Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Perish the privileged orders': A Socialist History of the Chartist Movement
For working men and women the 1830s were a decade of both despair and hope. Conditions in the new towns and cities of the industrial revolution had reached desperate proportions. Workers were herded into overcrowded jerry-built hovels without heating, cooking or sanitary facilities, on unpaved streets with open refuse tips and running sewers. They were periodically struck by epidemics of cholera, smallpox, TB, and even chickenpox and measles. Infant mortality rates could be as high as one death in every four births. Life expectancy for males in mining communities hovered in the low 20s rising to about 40 for the working population as a whole.
Intensifying competition in an uncontrolled market economy produced bouts of mass unemployment and the destruction of the traditional skills of the cottage and small workshop. A spate of enclosure acts completed the dispossession of the rural poor at the hands of capitalist farmers. A vast proletariat was created for the factory, the mine and construction site. A series of savage acts (New Poor Law, Master and Servant Law, Trade Union Legislation, Newspaper Stamp Act) were instituted to discipline and mould human beings to the needs of the capitalist industrial system.
However, as Mark O'Brien notes in his fine new book, 'it is not the case... that the workers... accepted their suffering passively. In fact quite the opposite. These were years of class struggle and the dawning of a broad working class consciousness which was to form the basis of the first socialist ideas and organisations in Britain.'
British workers fought their way through the 1830s. Massive riots in a number of cities and insurrection in Newport (1831) pushed their rulers into the first increment of parliamentary reform in 1832. The implementation of the New Poor Law was hampered and postponed by determined local resistance. The campaign for press freedom was carried out by multitudes of working class paper sellers defying the law and risking imprisonment. Despite the savage sentences meted out to the Tollpuddle farm labourers and the Glasgow cotton spinners, workers continued to fight to organise trade unions.
By the end of the decade a network of working class agitators and organisers existed across the industrial towns and cities of Britain. These were the men and women who, with a complement of middle class radicals, launched and pulled together the first national working class mass movement for political reform round the six points of the People's Charter.
The Charter was launched with a mass delegate meeting in London in 1838. Missionaries were sent out to spread the word throughout the country. The first phase of the movement culminated in a workers' rebellion in South Wales. At the beginning of November 1839 more than 20,000 armed miners, iron workers and other tradesmen converged on Newport. Although they were defeated by troops, the event both inspired workers elsewhere and terrified the ruling class.
Although the national leadership of the movement was largely middle class in origin, the overwhelmingly working class character of the rank and file membership is underlined by the events of Newport. It was emphasised in the mass strike of 1842. Up to half a million workers struck in a rolling strike starting in the West Midlands, developing a central focus in the Manchester region and spreading throughout industrial Lancashire and over into the West Riding of Yorkshire with a simultaneous outbreak in the central industrial belt of Scotland.
At the centre of Chartist activity was the newspaper, The Northern Star. At its peak of influence it sold 40,000 copies weekly and may have reached ten times that number.
Mark O'Brien brings out forcefully the role of Ireland in British politics. It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which rents and profits from the sale of grain and linen contributed to the prosperity of early British capitalism. Irish peasants were 'rewarded' with a regime of unparalleled, callous brutality. Irish workers brought into Chartism a hatred of the ruling class, channelled into resolute organisation and activity. In the wake of the potato famine and mounting evictions the Irish dimension was a crucial element in the final militant upsurge for the Charter in 1848.
The ruling class was terrified by the prospect of a link being forged between Ireland, the growing revolutionary movement in Europe and the growing confidence and power of the home grown working class. Most frightening of all was the emergence from working class experience of a social programme to complement the much older struggle for political rights. The rulers therefore deployed massive numbers of soldiers, ex-soldiers, policemen, special constables and a network of spies to crush the movement.
By the movement's later stages Marx and Engels were involved. They helped a little to nudge a declining movement towards social democracy. But the movement was a strong influence on them, sharpening and deepening their theory from their close observation of a working class in action. O'Brien tells the story with great clarity and gusto. His book should be read by all enemies of 'the privileged orders'.
