Issue 216 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review



Chorus of approval

Michael Tippett, who has died aged 93, was one of the greatest British classical composers of the 20th century and maintained serious social concerns throughout his long life, which he sought to express in his music.

Tippett's father was a lawyer whilst his mother was a novelist, Labour Party member and suffragette who was imprisoned for her agitation for women's rights. When Tippett was nine he wrote a school essay demonstrating the impossibility of the existence of god. He became aware he was gay at an early age and regarded it as an 'instinctive and perfectly natural way of expressing himself'. He lacked any of the misogyny that characterised upper class gay circles in the 1930s.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s his social conscience was awakened by the Depression. On a trip to the north of England he saw 'for the first time, with horrified eyes, the undernourished children.' Tippett became 'quite certain that...somewhere music could have a direct the compassion that was so deep in my heart.'

Tippett joined the Communist Party in 1935, under the influence of the composer Alan Bush. Tippett identified with Trotsky's ideas of international revolution led by the proletariat rather than 'socialism in one country' under the control of an autocratic party and sought, naively, to subvert the Communist Party from within towards Trotskyism. He left after a few weeks. His flirtation with organised politics was brief - in thinking through his political position he recoiled from the thought of violence and instead became a lifelong pacifist.

In 1938 Herschel Grynspan assassinated a German diplomat in Paris, prompting the Nazis to launch Kristallnacht, the pogrom against Jews across Germany. Tippett had planned to write an oratorio on the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, but Kristallnacht changed his mind and instead he composed the brilliant A Child of our Time. Tippett wrote his own libretto, something that was to be a distinctive feature of all of his five operas and his other works for voices. The source of the composition, an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible, has associated subsequent performances with the victims of Hiroshima, the street children of Sao Paolo and Aids sufferers.

Tippett refused to serve in the Second World War because of his pacifist principles and he was jailed for three months in Wormwood Scrubs, an event his mother described as 'her proudest moment'.

After the war Tippett and Britten became the focal figures of the continuation of the second British musical renaissance begun by Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams. However, Tippett took a long time to be accepted as the great composer he was. In 1953 the conductor Malcolm Sargent, later a mainstay of the appalling 'Last Night of the Proms', withdrew from conducting the first performance of the Corelli Fantasia on the grounds that it was 'overburdened with notes' and swore that he would 'get the intellectuals out of music'. The first performance of the superb second symphony conducted by Adrian Boult had to be restarted after it collapsed in the first movement. The BBC claimed that Tippett had made the music too difficult and banned him from coming within 30 feet of the stage at subsequent rehearsals!

The News Chronicle greeted the opening of his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, in 1955 with the comment, 'Not since Salvador Dali tried to introduce a flying hippopotamus into the cast of Strauss's Salome has the Royal Opera House had such a baffled cast on its hands.'

Tippett went on to compose four more operas: King Priam, The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year. It is for this work and his oratorios that he will be primarily remembered, even though there is also a fine collection of sonatas, string quartets and symphonies. It is through the fusion of music and word that Tippett was best able to express his compassion and his humanity. In The Knot Garden for example, he examines the issues of a lifeless marriage, racism, bisexuality and homosexuality, and the torture of political prisoners. In The Ice Break he explores the reconciliation of East and West, of black and white.

Although he accepted the Order of Merit in 1983 Tippett retained his critical independence. He spoke out against the evils of monetarism and the effects of Tory spending cuts on music teaching in state schools. Meirion Bowen claims, in a fine musical biography of Tippett, that his joy at the election of Labour in 1997 was 'unbounded'.

However, I wonder how long this joy would have lasted if he had lived longer. In the late 1980s plans were announced for the refurbishment and commercial extension of the Royal Opera House, including the involvement of Disneyland. Tippett sent off a note to the then head of the ROH, Jeremy Isaacs, offering to write an opera entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The offer was gratefully accepted!

Tippett did not listen much to his own work, with the exception of The Midsummer Marriage. To the latter he still 'succumbed...feeling that, without doubt, its exaltation of life, love, nature, humanity, were worth all the effort and sacrifices to bring it to fruition.' Tippett's work is not always immediately appealing but it will enormously repay the effort to understand and appreciate it.

Rob Hoveman


Never mind the bollocks

Boogie Nights

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

Boogie Nights has been heaped with praise by film reviewers for being a new and radical look at the porn film industry but the truth is that it is a trivial and shallow movie.

The story is simple enough and, supposedly, true to the life of real characters in the Los Angeles porn film industry. Eddie Adams rim (and that is the right word) from night club kitchen skivvy to 'fame' as renamed porn film star Dirk Diggler. His success rests, like that of some newspaper journalists, on the size of his column and his ability to turn it out on demand, day after day.

He falls in with porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and porn actresses Amber Waves and Rollergirl. The latter gets her name from her refusal to be parted from her rollerblades even during sex.

Yet apart from the fact that it's about sex (unlike every other film in the history of cinema!) everything about this 'daring' film is conventional. The characters' motivation is about as convincing as the plots of the sex films they star in. Eddie's mother is a sexually repressed bully. A fight between her and teenage Eddie is enough for him to storm out of his home and into porn movies, which, as we all know, is the reaction of every teenager who rows with their parents.

Amber Waves' first major scene has her weeping into the phone because her estranged husband won't let her talk to her child.

