Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright Socialist Review


One of the greats

In 'Why I became a socialist' (February SR) there are references to Leo McCrae. Surely that ought to be Leo McGree. He was a fantastic man who deserves correct spelling. He was one of the Liverpool Irish with a deadpan expression and a gift of repartee. He would come out with a riposte flooring any opposition and dissolving the company in laughter.

On one occasion he, as an official of the woodworkers' union, was introduced to a very big and pompous boss. The big man tried to patronise him and said, 'I suppose I ought to have danger money for shaking hands with you.' Leo immediately came back with, 'Yes, and I ought to have dirty money!'

When Leo took a collection, money walked out of pockets and purses. The last time he did so, he was very near his end and looked it. He did not have to make an appeal. He just stood on the platform and the audience responded.

Leo McGree was one of Liverpool's greats. It is fitting that Eileen McMahon remembers him as one of the influences in her life. The same could be said for many other young people.

Eddie Frow recalled how in the late 1920s he went with Leo and Charles Hoyle (another stalwart!) to an open air meeting. They were the speakers and he carried the soapbox. At that stage he had never spoken in the open air. They suggested that he take the chair and when he dried up they would take over. He started and very soon looked round for Leo and Charles. They were nowhere to be to be seen. Then he glanced at the pub window across the road and there they were gesticulating to him to carry on - and carry on he did, for another 70 years.

There are so many loyal activists in the labour movement who have done a magnificent job. It is right to recall them and pay homage to their influence.

Ruth Frow


Always look on the bright side

I felt the short article about the end of the Liverpool dockers' dispute (February SR) fell into an easy optimism, arguing that workers 'do not feel cowed and defensive in the way that they did after the miners' and printers' defeats.'

Maybe this is a correct assessment of the mood of many workers, but what is their concrete experience? Although strike days have picked up slightly recently, they are still at very low levels. At an international level UK strikes are tiny: Australia has a higher absolute number of strike days lost with less than a third of the population, Italy has about ten times the UK figures with an identical population - and neither country is experiencing massive struggles.

The vast majority of ballots for strikes come out in favour of action, but these are increasingly being used as bargaining tools for union negotiators, rather than any intention to move towards hard hitting industrial action.

The lived experience of most British workers is a long series of defeats, sell outs and shoddy compromises. It has been many years since our side has won a clear cut victory.

To set beside these factors, however, there is also the day to day experience of confidence-building minor conflicts with management. Whilst I agree that 'the anger growing over Blair's attacks means that workers will also find themselves coming into conflict with the union leaders', we need to explain why so many struggles haven't won, what the political arguments are within workplaces that manage to hold back the anger that undoubtedly exists?

One day this anger will explode, but until then we need to be armed both with more explanations as to how union leaders manage to keep the lid on things, and ideas on how to nurture that anger.

Tom Behan


A long and winding road

I wish to respond to Sam Ashman's letter (January SR). Above all, I wonder at the highly formulaic nature of Sam's argument. Abstracted from serious cultural, socio-political analysis of Cuban history, or indeed of the changing international relation of forces, this construction emerges as a facile and timeless diatribe; a barely disguised reworking of the arguments against the former Soviet Union. Yet as Fidel says, 'All countries are different; no two are exactly alike. I would say that no two revolutionary processes can be exactly alike.'

Sam's interpretation dangerously underplays the role of the United States. Sam claims to be 'implacably opposed to the US blockade' and correctly notes that it is an imperialist act of aggression. However, since Sam is not prepared to follow these words up with action, they are meaningless in a Marxist sense. Additionally, we should not reduce US aggression to the blockade. It is much broader. Alongside the economic war, there is a political and diplomatic one.

The human rights issue is a convenient tool for the bourgeoisie. Every intelligent observer knows that Cuba's record in this regard is considerably better than that of many other countries which receive the full backing of the US, and indeed that of the US itself. Since the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 the CIA has continually supported terrorist attacks against Cuba. In September 1997 an Italian businessman was killed in one such attack. The island is also encircled militarily.