A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940
Women and Families: An Oral History 1940-1970
Blackwell £12.99 each
It is refreshing to read a book that cuts through the picture of the family as an unchanging entity encompassing patriarchal attitudes and a lifetime of servitude for women.
Elizabeth Roberts debunks these myths, often accepted in feminist writings, through her oral study of family life in the three Lancashire towns of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston from 1890-1970.
Although she describes herself as a feminist, her studies led her to draw far from feminist conclusions: 'There was little feeling among the majority of the women interviewed that they or their mothers had been particularly exploited by men, at least not by working class men... women who were conscious of their exploitation interpreted it in terms of class conflict.'
It is precisely through Roberts' work on these families that we witness the ever changing nature of the family--its relationships and attitudes to sex, work, education and social life.
The picture is one of continuity and change. The family survives with the help of the welfare state, with education and health reforms ensuring the well being of family members. The onus on the family for child rearing has remained the same from 1890 through 1970 and until today.
It is the taking care of children that dominates and shapes the practice and attitudes of family members. What affects that is the economic standing of the family, and which of its members work and for how long. In stark contrast to feminist theory, Roberts points out that the majority of women held 'power' inside the family and this was not related to her position in the workforce, but due mainly to personality.
Although work did affect how housework was done, Roberts notes that in Preston, where the women worked full time, men were central to helping in the home unlike the other areas where women worked part time or not at all.
Large families (one woman had 21 kids!) and dire poverty were the scene at the turn of the century. Even when women worked, from their homes or in the mills, housework was time consuming--with some practices, like donkey-stoning, surviving into the 1960s. The advent of household implements like vacuum cleaners and washing machines transformed women's lives. Nationally 3.6 percent of families had washing machines in 1942, 29 percent in 1958 and 64 percent in 1969.
The building of council houses was revolutionary! One man remembers being rehoused onto a council estate in Lancaster in 1936 and the rota for relatives and friends to use the bath.
The advent of more readily available contraception meant that limiting the size of your family was uncomplicated and realisable. As Roberts points out, 'A woman's job was not so likely to affect her fertility rate as her fertility rate was likely to affect her employment.'
The overwhelming changes took place inside of the family because of outside factors--women entering the workforce en masse. It brought women financial independence and confidence. One woman remembers going to work in Vickers during the war and skipping all the way home with her £5 wage packet--she'd previously earned 15 shillings as a domestic worker. The postwar boom and the advent of the welfare state sucked more women than ever into the workforce.
Whilst escaping work was seen as emancipation for women in the 1890s working 60 hour shifts in the mills, getting a job was perceived as liberating for women in the 1950s and 1960s. Most women spoke fondly of the companionship that work brought and a couple of women worked just to get out of the house. Accompanying these massive changes in work and home patterns was an ideological sea-change regarding sex, children and divorce.
The more affluent position of working class people and the shorter working week meant there was more time to spend together and to afford consumer goods and have holidays. In 1951 only one house in 15 had a television, by 1975 this had shot up to nine in every ten. In 1945 there was one car to every 32 people, this has risen to one for every 4.7 people in 1970.
This changed relationships--particularly in respect to children. Roberts could say that at the turn of the century 'there was no division between the world of childhood and the adult world of work'. This had radically changed by the 1940s onwards.
Although marriage, and increasingly weddings, were still a major feature in people's lives the expectations of children by 1970 were much different from their parents. This was in all spheres of life, from jobs to sex and marriage.
Through Roberts' books we witness working class family life not as the false myth peddled by the right wing defenders of the family of mum, dad and two kids living happily ever after. But neither is it the crude model of brutal patriarchal domination presented to us by feminists.
It is, instead, a complex combination of changing relationships shaped by an ever changing capitalist system which the family is there to serve.
