Redemption Song uses dance, music and drama to examine the impact of the Asylum Bill on refugees coming to Britain. The central story is that of Jinneber, a 17 year old woman from the Ivory Coast, who at the age of 15 led a student school demonstration. As a result, she is arrested and raped by the secret police. Fearing for her life, she flees to Britain, where she expects to find refuge. Instead she is imprisoned and only gets her rights after weeks of hunger strike.
Jinneber's story is only part of Redemption Song, which also deals with the Liverpool dockers' strike, the experience of slavery and the racist nature of immigration laws. It tells of events which many readers will know about the protest outside Campsfield Detention Centre, for example, or the international support for the Liverpool dockers but which haven't been widely publicised. The conclusion of the piece the need to support the linked struggles against racism and deportation, and that against the bosses is one that every socialist should support.
Redemption Song raises many questions. Do workers in Britain benefit from the exploitation of workers in Africa? Where do racist ideas come from? Is the working class dead? What is the best way to fight the Asylum Bill? How powerful does technology make the state? It would be all but impossible to answer them all, but none of them are really examined properly. Near the start of the piece, for example, Jinneber confronts a docker. She argues that Liverpool grew from the profits of slavery, and trade through the docks continues the oppression of African countries today so why should she support the dockers' struggle? The question is never properly answered.
Sometimes things do come together there is an excellent section where two dockers describe joining a civil rights march in Turkey. Their passports are taken from them by the police, and for some minutes they fear that they will never be able to go home. The story brings together the twin themes of workers' struggle and that against immigration laws in a moving and concrete way.
Much of Redemption Song is, however, unfocused artistically as well as politically. One actor introduces himself near the beginning, for example, as an African story teller a role which could have held the different scenes together but never appears again. The music is very good, but the way in which dramatic scenes are interspersed with songs or voices on tape has no obvious rationale to it. The result is that Redemption Song is less effective as a drama than it might have been but is an examination of a contradictory human being struggling against the odds for dignity and freedom.
Redemption Song tours throughout the country until July
There has been a resurgence of interest in the work of Caryl Churchill. A recent West End production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was highly acclaimed. Cloud Nine has long been considered Churchill's most provocative play, and this current production has lost none of the bite it had when written nearly 20 years ago.
First performed in 1979 by the Joint Stock Theatre Company at the Royal Court Theatre, Cloud Nine explores the changing nature of sexual politics. The first act is set in colonial Africa in the 19th century, where restless natives are shaking the foundations of her majesty's dominions. But it is a domestic drama that is acted out, the foundations of 'the family' that are crumbling, as much as the empire. The second act is set in a London park in the present, but with the same characters 100 years on in history, but only having aged 25 years.
Churchill wanted to link the ideas of colonial and sexual oppression. Also she wanted to illustrate that, even after a century having passed, her generation had grown up with a strong Victorian morality imbued into their consciousness. However, the hypocrisy of the 19th century is quickly shattered in the first act.
Clive, the colonial governor and rigidly authoritarian husband and father, imposes his ideals on his family and the natives. Betty, his wife, is played by a man because she wants to be what men want her to be, and the same way, Joshua, the black servant, is played by a white actor because he wants to be what whites want him to be. The daughter Victoria is represented by a doll.
Whilst Betty is pining romantically and unrequitedly for the heroic explorer Harry Bagley, he a closet gay, is out conquering the natives, perhaps not in the way his queen might have expected. In order to salvage his honour, Harry conveniently marries the governess at the suggestion of Clive, whose absolute horror at a homosexual advance from his friend is one of the best scenes of the play. As the drawing room pleasantries melt away, so too the revolt of the natives approaches.
The second act opens with a triumphant account of gay encounters on suburban trains. All the characters have changed roles in a way which highlights the emotional progressions that have occurred over 25 years. Betty is now played by a woman, and she gradually begins to realise she is a person in her own right. Victoria has become a real being and is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. Clive, however, has become a little girl, exposing comically and conclusively sexual standards.
The success of the play rests on the interrelationship between the two periods and the argument against Victorian values. When the play was written, Churchill couldn't have predicted the way that the right would try to turn the clock back, and there is an element of unrestrained optimism that today may look a little less realistic. However, the basic premise of linking sexuality to capitalism, summed up in the line 'You can't separate economics and fucking', is only too relevant.
Cloud Nine is at the Old Vic, London, until 26 April
Women on the Verge of HRT is set in a hotel in the Irish west coast village of Kincasslagh, the scene of one of Ireland's strangest pilgrimages. Every July thousands of middle aged women arrive to worship at the shrine of a new secular idol, Daniel O'Donnell. Their adoration has made Daniel one of Ireland's most successful recording stars. The play opens with a video of the day when every year fans are invited to meet Daniel and share his mother's home made scones. The video is both very funny and very sad and it poses a stark question why should these women need to seek comfort in Daniel O'Donnell, a man who has been compared to Cliff Richard without the threatening sexuality?
