Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

THEATRE

No fear of contradiction

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

by Bertolt Brecht

This is the best production you are likely to get the chance to see of one of the best of Brecht's plays. He wrote it in 1944, after more than ten years of exile from Nazi Germany, and filled it with his revulsion at the inhumanity and violence of class society.

On the surface, the play takes the form of a story with music about Grusha, a serving maid, who saves a baby abandoned by a governor's wife in a civil war. Putting up with every sort of hardship she brings it up in conditions of extreme danger and poverty ­ and is then dragged before a court with the demand to surrender it to its rich 'natural' mother.

But the power of the play depends not on the story so much as on the way Brecht built each scene around what he called 'contradictions' ­ between the veneer of civilisation flaunted by the rich and their deep seated barbarity, between the suffering of the poor and their eagerness to prostrate themselves on ceremonial occasions to the rich who cause such suffering, the contradiction between the acceptance of militarism by the poor and their revulsion at its consequences, between the desire of most people to do good and the economic conditions that force them to behave badly.

The stress on such contradictions is dramatically effective in a double sense. On the one hand, they produce a theatrically enthralling combination of brilliant farce and deep pathos. On the other, they point to political lessons, about the inhumanity of existing society, the barbarity of its rulers and the absurdity of its codes of law.

This production is superb in two respects. It employs a new translation by Frank McGuinness, who replaces the somewhat stilted English of the old James and Tania Stern translation with the sort of vibrant everyday language which made his Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme shine.

Further, it moves away from the over-formalistic stylisation that often characterises performances of the later Brecht. He himself complained that such stylisation removed 'whatever is unique, special, contradictory, accidental' and provided 'hackneyed stereotypes, the bulk of which represent no mastery of reality'. It also results in performances that do nothing to challenge the prejudices of those members of the audience who are most like the upper class characters on the stage.

Here, by contrast, is a staging that is not to be missed because it does challenge those prejudices and, in so doing, shows why Brecht is probably the greatest playwright of our century.

I found only one fault with the performance. That is with the prologue scene, where the story is introduced.

Brecht placed this in Soviet Georgia, just after the defeat of the Nazi forces at the end of Second World War. Its basic optimism about the condition of the peasants jars with everything we now know ­ and which, to be honest, Brecht secretly suspected ­ about life in the countryside under Stalin's rule, and so plants a folksy and phoney cover up for tyranny and class rule at the beginning of a brilliant attack on such things. It would have been an even better production had it been ditched.

Chris Harman

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is at the National Theatre in May and then touring with the Theatre de Complicité to Liverpool (26-28 June), Cambridge (2-5 July), and Plymouth (8-10 July)


Two sides of the same coin

Tom and Clem

by Stephen Churchett

Labour has just won a landslide victory after years of Tory misrule. The talk now turns to what Labour can deliver and whether the party can afford to have a vision of socialist transformation or whether it must stick to what is 'realistic' in a market economy.

Sound familiar? Yet this play is not set in 1997 but in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, although lines like 'the Tories have just been in too long' (which got a massive cheer from the hall) clearly reflect contemporary concerns.

The prime minister, Clement Attlee (Alec McCowen), is in Potsdam, attending the conference which will carve up the world between the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the US. News of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs interrupts the action of the play. At Potsdam Attlee meets the left wing MP Tom Driberg (Michael Gambon), assigned to report the conference for Reynolds' News. Driberg has just come from witnessing the horrors of Buchenwald concentration camp. They are a study in contrasts. Attlee is the picture of convention and English upper middle class values. Driberg is openly gay, extrovert and radical.

The action of the play revolves around this contrast between the passionate Driberg and the pragmatic Attlee. So does the humour of this consistently funny script. Driberg is witty, irreverent and lascivious (in the nicest possible way). Attlee is dull, mordant, staid. The same polarity, the idealist versus the worldly, is also explored in the subplot involving Driberg and Kitty (Sarah Woodward), the diplomatic attaché with whom he works.

Kitty and Driberg are both involved in the attempted defection of a Russian officer (Daniel de la Falaise) attending the Potsdam conference. Driberg, sexually and politically, is engaged with the individual, human side of the officer's predicament. Kitty sees the larger realpolitik of the emerging Cold War in the officer's plight.

Her road leads to betrayal of both her friendship with Driberg and the officer's hopes of the West. But if Driberg's politics get the better of this encounter, it's not so clear that he does as well in the play's central exchange with Attlee.

Here the debate over socialist principles between Driberg and Attlee gives way to a long New Realist soliloquy in which Attlee bears down on the defence of socialism in the name of 'practicalities'. The effect is to leave the audience's emotional sympathies with Driberg, but at the cost of having to grant that Attlee is the only one who has any effective method of acting in the real world.

This may not have been Churchett's intention ­ the last scene leaves the strong impression that his sympathies are with the left, perhaps even with the revolutionary left. Nevertheless the key scene suffers, dramatically and politically, because Driberg is unable to mount a convincing intellectual argument to defend his conception of socialism.

