Gypsies were 'beginning to find a voice of their own' and finding wider support at the same time as other oppressed groups--blacks, women, gays--were also being radicalised in the class cauldron of the late 1960s. To miss the potential of the impact of the class struggle on Gypsy rights leads the authors of this study in two fruitless directions.
The subtitle of the book is 'The Ethnic Cleansing of British Society'. Of course it is true that there is discrimination and pressure on Gypsies to abandon their nomadic lives and assimilate. But to equate this with the bloody process by which rival nationalisms in ex-Yugoslavia carve up territory is frankly nonsense. The authors are compelled to make this comparison because they pin their hopes on EU legislation providing a solution to the problems that Gypsies face.
By magnifying discrimination against Gypsies and by calling it ethnic cleansing the authors hope that this makes the Gypsies' case stronger and more urgent. But it would be a mistake to rely on an institution which is busy closing its borders to immigrants and fuelling racism to defend Gypsies.
The book ends by claiming that Gypsies in Britain have been caught in the crossfire of legislation fuelled by 'justified public anger at... large scale open air music festivals and the disruptive consequences that can result'. But in reality it is precisely those who are being politicised while fighting the Criminal Justice Act in its totality--Tory hating, anti-racist young people and trade union activists--who are most likely in the future to rally in support of Gypsy rights.
A History of the French Working Class (2 volumes)
Blackwell £40 each
There are a host of historians busily employed in denying a revolutionary role to the working class. These two marvellous volumes are a powerful rebuttal to those who have attempted to pacify the history of the French working class, to either excise altogether or to deny the significance of working class resistance and revolt.
As Magraw insists, ever since the revolution of July 1830 'French workers continued, at regular intervals, to behave in ways which, to put it mildly, disturbed the complacency of the dominant bourgeoisie. No amount of revisionist rewriting of history can explain away 1848, the Paris Commune, revolutionary syndicalism, the strike waves of 1917-20 and of 1936, the rise of the mass Communist Party.'
His two volumes seek to analyse and explain the trajectory of French working class militancy from 1830 through to 1939. He decisively reasserts and celebrates the French working class revolutionary tradition.
The revolution of 1830 saw a popular insurrection in Paris overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. Although Parisian artisans played the major role in the barricade fighting (nearly a third of those killed were building workers) they were nevertheless successfully excluded from power. After the installation of the new Orleanist monarchy, workers 'petitioned ministers in confident expectation that they would introduce job creation schemes, fix wage levels, protect workers against new machinery, permit the organisation rights and shift fiscal burdens away from indirect taxes.' Instead they met with repression.
Later the economic depression of 1845-47 threatened to create such widespread popular unrest as to call into question the maintenance of capitalist hegemony in France. One focus of working class unrest was, according to Magraw, carnival processions and celebrations. These were turned into demonstrations against the regime with floats carrying effigies caricaturing Orleanist notables, condemning their greed and corruption. The revolution of February 1848 broke out in Paris at the time of the carnival and the bodies of those killed by the troops were carried through the streets on carnival floats.
This time the working class did force concessions from a reluctant, scared and hateful middle class, most notably the National Workshops that provided relief for the unemployed. As soon as the new Republican government was ready, the National Workshops were closed and, when over 50,000 workers took to the barricades, troops were sent in. The June insurrection was brutally crushed with 1,500 killed (many prisoners were summarily executed by the army) and another 12,000 arrested. This, as Magraw says, was 'naked class war'.
He goes on to recount the history of the working class under the Bonapartist dictatorship that took power in December 1851 and survived until war with Germany in 1870. He provides an excellent account of the Paris Commune and of subsequent developments under the Third Republic.
The second volume ends with the French working class rallying against fascism in the mid-1930s and in 1936 carrying the Popular Front government to power. This unleashed a great wave of factory occupations, but instead of this upsurge of working class anger and militancy being used to smash the power of the ruling class, it was successfully smothered and demobilised by the Socialist-Communist alliance. In this fashion, the Popular Front government accomplished its own defeat, undermined from within by a ruling class that had been left with its wealth and power intact. Once again working class hopes and expectations were to be shattered.
In November 1938, the 40 hour week conceded in 1936 was abolished, provoking widespread strikes and occupations. Symbolic was the occupation of the Renault factory. This was ended by military intervention with the workers being removed from the factory in groups of four and forced to give the fascist salute in front of hundreds of jeering police. A general strike on 30 November saw 3 million workers walk out, but the employers had regained their confidence and were on the attack. They responded with lockouts that ended with over 20,000 workers sacked and another 800 in prison. Even before the French defeat at the hands of the Nazis in the summer of 1940, French workers found themselves living in a right wing police state that had successfully ground them down.
