Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

THEATRE

Taking over the asylum

Marat/Sade

by Peter Weiss
'Marat, we're poor,
And the poor stay poor,
Marat, don't make us wait any more!
We want our rights,
And we don't care how,
We want a revolution. Now!'
That song recurs as a theme throughout a marvellous political play running at London's National Theatre. Anyone who has the chance to get there should do so.

Marat/Sade is about revolution and revolutionaries. Its setting is the 1790s French revolution, the issues it deals with are sharply relevant today.

Peter Weiss, a German born Marxist, wrote the play in 1963.

'It is absolutley essential', he wrote, 'to write with the aim of trying to influence or change society. I think art should be so strong that it changes life. Otherwise it is a failure.'

Marat/Sade takes elements of real history and weaves around them a powerful debate on the possibility of social change and revolution.

The central story is the assassination of the great French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Marat, with his revolutionary newspaper The People's Friend, was at the heart of the revolution which began in 1789. He warned against euphoria at the fall of the Bastille and argued that people would have to fight more if they wanted real change.

He was persecuted by the 'moderate' governments which dominated the early years of the revolution, but won massive popularity among the mass of ordinary people. Those who wanted the revolution to end, to compromise with the old order, hated Marat, and it was under the influence of such people that a young woman, Charlotte Corday, assassinated him in 1793.

The other strand of history Weiss draws on took place years later, in the aftermath of the revolution. It centres around a 'progressive' mental asylum at Charenton where the infamous Marquis de Sade, who gave his name to sadism, had been confined.

With the asylum director's support Sade directed and performed public plays with the inmates as actors as a form of therapy. No play about Marat was in the asylum repertoire, but Weiss uses the real story of Marat and the story of the asylum plays to weave a powerful drama.

The play centres on a debate directly addressed to the audience ­ and the 'theatre in the round' setting in the National production allows this to work far better than 'traditional' staging.

As the debate rages the play surges from passion to humour, from disturbing to inspirational. The music, songs and acting are brilliant. Almost all the 'historical' characters are played by 'inmates' in the ayslum, but slowly the madness of life leads to questions about who is really insane.

Sade, in the play, argues that social change is impossible, citing the evidence of failed revolutions.

Cold, indifferent nature marches on blind to human endeavours. You should revel in the impossibility of change and look instead inside your imagination and live for the passion of the moment.

Marat, and others such as the revolutionary priest Jacques Roux, put the case for revolution. Revolution is both needed and possible, they argue. Yes, it may involve madness, may not achieve everything and may even fail, but reality leaves no choice but to try.

The debate surges back and forth, punctuated with many funny, and powerful, side roads.

The ending, which I won't reveal, is deeply ambiguous. Weiss's sympathies are clearly with Marat, Roux and the revolution. But the ending, which has been done differently in other productions, seems here unsure. The reality of society is stripped bare. Revolution is needed, but can it work, will it not just end in failure? But to give up is to accept the only alternative ­ barbarism.

Weiss himself wrote his next play about the horrors of the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp which underlines that choice.

Marat/Sade does not resolve the choice. 'It is full of doubts,' Weiss wrote, 'my doubts.'

Despite his doubts about whether a revolution that was needed could ever work, Weiss's commitment to fighting for change was never in doubt.

He was active in the anti Vietnam War movement and also denounced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He even wrote a play about Trotsky, which had him banned from Russia and East Germany.

Some productions over the years have given the play's ending a more optimistic note. But, perhaps reflecting the 18 years of the Tories, the new production has a note of pessimism about whether change is possible.

As you leave the theatre you pass London's Royal Festival Hall, where Labour held its election celebrations. You recall the strains of a song, 'Things can only get better.'

But after seeing Marat/Sade another song comes to mind: '...we're poor, and the poor stay poor...don't make us wait any more, we want our rights.'

Paul McGarr

Marat/Sade is at the National Theatre, London, until 21 June


FILM

Cross purposes

Regarde Les Hommes Tomber (See How They Fall)

Dir: Jacques Audiard

See How They Fall is the brilliant debut by Audiard who later directed A Self Made Hero, also currently on release. Both films star Mathieu Kassovitz who went on to direct the explosive film, La Haine (Hate).

Set in present day France and, in particular, the city Grenoble, it deals with the seedy underworld of the modern city and the subconscious emotions of the characters. Audiard has made a dark film (most of the action happens indoors or at night) to convey the idea that he is looking beyond the surface appearance of the characters and the city they inhabit.