But don't let this criticism stop you going to see a play which is intelligently engaged with the critical issue of the day, not afraid to make its audience laugh while it educates them, and is excellently acted.

John Rees

Tom and Clem is at the Aldwych Theatre, London until July


FILM

More than a match

When We Were Kings

Dir: Leon Gast

Anyone who watched the sycophantic display of affection as former world boxing champion Muhammad Ali received a special award at this year's Oscars ceremony would have found it hard to believe that this was the same man who had once been a thorn in the side of the US establishment.

Ali's rise to fame took place against the background of an increasingly militant civil rights movement. The US political establishment hated Ali because he was a brash and articulate black man at a time when 'negroes' were expected to speak only when spoken to, and also because of his outspoken condemnation of the racism and hypocrisy endemic in US society.

When We Were Kings chronicles the events surrounding one of Ali's most spectacular boxing victories, the 1974 championship bout against the then world champion George Foreman. The fight, which took place in the newly independent African state of Zaire, became known as the 'Rumble In The Jungle'. But this is not only a film for boxing connoisseurs or sports fans. The point of this documentary is to showcase Ali's charismatic personality and to show the impact that a sporting event of such magnitude had on one of the world's poorest countries.

The film starts by showing footage of Ali speaking out against the Vietnam war, stating that he would not take part in the war because 'no Vietcong ever called me nigger'. Ali refused to be inducted into the US army which resulted in him being stripped of his world heavyweight championship title in 1967 and threatened with a five year prison sentence.

The documentary makers move on to concentrate on the hype and sporting rivalry between the two fighters, the seemingly invincible colossus Foreman versus the veteran 'master craftsman' Ali, and so on. But there was another reason why the bout was so eagerly anticipated by millions of African Americans, which was rooted in the difference between the two boxers' political outlooks. Both Ali and Foreman had represented the US in the Olympic Games, winning heavyweight golds in 1960 and 1968 respectively. On returning to US, however, Ali threw his medal into a river as a protest against the racism he was still encountering in his everyday life. Foreman, by contrast, was the only black American athlete to win a medal in the Mexico Olympics who did not raise his fist in the Black Power salute.

At a time when many African Americans were asserting their identity through the use of African imagery, much political capital was made out of the fact that two of the US's leading black sports stars chose Zaire as the venue to stage one of the biggest boxing matches in history. Ali stated, 'I live in America but Africa is the home of the black man. I was a slave 400 years ago and now I'm going home to fight among my brothers.'

But this documentary shows the real reason why Zaire hosted the event. The brutal African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was the only person that the then little known boxing promoter Don King could get to put up the $10 million needed to stage the fight. During the documentary, reporters recall 'how bizarre' it was to see such an extravagant event in a country where the majority of the people barely had enough to eat.

When We Were Kings makes good use of archive film footage, interspersed with interviews with sports journalists and former civil rights activists, who convey well both Ali's sporting genius and the political stance that made him a hero to millions. The film also contains one of the funkiest soundtracks of the year, with archive footage of black artists such as James Brown and BB King, and music from the Fugees.

Many socialists will have reservations about going to see a film which glamorises boxing. But this would be to miss the point. For Ali is not just a hero because of his boxing skills, but also because he epitomised the slogan, 'Say it loud, we're black and proud.'

Dean Ryan


Lower than a reptile

Ghosts From The Past

Dir: Rob Reiner

The film Ghosts From The Past takes as its subject material racism in the southern state of Mississippi. When we see white supremacist Byron De La Beckworth finally found guilty of murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers ­ 30 years after the event ­ there is some sense of satisfaction.

Beckworth is brilliantly played by James Woods. He is the most vile racist and anti-Semite. The scene where Beckworth in court in 1994 shows a figure who seems barely human, he is so eaten away with race hatred. Woods seems to have modelled his character on some kind of reptile ­ and has hit the mark.

Beckworth shot Evers in the back in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. Back then he was tried twice and each time the jury couldn't decide on whether or not to find him guilty. It was not that any of them doubted Beckworth's guilt ­ that was beyond any doubt. It was that no white man in the state of Mississippi had ever been found guilty of killing a black man. Beckworth appealed to 'race solidarity' and walked free, both prosecutions ending in mistrial. Because Beckworth had never been fully cleared, that meant that he could be retried and 30 years later he was successfully prosecuted by the main character in Ghosts From The Past, assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter.

The general drift of the film is that Mississippi was a nasty place in the 1960s ­ which it was ­ but now is not so nasty. That is not to say, the film infers, that everything is beautiful in the garden today and that Mississippi today is free of racism. And by concentrating on the character of DeLaughter the film makers are saying that white people can fight racism. This is absolutely true.

But stating these ideas in a fairly bald and linear way does not make a good film. There are no tensions to the film, because you know Beckworth is going to get it eventually.

It seems to me that Ghosts From The Past is a missed opportunity. Firstly it starts with the assassination of Medgar Evers. So we find out nothing about the man at all. This is a shame. Evers was a brave man. He was an organiser for the civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP). His job was to go round Mississippi investigating racist murders, such as the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. Till was beaten, shot, bound to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted and Evers reportedly wept out of despair.