This is supposed to establish sympathy with her role as the substitute 'mother' to Dirk and Rollergirl, supplying them with sex and drugs. Rollergirl's motivation for becoming a porn queen seems to be that she's no good at school exams and that one of her classmates pulls a face at her.

Jack Homer is so morally upright that he could be the town preacher, apart from his line of work. As patriarchal head of this misfit family he never takes drugs himself, never has sex, only has a film maker's proper pride in the quality of his films and is always there as financial supporter, shoulder to cry on and all-round good egg.

Later Jack's normality is further attested to when he abandons his former friend and financier Colonel James after he's jailed for owning child pornography. Jack, you are meant to understand, is a good, straight up-and-down the-wicket pornographer and therefore not to be confused in any way with a pervert.

Drugs are the only thing that destroys the success of this merry little band. Their fives fall to pieces as the 1970s turn into the 1980s. Now that's a strange plot when you come to think about it. An utterly conventional Nancy Reagan type attitude to drugs coupled with a supposedly liberated attitude to porn films. The thought that what helped to destroy these people's lives is that they spent their youth having sex for money in front of a film crew is not considered. The film's major failure is its inability to distinguish sexual liberation and the rejection of repressive moralism, from sexual exploitation and making money out of human sexual desires.

There is at least one occasion, even the most gullible viewer will feel that their sympathy is being manipulated.

In one scene Jack Horner and Rollergirl entice a passing pedestrian into their limo in order to film a sex scene. The bloke, who happens to be the lad who pulled a face at Rollergirl in school, doesn't perform artistically enough for Jack and Rollergirl. So they prematurely eject him from the car. When he complains and abuses them, Jack and Rollergirl beat his face to pulp because he showed them disrespect.

If a couple want to have sex in a car, not to feel inhibited from doing so may be liberating. But to be paid to have sex in a car, let alone having your face stomped for not obeying the director, that's sexual exploitation Hollywood style. Oh, and the film is supposed to have another saving grace. It's a comedy, in a post-ironic, nostalgic sociological kind of way. But whether or not that sustains you over two and a half hours depends on how funny you find Carry On innuendo and jokes about flares and tanktops.

There was a chance to make a good film here, to explore the real motivation, social and psychological, of people who have sex to earn a wage, to examine what that does to their lives. But that chance was passed up in favour of making a silly, manipulative film which excuses what it should explain and endorses what is should criticise.

John Rees

Tunnel vision

Pretty Village. Pretty Flame

Dir: Sredjan Dragojevic

This is a bold anti-war film with a powerful anti-chauvinist message. Made in Serbia, it is, however, dedicated to 'the film industry of a country that no longer exists'. It drives home in scenes of unmitigated horror the absurdity and brutality of the recent three sided Yugoslav civil war.

The story begins in 1971 with the opening amid great fanfare of a tunnel linking different regions of the united country. The official ceremony highlights a general air of optimism, though there is a symbolic hint of the bloodshed to come as the officiating Communist bureaucrat gashes his finger while cutting the ribbon. By 1980 the tunnel is disused and derelict, symbolising the ultimate failure of Yugoslav state capitalism. Two young boys, Halil, a Muslim, and Milan, a Bosnian Serb, play at its entrance but are frightened to enter as it is rumoured to be haunted by an ogre. Tito's death is announced and the boys feel they ought to cry but can't. As they grow up, Halil and Milan remain close friends. They also jointly own the village garage. But their friendship is shattered as the Bosnian civil war erupts in 1992. Friends and neighbours from different ethnic backgrounds turn on each other, rejecting their common Yugoslav identity.

Milan's platoon ends up trapped in the tunnel, besieged by Muslim militias led by Halil. The Muslims taunt and threaten the Serbs who hurl back similar insults and warnings. The dialogue is taut spiced with dour humour. As thirst and hunger sap the Serbs' morale, the Muslims drive a cow to the tunnel's entrance, then blow it up, singing 'No Milk Today'. They send the village teacher, wounded and dazed, into the tunnel, apparently strapped with explosives, tempting the Serbs to shoot her before they are blown up. Will Milan draw the line at killing his teacher?

The siege underscores the hopelessness and senselessness of a war in which there are no winners: the Serbs are ensnared in the tunnel but equally the Muslims can't enter or flush them out. The tunnel is a forceful metaphor, symbolising the restricted vision and dead end of nationalism, a point tragically illustrated by the final despair of the Serbs. Although formally the story is told from their point of view, both sides are presented as equally responsible for the carnage.

The narrative unfolds in flashbacks as Milan lies seriously wounded in a Belgrade hospital and remembers his boyhood friendship with Halil, the siege and the various landmarks on the descent into barbarism.

Dragojevic seems determined to puncture liberal illusions in the possibility of reconciliation. in the last scene, Milan crawls out of his hospital bed determined to stab a Muslim fellow patient. The tunnel is restored but at the opening ceremony there is a hint of the next round of bloodshed as the film freezes on an official about to cut his finger again.

The film's weakness is its inability to transcend its own liberalism. It fails to deepen our understanding of the war, its roots in economic crisis and the strike wave of the 1980s that frightened the various national leaders into orchestrating a chauvinist chorus. Arguably, however, without those three factors, the backsliding into ethnicity would not have occurred. Nevertheless, it is a gripping and moving film with some compelling performances.

