Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52
Gill and Macmillan £17.99
This book is a very welcome antidote to all the revisionist theories about the famine. Throughout this year--the 150th anniversary of the Irish potato famine--there have been systematic attempts by historians, politicians and broadcasters to rewrite the history of the famine.
Most of this revisionism has come from Irish sources. It is part of a project that involves copper fastening a specific notion of modern Southern Irish nationalism, a respectable nationalism, with a modern European outlook, that has little interest in harking back to past wrongs inflicted by Britain or offering any sustenance to modern Irish Republicanism.
The revisionist project has been accelerated greatly by the Northern peace process, which has reinforced a desire to hush up and obscure the past.
Whereas a decade or more ago anniversaries of the death of Wolfe Tone or the Easter Rising provided an opportunity for the important people of Southern Irish society to wrap the green flag round themselves, now they are seen as embarrassing reminders that the Southern state could only come into being as a result of militant armed action against the British.
So also the famine, surely the greatest of the many crimes perpetrated by the British ruling class on Ireland, must now be sanitised and swept under the carpet. This process has involved playing down the impact of the famine on Irish society, diluting the awfulness of the famine itself, and whitewashing the guilty, whilst reapportioning some of the blame.
Kinealy, in this painstakingly researched and well written book, tackles this rewriting of history head on. The savage impact and nature of the famine are laid bare. Moreover, she gets to the heart of the revisionist project, the infamous role of the British government. Part of the revisionist aim is to play down the role of Britain, while playing up the role of the Irish landlords, merchants and big farmers. These groups did little to improve the situation of the starving masses. In many cases they added greatly to the misery, particularly through the evictions the landlords carried out which were tantamount to death sentences. Many big farmers and merchants also cashed in on the misery around them to improve their lot.
Kinealy may indeed be guilty of underplaying their role in the tragedy. Nevertheless she is absolutely right to point out that the one group with the resources to solve the problem was the British government. It had the power to provide the necessary aid, the power to enforce the importation of foodstuffs at affordable prices, the power to ban all export of foodstuffs and evictions. In short it could have, should have, prevented the tragedy.
There was little or no desire to do so on the part of the government. Beneath the veneer of economic laissez faire orthodoxy lay long held prejudices, ill informed prognosis, and a barely spoken but strongly held view that the depopulation and land clearance that the famine was causing could only be good for British interests in the long run.
Despite the attempts of today's historians to claim that the government did about as much as it could, or as economic orthodoxy would allow, annoyingly for them there exist many quoted sources from the time from establishment figures which expose the argument as nonsense.
For instance, Kinealy quotes Edward Twistleton, appointed by the government as relief commissioner in Ireland. 'I wish to remark that it is wholly unnecessary that there should be a single death from starvation this year... all that is requisite is that the necessary funds should be furnished... a comparatively trifling sum [would allow] this country [Britain] to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting any of our miserable fellow subjects... to die of starvation.'
Kinealy has done a great service in establishing the truth about the famine, and this is a book that deserves to be widely read.
Norton Books £16.95
Restoration in Russia
Modern Tsars and Princes
Russia has seen massive changes in the last five years. In 1990 it was the world's second military and industrial power, with the Communist Party still in control. Today the empire is gone and the economy has collapsed. The optimism and pro-market euphoria have evaporated.
Marshall Goldman's Lost Opportunity contains a useful summary of the events leading up to the current slump.
Despite his support for the market, Goldman argues that the whole monopoly structure of the Soviet era economy must be transformed if market reforms are to work. Even then, he concedes, it is unlikely that life in Russia will improve much in the foreseeable future. When leading Western pro-marketeers are writing such things, you know the market has been a disaster in Russia. But the book is spoiled by the author's account of his own market prescription for the Russian economy.
The subtitle of Boris Kagarlitsky's new book promises an analysis of 'Why Capitalism Failed', but the promise is unfulfilled. Kagarlitsky cannot seem to make up his mind about what kind of system exists in Russia.
