Issue 215 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review



Moving history

This year marks the centenary of the birth of film maker Sergei Eisenstein. For socialists, Eisenstein's films, particularly Strike, October and Battleship Potemkin, are almost too good to be true - big budget, state sponsored films that celebrate and encourage workers' revolution.

Eisenstein made these films in Russia between 1925 and 1928, before Stalin completely muzzled expression, and before his apparatus could bury the memory of the revolution. They re-enact some of the revolutionary events in Russia from 1905 to 1917, and they have the authenticity of recreations of the recent past. Many of the actors were participants in the revolution. So, as well as being masterpieces in their own right, these films are valuable ammunition in the battle to defend the Russian Revolution.

Eisenstein himself witnessed the October insurrection. In the early 1920s he became involved in the struggle when he joined the Red Army as an engineer. It is obvious from the films that he took an exuberant pleasure in revolt. But what is most striking is the way Eisenstein manages to use film to expose the dynamics of class struggle.

He makes it clear, for example, that the mutiny in Battleship Potemkin is fuelled by the growing revolutionary movement of 1905, but it is outrage at rotten food on board ship that actually sparks revolt. In the heightened atmosphere of revolution the slightest insubordination provokes an armed stand off with the nervous authorities and forces a confrontation. News of the mutiny and the murder of one of its leaders in turn provides the catalyst for an uprising in the port of Odessa. State repression now rises to new levels.

Eisenstein's films are often criticised for Stalinist type idolisation of worker militants and the Bolshevik leaders. This is a misconception. It is true that Stalin did demand cuts to the print of October, but these are not Stalinist films. Eisenstein had a sense of the mass, spontaneous surge of revolutionary movement, but he also understood the decisive role individuals play in mass struggle.

Despite the background of revolution, the mutiny on the Potemkin is not spontaneous. It takes the courage and initiative of individual agitators to bolster the sailors' anger and make the first gestures of defiance, which in turn expose the brutality of the ship's authorities. Later there is a crucial moment on the ship's deck when the bulk of the sailors are paralysed by fear. The most militant sailors move amongst them, arguing there is no going back. At the last moment the bravest of them, Vakulinchuk, shouts an appeal to the guards not to shoot at their brothers, the guards lower their guns and suddenly victory is in sight.

There is a similar grasp of the twists and turns of struggle in October. The mass of workers and soldiers are active participants and the crowd scenes are remarkable. But the film also captures the relationship between the mass movement and the political leadership. In the demonstrations of July workers march with their rifles raised for action. Their mood is grim and determined. But the Bolshevik agitators argue against premature action, fearing an isolated insurrection. Slowly, suspiciously, the workers lower their rifles, their faces expressing their doubts - are the Bolsheviks sell outs, conciliators, the same as the Mensheviks and the Liberals before them?

Later Lenin's intervention is decisive. He returns to Moscow and in an unforgettable scene delivers a breathless speech at the Finland station successfully urging the Bolsheviks' supporters that the time is now right to go beyond bourgeois demands and take power for the soviets.

By the time he made October in 1928, Eisenstein had developed an astonishing ability to dramatise the political process on film. His battery of experimental techniques matches the tempo, shocks and excitement of the unfolding revolution. But they also carry ideas. In one famous sequence he manages to dramatise the loosening of religious ideas in popular consciousness by counterposing images of religious icons!

These films are part of a fantastic outpouring of experimental art inspired by and dedicated to the revolution in Russia. They show that, even in a society as materially backward as Russia at the time, workers' revolution influenced society at every level. What is more, these films were massively popular in Russia and around the world. There were riots in Paris when Battleship Potemkin was first shown. In New York hundreds of police were drafted in on its opening night. However much today's academics try and tell us that the revolution was a coup, these films are testimony to the amazingly high level of politics amongst workers at the time.

Despite the conventional wisdom that political polemic and art don't mix, mainstream film critics have had to recognise these films as classics. At least one of Eisenstein's films has always been in the British Film Institute's critics' all time top ten list. Most critics accept that Battleship Potemkin established the language of film story telling, and yet it is political drama at its most up front.

The truth is Eisenstein was in a unique position. Participating in the revolution gave him insight into social change. At the same time the revolution gave him artistic freedom and a sense of social purpose. As he wrote himself, 'Of all the living beings on earth we are alone privileged to experience and relive, one after another...the most important achievements in social development. More. We have the privilege of participating collectively in making a new human history.'

Having started his artistic career in theatre, he found film particularly appropriate for the re-enactment of revolutionary history. He pioneered a technique of editing he called montage. By juxtaposing and cutting between different scenes, he could show how events interacted to drive revolutionary struggle forward. Subsequent directors picked up on montage to tell stories and generate tension or humour, but few have been in a position to exploit the creative possibilities of cinema to such an extent.

Eisenstein's later films lost this excitement. The General Line attempts a materialist justification of Stalin's agricultural policies. The two parts of Ivan The Terrible are stunning films, but they are dark expressionist studies of corruption and terror. Stalinist repression had taken its toll. A Stalinist agent even watched over Eisenstein's shoulder as part two was being edited. More importantly though, Eisenstein had lost the hope and vision that came from involvement in early years of the revolution.

