Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review



A form of resistance

The Suicide

by Nikolai Erdman

Written in 1928, just five years after Stalin's clique took control of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, Nikolai Erdman's play The Suicide is and early example of an art work coming under the increasingly unforgiving gaze of the Stalinist censor. Described by Stalin himself as 'empty and even harmful', the play was banned in 1932, before it had even been performed in public (it was not seen in the Soviet Union until 1982). Following the ban Erdman disappeared, some say exiled to Siberia. In 1938 the theatre of the producer Meyerhold­where The Suicide was originally to have been performed­was closed down by the authorities, who cited its association with Erdman's play as one of their reasons. Meyerhold himself was arrested and later tortured and killed. Written when Erdman was only 26 years old, this, his second and last play, is clearly the work of a young man bitterly disillusioned with his society.

The play's central character, Semyon Podsekalnikov, is unemployed and dependent on his wife Masha's meagre wage. Unable to get the necessary work permit from the state, Semyon, having lost all self esteem and in constant conflict with his wife and mother-in-law, decides he will kill himself. At this point an apparently personal tragedy is seized upon by assorted elements in Russian society as the opportunity to create an 'ideological corpse', a protest against the powers that be. Semyon's ensuing death is to represent, variously, the anguish of the intelligentsia or of the artists, the interests of business, the cry for freedom of repressed romanticism or of free love. Semyon, crushed by his sense of powerlessness and insignificance, never realised that he had such influence.

Add to the cowardice of the 'upper classes' and the unemployed man's absolute despair, the opportunist profiteering of Semyon's neighbour, Alexander Kalabushkin­whose palms have been greased by all concerned in the unseemly scramble to claim the rights to Semyon's 'martyrdom'­and Erdman's bleak vision of Russian society is all but complete. That the playwright despaired of a political solution to this social degeneration can be seen in the character of Yegor Timofeevich, a brainless Stalinist postman, and the only image we get of a political worker.

Despite his despair, however, Erdman created a play which is not entirely pessimistic in its conclusions. Not only is his satire of Stalinism and of the 'chattering classes' extremely funny, not only is The Suicide an often brilliantly paced farce, but within the central character's almost inevitable rejection of 'causes' Semyon actually finds a form of resistance to his oppressive society.

Our sense of The Suicide as an astonishing and extremely interesting play is greatly enhanced by what is a superb Communicado Theatre Company production. The acting, like the sets and the music, is of the excellent standard people have come to expect from one of Scotland's best touring companies. Conleth Hill is particularly outstanding as the bitterly hilarious Semyon, and the supporting cast brilliantly provides the tension and momentum which drive Gerry Mulgrew's production forward.

The Suicide is a play which socialists should celebrate. Given the growing political and cultural repression of Stalinism, it was much better that Erdman wrote a sophisticated satire­albeit one which reflects his political despondency­rather than capitulate, as so many artists did, to the bureaucracy's diktats and prescriptions for art which were to lead to the Stalinist forms known as 'socialist realism'

Mark Brown

The Suicide is on tour, mainly in Scotland, in September and October.

The failings of families

Blue Heart

by Caryl Churchill

The recent success of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire has put the work of Caryl Churchill back in the spotlight. Although the two plays which make up Blue Heart are less obviously political, they are guaranteed to catch the interests of audiences of all generations at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

Billed as 'two funny and surprising new plays of separation and reunion', the first, Heart's Desire, certainly lives up to this description. It consists of one scene set in Brian and Alice's kitchen as they await the homecoming of their daughter, Susy, who has been in Australia for many years.

The scene is repeatedly frozen, with sections replayed at different speeds and with different outcomes, like takes of a film yet to be edited. Words, like the music that opens the play, become broken and distorted, as often repeated clichès holding no meaning. The prejudices and secrets of the family are exposed as new characters enter­Susy's alcoholic brother who implies incest between father and daughter, Susy's female lover from Australia who upsets the family with their narrow minded bourgeois attitudes.

As the scene progresses it becomes clear that many of the visitors are simply absurd possibilities from the characters' imaginations.

The second play, Blue Kettle, is more tragic than comic. Derek is a con man, pretending to be the long lost son of elderly women, adopted 40 years earlier. He treats his real mother much less kindly than the new women he meets, with whom he forges relationships which hold none of the baggage of real families.

The con begins as a way of extorting money but quietly develops into an unhealthy obsession, plagued by the constant sense of doom that the lie will soon be exposed. As we learn of the different circumstances that led each woman to give her baby away, we dread that denouement and the further pain that will be caused.