The story is not told in the usual narrative where events unfold in chronological time. It begins with a shooting of a cop and follows Simon, his friend, who is attempting to trace the gunman. Then the film goes back in time, which is where we meet a second couple ­ Marx and Johnny. Later in the film we see the shooting again, but from the viewpoint, not of the friend of the victim, Simon, who heard the shots, but the gunmans. The film follows both people, unknown to each other, who are set to collide at some point. To the audience it seems as if this eventual meeting is inevitable, fated even. As Simon traces the gunman he becomes closer, not just physically to him, but emotionally.

When we meet Marx and Johnny they are both down and out. Marx is an old hit-man who lives from one card game to the next. Johnny (Kassovitz) is an impressionable young hustler who is afraid of being alone and who would do anything for Marx.

Marx and Johnny are constantly on the move and live a short step from the gutter. Marx swindles money from Johnny, not maliciously, but through compulsion. Their relationship often seems manipulative and Marx never seems to reciprocate Johnny's love for him. He denies his feelings for Johnny until the end when he can no longer pretend that he can live without really caring for anyone. The film explores, but never really resolves, their friendship.

The precariousness of their lives are mirrored by Simon's. All the certainties of his life are crumbling. He suspects that his wife is having an affair; he hates his job and eventually loses it; he is growing old and is alone. He finds out that his only friend has led a murky life and now even he is unable to communicate with him from his hospital bed. Simon asks the father of another patient what he talks to his son about. Family, friends, happy events. Simon can talk of none of these things. Instead he reads his friend the newspaper, sardonically describing peopleless events: the weather, the stock market ('0.3 percent down, no picture!').

We also see Johnny lovingly describing every detail of the television programmes (and adverts!) to a blind neighbour each night in contrast with his inability to articulate his feelings satisfactorily to Marx.

This problem of communication is a product of the characters' alienation from the world. All ultimately fear being alone, yet their relationships with other people are distorted and incomplete. Simon is perhaps most cynical about life and implies that everyone is out to deceive and get the advantage: 'The businessman wants to make money, the employed want to get a better job, the unemployed want to beat the next person to get a job.'

Yet, for all its bleakness, the film shows that people need each other even if they deny this reality to themselves. Not even those who, like Simon, lead a comfortable material life, can escape this fact. This film is superbly acted and engrossing to the very end. What more can I say but go and see it!

Alasdair Paterson


Love in a cold climate

Anna Karenina

Dir: Bernard Rose

Many readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with the story of Anna Karenina through the old black and white movie with Greta Garbo or will have read the marvellous novel by the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Now a new film brings the story to a new audience.

Tolstoy's novel, on which the film is based, is the stuff of high drama, passion and romance set in 19th century Russia. Anna lives with a husband she does not love. Lonely and unfulfilled, she falls in love with a dashing military man, Count Vronsky. But her affair, whose openness scandalises society, is tragically doomed.

Tolstoy's novel was always much more than a love story. Its main strength was that it encapsulated the contradictions of Russian society as it approached the future revolutionary storms of 1905 and 1917.

The end of the 19th century was a time of rapid change and capitalist development in Russia. Tolstoy's characters express the uncertainties and shifting class allegiances as the old feudal economy and ways of life were broken up and new capitalist enterprises emerged. Levin, the main narrator, sums up the period when he says, 'How everything has been turned upside down with us now, and is only just getting settled again.'

Anna's imprisonment in a passionless marriage and her desire to escape express all the contradictions inherent in bourgeois marriage. Her husband, Karenin, is an empty and hypocritical official who follows orders and convention with no thought as to how they damage the lives of others. Her lover, Vronsky, on the other hand, is a modern aristocrat, who abandons his military career to become a capitalist landowner.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin, who was said to have read the novel over a hundred times, was a great admirer of Tolstoy's 'incomparable pictures of Russian life.' He called Tolstoy 'the mirror of the Russian Revolution'. Despite having a mish-mash of political views, Tolstoy was able to tear away the veil from the real forces and contradictions at work beneath the surface.

There was nothing mechanistic about the way he did this. His skill was to show how developments in the economic and political world can both dramatically and subtly shape and change people's actions and perceptions.

Unfortunately Bernard Rose's new film fails to really get to grips with this. Of course retelling such a famous story is full of potential pitfalls. How do you capture an 800 page novel on film?

It is certainly a lavish and beautiful looking production, set in St Petersburg and Moscow. But the film is surprisingly flat. The main reason is the quality of the acting, particularly of the two lead parts played by Sean Bean (Vronsky) and Sophie Marceau (Anna Karenina). They are rather passionless with no spark or 'chemistry' between them.