Evers did his lonely job not only in the face of the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, but against the hostility of every institution in the state from the governor down. One of the fascinating things about Evers is that he spanned two phases of black struggle against racism in the deep south.

The NAACP saw itself as a moderate organisation, primarily engaged in trying to challenge segregation through the courts. During Evers's time the NAACP was being challenged by more radical groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who dared to register black voters and challenged segregation through direct action such as sit-ins. And it was a modern medium ­ the television ­ that was to provoke Beckworth to carry out his cowardly act. Shortly before his death Evers gave an interview on local television attacking segregation. Shocked viewers phoned in to complain at giving the 'nigra' airspace and issued threats. But the old order, which Beckworth, as a member of the faded planter aristocracy of the south, personified, was on its way out. Yet out of the various attempts to bring Beckworth to trial, the final success is not the most interesting or dramatic.

The first trial, back in 1963, is more the stuff of drama. What was happening in the room that jury was locked in for 11 hours? What were the arguments that went on? Why couldn't those 12 white men agree, as all had done before, to acquit Beckworth, straight off? Why did five of them want to convict Beckworth, thus forcing a mistrial? It was that first trial, not the last, that sealed the fate of Beckworth and his kind.

And why, when three days after Evers's murder 400 local black students rioted and shouted at the police, 'Shoot us, shoot us', did the police turn their rifles away? That would be a good film about the life and death of Medgar Evers.

Hassan Mahamdallie


EXHIBITION

Every picture tells a story?

August Sander's major project during his professional life ­ People of the Twentieth Century ­ set out to document his rural neighbours, political allies and avant garde acquaintances in terms of their social function, not by name or age. First exhibited in 1927 in Cologne and published in book form in 1934, the project fell foul of Hitler's Third Reich. Sander reworked his old negatives after the fall of Hitler up to his death in 1964.

The immediate impulse when looking at a photos labelled 'The Fighter, or Revolutionary, 1912', 'The Trade Unionist, 1930', or, 'Workers' Council from the Ruhr, 1929', is to want to know exactly who these people were, what specific struggles they were involved in, and what happened to them.

The exhibitors help in a couple of instances. 'The Communist Leader, 1929' is identified as Paul Frölich. 'The Dadaist, 1929' is Raoul Hausmann. But despite the steady gaze of most subjects towards the camera a feeling remains that he was really attempting the impossible. Can photographic images ever capture in any individuals the qualities of a group or class of people?

Perhaps contrary to Sander's intentions the most assured and relaxed subject is 'The Entrepreneur, 1929' and the most deferential portrait is of 'The Industrialist, 1936'. This collection is also notable for its lack of images of industrial workers. Nevertheless there are moments of touching humanity.

'Artist's Family, Berlin, 1929' would make today's parliamentary moralists shudder. It is, as it turns out, Raoul Hausmann again, with his arms around two women ­ ones his wife, the other his girlfriend.

Nick Grant

August Sander ­ a photographic exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 8 June.


BOOKS

Writing on the wall

The Cultural Front

Michael Denning Verso £20

In any society the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. But that does not prevent culture also reflecting the discontent and struggles directed against the ruling class. American culture in the 1930s is a case in point. The economic, social and political upheavals of those years had a huge impact on American culture.

The artistic reaction to the crisis had a profound impact not only on highbrow art and literature, but also on the mass culture of popular music and the Hollywood dream factory ­ the echoes of which are still around today. The Cultural Front is an attempt to describe this impact. Unfortunately, a combination of poor politics and academic gibberish make it a flawed attempt, despite a mass of fascinating material. What is good is the way in which the author shows how widespread was the impact of the crisis both on already successful writers and artists and on a whole new generation just beginning to try to give expression to their experiences.

Denning shows in detail how this influenced the output of writers such as John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck, film makers such as Joseph Losey, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan and the young Orson Welles, musicians like Aaron Copland, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, and, through these, the whole texture of American cultural output. He argues, for instance, that the immensely popular film noir gangster and thriller movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s would have been inconceivable without the prior experimentation of those who liked to think of themselves as 'proletarian' writers in the mid-1930s.

But Denning's attempt to put the record straight is damaged by two great failings. One is a lumping together of everyone who was influenced by the 1930s left. This ties in with Denning's second failing. He sees there as being one movement in the 1930s, which he describes as the 'cultural popular front'. But American society ­ and its artists ­ were presented with two competing alternatives. As well as the revolutionary socialist alternative present, in embryo, in the great mid-1930s strikes and sit-ins, there was also the alternative represented by the Roosevelt, Democratic Party wing of the American ruling class. This was prepared to make certain gestures to the dissident intellectuals as part of its project of using the state to reshape American capitalism through the New Deal.

Until 1936 most of the American left recognised the distinction between their aims and Roosevelt's very clearly. This was the period when all the stress was on 'proletarian' art, which, for all its faults in theory and execution, meant trying to relate to working class struggle and a working class audience.