The First New Left British Intellectuals After Stalin
Lawrence & Wishart £14.99
The New Left emerged in 1956. It was a response to the events of that year: the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the British invasion of Suez, and Kruschev's speech denouncing Stalin. New Left clubs and discussion groups were set up. It was a space to debate socialist ideas outside the barren worlds of the Stalinised British Communist Party and the Labour Party.
The movement was based around two different journals. The first was the New Reasoner, set up by John Saville and Edward Thompson. This was based in Yorkshire, around former members of the Communist Party. The second journal was Universities and Left Review, which originated inside Oxford University. This 'first' New Left lasted until 1961, when the two journals merged to form the New Left Review.
The New Left saw its purpose as to generate new Marxist ideas. It was consistently critical of the Communist Party, which it saw as insular and deterministic. A whole series of intellectuals flourished within the movement--Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson. Some of the work they produced, such as Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, stands today as Marxist history of the highest calibre.
The strength of Michael Kenny's book is that it links these ideas to the historical situation that created them. In a sense, the movement has the historian it deserves. Michael Kenny is fair to all his participants: Thompson when he criticises Hall, Hall when he criticises Thompson.
What this book leaves out is the flaws. Against Communist Party notions of tight party discipline (ultimately subject to the line set in Moscow), the New Left stressed the value of debate and discussion. For the New Left discussion was seen as an end in itself.
As a result New Left ideas were usually self contradictory and rarely translated into action. In its attitude to the Labour Party, for example, the movement veered from a socialist critique (which can be found in such books as Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism) to an unquestioning acceptance of Wilson (as a moderniser). Similarly the New Left could not decide whether it was reformist or revolutionary. The dilemma is summed up in the title of Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution: the revolution would happen but capitalists need not despair--it would be a long time coming.
There were other flaws, beyond incoherence. Its groups and meetings declined. There was a sense of a movement going nowhere. Increasingly, the intellectuals stressed the progressive role of intellectuals (and ignored real working class struggles). The New Left, which arose as a critical response to Stalinism, never really generated a thorough critique of the state capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. Ultimately, all the movement bequeathed was a corpus of writing and a journal.
Michael Kenny does not really reflect the failures of the first New Left. He portrays everything as a success. The New Left's failure to translate socialist ideas into practice is described as an 'attempt to juxtapose creative intellectual practice... with hard political realities.' This book represents the most complete account to date of an important aspect of left history. But it is an incomplete history: a story with all the flaws creased out.
A Guide to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
Blackstone's Guide to the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994
Martin Wasik and Richard Taylor
Defending Your Freedom: A Guide to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
Len Lucas and Alan Murdie
Legal Research and Campaign Services £5
Much public 'understanding' of law is based on hearsay. This is true even for those campaigning against specific legislation, particularly when, as in the case of the CJA, opposition is mounted whilst amendments are still being debated. Even now, with it on the statute book, there are misconceptions. Problems of interpretation are compounded by the as yet incomplete picture emerging from courts and county constabularies. What is more, wading through the legalese in the Act, with its references to earlier legislation, leaves you only slightly the wiser.
This is where guides such as Blackstone's and Butterworth's come in; both include the Act (which alone would cost £18), explain its contents in understandable English, pointing out potential problems in interpretation and legal practice, and anticipate ways in which the legislation might be used. This is not just of academic interest, although both publications are intended for the specialist.
Both books have their strengths, and ideally one would want both to hand. At 141 pages, the commentary supplied by Wasik and Taylor is about twice the length of James Morton's, allowing more scope for coverage of debate in parliament and the press, and for general background, including legal and, to a lesser extent, political and social context.
An example which underlines this difference between the books is that of the fivefold increase in the maximum fine for drug possession: Morton simply notes this; Wasik and Taylor provide a page of background.
Another little mentioned section of the Act might serve to highlight the contrasting political stances which can be discerned. In Morton, 'Security costs at party conferences' meets with a comment on the general expense, supported by recent total costs figures. Wasik and Taylor give comparative costs: in 1994, for example, £3,500 for the Lib Dems and £2.5 million (including a minesweeper) for the Tories. Blackstone is more openly critical of the attitudes behind the Act, and is good at turning up such gems; it is also excellent on samples and DNA databases and generally sound on the criminalisation of trespass. Butterworth's criticism of the Act is more from the legal practitioner's viewpoint, reminding us what a mess much of it is, with the occasional dry comment hinting at the ineptitude of the present administration.