It is a question which Women on the Verge tries hard to answer. In the first scene, Vera and Anna are sharing a room and a drink after paying homage to Daniel. Vera, smart and fashionable, is raging mad. Her ex-husband has just had a child with his twenty-something new girlfriend. For Vera, this sums up the gross injustice done to women who reach middle age and are thrown on the sexual scrapheap while men are encouraged to continue enjoying their sexuality. Anna, by contrast, is plain and respectable, and she doesn't feel entitled to expect much from life or her husband.
Vera and Anna find their very own Daniel O'Donnell, in the shape of Fergal the hotel waiter. Like Daniel, Fergal sings, stays loyal to his roots and makes neglected women feel good about themselves. As Vera demands her right to be a sexual being, Anna gradually and painfully becomes aware that life could and should be better for her, that she has a right to love and respect.
In the second act, traditional notions of love are put on trial. Vera enlists the power of the mythical Banshee, a fairy bitter at being rejected by her ever young lover, to call up various ex-husbands and new girlfriends for interrogation. We get a funny but pessimistic picture of ill treated women, egomaniacal men and broken, bitter relationships, where the fantasy of pornography or romantic novels is the only outlet for unfulfilled desires.
This play was a massive hit for the Irish touring company, Dubblejoint. Its writer, and star, Marie Jones, and producer Pam Brighton have a history of producing plays which are based on the experience of working class people and are also popular and accessible. One critic suggested that Women on the Verge restored an idea of working class political culture to the West End. I think this is going too far. The play is fun, a straight play with songs thrown in rather than a musical. But its central point, around which most of its jokes revolve, is very limited; that forty-something women are sexual beings, who do swear and shout with rage a kind of Irish Shirley Valentine.
Women on the Verge of HRT plays at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until 31 May
The People vs Larry Flynt Dir: Milos Forman
'I'm just trying to make an honest buck,' pleads the ten year old Larry Flynt as he sells moonshine in the backwoods of Kentucky in the opening scenes of the movie which charts his life story. Later, as the millionaire publisher of the US porn magazine Hustler, we are encouraged to admire his gutsy charm and industriousness. We are meant to regard his business pushing the boundaries of explicit pictures of semi-naked women who are instructed to open their legs ever wider as merely a curiosity. However, Flynt is not just another rich porn baron. He is best known for a landmark court decision in his favour on the basis of the US's First Amendment upholding the right to free speech.
In the case arch-religious bigot Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for libel over a spoof campaign ad he ran in Hustler. The ad in question implied he had sex with his mother and preached while drunk. This predictably sent Falwell into paroxysms of rage and to a libel case which he assumed would be easy to win against Flynt whom he regarded (and he felt sure the court would agree) as a debauched low lifer.
The best and funniest scenes show the pompous Falwell being humiliated and mocked in court. Flynt (Woody Harrelson), who by now is confined to a wheelchair after surviving an assassination attempt, completely snubs the conventions of the whole legal procedure by wearing increasingly bizarre outfits which include a nappy made from an American flag and a T-shirt emblazoned with 'Fuck the court!'
In the end the basis for Flynt's victory was upholding the basic civil right to debate with, question and even lampoon public figures and to express unpopular opinions. There is great play made about the American constitution, which is the unbilled star of the movie, upholding the right of even the most immoral scumbag to express his views.
Much of the controversy that surrounds the man, and now to some extent the film, comes from this contradiction that someone who has made millions from selling oppressive images of women becomes a hero of free speech.
Because of this many feminists in the US have come out against the film, saying it glamorises the world of porn and sanitises the true story of Flynt's lifestyle and motivations. One thing this film does not do is make the porn industry appear glamorous. From the lowliest seedy bars where women dance for a few drunks to the classiest photo shoots, the image is of an alienated world where sex may be out in the open but is certainly not liberating for anyone involved. The wild parties in Flynt's gaudy mansion may be filled with rich beautiful people taking drugs and having group sex in hot tubs but the message is still that this life is tacky and decidedly unglamorous.
What is questionable is the implicit message that all Flynt was interested in was good clean fun and the only people who could object to Hustler were narrow minded, sexually repressed reactionaries. This is in part due to Harrelson who, unlike in past films, has not quite been able to shake off the dumb barman of Cheers persona. But it is also because of deliberate omissions of uncomfortable facts about what sort of things Hustler printed, over and above straightforward pictures of naked women. For in its competition for readers with the more upmarket Playboy it used increasingly shocking images and cartoons which mocked black people, obese women and the disabled, amongst others. The fact that Flynt himself was happy to play a cameo role as a judge indicates just how pleased he was at the film's slant.