Sabby Sagall

Murder most foul

Resurrection Man

Dir: Marc Evans

This is a very stylish and slickly made thriller. Its half lit night scenes, driving rain and bleakness of outlook act as a homage to film noir. But instead of enriching the film's story the director's visual cleverness actually undermines it. For Resurrection Man, although ostensibly based on a novel of the same name, echoes the all too real story of the Shankill Butchers-a Loyalist murder gang in the 1970s so called because a butcher's knife was the weapon used to mutilate the victims while still alive.

Any expectations that this film will enlighten audiences about violence in Northern Ireland are dashed with the opening credits, which include the statement that Belfast is a place where 'gangsters draw their boundaries in blood'. Thus the motivation for the appalling murders which follow is stripped from its political and sectarian roots meaning that the story could as easily have been set in LA as Belfast-an observation proudly made by the film makers themselves' It's every city, it's universal.'

We follow Victor Kelly (Stuart Townsend) as he groups around him a gang of murderous thugs whose hatred for Catholics becomes an obsession. Their victims were chosen late at night on the streets of Belfast where their religion could be guessed from what street they were on and where they were walking. The pleasure the gang takes at the selection of their next victim is chilling and the fact that some of the violence was openly meted out in a Loyalist drinking club shows how little the gang feared detection.

A shadowy character in the background-McClure-acts as Victor's mentor and is seen as orchestrating events. His character is crudely drawn in one scene where we learn of his repressed homosexuality (the real Shankill Butchers have protested that this is a slur though they obviously have no objections to their portrayal as brutal murderers).

Because the political aspect of the story is either simplistically portrayed or ignored. the film never moves on from being a fairly bloody but inconsequential violent gang movie. Sectarian murder is not a feature in every city, nor were the murders that are portrayed in the film common even to Belfast.

For even there in the middle of the 1970s when the troubles were at their height the Shankill Butchers murders stood out. They were not political assassinations but were the work of individuals who obviously took pleasure in inflicting the most appalling cruelty. Eoin McNamee, the author of the original novel, says the film is about 'men and violence', and makes the astonishing claim that, 'There's got to be a bit of Victor in all of us'. But in the real world Protestant and Catholic alike were shocked by the brutality of the Butchers gang who were eventually ostracised by their fellow Loyalists.

It is hard to imagine a similar film being made about murders committed by the IRA without there being outrage in the press about the glamorisation of terrorist violence. Although there is nothing glamorous about the violence in Resurrection Man, the film leaves you feeling that the real story, about what sort of society breeds such brutality, remains to be told.

Judith Orr


Life in a cold climate


by Ray Shell

Iced is an inventive and lively play based on the bestselling book of the same name by Ray Shell and performed by the Black Theatre Company.

Tackling issues of drugs and addiction, the play raises questions about drugs that Jack Straw refuses to debate. it tells the story of Cornelius Washington Junior, a crack cocaine addict who is threatened with the death penalty after he kills a two month old baby.

We are first introduced to Cornelius when he meets the unsympathetic Dr Dulight, a psychiatrist assessing his case. She tells him he belongs with the rest of 'the black trash': 'The baby's family is demanding the death penalty, and good luck to them,' she tells us.

Cornelius isn't the stereotype of an addict. He should have had everything going for him. He was the 'genius son' of a black middle class family, set to go to university. How did his life get so out of control? The play is told in flashback as Cornelius takes us through his side of the story. He tells of his abusive father and battered home life, and how his ambitions are thwarted. We see Cornelius take his first hit of crack when he manages a soul band, New Sensations. And, as he slowly and surely gets hooked, we see how his life gets more out of control, both constantly fighting and feeding his drug addiction.

The play's biggest strength is the way it gets inside the mind of the drug addict in a sympathetic and convincing way. We see Cornelius's own justifications and reasonings for his descent into the life on the streets and in the crack houses.

There are some impressive performances, especially Tyrone Huggins as Cornelius.

Iced's central theme is, how much control does Cornelius have? Is it the drug or other people who thwart him? Is Cornelius just making excuses, portraying himself as a victim rather than taking responsibility?

Cornelius says that drugs have stripped him of control over his destiny. 'if I had my own life I would accept responsibility for it. I don't have a life, I have needs,' he says.

Here I thought the play suffered because it never really provides the social context to his spiral of addiction. Although Cornelius does tell his mother at one point that, 'Hope is for the rich - especially for the rich white man, 'the play also seems to suggest the answer lies in individual responsibility.

But this criticism aside, this is still a play worth going to see. It is a fresh and compelling production. It has some great music and there are also some funny. lighter touches - I especially enjoyed how Dr Dulight declares that she cannot understand how an addiction can overtake someone's life as she lights up cigarette after cigarette.

Alongside the play, the writer and director are running workshops for young people to come and have a frank discussion about drugs. Projects like these will do far more to raise awareness on the issue of drugs than the moralistic approach of New Labour.

Hazel Croft

Iced plays at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 14 February and then tours


Champagne feminism

The New Feminism

Natasha Walter Little, Brown £17.50

Old feminism is old and dowdy, new feminism is bright and sparkly, high heeled and lipsticked, and can attract everyone from unemployed mums on council estates to power dressed executives. Sounding more like the Ikea call to 'chuck out your chintz' than a reasoned political alternative, Natasha Walter's book claims to make feminism relevant to modern women.