Chris Nineham

Eisenstein's films are being shown at the National Film Theatre, London. Phone 0171 928 3232. Battleship Potemkin is showing in London in January and nationwide from March

Truth is braver than fiction

Lucie Aubrac

Dir: Claude Berri

Lucie Aubrac, the latest film by Claude Berri, director of the excellent screen adaptation of Emile Zola's late 19th century miners' strike novel Germinal, is an often powerful, if slightly flawed, account of the struggle of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Loosely based on the experiences of the Resistance fighter from whom it takes its name, the film challenges the sexist myth, seen regularly from Hollywood war movies to the appalling BBC comedy series 'Allo 'Allo, that the role of women in the anti-fascist struggle was, at best, peripheral. However, in setting Aubrac's story primarily within the context of a romance, the film also manages to play down the leading position she actually had within the movement.

The central elements of the plot are based on the true story of Aubrac's remarkable life. However, it is only when you hear Aubrac herself (now age 85) tell her story - as I was fortunate enough to do recently - that you realise the full extent of her heroic involvement in the fight against the Nazi occupation. The film, for its own romantic purposes, seems to suggest that it was Aubrac's love affair with the Jewish Resistance fighter Raymond Samule which led her into increasingly daring and dangerous actions against the fascists.

However, as is so often the case in such struggles, the facts of her story are even more remarkable than the fictionalised account. In reality Aubrac was a significant military figure in her own right, commanding a dozen fighters, and had been involved in a number of missions to rescue captured Resistance members long before her husband was taken prisoner.

The film's shortcomings, though, are outweighed by its strengths. Berri has created a movie which is both a great piece of historical film making and an excellent thriller. Lucie Aubrac is shot in the 'naturalistic' style typical of its director. Although appearing to be extremely 'realistic', even gritty, Berri's cinematography is actually wonderfully measured and subtly stylised. This is, in its own way, a very beautiful film. The superb action scenes rely more on the drama of the events they portray than on the more colourful techniques employed by many other 'big history' movies, and the characters seem always to absorb the lead actors - Carole Bouquet and Daniel Auteuil are brilliant as Aubrac and Samule - rather than becoming vehicles for the big name stars.

Berri creates an emotional engagement which heightens our anguish at the characters' bewilderment in the face of the Nazi transportation of Jewish and political prisoners - including comrades, friends and family - to a Holocaust of which they know very little. In seeing how such momentous world events impacted upon the lives of individuals, we begin to understand how apparently 'ordinary' people were moved to do such extraordinary things.

Lucie Aubrac, a love story set in turbulent and terrible times, could be seen as another movie about heroic historical events never to be repeated; indeed the film never really attempts to relate directly to the politics of today in the way in which, for example, Ken Loach's Land and Freedom does. However, for Aubrac herself there is no sense that she considers her actions to be of merely historical interest. She still today lays much emphasis on the importance of the unity between liberals, such as herself, and Communists within the Resistance and, unlike many liberals and even socialists in France today, she accepts the description of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front as fascist; noting that 'Le Pen uses many of the same arguments as the Nazis' regarding poverty, unemployment and the scapegoating of minorities.

Lucie Aubrac agreed to put her name to this film when Claude Berri pledged his moral and financial support to the Resistance Foundation. It is his film, however, which is his greatest contribution to the memory of the wartime struggle. Brilliant in purely cinematic terms, it will, no doubt, be a source of inspiration to many among the new generation of anti-fascists.

Mark Brown


Coming to terms with change


by Stephen Churchett

One of the effects of television is that you become so familiar with certain actors that it's virtually impossible to distinguish them from the characters they play, especially in long-running or repeated series.

This is quite a challenge for live theatre because the author and the actor have only a couple of hours or so to convince you - and none of the tricks available to the television producer. The unknown actor is at a disadvantage while well known performers run the risk of bringing their screen characters on stage with them. That's not Ophelia, it's Bianca from EastEnders...

It's a testimony to this play that this doesn't happen, despite the presence of several well known television performers, notably George Cole in the main role. One reason is the quality of Stephen Churchett's writing. He has a beautiful sense of the way in which people often express their most intimate feelings in an understated way, and a major theme of this play is the way members of a very 'English' family come to terms with changes in their personal lives: the death of a lover, the deceit of a husband, the challenge of finding what it is you really want to do.

The action takes place in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital, which are being 'redeveloped' to make room for a conference centre and an underground car park. The central character, Harry, is a Chelsea Pensioner. Fiercely opposed to this change, and all it implies about lack of respect for the past, he is at the same time able to cope with the different upheavals in the lives of his children and grandchildren.

It is the way he copes - both gentle and robust - that provides the play with its most touching (and comic) moments.

The play is less coherent when it comes to the external world. The story of the redevelopment, and the way it intertwines with the family crisis, is unconvincing. The march of 'progress' is represented by the PR girl for the project who seems to have been taking lessons from Peter Mandelson (at one point she even says, 'I think we should embrace change') and it is her intrusion - complete with camcorder - on Remembrance Sunday which provokes Harry to explain the real meaning of heritage.

The political argument is not developed and if there is meant to be a 'message' here, it is rather feeble, reflected in Harry's weary comment, 'I'm a realist - you have to be these days.' I half hoped that Harry and his friend Clarkey would take over the building site and seize the JCBs (possibly with some help from Terry McCann and Swampy). But that would only happen on television.

