Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Revolt of the Elites
'Community' is now the buzzword of middle class commentators disenchanted with the bitter fruits of the Reagan Thatcher era. Believing that socialism is dead, community has become their alternative to the ideology of privatising, individualistic free marketeers, and been enthusiastically taken up by Tony Blair and social democrats everywhere.
It is being championed as 'new thinking' which gets beyond the old divisions of bosses and workers, or of private versus public welfare provision, to stake out a fresh alternative to the now obvious failures of the market.
The writer Christopher Lasch, who died last year, is being touted by his publishers as a figure that 'neither right nor left can co-opt as "their" intellectual' because he both 'attacks the liberals for their obsession with multiculturalism and political correctness' and 'blames the right for advocating free market forces and the individual's self-reliance as answers to every ill'.
The problem is not that such a stance is incapable of particular insights. Like Will Hutton's similarly positioned The State We're In, Lasch's book sometimes hits the target when he is cataloguing the failures of the market. And Lasch, paradoxically because he's more right wing than Hutton, often has an eye for the absurdities of the feminist and social democratic left. Here, for instance, he has something interesting to say about the immediate material basis of much middle class feminism: 'Now upper-middle-class men tend to marry women of their own class... with lucrative careers of their own. What if the $60,000 lawyer marries another $60,000 lawyer... and a $20,000 clerk marries a $20,000 clerk? Then the difference between their incomes suddenly becomes the difference between $120,000 and $40,000. It is unnecessary, incidentally, to seek much further for an explanation of feminism's appeal to the professional and managerial class.'
The problem is that Lasch's favoured panaceas for the ills of consumer capitalism--more civic responsibility, a return to the moral and religious values of small town America--are precisely the values held most vehemently by these professionals.
Lasch, of course, doesn't see things this way. He sees the new professional middle classes as a threat to older establishment values. He bemoans their selfishness and the decline in what he fondly imagines to have been the paternalism and sense of public responsibility shown by old money.
His attraction to any form of working class politics is based on the idea that the old spectre of revolutionary or militant working class action has now been laid to rest and that workers are now the repository of conservative values which the new elites have abandoned. Thus, 'it is not just that the masses have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators. It is the working and lower middle classes, after all, that favour limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family... resist "alternative lifestyles" and harbour deep reservations about affirmative action and other ventures in large-scale social engineering.'
Such claims are remarkable not only in that they ignore such outbreaks of revolt as the LA riots but also in that they dispense with such minor technicalities as statistical data. Indeed, if Lasch's book didn't constitute such a fact free zone, he would have to reckon with the evidence that most working class Americans support freedom of choice over abortion and that a very high proportion of them, whether they like it or not, find themselves living in other than two parent families.
Here is the rub with all community type arguments. They have to bend and distort the real differences in both economic circumstances and consciousness between the classes in order to show that, if only we all worked together and embraced a set of common, humane (but pro-capitalist) values, all our social problems would be solved.
This trick is sometimes sustained by turning against a group--the 'underclass', single parents, the new elites or whatever--to prove that all the rest of us really do form a community with similar interests.
But, whether at the level of sociology or in the real society which sociology is supposed to explain, class will out. Lasch's only novelty is to raise the question of class as a basis for a conservative notion of community, castigating the elites for their modernism. Blair is periodically prone to something of the same strategy, arguing for something old by calling it something new.
It is an argument that can only hold so long as working class resistance stays within very circumscribed limits. The more it breaks with the pattern set by the defeats of the 1980s, the more the notion of community will be revealed for what it is: a reactionary utopia which seeks to take from workers the best weapons they have against the right, their own self activity and their political independence from the middle classes.
The Channel Islands Occupation and Liberation 1940-45
The Channel Islands were the only British islands to be occupied during the Second World War and, as Briggs writes, consideration of what happened in the islands 'stimulates thoughts about what would have happened in the bigger island of Britain had the Germans invaded'.
This book is very much the official view of the occupation. It was produced in association with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum sponsored by the governments of Jersey and Guernsey. While it gives a basic chronology of events, it cannot examine them in any depth. To do so would be to challenge the myth of a British nation united in the fight against fascism.
Yet shallow though the account is, what emerges is still a story of incompetence, collaboration, profiteering and a clear division between classes and races.