Neither book makes the obvious connection between privatisation of prisons and the abolition of the warders' right to strike; neither examines the disastrous experience of plea bargaining in other countries. Both cover the debates over the right to silence, corroboration and secure units very well; both could be more cynical about 'sus' and anti-terrorist measures.
At much less expense, Defending Your Freedom is intended as a handbook for the activist. Critics of the safe line advocated in this book are missing the point. As a barrister, Alan Murdie can hardly recommend breaking the law; but he can note that 'increased penalties for squatting... may actually backfire', resulting in luxurious properties being targeted as squatters make the risk worthwhile. This section on squatting is one of the best.
The book brings in legislation other than the CJA where it affects rights, in particular those of protest, assembly and silence.
It is as an all round guide to the legal system that this book is strongest. Procedures from arrest through to trial and the possibility of appeal or review are examined, theory always balanced by an awareness of what actually happens in practice.
Merchants and Revolution
Cambridge University Press £40
Academic historians have been perplexed for more than half a century on how to link two key developments in English history in the 17th and 18th centuries.
On the one hand there was the world's first 'modern' revolution, with the king's head cut off by those who proclaimed themselves representatives of the people. On the other, there was the establishment by the end of the 18th century of the world's first industrial capitalism.
Historians influenced by Marxism argued that what happened was a bourgeois revolution wrapped up in religious garb, and that this cleared the way for further capitalist development. But they had difficulties when it came to describing the revolutionary events as a clash between 'feudal' and 'bourgeois' sides. Both sides were made up in the main of landowners ('gentry'), and attempts to differentiate between 'rising' and 'declining' fractions of the gentry could not be sustained in the face of further research. What is more, the richest merchant capitalists of the City of London were actually on the king's side.
All this has encouraged the rise of a school of 'revisionist' historians who deny any connection between the revolution and the rise of capitalism. They argue the clash between the king and parliament was simply a matter of misunderstandings on both sides, exacerbated by the purely personal ambitions of different figures.
Such conclusions are completely unsatisfactory. They ignore the massive circumstantial evidence for a link between the outcome of the revolution and the rise of the world's first bourgeois state. They also turn their back on the insights by thinkers as varied as Marx and Trotsky, Weber and Tawney, into the way puritan Christianity contained a characteristically capitalist view of the individual's place in the scheme of things (what Weber called 'the spirit of capitalism').
Brenner's book is one of a number of recent attempts to refute the 'revisionist' view by reasserting the importance of social factors in the revolution.
The bulk of the book is concerned with showing how there was a group of merchants who did play a key revolutionary role. These were the 'new interloping' merchants, who were excluded from the monopoly privileges which bound older and wealthier groups to the kings.
The 'new merchants' were able to mobilise action from the mass of smaller traders and artisans in the City of London to beat back royalist offensives and to support the revolutionary army at key moments of political crisis. As a result, they exerted enormous influence on the policies pursued by the revolutionary government after the execution of the king in 1648.
There are a number of problems with Brenner's overall argument. First he repeatedly mentions the lesser traders, shopkeepers and artisans who acted along with the 'new merchants'. But nowhere does he analyse who they were or what their ideas were--although many of them would have been just as 'bourgeois' as the 'new merchants' and, from his own figure, often outnumbered the merchants on key revolutionary bodies.
Second, he never really succeeds in tying in his picture of what was happening in London with another well known contention of his--that the transition to capitalism in Britain involved, centrally, the establishment of capitalist relations in agriculture from the 14th century onwards, with towns playing little or no role.