Dave Beecham

Heritage is at the Hampstead Theatre, London, until 17 January, and then tours in Cambridge, Richmond, Guildford, Bath, Oxford and Warwickbooks


Subjects and objects

In Defence of History

Richard J Evans Granta £15.99

'The convincing answer to postmodernist attacks on history.' Such has been the response of reviewers to this book in the posh newspapers. Richard Evans does indeed take on and destroy a number of the popular postmodernist arguments that have been used to terrorise students in innumerable university departments into submission to their lecturers' dogmas. He also points to the inadequacies of much of the traditional history writing which concentrated on the action of kings and ministers while ignoring virtually everyone else. But he does not, at the end of the day, provide a coherent alternative view of history.

The postmodernists insist on two linked sets of ideas. The first is that we can never have access to any facts about the past. All we possess are documents or sometimes spoken memories, and these 'texts' merely express opinions that can never be authenticated. And we can never get behind such 'signifiers' to some realm of underlying reality.

Second, there can never be a single, correct explanation of what has happened. A historian can only provide a personal account of what may have happened. This can in no way be objective. It depends purely on how the historian selects and interprets the 'texts', which in turn depends on his or her cultural framework (or 'discourse'). Postmodernists conclude from this that any interpretation is as valid as any other, and that any attempt to win adherence to a total view of history (a 'grand narrative') is simply an expression of the drive for power by those who back it.

Evans dismantles the first set of arguments very effectively. He points to the effort which historians of all schools put into checking the authenticity of documents and then in comparing them with other documents of all sorts (lists of goods sold, registers of births and deaths, wills, court testimony) and with material remains (artefacts, tools, graveyards, tombs, domestic debris). Of course, the evidence is often incomplete and ambiguous. And people approaching it from different standpoints will try to interpret it in different ways. This leads to repeated, and sometimes interminable, arguments about exactly what did happen in the past. But it does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. Historians are, in principle if not always in practice, able to excavate facts that substantiate one line of argument and destroy another. Those who refuse to accept such criteria for trying to arrive at truth are not historians at all but fiction writers - and often of the worst and most dangerous kinds.

Evans absolutely correctly points out how enormously important this is in dealing with those who would try to cover up for the most horrific forms of barbarity. 'There is a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than the work of the "revisionists" who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all, is simply wrong. Here is an issue where the evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivialises mass murder to see it as a text... And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well.'

Evans is much weaker in his arguments when it comes to the second contention of postmodernism, that there are different, equally valid ways of interpreting the past and that it is wrong to aspire to a total view. He attacks postmodernists for suggesting that only women can write about women in past societies or blacks about the slave trade, but he then goes on to praise them because 'they have opened up possibilities for self renewal for the historical discipline, suggesting a way out of the impasse into which social determinism, above all in its Marxist variants, had run by the beginning of the 1990s.'

He continues by accepting much of the postmodernist case that it is language and 'self identity' that structure social being, rather than the other way round. He claims, for instance, that nationalism has to be understood in terms of 'changing senses and meanings of social identity'.

From this, it is only a short step to him praising Simon Shama's pro-royalist diatribe against the French Revolution and Orlando Figes' somewhat similar diatribe against Bolshevism. He says they are 'brilliantly written narratives'. Yet he admits they both rely on 'detailed subplots and biographies whose selection is self confessedly personal and arbitrary' and that, in Shama's case, 'the economic and social misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned'.

If that's true, surely what we have are not real histories at all, but arbitrary constructions, fictions designed make an ideological point. Such backsliding towards postmodernism is a product of Evans's dismissal of 'determinism' and 'Marxism'.

Marx provides a general approach to history which is materialist and unitary without eliminating the role of human action and ideological conflict. This is because it starts with material circumstances of human beings, seeing that the separate aspects of human relationships usually described as 'political', 'economic', 'religious' or 'sexual' all have their ultimate origins in forms of the cooperation which develop as they try carve a livelihood for themselves out of nature.

But it does not stop there. It sees cooperation at a certain stage in the development of production as giving rise to class society and with it various 'superstructures' that try to freeze social relations - states, organised religions, ideological edifices, sanctified family forms. It also sees clashes within and between states as changes in production lead to the social forces which undermine old superstructures - clashes whose resolution depends in the end on the ability of human beings to reshape their view of the world, to organise into parties and armies and to overthrow those who defend the old ways.

This is not a finished account of all human history. But it is a general view of how society develops, a 'materialist conception' of history which provides a framework within which knowledge of the past can be put into a coherent form and provide us with an understanding of where the present comes from. Without this, you begin to fall back on the arbitrary storytelling of the postmodernists - which is precisely what happens to Evans.

Chris Harman

The great pretender

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali

Ian Gibson Faber £30

Towards the end of his life, the artist Salvador Dali invited a number of friends to his birthday party; when they arrived the guests were invited to tuck into a life-sized statue of Dali in chocolate. It was a perfect illustration of his career. He began as a controversial painter - he ended up as an object of consumption, bought and sold by wealthy patrons, a clown to their ringmaster. And, unlike Picasso, there was no sense at the end of his life that some part of his consciousness had been preserved to, at the very least, mock his own corruption or impotence. All he left behind was a squabbling bevy of parasites to fight over his fortune.