The portrayal of Flynt's relationship and subsequent marriage to dancer Althea Leasure (played by Courtney Love) is sickly and unconvincing as Flynt is shown as the big businessman with a big heart who falls for one woman and sticks by her through drug addiction and Aids. Contrary to this romantic spin Althea was actually the fourth of five wives yet some critics have seen this as a moving tale of true love and commitment.
A better film could have been made about this subject. This comes across as an expensively produced but nevertheless superficial look at an interesting story and a complex argument. One thing is certain though. After watching The People vs Larry Flynt you are left in no doubt as to whose side you're on when it comes to censorship. However foul pornography is, socialists can never ally themselves with the Jerry Falwells of this world. Such people want a society which not only bans Hustler but also Gay Times, explicit sex education and the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe.
This is a deceptively light hearted comedy with Mathieu Kassovitz (the director of La Haine) playing Albert Dehousse, a simple man with no great achievements who manages to pass himself off as a resistance hero of the Second World War. We follow him from his childhood where the portrait of his father who died a hero in the First World War hangs forbiddingly on the living room wall. The first deception of the film is revealed by a schoolfriend of Albert who explains that Albert's father was in fact nothing more than a drunk. Albert's mother has maintained the deception and is fighting for a war widow's pension.
When the Second World War breaks out, Albert, now married, works with his father-in-law as a travelling salesman and begins to pick up the acting skills needed to persuade people to let him into their houses and make a sale. Even after the Nazis occupy France he continues to cycle around the countryside with his suitcase of wares while others, including his wife, are fighting a bloody underground war with the occupiers under his very nose.
After the liberation Albert runs away to Paris and is taken under the wing of Mr Jo, a shady character who sets him up in a job following up a comprehensive range of contacts he has made during the war, and 'the captain' who has been a resistance fighter. Albert is mesmerised by the tales of the captain's exploits and his fantasy of becoming a hero becomes his obsession. Through sheer research of maps, newspaper cuttings and history books and long practised mimicry he manages to gatecrash a resistance veterans' reunion and gradually win their confidence that he too has a courageous past. Thus he becomes the man everyone wants to be around women desire him, men admire him and the government even appoint him to a powerful position in the French occupied zone in Germany.
Kassovitz's low key portrayal of this 'self made hero' is a joy to watch and full of comedy. But the film is more than just a story of one man's deception. It is as much a comment on the attempts by the establishment in postwar France to wipe out the embarrassing memory of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Jacques Audiard explains. 'In 1940 France went through one of the cruellest defeats in her history, then, from 1940 to 1945, collaborated closely with the Nazi regime. You have to admit that wouldn't look good in the school books! So, overnight, we were no longer the defeated, we were the conquerors, we were no longer collaborators, we were resistance fighters.' In the light of the revelations of the late President Mitterrand's closeness to Vichy's ruler Pétain and his regime and evidence that the deadly gas Zyklon-B was exported by Vichy France to the Nazis even in the last days of the war, it is clear that there are indeed many skeletons in the cupboards of the French establishment. The film also goes on to show that those within the ruling class who had acted so spinelessly were quick to disown, after the war, the very people who had fought courageously because many of them were Communists.
The film uses different styles and techniques to encourage the questioning of what is fact and what is fiction. For instance, woven throughout the film are face to camera interviews with various people who had come across Albert, set many years on after his cover has been blown, which are done in the style of a real life documentary. At other times the camera cuts to the actual musicians playing the score which brings out the contrived nature of the story as well as making the music more of a conscious part of the whole film.
A Self Made Hero won the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival last year and Mathieu Kassovitz deserves recognition for his performance. Yet because of the current mentality of distributors who see most foreign language films as a minority interest, it will only be shown in selected cinemas. You may have to make an effort to see this gem of a film, but it's worth it.
Karl Liebknecht, a leading German socialist, addressed the huge crowd from a window in the Kaiser's palace. '"The day of liberty has dawned. I proclaim the free socialist republic of all Germans. We extend our hand to them and ask them to complete the world revolution. Those of you who want the world revolution, raise your hands." Thousands of hands rose up.'
These were the exhilarating days of the November 1918 revolution in Germany. 'Those who had hungered and bled for four years of war now poured from the suburbs into the centre of the city, led by groups of armed soldiers and red flags.' The old order was swept aside. The monarchy was dismissed. The only bodies with any power were workers' and soldiers' councils.
Yet, as Harman shows, 'toppling the old order was not the same thing as beginning the new'. For the next five years, Germany swung between revolutionary fervour and reactionary offensives. Twice more, workers were on the brink of seizing power after the 1920 Kapp putsch and in 1923 but each time their hopes were smashed. The whole of this enthralling book, originally published in 1982 and now being republished, is dedicated to explaining why the German Revolution was lost. That loss was not inevitable, as many cynics have argued. The objective conditions for socialist revolution existed. The subjective conditions, however, did not.