Again the language is twisted and distorted­the two words of the title are gradually substituted for words in the text, 'You blue who is this other kettle who's played such a big kettle in my son's kettle.' Words have been devalued by their use for deception.

Both plays brilliantly explore the horrors and realities of family lives. Few people could fail to recognise glimpses of their own reality in these plays, or leave without examining their own relationships and the absurdities of real life. As long as these family structures remain, the tensions of our lives as well as the characters will continue. These plays offer an entertaining glimpse of the failings of families.

Blue Heart plays at the Royal Court, London, from 17 September

Nicola Owen


Slave symphony

Blood on the Fields

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis has achieved what he has promised to do for a long time. His new album, Blood on the Fields, is a masterpiece.

Nothing quite like it has ever been written by a jazz musician. The album is about the lives of two slaves but it also tackles head on the impact slavery has had on America. Some reviewers have likened it to Duke Ellington's 1946 recording, Black, Brown and Beige. Although Ellington's album is about a similar theme, it does not reach the intensity and depth of Blood on the Fields.

Blood on the Fields tells the story of two black Africans. One is a prince, the other a peasant. Their fates become entwined when they are captured and sent to America to become slaves. It looks at their attempts to deal with one of the most brutal periods of capitalist development, and their eventual escape from their slave master. But Marsalis wants it to be more than just a tragic story.

Recently Marsalis argued that, 'to understand the problems of labour, gender and the exploitation of children we have to go back to slavery and racism.' He said, 'my new album, as well as telling a story, is trying to deal with how these problems came about.' To convey his ideas he has created a big band sound that draws heavily on three of the jazz giants, Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and John Coltrane. However, rather than just copy their styles he has developed his own. The album incorporates gospel, secular blues, and call and response vocals. It has drawn from the rich tapestry of black American music styles of the past 100 years.

The narrator of the story is vocalist John Hendrix­one of the great old school jazz singers. He has performed with some of the most famous jazz bands­he provided vocals on Count Basie's seminal Cold War album Atomic Mr Basie. Also on vocal duties are Miles Griffiths and one of the most exciting new jazz singers, Cassandra Wilson.

To create such beautiful music, Marsalis has brought together some of the most talented young musicians from the Lincoln Jazz Centre, of which he is now the director.

Marsalis has also widened his repertoire by playing music from Bach as well as some of the great white composers of recent years such as Stravinsky and Stockhausen.

The strength of this record lies partly in the debate Marsalis has had with his brother Branford Marsalis. Branford is a very talented jazz saxophone player. He has argued that for jazz to remain an exciting art form it has to fuse with other music styles. His band Buckshot LeFonque mixes jazz with rap, poetry and soul music. He has also played with pop musician Sting.

This has horrified Wynton. He argues that jazz is the greatest art form this century which has to be studied and developed. This belief has produced an album that pushes the boundaries of jazz forward.

The record is over three hours long. But to get the most enjoyment from it, it is worth listening to it all the way through. For anybody with even a passing interest in jazz this is an essential album.

Martin Smith


Culture shock

Jump the Gun

Dir: Les Blair

Set in post-election South Africa, this film by a British director portrays two people arriving in Johannesburg on the same train. Gugu, a black woman from Durban, is confident, talented and good looking and is seeking success in South Africa's largest city. Clint is a white electrician from a small town and has come to work and have a good time.

Gugu is immediately on the lookout for anything that can bring her success, both financially and as a singer. She soon picks up an audition for an up and coming township band (who in real life are a popular Soweto band) and meets Zoo, a rich wheelchair bound friend of her aunt.

Clint stays at a downtown hotel. He is not used to being in a city thronging with black people and is surprised when the white owner of a bar where he drinks objects to his racist language: 'We have black customers here,' says the owner. Clint's character is well portrayed, his paranoia and suspicion of his surroundings and his awkwardness with women. In contrast the feelings of Gugu are harder to ascertain, she is portrayed in a much less personal way and without the humour you see from the white characters of the film. The two sides of the film­black and white­come together when Gugu meets Clint via sniffing a line of coke in the toilets.

The film is intended to portray a snapshot of life in modern day South Africa with an emphasis on people's changing attitudes, in particular to crime and racism. What it shows is that when blacks and whites meet on equal terms­here in a quite contrived social situation­racist attitudes can be broken down. The high level of violence in urban South Africa is emphasised, with vivid scenes which portray the alienation within this deeply divided and poverty stricken society. Yet it is the black characters in particular who are shown to be sinister and ruthless in their attitude to this violence. The way that the simple threads tracing two people's arrival in town on the same day develop into a web of events and interrelationships is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this film.

Well shot scenes are combined with a lively dialogue in English, Zulu and Afrikaans, as well as excellent music. The actors are well known in South African agitprop theatre and have used much of their own experience to develop the characters.