Even the months leading up to the occupation were described by one official as 'a slow moving comedy of errors'. When the decision to demilitarise the islands was taken it was not made public and, as a result, the Luftwaffe bombed both Jersey and Guernsey. Evacuation of part of the population was accompanied by panic. The arriving Germans found the authorities accommodating. The first military commandant described his meeting with the bailiff of Guernsey: 'The old gentleman bowed deeply before the representatives of the German army.' The usual mechanisms of government were to remain in place: 'The autonomous states of Jersey and Guernsey continued to meet... German officials were present at all state meetings. The royal coat of arms and the portrait of the king remained on the wall. Edicts were issued with the German commandant taking over the role of the king in council and they were published, as before the war, in the official gazettes. Prayers continued to be said for the royal family and the British Empire.'
On 1 August 1940 the head of Guernsey's controlling committee recorded a broadcast for German radio which was used as propaganda. His successor was to say, after liberation, that it would have been wrong to assume that, 'if only one was firm enough the Germans would give way.'
In spite of the attitude of the governments, some islanders did take great risks to resist the Nazis. Louisa Gould, for example, died in Ravensbruck after sheltering two of the many slave workers brought to the island to build fortifications. These workers themselves suffered terribly. Alderney in particular is described as a 'nightmare prison island'. Briggs writes, 'Over 100 workers died in Alderney in the months of November and December.'
The sole reference this book makes to the fate of the island's Jewish inhabitants is that, 'A charge brought against the authorities long after the war was that they aided the Nazis in "hunting down Jews". In fact they could not prevent Jews being identified.' Which does not answer the question of how active a role they played in the identification and deportation of Jews.
Meanwhile the black market thrived. Briggs claimed it was the 'main source of profit'. There is no reason to suppose that mainland Britain would have been different. The ruling class would have looked after its own interests at any cost. It needs to persuade us otherwise, and Briggs's book is part of that process. For a better account of the war in the Channel Islands read Madeleine Bunting's book, The Model Occupation (Harper Collins), which draws on recently released documents and the stories of those involved in resisting the Nazis.
Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky
When I started reading this book, someone noticed it and leaned over to tell me she had once read something by Chomsky. She said it was very good and a real eye opener, 'but surely if you believed all of it you'd have to change the world, wouldn't you?'
Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent will have a similarly powerful impact on even those already sceptical about the mass media. It damns the myth of a free and objective press through detailed study of the extent to which it transmits the ideas of the ruling class and a clear analysis of the mechanisms by which this happens.
The book reveals how the US mass media carried Cold War propaganda campaigns initiated by the government or top media firms. It highlights how the press and television networks have presented 'worthy victims' (rebels murdered in enemy states) and 'unworthy victims' (rebels murdered by US backed regimes) to justify US policy.
One example given is the vast quantitative and qualitative difference in the reporting of the killing of a dissident priest by the police in Poland and the slaughter of hundreds of dissident priests in US backed El Salvador.
The authors investigate the coverage of the 'pacification' of Vietnam against the reality of the genocide ordered by the US government. They find that despite the outcry from the warmongers that the media 'lost the war' in the later stages by not being optimistic enough about the chances of winning, the media was in fact never as pessimistic as the US military or the president's advisers. The mainstream media never strayed from the assumption that the US was intervening to protect democracy.
Explaining why this subservience to ruling class ideology exists in the media, Herman and Chomsky detail a series of 'filters'. These include ruling class control through direct ownership as well as the dependency of the media on advertising revenue from big business. Then there is the sourcing of news--the fact that the primary sources are national and local government, business institutions, military officials, police departments and seemingly independent experts who usually turn out to be funded by ruling class think tanks. They point to the obstacles to using unofficial sources and producing critical reports, saying it involves spending time and money on research and invites 'flak' from the institutions they depend on for daily news.
The book has a major flaw, however, in that it simply assumes that all this propaganda works. There are several references to Orwell's 1984 revealing a belief that control of the media enables the ruling class to control the ideas in our heads.
It is significant that the authors' comments on the anti-Vietnam war movement include no indication as to how it could have come about given the wholehearted jingoism of the media. They present a one sided story which fails to recognise that the experiences of ordinary people can generate ideas which challenge those of the ruling class. In the book the anti-war movement came out of thin air. In reality it was born of the popular struggles for civil rights and shaped by the 1968 uprisings in France, Czechoslovakia and the black ghettos of America which radicalised the anti-war generation.