Throughout both volumes Magraw devotes considerable space to the development of socialist ideas and organisations, to the experience of women and immigrant workers, and the development of working class culture. We can only hope that Magraw's labours will not end here and that a third volume is on the way, taking the history of the French working class up to 1968 and beyond.
A Stomach for Dissent
John and Mary Postgate
Keele University Press £18
Few readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with the name Raymond Postgate. If you've heard of him it will either be as the joint author of the excellent history of England, The Common People, or as the founder of The Good Food Guide. This biography by Raymond's son and his wife helps throw light on a chapter of British socialism which has long since passed by.
Born into the privileged world of Cambridge at the close of the last century, his father was a professor of Latin and Greek at the university. Raymond Postgate was won to socialism after the family moved to Liverpool where he experienced the realities of industrial capitalism and the strikes which swept the city prior to the First World War. Nothing in his upper middle class life and education could explain what he was witnessing. Postgate joined the independent Labour Party, but his socialism was a mishmash of different ideas.
In 1915 Postgate went to Oxford University. Among his friends was a young Anglo-Indian socialist intellectual, Rajani Palme Dutt, who became a strong supporter of the Bolsheviks and the key power broker in the British Communist Party. Along with many of his friends, Postgate refused to be conscripted and was jailed as a conscientious objector.
Released from jail, Postgate responded enthusiastically to the Russian Revolution in 1917, publishing a booklet, The International During the War, which Lenin praised to H G Wells. The period from his release until the failure of the General Strike in 1926 is the most interesting part of this book.
Postgate had fallen in love and married the left Labour MP George Lansbury's daughter, Daisy. Born and brought up in London's East End, Daisy had been involved with her father and Sylvia Pankhurst in their daily agitation amongst the people of this poverty stricken area. The newlyweds came from very different backgrounds. Raymond found a job on Lansbury's Daily Herald. When in May 1918 the Daily Herald printed documents liberated by the Bolsheviks from the Tsar's archives, sales reached 250,000.
Yet this was still a world in which all sorts of divergent views mixed. The '1917 Club' brought Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald and Communist supporters together in London's Soho. Postgate became a founder member of the newly formed Communist Party in 1920, becoming assistant editor and then editor of its first publication, The Communist.
Reflecting the socialist world from which it was spawned, The Communist was itself a mixture of different ideas. Postgate himself remained a pacifist and could not accept the discipline of the Communist Party as it was brought more and more into line with the demands of Bolshevik organisation, so in 1922 he quit the party.
The sections of Postgate's diary covering the General Strike are excellent. You get a feeling for the spirit of the rank and file and the militancy which dominated the East End.
Yet the failure of the General Strike marked a turning point for Postgate. Until then he had looked to a mixture of direct action and parliament to achieve change. From the General Strike onwards his sights were on parliamentary politics. The Second World War and the implementation of tight state controls strengthened Postgate's increasingly Fabian (right wing Labour) politics of parliamentary and municipal reform.
His founding of The Good Food Guide was centred on educating people about food--perfectly laudable but it fitted neatly with Fabian ideas.
This book is part biography and part memoir. As such it often does not throw much light on Postgate's politics and understates his own radicalism. Throughout the book the working class features side stage.
Postgate himself recognised his own lack of contact with workers, feeling he'd only managed to build relationships with ordinary people while serving in the Home Guard during the Second World War.
Today it would be difficult to find people familiar with his writings or those of his friends like G D H Cole, John Strachey, Harold Laski and H N Brailsford. The book is a useful introduction to a socialist world inhabited by Postgate which has been lost.
Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
BBC Books £17.99
'Blow thy enemies into tiny pieces, O Lord, in thy mercy', intones the priest of the Holy Hand Grenade in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Terry Jones, who co-directed that film, was back on our screens recently with his television series Crusades, which this book accompanies. Jones has commented on how the events of the Crusades mirror the absurdity of Monty Python. In the name of a faith that professed peace and love, the Crusaders slaughtered thousands--Muslim, Jew and fellow Christian--when they 'recovered' Jerusalem for Christendom in 1099. Their belief that God was on their side only seemed to be reinforced by their bloody victories.
This book is refreshing for two reasons. It locates the Crusades in their political context and seeks to give the viewpoint of the Muslims who resisted the Crusader onslaught. While not excusing the excesses of Islamic rulers, Jones and Ereira make it clear that it was Christianity which introduced religious fanaticism to the east. The Muslim counter-crusades were a response to that fanaticism--a point worth remembering today when the media reports 'Islamic fundamentalist terrorism' without any reference to the brutality of imperialism which has given rise to it.