The film is worth seeing if only for the insight into post-apartheid South Africa, even though the bigger picture is not explored.

Julia Brown


The triple whammy

The Strange Death of Liberal England

George Dangerfield Serif £14.99

It is a rare pleasure not just to recommend a book but to insist with all possible powers of persuasion that anyone lucky enough not to have read it should instantly treat themselves. George Dangerfield's book covers a period of intense warfare­though the warfare is not as popular as it usually is among historians since the wars were not between nations or races but between governed and governors in the same country. What makes that warfare even more distasteful to official palates is that against all odds the wrong side, the dispossessed, seemed to be winning.

The book covers three areas of revolt: the Irish revolt against British rule (and the revolt against that revolt of the Orangemen of the North); the revolt of the women, who had no vote, even though some 60 percent of the men had it; and the revolt of the workers against their employers. Each of these stories takes up about 100 pages, and the last quarter is devoted to what Dangerfield calls 'the crisis', the amazing first seven months of 1914 in which all three revolts came to the brink of victory only to be consumed in the unspeakable atrocity of the First World War. More than once, from this account, the First World War emerges not just as an inevitable clash between imperialist forces but as a great conspiracy of the rulers everywhere to rid themselves even if only temporarily from the intolerable demands of their subjects.

There are, of course, many history books about this period, many of them written from a position friendly to workers, suffragettes and Irish nationalists, and many of them perhaps more scrupulous with the facts or closer to what might be considered the correct line. Even after 61 years, however, George Dangerfield's book is supreme. Every page, indeed every sentence, is lifted above the average by his irresistible writing style. The hallmark of this style is that most dangerous of all the weapons in the challenger's armoury: mockery. The whole book is a mockery of the pretensions of the rulers of the time, most notably the mandarins of Asquith's Liberal government.

Dangerfield describes Asquith as the sort of person you would expect to find at high tables at Oxford and Cambridge colleges, 'a man almost completely lacking in imagination or enthusiasm'. The same merciless mockery is turned on the Orange leader Carson, the Tory leaders under Bonar Law, the Irish Nationalist parliamentary leader John Redmond, the employers and their indefatigable government negotiator George Askwith. Ministerial reactions and statements are constantly reduced to that ridiculous hypocrisy and pomposity which derives from a relentless desire to hang on to other people's property.

The theme of the book is the collapse of a L(l)iberalism which only in 1906 had seemed unassailable. In the general election that year the Tories were engulfed by the biggest parliamentary landslide achieved by any party ever. Their huge majority was reduced to nothing in the two elections of 1910, and the Liberal government became dependent for its survival on the Irish Nationalists. This is all old hat, churned over by innumerable students of official parliamentary politics. The thrill of Dangerfield's book is that he carries the Liberal government's impotence far beyond the boundaries of parliamentary statistics.

The government and increasingly the entire ruling class were trapped by what he calls 'a new energy' among the downtrodden which grew to such a proportion as to challenge the very right of the ruling class to govern.

In Ireland the government was trapped by its reluctance either to accede to the mutinous forces under Carson or (even less) to give way to the growing demand for Irish independence. On suffrage, the government was trapped by a reluctance to extend the vote either to unpropertied men or to women (the two reluctances, as the book proves, were closely allied). The greatest parliamentary impotence of all, however, was brought about by the constant strikes of a newly confident working class. In 1911, 961,000 workers were involved in strikes, a figure which seemed impossible­and was 300,000 higher than ever before. In 1912, however, the figures had risen again­to a fantastic 1,233,016. Dangerfield brilliantly describes the most devastating feature of these strikes: their unpredictability. Government negotiators, employers, trade union leaders­all were powerless not only to handle the strikes but even to predict where and when they would happen next.

On all three fronts, in those early months of 1914, the prospects looked good. In Ireland a civil war loomed, with the favourites the armed volunteers who demanded total independence for all Ireland. Votes for women, as Dangerfield reveals, were effectively conceded in June 1914, though more as the result of the activities of Sylvia Pankhurst and her working class supporters than her sister Christobel from her safe vantage point in Paris. Above all, the workers' revolt had crystallised into a triple alliance of the big unions which threatened a general strike.

In these circumstances, the impotence of the government brought it home to the British ruling class that they could no longer afford two political parties, one reactionary, one allegedly reformist. The Liberal Party was finished, never again to re-emerge as a remotely relevant force in British politics. Good riddance, says George Dangerfield, in a typical but scintillating display of his glorious prose style, and in a passage which should be read with interest by the apostles of modern Lib-Labourism: 'The Liberal government was dying with extreme reluctance and considerable skill; you might almost consider it healthy, unless you took a very close look, and it had erected such a fence around it of procrastination and promises that a close look was almost impossible to obtain.