The crucial question was: did the organisations of the left want to, or were they able to, lead millions of radicalised workers to seize power? The most influential of these organisations was the Social Democratic Party (SPD). It had a million members, could attract 4.5 million votes and had 90 daily papers, dozens of clubs and hundreds of full time officials. It also spoke a Marxist language. The possibilities seemed enormous. Yet when tested in the heat of revolution the SPD preferred the old structures of capitalism to the prospects of revolutionary change. This had already been starkly revealed in 1914, when it sided with its ruling class at the outbreak of the First World War.
In the revolutionary upsurge of November 1918 it was forced to turn leftwards to maintain its leadership over the mass of workers. So, having tried to save the monarchy, it suddenly found itself forced to declare a republic. But it saw its real enemy as the growing revolutionary turmoil across the country. Instead of arming workers, it backed the Freikorps, soldiers of the old order, who soon unleashed a wave of murderous terror against the left.
Between the SPD and the revolutionary left were the Independent Social Democrats, which had split from the SPD in 1917. They too spoke left while in practice they simply wanted some of the action in the parliament of capitalism. Such parties will always exist under capitalism and will be the first port of call for millions of workers in periods of mass struggle. Workers will believe their words and share their fear of the unknown of revolution. The key issue, as Harman demonstrates, is whether an organised, disciplined and experienced revolutionary socialist organisation exists of sufficient strength to offer another port of call when workers see that the reformist parties are betraying them.
In Germany there were around 3,000 revolutionary socialists in November 1918, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Yet they had never organised separately from the reformist an centrist organisations and only formed an independent party, the German Communist Party (KPD), in December 1918, weeks after the revolutionary crisis had broken out. As a result, their voice was barely heard and their members were unable to offer coherent and consistent leadership. In January 1919, for example, they could not stop their most enthusiastic supporters from embarking on a premature confrontation provoked by the SPD. In the wake of the failed uprising the SPD let loose the Freikorps, who murdered Luxemburg, Liebknecht and many other leading activists.
More opportunities for socialists were to come over the next five years. At each stage Harman describes the balance of class forces and analyses the 'subjective conditions', primarily the strength and tactics of the KPD, which grew to around 200,000 members.
Most fascinating is Harman's scrutiny of KPD tactics at key moments in the struggles. Among the issues Harman examines are when and if socialists should leave the old trade unions and form new ones; the tragic price of inaction when millions of workers are demanding action; what conditions demand offensive or defensive initiatives; and when and if to participate in parliament.
Harman shows that such tactical decisions are the life and death of a revolution. 'The class war is like any other war in one respect: the outcome is decided not merely by the absolute balance of class forces at a single point in time, but also by whether the leaders are able to direct their forces according to the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy... A single misjudgement can lead from the verge of victory to disorder and disintegration.'
Misjudgements were repeatedly made in Germany, often simply because the KPD leadership overcompensated for past mistakes and lost confidence in its own abilities. In the end, the confidence of workers in Germany, Russia and across Europe was broken, and the way was paved for Nazism and Stalinism.
The Lost Revolution is not history for the sake of history, but history for the sake of the future. As such, it is indispensable for all those who want to turn the world upside down.
In the spring of 1944 a British officer and his wireless operator who had been dropped into Bulgaria by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) crossed into Yugoslavia. He was with a Bulgarian partisan formation, which had been training and equipping there. It was, he knew, a dangerous mission, but it ended badly. The formation was betrayed. The Bulgarian members were executed, with the women members first being raped. The officer was held briefly and then shot. His name was Frank Thompson. His younger brother was to become the Marxist historian
EP Thompson who in Beyond the Frontier described his attempts to discover what exactly happened to his brother.
By 1981, when the lectures that make up this book were delivered, sufficient time had lapsed for Thompson to be able to describe his search for the truth in order to illustrate the problems of writing about the history of a partisan movement. There were two main difficulties. On the one hand much of the evidence was oral and in oral history as Thompson warns us, reminiscence is often 'structured as myth'. On the other hand official accounts were dictated by officials who were economical with the truth. In the British case they had been 'weeded' that is to say vital documents had been removed or else locked away for 50 years.
The political situation in Bulgaria in 1944 was complicated. The country was at war with the Western Allies but not with the Soviet Union. It was allied to Germany and so was not under German occupation. Meantime the Bulgarian government, aware of the possibility of a German defeat, was beginning to put out feelers to the Allies. There was indeed a Bulgarian partisan movement which aimed to overthrow the government; but although heroic, it was small and, unlike the Yugoslav one, not able to hold down German forces that might have been used on the Eastern Front. It was therefore of little importance to Stalin who, notoriously, was not interested in partisan movements as contributors to revolutionary change but only in so far as they facilitated the victory of the Red Army.