Dali, of course, was a willing accomplice in his own parody. He grew up in the beautiful coastal village of Cadaques in Catalonia and always returned to it; the seas and rocks off the beach, transformed by memory or redrawn in other materials, recurred often in his work. He was a skilled draughtsman - skills he learned as an art student in Madrid, where he formed a little bohemian clique with the poet and playwright Lorca and Luis Buñuel, who became a towering figure in world cinema. It was 1922 when Dali entered the student residence where they all lived together. The photographs show three young men experimenting, playing, obsessed with themselves and their own desires and passions. They were, after all, part of a generation growing up with an overpowering self absorption, an obsession with their own bodies and their own thoughts. But they were also challenging the rigid and conservative society around them with their daring clothes and their social and sexual experiments.

It was in Madrid that Dali first discovered Surrealism, and with it Freud (though he had begun to read him earlier). His contemporaries admired the work of this eccentric young Catalan. His early watercolour Night Walking Dreams was a collage in which they all appeared in a night scene surrounded by symbols of death and desire. What Dali found in Surrealism, and identified with, was an art which did not set out to represent the world, but turned to the symbolic landscapes of an inner universe. As he developed an artistic language to describe that inner world, what emerged, in these fruitful ten years or so of real achievement (1924-34), was a tension between order, organisation and precision, and the unresolved chaos of his own mind. Curious abstract shapes recall buttocks and penises and breasts; time and again sinuous objects violate and penetrate one another. Yet the background is always still, almost classical - or simply empty.

Ian Gibson, like Dali himself, is obsessed with the painter's sexual demons. In a glorious assertion Gibson notes that Dali 'was the only painter in the history of art to make masturbation a major theme of his work'. He may be right - though I would enjoy seeing him prove it! But if it is true, and all Dali's paintings are endless reworkings of his preoccupation with bums, shit (particularly eating it) and masturbation, it might be reasonable to ask why so many great and discerning artists thought him so extraordinary a painter?

At first Dali's obsessive exploration of his own fantasies seemed to be evidence of a seductive honesty. More than that, these public displays of perversion were delivered in a society, the Spain of his day, still utterly homophobic, repressed and Catholic. Against that background his collaborative film with Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou, exploded every taboo and derided every truth and moral regulation.

This was the sense in which André Breton saw Surrealism as revolutionary: the insistence that human beings were complex and contradictory, as capable of transformation as reality itself. It rejected the complacent universality of a bourgeois world and the artist in this sense was a free being, acting out a potential that could be awoken in everyone. Relationships, human and material, could be imagined quite differently; deeply hidden secrets could become explicit; the repressed could be shouted aloud. Dali's caricatures of religious icons and his sexual explicitness (in, say The Lugubrious Game or The Great Masturbator) had the same charge as earlier movements like Dada - to shock the bourgeoisie.

Somewhere along the line, however, Dali lost any sense that he was transforming the world. His skilful use of 'double imaging' where the image transformed itself and said something significant about what is hidden beneath surfaces and in dreams, became just trickery and conjuring. At some point, his anguished grappling with his own sexual fears - of his own homosexuality, of intercourse, of his father's power - turned into a kind of narcissism, a sudden realisation that there was money to be made from artistic eccentricity. And as Breton and the Surrealists moved increasingly towards revolutionary politics, Dali began to express public sympathy for Nazism, and later to espouse the cause of Franco in Spain.

It isn't clear that he had any particular political views, but he did have an overweening sense of his own importance. So he spoke to scandalise - anyone, everyone - for its own sake, and perhaps, too, to keep his distance from anything that might require him to be responsible to others. Picasso painted Guernica for the Republican Pavilion at the French International Exhibition in 1937 - Dali absented himself. Miró left a record of his despair and sense of loss at the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, while Dali was exhibiting, tellingly, his Metamorphosis of Narcissus and preparing to spend the uncomfortable years (1940-48) in America.

By the mid-1930s, soon after completing the famous 'soft watch' painting The Persistence of Time, Dali became the jester to his many wealthy patrons. The scathing wit of his youth became comedy and farce; his art gave way to the selling of himself. The artist became 'The Artist'. He grew very rich. And he returned to Spain, where his museum is a junk room full of tricksy rubbish and some occasionally beautiful and insightful work.

Ian Gibson's biography is fantastically well informed. Yet Dali spent the second part of his life rewriting himself as legend - so Gibson has a very difficult job, perhaps an impossible one, in disentangling myth from truth. His conclusion is kind to Dali: his crazy statements, his racist diatribes and mystical nonsense about Hitler and Franco were dangerous and cynical and not just the ravings of a self indulgent fool. But it is also true that Dali's brief ten years of good work did leave some riveting imagery to describe the 'dark night of the soul' and the corruption of his age. And while Gibson sees a personal shame and fear of his own desires as a driving force, we might also see that the shameful life began not when he painted unresolved sex and yawning bodies, but when he began to dance to the tune of his paymasters and allowed them to devalue and deride what was, at least briefly, valuable and meaningful in his (and his contemporaries') work.

Mike Gonzalez

Just a matter of time

Questioning the Millennium

Stephen Jay Gould Cape £12.99

The cost of the millennium dome is currently estimated at £762 million. Nobody knows what it will contain - including Peter Mandelson, head of the millennium commission. But what are we meant to be celebrating?

Although the church will certainly do its best to cash in, 2000 AD does not mark 2,000 years since any noteworthy historical event - certainly not the birth of Jesus. As Stephen Jay Gould demonstrates, it is simply a marker point we've reached on a flawed calendar which is the end product of thousands of years of human history.