He describes it as 'neo-feudalism', and yet he stresses how the economy has gone backwards since the introduction of the market. However, such revealing comments are few and far between.
In what sense can capitalism be said to have failed in Russia? Life for the majority of workers and those dependent on the state such as pensioners has got much worse. But many former bureaucrats and new entrepreneurs have made massive profits. For them capitalism has been a roaring success. In 1994 Mercedes sold more top of the range cars in Russia than it did in France.
Jeremy Lester's Modern Tsars and Princes covers the same period as Kagarlitsky, but is clearer and more informative. Against the common notion that 'Russia has been sold to the West', he argues that Western investors are 26 times more likely to put money into China than into Russia.
The section on the Communist Party shows how this former imperial ruling class party has moved towards open national chauvinism. Unlike Kagarlitsky, who denies Zhirinovsky is a fascist and dismisses him as 'colourful' and a 'provocateur', Lester traces the worrying way far right ideas have moved to the centre of Russian politics.
Lester's book is valuable as a source of information, but he substitutes the concepts of 'civil society' and 'hegemony', borrowed from Gramsci, for a class analysis of Russian society. For Gramsci these concepts were part of an overall Marxist analysis, and by treating hegemony in isolation Lester sometimes implies that class is about 'social cohesion' rather than about exploitation.
The faith of millions of ordinary Russians in the market has resulted in cynicism and despair. In the midst of this demoralisation a clear understanding of why Russian state capitalism went into crisis and how workers can smash the system is vital.
John Murray £19.99
The New Untouchables
I B Tauris £25
Politicians everywhere are stirring up hatred against immigrants. The appearance of The New Untouchables by Nigel Harris, a longstanding past contributor to this magazine, is thus timely. A clear headed, objective analysis of the role of immigration today, written from an internationalist perspective, would be a valuable tool in the debates currently raging. Unfortunately, Nigel's book, though undoubtedly intended to make such a contribution, only very partially succeeds in achieving this objective.
It is at its strongest when addressing the economic functions of immigration. Capitalism, Nigel shows, has always depended on immigration in order to overcome scarcities of--especially, though not exclusively, unskilled--labour. This has been true historically, in the great surges of immigration--for example, from Europe to North America in the second half of the 19th century, from Western Europe's colonies and peripheries to its heartlands after the Second World War.
This process is, however, accelerating today with, as Nigel puts it, 'the arrival of an integrated world economy, emerging out of its constituent national parts and imposing on the old national economic order new and unforeseeable processes of restructuring'. One form of restructuring is the development of a world labour market, which draws immigrant workers, not only from the Third World to the developed countries of North America and Western Europe, but also from the really poor countries to new centres of industrialisation such as the East Asian boom economies.
Yet the governments of the labour-importing countries--Singapore as well as the United States, Taiwan as well as Britain--constantly seek to impose new restrictions on immigration. Where does this contradiction come from, between, in Nigel's words, 'national economic spaces and the increasingly international movement of workers driven by the world labour market'?
Addressing this question is, he says, 'the theme of this book', yet it is here that its argument is weakest. Nigel seeks to demonstrate at length that opposition to immigration is economically irrational. Thus he provides powerful evidence against the idea that immigrants steal jobs from 'native' workers. As economies develop, with rising productivity and incomes, demand is created for unskilled jobs at wage rates which those born in that economy, with expectations shaped by established living standards, reject.
That demand is met by immigrant workers from poorer countries, habituated to much lower wages, but likely to come from the better educated and more ambitious sections of the population. Thus 55 percent of Filipina maids in Hong Kong are college graduates. Because immigrants tend to be of working age and the costs of their upbringing have been borne in their country of origin they are likely to be--rather than the 'welfare scroungers' beloved of racist demagogues--net contributors to the social services of the countries where they move through the taxes they pay.
Nigel makes the economic case powerfully and with a wealth of relevant detail. Yet his arguments only highlight the basic contradiction. If immigration is such a good thing, why is it restricted and why, in an era of global economic integration, are controls actually being tightened?
