Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

REVIEWS


FILM

When history was made

The latest crop of films set in Ireland might have expected to be commenting on past history. Now with bombs going off again some of the issues raised have become part of the current debate about the troubles in the North of Ireland.

Michael Collins, directed by Neil Jordan has caught the attention of the Daily Telegraph editorial writers who claim that Warners' prepublicity reads like IRA propaganda which is praise indeed for a mainstream Hollywood movie. We have so far been denied a press viewing of the film, which probably means it throws an interesting light on the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s and the role of British imperialism in Ireland.

The hunger strike of 1981, in which ten Republican prisoners died in their campaign for political status, is the focus for Some Mother's Son, directed by Terry George.

Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) is a middle class Catholic teacher who abhors violence and who She is horrified to discover that her son, Gerard, is an IRA member. Soon she is thrown into a wholly different world with ordinary Republicans who have a bitter hatred for the RUC and British army born from years of discrimination and harassment. Annie Higgens, whose son, Frank, was arrested with Gerard, becomes her friend despite their different backgrounds and beliefs.

Scenes in the offices of the British government show a rabid young Thatcherite who wants to earn his stripes by forcing criminalisation on Republican prisoners in an attempt to isolate and demoralise them. The British are portrayed throughout as being unrepentant, incompetent and vicious in their handling of the mounting crisis as the blanket protest (when prisoners refused to wear prison clothes and had only their prison blanket) develops into the full dirty protest as the authorities refuse to slop out non-conforming prisoners.

Though the focus of the film is Mirren's character, who never really changes her view on the Republican struggle, the compelling story of the hunger strike campaign and the courage of the young men facing death rather than be labelled criminals is so powerfully portrayed that it is clear where the film makers' sympathies lie. The director, Terry George, was once a Republican prisoner himself.

Nothing Personal, directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan and set in 1970s Belfast, has been promoted as a thoughtful look at the mentality and motivations of the Loyalist paramilitaries at the time of a brief ceasefire. Reviews have commented that the film shows the futility of violence and that there are no heroes, only victims. Much of the violence in the film does come across as futile, with the exception of the Catholics rushing from their houses to drive back marauding Protestants, and so no real insight is gained into why the Loyalist gang seem to take such pleasure in the series of horrendous beatings and shootings. The singing of a lament in a Loyalist drinking club for a poor Protestant soldier who died for king and country at the Somme implies continuity with today's paramilitaries, but like much of this film it just doesn't ring true.

The film goes along with the idea that there are two tribes in Northern Ireland with bad on both sides, and so in no way acknowledges the real reasons why ordinary young men and women have become involved in a bitter and bloody war.

Finally a film set in Dublin is a lighter look at Irish working class life. The Van, directed by Stephen Freans and the third in Roddy Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, tells the story of Larry (Colm Meany) and Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) who, when they find themselves unemployed, set up in a chip van to make a living.

Their experiences are mostly played for laughs, which they deservedly receive, but the film lacks the poignancy of the book which explored the men's sadness as their friendship is gradually undermined by the pressures of the van.

Judith Orr


Lone Star

Dir: John Sayles

This quiet, powerful film is about the force of history; about how history shapes the lives of whole communities and of the people who live in them; about whether or not people can really know their past; about whether they can escape the force of circumstance.

Lone Star begins in present day Frontera, Rio County, just on the American side of the border with Mexico. Mexicans are now a majority of the town's population, resented by many whites and also separate from the town's old black American community. The story is constructed by linking together the lives of three families across as many generations.

Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is, like his father Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), sheriff of Rio County. Buddy got the job by facing down the old, racist, corrupt sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who disappeared in 1957.

Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena) is a history teacher, daughter of Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who owns the town's restaurant. Pilar was once Sam's schoolyard sweetheart. Otis Payne (Ron Canada) runs the black roadhouse, and his son, who he hasn't seen since he left his mother when the child was young, is now colonel of the nearby army base.

The catalyst which brings them together is the chance discovery of a skeleton half buried in the desert. In the earth nearby is a sheriff's star and a .45 bullet. Sam investigates this murder, expecting to find that the corpse is Charlie Wade and that his murderer is the man who took the sheriff's job, his own father. It's not a conclusion that Sam is unhappy to reach his father was a hero to everyone but his son.

His search for what really happened back on the night of the murder in 1957 leads him to discover some of the real history of people's lives as the white, Mexican and black communities interacted across 40 years.

Sam's investigation proceeds as the present day school board argues over the supposedly 'anti-American' history curriculum defended by the Mexican teachers and parents, as the border patrol clamps down on illegal immigrants, as the black community sees its influence dwindle, as Otis Payne's son grapples with what it means to be a black senior officer in the US army, and as the white city bosses plan to get rich from the building contracts for a new jail which the town doesn't need.

