Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review


KGB equals GBH

Dirk Harmann confuses the issue, to put it mildly, when he argues that Yeltsin and Gorbachev left the state bureaucracy untouched (Letters, February SR). Perhaps Dirk has confused the 'state apparatus' with the position of the low paid (or unpaid!) clerical workers in the ministry for environmental protection to whom he refers. Whatever the case may be, his conclusion is quite mistaken.

First, the implication is that Yeltsin and Gorbachev wanted to attack the old state apparatus as such; second, that this apparatus is somehow part of the resistance to the market reformers' attempt to make ordinary Russians pay the price of economic collapse.

In fact, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin have relied heavily upon the repressive structures of the old state machinery: armed interior ministry police patrol the streets of Russia's cities and are increasingly used as a security force within Russia's large industrial enterprises. The interior ministry continues to operate the country's ubiquitous regime of residence permits, and its role in clamping down on migrant labour has, if anything, been strengthened. The army has been used to bloody effect by both leaders and was key to Yeltsin's battle with parliament in 1993. The bureau for state security is simply the old KGB by another name. New organs of repression have appeared. Yeltsin has his own military force numbered in thousands. The massive 'tax inspectorate' with its heavily armed, balaclava clad units makes a speciality of brutal raids on street traders from central Asia and the Caucuasus.

In addition, the old regional and municipal structures that ran the local state machine are still in place and those who staff their upper ranks, whether elected or not, come from the old nomenklatura, making hay dispensing favours and lining their own pockets. The same is true of the old state enterprises now 'privatised'. Key figures in the state apparatus were displaced but their empty places were filled by rising seconds in command who were seen as more loyal to the new regime. Neither Yeltsin nor Gorbachev has ever shown any inclination to dismantle these bureaucracies. Whatever battles do take place within or between these state structures are over who should benefit from the misery and exploitation of Russia's workers, not whether that exploitation should be resisted.

We should not search for chinks of hope from within the ranks of the state apparatus but look to those forces that can tear it down to its very foundations.

Max Stein


Don't pick up a Penguin

I don't dissent at all from John Rees's criticisms of the two volumes in the new Penguin History of Britain series by Mark Kishlansky and Peter Clarke. Rather than being attempts at providing a popular history they are interpretations by historians of periods of history. Underlying this, I suspect, is the idea that we can't understand history as a whole any more so maybe a partial critique will do instead.

The question of where people get their knowledge of history from, which John Rees also raises, is rather more problematical. The Pelican History series, which was the forerunner to the current Penguin series, was a serious attempt at writing a history of England as opposed to Britain. However, with the authors like Maurice Ashley covering the 17th century and David Thomson the 19th and 20th, I think it is hard to argue that it ever caught the popular historical imagination or did much to form it.

In fact, work by veterans of the Communist Party Historians' Group, like Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, remains hugely popular and in place on school syllabuses. It is unlikely that the new Penguin History will do much to dent this popularity but the question is still raised as to where the next generation of popular socialist history texts will come from. In this the new Pluto Socialist History of Britain series has made a good start, but a lot will depend on how effectively socialists organise to argue for socialist ideas not just in the class and lecture room but in the workplace and on the streets too.

Keith Flett

North London

Colour blind

Glory ('The Big Picture' by Lee Sustar, January SR) is a brilliant film, and the antithesis of numerous Hollywood films that romanticise the old Deep South.

The 54th Massachusetts regiment was not however the first to be organised. The war department had organised black regiments in South Carolina in 1862 and four regiments of black soldiers fought in the Vicksburg campaign of 1863. Their courageous performance went unreported in the northern press.

The original war aims were to restore 11 insurrectionist states back in the union. Lincoln branded slavery a 'monstrous injustice'. However, he had no original intentions to turn the war into one against slavery. In 1861 the war department refused to accept black volunteers for fear that this would have been perceived as a tacit affirmation that it was an abolitionist war.

But the success of Confederate offensives in 1862 convinced the government that they could not win the war without greater human resources, and black soldiers filled the vacuum. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ensured that blacks were 'received into the armed services of the United States'. It was against this background that black regiments were organised. However, they had to be commanded by white officers of 'firm anti-slavery principles superior to a vulgar contempt for colour'.

The historic assault on Fort Wagner came shortly after the New York draft riots of 1863. The riots were the result of racism by Irish Americans who feared the freed slaves would travel north and compete for employment. Black New Yorkers were the principal victims of the rioters. The Fort Wagner assault was used by Republicans to point out that black men who fought for the union deserved more respect than white men who rioted against it.

The left needs to be aware that there may be more than one accurate version of history.

Marc Deith


Unfinished business

I was very interested in the 'Sick of War' Letter from the US (January SR). The armed conflicts of the ruling class have continued throughout this century, despite the 'war to end all wars' in 1914, when gas attacks became commonplace.

After the horrible legacy of Agent Orange, it is appalling to read about 'Gulf War Syndrome' and know that military forces everywhere continue to use chemicals with unknown effects. Who knows what mystery traumas and stress illnesses might pop up in the future, their existence to be denied by world leadership?

Meanwhile in Canada, despite the scandals of rape, murder and basic incompetence that perpetuate the armed forces, 'peacekeeping' troops are still being deployed to all parts of the world. No matter how often I hear that the UN are sending forces to various nations, I still cringe. A ceasefire that happens because a more powerful military force intervenes is hardly comparable to a genuine truce; yet the guns and tanks of the UN have (for reasons beyond my comprehension) become synonymous with peace to many people.