There were, however, contradictions in the policy emanating from Moscow where Dmitrov, the influential Bulgarian representative on the Comintern, was urging a revolutionary rising. It was on his orders that the partisan unit to which Thompson was attached entered Bulgaria in an attempt to start a partisan-led revolt. It was an enterprise which had little chance of success, for the partisans had not been able to establish solid bases in the country.
The political situation with the Allies was also complicated. One of the complications was SOE itself. It had been set up by Churchill in 1940 'to set Europe ablaze' by supplying arms to guerrilla movements. Like Stalin he was interested in resistance movements only in so far as they furthered the Allied war effort as Tito did by tying down German forces. The last thing he wanted to see was a revolution in any part of occupied Europe. In the case of Bulgaria in 1944 the foreign office was eager to encourage 'moderate' elements in Bulgaria and there was talk of detaching the Bulgarian government and army from the Germans 'as a going concern'.
Certain members of SOE, however, like Thompson who was a Communist, had joined the SOE forces precisely to further revolutionary movements. SOE allowed him to cross into Bulgaria and then abandoned him. He, and the partisans alongside whom he fought, were the victims of a policy change. A partisan rising in Bulgaria was unwelcome. The British foreign office wished to encourage negotiations with the government the partisans aimed to overthrow.
When EP Thompson tried to piece the story together he came up against silence on the British side, although stories were being put about that Thompson had been foolhardy and adventurist. It was only from off the record leaks from old SOE executives that EP Thompson was able to discover some of the truth. On the Bulgarian side the dead man was at first honoured along with his fellow partisans. A town was named after him. Then came the Cold War and the official story changed. He was, it now said, an imperial agent who had been playing a double game and was responsible for the failure of the mission.
Thompson was, in fact, one of that generation who gave their lives as Communists in Nazi dominated Europe for a naive yet generous aspiration that through their efforts communism would come, that the workers would gain control over the means of production and that there would be no more wars. Their fates were often as in this case decided by decisions at the highest levels in Britain and in Stalinist Russia.
A recent television programme set out to describe the life and work of Alan Turing. It contained many of the salient points in his life and work, but missed the real importance and significance of what it covered.
The film was based on the book by Andrew Hodge. It is one of those rare books that one reads with a particular purpose in mind and which has an impact far beyond anything expected. For the first time in my life I understood what it means to be gay.
The book is very different from the film. It is written as a biography with a linear time sequence. The film was given in flashbacks and so neither the personality nor the significance of events were fully developed.
For most of his life Alan Turing lived in an institutional setting of school, university among academics. His family was in the foreign service. He was an extremely intelligent boy, but his talent was unstructured until he made his first friendship with a boy at school, Christopher Morcom.
Alan Turing was a difficult person to work with. He was not prepared to condescend or belittle himself. He recognised his own ability as a fact, and expected others to value the quality of his work on the basis of the work itself. Equally, he knew that he was a homosexual and expected others to accept this fact as well.
In his early academic work he developed the Turing Machine to solve Gödel's problem dealing with the possibility of solving all known problems. Work was done at the highest level of abstraction. His ability was recognised and used by the wartime government and resulted in the Enigma code, used by all the German communication systems, being broken. He continued to work for the government during the war, but his approach and level of intelligence led to difficulty in how he could best be used.
So important was he, and his ability, that he was sent to America to liaise with American security.
Alan Turing was consulted by the British government on matters relating to uranium fission, and recognised by GCHQ as the person who knew more about cryptanology and electronic computers than anyone else. His ideas were far ahead of his fellows in the field and were only fully appreciated many years later. All his work related to the question of how the mind works and the possibility of creating a machine that could think.
The position all changed with the McCarthy purges in America. The dominant view became that homosexuality was a form of unreliability which inevitably led to a lack of moral integrity.This attitude extended to Britain.
Alan's conviction for 'moral turpitude', the result of reporting a burglary which led to him being charged over his relationship with a young man, and a change in the law in America, meant that he was no longer allowed into America. Positive vetting prevented any further work at GCHQ. The approach he had adopted throughout his life, of being honest, and believing in his freedom to express himself both as an individual and as a mathematician, was no longer possible. Not only was his work extremely limited, his friends were under threat.
Alan Turing was found poisoned by an apple dipped in cyanide. The full circumstances surrounding his death were not known until much later. His work at the centre of government intelligence, with the atomic bomb, and all his other secret work, was not known about even by his closest friends.
Alan Turing's life has a great deal to tell us in a wide number of different fields. Andrew Hodge has done an invaluable service in presenting such a complete and detailed account of all the events surrounding that life and deserves to be widely read.
We live in a world where nations and people are neatly pigeonholed. It is often hard to remember that this is a creation of the recent past. André Aciman grew up in a community which defied convenient national classification for generations. Yet although his memoirs describe living in a Sephardi Jewish family of Alexandria in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s, the world of his childhood seems unbelievably remote from neatly packaged ideas about culture and national identity.