Some measures of time are directly equivalent to nature - the lengths of days and years are fixed by the rotation of the planets. However, since it is not possible to divide the 3651/4 days in a year into any whole number of smaller units, a variety of measurements developed. Calendars from different civilisations drew from their own environment and were based around specific events in their own history. For example, the early Mayan Empire operated to a week lasting 20 days, while the Romans measured dates 'from the founding of the city'.

The BC-AD system in use today was first developed and popularised by monks as western Europe advanced from the dark ages. With the development of feudalism and then capitalism, the establishment of common standards became more important and more refinements were made.

In a wide ranging discussion of history, theology, philosophy, science and mathematics Gould shows how ideas are shaped and limited by the societies in which they develop. Cumulative errors in calculation were made which were unavoidable given the concepts available to the early scholars, but which resulted in a calendar which is entirely meaningless by any rational criteria.

Gould also examines the Christian idea of the apocalypse, and there are over 15 reproductions of paintings and sculptures on the theme. A neat biblical argument had established that the world would exist for 6,000 years before the kingdom of god would rule for a thousand years.

Some theologians attempted to pinpoint exactly when this would take place by adding up the reigns of all known rulers (including those in the Bible who lived for hundreds of years) to determine the precise age of the earth. For others the establishment of heaven on earth was a much more pressing need, and the coming of the millennium was a consistent theme in social movements such as Thomas Müntzer's peasant revolt in Germany in the 16th century and among the radical sects of the English Civil War.

Gould clearly enjoyed writing this book, which is a departure from his usual field of evolution. The range of subjects tackled is impressive, but this diversity in a book of only 180 pages produces a history which is rich in description but sometimes lacks real depth. The style is of history as a series of more or less accidental events rather than a process. Nevertheless it is a highly entertaining and informative read.

Mike Arrowsmith

The enemy within

The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak Bloomsbury £7.99

In February 1940, 200,000 Jews were sealed in the Lodz Ghetto by the Nazis. Lodz had the second largest Jewish population in Europe after Warsaw and prospered as the textile capital of Europe. As many as 60,000 Jews perished in the ghetto from starvation and disease, and a further 130,000 were gassed after deportation.

The Nazis used the ghetto as an industrial slave labour camp where the last bit of productivity could be squeezed out of the Jews while they were starved and broken down for deportation to the death camps of Chelmno and Auschwitz.

After the liberation of the Lodz Ghetto Dawid Sierakowiak's five notebooks were found - the rest had been burnt for heat. His diary begins in June 1939 and breaks off in April 1943 a few months before he died of tuberculosis and starvation, aged 19.

The notebooks contain a remarkable account of life in the ghetto written with an amazing humour and spirit from a young Communist who exposes not only the horror of persecution in the ghetto under the Nazis but also 'the rotten bourgeois-bureaucratic basis on which the ghetto exists'.

Dawid was a Marxist who was highly critical of the class divisions in the ghetto and the 'sadist-moron' Rumkowski who was the Jewish elder, or chairman, of the ghetto. He assured the population they had nothing to fear boarding the trains, knowing the complete opposite was true.

Rumkowski was appointed by the Nazis to run the ghetto and maintain ever increasing productivity in the factories and workshops and to maintain order. He did this by ensuring that any potential trouble makers or Communists, including some of Dawid's teachers, were amongst the first deportations.

In June 1941 a period of dissent was developing in the ghetto against the low wages and hunger when strikes in the major workshops and militant demonstrations took place. The leaders were eliminated by Rumkowski and the Jewish police forced underground the youth Communist group in which Dawid was involved.

Dawid gives accounts of the terrible hunger that took the lives and sapped the strength and will of the Jewish prisoners daily. Yet alongside this members of the police and bureaucracy flourished. Dawid describes going to teach the pupil of a rich family who were eating better than he did before the war.: 'The workers are dying at a terrifying rate, while the ruling class lives in growing prosperity.'

Life depended on the allocation of rations and your contacts. High ranking clerks could celebrate new year 1943 with vodka and cakes. The most harrowing passages are from September 1942 when Rumkowski ordered the deportations of all the children, sick and elderly from the ghetto. Dawid's mother is part of the deportation.

In fact this act from Rumkowski signalled the beginning of his end because Dawid describes how even the sick fought to avoid the deportation and the Nazis were forced to step in, greatly reducing Rumkowski's power. The man who had hoped the Nazis would let him run a Jewish slave labour state after the war was beaten to death in an anteroom to the gas chambers in Auschwitz by the Jews he had deported.

Dawid's diaries show his courage to the end, his remarkable interest in everyday politics in spite of frostbite, scabies and starvation. He can still rejoice at the news from India of the formation of the independence movement and each day gives a comment on the war in Europe. All the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis but they were not persecuted equally. Dawid was a fighter and a resister but without proper leadership in the ghetto to oppose the Nazis his ideas were never turned into actions. If they had been the ending could have been very different.

Claire Dissington

The church militant

Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood

Emilia Viotti da Costa OUP £14.99

In the decades leading up to the abolition of slavery, the colonies of the British West Indies were rocked by a series of large scale slave revolts. These rebellions seriously undermined the British government's commitment to slavery, an institution whose commercial viability was already on the wane, and enabled the abolitionists' movement to gain the moral high ground over its opponents.

Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood chronicles the events surrounding one of these revolts, the Demerara (now called Guyana) Slave Rebellion of 1823. The rebellion achieved notoriety in England, not because the colony's slaves had made a bid to gain their freedom or because of the excessive brutality used to subdue the uprising. The issue that became the source of controversy was the fact that the Demerara colonists had tried and hanged John Smith, a local white missionary, for inciting the slaves to revolt.