The workers were simply dissatisfied with it, they could hardly tell why; and indeed that fine old Liberal Hegelianism of at once believing in freedom and not believing in freedom was beyond the understanding of all but the elect. To interfere in the questions of pensions, of health, strikes, education, conditions of labour­ah yes this could be done; to destroy the absolute powers of the Lords, to cripple the vast landed estates­such actions were highly desirable; but to insist that employers should pay a living wage? That was a frightful impairment of freedom'.

Paul Foot

Allied to an excuse

The Myth of Rescue

William D Rubinstein Routledge £18.99

The Myth of Rescue is a nasty book. Reviewing it, Tom Bower whose latest book exposes how Swiss banks profiteered from the Holocaust, says, 'Rubinstein wins the David Irving prize for revisionism masquerading as the product of original research.' It is easy to see why Tom Bower got so angry.

The Myth of Rescue argues that the Allies did all they could to save Europe's Jews from the Nazi death machine. Historians who argue otherwise, we are told, are guilty of creating a pernicious myth. Rubinstein in particular targets David S Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-45. Wyman is denounced for having 'almost single handedly originated the notion that the Allies could have easily bombed and destroyed the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1944'.

In reality, the notion that the Allies could have bombed Auschwitz originated with the camp survivors who describe the bitterness they felt at seeing US bomber planes flying over the camp as lines of prisoners were being herded into the gas chambers. It also comes from airforce pilots who were repeatedly sent to bomb industrial targets just a few miles from the death camp, and from crews who volunteered to drop supplies on Warsaw during the 1944 uprising and flew over Auschwitz on their way.

The achievement of academics like David S Wyman and Martin Gilbert, author of the path breaking Auschwitz and the Allies, was to take this testimony and ferret out the evidence buried in government archives that proved more could have been done. While Wyman and Gilbert buttress their arguments with masses of primary material, The Myth of Rescue contains almost no original research or primary sources. Instead, Rubinstein cherry picks facts and arguments to suit his own intentions­the creation of another myth: nothing was done, so nothing could be done.

Rubinstein tells us, for example, in a chapter entitled 'The Myth of Closed Doors', of the overwhelming generosity of the US and British governments in allowing German Jews into Britain before the war. British consular officials, he claims, 'were granting emigration visas to Britain virtually without limit' (Rubinstein's emphasis).

If the authorities were so generous, why did the Board of Deputies of British Jews, in a desperate effort to open the doors, have to pledge that no Jewish refugee would become a 'public charge'? Why were tens of thousands of Jewish children forced to flee on the Kindertransports, leaving their parents behind to an uncertain fate? Why does every German Jewish refugee remember some family members and friends who did not escape?

Rubinstein's excuses for the establishment are made even harder to stomach by his constant implication that Jews who did not escape Hitler's Germany had only themselves to blame for their fate.

The core of The Myth of Rescue is devoted to denigrating those mainly Jewish groups who frantically lobbied Allied governments in the hope of devising rescue schemes. Those who urged action are denounced as fantasists and their schemes dismissed as 'valueless'.

Rubinstein uses the same cynical distortion of history when he claims there was little anti-semitism and no sympathy for Hitler and his Mosleyite followers among the British establishment. We are told of a BBC ban on Mosley's broadcasts and are treated to the thoughts of a debutante who believed 'Hitler was a very bad man'. Missing, however, is any reference to the notorious 1934 Daily Mail front page which proclaimed, 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' or any other examples of the pro-Nazi sympathies held by a section of the British ruling class, let alone an analysis of the strength of the 'appeasers' in the establishment. In reality anti-Jewish prejudice was rife in the British and US ruling classes even during the war. J S Bennett, the government official in charge of Jewish immigration rejected calls to rescue Europe's Jews. 'The Jews,' he insisted, 'have spoilt their case by laying it on too thick.'

Foreign secretary Anthony Eden consistently opposed any parliamentary debate on the Holocaust. The reason, according to Oliver Harvey, his private secretary, was that Eden was 'hopelessly prejudiced' against Jews.

There was, however, a more fundamental factor at work. Saving the Jews was not one of the Allies war aims. Allied propaganda claimed the war was being fought for freedom, democracy, justice and peace. But the British and US governments were not fighting an anti-fascist war. They were fighting to preserve their empires and business interests around the world. This meant that the Allies, who could do little in 1941 when they first learnt of the Nazi atrocities, still did not act in 1943 when the situation was very different.