His grandparents came from the same quarter in Istanbul, but had become Italian citizens by purchasing fake birth certificates from the town of Livorno which had conveniently lost all its municipal records in a fire. His great uncle Vili, at various times a German soldier, Italian Blackshirt and a British spy, ended his career as auctioneer of the deposed king of Egypt's property and retired to live the life of an English country gentleman in Surrey. André himself, when asked as a child about his nationality, thought of himself as French, although he had lived all his life in Egypt.
A fantastic mixture of languages added to his confusion. Hebrew was reserved for prayers and Ladino, a peculiar Jewish version of Spanish, for conversations with his grandparents. But with the rest of the family he spoke French or Italian, switching to pidgin Arabic when chatting to his friends among the Egyptian servants. Language marked off the boundaries of his family life. Inside those boundaries there was a mixture of material privilege and a comforting hodgepodge of cultural traditions borrowed from the four corners of Europe. Outside lay Arab Egypt, vaguely threatening but infinitely tantalising to the child's mind.
Much of the detail of the book deals with ordinary events: trips to the beach, rides on the rickety old trams, kite flying battles with the boys from the Greek orphanage down the road. However, ordinary lives are set against the backdrop of extraordinary changes. The 1950s saw huge political upheavals in Egypt. Arab nationalism, symbolised by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers movement which took power in 1952, was a rising political force. The Jews, Greeks, Italians and Armenians who had formed such a large part of the bourgeoisie in Egypt was giving ground to a rising Arab middle class. As a child visiting Santa's grotto at the exclusive department store Hannaux, André notices that Santa can now speak Arabic as well as French with the children on his knee.
The older generations in his family reacted with incomprehension to the changes which were taking place. Their disdain and contempt for the Egyptians makes a sad contrast with their love of other cultures. The people they once ordered around as servants faced down the might of the British Empire in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Finally the family scattered, to leave Egypt forever, when his father's textile factory was nationalised in the mid-1960s.
This book is not really about a single family, it is far more an affectionate and evocative record of a whole community which has disappeared. The descriptions of Alexandria's fading elegance and cosmopolitanism gone to seed capture perfectly the atmosphere which still lingers around the old Jewish and Greek areas of the city. The characters in the family are colourful and eccentric but also enjoyably true to life. The book is also a perfect way to escape from the dark English weather into the Egyptian sunshine of 40 years ago.
By 1865 the war to defeat slavery in the US had become an open one. During the preceding 60 years much of the struggle was fought in a more hidden way by dedicated abolitionists, both black and white, helping runaway slaves to escape to the North. As one of the key organisers of the Underground Railway, John P Parker's recently discovered life story gives us an insight into the hidden side of the fight.
Parker was born in Virginia in 1827, the son of a slaveowner and a female slave. His vivid description of his life as a slave is profound and unique not only because it evokes the manner in which slaves were forced to live, but because he shows that the most cruel and degrading aspect of slavery was, 'not so much the brutality...as one might expect...but the real injury was the making a human being an animal without hope.' This is strikingly portrayed by Parker's vivid description of his journey to Alabama as a chained slave.
What keeps Parker going is his revulsion at slavery and what he describes as his 'power to hate'. It is this power that drives him to try to escape and leads him to teach himself to read and raise the princely sum of $1,800 to purchase his freedom.
However, it is when he purchases his freedom that this book truly becomes spellbinding. This is because before our very eyes he becomes an Indiana Jones like character by day he runs an iron foundry and is considered 'respectable', by night he is dodging bullets. He snatches a baby from under the noses of two sleeping slaveowners who keep the child to stop the parents from running away; and is directly responsible for over 440 slaves escaping to their freedom.
We also are introduced to a gallery of characters, black and white, who will risk everything to help slaves attain their freedom. These characters include the Rev John Rankin, who quotes liberally from the Bible in his left hand, but will not hesitate to use the pistol in his right hand against slaveowners.
If this book can be said to possess a weakness it is that Parker's position as a middle class businessman affects the way he explains events. He gives what was in reality a mass struggle against slavery a molecular character, because he does not deal with the broader arguments.
For all its problems this book is timely, released as it is at a time when the very fruits of the civil rights movement are under attack and as the US ruling class play the race card to divide black and white.
In The Chartists John Charlton has produced a lively and accessible account of one of the most exciting and revolutionary moments in British working class history. John charts the development of the movement from its roots in the radical working class politics of the 1830s. He also traces the local origins the London groups with their artisan Jacobin traditions, the moderate Birmingham men of the early movement, the proletarian composition of the Lancashire movement with its Irish contingent, the insurrectionary Welsh.
John takes us through all of the key events in the story of Chartism the inception of the movement with its mass gatherings of workers such as that in Glasgow of 200,000 and those at Hartshead Moor in Yorkshire and Kersal Moor near Manchester of 100,000 each; the Newport uprising of 1839 in which armed miners and iron workers marched on the town to liberate their comrades; the mass strike of 1842 which electrified the country and left the authorities reeling; the final stand of the Chartists as a national force in London, 1848.