Walter, with the self assurance of a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, not to mention a Guardian columnist, never questions her unique ability to speak for and about womankind. The text is littered with assumptions and generalisations and statistics, striding on oblivious when the latter contradict the former. For instance page 23 tells us that women 'often work on the fringes of the economy - in "atypical jobs". Atypical work means part time, temporary, seasonal employment; assisting relatives; homeworking; and illegal employment.' Yet on page 208 Walter admits that in 1994 women made up 44 percent of the workforce. Can almost half the workforce be atypical?

Her skills of perception are displayed on page 1 when she argues that women are 'freer and more powerful' because you see 'women driving sleek cars to work through urban traffic...the charismatic faces of young female actresses...packs of young girls walking down streets with a swing in their stride'. But, she cautions us, lest those of us lacking her superior insight might be fooled by such superficial observations, statistics on wages and employment prove that inequality still exists.

The problem, she proclaims, is that 'old' feminism concentrated on 'the ways women dress and talk and make love, feminism now must attack the material basis of economic and social and political inequality'. As Angela Phillips indignantly retorted in the Guardian, 'So what were we doing when we lobbied for a sex discrimination act, fought for nurseries and after-school centres?' Also, while some erstwhile feminists now bemoan the sexual liberalisation of the 1960s because they characterise it as a time of too much free love, Walter, paradoxically, claims that old feminism 'was weakened by its excessive attachment to a politically correct idealism' and is 'associated with manhating and with a rather sullen kind of... puritanism'. She clearly feels her argument is clinched by quoting schoolgirls whose image of a feminist is a 'fat hairy lesbian'. Walter obviously has no qualms about rolling out an opinion barely fit for a new lad television quiz to defend her misrepresentation of the women's movement.

She says new feminism 'works from the inside, throwing up feminist breakthroughs in different and diverse places - the Labour Party, Vogue magazine...a conversation overheard on a bus or the lyrics of a pop song'. Women in this new diverse movement 'work in different ways that reflect their different goals: some hold parties with champagne and canapés, others hold demonstrations with banners.'

It becomes clear who Walter identifies with most. Role models include Barbara Follet (her 'dressy chic'), Tony and Cherie (his family values, her ambition), Thatcher (she allowed women 'to celebrate their ability not just to be nurturing...but also to be deeply unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death dealing'!). She confides, 'Women need to display the trappings of success, they need a decent suit, a car, jewellery. Previous feminists didn't bother with that.' The new feminists want power and aren't afraid to show it. They reject old puritanism because 'it does not reflect the wickedly enjoyable relationship they have with their clothes and their bodies'. The concept that women's oppression means that women's bodies are used as a commodities, or that notions of beauty are socially or culturally constructed, is given little space and no credence.

All this would be insignificant froth if it were not taken so seriously. So much of it also fits neatly with New Labour ideology. Walter claims 'helping single mothers to move off benefit' is due to feminist influence. Her talk of bringing high earning professional women, uncomfortable with old feminism which had a 'too easy link' with socialism, into the fold of new feminism has a familiar ring.

Her understanding of class is limited to referring to women who live in poverty for whom equality is meaningless if it's only with poor men. The only acknowledgement of how little she has to offer such women is in a rare flash of humility when she admits it would be 'pretty insulting of me to suggest they needed to sharpen up their attitude'.

Collective class struggle is only referred to historically. All significant gains are said to have been won by feminism: 'the vote; the welfare state; the legal right to equal pay; legal protection from harassment, rape and abuse; rational dress; contraception and abortion rights.' Although miners' wives are interviewed about their radicalisation during the miners' strike, Walter declares the picket line battles 'looked like a boys' own struggle'.

Without any evidence she claims that, 'The power of trades unions is declining' and that women 'can see that the unions are now often bogged down in the past.' (The awkward fact that women currently join unions in greater numbers than men is ignored.) The past in her view was 'linear' careers for men - progression and promotion; and 'cyclical' work patterns for women - leaving employment at intervals to have children, and staying low in the hierarchy. 'But if we are honest', she goes on, 'we know that there will be no return to jobs for life' and so we need flexibility, more part time work and retirement at 70!

Her other conclusions are surprising 'old' - a national network of child care, men to do more in the home, women to be supported in their 'journey away from poverty', more support for victims of domestic violence, more women judges, senior police officers and so on. None of which challenge the structures of society, the system of exploitation in which the family and oppression of women is rooted.

Ultimately this book is no more than the self indulgent rambling of a privileged young woman whose vision of liberation is the ability to gain and flaunt wealth, success and beauty. She doesn't realise that this is already an option for the rich and it is accomplished on the backs of the majority of women and men.

Judith Orr

By the light of the moon

Painting the Heavens

Eileen Reeves Princeton £29.95

According to Aristotle, everything in the world had a purpose and that purpose gave things their place in the world. Motion and change, he believed, was abnormal.

This way of looking at the world provided a credible version of the Christian myth, of the belief that the universe and everything in it had been created by god. It also corresponded to the structure of feudal society, in which everyone had their place - whether nobleman, guildman or serf. At the top of this system stood the king, just as god was at the centre of the universe.

The great scientific revolution of the 17th century unleashed devastating effects on feudal ideology. Already, in the late 16th century, Copernicus argued that the earth revolved around the sun rather than being, as Aristotle had said, the stable centre of the universe. Galileo went much further, introducing the law of inertia, according to which every object is naturally in motion and not at rest.