Under such circumstances the construction of socialism is bound to encounter serious difficulties in a Third World country, as Cuba is. The collapse of the Soviet Union has increased the difficulties a hundredfold.

The relationship with the Soviet Union had never been truly harmonious, however. Revolutionaries in Cuba argued that the introduction of the system of economic management and planning from the east had perverted the revolution by minimising the political and social tasks and overemphasising the administrative ones. Over time this had indeed resulted in serious levels of alienation, cynicism and corruption. As a consequence, Cuba introduced the process of rectification in 1986. A whole new wave of younger leaders were elected into all organisations and institutions, with a conscious promotion, specifically, of more workers, more Afro-Cubans, more women and more international fighters. The activities of the mass organisations were also extended, in order to encourage greater political involvement.

This process is complex and inevitably produces social and political conflict. However, through rectification change has been occurring and socialism slowly progressing. The maintenance of the broadest possible level of political unity and support amongst the people for the domestic and international course set by the leadership enables these advances and avoids opening the revolution up to external attack.

Through rectification the leadership has demonstrated its courageous dynamism. Moreover the Cuban leadership did not 'adopt the rhetoric of socialism as it got caught up in the Cold War', as Sam Ashman asserts. Even the most cursory investigation reveals the dominance of Marxists in the pre-1959 revolutionary forces. Che Guevara and Raul Castro are only two of the most obvious examples.

Although rectification has suffered since 1991, it continues apace. We should contribute to its success by campaigning against US imperialist aggression towards Cuba and advancing revolutions in our own countries.

I urge Sam to deepen her analysis, by understanding among other things the importance of Cuba to revolutionary confidence in Latin America. A defeat for Cuba would be an enormous setback for global socialism, and rest assured that in the absence of revolutionary advances throughout the world, this is all your strategy will achieve.

Leigh Arnold


Nobody's perfect

I do not wish to take up too many column inches in your magazine on the subject of Cuba. However, I do feel I must reply to Sam Ashman's letter (January SR) in response to mine in the December edition.

I am pleased to see that Sam is opposed to the US blockade of Cuba but I feel that such opposition needs to be turned into support for Cuba. It is stated that Cuba's system is not 'democratic'. I do not deny that Cuba is a one party state with restrictions on civil and political rights which are anathema to those with a liberal perspective. I do not, however, agree that the committees, trade unions and party do not allow a vehicle for expression of the people's will.

It is evidenced, if only by the fact that the system did not collapse when the Soviet Union did, that there is mass general support for the government and, in particular, Castro's leadership in confronting US imperialism. Cuba does not have the same bureaucratic or elite structures as the former Soviet Union.

On individual human rights it is generally accepted by international agencies that Cuba is not a primary abuser. Its record is better than the majority of Latin American countries and not comparable to countries on other continents, such as Turkey, Algeria and Indonesia where torture and police brutality are commonplace - this is not the case in Cuba. Also Cuba regularly out performs most of the Third World on collective social and economic rights. Human rights, in many cases, are just another stick which the US uses to beat Cuba.

Concerning the treatment of gays and those with HIV/Aids it is true that, like much of Latin America, Cuba is a 'machista' society and homosexuality is rarely understood and often disliked within the community. This is not to say that there is systematic 'persecution' of these groups. Often cited is the establishment of special units for the treatment of HIV sufferers. While there were undoubtedly severe restrictions on movement in the early days of this policy it is also true that, in the absence of modern drug treatments or even adequate cleaning materials, segregation is used routinely in Cuba for the containment and treatment of numerous contagious illnesses. This is not only for the protection of the wider community but also to provide higher standards of food and care to sufferers in a country desperately short of resources. As understanding of the disease has progressed such restrictions on movement have been lifted and indeed Cuba has been able to develop its own treatments for HIV.

Turning to the exodus of people in boats. Cuba is bombarded with propaganda which claims that everything is perfect in the US and that capitalism is the answer to all Cuban problems. It comes as no surprise that many will attempt to chase this dream. When picked up by the US people have suffered poor treatment in detention and are then unceremoniously returned to the relative comfort of this supposedly repressive state. Of course many die worldwide attempting this form of economic migration.