But beneath the official politics of race, Sam is discovering another history where lives are less clear cut, racial barriers much more permeable. Whites and Mexicans and blacks fall in love with each other, even though they 'shouldn't'; sheriff's men shoot 'their own', even though they 'shouldn't'; the truth emerges, though it is much messier than the legend.

Director John Sayles, best known for his magnificent film about the 1920 US miners' strike, Matewan, skilfully weaves all these elements together. His central point is that the real fabric of people's lives is distorted and torn by the codes imposed on them by official society.

Sayles chose to set the film in this Tex-Mex border area because 'it has had a very condensed parallel history to US history: it had a revolution, a slavery period, a civil war and reconstruction, all in about 30 years.' He wanted to 'deal with how we carry around both social history and personal history'.

At the time he wrote the script he was 'actually thinking at lot about Yugoslavia and asking, "Let's say I'm a Serb: I wake up one morning and they tell me to go shoot that guy. I say: 'Wait a minute, he's my neighbour. I work in a factory with him, he's not a bad guy.' And they say: 'No, he's a Croat, you have to hate each other'." Can people rise above that? Somehow they do sometimes, but when things get extreme, it may not be possible'

On a personal, individual level Sayles's film is thus attempting a task which should also be, in a different way, fundamental to socialist politics: the liberation of the really collective way in which ordinary people live their lives from the suffocating limitations imposed on them by the realities of class and, in this case, racial oppression.

Sayles goes about his task by examining the intersection of official politics and the real life of the community beneath, but not unscarred by, those politics. It is a model from which any socialist interested in history could learn.

Moreover, Lone Star concludes in a dramatic scene in which two of the film's central characters emerge wiser for knowing their history, but determined that they will not let the weight of the past stop them making their own future on a different pattern. Knowledge of the past which gives us the capacity to leap into a more liberated future isn't that one definition of socialism?

John Rees


Breaking the Waves

Dir: Lars von Trier

Catholicism has a saint, Bernadette, who secured her place in the holy pantheon by being stabbed to death rather than surrender her 'virtue' during an attempted rape by her brother. Bess, the central character of Lars von Trier's extraordinary and harrowing film is an uneasy and macabre inversion of the Bernadette myth.

Set in an austere Presbyterian Scottish highland fishing community in the 1970s, the movie sees innocent, religious young local Bess marry Jan, a Scandinavian oil worker from the nearby rig much to the chagrin of the church elders who are constantly on their guard against the heathen influence of outsiders.

Besotted with Jan, Bess flourishes as she discovers the pleasures of sex, and is inconsolable when he has to go back to the rig. Through her particularly delusional relationship with God, Bess asks for a quick return of her husband.

When Jan is returned to her paralysed by an appaling workplace accident, Bess, convinced she is responsible, pledges herself to do anything to save him from dying and to restore his health.

It is at this point, when Jan whether through selfless love or distorted selfishness urges Bess to take another lover, that she begins her descent into what the elders consider hell, and what von Trier apparently considers a kind of heaven of the self sacrificed.

If the content of the film is more than a little problematic, the form is incredibly engaging. It is shot in the main with a hand held camera. Combined with some excellent performances Emily Watson is particularly compelling as Bess Breaking the Waves, in the medium if not in the message, does justify the acclaim which it has received.

Ultimately, however, the picture's ambiguous attitude to women and women's sexuality leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Although Bess breaks radically with the sexual norms of her community, there seems to be an inevitability about her sexuality remaining within the confines of 'sin' and sacrifice. While the film may be read as primarily a powerful indictment of the type of fundamentalist Protestantism which still exists in parts of Scotland, its dubious portrayal of Bess as tragic heroine and its miraculous religious conclusion frustrates such an analysis.

There is no doubting the ability of Breaking the Waves to captivate the viewer but the way in which von Trier ties it up is both highly suspect and profoundly unsatisfying.

Mark Brown


London Film Festival

This year the London Film Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary. It has come a long way since it screened 16 films in the National Film Theatre in 1956. This year 207 feature films and 90 shorts will be shown over 18 days.

For those able to get to any of the screenings at the event it is a welcome opportunity to see films that often do not get wider distribution. When your local multiscreen is clogged up with blockbuster sequels and the latest star vehicle, this is not because of the lack of any alternatives. Film festivals are one way of seeing the wealth of ambitious and challenging movies that are released, particularly from around the world.

This month there are several films to look out for. Carla's Song is the latest film from Ken Loach after his success with Land and Freedom. It is based in both Nicaragua and Glasgow during the 1980s where a Glaswegian bus driver falls in love with a refugee from Nicaragua. It follows their relationship and journey to her country.

If These Walls Could Talk stars Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek and Cher each playing a woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy during a different period in the last 40 years. The first is during the 1950s when abortion is still illegal, then the second in the 1970s and finally the 1990s when the arguments with the pro-lifers are raging.