Then the Communist Party, the most influential section of the left, suddenly received the call from Stalin to establish 'Popular Fronts' with supposedly 'anti-fascist' capitalists and mainstream politicians ­ which in the US meant the governing New Deal Democrats. On the cultural front, the party decisively shifted its emphasis. It no longer tried to direct the spontaneous radicalisation of intellectuals towards the overthrowing of existing society, but rather towards exerting pressure within it.

One aspect of this was adopting for itself the language of 'Americanism' traditionally used by the right wing ­ the party's slogan became 'Communism is 20th century Americanism'.

Denning obscures this whole process, claiming for the Popular Front people like CLR James who denounced it throughout, and describing the arguments within the left over the Popular Front as 'sectarian' disputes. At points he even insists that the alliance with New Deal Democrats was a step forward, opening up 'possibilities for mobilisation and organisation'.

These are not marginal matters. The way the Popular Front in culture conciliated with New Dealism served to weaken the impulse to the left of many thousands of radicalised artists. It encouraged them to take the easy option of making concessions to the mainstream Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley culture, so advancing their own careers. It also lead to reactions like that of the hero of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, who became disillusioned with socialism as the party backed off from a principled anti-racist stand in order to conciliate Democratic Party politicians. The view that all socialists were dishonest and manipulative was further encouraged by the party's behaviour once the US entered the Second World War ­ its refusal to criticise the military, its opposition to strikes, its willingness to join in the witch hunt against the left in the unions like the Teamsters, its expulsion of its own Japanese-American members.

Such a record made it easier for mainstream politicians ­ Republican and New Deal Democrat alike ­ to succeed in turning the witch hunt against the Communist Party itself from 1947 onwards.

James T Farrell, himself one of the ablest novelists of the early 1930s, writes of its 'bottom dog' literature:

'It implicitly asserts the humanity of its characters... It boldly introduced men and women and boys and girls of the lowest social stratum as human beings whose problems and whose feelings demand the urgent attention of the reading public... The boy on the street, the uneducated Negro, the sharecropper, the worker, and the many others are here introduced, irrevocably, into the consciousness of America... It states social problems, not in terms of generalisations but rather in terms of direct characterisation, of the immediacy of life described on the printed page... In this literature, social causation is translated into individual motivation of action, thought, dream and word.'

By contrast:
'The New Deal cultural climate which evolved in America during the 1930s, and which was patently exemplified in many motion pictures, radio plays and novels of the war period, helped to produce a pseudo populist literature of the common man. This neo-populist art and literature emphasises the concept of Americanism as the means of unifying all races, creeds and classes. Instead of a literature which penetratingly describes class differences...this literature has generally stressed and sentimentalised the theme that the common man is human; it has also used the theme that the rich are Americans too, and that they are like the common man.'

The blacklisted director Joseph Losey later wrote, 'After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, after the investigations, only then did I begin to understand the complete unreality of the American dream.' One reason it took so long for people like him to grasp the truth was that the Popular Front was based on obscuring it. By failing to grasp this Denning spoils his own book.

Chris Harman


Don't bank on it

Masters of Illusion

Catherine Caufield Macmillan £20

The World Bank is an institution suffering from schizophrenia. Its gleaming corporate image has survived over 50 years of economic turbulence. It has first call on the debts of the Third World but it has never publicly suffered a default. No wonder others banks envy but never quite match its self confidence.

However, the bank's reputation has been made from the dirty business of lending money to the poor and desperate. Moreover, the bank has not been acting as 'banker of last resort' out of a sense of philanthropy. It has traded on the broken promises of 'development' for more than half a century.

The bank's self declared mission is to reduce poverty. Caufield attempts to assess how far it has succeeded. She presents a devastating list of charges against an institution which has lent over a third of a trillion dollars to the world's poorest countries.

During the 1960s the bank built dams which provided breeding grounds for malaria and river blindness instead of electricity and irrigation water. It encouraged the frenzied lending of the 1970s which brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse as nations overburdened with debt began to default on their loans. As economies ground to a halt, the bank carved out a new role for itself sweetening the IMF's harsh programmes of 'structural adjustment' with further loans. Billions of people have paid dearly for the bank's schemes: forced out of their homes, swindled out of their land, thrown out of work, cheated of the prosperity they were promised. A tiny handful have made a killing out of all this misery: multinationals which receive the majority of bank contracts, government and bank consultants, and politicians like Mobutu of Zaire whose personal fortune is estimated at $4 billion.

The bank does not wreck lives simply because its officials are arrogant and its policies flawed. The bank plays out the role it has been allotted by a wider system. The fatal flaws and weaknesses in the bank's approach to development were visible even during its 'golden years' when the world economy was riding high on the postwar boom.

Caulfield underlines the futility of reform, since the gap between rich and poor countries has widened so much that an even rate of growth 'will exacerbate inequality, while scarcely denting poverty.' The problem of income inequality spills across national boundaries. Caufield notes that 'the income of the richest 20 percent of the world's population is now 150 times greater than that of the poorest 20 percent.'