The Nazis' defeat at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 fundamentally shifted the balance of the war. The British and US governments then had a choice. They could have devoted more resources to the war in Europe and opened a 'second front' before June 1944. This would have helped the Russian armies fighting in the east and could also have saved the lives of millions of Jews. Instead resources were diverted to maintaining British control of Asia and the Middle East, while the 'second front' was delayed. Even by the summer of 1944, when a million Hungarian Jews were being transported to their deaths, the Allied authorities refused to act.

Rubinstein justifies his book by saying it challenges the 'virtually universal' belief 'that the democracies did nothing during Hitler's Final Solution, and were­to many­guilty of being virtual accomplices in the Holocaust'. None of the serious scholars Rubinstein takes issue with have ever argued that the Allies were Hitler's accomplices in the Holocaust.

There is, however, overwhelming evidence that had the Allies acted differently, millions of Jews could have been saved. By denying this Rubinstein not only offers wholly undeserved excuses for the British and US ruling classes, but obscures a crucial message for us today. The fight against fascism cannot be left to governments and the establishment.

Mike Simons

The art of revolution

The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Rosemary Ashton Blackwell £14.99

While attending public experiments by his friend the famous scientist Humphrey Davy in London in 1802, Samuel Taylor Coleridge looked about at the 'well to do' people and noted, 'If all aristocrats [were] here, how easily Davy might poison them all'!

A few years later this same man was attempting to ingratiate himself with the very people he previously despised, writing fawning letters to aristocrats and producing a magazine for men of 'high rank and society'. The strength of this biography of Coleridge is that it is part of a series that wants to 're-establish the notion that books are written by people who lived in particular times and places'. It does not ignore or seek to downplay the importance of politics in the life of the poet.

Coleridge as a young radical, like all the Romantic poets, was passionately inspired by the French Revolution. He left university without taking his degree because he wanted to pursue a project of establishing a utopian community in America. Although this came to nothing in the end, the fact that it was to be a society where property was held in common says much about Coleridge's contempt for the values of British capitalism in the 1790s.

As well as being a poet he was a pamphleteer, campaigning against slavery and the war against France. He produced his own magazine, The Watchman, which was denounced as 'Jacobin' by the establishment. He became the friend of many radicals of the day, and gained a reputation as an inspired, political speaker.

Later in his life, as a Tory, Coleridge tried very hard to distance himself from his radical past. But the argument that all this was just a rush of youthful idealism is unconvincing. The initial support of the Pitt government for the French Revolution had quickly disappeared as revolt grew at home. A policy of harsh repression was being pursued, and Coleridge certainly risked prosecution and imprisonment for his activities.

This was also the time in which Coleridge was developing as a poet, culminating in 1798 with the publication, along with Wordsworth, of the Lyrical Ballads­a collection of poems that for many marks the beginning of the Romantic movement in English literature.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Ashton's biography is that it fails to make any real connection between Coleridge's politics and his poetry at the time. Despite her showing that Coleridge's decline as an artist also coincides with his rapid move to the right politically, there is no hint that these two things might be connected.

The typical academic approach, where 'politics', 'literature' and 'history' are considered separate themes, rather than intricately connected to each other, means that we get a good description of what is going on in the poet's life, but no real analysis or explanation of his work. As a result politics and society appear simply as background to the poetry.

This sort of approach fails to appreciate that the Romantics were not just casually influenced by the French Revolution. It transformed the whole way in which they looked at the world. Poetry for them was the highest form of expression of the ideals of 1789. Therefore, as Coleridge and Wordsworth moved to the right it is no accident that their art also suffered.

In the end Ashton's method is a straitjacket which can give us separate accounts of Coleridge's politics, philosophical interests and poetry, but cannot go beyond this and show how they are all connected. It is not enough to simply appreciate that a writer works 'at a particular time', it is also important to show how the events of the time shaped the writer's work itself.

Joe Hartney

Academy awards

Socialist Register 1997

Ed: Leo Panitch Merlin £12.99

Socialist Register is usually a disappointment. An annual collection of essays from different left wing academics, it is too often like one of those benefits you feel under an obligation to go to, where the occasional brilliant act is interspersed among performances that wouldn't even measure up to a poor night on Channel 5.

But this year's is different. It concentrates on challenging precisely those arguments that enthuse the Blairites and their cheerleaders from magazines like the New Statesman.

So the different pieces take up: the way in which the growth of global finance creates instability and ever greater pressure on people's lives; the way in which talk of 'market socialism' in China is a cover for capitalist exploitation; the way in which New Labour's talk of 'family and community' justifies an attempted onslaught on the welfare state; the detrimental effect of Clinton's policies in the US and Felipé Gonzalez' in Spain on working class living standards.