The capitalist media undoubtedly has a powerful influence on our ideas. But Herman and Chomsky's failure to acknowledge other influences means they would be hard pushed even to explain why most Sun readers managed to resist voting Tory in the last general election. Neither could they account for the 'unpatriotic' strikes that broke out in the face of First World War propaganda or the revolution that was built in Russia which had rank and file soldiers fraternising with 'the enemy'.
The authors' focus on US foreign policy alone is something of a cop out. Media propaganda supporting or condemning regimes elsewhere is unlikely to conflict with the ideas of a working class audience unless the level of struggle or the scale of the war is such that experience has spread popular distrust of the media and ruling class institutions. But Herman and Chomsky do not look to collective struggle as a means of self education for ordinary people. For them you have to be sophisticated enough to see through the system before you can begin to fight back.
Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant and thorough, often shocking, critique of the mass media in capitalist society and I would recommend everyone read it. But I can understand why the woman I met felt that Chomsky compels you to change the world, yet obviously made her feel you probably couldn't.
It is the summer of 1985 in Nicaragua; the war against the Contras is raging and Ronald Reagan is calling for more money to defeat the Sandinistas. Ordinary Nicaraguans are suffering shortages of the most basic items, while [former president] 'Somoza's revenge' caused by polluted water has forced the Yugoslav delegation to vacate Howard Hughes's old suite at the Imperial Hotel.
Into this chaos arrive Frank Little, a Dublin taxi driver, and his estranged wife Eleanor. In a gaudily painted van called Claudette this incongruous couple set off on an arduous journey to bring their son Johnny home. Johnny left Ireland for Nicaragua having had a stormy and occasionally violent relationship with both his parents. He had joined a rock band and somehow got caught up in the fighting.
Frank and Eleanor only really get to know their adult child through the perception Of his friends. His parents themselves have not seen each other for years and interwoven into their journey a series of flashbacks tells us about their lives in Ireland and what forced them apart. While growing up their aspirations had seemed so simple, yet they had been shattered. A heavy sense of regret pervades the whole book as the characters come to an understanding of why they are as they are.
This is not a book about Nicaragua or the revolution but the descriptions of towns and landscapes are intense and there are occasional glimpses of the contradictions of people's lives. A neon light flashes 'GRINGO BINGO GRINGO BINGO' while a taxi driver shouts, 'Viva Bobby Sands and fuck off to Margaret Thatcher!' as a farewell to a bewildered Frank. Young 'lefty tourists' in Managua are sneered at as 'sandalistas' and later an American journalist condemns the revolution that has given him the freedom to fabricate the news.
O'Connor's writing is vivid and sensitive as he follows the search for Johnny. He also has a good ear for dialogue which is often witty and sharp. But above all this book is a thriller, though a thriller with a brain. It reads like the plot of a good film with the characters quickly developed and a fast moving, exciting story. Song lyrics incorporated into the text even provide a kind of atmospheric soundtrack. Desperadoes is an extremely enjoyable read and if I didn't have to work in the mornings I wouldn't have put it down.
Becoming a Woman
Sally Alexander was one of the founding editors of the History Workshop Journal. The journal aimed to write history not from the point of view of those at the top of society, but based on the struggles of those from below. Alexander's book is in that tradition.
Topics covered here range from an analysis of women's work in 19th century London to the voices of the women who went to Spain in the 1930s to fight Franco's fascists. The history concentrates on the lives of working class women, and gives them a voice so often denied in mainstream history.
One of my favourite essays is about the lives of women in the years between the First and Second World Wars. In these crisis ridden years many male workers were thrown on the dole. But for women there were new opportunities to work in the proliferation of new office jobs and in developing industries.
Women were employed to work on the mass production lines of the new industries--like the manufacture of radios and other new electrical goods.
The bosses wanted to use women as a cheaper labour force. But the jobs did offer young women a way out from the drudgery of domestic service, which had previously been the biggest employer of women. This new work, along with the dawn of mass entertainment like the cinema and the first women's magazines, widened women's horizons and expectations.
Here's Jane, describing getting her first wage packet: 'You'd walk home, like the men had done in the past with your wage packet. She'd [her mother] open it and give you back your five or ten shillings... you were equivalent of the man in the family.'