The answer, apparently, is that immigration control is a consequence of 'state egotism'. The 'socialised state' that flourished during the first half of the 20th century, in an epoch of world wars and economic protectionism, is in decline. Yet it hangs on, asserting its right to preserve a 'nationally homogeneous' population under its rule. This 'antiquated national political system' cannot, however, last forever. 'A world economy calls for a world morality and a world system of law.'
Economic necessity will force governments to create new international agencies--Nigel envisages a 'General Agreement on Migration and Refugee Policy'. And so, he concludes, 'world interest and a universal morality--like Hegel's Spirit of Reason--are likewise struggling to be reborn after the long night of nationalism and the god-like state which incubated world capitalism. There are grounds for cautious optimism.'
This passage and others like it represent a sad decline into sentimentality and wishful thinking by a once rigorous and realistic thinker. Nigel appears to have become obsessed with the nation-state as the root of all evil. Thus he claims that anti-immigrant campaigns draw on 'the ancient hatred of the foreigner' and that 'it is solely because immigrants are foreigners that they are made the target of resentments concerning the business cycle'. But this is manifest nonsense. A white Australian living in London or a white Englishwoman living in New York is extremely unlikely to experience hostility or state persecution. It is typically when they are regarded as belonging to a race alien to that of the 'host' nation that immigrants are discriminated against.
Yet astonishingly Nigel barely mentions race and racism in a book devoted to immigration. It is this which allows him to present immigration controls as the product of an 'antiquated national political system'. For there is nothing antiquated about racism. On the contrary, the oppression it represents, the divisions it encourages, the resistance it provokes, are among the main shaping forces in the great cities of modern capitalism.
Moreover, once racism is taken into account, the terms of the problem change. Nigel presents immigration as the place of a conflict between a dynamic global capitalism and an obsolete national political order. But contemporary racism arises from a contradiction within capitalism itself. For capital undoubtedly does depend on a working class that is increasingly international. Yet in order to perpetuate itself capital must weaken that working class by dividing it. One of the principal mechanisms through which this effect is secured is racism.
Nigel Harris looks to capitalism, as it becomes more globally integrated, to free immigrant workers. But racism and the immigration controls to which it gives rise reflect tensions inherent in capitalism. If that is so, then we are going to have to get rid of capitalism before we can put an end to the barriers erected between workers from different countries. Our 'grounds for cautious optimism' must lie in the prospect of struggles from below, not in the benign workings of a market guided by the hidden hand of Hegel's World Spirit.
Set in Portugal in 1938, Declares Pereira is a story of personal contemplation, rediscovery and awakening in a climate of increasing political tension. Tabucchi has created a subtle, but powerful, anti-authoritarian novel--its strength coming through the reaction to events that affect the main character, Dr Pereira.
Pereira is a man perhaps in his late fifties who is overweight and in poor health. He is editor of the weekly culture page of a second rate Lisbon newspaper. After reading an article on the meaning of death written by Rossi, a young graduate, Pereira decides to appoint him as his assistant, to produce obituaries of famous writers who have not yet died. He is an apolitical man and Rossi's articles both worry and fascinate him.
Pereira spends periods reflecting on his past and begins to liken Rossi to his former self, and to the son that he and his now dead wife never had. His thoughts are often his means of escapism.
Unusually, given his occupation, the central character seems oblivious to the world about him. Events taking place abroad in Germany, Italy and Spain hold little interest for him. Not fully understanding the consolidation of the fascist Salazar regime going on around him, he is sceptical of the principled and Communist beliefs of Rossi and his girlfriend. Rumours are circulating in the city that workers are being tortured and killed, and Lisbon is no longer a safe place for Jews.
Pereira's apolitical views start to change, however, when Rossi's cousin arrives from Spain on a recruiting campaign for the International Brigades. The mission is discovered and at last Pereira feels he must help. Following a visit from the PIDE, Salazar's notorious secret police, he is finally convinced of the need for an act of defiance.