What comes across particularly powerfully is the quality of the individuals who led these momentous events and the thoroughly working class character of the movement.
The Chartists is a great introduction to the causes and events of the Chartist years. However, I do have a quibble with John about the outcome of the events of 1848 and the reasons for the defeat of the Chartists of that year which saw a huge gathering of the Chartists to present the third and last petition to parliament. On the day of the gathering the plan had been to march on parliament to present the petition. In the event, in the face of impressive mobilisation by the state, Feargus O'Connor brokered a deal with the police to avert such a confrontation and the day went down in history as a damp squib. The question which hangs over the day still is, could it have been different? John thinks not. He very much stresses the strength of the state and the solid opposition of the middle class towards the Chartists. He also seems to resent any criticism of the Chartist leadership themselves.
Now this last point is a sensitive one. Obviously to see what happened in 1848 as being to do simply with a flawed leadership would be nonsense. There is also no doubting O'Connor's sincerity and commitment to the movement.
And yet it is also true that the Chartist leaders were unprepared politically and psychologically for the scale of the mobilisation against them. They did not fully appreciate the kind of threat they posed to the establishment a threat to property as well as to the political mastery of the ruling class and their new allies in the form of the commercial middle class. It is also true that this blinded them to the hidden and not so hidden weaknesses on the authorities' side and the strengths of their own side. There were reports of dissent among the troops and 'softness' of the special constables drawn from the ranks of the lawyers, bankers, shopkeepers and doctors. Workers from many of the industrial districts were willing to fight, and there were the reports of arming and drilling from around the country.
A bolder and more politically revolutionary leadership could have led to a very different outcome. Of course this would have required the political clarity and collective leadership that simply was not there at the time. Nonetheless, if the Paris Commune could occur 23 years later with a relatively underdeveloped working class, then why not the London Commune of 1848 in Britain with its much higher state of industrialisation? Certainly this was on the minds of the rich why else the official prayer of thanks commissioned by parliament?
History is both shaped by objective circumstances and by what people do. This makes it an open process. To see it in this way, as well as acknowledging the possibility of alternative outcomes, means that we can learn from the experience of working class struggles in the past
The period from 1963 to 1972 was an explosive one in US politics and society. Starting with the civil rights movement in the South and ending with Watergate, it encompassed enormous change and revolt the riots in 1968, the student movement and the anti-war movement. Dan Carter's book, a series of four essays, starts with the response of reactionary elements to 1960s radicalism.
Tracing the thread of racist rhetoric in political campaigning, he begins with George Wallace a racist Southern populist who, as governor of Alabama, ran as a third party candidate against Nixon in the 1968 election and polled over four million votes. Wallace tapped the support of many Americans who were not part of the anti-war movement or black revolts and were frightened by the militancy.
The first two essays are interesting: they show how Republican politicians cynically and quite deliberately adopted racist rhetoric in order to pull Wallace's support towards themselves.
Carter describes how Republicans first linked social disorder and economic decline to race in the 1960s and, in the last two essays, how that formula was continued under Reagan and Bush.
The last essay focuses on Gingrich's Contract with America a promise to cut taxes for the rich, raise them for the poor, slash welfare and cut medical aid and social security. Carter is right that policies scapegoating 'welfare queens' and cracking down on crime have racism at their core, and he is right that the Republicans have never held back from using such weapons. But there are a number of problems with his analysis.
Firstly he lets the Democrats almost entirely off the hook. The tradition of using racism to gain votes is not just the province of the Republicans. Wallace, thoroughgoing bigot and racist to the core, ran as a Democrat in the 1972 election his politics were not out of place in that party. The Democrats have an old and nasty tradition of racism, rooted in their original base in the slaveholding South.
This omission is especially dishonest in the last essay on Newt Gingrich. No mention is made of Clinton's virtual total acceptance of the Contract with America policies and his consistent attempts to out-Republican the Republicans.
Carter is convinced that American people will always be susceptible to racist campaigning, as if they are all dupes of politicians. While the first two essays have the strength of being set against a period of rising struggle and militancy, the second two suffer seriously from a conspiratorial view of the American media and political machinery being able to shape the minds of the public.
He sees American society as relentlessly shifting to the right and offers no solution to the problem of racism in the American working class. His account is ultimately despairing, looking as it does purely to 'official' politics rather than to social forces.
The international exchange value of the currency of a big exporting and importing country is bound to matter sooner or later. Should the currency fall in value, imports may become expensive, squeezing living standards and boosting inflation. Should the currency rise in value, exports may be squeezed by higher prices and domestic production by cheap imports with consequent unemployment.