Also included in the collection is a fascinating interview with Yvonne Kapp, the author of the biography of 19th century socialist Eleanor Marx, and an account of the night cleaners' campaign for unionisation in the early 1970s.
But the book also shows all the weaknesses of the socialist feminist tradition to which Alexander belongs. Alexander sets out to 'prove' that Marxism cannot explain women's position, so much of the history is a polemic against class based theories of women's oppression.
This mars much of the history. So a good account of the exploitation of women working in factories in Germany is skewed by Alexander's contention that class struggle is no solution, 'But when work and family are separated, a strategy of resistance which depends upon the industrial organisation of women is unlikely to succeed.'
Alexander rightly argues that women's role in the family--and especially looking after the kids--structures the kind of work they can do. But she downplays how going out to work has helped to change women's perception of themselves and has led to real changes in family life. So for example women are less likely to have children now and, if they do, they have them later in life.
Alexander argues that the concept of 'patriarchy'--the power of men over women--can be used to explain women's oppression.
She says, 'Men and women... inhabit different worlds'. But working class women have much more in common with their fellow male workers than with ruling class women.
Alongside the voices of working class women, the book contains forays into the psychoanalytical theories of Lacan and Freud. She concludes that 'sexual division... cannot be understood simply as a byproduct of economic class relations...'
In doing so she follows a path--along which so many socialist feminists have travelled--away from class politics and towards individual explanations and solutions to women's oppression.
The Sex Revolts
Simon Reynolds and Joy Press
Serpent's Tail £14.99
'The rebel may simultaneously worship an abstract femininity (a home away from home) while ferociously despising and fearing real-life women.'
Simon Reynolds and Joy Press admit from the start that this is a study of the rebel and not the revolutionary, stating that rock music's insubordination and ego tantrums are complicit with the terms of capitalism. Using psychoanalytical and subconscious thought as their theory, the authors depict men in rock and roll as either fighting to break the umbilical cord or having a desire to return to the womb, matricide or incest!
Women in rock and roll, it is argued, have struggled to imagine and create a specifically female rebellion, as this involves defining themselves against conventional notions of femininity. The question posed is whether it is possible to rival male rock's extremity of expression, while severing the music from its antiwoman character. According to this book, the problem women have had is in attempting to avoid being controlled they have unfortunately brought about their own oppressive self control. Women need to become more in tune with their suppressed unconscious. Women's true liberation will come about through unleashing their own subconscious.
I have to admit to spending many hours chuckling my way through large sections of this book. The idea that every mention of water in a song represents the songwriter's desire to resubmerge himself in the womb is a particularly frequent theme in one section. Being so abstract and devoid of a sense of reality, though, inevitably leads to blaming individual men, rock stars in this case, for the sexism perpetrated by a class society. Individual men are blamed for their ideas about women, without any recognition that these ideas serve a purpose for the ruling class: to divide men and women, and to keep women firmly in their place with low paid jobs and responsibility for the home and children.
Rock and roll, even when the content is anti-woman, anti-sexual, in a sense anti-human, encouraged the authors to struggle for liberation. Their ideas though will never deliver any changes for women in rock and roll, or in society.
This book could put you off men for life (it could put you off music for life), but I would recommend that dedicated rock and rollers could delve in for the fascinating descriptions and bizarre insights into the rock world that are given.
Education Divides: Poverty and Schooling in the 1990s
Teresa Smith and Michael Noble
Child Poverty Action Group £7.95
'I am not prepared to see children in some parts of this country having to settle for a second class education.' Thus said John Major in 1992. Education Divides exposes the sheer hypocrisy of this statement.
Drawing on the most recent studies and evidence, this book examines the effects of Tory education reform on the poorest families in Britain. In every area, ranging from funding to school dinners, the evidence shows that the gap between the education received by the rich and the poor has been reinforced or widened.
Spending on schools has hardly changed at all since 1980-81 and has fallen sharply at secondary level. The picture becomes even starker if you add into the equation the massive cuts in capital expenditure on school buildings, and the rise in pupil numbers set to increase class sizes at primary and secondary level.
The changes made to the methods by which schools are funded and the introduction of the market into education are increasingly creating a system of winners and losers. Schools in areas with high social deprivation now receive little if any extra funding and many have seen an actual drop in their funding due to falling pupil numbers in those schools, whereas 'opted out' schools have systematically received higher levels of funding and have priority for capital funding projects.