The Crusades grew out of the Pope's campaign to assert his leadership of western Europe. In the 11th century the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were locked in a bitter power struggle, ostensibly over the right to appoint bishops, but in effect over who would control the vast landed wealth of the Church at a time when a rapidly expanding economy meant that this land was more productive than ever before.
This economic expansion also meant that land hungry lords were searching for new territories to conquer, and their serfs (unfree peasant labourers) were looking to colonise new land where they could escape the shackles of bondage. In 1095 Pope Urban II had the brilliant idea of asserting his leadership of Europe by calling a holy war under Church authority to 'liberate' the 'Holy Land'. This pulled the rug from under the emperor, provided troublesome nobles with a chance to carve out lordships in the east and allowed peasants an opportunity to escape a famine that was raging in France at the time.
Best of all the Pope offered eternal salvation to all who took part, an attractive bargain for the Crusade preachers to sell to their flock. The emerging class of merchant capitalists in Italy soon joined in as the Christian conquests opened up trade with Asia.
As a political weapon, the Crusade was also directed against other Christians. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 sacked Constantinople, the capital of the (Greek Christian) Byzantine Empire, because the Crusaders had fallen into debt to the Venetian Republic. Even in its infancy, capitalism was using war to further its interests. The Pope justified the conquest by the fact that the Greek church did not recognise his authority. Similarly bloody scenes occurred in the south of France, where a long and bitter Crusade was conducted from 1208 against the Cathar heretics of the region.
This book, and the series, are an excellent introduction to the Crusades. The fact that most academics have disowned it is probably a recommendation. The series is entertaining and accessible, for example the device of having a priest 'preach' the Crusades by means of a newsreel gives an idea of the strength of the Church as an ideological force.
Two facts should be remembered, however. One is that the peasants, who are portrayed as credulous, unruly, bloodthirsty mobs, were not always ignorant swallowers of Church doctrine; poor Crusaders of the 13th and 14th centuries posed a serious threat to the ruling order as they began to attack corrupt figures of Church and royal authority who they saw as the real 'enemies of Christ'. The second is that the brutality of the feudal order is insignificant compared to that of capitalism in its modern crusade for power and profit.
Henry Louis Gates Jr
This book is a very personal and nostalgic account of growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, tracing the development from segregation to integration, the linguistic change from 'coloured' or 'negro' to 'black', and the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by the black community in the small town of Piedmont, West Virginia.
Gates writes not from the perspective of an author with the social and political understanding of living in 1994, but chooses to 'get rid of the baggage that's been added to my life since then' and recounts his story through the innocence of childhood from the point of view of the boy he was. This is a powerful device that forces his audience to absorb and confront the narrative, experience by experience.
However, because of this the book does not locate the wider sense of the period outside of Piedmont, where during this era over 70 percent of blacks in America were living in urban industrialised cities. In fact, as Gates describes, it was through television that the Civil Rights Movement first came to Piedmont.
Gates wanted to write something accessible, 'a book people can read from like a novel or poem'. He certainly achieves this with Colored People. His verbal style is rich and vibrant, giving a real validity and gritty flavour to the memories he resurrects. Rather than following a rigid chronology, each chapter is a story in itself, containing anecdote and hard honest emotion.
He describes life under segregation in great depth, how the community faced prejudice and harsh living conditions. In one among many beautiful descriptions of his determined mother, he writes, 'She knew what people had meant to be in their hearts, she knew the way in which working too hard for paltry wages could turn you mean and cold, could kill the thing that made you laugh.'
Gates captures the humour of a child struggling to interpret his surroundings. He expresses his revelations when he first comes into contact with the writings of Baldwin, Du Bois and Malcolm X. He says, 'I got goose bumps just thinking about being black, being proud of being black.'
The underlying concern of the author is to 'recollect a lost era'. Yet he feels that cultural identity for African-Americans has become confused and he argues not for assimilation into white American culture but for a separate cultural identity.
As an insight into the evolution of the black community in Piedmont and Gates' personal development Colored People succeeds and is entertaining, shocking and engaging from beginning to end. Yet it leaves me stranded in terms of how it fits with the struggle today. Although the ideas of civil rights have progressed, living standards for urban working class blacks are now worse than they've been for decades, and racism is still endemic to American society.
Kevin Toolis's book is a graphic description of the lives of those who have become 'involved' in the IRA. It details the persecution of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. The media like to portray an evil IRA terrorist who is simply bloodthirsty and callous. The book leaves you in little doubt that these are highly dedicated individuals--the risks of imprisonment and death are high, but for any working class Catholic growing up in Belfast or Derry in the early 1970s or after there was little alternative.