You get little sense of the impending tragedy in their doomed affair or how society constrains their every move.

The parallel romance between the narrator Levin and the jilted Kitty is irritatingly overplayed. And Tolstoy's mix of tragedy and comedy, hope and despair, never quite comes across.

Hazel Croft


BOOKS

The chains of capital

The Making of New World Slavery

Robin Blackburn Verso £25

Marx wrote that at its birth 'Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.' Many of today's apologists for capitalism want to give it an immaculate conception. Robin Blackburn's impressive work marshals facts as shock troops against the lies and distortions surrounding Marx's explanation of primitive accumulation. Blackburn's book develops an explanation of new world slavery and places it in the context of developing capitalism.

Twelve million black people were transported to the new world (the Americas) from Africa between 1500 and 1834. In fact, 25 million people were removed from the continent of Africa ­ many died on route, some escaped and some just 'disappeared' from official figures. This was the equivalent of the entire population of England and France at the time. How are we to explain this crime in history?

Blackburn argues that in the 11th century slavery did not exist in Europe, mainly because it was wiped out under Muslim control. Colonial slavery was a new invention that emerged with the early development of European capitalism. First to introduce it were the Portuguese, and then the Spanish, but fundamentally it was the development of capitalism in Britain that led to the emergence of colonial slavery. New world slavery had a thoroughly commercial character and Blackburn emphasises it was profit that drove new world slave systems.

Blackburn uses new and original material, showing that the actual cost to Britain of running the slave trade was about £9 million. He shows how much it differed from previous slave societies, both in scale and purpose. For example, Roman slaves were the spoils of war ­ people became slaves after being defeated in battle. Yet Africans were hunted with the primary purpose of making them into slaves. Also, the racial character of colonial slavery was distinct. Ancient slavery had been eclectic, ethnically diverse and included the possibility of moving out of slavery after a period of time. Blackburn reminds us, however, that racial slavery was peculiarly associated with plantation slavery.

He portrays the dynamic of capitalist development as a holistic process. He shows how the ferocious nature of developing capitalism led to the development of racist ideology. At first white slaves were used. For instance in Barbados (the heart of the sugar boom of the 17th century) 2,000 slaves were white and only 200 were black. However, the revolt by Nathaniel Bacon in 1676 involving black and white slaves contributed to a need for the colonial state to establish divisions between black and white. A racist ideology was created to justify slavery and to allow capital accumulation to take place.

This book is also a polemic against authors such as Paul Barroch and Robert Brenner. They have attacked the classical explanation of capitalism and slavery by arguing that the profits of colonialism and slavery made only modest contributions to capital accumulation in Britain. Eric Williams, author of Capitalism and Slavery, argued that colonialism had fertilised every root and branch of industrial capitalism. However, he did not provide the empirical evidence, but Blackburn does. For Barroch and Brenner, colonialism and primitive accumulation were simply a side show. And while they are correct to identify the expropriation of the agricultural worker as part of the genesis of capitalism, what Blackburn establishes is that the process of the development of capitalism was intensified by the exploitation of the slave. Slavery fanned the furnaces of capitalism. Barroch and Brenner argue that the amount of capital that was gained from slavery was small, even negligible. However, Blackburn shows firstly the manufacturing exports to colonial countries made up a third of all manufactured exports, and secondly that many of the tobacco barons (who were also slaveholders) directly invested in manufacturing. For example, James Watts' engine would never have been built if it hadn't been for slave and colonial money.

In addition the growth of towns and the forces of production ­ factories and tools ­ were dependent on an international system. Without the constant supply of raw material, in this case cotton, the mills of Lancashire would have come to a standstill. Early capitalism was more dependent on materials produced in the colonies than at any other time in its history.

Blackburn also brings a class analysis to show it was the bosses who benefited from colonial slavery. Those who toiled in the factories and the fields paid the real price for the bosses' wealth. In the British Caribbean, slave infant mortality was between 150-250 in every 1,000. In London the infant mortality rate was 171, in Leeds 239, and in Essex 141. The free market was a killing ground for both slaves and workers.

An understanding of new world slavery, as Blackburn explains, is a crucial part of the theoretical armour of any socialist. To understand capitalism is not to forgive. We tally every life that was lost to produce wealth for a tiny minority. Each is one more reason to destroy a system that was born out of cruelty and murder. Reading this book should be part of that fight.