Some of the most critical comments are reserved for the government's claim to have increased 'choice' for parents and pupils.
One study shows that 47 percent of the first wave of opted out schools had selective admissions policies. The Commission for Racial Equality found two grant maintained schools guilty of discriminating against Asian applicants.
Far from increasing parental choice, it is now the better off schools which can select the pupils they want. In Scotland studies have concluded that such policies have 'led to the re-emergence of a two tier system, with a minority of rump schools catering for the most disadvantaged areas of the big cities.'
There is a wealth of other information exposing the increasing class divide in education, for example, the dramatic rise in the number of permanent exclusions as a result of LMS (Local Management of Schools), effectively ending education for many working class children defined as 'difficuit'. Also there are increasingly unbearable additional costs for poorer parents as more schools ask for 'voluntary contributions' often to cover the cost of basic equipment.
There is even some evidence to suggest that reading ages amongst primary children are beginning to decline in some areas, linked to increased economic hardship and the greater pressure on teachers.
The authors argue that the introduction of the 'market' into education was an attempt to break the link which had previously been made between social class, resources and educational achievement, putting the onus for success or failure on the individual. John Patten said in 1993, 'Nothing cheers me up more... than to note the lingering death of the argument... about how much money is flowing into the school system.'
Gillian Shephard has nothing to cheer her up. Once again the level of funding is seen as the critical ingredient in the debate on education. This book is a useful contribution to that debate.
From Boer War to Cold War
A J P Taylor
Hamish Hamilton £25
A J P Taylor was for the two decades after 1945 Britain's most popular historian, with a snappy, readable style even when describing quite convoluted stories. This book is a collection which centres on the manoeuvrings of diplomats and biographies of leading political figures, as they build up to and direct the two world wars and the Cold War.
Although detached from the Labour Party, Taylor never left its intellectual orbit. As he put it, 'Revolutionary socialism turned into the Bolshevik dictatorship: parliamentary socialism achieved the practical gains of the welfare state. There was no third way between Lenin and Arthur Henderson.'
In making Lenin responsible for the horrors of Stalinism Taylor turned his back on the idea that ordinary people could shape history. 'Social revolution', he wrote, 'is a 19th century habit which ended in 1918.' So while Trotsky is accorded the status of a 'gigantic individual', Taylor is really irked by his praise of the Russian working class who, 'poor chaps, had no idea what was going on'. And only once, while writing about the four million who were killed in Korea, is there any reference to the fact that people actually died in the wars that he is writing about.
For Taylor, it is not class, crisis or imperialism that underpin history but actions of 'great men', a phrase he uses frequently and unselfconsciously about Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle and Lloyd George. It often seems like you are reading the log of the captain of the Titanic, without ever finding out how the icebergs got there in the first place.
Yet this collection has real merits. Taylor's writing on the British partition of Ireland, the frame up of Roger Casement, his qualified defence of Trotsky, his alarm at the devastating consequences of the Cold War, his withering accounts of those on the left whose politics he largely shared--betray an integrity which survives his largely conventional approach to history.
And there are countless examples in this book of the hypocrisy and incompetence of those who run our lives. While sending millions to their deaths in Flanders, Asquith spent entire cabinet meetings writing letters to his mistress while his colleagues sat unaware.
His treatment of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler describes well the capitulation's and miscalculations of the official politicians who wheedled them into power and of those in Britain who were happy to see them there.
And Taylor makes it clear that the common theme of British policy in this century was not the defence of democracy but the defence of empire, intrinsically a denial of democracy. So in the First World War Britain supported 'plucky little Belgium', and covered up the terrible atrocities in the search for rubber in the Belgian Congo. Despite his admiration for Churchill as 'the man who won World War Two' he shows that during the late 1920s Churchill saw Gandhi and Indian selfrule as a more serious threat than Hitler. He charts Churchill's support for Mussolini, his effective support for Franco and his obsession with the empire in the East. For him, after the war, 'All, all shall be restored'.
Worth a flick through the next time you see it in the library.