The displaced and the dispossessed have not accepted the bank's plans quietly. Villagers in India organised against dam projects and commercial forestry schemes. Coal miners in Poland struck when the government cut their wages. Huge demonstrations shook Zimbabwe when the bank insisted on cuts in health and social spending. So far these protests have been easily contained or crushed. But the bank is still haunted by the threat of a major default. In the case of South Africa under apartheid Caufield explains that 'the bank had its doubts about lending to an avowedly racist government, but they were of a financial not a moral nature. It worried that the South African people would overthrow the government and repudiate its debts.'

Anne Alexander


A muted blast

A Trumpet of Sedition

Ellen Meiksins Wood & Neal Wood Pluto Press £9.99

The rise of capitalism shattered the social fabric of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. All classes were affected profoundly. Ellen Meiksins Wood and Neal Wood make an important point by placing their study of political theory in the context of the rise of capitalism. The economic struggles of artisans and peasants were reflected in theories, such as those of the Levellers, which sought to make government accountable to 'the people' (or at least to male heads of households). The evolution of the ideas of political democracy took place in part in response to the economic and social changes and dislocations caused by the development of capitalism. But, as the Woods conclude, subsequent history has shown 'democracy in a purely political sense' to be incapable of controlling capitalism.

There are problems, however, about the methods of the authors in presenting the political theories, and in explaining the great political upheavals of the 17th century associated with the rise of capitalism. They chose to structure their book around a succession of 'great political thinkers' ­ More, Hooker, Hobbes, Locke ­ rather than thematically around dominant ideas of the period.

Their approach does produce some significant insights. They reveal the importance of Thomas Smith's definition of society in the 16th century as being composed of individual people rather than corporate entities, as in the traditional view, such as the peerage, the lawyers, the municipal governments. This leads to radical ideas in the 17th century based on the rights of the individual and that government should be founded on the consent of 'the people', who have the right to resist it if it betrays the purposes for which they entrusted it with power. The Woods show how Hobbes sought to counter the radicals' ideas by adopting their starting point and then arguing that when the people agreed to the foundation of government they gave up their right to resist it subsequently. The authors bring out how Locke's defence of private property, which appeared to take over radical ideas on limiting the amount any one individual could own, nevertheless turned into a justification for unlimited accumulation. In many ways the radicals set the agenda for political theory.

But the method adopted by the Woods means that, despite sections on the Levellers and Diggers, most of the book is history from above. It does not focus on the relationships between the theorising of an elite of thinkers and common ideas and assumptions among the mass of the people. And the objective of relating political theory to the rise of capitalism would be achieved more directly and fully by structuring the book thematically around ideas which may be linked to capitalism specifically, such as attitudes to the market, economic 'improvement', wage labour, and relations by contract.

The English Revolution of 1640-60 is central to the book. The Woods accept the view that 'well before the civil war' the ruling class ­ an aristocracy composed of great landlords ­ had ceased to be a feudal class, because it had become increasingly dependent for its wealth on the rents of capitalist farmers who employed wage labour to produce for a national market. They see the revolution as a conflict between the king and the ruling class.

There is inconsistency in their treatment of the state. On the one hand, they say that 'monarchy and aristocracy were fundamentally united in joint control of state power', but conflict occurred because Charles I infringed the role of his partner in state power. On the other hand, they divorce the aristocrats from the state and say that they became less tolerant of 'a state that continued to act in the traditional ways of a feudal monarchy', and conflict occurred because 'the political development of the monarchical state lagged behind the economic development of the ruling class.'

But over large areas of the country the ruling class did not derive rents and dues from capitalist farms but from 'traditional family subsistence farms'. The aristocracy was still substantially tied into a feudal state. The monarchy and its court served as a mechanism for redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to at least a quarter of the peers, who themselves paid little in taxes. Tithes were compulsory levies for the support of the clergy of the state church and they fell most heavily on the middling and poorer peasants. Since the Reformation, 30 to 40 percent of tithes had passed into the ownership of laymen, and thus many of the ruling class got a substantial part of their income from tithes, which meant appropriating by 'extra-economic coercion the surplus labour of peasants'. Revolutionaries in the 1640s attacked the monarchy and aristocracy as parasitic, and tithes as forcing from the peasants the fruits of their labour. When it came to the civil war most of the ruling class supported the king.

Viewing the revolution in terms of the relations between the king and the aristocracy is history from the top downwards. Viewing the aristocracy as already a capitalist class before the revolution is too simple. It diverts attention from where capitalism was actual developing ­ among large farmers and elements in manufacturing ­ and how that relates to the revolution. And it leaves little room for assessing the ways in which the revolution actually did facilitate the development of capitalism.

The Woods provide lucid and enlightening analyses of some political theories, and also striking accounts of aspects of the rising of capitalism, but the two do not fit well together.