Flight looks at the life of young Asian women growing up in Britain and the contradictions they face between the plans of the traditional father and the reality of going to university and falling in love. Another British film, In Your Dreams, examines the issue of date rape through the portrayal of a young couple's evening out, and the subsequent court case about the rape charges.

There is also a rare chance to see a newly restored silent classic, Travail, based on the epic novel by Zola. The hero is Luc Froment, an engineer who, angry at the poverty of fellow workers, strives to create a utopian workplace. When the film was first made in 1919 it ran as a serial with seven chapters over six hours. It is now two and half hours long and by all reports it sounds like a magnificent achievement with spectacular real factory scenes.

One to definitely look out for is Libertarians, part of the special focus on Spanish films this year. Set in July 1936, it portrays a group of women: an ex-nun, a prostitute, a spiritualist and a woman from the militias. They travel to the front to fight alongside the men in the civil war and undergo a transformation in outlook and values. Another Spanish film, Taxi, is set in Madrid and follows a young girl who is horrified to discover that her father is part of a group which sees its role as 'cleaning the streets' of human 'rubbish'.

There are films about the Chechen war Prisoner of the Mountain the Bosnian conflict, Pretty Village Pretty Flame, which has been described as 'one of the most audacious anti-war statements ever committed to the big screen', and Devils Don't Dream! which uses rare archives to follow the turbulent history of Guatemala from the revolution against the military dictatorship in 1954 to today.

A film made in Canada but set in New Delhi, Fire, has already caused controversy with its casting of two established Indian actresses, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, as two married women who fall in love.

Judith Orr

A full programme of the event is available from the festival hotline on 0171 420 1122.


THEATRE

Mojo

by Jez Butterworth

When Mojo was first performed at the Royal Court theatre last year it received rapturous reviews. It won three major awards and its author, Jez Butterworth, was hailed as a cross between Harold Pinter and Quentin Tarantino.

In many ways Mojo, now back at the Royal Court, deserves the praise. It is a black comedy that succeeds in creating the world of a group of young working class men who work in a Soho nightclub in the late 1950s.

Rock and roll is in its infancy, new stars and club owners are hustling for the big time, things are exciting. They dance, pop pills, like their new clothes and 'go for a frothy coffee'.

They discuss in awe and amazement the women who adore their club's 17 year old singer. 'One minute he's asking his mum can he cross the road, the next he's got grown women queuing up to suck his winkle.'

However, their world is disrupted when the owner of the club is killed by a rival, sawn in half and dumped in a couple of dustbins at the back of the club. Fear about what will happen next is the source of the play's dramatic tension and lots of dark jokes.

But where Mojo really succeeds is in the development of the characters and the way unfolding events quickly reveal the darker side of their lives. All the characters have in some way been damaged by the world.

Baby, the son of the murdered club owner, is the most extreme case. We learn how he grew up in fear of his father who sexually abused him. Baby's behaviour is violent, bullying and disturbed. His moods swing dramatically as he represses his feelings about his dead father who is, for most of the time, casually tucked away in the bins in a corner of the stage.

All of the characters are revealed as gay by the end and this adds a deeper dimension as loyalties and jealousies shift.

The dialogue is fast, punchy and rings true. These people feel real, and say things working class people would say.

One character, Sweets, is a bit of a dope. There are lots of jokes at his expense but the humour is not nasty or humiliatingly belittling. And even Sweets reveals a bitterness that all the characters share. At one point he turns on the club manager and says, 'How far do we go back? I walked into the old warehouse, said, "Can I have a job? I'll work for fuck all" and you "come over here and piss all down my leg."'

Above all, the play's strength is that it is not moralistic or judgemental about their situation or their behaviour. Mojo certainly doesn't attempt to provide any answers about their lives, but it does attempt to raise questions.

The Royal Court has been responsible for a number of new productions by up and coming playwrights. Many of them have been quite controversial like Sarah Kane's play about violence, Blasted.

Let's hope these writers get the opportunity to develop these themes further, and don't get swept into the more smug, comfortable mainstream.

Sam Ashman

Mojo plays at the Royal Court Theatre, downstairs at the Duke of York, St Martin's Lane, London WC2


TELEVISION

The Simpsons

BBC

There will be a rush for the sofa as America's favourite dysfunctional family returns to the masses, this time on the BBC which ironically turned down The Simpsons the first time around, so it got snapped up by Murdoch.

The Simpsons became a smash hit. The quick paced stories of beer drinking, donut scoffing factory worker Homer, housewife Marge and the 2.5 kids naughty boy Bart, intellectual Lisa and baby Maggie stick the boot into 20th century capitalist society with vicious glee. President George Bush got so hot under the collar that he extolled Americans to look for their role models to The Waltons instead.