Violence and Conflict in Modern French Culture
Ed: R Günther and J Windebank
Sheffield Academic Press £25
Across the Channel, violence and conflict are becoming central features in political and daily life, with a significant polarisation of political views. The electoral success of Le Pen's Nazi National Front has run counter to its stormtroopers committing racial attacks and murders. At the same time the Labour movement has watched a steady but important growth of militant strikes and protests.
The publication of a study of violence and conflict in French society is very timely. This collection of essays by different authors on violence covers a wide range of areas, from North African literature to French sport, from definitions of sexual harassment to an analysis of film superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo. Though aimed primarily at people with a knowledge of French language and culture, the book examines a number of interesting themes for the left in general.
Two chapters deal with the way in which French television has treated violence. One is a criticism of the hysteria which recently swept France concerning the influence of violent television on children: we had the 'video nasties' panic, the French had 'Dorothée'. Dorothée is a children's television presenter who serves up a diet of cartoons and who is responsible, apparently, for the corruption of French youth. The irony is that she is the most innocuous person you could ever imagine! The chapter rightly exposes the ridiculous theories and ways of testing the effect of television violence, and links the deterioration of France's main channel TF1 to its recent privatisation. The other chapter is analysis of the way in which political debates have been televised.
The most interesting chapter is on Jean-Paul Sartre's attitude towards violence and the revolutionary newspaper immediately after the events of May 1968. Between 1970 and 1973, the French philosopher and novelist wrote for and sold a Maoist newspaper, La Cause du Peuple. Here he came up against the moral and political dilemmas of revolutionary violence.
The deaths of 16 miners in an explosion in 1970 led to other miners firebombing the management in revenge. Sartre's view was that this retaliation was wholly justified, since the management's ruthless pursuit of profit entailed murder. But when in 1972 members of a militant Maoist group kidnapped a Renault personnel boss as retribution for the murder of a trade unionist on a picket line outside the factory, Sartre considered this to be an 'abstract' political act which did not spring 'organically from a working-class community'.
Sartre began a debate in the Maoist paper about the conditions in which support would be given to 'revolutionary violence'. He soon realised that Maoism was both ultra-left and Stalinist in its tactics and politics, and he quickly abandoned its hopeless strategies.
What Sartre did not do was learn the lessons of these mistakes. His solution to the dilemmas facing the French left in the aftermath of the 1960s rebellion was to found a new radical newspaper, Liberation. This very quickly abandoned its revolutionary stance, and today has unfortunately become a very respectable daily newspaper. It is unable to support the return to militant protests and struggles all over France which would have impressed its founder.
Working for the Union: British Trade Union Officers
John Kelly and Edmund Heery
Cambridge University Press £30
In 1993 the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers was paid £71,270 as well as £14,559 in related benefits. The NUT general secretary had to put up with £64,680 plus £10,454 in additional benefits. They do some amazing things for their money.
Recently, NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy declared war on the left (ie delegates at his own union's conference) in a desperate attempt to sabotage a vote to ballot for strike action. Using language the Tories would be proud of, McAvoy condemned delegates for being 'unrepresentative'. What this really means is that delegates repeatedly voted against their leadership's Blair driven, Blunkett blessed passivity, and voted for action on class sizes and test boycotts.
None of this would come as any surprise to regular readers of this journal. However, Kelly and Heery--both academics and one of whom at least is normally associated with the left--have produced a book that argues against this view. They say that it is utterly misleading to describe the trade union leadership as a bureaucracy, a group with standards of living and material interests increasingly separate from and at odds with those of their members as they advance through the towers of power.
In fact the authors present a caricature of the SWP analysis of the bureaucracy. In this cardboard cut out version, all members of the rank and file are uniformly and everlastingly militant, and all full time officers are conservative and thus plot to 'sell out' at all costs. This is a travesty, but it presents Kelly and Heery with an easy but meaningless target.
The SWP has never argued that all bureaucrats are equally awful. It is important, for example, for the state of the fragile but emerging fightback in this country that Bill Morris defeats the challenge for the leadership of the TGWU by the right wing, opportunist Jack Dromey (once considered left wing!). Equally, though, we cannot idolise Morris. His failure to organise for strike action, through Badgerline and GRT, in support of Chelmsford Eastern National Bus drivers, as well as allowing TGWU officials to disband the strike committee, is unfortunately little more than we would expect.