Weyman Bennett


Killer thriller

News of a Kidnapping

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cape £16.99

In 1990 ten people were kidnapped in quick succession in Colombia. Gabriel Garcia Marquez insists, in his latest book News of a Kidnapping, that they were not isolated incidents but a 'single collective abduction'. Colombia was well used to kidnappings and violence; between 1948 and 1962 around 200,000 people died in the period of generalised political violence called just 'La Violencia' (The Violence) which is the background of Marquez' famous novels. Through the 1960s and 1970s Colombia's guerrillas controlled whole areas of the country. At the same time, the growing market for Colombian marijuana in the US created new areas of violence, as the drug barons used automatic weapons in the pursuit of trade. As marijuana gave way to cocaine, the drug cartels of Cali and Medellin became unimaginably rich and powerful.

Through the 1980s the drug barons ­ and above all Pablo Escobar ­ used the combination of violence and money to create an international monopoly. They did so with impunity, behind the protective walls of a state large parts of which they had bought ­ judges, ministers, presidents were all on the payroll. And those who were not, were kidnapped and murdered. At the same time, a deepening economic crisis exposed the vast gulf between the accumulated wealth of the drug barons and the landowning and industrial bourgeoisie on the one hand and the increasingly impoverished peasants and urban poor on the other. Through 1987 and 1988 'popular' movements emerged in every area ­ and were met with violence from the state.

Colombia had become a criss-crossing network of armed groups in confrontation. Political life was conducted on the streets. By 1990, the army and the drug barons faced each other, arms in hand. Whatever the rhetoric, the issue was not justice or democracy; the two sides were competing for control over the lucrative areas of the economy ­ drugs, property, industrial investment.

At first, the story of the kidnapping that Marquez tells seems to have no rhyme or reason. Lorries explode in public places, killing innocent people; elderly women are subject to months of incarceration because they are distant relatives of the president; journalists become pawns in a tragic game of negotiation and threat.

News of a Kidnapping is written like a thriller, with all the skill of a great journalist. The core of the story is a celebration of the spirit of a small group of hostages and their relatives and friends. It is also a narrative of indifference ­ the indifference of a president (Gaviria) who is represented in his turn as a kind of prisoner of an impossible dilemma, of the military and the police, and of the kidnappers themselves. For they are young men from the poorest areas of Colombian society who have been given a share of wealth, a sense of power, and a gun in exchange for their loyalty to the curious figure who stands behind them all ­ Pablo Escobar.

When the Colombian state turned against the drug barons it was with the support of the US government which was demanding the extradition of the cartel leaders to the US to stand trial. The drug barons refused to leave Colombia, and the kidnappings reported by Marquez were part of an attempt to force the state to refuse the US government's demands. In this cynical manoeuvring the victims were almost always those without protection ­ the weak and the poor. But what becomes clear is that the state's confrontation with Escobar and the cartels was a struggle for power and control over a continuing trade.

In 1993, Escobar spent a few minutes too long on the telephone and was located and killed. His place was taken by others. In 1997, the trade continues to grow; new clients have been found for a cocaine trade dominated by new bosses in Mexico and elsewhere. The Colombians meanwhile have expanded into heroin.

In the end, the system of world trade does not differentiate one commodity from another, and the struggle for markets is always a violent struggle where no quarter is given.

News of a Kidnapping is at one level a fine piece of reporting and a powerful exploration of the capacity of individuals to survive and continue their lives. But there is little within the book to explain why it happens, and how this terrible, ravaging violence might end. Because in the end the protagonists of this novel are members of the same class that is in government ­ if not in power. Pablo Escobar seemed demonic and all powerful ­ yet when he succumbed the system remained, with new and willing servants. At the end of the book it is as if everything had returned to the way it was. But that is little comfort to the kids on the streets of Bogota or Baltimore smoking basuco or crack supplied by wealthy men with private armies.

Mike Gonzalez


No end of a lesson

The Boer War

Thomas Pakenham Weidenfeld and Nicolson £30

The Boer War (1899-1902), fought in South Africa, was Britain's Vietnam. Although the British ruling class was able to claim some sort of victory at the end, it was taught (in Rudyard Kipling's words) 'no end of a lesson'.

A war which was supposed to demonstrate the power of the British army ended up encouraging all those who hoped to throw off British rule. As Thomas Pakenham writes, 'It proved to be the longest (two and three-quarter years), the costliest and the bloodiest (at least 22,000 British, 25,000 Boer and 12,000 African lives) and the most humiliating war for Britain between 1815 and 1914.' It was a war for profit and for power which showed all the cruelty which underlay the process of empire. It spawned the concentration camp, a proud British invention.