Smith had been a member of the London Missionary Society (LMS), an organisation founded for the express purpose of exporting the 'civilising values of Christianity' throughout the dominions of the British Empire. To the leaders of the LMS, religion represented a means of social control that could teach the 'lower classes' and the inhabitants of 'the dark places of the world' sobriety and obedience.

However, within the context of early 19th century Britain - a time of great political repression - religion could often become a vehicle for political dissent. Emilia Viotti da Costa expresses this contradiction well. She states, 'It [religion] may mean one thing to the rich, and another thing to the poor...the biblical message is itself ambiguous. It can teach subservience, but can also justify rebellion.'

John Smith was the embodiment of these contradictions. When he moved to the colony, Smith was immediately enraged by the brutality and injustice of slavery and instantly acknowledged the humanity possessed by the slaves. Yet Smith still held the same racist and paternalistic view of blacks that was so common among missionaries and reformists at that time. Viotti da Costa points out this contradiction:

'In spite of his patronising attitudes, his oblivious sense of superiority, and occasional bouts of racism, that led him to compare some half-naked slave orang-utangs, Smith sympathised with the slaves' predicament and condemned their oppressors.'

After his death, Smith was seen as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause and the defence of his reputation as 'a man of integrity' became 'a cause célèbre' among the abolitionist movement. However, many of the middle class reformers who took part in the campaign against slavery were guilty of sharing many of the same racist and paternalistic notions about blacks as the plantation owners who they condemned. The book's author comments:

'Both sides presented a picture in which the slaves appeared, not as historical agents in their own right, but as passive victims either of manipulation by a misguided missionary or exploitation by cruel masters.'

One of the strengths of Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood is that the book's author constructs a detailed picture of the slaves' lives. Viotti da Costa illustrates the way slaves strove to maintain family and kinship ties and teach each other to read at night even though they were often put through 15 hours a day intensive labour. She also shows that, despite the brutal and degrading conditions that the slaves had to endure, they were able to maintain their dignity and a sense of their own humanity. The author points to the fact that the slaves' own notions that they had rights as human beings were the main cause of the uprising, rather than the preachings of the missionary.

Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood also raises several other important issues such as the declining profitability of British colonies in the West Indies, the debates taking place among the British ruling class about the best means of social control for the 'lower orders', and the incompatability of the ideas that stem from a system of 'free' wage labour and chattel slavery.

Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood is a very good book which will be appreciated by those who wish to expand their knowledge of the subject of new world slavery.

Dean Ryan

Master craftsman

The Scenic Railway

Edward Upward Enitharmon Press £6.99

Some readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with Edward Upward's writing. Many will not. He is the last survivor of the socialist and radical novelists of the 1930s and, unlike the rest, he never betrayed his beliefs.

It is impossible not to be in awe of a writer who still strives, after more than 70 years of work, to achieve his aim of truth in fiction - particularly when his stories are so painstakingly crafted, like exquisitely turned pieces of wood. Upward never found writing easy, partly because of the exacting task he set himself and partly because of the contradiction between his unorthodox talent as a writer of a form of 'Surrealism' and the Stalinist view of literature which, as an active Communist, he was obliged to believe in.

It would be wrong to treat Upward as some sort of fascinating fossil and it should be said that the five stories in this book are not his best work. They are all on the themes of old age and memory, and also, it seems to me, on the theme of betrayal - both the betrayal of ideals and personal betrayal.

The main problem is that unlike Upward's other recent work, such as An Unmentionable Man (published in 1994), let alone his earlier writing, these stories feel like a throwback. It is almost as if he had reluctantly been persuaded to publish something. Having said that, they do still display his unique quality of merging dream with reality, as well as a touching poignancy and delicacy. Not everything is as simple as it first seems and sometimes it is only at the third or fourth reading that you really understand. On the back of this book a photograph of the author looks out at you with a mischievous and enigmatic smile. You have been warned!

David Beecham

Russia's vietnam

Chechnya: a small victorious war

Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal Pan £6.99

Russia's attack on the small Caucasus republic of Chechnya started over Christmas 1994. Television news bulletins carrying the images of bombed tower blocks in the capital, Grozny, were for most people the first they had heard of Chechnya. But the history of Russian subjugation in the area is a long and bloody one.

The resistance invading Russian troops met surprised and embarrassed the military chiefs such as Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Kremlin security council. He said in the build up to the invasion in November 1994 that President Yeltsin needed 'a small victorious war' to win re-election.

This was the phrase used in 1904, by the Tsarist minister Plehve, who said, 'We need a small victorious war to avert the revolution.' The war with Japan took place but the Russian defeat did not avert the revolution of 1905. In early 1995 the humiliation the world's second military superpower received from the Chechen resistance was as significant a defeat for Yeltsin's regime as Afghanistan had been in the 1980s.

This new book combines a good overview of the historical background to the war with a first hand account by two of the journalists involved in covering the fighting. They managed to get close access to the Chechen resistance, and convey well the determination of the fighters which won the grudging respect of some of the Russian soldiers.

In the 19th century it took the Tsarist army the best part of 50 years to break Chechen resistance and win control of an area vital for trade routes to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The discovery of oil in Grozny in the 1890s added to the strategic importance of the region. During the civil war which followed the 1917 revolution the Chechens fought alongside the Reds, and faced atrocities from the Whites. But as Stalin consolidated his position in the 1920s, he reintroduced old Russian chauvinist policies.