Brian Manning


One man's war

Patches of Fire

Albert French Secker & Warburg £15.99

There has been a huge creative aftermath to the Vietnam War, and nearly all of it appears to have been film based, which is appropriate. It was, after all, the first war where barbarism was brought home through the screen, in all its technicolour brutality. But through reading Albert French's book it becomes apparent how uncinematographic was the Vietnam War.

It is an autobiography in two halves, and the first part charts the author's progress up until he returns from the war. With a childhood similar to most working class black children in the 1960s he grew up with few options, and the army was barely a decision he made, just something he stumbled into.

The way that French describes what happened to him in Vietnam evokes two strong impressions. The first is how closely he has tried to relay the memories. Sometimes the writing seems disjointed and jumpy, often vague and occasionally pinpoint accurate, as happens when your past slips in and out of focus. This certainly lends the writing an authenticity, and even though it's difficult to follow sometimes, it makes the book more personal.

The second impression is of how boring and stressful warfare is. Having been heavily trained in how to kill people, French is left in a small camp in Vietnam for months with nothing to do but consider the VCs (Viet Cong) just outside of his vision, how far away home is, and food rations. Occasionally the monotony is broken by a raid on a town or being moved out.

Everyone conspires not to think about what they are there to do. The book doesn't avoid repetition. The same people, the same thoughts, the same routine all sit on top of each other until a picture develops of groups of young men who are tense, isolated and unable to contemplate the future or the present. Surprisingly, French does not take sides. He does not see the Vietnamese as the enemy, only as the invisible watchers who might shoot him. The memories he carries with him are of faces, not of uniforms.

Eventually he is wounded in battle and shipped back to the US, to a world which has not yet begun to change, while he has become a fundamentally different person.

At this point, leaving aside 20 years, the first part of the book ends, and we rejoin the story as French's small business venture is slowly slipping out of his control, and the bills are piling up. We watch him moving into a deep depression and also into a Vietnam veterans' counselling group, which is the most moving section of the book.

The group consists of a roomful of men unable to express how their lives have been scarred, how they have been used up by the ruling forces of society, or how to forgive themselves for what they were employed to do. The constantly recurring phrase, 'You got to let it go, man,' is the only comfort they can offer each other ­ a hollow phrase, but at least they know they are understood.

As the book progresses French begins to write, first about his war experiences and then about other issues (such as racism). Through this he develops confidence, finds allies and begins to have some control over his life again.

At the end of the book there is a feeling that more could be told. The entire civil rights and anti-war movement disappeared from this book ­ but they were happening at the same time that French was forging a career.

So we are left with the personal struggle of one man, and it is moving and inspiring.

Esther Neslen


Boxing clever

Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate

Eds: Martin Barker and Julian Petley Routledge £12.99

The media are effective in setting the agendas of debate for what becomes public opinion, even 'common sense'. But does their power extend as far as causing children to commit murder?

The particular spur for this book was the Newson Report, 'Video Violence and Children' of May 1994. Here was a 'childcare professional' not only offering a professorial rubber stamp to what is known as 'effects theory', but also providing Catholic David Alton MP with a vital weapon in his battle over video censorship with Home Secretary Michael Howard. Alton failed in his own amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill but succeeded in principle. The eventual law includes greater restrictions on what the British Board of Film Classification can certify on video.

Effects theory is the academic refuge of those who wish to claim a causal link between images of violence and real violence.

The theory claims that in any communication the sender will have an effect on the receiver. This is extrapolated to 'prove' that, for example, television can affect its viewers over and above influences of personality, peers or family, religion or politics.

Barker dissects the many presumptions in Newson's report. In particular he challenges the argument that if the media have no effects, why do advertisers spend millions on television? In terms of imagery this is ridiculous, because as far as shocking or violent content is consciously used in ads, it is for negative or warning effect in drink driving, fire prevention or Aids education campaigns.

Julian Petley's 'Us and Them' outlines the class relations involved in these debates. It is usually the middle classes expressing their fear of the workers, the mob or, most recently, the 'underclass'. At the time of Alton's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, Edward Pearce wrote in the Guardian, 'It won't do just to restrict juveniles. Let's be plain. In an underclass family where books are unknown, where dynastic unemployment has brought all restraints to a base level, who do we suppose buys the nasty ­ uncontrolled kids or indifferent father? The law must aim at all sales of injurious goods to anyone.'

To Pearce, add a pinch of Lynda Lee Potter in her Daily Mail column two days previously on 13 April 1994,

'There are thousands of children in this country with fathers they never see and mothers who are lazy sluts. They are allowed to do what they want, when they want. They sniff glue on building sites, scavenge for food and, until now, they are free to watch increasingly horrific videos. By 16 they are disturbed and dangerous.'

These people arrogantly exempt themselves from the processes they claim to be damaging to others and narcissistically imagine that every media artefact is as important and influential as their own.