One chapter describes the lives of the Finucane brothers, three of whom joined the IRA and one who became a successful solicitor. Having been forced out of their home and subjected to regular raids by the army and RUC, they joined in nightly rioting after Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 innocent people were murdered by the army at a civil rights demonstration.
The introduction of internment (imprisonment without trial) fuelled recruitment to the IRA. This led to the imprisonment of three of the Finucane brothers. During this time, Dermot Finucane took part in the 'blanket protest' and was one of those who escaped in the mass breakout from Long Kesh.
The prisoners come across as highly organised and disciplined. In a statement to the prison officers held hostage during the breakout, they promised that no one would get hurt as long as they complied with the wishes of the escapees. This must have taken some discipline since the prison officers regularly abused and humiliated the prisoners.
Patrick Finucane, the brother who became a solicitor, turned his talents to exposing abuses of civil rights, winning cases and making inroads into repressive laws. He was not a member of the IRA, but the authorities made no distinction between those who were and those who defended them. It was a horrible inevitability that Patrick Finucane was murdered in his home by Loyalist gunmen just days after Douglas Hogg MP made a speech denouncing solicitors who defended Republicans.
In the chapter entitled 'Informers' the sorry tale of Paddy Flood is told. It is obvious that the RUC's chief weapon in its war against the IRA is the intelligence gleaned from informers.
Yet considering the blackmail tactics employed by them it is remarkable that more IRA members did not feel forced into reforming.
Whatever the reason for Flood informing, the impact of it on his friends and family was devastating--no greater shame could be inflicted than to be the brother or wife of a 'tout'.
Kevin Toolis is writing from the point of view of a second generation Irish person whose family was driven from the fertile Ulster farmlands by English colonisers in the 17th century to a barren bit of the west coast which could not sustain its inhabitants. The majority were forced to emigrate and the Toolis family found themselves in Scotland.
Toolis lays the blame for the troubles in Ireland where it belongs--with British imperialism--regards himself as having, like the IRA volunteer in this book, a 'rebel heart', but not so much so that he would take up arms to get the British out of Ireland. Maybe if he had grown up in the Republican strongholds of Shantallow, or Waterside and had to endure the relentless oppression that those who live there have to put up with, he would feel differently.
This is an interesting and enjoyable book. It is also timely with negotiations between Sinn Fein and the British government soon to start and the framework document up for discussion. It remains to be seen if those who have fought so hard and sacrificed so much will be satisfied with what is on offer.
Bold in her Breeches
There has been a big upsurge in interest in women adventurers of all kinds. Several films have been produced featuring female cowboys, outlaws and bandits. Another film is soon to be released about Ann Bonney and Mary Read, the two best known women pirates. These strange women, who disguised themselves as men to live freer lives than their more conventional contemporaries, quite rightly fascinate people. Did they really exist? What were they like? How many women chose to live this way? Why did they do it? These are the questions Jo Stanley sets out to answer.
She does this with mixed results. The history of women and working class men is often hard to piece together. Most of the women featured in this book were illiterate and so have not left us their own stories. What evidence we have is often either sensationalised popular journalism of the time or official reports by a legal system which obviously would not have sided with women criminals.
The book begins with Artemisia, who captured a warship in 480 BC, and the possibly mythical Dane, Alfhild. Anne Chambers contributes a chapter on Grace O'Malley, the Irish pirate queen. There are several essays on the women of the 'golden age of piracy' in the 18th century.
One theme that runs throughout Stanley's writing no matter what age she is discussing--is that the women were probably not great swashbuckling heroines of legend but frightened outsiders made to look that way because men find the idea thrilling. Men, she argues, like violent heroines because it justifies their own behaviour and fulfils certain types of sado-masochistic 'pornographic' fantasies.
She also tells us that these were violent times, that life at sea for lower class sailors was always in the balance. Discipline on board merchant and naval ships was harsh. Pirates, although working under more democratic conditions, were the kind of men who worked and played hard. After all, if they were caught, hanging was likely.
This contributed to a different set of values. This is true, but totally contradicts her first point. How could men be influenced by living in an age and atmosphere of violence and women be totally untouched by it? Most feminist historians who have looked at the issue of female warriors say their research shows that women are not naturally passive and nurturing but capable of the same range of abilities and desires as men. Jo Stanley seems to be trying to undermine this idea.
Although far from perfect, this book is definitely worth getting hold of, if only because you get a collection of essays from three very good feminist military historians. In fact, if you ignore the weirder outpouring of Jo Stanley, there are some quite exciting stories in the book.