The Simpsons parodies modern American society with such subtlety and such universality that British viewers cannot help but identify. Homer is a loveable loser who works in the local nuclear plant, which dominates the economy of this Anytown, US. Bart is an anti-social smart alec, but he has his loveable side he worries about being an 'underachiever'. A Sunday school sermon about hell gives him bad dreams. Lisa, the good girl hopelessly out of place in this family, often plays the role of social commentator.

There is no political issue of relevance in America today which The Simpsons does not examine. The Simpsons takes the mickey out of corporate America, Sunday school, law and order, alien invasion, intellectual property rights, Christmas shopping, old folks' homes. But the show gets away with being even more biting and politically radical in its social critique than other funny shows on television, because it is one step removed from the viewers. It's just a cartoon.

When the politicians are in trouble, they decide to whip up an immigration scare. Homer, representing the lowest common denominator of working class ideology, begins a campaign to boot out Abu, the local Asian shopkeeper. Abu gives him chapter and verse how the ruling class use racism to divide and rule and how immigrant labour has made America what it is today Homer is wide eyed. 'You know Abu,' he says, 'I'm gonna miss you.'

The political humour never crosses the border into right wing cynicism. When, by a crazy accident of timing, social workers discover Bart, Lisa and Maggie home alone with the house in a mess and the kids are taken into care, the temptation to go the reactionary route and have a go at social workers or parents is resisted. The Simpsons is always politically accurate, but most of all it's funny!

Susie Helme


Shedding Light

Rachel Whiteread's sculptures have already caught public attention with her 1993 piece House a Victorian terrace house filled with concrete, with the walls knocked away to expose the impression of its interior. Her 'Shedding Light' exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool provides further examples of her work, which is an exploration of the space between, under and around everyday objects.

Her method is casting the liquid material (concrete, rubber, resin) is poured into the mould and solidifies. The surround is removed and the impression left of the space around the object, not the object itself, like a death mask, is her art form. The process reveals familiar shapes but in an unusual form a wardrobe filled with plaster, then dismantled to expose a replica of its inside.

The sculptures have visual impact in themselves, such as the use of rubber in Orange Bath. But crucially they provoke the viewer to imagine themselves in contact with the original object from which the cast is made.

This interest in how people interact with the world around them is informed by Whiteread's politics. Amber Bed, a mattress cast in resin and slumped against a wall, is for Whiteread a statement 'on growing up through Thatcher's years, seeing the deprivation, and seeing more and more homeless people everywhere.

Amber Bed was like a person. Kind of forgotten about and left in the corner.

' The politics behind the work is seen most impressively in House and the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (to be built at the end of the year). This is to be a permanent sculpture. It is the cast of the inside of a temple like library whose walls are textured with the impression of books' leaves, not their spines. The structure will be located on the site of a pogrom in Vienna, where a synagogue was razed to the ground.

It symbolises the Jews in Hebrew, the people of the books, as against the Nazis, the book burners.

The exhibition, the most substantial showing of her work in Britain, is stimulating but it really requires study of the exhibition catalogues to fully appreciate her work and her motivation. But the exhibition is definitely not a 'waste of space'.

Helen Shooter

'Shedding Light' at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool until 5 January


BOOKS

Reading in the Dark

Seamus Deane Cape 13.99

Sometimes it seems impertinent to bring politics into it right off. Impertinent not in the sense of being cheeky but in the sense of not being pertinent. Seamus Deane uses words here with tough precision to suffuse his novel with beauty. As in considering the work of Van Morrison, or Blake, you first let the music lift your spirits high, to reach an apt vantage point for making prosaic assessment.

'Lying in the filtered green light of the high fern-stalks that shook slightly above our heads, we listened to the sharp birdsong of the hillside... Fire was what I loved to hear of and to see. The bonfires were lit at the foot of the sloping parallel streets, against the stone wall above the Park, the night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flames... The bulldozers came first, lifting and lowering their streaming jaws in the lamplight as they shunted the barricades aside... He was the soldier's father. His son, George, had been shot, he was told, at our doorstep. He wondered if anyone had seen what had happened.'

If you love language let the word clusters burst slowly, and savour the taste as long as it lingers.

This book was so long in the writing it had become almost a joke. Deane's novel-did it really exist? Or was it just a figment of his own imagination? It's 232 pages, can be read easily at a single sitting, but with so much left behind in computer limbo he says he has to flick through the pages himself now to recall which bits are in and which out.

Once published, the complaint was it wasn't a figment of his imagination at all, but a chronological, episodic account of his own growing up in the Bogside, It's a mere memoir, sniffed the Irish Times. Don't these Booker people understand anything, putting it up for a prize intended for prestigious fiction?

It is all true, right enough. The names of the streets and his brothers and sisters, the family history and neighbourhood incidents, the births and deaths and the dark secret lurking at the margin of every page. But the flat facts are irradiated by a singular imagination so they shiver with meanings you've never suspected.