Graham Murdoch's 'Reservoirs of Dogma' traces the history of social concern about media effects to reveal recurrent similarities and panics. For example, in the week of Thomas Hamilton's murderous attack on Dunblane primary school, Andrew Neil wrote in the Sunday Times,

'It should be cause for concern that, in the values and mores of modern society, we have created a quagmire from which monsters are bound to emerge...far too much of what passes for popular entertainment pollutes our society and creates a new tolerance in which what was thought to be beyond the pale becomes acceptable. Young minds are particularly vulnerable.'

Neil continues, 'There was a time, within my memory, when popular culture sought to lift our spirits and encourage what was good, honourable and just in our society. We aspired to what we saw on our screens, and evil was generally given a bad press.'

Neil's memory has conveniently put in its wastebasket the postwar outrages that greeted horror comics, pulp/crime fiction, Teddy Boys, rock and roll, Beatle haircuts, miniskirts, the pill, Mods and Rockers or football supporters.

Murdoch asks why such views are so persistent,

'If we are to understand and respond constructively to social violence in contemporary Britain we need to place it in the context of massive social and psychic disruptions set in motion by mass unemployment, the decay of communal life and public space, and the evaporation of hope. It is unreasonable to expect "hooligans" to become upright citizens unless they are offered the full range of resources required for social participation.'

Overall, Ill Effects is an excellent source of material to combat the sloppy and fraudulent pronouncements of our self-appointed moral guardians.

Nick Grant


Never a fair cop

The New Police in 19th Century England

David Taylor Manchester University Press £12.99

The history of 19th century policing is not the simple story of a modern police force being introduced by Robert Peel to reduce crime in a disorderly society. This Whig view of police history is contrasted with the Marxist view that the new police were instruments of class rule or the hired thugs of the ruling class. David Taylor flounders between the two and concludes the story is complex.

Vacillating, he states first that 'the notion of the policeman as a crime fighter is something of a myth,' but then contradicts himself: 'The police did combat crime.' He does good research and then shies away from his findings that much police activity had little to do with serious crime. Intriguing ideas are presented and not developed ­ 'the awareness of crime as a problem doesn't really occur until the late 18th century.'

Some of his information is fascinating. For example, 'By 1911 there were 643 statutes relating to street economies and reaction.' But he fails to make the link between police clearing the streets and the forcing of workers into wage labour.

Taylor refers to the use of police by employers in strikes and the 'clear identification of interest between colliery owners and the police in the early 1890s.' He gives details of how the police precipitated riots during the 1911 transport strikes during which two people were killed in Liverpool stating that 'public order considerations bulked large in the thinking of the propertied elite. Working class "mobs" that destroyed property in town and country as much as working class radicals who advocated the end of a property based social and police order, had to be kept under control.'

Working class hostility to the new police is indicated by good descriptions of violent opposition to early county forces in places such as Colne in Lancashire, Leeds and Northampton. But variations in attitudes towards the police are not looked at in connection with changes in the intensity of the class struggle and police involvement in confrontations.

This lack of analysis makes intriguing detail boring. When violent confrontation is likely then police get bribes in the form of extra wages or improved conditions to ensure their loyalty. This is the key to understanding changes in police pay. Taylor does mention that at one point 'the police were aided by a dispute in the local cotton trade and were able to gain a wage increase'. But he doesn't develop this analysis so that the information on police wages just becomes fact piled on fact.

More importantly Taylor fails to stress the crucial point that the police were from the outset a violent force and therefore fails to see them as an addition to, or substitution for, the army which had previously been used to put down popular unrest.

Vivid examples and statistics are given of the police racism against the Irish. For example, 'In England and Wales, Irish born offenders accounted for 12-15 percent of all committals between 1861 and 1891, a fivefold overrepresentation of the Irish.' He doesn't link this with modern day police racism nor does he point to the role of the police in reinforcing divisions within the working class.

Taylor rejects a Marxist view of the police as the thugs of the ruling class on the grounds that there was no agreement either amongst workers or the upper class about the nature of the police and their function. But sections of the ruling class opposed formation of the police as an infringement on individual liberty but accepted them when threatened by the organised muscle of the urban working class.

A massive fraud has been perpetrated about the real function of the police to convince workers that the police are a neutral protective force. Taylor half rejects the crucial point that the police are a force trained in violence to protect the property, persons and interests of the rich and powerful. Much of Taylor's research reinforces this Marxist view of the police but he cannot bring himself to accept his own findings. What a pity, because there is a lot of interesting material in the book.

Audrey Farrell


Turbulent currents

Roots of Red Clydeside 1910-1914

Eds: William Kenefick and Arthur McIvor John Donald Publishers £12.99

This book contains a collection of 11 essays which emerged from recent research undertaken by the Glasgow Labour History Workshop. The contributors seek to explore the roots of 'Red Clydeside' ­ by examining class conflict on Clydeside in the turbulent years 1910-1914 ­ the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War and the Red Clyde itself. Known as the Great Unrest, 1910-1914 saw an unparalleled explosion of spontaneous rank and file strikes. It was a period when the ideas of syndicalism and industrial unionism attracted many working class militants.