The pound and its value in relation to other currencies has been an abiding problem for British governments. Churchill's decision to return the pound to the gold standard at its prewar value priced major exports out of their markets overnight and forced the coal industry into a crisis that produced the 1926 General Strike.
A run on the pound in 1976 led the Callaghan Labour government to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund which urged an only too willing Denis Healey to cut back savagely on public spending.
Phillip Stephens deals briefly with this torrid history but the primary focus of his analysis is 1979 onwards. The Tories began office by abandoning any target value for the pound. If they could just control the money supply, the monetarists claimed, the free market would determine the correct value for the pound. The financial markets, however, are not driven by rationality but by the desire for quick mega-profits. They will buy up a popular currency thus driving up the value further. This will overprice exports, producing in turn a recession. Money traders then hope 'there will always be a bigger fool' who will buy the currency from them as it is about to fall.
Between 1979 and 1981 the 'petro-pound' rose 40 percent in value and helped to precipitate a 25 percent fall in manufacturing production.
Nigel Lawson, who became chancellor in 1983, concluded that the government neglected the broad value of the pound at its peril. This connected with the project for a single European currency under the control of a single, independent central bank. EU states were encouraged to join an Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) that would tie currency values within a certain range.
Thatcher vetoed any idea of joining the ERM in 1985 and, when she found out her chancellor was secretly shadowing it in 1988, she destroyed his policy with her 'You can't buck the markets' speech. In 1989 she was forced to accept the principle of membership by the threat of resignation by her chancellor and foreign secretary. And she was finally persuaded to join by her new chancellor, John Major, in 1990, in the hope it would bring interest rates down and revive the economy.
However the entry rate was too high. German unification forced European interest rates up. An overvalued pound and high interest rates intensified the length and depth of the recession. The financial markets forced the pound out of the ERM on 'Black Wednesday', 1992.
If you want an account of some of the key events and divisions within Tory governments from 1979 to 1996 this book stands up quite well. However, it is largely descriptive and too often only deals with the surface of events.
On two things he is absolutely right. British governments cannot ignore the value of the pound. But targeting a value for the pound hoping this will secure the reversal of Britain's long term economic decline is absurd. The problems are too deep seated.
Secondly, European Monetary Union is going to become a central issue for Blair very quickly. To be in the first wave of EMU membership, legislation is needed by the beginning of 1998. Blair's concern to maintain the confidence of the bosses will be tested against the value of the pound and he will try to cut spending severely in order to keep the bosses happy.
This book is a collection of articles which attempts to focus on the struggles of feminism during a period of backlash. Already the book has come under attack from those who challenges the very idea that a backlash against women's rights exists at all except as a figment in the imaginations of feminists themselves.
The constant attacks on single parents, working mothers, rape victims' right to anonymity and the rantings of the anti-abortion bigots are not the figment of anyone's imagination, they are real. That Oakley and Mitchell locate their book firmly within the reality of the backlash against women's rights is therefore welcome.
However, the articles fail dismally to offer ordinary women any strategy to defend their rights, let alone fight for more. Instead what we are presented with is a collection of articles written in a style that will put off anyone who is not a part of the academic world.
This book is the third in a series of collected essays, the first two published in 1976 and 1986. Whereas the earlier articles reflected some of the early vitality of the women's movement, the articles today are inward looking.
The women's movement came out of a period of class struggle. When the level of struggle declined at the end of the 1970s, feminism turned away from women as fighters and looked more and more to women as victims. This kind of thinking invades even those articles which attempt to challenge the dominance of right wing feminists. Margaret Walters scores some good points in her attacks on Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon in particular their alliance with some of the most bigoted forces on the far right of American politics in order to campaign for laws to ban pornography.
Yet Walters explains the hegemony of the right wing feminists in terms of an invasion of melodrama, which she claims is too black and white in its view of the world. She seeks salvation, as she tells us, in the 'old difficulties and disagreements yes the confusion that keeps feminism alive'. The alternative to the reactionary politics of Dworkin and Co is confusion and muddle. What a choice!
This takes us to the heart of the problem. The challenge to the right wing within feminism always fails, because both left and right take as their starting point the theory of patriarchy. If you don't see the fight for liberation as part of the fight against the system as a whole you end up compromising with the system.
The final article, entitled 'Combating the backlash: how Swedish women won the war', describes the setting up of a network of women already active in party politics, called the Support Stockings, who meet, often in secret, to organise a lobby for more women in parliament. This is the best they have to offer.
What is striking is the complete absence of collective struggle. The Asian women strikers at Hillingdon Hospital show how working class women can fight back and challenge all the old stereotypes. The article on British Asian women, however, locates their struggle in establishing traditional Asian clothes as the height of fashion.
If you were to pick up this book hoping for ideas to fight for women's liberation you will be sorely disappointed. Read it only to be convinced of the need for a socialist alternative for women's liberation.