Other articles point to the bankruptcy of 'postmodernist' and 'postcolonialist' theories of culture and 'social constructivist' theories of science.

There remains one weakness, however, to virtually all the pieces. They are written by academics for academics, and so although they will be useful to students faced with the onslaught of globalisation, postmodernist and postcolonialist theories from their professors, they do not say much abut how to fight back in practice.

In the past, 'practice' for the typical Socialist Register contributors meant trying to persuade some left social democrat or reform Communist leader to accept their advice. Now that most of these leaders have slid to the right, the contributors cannot see any audience except for an academic one. To that extent they provide a few useful last kicks at the system from those of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s who have progressed in academia, not a way forward for those still fighting in the late 1990s.

Chris Harman

Not too late to learn

When Memory Dies

A Sivanandan Arcadia £9.99

This is a harrowing but also inspiring novel. Through the story of three generations of a Sri Lankan family it dissects the history of Sri Lanka since the first moves toward independence in the 1930s. In doing so it lays bare the politics and psychology of the ethnic struggle that has come to dominate Sri Lankan politics.

From the 1840s on, the British colonialists favoured the Tamil population which they themselves had 'imported' from southern India to create jealousy and division to strengthen their rule. Despite this, Sivanandan's novel shows there was a long tradition of intermarriage and mutual respect between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

The prospect of independence strengthened the mood of solidarity. Sivanandan describes how in the 1940s workers staged massive displays of unity and strength on the streets, but he also shows how nationalist politicians hijacked the struggle, made deals with the British and stoked up anti-Tamil chauvinism in order to break the working class movement and concentrate power in their own hands.

Sivanandan's personal involvement means he understands every subtle twist in this process, including how people learn as the struggle develops. One trade union activist, at first overjoyed at independence, begins to see that the Sinhalese nationalists who dominate the governing United National Party after independence are using the privileges of upper class Tamils to dress their nationalism in left colours. 'You know your trouble, don't you?' he tells a UNP member, 'You are confusing race and class, like your whole bloody party so that you can keep your class while shouting race.'

There are many important insights in the book. Sivanandan suggests that the syndicalism of the best working class militants in the 1930s and 1940s allowed the nationalists the space to dominate politically on the question of independence. Later he shows how the Communist Party failed miserably to challenge the rise of Sinhala chauvinism and its grip over the Sinhalese majority. The result was catastrophe­pogroms against the Tamils and the division of the island's working class into the largely urban Sinhalese population and the Tamil plantation workers.

The politics flows naturally through the book because the story starts at a time when politics was part of the life of the workers in Sri Lanka. But the sense of hope and power begins to falter as postindependence politics is usurped by the bourgeois politicians. The result was racism creeping into the heart of every community. With growing despair the socialist Vijay sees the connection: 'Little everyday deeds were being determined by politicians hundreds of miles away who knew nothing of me or my family.'

The nightmare of communalist terror later seems to crush even the memory of working class unity, and the novel takes you inside the experience of communal distrust, showing how desperately hard it is for even the most clear sighted to escape the logic of pogrom and revenge.

Beyond the physical suffering, and despite the title of the book, the tragedy of the story is that the characters always seem to learn too late. The memory of working class unity never died completely, but those trying to keep it alive never found a form of organisation capable of translating their instincts into action.

But just by writing this book, Sivanandan is trying to ensure that memory lives against the odds. And more than that he is taking a stand against those who believe that history cannot be understood or is shaped by irrational forces beyond human control. He shows that communalism is not inevitable, but the result of human actions and failures. Despite the harrowing story, When Memory Dies is a celebration of working class politics which insists that the worst tragedies should be understood so that they are not repeated.

Chris Nineham

Through the eyes of women'

Bolshevik Women

Barbara Evans Clements Cambridge University Press £16.99

Bolshevik Women follows the lives of women who joined the Bolshevik Party before 1921, with special attention paid to the activities of the most prominent. It is carefully and reliably researched, and there are many interesting details of family backgrounds of the women, of circumstances and influences leading to the women joining the Bolsheviks.

However, the book lacks any underlying philosophy of history by which events could be explained, which is doubly necessary when dealing with Russian history. It becomes a rather narrow scholarly thesis which covers a host of facts and assertions about the women's lives but omits important social and political events which could bind it into a historical document of value.