The war was fought over what one British cabinet minister called 'the richest spot on earth.' The gold mines of the Transvaal seemed a bottomless pit of wealth. By 1898 this relatively small area was outproducing Russia, Australia and even America ­ at a time when world demand for gold was soaring.

Mining bosses like Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Beit and Julius Wernher were determined to clear out the local rulers and get a British administration which would smooth the way to guaranteed profit. The local rulers were not Africans but Boers, descendants of the mainly Dutch settlers who had come to South Africa in the 17th century.

For most of the 19th century the British ruling class was extremely worried about the cost of winning and then maintaining an empire.

In Africa right up to the 1890s much of the brutal work was left to traders and adventurers to take the initiative and then only later followed up by the British flag. But now all the European powers were engaged in what became known as the scramble for Africa, the imperialist competition to grab territories.

Once hostilities began, in October 1899, it was confidently expected it would be 'over by Christmas'. In fact it went disastrously for the British with the Boers inflicting horrendous defeats at battles like Elandslaagte, Ladysmith and Colenso.

The British responded with huge numbers of extra troops, slightly less crazy tactics (spreading out a bit when advancing rather than standing next to each other) and terror.

By the middle of 1900 the British rulers believed they had won, and the Tories held a snap election designed to cash in on the spirit of jingoistic rejoicing. But hardly had the votes been counted than it became obvious that the Boers were not defeated. They were fighting a guerrilla war, so the British decided to sweep the countryside clear. Eventually over 150,000 people were crammed into overcrowded, disease-ridden concentration camps. They were not set up to carry out extermination, but mass death was the inevitable result of the meagre food, absence of sanitation and general lack of care. At least 20,000 and perhaps as many as 28,000 Boers and Africans died.

The British tried at some points to pretend they were fighting against the Boers' ill-treatment of Africans. Certainly the Boers did kill many blacks and their leaders had the most vile racist ideas. But the British behaved no better.

At the siege of Mafeking, the British commander, Baden-Powell (later to found the Boy Scouts), accepted from the start that the blacks in the city should be given less rations than the whites. Then he reduced the blacks to food that had previously been regarded as suitable only for horses. Then he decided to eke out the garrison's supplies by allowing blacks no food at all.

During the siege of Kimberley, Cecil Rhodes enjoyed grapes, nectarines and peaches while in another part of town the Africans who had worked on his mines starved to death in their compounds.

Pakenham's very large book gives a vivid picture of many of the events. It is not a Marxist work but is good at puncturing the myths of 'glorious empire'.

It was first published in 1979 and, in contrast to his later work, is better at showing some of the economic roots of empire.

Its greatest weakness is its failure to describe the anti-war opposition in Britain. He talks of the Liberal anti-war campaign but the Liberals split three ways on the issue and the agitation by the anti-war faction was strictly limited. In contrast socialists denounced the war from the start ­ not an easy or automatic position when the Boers were 'the enemy'. It is greatly to the credit of early Marxist groups that they recognised that the main enemy was at home. The Labour Party pioneer Kier Hardie came out clearly for a Boer victory.

The Boer War is largely forgotten, blotted out by the much greater horror of the First World War 12 years later. But it is worth recalling for the damning picture of empire which it revealed.

Charlie Kimber


The big guns

The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War

Ed: Charles Townshend OUP £25

The 19th century military strategist, Karl von Clausewitz, once said that 'war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.' In other words, the history of warfare cannot be separated from the history of the societies in which war has taken place. This book describes the history of war under capitalism. It opens with the period of the French Revolution. The French armies were large, mobile and united by a sense of their mission against monarchical darkness. The revolutionary character of these armies explains their success. After 1789 the armies of Europe were mass armies. Only if the state mobilised the whole nation could it succeed.

Meanwhile the growth of industrial capitalism led to a series of advances in military technology. The armies of the 19th century used machine guns, barbed wire and rifles. The fruits of scientific advance were now put to immediate use on the battlefield. By the First World War, these new weapons had swung the balance of forces decisively in favour of defensive lines held by large numbers of infantry.

At the same time, the arrogance of the ruling classes meant that they saw workers as dumb animals, only capable of simple frontal charges. So the war was characterised by a series of suicidal 'rushes', in which tens of thousands died for the sake of a few hundred yards of territory. So 30 million people were killed between 1914 and 1918. The enduring image of the war is of ordinary soldiers stuck in cold, muddy trenches. The development of capitalist technology forced millions to take to the earth and live in discomfort like primitive man.

It seems, then, that the history of warfare under capitalism has two great themes: each war draws in larger numbers of people, while new technology ensures ever greater casualties. By the time of the Second World War we see 'total' war where 60 million people were killed, including millions of civilians. The lasting image of this war is the dropping of the atomic bomb.