The forced collectivisation of 1929 provoked massive Chechen resistance and in 1937, in revenge, 14,000 Chechens and Ingush (a neighbouring ethnic group) were shot by the Stalinist state - 3 percent of the population.

An even greater and bloodier revenge came in February 1944. Under the pretext that they were sympathetic to the Nazis, the whole of the Chechen population - half a million people - were deported in freight trains to the frozen steppe of Kazakhstan in central Asia. One quarter died either in transit or from hunger and cold within the first five years. Chechen gravestones were used to pave the streets of the towns now repopulated by ethnic Russians. This event alone can explain the Chechen declaration of independence from Russia of late 1991.

Many commentators during the 1995 war sought to explain it in terms of the growth of Islam as a force in this Muslim republic. Here again the authors' knowledge of the area allows them to look behind the journalistic clichés. Islam grew mainly during the war, and most Chechens paid lip service to Muslim codes of behaviour while living relatively westernised lives.

Dudaev, who became Chechen president and led the war until his death, had little contact with Chechnya for 30 years until the late 1980s, married a Russian and was an air force general who led bombing missions on Afghan villages and then went on to command a fleet of nuclear bombers in Estonia. Someone who rose to such a high rank in the Soviet military machine could hardly be described as a 'mad mullah'. Even as president, his knowledge of Islam was notoriously patchy.

It was while in Estonia, during the rise of the Baltic popular fronts, that Dudaev realised the old system was collapsing and saw the potential for a form of popular nationalism to harness the discontent. Rather than being religion driven, the drive to independence was a social and political revolt, as seen all over the Russian empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite having oil reserves, refineries and vital oil pipelines, Chechnya was one of the poorest regions of the Soviet Union with up to 200,000 young men out of work. Many Chechens were forced to travel to find seasonal work in other parts of Russia.

The war was also notable for seeing the beginnings of an antiwar movement within Russia, led by mothers of Russian conscripts. The military failure and the unpopularity of the war eventually forced a Russian withdrawal, though only after tens of thousands had been killed and most buildings in Chechnya destroyed. Its lasting effect has been to reinforce the Russian version of the 'Vietnam syndrome' - a reluctance to send in the troops to enforce imperialist aims.

This book gives an interesting and well written account of both the history and the background to the war, as well as the fighting itself. Chechnya's relationship to the Russian empire is not unique. As such it is a valuable case study of the nature and faultlines of Russian imperialism.

Nicolai Gentchev

The Welsh for rebellion

The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr

RR Davies OUP £9.99

Seven hundred years before the recent referendum, Wales briefly had its own parliament, its prince was recognised by the pope and the king of France and there were plans to build a Welsh state with two universities. This is the story RR Davies tells in his very readable The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr.

Owain Glyn Dwr was a member of the lesser gentry, he had studied law at the Inns of Court in London and he had fought for the king of England in the French wars. However, as a Welshman Owain was still a second class citizen. When Owain quarrelled with his English neighbour Lord Grey of Ruthin over land ownership, he could not take the dispute to a court, as a Welshman suing an Englishman would spark a rebellion.

In 1400 a group of Owain's friends proclaimed him Prince of Wales and, as Davies says, this set a general movement into motion which spread 'through much of north Wales within weeks and was followed a few months later by the equally sudden and even more spectacular capture of Conway Castle. This was clearly rather more than the personal aberration of a disaffected Welsh squire and his close companions: it quickly tapped an undercurrent of frustration, resentment and aspiration in Welsh society. It soon became a truly national revolt.'

Thus a dispute with the ruling orders was pushed forward by the anger of the peasant to take on a national dimension. The high point of the revolt was in 1403 when Owain came to an agreement with King Henry IV's enemies, Lord Mortimer and Hotspur. If successful this 'Tripartite Indenture' would have seen the creation of an independent Wales and England split into two nations.

However, Owain's English allies were defeated on 21 July 1403 at the battle of Shrewsbury. By 1409 the king's forces captured Harlech, the last of Owain's strongholds. Most of Owain's noble supporters made terms with the king. One of them, Henry Don, was fined £200 for his part in the revolt against the king. Don obtained the cash by fining 200 of his tenants £1 each for not revolting with him!

Owain's fate is unknown. He just disappeared and became a legend, which in Gwyn A Williams's view affected for centuries the way the Welsh saw themselves, 'for the Welsh mind is still haunted by its lightning-flash vision of a people that was free.'

Davies sets the revolt in the context of the European wide crisis of feudalism which also gave birth to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. In the final section of the book Owain's fate as national icon is assessed. The book is recommended to anyone who also wishes to understand Welsh history without recourse to myths.

Phil Knight

A different angle

Movies As Politics

Jonathan Rosenbaum University of California Press £13.95

This collection of 42 essays and reviews written between 1972 and 1995 reminds us of the lack of political discussion about movies nowadays. Popular film writing is indistinguishable from the marketing press packs which lazy journalists pass off as their own work. The Observer's Philip French and Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times are notably rare independent voices. Sight and Sound, which Rosenbaum has written for, usually restricts itself to a hidden agenda of purely aesthetic criteria. Britain has never produced radical film journals like those that stagger on in the US. Rosenbaum belongs in their tradition.