War is about control of land and resources. Armies are not formed to make peace; they are created to maintain control. No ban on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons matters, as machines and missiles aren't the basis of an army: people are.

If all troops on the front lines, on both sides, openly rebel and desert their posts, defy orders and simply refuse to fight, then a war truly ends. Other than that, it is just two leaders signing a paper that essentially reads, 'We'll finish this later'.

Weez Graybiel


When size is important

Without wishing to enter into an extended correspondence it is important to correct Finn Brennan's claim (Letters, February SR) that 'the IRA had less than 5,000 men under arms, and those poorly equipped' in 1921 at the time of the Anglo-Irish Truce.

The IRA's official membership figure in July 1921 was officially given as 112,650 (see Florence O'Donoghue, No Other Law). When the Southern Division covering Munster was formed in January 1921 with nine brigades it comprised 30,620 volunteers. Even allowing for exaggeration, though IRA staff work was fairly meticulous, at the close of the civil war that followed the Treaty there were some 30,000 Republicans either in the field or behind bars. This was after a three way spilt between those who had taken different sides over the Treaty and those who stayed neutral. As late as the early 1930s the accepted figure for IRA membership was 30,000 (see Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA).

As to the fighting ability of the IRA Robert Kee points out, 'Crown casualties soldiers and police for the first nine months of 1920 had been 125 killed and 235 wounded. For the next nine months, to 11 July 1921, there were some 400 killed and 700 wounded' (Ourselves Alone).

While the figures given for the Southern Division's arms in June 1921 were '578 modern service rifles, 11 light machines, over 1,000 revolvers and pistols and a large number of shotguns' (O'Donoghue), it should be remembered that those arms would have been shared in different operations between units. In addition larger operations and sabotage would involve unarmed or lightly armed volunteers.

The point of all this is not to glory in the IRA's military struggle though it was way beyond the scale of the current IRA's military campaign. There has in recent years been an attempt by various Irish historians to soft soap the record of British colonial rule in Ireland. Part of that involves denigrating the level of support the Republicans received, by downplaying Sinn Fein's vote in 1919 and 1921 for instance.

What is more interesting for socialists is how and why the Republican movement could so quickly capture mass support and the failure of socialists to challenge that.

Chris Bambery

East London

Accidental death of an anarchist

On 12 December 1969 a bomb exploded in the Agricultural Bank in the centre of Milan. The Piazza Fontana bomb was designed to cause maximum carnage: 16 people were killed and 88 were injured.

A number of anarchists were arrested and accused of being the culprits. Among them was Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who was interrogated for three days in Milan's central police station. On 15 December, just before midnight, his body was seen to fall from a third floor window. Pinelli was found dead by a journalist in the courtyard. All hell broke lose in Milan and Pinelli became a martyr to the left cause. No one was ever convicted of any wrongdoing in the case, despite innumerable trials and investigations.

The police chief of Milan at the time, Luigi Calabresi, was in the room (along with five other officers) when Pinelli 'fell'. He became the object of a sustained campaign by the far left as the 'murderer' of Pinelli. The far left newspaper Lotta Continua, edited by Adriano Sofri, made Calabresi a particular target and the police chief sued them for libel and defamation. On 17 May 1972 Calabresi was shot dead. He was to have stood trial for the murder of Pinelli. Lotta Continua said that the murder 'was an act in which the exploited can see that justice has been done'. Despite long investigations, no one was charged with the murder and the case remained on the police's books.

Here this extraordinary story jumps forward 16 years to 1988. An ex-militant of Lotta Continua, Lenardo Marino, in circumstances which have never been properly explained but which remain deeply suspicious, decided to accuse himself and three former leaders of the organisation Sofri, Giorgio Petrostefani and Ovidio Bompressi, of having either carried out the murder (Bompressi) of Calabresi or having ordered the others to do so. This extraordinary 'confession' led to a series of trials and arrests. The only evidence against the four men was the 'confession', and the articles from the newspaper Lotta Continua. In fact, what occurred was a series of political trials and appeals, where the state attempted to rewrite the whole history of the late 1960s in Italy, collapsing the terrorist period (only really dominant in the late 1970s) with the mass movements, strikes and organisations which grew out of 1968 itself. Marino's 'confession' was full of holes and motivated by a desire for financial reward and revenge against 'comrades' he claimed, wrongly, had abandoned him.

The former militants from 1968, many of whom now hold key posts in the media (on both right and left) all mobilised their forces behind Sofri and his fellow accused, but to no avail. Historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote a brilliant book in favour of Sofri comparing the case with the witch trials of the 15th century.

The (probable) end to this grotesque series of trials and appeals, some of which saw Sofri and co found (briefly) innocent came recently with a guilty verdict for all three men (Marino got nothing) and three 22 year prison sentences. The arrests of the three men are imminent. I saw Sofri speak to a large supportive crowd at Milan two years ago, and he had lost none of his extraordinary ability to move an audience. Sofri left active politics in the 1970s after the dissolution of Lotta Continua in 1976 and had fallen in with some problematic company, notably the ex Socialist justice minister, Claudio Martelli. The whole episode has galvanised him politically again.

It is ironic that just as the whole truth about the bomb in Milan in 1969 is finally about to come out a Milanese judge has been working on the case for over three years and has found the fascists who planted the bomb another injustice is being perpetuated in the name of an invented (and malicious) 'war' against terrorism.

John Foot


Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page