The authors of this book do, however, suggest that this broad interpretation is wrong. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they point out, the scale of war has generally decreased. So has the usefulness of mass technology: the wars of the present, they claim, are fought either with computerised super-technology (as in the Gulf War), or with the more 'primitive' weapons of knives (Rwanda) and guns (Yugoslavia). The authors of this history argue that, with the arrival of nuclear technology, war has become too dangerous. The possibility of any future war between two industrialised powers they describe as remote.

There is much here to disagree with. The Gulf War was not won by computerised 'smart bombs', but by carpet-bombing civilians, using B-52s. Similarly, throughout the civil wars of central Africa, the arms dealers of the 'civilised' West have been happy to export the most developed technologies. Anyone who saw the television pictures of the recent fighting in Zaire will have recognised that both sides fought with the very latest rifles, imported from Britain, America and Germany.

The ideas in this book seem to be far too complacent. The pressure of competition between different blocks of capital means that there is a constant tendency for states to fight. Who can say with confidence that the next world recession will not spark a major international war?

The idea that no rulers would ever actually use their nuclear weapons forgets the destructive capacity of the weapons themselves. As Albert Einstein once said, if we let our rulers fight a third world war, then we cannot know what weapons they will use. The fourth world war, however, will no doubt be fought with sticks and stones.'

The point, of course, must be that we cannot leave it for our rulers to decide. We have to create a world without rulers, without nations, without classes, and without war.

Dave Renton


'No more rich people'

Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune

Gay L Gullickson Cornell University Press £13.50

Paris 1871 ­ 'Mad women', some armed and 'drunk with hate', are building barricades and addressing political meetings. The ruling class is aghast because, with equally unruly men, they have replaced the reactionary Thiers government with a workers' government. Elected delegates who can be recalled immediately are on an average worker's wage and armed workers replace the standing army.

As one conservative commentator laments, 'What the Commune stood for...is instant substitution...of the proletariat for all other classes of society, in property ownership, in administration, in the exercise of power.'

This book's strength is in the factual accounts of the role played by working class women in this revolution. Gullickson documents how in March, Louise Michel and others challenged the soldiers guarding the cannons at the key site of Montmartre and won them to supporting the Commune. Throughout April, women stood alongside men on the front line, fighting the encroaching Versailles troops as cooks, water carriers, medical assistants and fighters. Women worked manufacturing cartridges, uniforms and sacks for the barricades. In May women fought hand to hand on the barricades, dying in their thousands to defend the Commune.

Women workers also made a key political contribution. Converted churches were used as debating halls where women railed against the 'enemies of the revolution' such as the priests, whose bodies, one woman suggests, would be better used in place of sandbags on the barricades. 'We will be happy only when we have no more bosses, no more rich people and no more landlords!' Others used the forum to debate socialism and the legalisation of divorce.

But the premise of the book is its weakness. In Gullickson's words, 'This history focuses not on governmental decisions and political philosophies but on representation, meaning and ideology.' By using the depictions of women Communards as the device for assessing the Commune, the gender divisions become more significant than those of class. For Gullickson, it becomes more a battle of concepts than one between two classes. It leads her to conclude that, 'In order for the conservative bourgeoisie to establish hegemony over Paris, it had to establish it over women. In essence, the bourgeoisie undertook to demonstrate its mastery of the revolution by mastering its representation, by punishing and repressing women.'

Yet the wealth of detailed information in her book shows the threat to the bourgeoisie was that of a city not under their control, but run by the men and women workers they exploited. The revenge of the bourgeoisie was against workers as a whole, to try to extinguish that revolutionary fire with the deaths of 25,000 Communards, as against 877 Versailles fatalities. It was in the interests of the ruling class alone to portray the women Communards as crazed animals, refusing to accept their natural place in society and wreaking havoc, as the image of the Petroleuse symbolised. If these women were freaks then rulers need not fear their like again.

The bourgeoisie were clear ­ they put their class interests above gender divisions when the women of the ruling class sought vengeance on their 'sisters' by digging out the eyes of the dead with their umbrellas. Similarly, an analysis of the Commune that wants to further our understanding of the struggle for women's liberation should equally recognise that class is the key division.

Gullickson does attempt a materialist approach to women's oppression at the start of the book by detailing the changes brought about by capitalism on the family and resulting gender stereotypes. However, for her it is the symptoms of women's oppression ­ the images and attitudes to women ­ in the end that are all powerful.