Clydeside was by no means the storm centre of this movement which swept British society. In the prewar years trade union organisation on Clydeside was relatively weak compared with other industrial centres in Britain, and militancy lagged behind other leading areas such as South Wales. It was not until the outbreak of the war itself, when the Clyde became a key munitions centre for the war effort, that things changed.

The various contributors to this book show that the scale and the breadth of what actually did take place across the west of Scotland was greater than we have been led to believe. Unlike the period of the Red Clyde a lot of what happened has been hidden from history.

As the editors state in their introduction, 'What we aim to do in this book is to shed some light into a neglected period of Scottish labour history ­ concentrating upon the experience of unions and their relationship with employers on Clydeside in the immediate prewar years 1910-1914... One key objective is to push back the parameters of the Red Clydeside debate before 1914 and analyse the formative period for those participating in the well known wartime and postwar protests against capital, landlords and the state.'

This book serves the aims of the editors rather well. The fact that the STUC membership actually doubled between 1911 and 1914 bears out the authors' contention that the breadth of struggle in this area has been underestimated.

Each of the 11 essays document important battles involving a wide variety of workers. One example is well known ­ the Singers sewing machine factory strike in Clydebank where a dispute begun by six women led within days to a better strike involving the entire workforce of 11,000. The struggle was led by the syndicalists like Tom Bell, and although it was defeated many sacked militants were dispersed into the Clydeside engineering plants and would play a key role in the shop stewards movement which developed from 1915 onwards.

The final contribution, which deals with the relationship between the industrial struggles and the parliamentary left (notably the ILP), is particularly interesting and relevant today. Its author, James Smyth, writes, 'As the extent of labour unrest became apparent, so it was welcomed by almost all sections of the labour movement. Even the right wing, of the left wing ­ if we can identify the ILP in that contradictory way ­ were supportive, initially. But a considerable body of Labour opinion quickly turned against the unrest once it became clear that it was not going to be channelled into established political ranks.'

This could well apply to the Labour politicians looking out from the city chambers over Glasgow's George Square today.

Despite the contention of some of the contributors there is no doubt that Red Clyde was caused primarily by the impact of the First World War on the engineering workers. Nonetheless this book does shed some light on many of the struggles that helped shape the rank and file leaders of the Red Clyde.

Dave Sherry


Taking on the bishops

Huxley

Adrian Desmond Michael Joseph £20

Think of evolution and most people think of Darwin. Yet were it not for the subject of this biography, evolution would not be the natural concept it is today. Indeed, without Thomas Henry Huxley the modern idea of science and the professional scientist would not exist. Adrian Desmond dealt with the first part of Huxley's life in The Devil's Disciple. The second volume covers 1870 to Huxley's death in 1895. Arguably this is the more interesting period for it is now when the life of the propagandist of science becomes clearly a story, as Desmond puts it, 'of class and power'.

After years of teaching and defending Darwin, in 1870 Huxley received a number of official appointments. Huxley used these positions to argue the cause of science against an establishment dominated by superstitious Anglicanism and educated in the classics.

Huxley took on bishops and other reactionaries and won. In 1870 Oxford, the pinnacle of the establishment, had 145 fellowships in classics and four in science. By 1877 it was investing £120,000 in laboratories. At the end of his life state schools existed where none were before, teaching six years of science. In 25 years Huxley and his followers had stamped the establishment with a scientific attitude where once it had been gentleman classicists.

This biography makes clear that these were not the achievements of one talented individual, though Huxley was certainly that. As well as a propagandist he was a first rate scientist. He put forward the first proof of natural selection based on fossil records, a result of years of research into fossils culminating in the discovery of Estippus, the five toed ancestor of the modern horse and of crucial importance in establishing the theory of natural selection.

The 1860s and 1870s brought something of a crisis to British capitalism. Accustomed to being world leaders, Victorian capitalists found their industrial output and profits being challenged by Prussia and the US. The staid Anglican establishment had not been open to entrepreneurism and investment in technological advancement. So the stage was set for the change in capitalist ideology which Huxley brought which saw a vision of nature, driven as it was by free competition, self sufficiency and without the need of divine sanction. At the same time, northern industrialists were flourishing, who embraced utilitarian meritocracy rather than aristocratic privilege.

Huxley became the hero of such self made men. Of modest means himself, Huxley was funded by 'Quakers and the Congregationalists, munitions manufacturers and factory free traders'.

It is no wonder that Huxley's politics reflected this. Once Huxley lectured to working class radicals and socialists. Now 'Huxley made Social Darwinism the stern workmaster to reconcile the workbench to capitalism'. He emphasised individual competition in evolution and stood by Darwin as the latter criticised trade union opposition to piecework. Although he espoused 'progressive' causes like municipal ownership of gas and waterworks, divorce and women's entry to university, Huxley was anti-socialist and believed that through technological progress and free capitalist competition the working classes would be ameliorated.

Desmond has done a magnificent job of explaining a great man' s life by placing it in the socio-economic forces of his age.

Dave Pinnock


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