The Deanes lived round the corner from us. Frank, the father, worked as one of two electrician's mates at the British navy base on the Foyle, my own father being the other. They used to walk to work together in the morning. Seamus was a couple of years ahead of me at St Columb's College, which we both reached on account of the 11-plus Ordinary people, inner family relationships shaped by private, unremarkable experiences, public events passing by, never intruding to decisive effect. Not as you could tell.

He tells of comings and goings, of adventurous escapades, dances and excursions to Donegal, run of the mill run-ins with the cops, the death from tuberculosis of his aunt Ena, puzzlement and rumour about his uncle Liam, who may have gone to Chicago and died in a fire, the day-to-day tensions and ebb and flow of emotion in the household, as in any household, the sour traces of an old family feud. It's written in short chapters, mostly just a couple of pages, like an old movie which fades to black at the end of each scene. There's no explosive drama, no narrative drive towards climactic denouement, no obvious political dilemma through the resolution of which personal contradictions are resolved.

But it's evident from the first page onwards that public life, unacknowledged, has infiltrated the nooks and crannies of the private family domain, affecting the emotional coloration of every exchange, dictating hesitations, commanding silences, limiting freedom of expression even in the silent exchange of a glance. The deepest secrets are of things known to everyone.

It's an intense and gentle, meticulously crafted straightforward story of a working class family full of love and the sense of love lost to the world. It's precisely of its time and place, shot through with politics and shimmering dark intimation. The Irish novel of the year, certainly, and well worth any socialist's time reading.

Eamonn McCann


The movement and the sixties

Terry H Anderson OUP, 12.99

On 1 February 1960 four black students walked into the Woolworth's in Greenboro, North Carolina, and sat down at the 'whites only' lunch counter, sparking a massive protest movement against the Jim Crow segregation of the deep South. The Movement and the Sixties opens with Greenboro and traces the events of the decade through to 1972 and Watergate.

The long boom of the 1950s and 1960s brought dramatic changes to US society especially the movement of blacks in the South from rural areas to cities, and to the North.

The Watts rebellion and the riots which shook US cities every summer for three years were in response to unofficial segration in the North where blacks could not move out of the ghettos, could only and at best low paid, semi-skilled work, and faced systematic police harassment and brutality. Structural changes in US capitalism also led to a huge expansion in higher education students faced overcrowding and repressive legislation from universities and were inspired by the civil rights struggle to revolt.

The catalyst for much of the rebellion was the Vietnam War. The popularity of US involvement in Vietnam had waned considerably by the mid-1960s, which saw the first anti-war protests, and it took a nosedive after the Tet offensive in 1968, when the North Vietnamese army led uprisings in 36 towns that took a week for US troops to stop. The eventual withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam was brought about by a powerful combination of the North Vietnamese guerillas, increasingly disillusioned and mutinous troops in Vietnam and the 'war' at home a militant anti-war movement combined with the inner city riots.

Anderson has written a very detailed and absorbing account of these events.

Although he does not deal with why capitalism was changing in the US, he is clear that the upsurge in struggle was not simply a result of new ideas, but of the changing reality of life for blacks, soldiers and students.

It is a favourite right wing argument that the permissiveness of the 1960s is to blame for everything that is 'wrong' with American society today from sex outside marriage to welfare programmes. Anderson's account provides a welcome antidote to such ideas. He clearly sees the protest and defiance that marked the decade as a huge step forward for US society. However, there are problems with his book.

Anderson is very sympathetic to the early period of the civil rights movement that was led by Martin Luther King and the policy of non-violence. But his enthusiasm fades when he deals with the increased militancy of the black movement the growth of the Black Panthers after King's assassination in 1968 and the growth in revolutionary ideas among students. He is dismissive of the 'romantic' idea of revolution, and seems to argue that the militancy of the movement provoked the backlash against it. In reality the ruling class used repression to attempt to regain control. It was considerably shaken President Lyndon Johnson was so detested that he didn't stand for re-election in 1968 and it took years for US political institutions to regain stability.

Anderson rightly sees the 1960s as having a profound effect on US society defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese shattered for good the notion that the US was unbeatable. Civil rights were a huge step forward for blacks.

However, inequality, racism and poverty are still features of US society today.

For a layer of middle class blacks, being co-opted into positions of privilege has clearly improved their lives. But for the majority of working class and poor blacks the right to move to a nicer area is not matched by the economic ability to do so. The LA riots of 1992 are proof that anger at racism and inequality still exists.

The last third of the book is by far the weakest. A whole chapter is devoted to the hippies, yippies, drugs and music while the League of Revolutionary Black Workers merits half a paragraph. The Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit, which attempted to organise black and white workers in the auto industry, is ignored altogether.

There is no sense of what the events of the 1960s can teach us about how we organise for change in the 1990s for Anderson the project is finished with some women and blacks incorporated into the political system and a more progressive 'culture' than that of the Cold War.