A Marxist, not feminist, approach is what Gullickson's research demands. The defeat of the Commune was not inevitable. Its weaknesses in not giving women the vote and its elections based on geography, not in the workplace where working women and men have power, were not due to a desire to enforce male superiority but were the weakness of politics. Of course some working class men did not attach equal importance to the contribution of women to the Commune, although as André Léo notes, many of the ordinary guardsmen treated the women on the front line with 'respect, fraternity and sincerity'. But the key is a political understanding that women's oppression is inseparable from capitalism, it is in the interests of male workers to fight for women's liberation, means the Paris Commune is both an inspiration and salutary lesson for us today.

When workers fight back it is a festival for the oppressed, but for our class to take and keep power, we need political organisation or the bosses exact their revenge. Read this book for its factual information, not its analysis.

Helen Shooter


Castles in the sand

Bad Land: an American romance

Jonathan Raban Picador £15.99

In the 1930s ­ 'the dirty thirties' as they are called in this book ­ hundreds of thousands of families from the agricultural lands of the US midwest were forced off their land, either physically by new landowners or by near starvation, to begin an exodus west to California. They were drawn by the promise of well paid work for everyone, in lush green valleys where they might be able to buy land of their own. Such is the story of the Joad family in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

In Bad Land we get to see the prologue to that story through the eyes of the homesteaders drawn to the great plains of Montana 20 years earlier. Jonathan Raban's book follows the trials of families who began a great adventure advertised by the owners of the Northern Pacific Railroad and sanctioned by the US government, to populate the prairies, taking land for virtually nothing and raising successful farms.

The chance was given to workers tired of the mundane and cramped conditions of work and life in the city to become independent property owners. And takers for this offer rushed forward from the eastern states and all over Europe.

Yet like all episodes of the American dream the illusion was soured by reality. The promises of the railroad company and the government were every bit as fictitious and calculating as those of the Californian fruit owners which lured the Joad Family. The railways needed towns and people to make the construction of a line from Milwaukee to Seattle profitable. The government needed to take pressure from the cities, which had absorbed millions of migrants. To them it must have seemed the ideal opportunity to populate the last great wilderness with property owning patriots, cultivating huge swathes of land as big as some countries, creating a new bread basket to feed the cities.

The railroad company produced mountains of propaganda describing a blank canvas on which you could design your ideal life in the wide open spaces. They pressed scientists and eminent 'experts' into service to explain how you really could make a viable farm on virtual desert land with next to no rain. They created towns from nothing and, with supreme arrogance, named the towns after themselves, their families, and, in one case, even a reporter who happened to be travelling with the railroad owner on one particular journey.

Raban is by no means as political as Steinbeck yet he does grasp that this was 'building castles in the sand'. Despite the dryness, the first homesteaders began well and when the First World War broke out they even became prosperous as the price of food and grain rose. Into the 1920s, as US industrial cities burgeoned, it seemed as though good times would last forever so that even in dry years it was still possible to make a profit. And if it were possible to farm more land you could insure yourself against the climate.

The bank managers of the midwest enabled farmers to buy more land, and machinery to farm it more efficiently, by pressing loans on their clients. From the assembly line to the wheat field the US boomed and credit meant making hay while the sun shone, so when the bubble burst it affected the homesteaders every bit as much as the workers in the cities. The loan repayments became millstones, the farms were repossessed and the exodus west began.

There are no heroes of resistance in Bad Land; some of the people Raban speaks of and to are easily dislikeable, and the faintly liberal tone of the book is sometimes irritating. But it does provide an interesting example of the vacuity of the American dream and, most importantly, demonstrates how every new promise of the system we live in has the same motives, results and victims.

Tony Dabb


The bitter truth

The Long Awaited Moment

Tom Behan Peter Lang £30

When the victorious Allied armies arrived in Milan in April 1945, they discovered the resistance movement already in effective control. Fascism had been overthrown by mass strikes, an armed partisan movement and finally an insurrection across Italy's northern cities.

Italy's ruling class was fearful and discredited, having backed Mussolini's fascist state for 20 years. The working class was confident, radicalised and armed, under the leadership of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Yet it was the PCI that rescued the fortunes of Italian capitalism as it set itself against developing the mass movement into a challenge for power.

Apologists for the PCI have long argued that the party had no alternative given the level of working class consciousness and the presence of the Allies. The central part of Behan's book explores the relationship of the PCI to its working class base focusing on the experience of Milan, one of the key industrial cities of Italy. Behan argues that the relationship of workers and the PCI was as much one of tensions and conflicts as one of easy loyalty.