According to Kelly and Heery a particular segment of the bureaucracy are in fact the solution to all our woes. The authors argue that trade union officers cannot all be tarred with the same brush. They insist that the major determining factor of the action of full time officials is the values that the officers hold. They define three varients of full time officer: managerialist, regulationist and leader.
The first two correspond roughly to varieties of bureaucrat but the third, the leader, is our salvation--the left wing official.
Sadly, too many people have been waiting too long for the right people smuggled into the right positions to deliver salvation. It never happens, though many have tried. Some of us remember when Lord Hugh Scanlon was public enemy number one. This is a clapped out idea, but an idea that is powerful for those who either do not accept or have abandoned revolutionary politics for the hope that a few good people in the right place can promise deliverance.
Kelly and Heery produce this picture because their research concentrated on local full time officials, rather than the higher reaches of the bureaucracy. The authors do recognise that in larger unions there are at least six layers of officialdom between new officers and the general secretary. It is hardly surprising to find that brand new and locally based officers are more in sympathy with shop stewards than the old guard, but Kelly and Heery point, crucially, to a socialisation effect--officers become more moderate the longer that they remain officers and the further up the slippery pole they climb. This is hardly surprising but is a factor they underplay and is of central importance for a revolutionary socialist analysis of trade unions.
Is there an alternative approach to union officialdom? In 1915 the Clyde Workers' Committee argued that, 'we will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them'. I see no reason to abandon advice forged in the fire of a fightback.
Promised Land? Culture and Society in Labour Britain 1945-51
Ed: Jim Fyrth
Lawrence and Wishart £16
Labour's victory in the 1945 general election came as a massive shock for many politicians at the time. Labour's Hugh Dalton expected 'either a small Tory majority or a deadlock'. Winston Churchill, on hearing the extent of Labour's victory 'turned quite grey in the bath'. However, there were signs that the popular mood had shifted in Labour's direction. In four of the very few wartime by-elections, Conservatives, some in 'safe' seats, had been defeated by radical Commonwealth or Independent Socialist candidates. From 1943 onwards every opinion poll and survey showed that the voters had turned to Labour.
After the war the new mood of radicalism meant that the electorate weren't prepared to return to the privations of the 1930s. People expected their lives to improve during peacetime. The strength of this book is that it attempts to explore the changes in society and culture in relation to the Labour government. The different essays critically assess the impact of government policies and cover such issues as the formation of the National Health Service, Labour's housing and education policies, the response of the Tories to their crushing defeat, Britain's cinema, theatre and literature of the period, plus the main left alternative of the time, the Communist Party.
Of these, the NHS was the most important social reform of the Attlee government. Housing was another issue to which the working class attached massive importance. In 1945 over 70 percent of the nation's dwellings dated at least back to the 19th century. During the war 200,000 houses were destroyed completely, 250,000 were rendered uninhabitable and another 250,000 were severely damaged. In the election campaign Ernest Bevin, the minister in charge of housing, talked about 'five million homes in quick time'. This scale of house building never materialised and by the 1951 election the Tories were promising to build more council houses than Labour.
The Labour government had promised so much, but as time went on it delivered less and less. Wage freezes were introduced, strikes were outlawed and smashed using the army, and all the major reforms were toned down to appease the ruling class. For many of the writers in this book there is a strong sense that--given a greater commitment to socialism and a more determined leadership--Labour's promised land could have been achieved. But this underestimates the power and influence of Britain's ruling class.
Anyone who is interested in the prospects of a future Labour government will find this book a salutary read. New Labour in the 1990s is promising a lot less, but expectations remain high. The experience of 1945-51 shows that it takes more than changes in style and image to deliver Labour's Promised Land.
Vinnie Got Blown Away
Simon and Schuster £9.99
This is excellent pulp fiction. It's a gritty, lively book which shows the face of the east London known to small time, working class criminals who weren't around for the heyday of the Krays. It also offers hope about tackling modern day gangsters without calling on the state for intervention.
Written by a probation officer, it tells the story of a young criminal, Nicky Burdett. Jeremy Cameron assumes the character of young Nicky convincingly. Nicky treats his probation officer with contempt and has a complete lack of respect for all authority.
Cameron is, you feel, at least a liberal minded bloke with his own criticisms of the criminal justice system showing through in the book. The novel flips between the main story line and time wasted inside Wandsworth Prison. Prison is shown as a threat carried out rather than a rehabilitation institution.