So for a detailed description of events, this is a useful book but the analysis is well off the mark.

Megan Trudell


Faces of Labour: The Inside Story

Andy McSmith Verso 16

The Labour Party at the beginning of the 1980s was very different from today's New Labour. The left under Tony Benn, having won a number of important changes to the party's constitution, had a majority on the National Executive Committee.

Labour was formally committed to an 'Alternative Economic Strategy' based on systematic state intervention. Ambitious young activists naturally gravitated to the Bennite camp. Mo Mowlam was a fervent advocate of Benn's reforms at the January 1981 special party conference. As late as 1984, Robin Cook was among those who opposed Neil Kinnock's proposal to weaken the left by introducing one member one vote for the selection of parliamentary candidates.

It took a long and bitter struggle by Kinnock and his successor, John Smith, backed by the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour right, and greatly aided by the defeats suffered by the miners and other groups of workers, to break the left and transform Labour into a party that could conceivably elect Tony Blair as its leader. One of the chief merits of Andy McSmith's Faces of Labour is that it charts this process in some detail.

McSmith chooses to do so 'through an apparently random selection of individual portraits'. The danger with his adopted method is that it can easily degenerate into mere gossip. But Faces of Labour has more to offer than this.

One of the best chapters traces the political journey of David Blunkett. Blunkett emerged from Sheffield as one of the leaders of the new municipal left in the early 1980s. Even then, he was a conservative on moral and social issues (more recently he voted against lowering the age of consent for gays to 16).

Elevated rapidly to the NEC and later to parliament, Blunkett played a key role after the miners' strike in engineering the collapse of the attempt by Labour-led councils to resist Tory ratecapping legislation. This debacle, and the associated purge of Militant, helped to crystallise the formation of a soft left that had broken with Benn and was willing to go along, albeit with reservations, with the 'modernisation' of Labour under Kinnock and Smith.

McSmith conveys a good sense of the complex set of alliances between political tendencies and different components of the working class movement that makes Labour tick. Thus he devotes a chapter to Jim Murray, the left wing convenor of Vickers who had the swing vote on the AUEW delegation at a number of key Labour Party conferences in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He uses Murray's case to argue that 'the "block vote", which may sound like an inanimate lump of voting matter, is the product of human experience, prejudice and sometimes even reasoned argument.'

The same could be said of the Labour Party more generally. The union block vote wielded at party conferences is merely the tip of the iceberg of the link between Labour and the unions which the Blairites want to break. The link involves complicated arrangements binding together at the local level Labour councillors, constituency activists, trade union officials, school governors and the like.

McSmith shows such a good general understanding of the complex living organism that is the Labour Party that it's surprising that his judgement deserts him in the final chapter, on Blair himself. Here he argues that 'Blair's not-so-secret weapon is that he can appeal over the heads of activists to the membership at large, who are in effect just voters with party cards This is the supreme achievement of the "modernisers". They have a leader who is elevated above the swirling morass of factions and interest groups which make up the party, who can exert his authority in his own way, free from the risk that he can be effectively challenged.'

This picture of Blair as a Bonaparte figure ruling by plebiscite is doubly mistaken. In the first place, rather than being elevated above faction, Blair is surrounded by an extremely narrow clique with little understanding of the nature of the Labour Party and of the wider working class movement. Secondly, this tiny circle will and breaking the union link very hard indeed.

It will be trying to tear Labour from its roots, ripping to shreds the delicate and tangled nexus of social relationships on which it is based. Nor could the modernisers count in this struggle on the support of the soft left. Prescott, Cook, Blunkett and the rest are part of this nexus. Why should they consent to its destruction? McSmith's portrait only underlines how far Blair's 'project' has to go.

Alex Callinicos


The Third International After Lenin

Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press 16.95

It is easy to see why Stalin suppressed this work. The American revolutionary James P Cannon, who got hold of a smuggled copy, was utterly convinced of Trotsky's arguments and described them as a 'searchlight in the fog of official propaganda, scholasticism and administrative decree'. Throughout Trotsky tears down Stalin's falsification of the Marxist tradition, exposing the new bureaucracy as the 'gravediggers of the revolution', and applying the true traditions of the Third (or Communist) International to the political questions of the day.

The Third International came into existence in 1919 in the wake of the horrific betrayals of the European Socialist Parties which had split along national lines as they marched workers into the mass slaughter of the First World War. It stood for internationalism and workers' power, and became a school in Marxist politics and revolutionary strategy for workers' parties across the world.

But by the time of Lenin's death in 1924 a privileged bureaucracy headed by Stalin had developed inside Russia which was to transform the Third International into a tool of Russian foreign policy. This occurred in the context of revolutionary defeats in Europe and the degeneration of the revolution inside an isolated Russia riven by economic backwardness. Trotsky waged a bitter struggle against the rise of Stalin. In exile in 1928 he wrote a critique of Bukharin's Draft Programme of the Communist International. It was an attempt to defend its early tradition. The bureaucracy ignored this work, passed Bukharin's Draft at congress, and subsequently banned Trotsky's critique.