Tabucchi has depicted a society where ordinary people are forced to take sides in an increasingly polarised atmosphere. The book works well on this level and also examines the experience of coming to terms with the passing away of former stability.
In fact the history of Portugal in the early 20th century was anything but stable, following the overthrow of its monarchy in 1910. During the next 16 years there were 45 different governments. There were numerous bombings, assassinations, mutinies, riots and strikes. This period of parliamentary rule was brought to a close by a coup in 1926. Salazar was appointed minister of finance two years later. He built around himself a mass movement, a party and the ideology of the Estado Novo(the new state). Within a few years he was able to establish a dictatorship that was to last for nearly 40 years.
Declares Pereira illustrates how under even the harshest of political conditions ordinary people can resist.
Raymond Williams, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1988, was one of the foremost postwar cultural critics working in the socialist tradition. He not only wrote about 'high' culture, attempting to demystify the idea that it had nothing to do with politics, he also explored the newer forms of communication, the press, film and television, rescuing them from academic contempt but without pandering to commercialism.
This biography, the first on Williams, looks at the three elements in his life: his working class background on the Welsh border; his academic career at Cambridge University; and his active engagement in socialist politics. He never compartmentalised these three elements. His loyalty to his working class roots, together with his socialist outlook, were central to his writing.
Border Country was the title he gave his first novel and it expressed his sense of straddling different boundaries of class and place. The idea of the border also suggests the position from which he chose to fight. In Cambridge, he was on the edge of the cultural institutions he attacked, appealing to the values of the community and family from which he came, but whose border he had in a sense crossed.
This is what gave his writing its special, often highly personal, quality. Every one of his critical works was an argument for an extension of democracy and for real community. But quite what that entailed by way of politics and organisation was never spelled out. The title of his second major critical work, The Long Revolution, illustrates this problem well.
In practice, though Williams would doubtless have disagreeed gently and politely with the phrase, it meant working within the traditions of left reformism. Williams was extremely critical of the Labour Party--to the extent of condoning abstentionism in the 1970 general election out of well merited disgust at Harold Wilson's government. But he never moved from this particular border.
His reason for not doing so can be gleaned from the interviews he gave the young Turks of the New Left Review, which were published as Politics and Letters in 1979. In essence, he felt that given the dominance of Labourism in the British working class movement and the tradition of looking to parliament for change, to break from it would have been a betrayal of his roots. He had respect for the CP but he disliked what he thought of as its abstract Marxist language, isolating it from any real sense of community.
So alongside Williams' decision to operate from within the academy went his decision to operate from within the dominant tradition in the labour movement--critically, at all times, but nevetheless from the inside.
Any biography of Williams would need to address these issues and explain the strengths and weaknesses--often interrelated--of his thinking. Fred Inglis, on the basis of '20 years of comradely but occasional collaboration', claims to be doing this. And surface appearances suggest that this biography is written with critical affection by someone who shares Williams' viewpoint. But I don't see that.
Underneath there is venom. He distances himself from right wing slurs, the better to make his own. Studded in the apparently sympathetic, but sloppy, narrative are comments that Williams was a plagiarist, an egoist, a dishonest teacher--even a sharp businessman. In short, what is frequently insinuated is that Williams was, if not a fraud, a man whose career was ultimately futile because his cause was a lost cause.
Inglis's real target is not Williams himself but the left in general. Inglis puts himself among the disciples, quoting them at length, the better, Judas-like, to betray with a smile and a tear. Williams can then be praised for keeping a lost cause alive and being a figure of authority for a generation whose day--particularly in the wake of 1989--is done.
This is a biography which uses Williams in the worst sense of the word. Let's hope that a future biography does him justice.