Painting the Heavens provides an unusual look at the life of Galileo and his association with 17th century painting. His artistic associates included Rubens, Lodovico Cigoli and later he was supported by the Spanish artist Velazquez. Much of the book treats the paintings as more or less faithful records of a scientific debate. The beginning of the entire issue about the lunar substance and its relevance to the world system derive from a term and technique that Galileo deliberately took over from painters themselves. This was called the 'secondary light', long used by artists to describe the faint illumination that occurs when a bright light, falling on a certain kind of surface, is reflected and scattered over a second surface.

Galileo used the term to argue that the dark opaque earth, when struck by the sun's rays, was capable of sending that light back out into space, and at certain times in the lunar cycle, onto the dim face of the moon itself. The book shows that those who accepted Galileo's argument would have been almost invariably showing support for a Copernican world system, and those who attacked it did so out of loyalty to the existing feudal society.

Prior to the invention of the telescope, Galileo had already arrived at the conclusion that the 'ashen light' (bluish grey light) upon the surface of the moon was not due to direct illumination from the sun, nor that provided by Venus, or the stars, but rather from sunlight reflected by the earth.

The terrestrial origin of secondary light appeared inconceivable to many early modern thinkers. The Catholic Church had associated the mysterious lunar globe with that of the blessed virgin. The crystalline moon had for years served as a symbol for the virgin, the transparency of that body as an allusion to that incarnation and the gradual disappearance of the 'moon spots' as an icon of her immaculacy. But with the invention of the telescope it became apparent that the lunar sphere was in fact opaque with dark spots, everywhere covered with fractures.

In 1612 Cigoli completed his 'Immacolata' in Rome - instead of a traditional virgin floating heavenly upon a translucent moon, she appears firm and heavy footed upon a dense solid sphere. That same year the debate about the substance of the moon reopened with even more fury than before. Four years after this Galileo was warned to 'abandon the opinion he held' and all future efforts to reconcile the new world system with scripture were strongly discouraged.

Reeves spends much time looking at other examples of art, particularly those artists whose task it was to depict the immaculate conception. She reveals how artists were not only influenced by the great astronomical arguments of the period but how their artistic technique began to help astronomers and scientists understand our place in the universe.

Throughout the book it is apparent that a tension exists between the development of science and the challenge that it poses to the ideology of the existing order. However, Reeves assumes a certain amount of knowledge and sometimes becomes bogged down in terminology. Having said that, the book is a fantastic insight not only into the life and work of Galileo, but gives a real feel for the role that art and culture has to play in history.

Linda Carruthers

The eastern question

Divided Europe

Adam Burgess Pluto £13.99

Why has the transition in eastern Europe failed to live up to expectations? For most commentators the answer lies with the people of eastern Europe themselves. There is an 'eastern European problem', 'a post-Communist condition'. The intolerant and backward 'east' is not like the advanced and tolerant 'west' and it is therefore incapable of realising the benefits of 'westernisation', at least in the short to medium run.

Since the inferiority of the eastern Europeans can no longer be argued in racial terms we are now told that it is 'cultural'. In the United States, for the influential right wing academic Samuel Huntingdon, it is all a matter of civilisation clashes. There is a fault line separating the civilisation of western Europe from that of eastern Europe.

Adam Burgess correctly argues that this is nonsense. The concepts of 'Europe' and 'west' and 'east' have no objective meaning - they are imposed political divisions on a common humanity. 'When I looked down on the globe as I circled it I suddenly realised that it wasn't like my school atlas. I couldn't see any divisions,' said one astronaut recently.

But stressing 'culture' and 'difference', Burgess argues, has three effects. Firstly, it allows the blame for failure to be put on people themselves rather than the 'west' and its interference which, he suggests, has usually been decisive. Secondly, it leads to an exaggeration of the negative elements in the area and especially an overstating of the degree of minority oppression and resort to extreme nationalism which have actually been rare. Thirdly, where, as in the former Yugoslavia, extremism has exploded, 'cultural essentialism' puts the blame on the weight of an imagined history rather than the contradictions of the present and encourages the west to choose sides in terms of some spurious higher or lesser degree of civilisation or barbarism.

So far so good. Much of this is a useful critique of part of the conventional wisdom. But Burgess fudges key issues. There is no analysis here of the historic development of capitalism - the term barely gets a mention. Burgess sees the east-west distinction as a product of the modernisation gap which opened up in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is largely but not wholly true. To neglect the development of capitalism before industrialisation is to misunderstand the different development in eastern Europe as well as the development of ideologies of the nation and identities like 'European'. Burgess also fudges the whole nature of the transition. He recognises that there has been an essential continuity in rule but offers no real explanation of this. Behind this is a refusal to develop a proper analysis of class. Again the term is hardly used. We learn little therefore about who rules west and east and their complicity of interests.

Instead too often the analysis is cast in national terms (he says at one point that 'we can even speak of a national mentality'). Attacking the demonisation of the Serbs he ends up himself demonising 'Germany' as the principal guilty party in the 'west' rather than breaking down these categories. Attacking the idea of the 'east' he too often reverses the fault seeing it dominated by the 'west'.