He argues in his concluding chapter that the landowners were uniformly capitalist before the revolutionary years, and were united at first in challenging a monarchy that embodied non-capitalist, absolutist principles. When they split into opposed pro-royalist and radical wings it was not because they rested on different social bases or even held different socio-religious views, but because many came to see the monarchy as indispensable if they were to prevent disaffection from below damaging their own position. The 'new merchants' then played the role of the revolutionary Seventh Cavalry, mobilising the City masses just as the splits within the 'capitalist' gentry threatened to doom the revolution.
But this seems to me to overstate the degree of capitalist development in the countryside, and to underestimate the importance of ideological battles in periods of great social transformation.
It is true that by the 1640s most agriculture in England was no longer 'feudal' in any real sense. Much production was for the market, rents were paid in cash and landlords did not personally subjugate tenants. But this certainly did not mean that the landowners were unambiguously capitalist in their behaviour. 'Traditional', non-capitalist ties still had their effects, blunting the pure cash nexus. Such a contradictory reality produced a contradictory consciousness that pulled the gentry in opposite directions when faced with a great political crisis.
It was this which explained the vital role of the towns. For they stood at the centre of the market networks binding the more capitalist elements of the country as a whole together.
And within them, the 'middling' urban groups of non-monopolistic tradesmen and handicraft producers provided the basis for religious ideologies which saw the whole world recast along the lines of the lives they led--that is, along bourgeois lines.
Finally, in failing to see the interconnection of the urban and rural classes in this way, Brenner also fails to see the parallels between developments in Britain and those elsewhere in Europe. His stress is always on how different things were in Britain. But, as Marx noted, there had already been similar clashes between forces pushing towards capitalism and forces preserving the old feudal order in places like northern Italy with the first great crisis of feudalism in the 14th century. There were further and larger clashes, not just in Britain but also in France and Germany with the second great crisis of the 16th and 17th century. It was this which lay behind the huge ideological turmoil of the time, even if the undeveloped character of the forces pushing towards capitalism meant they were mixed in with all sorts of other forces, some of quite a conservative character. And it was this which encouraged the English combatants to see themselves taking part in a struggle of epochal importance.
By not making such connections, Brenner narrows the focus of his work far too much and gets trapped in a level of detail which, besides often getting tedious, misses out on the real importance of what was happening.
The Cause of Ireland
Beyond the Pale £12.95
A book on Ireland, a country whose history isn't exactly uneventful, that spans roughly 800 years in less than half as many pages might indicate a rather superficial digest. Far from it. Curtis manages to combine both major historic upheavals and personal anecdotes into a lively and comprehensive account of the struggle of successive generations of Irish rebels against British imperialism.
From the description of the poet Shelley and his young wife Harriet throwing copies of his pamphlet on Irish emancipation from their balcony to likely looking passers-by in 1812, to the police mutinies during the Belfast dock strike of 1907, the fighters of each generation are celebrated.
The chapter on the famine makes chilling reading, particularly at a time when the likes of Conor Cruise O'Brien claim it's bad form to display any official recognition of the famine's horrors--and the British government's role in it--while the 'peace process' is going on.
But between 1845 and 1849 over one million people died of hunger and disease while in one year alone some '30,000 oxen, bulls and cows, over 30,000 sheep and lambs, and over 100,000 pigs' were shipped from Ireland to England along with an abundance of wheat, barley and oats. This shows that the famine was no natural disaster. The food was handed over to landlords for rent to avoid eviction.
Curtis shows that most of the landowners were members of the English ruling class who openly acknowledged that the famine would help clear smallholders off their land. Trevelyan--the key top civil servant at the Treasury during the famine--is quoted as saying, 'if the small farmers go and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country'.
Curtis's powerful account shows that this cool assessment of his class interest in the face of what amounted to the slaughter and emigration on 'coffin ships' of 3 million Irish peasants was symptomatic of the British establishment's attitude. The bitterness against the British for their role in the famine helped fuel generations of Irish rebels.