Clements characterises the women's main aim in their attitude to party work as cultivating tverdost­hardness­which makes them concentrate entirely on the 'cause' and excludes concern about personal matters such as husbands or children. The reason given for this is that it fits in with male Bolsheviks who have not lost their vestiges of patriarchy even though the party itself aims to break this down and liberate women. She claims that after the revolution Bolshevik men fell back on 'one of the most fundamental practices of patriarchy. They formed alliances with other men', 'networks of men' (p160) to keep the women in, or cause them to opt for government or party jobs as technical secretaries rather than the leading political or theoretical jobs of organising secretaries of committees or institutions.

If such vestiges did exist, surely the almost superhuman effort made by the Bolshevik government to lay the foundations for women to liberate themselves should have been lauded to the skies. Such changes would have destroyed all vestiges of patriarchy. The new government made marriage a voluntary relationship, eliminated the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, enacted employment rights for women equal to those for men, gave women equal pay, and introduced universal paid maternity leave. Adultery, incest and homosexuality were dropped from the criminal code. Soviet Russia was the first country in the world to legalise abortion. The right of inheritance was abolished and traditional women's work taken over by the state through communal maternity houses, nurseries, dining rooms laundries, and so on. Clements devotes exactly ten lines to this great sweep of the women's movement which reached unprecedented heights in the Russian Revolution.

A women's department of the party­part of the Central Committee Secretariat, called Zehenotdel­was set up under the leadership of Inessa Armand, with local branches attached to the party committees at every level, charged with conducting activities among the unorganised women in factories and villages and drawing them into public affairs. As Inessa said, 'If the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.'

The book lacks any sense of polemic. The only discussion of issues occurs around Zehenotdel, to which she does devote a good deal of space. She tries to show a division between those older Marxists for whom women's sexual liberation could come only after the revolution, and some younger Bolshevik women who proclaimed that the 'new woman', while dedicated to the 'cause', at the same time demanded in the here and now 'the right to a free, independent attitude in her personal life'.

Clements calls these latter women, including Kollontai, Marxist feminists, even though Kollontai, together with other Bolshevik women, had fought all her life against bourgeois feminism and rooted women's liberation firmly in the development of the class struggle alongside men. She would probably have abjured such a description, particularly as the rift in ideas is probably more conjured up than real. This becomes clearer if you note Clements's references to the older Marxists such as Engels and Bebel who were by no means conservative in their attitude to women's liberation in the here and now.

There are too many gross omissions in the book to be itemised. They all spring from an academicism which lacks a Marxist view of history. Nowhere is the life of ordinary working or peasant women described and contrasted with the life of bureaucrats. The word bureaucrat, like the word abortion, does not even occur in the book.

The Stalinist counter-revolution­not recognised as such by Clements­is largely presented simply as a harder time for the women. Nor, of course, does she show how the transformation of Russian society from workers' state to state capitalism explains the social changes, which included the scrapping of all the revolutionary legislation aimed at women, the new emphasis on the strong, united family and the outlawing of divorce.

The crucial role of women in the building of socialism has been attested to by all the revolutionary leaders. Marx in his day said that social advance can be gauged by the advance of women. Lenin said that 'the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.' And Trotsky went on to say that 'in order to change the conditions of life we must learn to see them through the eyes of women.'

Clements has therefore missed a great opportunity to produce a trail blazing book of immense value for future revolutionaries. Instead she narrows down her descriptions so much that the broad sweep of social history is largely lost, and where social history does form a backdrop, it emerges as a dry academic relation of facts lacking the art of an imaginative materialist interpretation. That, however, requires a Marxist author, and Clements is no such thing. A pity!

Chanie Rosenberg

Ode to joy

A Way of Being Free

Ben Okri Orion £12.99

Since winning the Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991, Ben Okri has become something of a leading literary and cultural figure. So with the publication of A Way of Being Free, one could be forgiven for having high expectations.

This collection of non-fiction essays, none of which is new, covers a wide range of subjects.

However, the bulk of the essays deal, in somewhat confusing language, with the importance of storytelling, creativity and serendipity. Indeed, Okri uses these words as if they were going out of fashion. The 'Joys of Storytelling, I, II and III' seem to have no discernible meaning to them, unless, that is, I've completely missed the point. Statements such as, 'To see the madness and yet walk a perfect silver line', mean absolutely nothing, even when put into the context of the whole essay.

There are one or two essays which seem to be out of place in the collection, such as Okri's piece on Shakespeare's Othello. He argues the importance of black actors playing the part of Othello and illustrates how ridiculous a performance appears when the part is played by a white actor. Unfortunately, he concludes that in the three centuries that have passed since Othello was first performed attitudes to blacks have not significantly altered. This ignores the changing face of racism from slavery to colonisation to modern society and the continued resistance to it by both black and white.

Other essays in the collection are comprehensible and meaningful, even if one disagrees with the arguments, or they seem somewhat confused.