He explains that 'my main to argue that what is designed to make people feel good at the movies has a profound relation to how and what they think and feel about the world around them'. This means, for example, looking at Star Wars in the light of the US military weapons programme Reagan named after it.

He also draws a connection between the Gulf War and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, comparing George Bush's standing ovation in congress to Anthony Hopkins's Oscar acceptance. 'What seemed so horrific to me at the time about the specious claim that this movie was teaching us something important about evil or psychosis or violence was that it was being made just as we were gleefully devastating a country already oppressed by a dictator - mainly it seemed for the sake of holding a weapons trade fair. So our fascination with Hannibal Lecter, killing without compunction, may have betrayed a certain unconscious narcissism on our part; in fact the crazy shrink had nothing on us.' This angle on violence in cinema is usually absent. The religious and reactionary response to violent images dominates most debate.

Among a vast range of international popular esoteric films under discussion, Socialist Review readers might be intrigued by Rosenbaum's comments on Warren Beatty's Reds about the american socialist John Reed.

He addresses the whole contradiction of a 'revolutionary blockbuster'. He insists that the documentary testimony of various witnesses gives them 'an authenticity to which the rest of the film can't pretend to aspire', and that 'Beatty drains the real politics out of Reed's life - the issues of class and revolution - for the sake of their traditional Hollywood replacements, romance and spectacle.'

I don't think anyone could argue against this, and Rosenbaum is particularly perceptive about Diane Keaton's depiction of Louise Bryant, saddled with 'the contemporary tics of a Woody Allen heroine'. He quotes another writer's apt observation that 'the movement in her face reflects a mind that's a garden of second thoughts; as soon as she asserts something she takes it back.'

He goes on to praise the film's 'certain kind of honesty, a modest yet workable access to truth'. Rosenbaum starts this piece with Marx's comments about how we make our own history but not in conditions of our own choosing. This seems exactly the right starting point in an analysis of this film.

The financial, narrative and ideological constraints set by those who control the film industry would never have allowed Beatty - presuming he wanted it - anything more radical than we got in 1981. Yet to have alerted new generations of filmgoers to historical characters and events their rulers would sooner forget was no mean feat.

This collection is very engaging. You will find plenty to argue with and reflect on about dozens of movies you have seen. There will also be many, largely Asian and African movies, that you will want to see just to compare notes. The downside of this type of book is that the author never has room to fully expand on political or theoretical arguments. Nor is there any consideration of those English language filmmakers like Ken Loach or John Sayles who regularly take politics and history as starting points.

But it is still a welcome blast of fresh air given the industry-driven hype about a British film renaissance which actually takes place within the narrowest conception of what film has been and could be, and where debate about the social significance of film is dominated by the right.

Nick Grant

The bard for Blairites

The Genius of Shakespeare

Jonathan Bate Picador £20

The publisher claims that this book represents a 'unique' combination of biographical details of Shakespeare's life, an authoritative summation of the authorship question and a detailed analysis of how Shakespeare has subsequently become a writer of international renown. Bate divides his book into two: the origins and contemporary development of Shakespeare's works; and an attempt to trace the more recent development of Shakespeare's reputation as a 'presiding genius'.

Bate is also claimed by the publishers to be 'our finest Shakespeare scholar' so there is clearly more than one genius at work! The book is indeed readable and contains a number of entertaining historical anecdotes, but its real purpose is to attest to Shakespeare's genius, and Bate's attempt to examine the historical development of Shakespeare's influence is flawed.

The author's own perspective is most clearly demonstrated by his attack on left wing critics described as the 'new iconoclasts' and who he caricatures as viewing Shakespeare as little more than a ruling class stooge. The problem is that these critics are not clearly identified and only two, Terence Hawkes and Gary Taylor, are referred to by name. The 'new iconoclasts' are, to Bate, 'an irritant because they do not allow us to take Shakespeare's iconic status for granted'. They are misleadingly accused of wanting to set Shakespeare aside and replace him with black, women and working class writers. Ironically, Bate acknowledges his indebtedness to Taylor and indeed his retracing of Shakespeare's cultural history has already been extensively covered in Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare.

A key charge levelled against his targets by Bate is that they enabled the Tory right to appropriate Shakespeare in the 1980s. Bate clearly want to retrieve him for the 'sensible' left, almost giving him a Blairite makeover in the process. At times his method smacks of intellectual dishonesty. Writing about The Tempest he argues that 'the ugly truth which late 20th century criticism could exclusively reveal was that the play is in fact a text reeking of the discourse of colonialism. The Tempest must bear the blame for the Atlantic slave trade.' He argues that Shakespeare was being made a scapegoat so that literary theorists could assuage the guilt of empire. Who on earth could possibly make such a bizarre connection?

The Marxist tradition of literary criticism has always sought to avoid attempts to reduce texts to their political stance. Trotsky argued that 'a work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, the law of art'. Our understanding of that law, however, is sharpened by an understanding of the relationship between its form and ideological content. In order to do this effectively, any text has to be placed in its social and historical context. This is just as true of Shakespeare as any other writer.

The bitterness and disillusion represented in Shakespeare's plays are a reflection of the tensions in late Elizabethan society between the desire for unchanging order and stability and the beginnings of the social ferment that led eventually to the English Civil War. We value his writing because it illuminates this historical period and provides echoes for us today. By placing him in a historical and political context we pay him a greater tribute than writers like Bate who seek to assert his 'timeless genius'.

Shaun Doherty

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