At times this book is dense with detail at the expense of an overview or analysis. This is because Curtis wants to highlight the role of ordinary people, particularly women, who often don't merit more than a passing mention in many historical accounts. This is an approach that socialists should welcome, but it can mean that the relative importance of people's contributions and their impact are obscured in the attempt. So--while accepting that because of oppression the role of women in the struggle against the British has often been ignored--you sometimes get the feeling that though there is much hidden history that should be portrayed, there is also some that doesn't really merit a mention.
Despite these weaknesses, this book will help many to understand why even in the 1990s The Cause of Ireland has still got some unfinished business.
Late Imperial Culture
Eds: Roman de la Campa, E Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker
Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race and the Postmodern World
Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon
Rosa Luxemburg--A Life
Rosa Luxemburg was a brilliant revolutionary socialist, whose life was tragically cut short when she was murdered in 1919 after an abortive revolutionary uprising in Germany.
When the German socialist party, the SPD, collapsed in the face of patriotic fervour and supported the slaughter of the First World War in 1914 she led the opposition, and held together a small group of isolated individuals who defended the principles of international working class solidarity.
Sadly, when the workers of Germany rebelled against the war and looked to follow the example of the Russian Revolution, this group was not organised and influential enough to affect events. As Rosa had predicted, the reformist SPD leaders sided with reaction to defend capitalism, and she paid with her life.
Luxemburg's writings against the conservatism and bureaucracy of the leaders of the German labour movement are more relevant today than ever. She tore apart those who thought that the system could be changed through parliament. Last March, Glenys Kinnock had the gall to praise Rosa in a speech to commemorate International Women's Day. In Rosa's day, she was hounded by people like the Kinnocks and the Blairs, who joined with the ruling class in baying for her blood.
Rosa Luxemburg analysed capitalism and the move to war and destruction. Before the era of concentration camps and nuclear bombs, she warned that the choice facing humanity was 'socialism or barbarism'. Her life is a testimony to the need to build revolutionary opposition to reformism.
Ettinger's book gives little of the flavour of this life. Ettinger admits that she did not set out to analyse Luxemburg's political writings, and claims that her book is therefore 'a portrait with no glass and no frame'. In fact it is not even this. The book concentrates on Rosa's personal life--her Jewish origins, disputes with her family, and most importantly her love affairs--especially her relationship with the German socialist Leo Jögiches.
There is a lot of speculation and absurd reasoning. Ettinger obviously thinks it important that Luxemburg is thought of as a woman, not 'just a revolutionary'. Of course socialists are subject to feelings and anguish about family and lovers--does this really come as a great surprise to anyone? Is it really such a big deal?
If you like a bit of gossip you might find this an interesting read, but look elsewhere for the real Rosa Luxemburg.
Switchboard Operators is set in a 1960s Post Office telephone exchange in Derbyshire.
The main character in the book is Sylvie, one of a group of predominantly female teenage switchboard operators. There are, according to Sylvie and her friends, four types of switchboard operator: teenagers who are filling in the gap between leaving school and getting married; slightly older women who are saving for their weddings, middle aged women who have gone back to work after raising their families; and supervisors, spinsters who have given their lives to the service of the GPO. These are pitied by Sylvie and her group who believe they will only work for the GPO for a short time.
But the GPO management are determined that the operators will give their all to the service and send them to the technical college to be educated. The operators are not interested in studying the coal seam in the Ruhr or maths and when, in exasperation, the maths teacher asks what they want him to teach them they reply, 'Marxism.' He decides to talk about the life of Marx and how he lived off the proceeds of the capitalist state he apparently scorned. But the operators argue that they want to learn about socialist theories. Lessons are spent arguing about state capitalism and workers' states.
When not at college the operators work at the exchange and their conversations range from the ideas of Trotsky to the importance of CND to the wedding plans of the latest woman to 'get a catch' and so escape the exchange. They never, however, talk about sex as that would be frowned upon by the supervisors!
All of the operators are in the union and Sylvie talks with warmth about the importance of union organisation. But there is an argument when the new operators are given their union cards. The card states that the union wants workers' participation in running the exchange. The new operators want the wording changed to workers' control but the union official argues for moderation.