What Cuba wishes, like other Third World countries, is respect for its sovereignty and the right to develop its resources for the benefit of its people. This is systematically denied by the US who seek only the imposition of US style multi party democracy and the market economy. This is for the benefit of the US and will not improve the lives of the Cuban people.

I hold no illusions about Cuba. It is not, and neither does it claim to be, a perfect society, but neither do I hold delusions about a third position. While this may be a theoretical possibility, dependent on spontaneous worldwide revolution at some point in the future, it does not offer any practical help in opposing US imperialism and aggression. Cuba has always been, and continues to be, internationalist in its ambitions. It accepts its revolution can only progress if revolution occurs at the core of capital. We should work towards that while offering our full support to Cuba.

Mike Hemmings


Going for a song

The first paragraph of 'Culture Shock' by 'our opera correspondent' (January SR) illustrates part of a common problem - confusing subsidies for the arts with subsidies for buildings/institutions.

Many years ago, when living in Italy, I was in a bar with some friends. After a few drinks one of our number got up and started singing arias from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. One by one the locals left the other side of the bar, where they were watching football (remember, this is Italy), to come round and listen. The point of this story is that a group of people enjoyed listening to opera without any money being involved. This must represent one end of a scale that is represented by the Royal Opera House at the other end.

It should not be necessary to have to go to the ROH to see and hear opera. The 78 million would have been better used encouraging opera, and the arts in general, throughout Britain (the ROH is not only restricted to the rich, but also to those who live in London and the south east). The workers at present employed at the ROH would still be needed to make this a reality, so no redundancies would be necessary.

A recent article (Observer, 1 February 1998) by Simon Rattle (music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) commented on the lack of opportunity and resources for young children to participate in music, despite the benefit it has for other subjects. As Simon Rattle says, 'All the recent research shows that children exposed to music from an early age develop better language and reading skills and a generally heightened ability to concentrate and therefore learn.' He goes on to add, 'The Kodaly technique, pioneered by the great Hungarian composer in schools, seems to promote outstanding mathematics and language skills as well as stunning choral singing.'

Scotmid, my local Co-op, gives shoppers music tokens every time they spend over 10. Schools then collect them to buy musical instruments. It takes at least 600 tokens to buy a musical instrument - 6,000 of spending.

We have the bizarre situation of lottery income, that is derived mainly from the less well off of us, being used to subsidise the musical enjoyment of the privileged minority. In the meantime, the less well off of us have to make do with handouts from Scotmid to help provide music resources for our children. Without going into the pros and cons of the lottery, there should be some correlation between those who play the lottery and those who benefit from it.

The enjoyment of music is common to all, regardless of nationality, race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, political belief etc. The ROH not only limits the enjoyment of opera to the privileged minority but diverts resources away from the deprived majority. Knock it down!

John Spink


Porn to be wild

John Rees's weird article about the film Boogie Nights (February SR) really cannot be left without some attempt to counter his many assertions, some of which are perverse, some silly, and some just plain wrong. To start with, the film was never intended to be 'daring'; it attempts to portray a group of people trying to escape the banality and alienation of life in a certain place (the LA suburbs) at a certain period in history (the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s) and achieve a certain type of compensation - money, a kind of fame, a type of companionship and, yes sex!

The Eddie/Dirk character escapes a miserable home life - this time it is a truly vile mother rather than a father that drives him out. As I recall, however, there is no indication that she is 'sexually repressed'; how do you know John? The Rollergirl character, bored stupid with exams and, presumably, the 'career opportunities' they might offer (revisit The Clash, John - you know you want to!), walks out of her exams not because a classmate 'makes a face' at her but because he simulates fellatio with his mouth, tongue and hand. Amber's 'weeping into the phone' sets us up for one of the threads running through the film - that these characters are not allowed to lead a normal life (bring up children or get credit) precisely because they do the work they do; to insist otherwise, as the various characters do from time to time is self delusion on a grand scale.