The author doesn't attempt to idolise the criminal or any character in the book. He has an immense fondness for the people he's writing about but shows their more disturbing aspects as well. The sexism is writ large and honest, but in realistic contradiction, women play an important role in the physical battles which pepper the book.
Drugs feature centrally, but again moralism is noticeable by its absence. Perhaps most strikingly the racism we are told is rife in the East End of London is not rife in this book. In fact, black and white fight alongside one another for a profit, revenge or a ride in a stylish motor.
The novel also dispels myths about education. Nicky is a working class lad from a run down council estate. He also speaks fluent French. Marigold, his French teacher at school--perhaps a bit too much of a idealised stereotype--got Nicky interested in learning the language by presenting the subject in an entertaining way, a way that doesn't get a look in on the national curriculum. Gillian Shepherd should take note!
Overall, an entertaining read but not an earth shattering one. It's a quick, light and uplifting read, but it's entrenched in working class London. It shows that mass action works, now if only that lot got organised politically...
Hamish Hamilton £14.99
Melissa Benn's first novel, Public Lives, is the story of the impact of politics on two young women's personal lives and relationships. Through the eyes of ten year old Sarah we see the development of the political career of her father, Tom Martin, an academic turned radical politician, who considered himself a communist in his youth and found fame through his campaigns against the war in Vietnam.
Personal relationships are dashed by political betrayal and scandal. The political and the personal seem inseparable in this novel. These events really show little relation to the rest of society and political movement and change. The petty back stabbing amongst this group of middle class intellectual elitists shows no real impact outside that sphere.
The novel is a good comment on the politics of the right within the Labour movement as a result of the defeats of the working class during the 1980s, especially the miners' strike of 1984-85. Tom's radicalism appears to die with him, the next generation of the Martins being cynical reformists.
The novel expresses the conflict of ideas between the modernist approach of Blair's new Labour and the traditional radical politics of Tom's generation and the remaining left of the Labour Party (is Benn referring to her own father here?)
The general tone of apathy and helplessness that surrounds the novel seems to indicate that the right has won out. Although they find it difficult to stomach, the characters must conform to 1980s materialist values and if change is to be made it must be made on those terms. The novel arrives at this conclusion through its emphasis on personal conflicts and individualism. Radicalism is only represented by the father--as he grows old his politics are believed to have become out of date and he is compared to an old dinosaur. His personal failure as a father and a husband is supposed to indicate the failure of the radical politics which he represents.
As a story about personal relationships the novel is nice, polite and sometimes touching. it's political message, however, is somewhat melancholy.
Simon and Schuster £5.99
If you are a presidential candidate who has to hide the source of some dodgy campaign funds or a drugs baron who needs to clean up some cash then this is the book for you.
The term 'money laundering' was first coined by the journalists investigating the Watergate scandal in 1973, but it has been going on for years. It was made famous by the gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who needed to hide the source of their ill gotten gains.
Money which has been obtained dishonestly or needs to be used for a reason that it was not intended for needs to go through a series of transactions. An example of this is the Brinks Mat bullion robbery in 1983, when £23 million worth of gold was stolen. It was turned into cash and then into cocaine. By the time the money was finally recovered it was now £380 million.
The stakes of the game are very high. Drug traffickers are currently reprocessing $100 million through the banks of the US and Europe each year--that exceeds the GDP of 90 percent of all the countries represented at the UN. Drugs and money go hand in hand. A random forensic test in the US found that practically all bank notes in circulation had traces of cocaine on them. That means that the policeman buying his coffee and doughnuts is most likely using money that was involved in drug deals.
Money laundering should not only be seen as the domain of the drug trafficker. The book exposes very well how it is used by various states. Bulgaria was one of the first countries to see the advantage of laundering. Under dictator Todor Zhikov the government dealt in drugs, washed the profits in shell companies that had access to Swiss banks and then used the cash to set up a holding company which in the 1960s supplied arms to Nigeria during the war in Biafra. It also gave arms to the Christian militia in Lebanon and to South Africa during apartheid.
The book puts the blame for all the problems at the feet of some rotten elements in government and some drug dealers and argues that the only way to stop them is more FBI agents and legislation to make the moving of money harder. It does not see the root of the problem being the very system itself which is built on sleaze and corruption. But it is well worth reading for the information it supplies.