In the rst section of this book Trotsky deals with the theory of 'socialism in one country', around which the emerging bureaucracy grouped itself. Trotsky defends the basic idea of the Third International that socialism can only be achieved on a world scale.

He goes on to examine the way in which the theory of socialism in one country led to the subordination of the Third International to Russian foreign policy, and therefore to the squandering of revolutionary opportunities. The early Comintern had been a training ground in revolutionary principles, strategy and tactics for the young and inexperienced Communist Parties. These parties must, Lenin had argued, 'open the eyes of the people to the fraud of bourgeois politicians, teach them not to place trust in their promises and to rely on their own forces, on their own organisation, on their own unity and on their own weapons alone.' The Communist Parties, under the direction of Stalin, failed to build such independent working class struggles. At times they advocated action which cut socialists off from the working class and placed revolutionary organisations in useless and sometimes dangerous isolation. Thus in 1924 Zinoviev encouraged the weak Estonian Communist Party to attempt a coup which had very little working class involvement, and not only failed but precipitated a fierce reaction and military takeover. Trotsky was equally scathing of the way the Third International argued for the liquidation of Communist Parties into cross class alliances.

There is a very sharp dissection of how this led to the tragic defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. In Britain this approach delivered the Communists into uncritical support of the 'left' trade union bureaucrats who betrayed the miners in the 1926 General Strike.

This critique by Trotsky helped small numbers of revolutionaries to maintain the Marxist tradition. However they lacked a revolutionary party that could have any significant impact on the further degeneration of the Third International, whose later fatal mistakes in response to fascism played no small part in delivering much of Europe to the most horrific barbarism.

The Third International After Lenin was written as part of an attempt to build a revolutionary organisation. It remains an extremely valuable weapon in that task.

Hannah Dee


It's Not a Runner Bean

Mark Steel Do Not Press 5.99

Last year the Do Not Press published a book about comedy, written by many different people, including myself, most of us comedians. The problem with the finished work was that it confirmed a suspicion I had long suppressed: comedians are very dull people indeed.

The only exception in that book was the contribution of Mark Steel, whose chapter concerned the problems of the 'slightly successful comedian', a theme which Mark has now expanded into a book of his own. It might be expected that I should take this opportunity to eulogise a friend and colleague. Not so: there is some appalling grammar in this book and a tendency to overuse the phrase 'the likes of'. Now the eulogy.

It is a terrific book. I have never read any other book about comedy written by someone with a sense of humour. A large part of the book consists of stories which are genuinely funny, partly because they are so far removed from the traditional name-dropping exercises which pass for showbiz anecdotes.

The richness of the humour comes from the limbo world of slight success, a world full of contradictions. Mark has his own series on Radio Four, but waiting to appear on a television show he asks if his introduction could be corrected as it mentions his show being on Radio One. The woman with the clipboard cannot help because 'all the writers have gone home'.

Mark's only real indulgence is to quote his own jokes along the way, and since they are very good jokes this is a bonus. They also provide neat reminders of how the events of the last decade and a half seemed at the time. He often recounts audiences' reactions to anti-establishment jokes made by himself and other comics, to illustrate how much unexpected anger exists against injustice. A joke which you might expect to be met with a sharp intake of breath is cheered to the echo by suited office workers.

One of the major targets of Mark's work on stage and on radio is the pessimism which so debilitates the left, often rendering us quite humourless ourselves.

Most modern humour concludes that everything is crazy but never wonders why. In this book Mark Steel observes the silliness of life, but also has a clear view of class and the power relationships existing in even the most ridiculous situations. Jobsworths and petty bureaucrats are not sneered at but shown as pawns in a game: the clipboard woman can't use her initiative because she's not allowed to.

Mark's contempt is reserved for those in charge, and even these people are shown to be daft rather than cunning. In one chapter entitled 'Bosses', Mark is forced to dine with the head of a production company. The boss says he loves Pulp Fiction because of the way that John Travolta's character magically comes back to life after being killed. Mark writes, 'If a ten year old child were to misunderstand such a simple concept as the cinematic flashback, wouldn't you put his or her name down for special classes at once?'

Towards the end of the book he writes about how those in control of entertainment are bemused by performers who aspire to more than the quick laugh.

'The tragedy of most people who are unable to get angry about social issues is that without anger there can be little passion. How can you love Mozart, Otis Redding and The Clash without despising Cliff Richard and Mr Blobby?

'Without vitriol there can be little warmth and humanity. For how can you respect the girl at the supermarket checkout, or the lad who has to sleep in the production company office, without having contempt for the wealthy people who employ them and treat them so abominably?'