The entourage surrounding Jack is a wonderful attempt to portray one type of liberal hippie/drippy 'commune' lifestyle with money that was so common in the 1970s. Colonel James is rejected and eventually punished precisely because he crossed the line and was caught with pictures of under age girls. None of the characters, apart from the rather pathetic Little Bill's wife, has sex outside of the movies being shot. The decline of the various characters is harrowing to watch. Cocaine frenzy, murder, suicide, not to mention the tumbling of Jack's idealistic (if somewhat unrealistic) notions of making 'proper' films with lots of sex to the tawdry gropings in the back of a limousine. (The man they pick up turns out to be the boy fellator from the exam - he deserves his kicking, but it makes for extremely uneasy viewing.)

Any 'exploitation' in the film is not Hollywood style but the other side of Hollywood - literally. The San Fernando Valley is on the other side of the hill on which the famous big white 'Hollywood' letters stand. The whole film is enveloped in an aura of sadness; for the lost days of (supposedly) safe sex; for the emotionally damaged drug dependant characters portrayed; and for the realisation that your dreams are nothing more than a blind alley, a wrong turn that you are locked into. A titillating but ultimately depressing cycle - just like a porn film. On top of all that, the wonderfully realised world of the mid-1970s with the cringe inducing clothes, hairstyles and dancing flowing into the equally crappy 1980s is, in my opinion, little short of genius.

John Rees's meeting 'Blairism - Reformism without Reforms' at Marxism 97 was one of the best meetings I have attended in close on 20 years' association with the SWP, but this film review was utter bollocks.

Simon Duckett


Foot in the mouth

What a surprise: Paul Foot 'could not finish' Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist. That he finds unpalatable a stunning slagging off of pseudo-Marxist, middle class hooligans is entirely predictable.

Foot blithely announces that The Good Terrorist is about 'left wing commitment'. It is, in fact, about a desperately guilty, obnoxious, elitist terrorist group, which stages a disastrous bomb plot in the name of working class solidarity. It is a vital novel, in that it shuns the idea of all interpretations of 'socialist' activism being valuable.

Apologies if any point Foot made after the fifth paragraph addresses this - I could not finish his article.

Robert Gibbs


Two legs good, eight legs bad

The film Starship Troopers that Ken Olende criticises in his letter (February SR) was not entirely how he describes it. Firstly, it is very obvious from the way in which Paul Verhoeven has made the film that this is a pisstake of those racist cowboy and indian films, and the 1950s anti-Japanese war films. Earth's propaganda in the film claims that the humans are protected by a ring of satellites designed to protect the earth from asteroids. Buenos Aires gets blown up by an asteroid! When the earth mounts an attack on the big planet it all goes horrifically wrong because humans have underestimated the intelligence of the 'bugs'.

There is a form of democracy but only for those who fight for earth. We are bombarded by advertisements for electric chairs and propaganda against the bugs, some of which is ludicrous. The heroes may start out looking like film stars but they all suffer from the effects of this horrific and pointless war. The film didn't go down well in the US because it took the piss out of jingoism and showed the real devastation that all wars cause.

Ray Brazier

King's Cross

Sting in the tale

It would be wrong to blow the significance of Paul Verhoeven's film Starship Troopers out of proportion. It certainly is not a socialist classic or a film of any lasting significance, but Ken Olende is wrong when he describes the film as being uncritical of the fascist state.

First, the state is founded on the idea that only those who serve in the armed forces can have any say in society. However, rather than creating an ideological set of warriors, most of the army is made up of people wanting personal gain, to have their children get into college etc. Secondly, the supposed brilliant military genius of the state staggers from one military debacle to another. Finally, unlike in most science fiction films, war is not shown as some pleasant experience but a horrible event in which millions die unromantic pointless deaths.

As films of the genre go Starship Troopers is flawed mainly by its comic book feel and the lack of depth of its characters and its ambiguous attitude to the state. It resembles a 1950s film made in the 1990s. However, compared to Star Wars or Star Trek in which no one ever gets hurt apart from the bad guys, and the heroes always triumph over evil, Starship Troopers is a breath of fresh air.

Seth Harman


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