This is hardly accidental. It is good to stress that nationalism is a weaker force than is often allowed, but surely the next step is then to go on to analyse what social force can challenge it and how? No less in the 'west', what force can challenge the self interest that underpins the illusions of 'them' and 'us'? Instead the analysis Burgess offers leads, despite his hesitations, to an accommodation with the 'acceptable' face of nationalism as argued by the likes of Tom Nairn. It also will no doubt go down well in eastern Europe amongst those intellectuals whose radicalism really extends no further than an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the 'east-west'.

Mike Haynes

A fallen angel

Victor Hugo

Graham Robb Picador £20

Victor Hugo is now best known as the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In his lifetime he was an enormously popular writer and a major public figure. Factory workers set up subscriptions to buy copies of Les Misérables. From the 1820s he dominated French poetry. When Napoleon III overthrew the Second Republic Hugo left France and refused to return until the republic was restored.

Hugo was not a modest man and it is easy to make fun of his more eccentric attitudes. He saw himself as a prophet and produced a mythical account of his life in which the dates of his works coincided with major historic events. He practised spiritualism and claimed to have communicated with - and been complimented by - Jesus, Joan of Arc, Mozart and many others. When his daughter died in an accident he wrote a poem addressing god on equal terms, complaining he had been badly treated.

Yet despite the absurdities Hugo was a poet of enormous power (not really conveyed by Robb's translations). The real point is that in Hugo's time, the age of bourgeois revolution from 1789 to 1848, poetry mattered. Before Hugo's generation poetry had been a polite amusement for the idle rich; after 1848 the best poets retreated into a world of private experience and obscure symbolism. In Hugo's age there was no contradiction between poetry and politics. Poetry was about the transformation of life. When his play Hernani was performed in 1830 there was uproar in the theatre at the way old literary conventions were abandoned; it was no coincidence that this was just a few weeks before the revolution of 1830.

Robb's biography gives a vivid account of Hugo's life, showing his very real qualities as well as his weaknesses. The details of Hugo's vigorous sexual activity, which extended to the very end of his life, may be consoling to the elderly among us, but tend to become tedious. More interesting is the portrayal of Hugo as a generous and enlightened thinker - a man who wholeheartedly believed in human progress. Hugo was fascinated by balloons and believed the discovery of flight would lead to a qualitative step forward for humanity. He was a champion of numerous good causes - he opposed slavery and capital punishment (he wrote a powerful story describing the last day of a man awaiting execution). He supported European unity and the rights of oppressed nations, advocated education to prevent crime, and presented himself as a defender of the poor.

There is no reason to doubt Hugo's credentials as a republican and a man of good will. Unfortunately, Robb, who knows a lot about Hugo, knows very little about the history of socialism. Consequently, he seems to think Hugo had something to do with socialism. His own account shows the falsehood of this.

In June 1848 Hugo participated actively in the armed suppression of the Paris workers' rising. In March 1871, invited to take part in the Paris Commune, he promptly fled to Brussels. No wonder that what Robb calls a 'foul mouthed proletarian rag' described him as 'the biggest the history of humanity since the fallen angel'.

Hugo's politics were all too often based on vacuous rhetoric rather than principle - a slogan like, 'Vigorous hatred of anarchy - tender and profound love of the people,' is worthy of a Blairite publicist. Marx's son in law Paul Lafargue wrote a sharp critique of Hugo showing that his opportunistic republicanism was a positive barrier to class based socialist politics. (Though Hugo's funeral was a massive public demonstration, the Stock Exchange remained open throughout the day.) As a writer Hugo represented what was best in the tradition of the bourgeois revolution, but he never went beyond it.

Ian Birchall

Two halves of history

Divided Memory

Jeffrey Herf Harvard University Press £19.95

Do not be completely put off this book by its weaknesses of style and analysis; they are somewhat offset by its strengths. In particular, and against some of the trends coming forward recently, Herf argues that the confusion amongst the German left regaring fascism had much to do with both the Nazis coming to power and the shaping of postwar Germany.

Ernst Thaelmann, the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD), encapsulated the policy of social fascism succinctly when he announced in the Reichstag on 11 February 1930 - two years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor - that 'fascism rules in Germany'. This policy of claiming that social democracy was social fascism, and thus equating the Social Democrats (SPD) with the Nazis, was completely disarming for the German working class.

Even as late as November 1932, the combined vote of the KPD and the Social Democrats was greater than that for the Nazis, and one of the great tragedies of history was the inability of these two mighty organisations to mount an effective challenge to the Nazis. Indeed, they were more distrustful of each other than they were of the Nazis.

Only a tiny group of Trotskyists and some dissident KPD and SPD members on the ground were arguing for united front activity; yet as the great events unfolded around them, they were unable to influence them. By at least putting some emphasis on this, Herf, although he does not clearly enough draw out the possibilities of stopping Hitler, challenges the trend of ignoring this aspect of the 1928-33 period.

As the disaster unfolded in the 1930s, the socialist and Communist émigrés debated in centres such as Moscow, Paris and Mexico City what had happened. The debate in its early stages seems to have been honest and open and there was clear criticism of the policy that had split the left. Yet by the end of the war KPD self criticism had turned into a policy that blamed the German people themselves for the horrors of Nazism and argued that the Germans were so prone to Nazism that only a firm government could keep such a people in check. The returning KPD was embarrassed that there had been no German working class uprising against Hitler and, Herf claims, because of this it was completely in thrall to the Soviet Union and the Red Army. This is in part true but it is a little simplistic - the KPD leaders in Moscow were Stalinist to the core.