Jeremy Hardy


The Great Outsiders

S J Taylor Weidenfeld and Nicolson 20

Alfred Harmsworth, the son of a schoolteacher and later to become Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, believed he had a genuine feel for what the public wanted to read. From modest beginnings, he and his brother Harold would come to own half of Fleet Street. His project was to make him a figure of contempt for the old school tie network of newspaper publishers, who branded the Mail a newspaper 'produced by officeboys for officeboys'.

In the late 1800s there were, at one end of the scale, the 'penny dreadfuls' tawdry tales of murder and intrigue like 'Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber' and at the other, newspapers like the Times that catered for the minority whose hunt balls and wedding announcements fed the society columns. By 1888, others waded into the newly emerging market, with the appearance of some 200 publications. Alfred realised, as has many a newspaper proprietor since, that a flair for cutting copy was not enough. You also needed someone who knew how to cut costs. Enter Harold.

The brothers' business relationship was fruitful. By 1905 Associated Newspapers had been formed to manage the Daily Mail, the Evening News, an increasing number of subsidiaries and provincial papers as well as the Weekly Dispatch. The Observer was soon added to the list, and in 1908 the jewel in the crown the Times.

But behind the scenes, there were conflicts between Harold and Alfred. Their rows reflected a basic contradiction at the heart of modern newspaper publishing the conflicting demands of turning out a quality product and the drive to maximise profit.

The book's many entertaining insights into the newspaper world make it a joy to read. But the most fascinating and alarming episodes cover periods when newspapers came into conflict with the truth, the government, or both.

The passages on the First World War are some of the most harrowing and enlightening on how governments conduct themselves to 'protect the national interest'. Harmsworth clashed head on with the government over the way the war was being fought (as Harold, by then Lord Rothermere, would during the Second World War) waging an unrelenting campaign against the inadequate arming of soldiers. Media criticism became such an irritation that war correspondents were banned from the front. Lord Kitchener even threatened to shoot them!

Taylor's account also deserves praise for not simply portraying Alfred as the intrepid journalist whose only concern was to reach the masses. He was not averse to censorship when it suited him. Nor does Taylor shy away from the Mail's most shameful episode: the courting of British fascist Oswald Mosley by Alfred's successor, Lord Rothermere (Harold), and the now famous headline 'Hoorah for the Blackshirts' must rank as a low point, even for the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, however, the author's writing style is rather more gripping than her grasp of certain political events. In a glib rendering of the end of the General Strike that is worthy of the Daily Mail at its most politically exasperating, Taylor says Stanley Baldwin's radio address to the people was credited with single-handedly halting the action.

Today mergers and the concentration of titles into fewer hands are driving down conditions for thousands of newspaper workers.

The Great Outsiders reinforced this reader's belief that we should look for change to those like the compositors at the Mail whose refusal to print an editorial entitled 'For King and Country' led to a very large walkout. The date was May Day, 1926.

Maria Hoyle


Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order

Noam Chomsky Pluto 13.99

Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian

Noam Chomsky Pluto 10.99

For 40 years Noam Chomsky has campaigned for the rights of oppressed national minorities, such as the Kurds in Turkey, or the East Timorese in Indonesia. He has also been one of the most implacable critics of American imperialism. These two books represent a good guide to Chomsky's current thinking.

Noam Chomsky's own politics are a curious synthesis. He describes himself as an anarchist. But most of the time any reader of this publication will be struck by how close Chomsky comes to standard socialist positions.

Chomsky sees economics as the key. He exposes the sheer greed of the US ruling class, and looks to the working class for the solution. He stresses the need for organisation, and bemoans the weakness of the trade unions and the working class parties. He argues that if you want to destroy capitalism, you have to begin by fighting for reforms under capitalism not because you want to see a 'nicer' capitalism, but because it's the only way to show ordinary people that they have real power.

Chomsky derides the American right which reached its height after the 1994 elections. He shows that most Americans would support higher taxes to pay for decent welfare, and have basically social democratic ideas. The right has been able to present the 10 percent of the population that vote for them as some sort of 'democratic' mandate.

But there are weaknesses with Chomsky's arguments. For example, he says that between 1970 and 1990 the nature of capital changed. Before it was mostly for 'investment'. Now it is overwhelmingly for 'speculation'. This is ridiculous . It exaggerates the productive nature of pre-1970s capitalism, and it heads towards the economic 'anti-capitalism' of the mad right the argument that if only the system were purged of 'speculators' the market would work perfectly.

Also there is a persistent thread of mild paranoia that runs through both these books. Chomsky comes perilously close to arguing that, because the ruling classes act as one, therefore they must plot and conspire as one.

Despite these flaws there is a real quality here in the detail of Chomsky's arguments and in the engaging and combative way he puts them. Of the two books Powers and Prospects is far better the chatty style of the interviews in Class Warfare often stops Chomsky from developing his arguments at length.

Dave Renton


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