Forever Lost, Forever Gone
Paddy Joe Hill
'The clearest and most overwhelming evidence I have ever heard of the crime of murder' was how Justice Bridge described what he'd heard while presiding over the original trial of the Birmingham Six. The autobiography of one of them, Paddy Joe Hill, provides clear and overwhelming evidence of the rottenness of the whole judicial system in Britain.
The evidence against the Six was in two parts. Firstly there were the supposed confessions of four of them. Paddy Joe never confessed, but he gives a blow by blow account of how the other confessions were extracted. What he describes is a crude form of torture.
This included sleep deprivation, pointing revolvers into people's mouths and pulling the trigger, threatening the safety of wives and children, and applying lighted cigarettes to wounds.
But the police were unable to provide much else in the way of evidence against the Six. The confessions themselves conflicted with forensic evidence about the way the bombs were planted.
Hence the importance of the evidence of Dr Skuse, the Home Office pathologist whose 'Griess test' identified nitroglycerine on the hands of five of the men. It has subsequently emerged that similar results can be obtained from handling tobacco, playing cards, even using soap.
Prison itself provided a slower form of torture. Paddy Joe is painfully honest about the way he becomes a stranger to his wife and kids and recognises the different kind of punishment they had to endure on the outside. And the euphoria of his eventual release could not magically overcome the years of separation between him and his children.
All this would make for a gruelling book were it not for the fact that Paddy Joe Hill is a fighter. He recognised from his own experience how Catholics were oppressed in Northern Ireland--his father, despite an army background, was dismissed from one job for being the only Catholic. Despite his opposition to the IRA's methods he is absolutely clear as to why people joined it in their thousands after Bloody Sunday, and clear that the British army should get out of Northern Ireland. He is equally clear that working class people can expect little mercy from the police or the courts.
So Paddy Joe fought them all the way--in one case, taking the governor of Gartree prison to court for the loss of £2.16 earnings, in another, threatening to wreck the visiting room unless a delegation of Irish dignitaries visited Gerry Conlon (one of the Guildford Four) as well as himself. This attitude and the support from outside that he acknowledges throughout the book acted as a counterweight to his frequent periods of despair and rage.
Because of this the British injustice system eventually gave way. First the Guildford Four and then the Birmingham Six were released.
This is an inspiring, straightforward, and very readable book. Paddy Joe's determination and guts in the face of the British justice system shine through. Nowhere is this more evident than in the speech he made on his release in 1990:
Beyond Black and White
Manning Marable's new book can be seen as a complement to his previous Race, Reform and Rebellion which spanned struggle in the US from 1945 to 1990.
That book ends with the vicious attacks of the Reagan and then Bush years and the inability of the Rainbow Coalition of black Democratic politician Jesse Jackson to galvanise opposition. This in turn led to the rise of Louis Farrakhan.
Marable's new book brings the story up to date. The last five years have exposed the limitations of what Marable calls the 'black leadership'. But Marable's own political confusions mean that he is unable to properly defend the socialist tradition.
However, the book's strength is in the detail that Marable marshals to argue that class is at least as much a determining factor as race in US society.
For example he charts the rise of the black middle class which was the chief beneficiary of the militancy of the 1960s and early 1970s. He contrasts this entry into the corridors of power for a few to the crisis experienced by the majority. The failure to build a real opposition to US capitalism has cost ordinary blacks dear:
Ted Vincent sets out the problem clearly and correctly. The most influential music of the 20th century, from ragtime to rap, is the music that was produced in the black ghettos of America. This has been ignored by academics, black and white, who see the music as something that white people 'enabled' or made superior.
Vincent concentrates on the economic structures of the music, and the political organisations of black America. as they developed in the 'Jazz Age', from the outbreak of the First World War to the mid-1920s.
He shows that these too were created and run by black Americans, and shows clearly the overlap between musicians and political activists. Music was not an alternative to building political organisation, but, like Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, part of the process.
It is a pleasant change to have musicians presented as people of intelligence with political ideas. Thus Fats Waller, treated as a clown all his life, worked with the militant Garveyite Andy Razaf.