For example, in 'Beyond Words' he alludes to the achievement of a better society, and elsewhere is critical of tyranny, especially that which involves the murder and jailing of writers such as Ken Saro-Wiwa. These points, unfortunately, seem contradicted by many of the other essays, where he argues that a joyful and creative attitude to life can transform the chore and burden of work into a perpetual delight. Yet from this attitude Okri also draws some rather pessimistic conclusions. He says that no one philosophy can explain everything. In doing so he argues against religion, imperialism, ideology, class politics and caste amongst other things. These are not innately good or bad but are all, apparently, the enemy of creativity. Ordinary people, by turning their backs on creativity, choose a worse life. Whether it is Communism, racism or Islam, they are followers who are unfree.

Okri does admit though that there are no such things as powerless people. He does allude at times to a better society. He argues that responsibility for achieving this better society lies with the ability of poets, artists and storytellers to inspire people and destroy myths and lies. This is clearly the reason for the choice of title for the collection of essays, but one is hard pressed to be inspired by any of these writings.

Where Okri is at his best, he only ever hints at injustices. He is never clear on what would make a better society. But even the better parts of the collection seem drowned among abstract writing which I could not help feeling, throughout, was an attempt to cash in on Booker Prize fame.

Yolande Van-de-L'Isle

Wild extremes

Jack London: a life

Alex Kershaw Harper Collins £20

If contradiction was an author or an historical figure his name would be Jack London. Alex Kershaw's new biography shows why.

Here we have a man who 'to his last breath...championed the underdog' but subscribed to the most reactionary racist ideas. We have a man who in his novels argued for the revolutionary road to socialism and just as compellingly wrote in praise of the most vile form of social Darwininsm­worshipping the strong and celebrating the crushing of the weak.

Jack London was born in San Francisco in January 1876. He was born into an America that had just left the Civil War behind it and was heading towards the First World War. His 200 short stories and 20 novels were a beautiful literary expression of the profound change that characterised the era that first witnessed the lightbulb, the telephone, and a growing socialist movement. But they also gave the hitherto voiceless American masses, disillusioned with the American dream, a platform. This helped to make almost all his works runaway bestsellers.

Jack London's childhood and early life was no different from millions of Americans­dominated entirely by poverty. He joined the mass goldrush to the frozen wastes of the Klondike to make a fortune only to watch the American dream freeze in harsh Arctic conditions.

Though he didn't find gold, London did discover something far more valuable­a storehouse of experiences from which he could pan out a living.

Published in 1903, The Call of the Wild, a book that in the most beautifully poetic prose shows how a dog is forced to compete against nature and its 'fellow kind in a frozen Arctic waste' was the profoundest literary fruit of this period. It established London's reputation because for millions of workers who had broken from the American dream, they found in this book a symbolic expression of the 'bloody rigours of the free market' we still face today. It is a work of such force and passion that its title entered everyday language.

From this point onwards London's life changed decisively. His self destructive alcoholism continued unabated as he lived the life of a Bohemian with a difference­though he considered himself to be a socialist he clung tenaciously to the belief that Anglo Saxons would determine the destiny of the human race. It was this weak politics which he was to hold onto till the end of his life. It also led him to support the slaughter of workers in the First World War on racist and jingoistic grounds ten years later.

Thereafter, London's life reflects much of all that was politically weak in the US socialist movement during this period, albeit in an artistic way. In the light of the defeat of the 1905 revolution London wrote the Iron Heel in which he accurately foresaw fascism but only, as George Orwell said, 'because he had a fascist streak within himself'.

He also wrote John Barleycorn, the first novel to deal with the real experience of alcoholism, as well as introducing windsurfing to America after a trip to Hawaii.

As the prospects for revolution declined he became more wrapped up in his personal life, attempting to sail around the world with his second wife, and descended into a political hell paved with continuous praise for Nietzche's racist theories. He died in 1916 having spent his last years amongst millionaires.

If Kershaw's biography has a problem it is that he doesn't understand that Jack London in his writings, in his weak unstable politics, reflected and synthesised the rocky marriage of reformist and revolutionary politics that characterised some sections of the socialist movement before 1914. This could no longer be sustained after the Russian Revolution.

This outstanding biography does show why, in spite of Jack London's weak politics, socialists must fight attempts by papers like the Guardian to present him as a turn of the century new lad, devoid of politics. Kershaw's book shows why Jack London is not a revolutionary socialist but, in spite of this, we are shown why Jack London has been rarely equalled since in his prophetic ability to express in the most beautiful prose the most brutal aspects of modern society.

Gaverne Bennett

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