The PCI's political strategy was cautious. Post-fascist Italy would not be a socialist Italy, insisted the PCI leader Togliatti, but would somehow be an improvement on mere parliamentary democracy. He talked ambiguously of a 'progressive democracy'. The struggle against fascism was one of national liberation rather than socialist revolution for the PCI's leaders, and hence alliances with 'honest' and 'patriotic' industrialists were pivotal to its perspective.

The reality of this approval was a series of compromises which disorientated the PCI rank and file and increasingly emboldened the Italian ruling class to erode the gains of the resistance movement and Italian workers.

The PCI joined the government of the former fascist Field Marshal Badoglio, then extolled the virtues of increasing productivity and the revival of management rights to sack workers. Finally it stood by as the government of the left wing prime minister Parri was manoeuvred out of office. The PCI's reward was ejection from government, defeat in the 1948 general election and two decades on the margins of political life.

Behan gives evidence that the PCI's rank and file was frequently far more radical than its leaders. Workers expected much more from the liberation than just an end of fascism. Frustration turned to protests and bitterness, and when an attempt was made to assassinate Togliatti in July 1948 the Italian working class exploded. A spontaneous general strike paralysed the country. The factories were under armed occupation and road blocks cordoned off the major cities. And yet, once again, the PCI was able to achieve a return to work for next to no concessions.

How then was the PCI leadership so effectively able to contain its membership? The vast majority of members were recruited from 1943 onwards and for most the Communist Party remained the revolutionary party it had been in the 1920s. The party's conversion into a Stalinist organisation had occurred during the long night of fascist dictatorship when its claims for revolution could no longer be tested. Behan argues that many Communists simply did not take the leadership protestations of moderation at face value. Togliatti's call for progressive democracy rather than proletarian dictatorship was seen by PCI members as merely a tactical ploy to lull the middle class and bosses into a false sense of security, whilst the real agenda remained the 'long awaited moment', an insurrectionary challenge for power. As the bitter truth dawned for some, no alternative organisation existed to harness this radicalisation and so the PCI leadership was always able to reassert its dominance.

Despite a rather dry opening survey of the historical debate surrounding the resistance, Behan's book is an excellent examination of the lost potential of the Italian working class during and after the resistance.

Mark Thomas


A broken home

Homesick

Tony Hanania Bloomsbury £14.99

Homesick is the story of Shadrack, a young boy from a well to do Christian family living in West Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. His parents have no symphathies for either the right wing militias that control the city's eastern half or the left wing and Arab nationalist groups in the western half. So when the fighting makes life too uncomfortable he is sent to sit it out in the safety of an English public school.

Seperated from his family and culture he is drawn into a friendship with another boy, Ferrer, who is obsessed with trying to understand the conflict. As their relationship developes Shadrack's alienation from both Lebanon and his new surroundings comes to the fore. He cannot understand the war or the culture he is thrown into. Instead he daydreams and invents stories based on his fathers' chauffeur turned militiaman, Omar, who is eventually killed in the war.

Omars' story weaves in and out of the book as Shadrack tries to fathom his prejudices and aspirations ­ should he feel a loss for him? Can he sympathise with the life of his former servant? He must because Omar is a real victim, one of the wars' many martyrs, and so Shadrack's only touchstone to the real Lebanon.

Amid all this is the impression that Shadrack lost out on not being involved with the actualities of war, that he could only stare at it from afar. We are treated instead to a war by proxy waged between the various dormitories, pitting one group of pupils against another. The whole charade becomes itself a parody, counterposing the strange rituals of public school life with the equally strange customs of Lebanese sectarianism.

When Shadrack is finally confronted with the truth about Omar and the war, he is left disillusioned, turning in on himself. His sorrow, like his relation to the war, becomes false. This is not the pain endured by the real victims but the opposite ­ that he was untouched by the war, so how can he empathise with those who could not escape? That lack of involvement itself becomes the cause of his misery and his alienation is total.

In truth many Lebanese were desperate to leave and for them war held very little romance. Thus the gulf between Shadrack and Lebanon grows wider. This makes it hard to develop any sympathy for Shadrack beyond that for a young boy subjected to life in public school.

Don't read Homesick thinking you will have any insights into Lebanon's war. It is more an idea of life in the stifled world of public schools. Both the characters and the reader are asphyxiated by the dull repetitive life of school, intercut, however, by Shadrack's reminiscences of Omar.

Homesick represents a different experience of the war to that of the majority of Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim. It is a story that inhabits, on the whole, the secure but nevertheless alienated world of the middle class.

Simon Assaf


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