So far so good, but Herf's descriptions of the debates as they continued postwar begin to show his biases. In particular, the attempts to suggest that support for Israel is a measure of support for Jews as such is flawed; particularly as the realpolitik of the Cold War meant that the superpowers and their supporters backed their enemy's enemy. This had more to do with the reasoning behind the GDR (East Germany) and the USSR initially backing Israel and then backing the Arab states than any supposed anti-Semitism.

Herf also attempts to suggest that the FDR (West Germany) had a much more positive attitude towards anti-Semitism than the GDR had, as the GDR downplayed the Holocaust as an event in the overall theme of the war, whereas West Germany allowed the discussion around the Holocaust to be much more focused.

Yet his own evidence shows how lax the FDR government was when it came to the issue of purging Nazis from positions of influence; in other words, the government supported Israel, had a policy on anti-Semitism in general yet did not take action to deal with perpetrators of Nazis post-Nuremberg. Indeed, recent revelations have shown how perpetrators of Nazi atrocities have been receiving war pensions in Germany for the last 50 years while some Jews have found it difficult to get property and money stolen from them returned. The GDR government was clearly playing anti-Semitic cards with its purges on 'cosmopolitanism' but the purge of Nazis went further than in the West. The issue is more complex than Herf suggests.

To sum up, this book is more interesting, particularly in its earlier parts, than its academic style and conclusions may suggest. Not one to rush out and buy but one that can be profitably dipped into.

Henry Maitles

Coming back to class

Towards a Classless Society

Ed: Helen Jones Routledge £14.99

If the early 1960s saw the 'rediscovery' of poverty in Britain by social researchers such as Peter Townsend, then the late 1990s appear to be witnessing a similar rediscovery of class. After more than a decade in which any emphasis on the significance of class was seen as hopelessly crude, reductionist and outdated in left-liberal academic and media circles, the reality of class divisions and their central role in shaping the lives of millions is being increasingly recognised.

This book's starting point is the ludicrous claim by John Major during the 1990 Tory leadership campaign and repeated after his 1992 election victory that his wish was to create a 'classless society'. Major's claim was widely ridiculed, not least by Tony Blair, and the various contributors to the book are concerned both to assess the extent to which class inequalities have actually increased or decreased under the Tories and also to speculate over New Labour's chances of reducing class divisions.

In chapters which address a range of areas including children's health, youth unemployment and homelessness, and the position of young single parents, a clear and powerful picture emerges of a Britain in which class divisions, far from having lessened, have increased. As Fiona Devine concludes, in what is probably the most forcefully argued contribution in the book, 'Britain is a less classless and more class-bound society than it was two decades ago.' As well as the effective demolition by several contributors of the argument that the poorest sections of the working class form a new 'underclass', the book is packed with information and statistics about the growth and impact of class inequalities which will be invaluable for social science students wishing to counter the arguments of rightwing or postmodernist lecturers.

That said, this collection suffers from a major weakness which severely limits its usefulness. Most of the contributors appear to belong to the radical social administration tradition whose best known exponent is the poverty researcher Peter Townsend. The strength of that tradition over the past three decades has been its dogged and unfashionable exploration of the persistence of poverty, often in the face of government opposition on the one hand and academic disdain on the other.

Its limitations, however, include its failure to give a satisfactory theoretical account of the roots of class inequalities on the one hand and its inability to see 'the poor' or the working class as anything other than victims on the other. As a consequence, many of the contributions are short on critical analysis, relying instead on the presentation of facts and figures, and weak in the extreme in the political solutions they propose.

As few of the contributors appear to have any illusions in New Labour's willingness or capacity to create a more classless society, the end result is a stark and rather depressing contrast between the depth of the inequalities described and the feebleness of the political solutions proposed.

Iain Ferguson

Restoration tragedy

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears Cape £16.99

This is an excellent novel, a complex multi-layered affair that both grips the attention and keeps one guessing until the very end.

Set in the 1660s in Restoration England, it starts off as the apparent memoirs of a Venetian gentleman, Marco da Cola, looking back on his somewhat traumatic visit to Oxford and all that ensued there. The murder of an important academic in one of the colleges and the consequent hanging of the accused, Sarah Blundy, a young servant woman with whom Cola has become acquainted, all serve to darken the tale, but so far all seems relatively transparent.

All is not as it seems, however, when we find that Cola's account is merely to be one in a series drawn from different authors, all participants in Cola's original tale, but all claiming to provide the only true picture of the same set of events.

Blending known fact with his own fiction, Pears gives us a fascinating picture of Restoration society, emerging as it was from the revolutionary events of the previous decades. Through Cola, a gentleman dabbling in science, we are introduced not only to such famous figures as the 'father of chemistry', Robert Boyle, and the philosopher John Locke, but also to those less well known like Richard Lower, who conducted the first experiments on blood transfusion. We get a sense of the dynamism in science and technology that the English Revolution had unleashed, culminating in the work of Isaac Newton. But what is also clear is just how much science at the time was still peering through a fog of mysticism and superstition.

More lightheartedly, we are provided with an amusing glimpse of how England must have appeared to a foreign visitor at the time. Cola is shocked not only by the appalling eating habits and the vast consumption of beer by both children and adults, but also by the popularity of the vile and bloody plays of a certain William Shakespeare. He is also bemused by the habit the English have of prefacing every argument with a biblical quotation.