The book is also a timely reminder of just how racist American history is. It shows that blacks fought back at every level, producing political and cultural organisations in the most hazardous circumstances, as well as innovative music. It gives the lie to the liberal idea of a passive black mass, whose conditions gradually improved thanks to liberal whites.
In this context, being a black capitalist is itself a political act, and may demand personal courage as well as ambition. But it is not without contradictions, as much of his book seems to indicate. It is here that the problems begin. A chapter titled 'Lighting the Fuse' deals entirely with early black businessmen!
He shows how class divisions within the ghetto were expressed both in terms of different political organisations, and in attitudes to the music, and even goes on to provide clear evidence that black capitalists ruthlessly exploited black workers, including musicians. But, because of a trenchant nationalism, he tries to paper over the cracks.
He gives examples of the most disgusting class prejudice among the black bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, and how this harmed the development of the music. He then goes on to criticise writers like the excellent Leroy Jones and Harold Cruise for being too hard on black millionaires, even when associated with slum landlording.
These contradictions come to a head in dealing with Cyril Briggs, who founded the Armed Black Brotherhood and then went on to join the American Communist Party, editing the Crusader newspaper.
Briggs saw the music being developed as part of the political struggle. Not only did money from benefit gigs support the paper, but the paper showed the political significance of the music. However, Briggs's support of the Soviet Union in 1919 is ridiculed, while his later turn away from the music is put down to his becoming a Marxist intellectual, rather than to events outside the ghetto, such as the degeneration of the world Communist Parties.
Like all nationalist arguments, he tries to explain racism solely in terms of race. He neither explains what was revolutionary about the music which is at the centre of the book, nor why it resonates with working classes throughout the world.
This makes the book difficult to recommend. Recent articles in the International Socialism journal cover black American history with much greater depth and insight, and the book adds little to the few political histories of the music.
Making it Work
Chatto and Windus £12.99
There have been some real advances for women over the last 25 years: increased availability of contraception and abortion, some measure of equality in the workplace with nearly 50 percent of the British workforce composed of women.
So why is it that, years after the women's liberation movement pushed women's rights to the top of the agenda, we are still waiting for genuine equality? Our wages are still not on a par with men's, women work predominantly in part time jobs with little security, and childcare provision is among the worst in Europe.
Making it Work by Sue Innes attempts to answer the questions raised by this contradiction. But the book fails to deliver either a coherent analysis of the problem or any real solution.
It starts off promisingly enough by quoting Vicky Randall and Joni Lovenduski from their book Contemporary Feminist Politics: 'The legitimacy of claims to equality in employment, of a mother's right to go out to work, of a pregnant woman's right to say how she wants to give birth, and so on are now well established. But the effects of continuing economic liberalism combined with the recession will ensure that it is, for the most part, only a privileged minority of women who will benefit from the new opportunities that result.'
Few socialists would find anything to disagree with here, but in the chapters which follow, Innes all too often focuses on the experience and potential of just that same minority and doesn't understand the realities faced by the majority of women.
The book is dominated by the politics of feminism. Innes thinks that women lose out because men are in charge. She believes that women, because of their role as carers and child rearers, have more sense of community and a better grasp of long term consequences. For Innes, gender is always more fundamental than class and women of different classes are lumped together in opposition to male power.
The book devotes much of its time to debating how women can reconcile the dual spheres of work and family. But here again Innes has no notion of the way in which the family under capitalism is at the heart of women's oppression playing both a social and an economic role.
The rights of single mothers, childcare, job flexibility--all become simply matters of policy. And the solution is to wrest decision making out of men's hands. Even though she can see how the flexibility so beloved of the Tories can make the position of women workers even weaker, she has no alternative other than a woman friendly flexibility.
For a book written and researched in Scotland, the experience of one group of Scottish women is noticeably absent--the Timex strikers. When workers go on strike they can threaten to tip the whole balance of society in favour of our class, both men and women. The most Innes aspires to is to 'create a better world fit for employer and employee alike'.