Sylvie is also a member of the youth section of the Labour Party whose meetings are dominated by arguments about who will have what job in the revolution. Sylvie is considered important because the telephone exchange will be of critical importance during the revolution.
When they reach 18 most of the operators leave the GPO and many of Sylvie's colleagues go to college, although quite a few follow the generations of operators before them down the aisle.
Switchboard Operators is funny and wittily written. Lake writes about the idealism of the operators who believe the world is theirs for the taking. This book will not change anyone's life but it's a good read and in many ways reminded me of Rivethead--inspiring because it shows how workers unite and stick together against the bosses.
Africa Within the World
Ed: Adebayo Adedeji
Zed Books £13.95
The most recent world trade figures celebrate the growth of trade in all regions--except Africa. Africa's share of world trade is only 1 percent and declining. So is its share of world investment and output.
These trends, together with the apparent decline of Africa's strategic importance in the post Cold War world, seem to provide robust evidence of 'a catastrophic marginalisation of Africa' in the New World Order.
'Marginalisation', currently the chief focus of much analysis of Africa, was the subject of the first international conference of the African Centre for Development and Strategic Studies (ACDESS). Africa Within the World records these proceedings.
The contributions are variations on the theme of how to reverse 'marginality'. They argue that Africa possesses no weight with which to influence the direction of world capitalism and is itself subject to domination by the imperialist heartlands of the world system.
The devastating African debt provides a powerful lever for Western creditor states--to whom 83 percent of sub-Saharan African debt is owed--to 'tame' debtor countries. The crisis 'has put a stop to whatever attempts [Africa] once made to obtain collective advantages... Debt makes debtors timid and creditors bold.'
Debt servicing drives debtors to frenzied competition to sell primary commodities, benefiting Western capitalists. Lucrative takeovers of assets are effected through debt-for-equity swaps. Interest payments contribute to making Africa a net exporter of capital to the West.
All of which is somewhat true. Yet these manifestations of Africa's crises are, in essence, effects not causes. To treat them as the starting point for change necessarily restricts such change to 'managing effects', in one word, reformism.
If, after all, the 'effects' of imperialism are experienced by all Africans--both ruling class and exploited, then the way forward is through the unity of all classes. 'Democratisation' will enable those previously marginalised to advance their own agenda and to pressurise or enlist the state to reflect that agenda.
But the severe limitations of such reformism are persistently exposed by reality. African societies are among the most unequal in the world. They are capitalist societies riven by antagonistic competition between classes and nation states. Class struggles are at an unprecedented level.
For their part, the ruling classes increasingly drop the pretence of an all embracing unity of interests, preferring to rely instead on brutal repression and murderous sectarian politics. These are less victims of imperialism than champions of capitalism.
Africa is 'marginalised' because it is largely unprofitable to world capitalism. Which is why Africa's 'own' capitalists export $40 billion in investments to the West. Debt servicing oils this mechanism by safeguarding credit, investment and aid flows. As does 'structural adjustment' ie export led growth and internal savings.
The free market enables a crisis-prone profit system to rationalise itself, freeing itself from unprofitable encumbrances such as social spending. Enclaves of growth are developed while vast economic and human resources are laid to waste. (An example of this is Rwanda, where in the midst of civil war and near famine, a thriving tea industry was developed, becoming the country's largest export earner.) The real marginalisation is of the needs of the exploited majority, be they in Africa or Welsh mining towns.
Africa Within the World offers some quite devastating criticisms of free market economics, as well as useful descriptions of the crisis in Africa. It also raises important issues such as the nature of the state, peasantry, pan-Africanism, the future of communal organisation, all of which perhaps merit more specific responses.
'There is extreme hesitation to offer alternatives or enter the realm of Utopia,' as one contributor puts it. Yet, of course, there is no recognition that the only real alternative lies in the struggle of the exploited across Africa. Their victory, far from being marginal, will be extremely relevant to shaping a truly better world.