A central theme in this novel is the web of conspiracy and intrigue that enveloped England during the Restoration. Charles II was invited back by the victorious capitalist class as a figurehead to promote order. Yet the Restoration turned out to be an unstable compromise, as was later to be revealed in the crisis and then final consolidation of bourgeois rule in 1688. In particular, the fear of a revival of Roman Catholic influence was still a very real one, as one of the twists in this novel makes startlingly clear.

Here, the intrigue is also in the recent past. We are reminded of the extent to which, during Cromwell's Protectorate, some figures formerly on the radical left of the Parliamentarian side, in their disillusionment with the dictatorship of Cromwell and his generals, tragically ended up becoming involved in conspiracies with the very Royalists against whom they had previously fought.

Counterposed to all this intrigue is the tragic figure of the servant, Sarah Blundy. Brought up within the left wing counter-culture that existed around the Levellers, the religious sects and the radicals of the New Model Army, Sarah is ill equipped to deal with the reaction that has superseded the progressive values of the 'good old cause'.

Taught as a child to challenge her 'betters' and that women are equal with men, she is an obvious target for persecution in a world where the old prejudices have once again gained the upper hand. Through Sarah, we see how many of the hopes and aspirations of the left became subsumed within a more passive and religious direction, yet how they still retained some of their old fire. Although Sarah Blundy is already becoming an anachronism in her own time, among all the contrasted views skilfully brought to life here, she is the one who remains the voice of the future.

John Parrington

The poetical is political

Heart on the Left

Adrian Mitchell Bloodaxe Books £9.95

'You don't go to Shakespeare for statistics/You don't go to bed for a religious service/But you want poems like metal mental mazes', is Adrian Mitchell's poetic criticism of the poetry critic in his new collection, Heart on the Left. 'A song can score jokes and curses', he continues - a line which sums up his own poetry with its ear for the rhythms of pop music, its subversive humour and relentless defiance against the war, racism and oppression which capitalism spawns.

Despite the decrees of the timeserving poetry bureaucrat, true poetry is at odds with the system, as Mitchell implies in 'What is Poetry?': 'Look at those naked words dancing together!.../Here comes the Poetry Police!/Keep dancing.'

And this book starts with an 'Education Health Warning' that none of his poems are to be used in conjunction with any examination whatsoever. 'Reduce the size of classes in state schools,' says Mitchell, 'and I might reconsider.'

'Fascist Speaker', which condenses into eight lines the poisonous atmosphere of a Nazi rally opposed by only a handful of Anti-Nazi protesters, reveals with simple but powerful imagery that fascism is dangerous because at times it can successfully mobilise large numbers, rather than because of the nature of those attracted to it:

'Six shouts, six cardboard banners rise
Daubed with slogans saying Pain,
But wilt and tear in the hundredfold
Applause of men as mild as rain.'
'Ode to Enoch Powell', written at a time when there were 'swastikas sprouting in the ground round Bradford Town Hall', imagines people celebrating the racist's death:

'Old Age Report' is a poem particularly relevant to the 1990s:

'When a man's too ill or old to work
We punish him.
Half his income is taken away
Or all of it vanishes and he gets pocket-money.'
For Mitchell the situation and solution are 'so bloody simple':
'The old people are being robbed
And punished and we ought
To be letting them out of their cages
Into green spaces of enchanting light.'
A poem less topical, but which shows that Mitchell stands in our tradition of socialism from below, is 'To a Russian Soldier in Prague'. Mitchell tells the Stalinist invader, 'You're beginning to feel/Like a landlord in a slum'. He ends this poem of the 1960s with striking prescience:
'You are going to be hated
As the English have usually been hated.
The starving, the poor and the oppressed
Are turning, turning away.
While you nervously guard a heap of documents
They stagger away through the global crossfire
Towards revolution, towards socialism.'
The last line, we must hope, continues this prescience.

Mitchell also treats revolution with a poet's insight. The 'breeding trees' of revolution, with their 'eccentric outlines', 'will be no more like our theories/Than a hippopotamus/Is like a parallelogram.'

Mitchell foresees a day of reckoning for those responsible for the plight of 'the starving, the poor and the oppressed'. In his poem about Thatcher, 'Ode to Her', he warns:

'We're gonna introduce you
On the Anfield pitch
Oh you can talk your meanest
But you as good as dead
When Yosser Hughes butts you
With his poor old head...'
The nuance has perhaps faded, since there are many too young to have known Yosser, but the butt still appears well deserved.

Mitchell is not the liberal 'seeing both sides of every question,/One with his left eye,/One with his right,/The cross-eyed doomed hermaphrodite'. No wonder he is no longer poetry editor of the New Statesman.

Understandably, for a poet of 65, death is a preoccupation, yet he writes about it in a way that is hopeful and humorous:

'And we must all of us go dwell
In Death's enormous Black Hotel.
At least we'll have good company - 
The fear of death is breaking me.'
These poems impress me not only for the radicalism of their message but also for the playfulness of their language: 'The trees are making so much money/That the river's bulging with gold', he writes in a poem about autumn. Undoubtedly, as a socialist poet, Mitchell is 'coming back to leaf'.

Brin Price

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