Jackie Brown isn't as flashy as Tarantino's previous movies, but it is much his most interesting film. Up till now Tarantino has displayed a technical brilliance, but has never gone much beyond surface. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction he glamorised a deadpan comic book view of the world in which there was little characterisation or motivation but plenty of mindless violence. Critics claimed he was presenting an ironic commentary on popular culture, but it was hard to be sure - and if he was, it was hard to tell exactly what he was trying to say.
Jackie Brown is a much more compassionate, human film. It centres around a middle aged black woman who supplements her meagre earnings as an air hostess by laundering money for a small time crook. The film is the story of her attempt to outsmart her gangster friends and the police to come away with enough cash to retire in comfort. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, the film's plot is uncharacteristically tight and brilliantly developed. But the real tension and force of the film comes from interest in the characters' motivations.
Personal entanglements, suspicions, lust and pure greed interplay to keep you speculating all the way along. As before with Tarantino, the characters here are ordinary people driven off limits, but his new found sensitivity to their various predicaments means the film expresses a real sadness at the way humans are forced to plot and hustle to aspire to their dreams. Jackie Brown herself is hemmed in by racism, but all the characters are denied decent human contact by the constant need to calculate and watch their backs.
Where Pulp Fiction was mannered, the deadpan style of Jackie Brown gives the film a world weariness in keeping with its subject. The cast of mostly overlooked 1970s B movie actors somehow adds to the sense of ordinariness and reality of the characters. Tarantino's own concern to understand the characters has encouraged some remarkable performances, particularly from Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Even the hip 1970s soul soundtrack is beautifully used to enhance the sense of loneliness and alienation that pervades the film.
Tarantino has been criticised as a white director for trying to explore the black American experience in the film. Of course black artists are wildly under represented in Hollywood, but it seems ludicrous to attack such a sensitive film on these grounds, particularly one that celebrates a black woman's struggle to get even.
However, Tarantino's occasional indulgence of his obsession with bizarre pop culture is irritating. In one scene the camera lingers endlessly on a sales video for street weapons demonstrated by topless models. Elsewhere references to 1970s blaxploitation movies seem pointless.
But overall this is a very engaging thriller or film noir. If in the end it feels a little tired it is because there is a definite limit to the amount of pathos or insight that can be squeezed out of this kind of storyline. Since the early 1940s some of the better Hollywood directors have returned time and time again to similar territory to express a nihilistic view of human beings twisted by a hostile violent world. The symbolic impact is wearing a bit thin. On the strength of this film you cannot help wishing Tarantino would be a little less hip and a bit more adventurous.
'Can you tell us where we're going to be stationed?' 'You will go where your country sends you.' A hall full of naked young Russian conscripts are weighed and inspected like cattle. Once they have passed a cursory eye test and physical check-up they are deemed fit for war...and death.
This opening scene sets the stage of this magnificent Kazakh/Russian production, a powerful exposure of Russia's bloody occupation of Chechnya. The film's director, Sergei Bodrov, shuns the sledgehammer ferocity of American anti-war films. Instead, the dynamics of the war are played out between individuals and with phenomenal effect. Russians and Chechens, despite themselves, forge relationships that at once both defy the pressures of the war and succumb to them.
The film falls into the pacifist anti-war genre that takes as its theme our common humanity regardless of nation, race or culture. But it taps this theme to particular effect. It avoids sentimentality and does not sugarcoat its message. Here war makes humane behaviour impossible. Every time a relationship appears as if it might transcend the war, the war breaks it. The film leaves only one conclusion for the audience to draw: the war must be stopped.
Another distinguishing characteristic of Prisoner is that Bodrov makes the Chechens central to his drama. He explores the tensions between ordinary combatants who as individuals have no quarrel, but as antagonists are forced to kill one another. Chechens have been demonised, portrayed as bandit clans wedded to war and killing, but Bodrov tears down this chauvinism.
Time and again he allows a stereotype to develop and then undermines it. Each character has depth and strength, but is torn by the contradictions the war imposes upon them. The only unredeemable character, quite rightly, is the commander of the Russian garrison, shovelling down spoonfuls of caviar as he pours out his contempt for Chechens and conscripts alike.
There is much else that could be said about this film if space allowed. The acting is superb and the cinematography is breathtaking. Bodrov allows events to unfold as he piles one apparently disconnected incident upon another until they reach a shattering conclusion in which all the participants (and the audience) are caught off balance.
The national oppression of the Chechens has a 200 year history, marked by savage brutality on the part of the Russian and Soviet empires. In 1944 Stalin deported the whole Chechen people, killing one third of the population. In 1995, as Chechnya struggled for independence, Yeltsin sent the tanks into the capital, Grozny. Russia wanted to assert its hegemony over the region and to safeguard the oil pipelines. Up to 100,000 were killed in a country with a population of only 1.3 million. The current truce is precarious. The whole Caucasus is increasingly becoming a potential site of great power conflict as competing states and western oil interests vie for control of vast untapped oil reserves.
Crucial to understand, however, was the mass unpopularity of the war. Soldiers deserted. Mothers of conscripts organised. Teachers and school students signed mass petitions. Teach-ins against the war were held with Afghan veterans. Striking miners marched under the slogan, 'There is money for the war but not for our wages!' That opposition to war remains an obstacle to the dreams of the Russian ruling class to reassert its hegemony in the region.
Prisoner of the Mountain has come out of that mood. It is an outstanding example of the new Russian cinema produced by directors who cut their teeth during the period of glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s. Although restricted to the independent circuit, it will still be showing in many major towns and cities. If it is on at a cinema near you, go.
Shane Meadows' first feature film tackles the subject of life in the depressed wasteland of 1990s Britain. Shot on a BBC financed budget in grainy black and white with a gritty ensemble of actors - not all of whom are professional - TwentyFourSeven shows one man's attempts to restore some self respect to a group of young no-hopers.
Told in flashback, Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) starts an amateur boxing club for the local youths for whom life is shit '24 hours a day, seven days a week'. He promises that if the club thrives the crime rate will fall because his protégés will have something to believe in, as was the case in Darcy's own youth. With the boxing ring thus set up as a metaphor for life, Darcy begins to overcome initial resistance and inter-gang rivalry in order to bring together the characters.
Darcy not only defends drugs supplier Fagash in court, he also nurses him through an overdose, putting him on the straight and narrow with the command 'Try looking at the world straight for a bit.' 'Tough love' techniques likewise win over the others who begin to absorb his philosophy. 'This is the day I remove my life and dreams from the hands of fools', 'If you show respect, then they'll all show respect', and, 'If you lose your temper, you lose,' are what Darcy believes gets results.
Darcy falls foul of his own advice, however, when at the climactic boxing match he beats up Tim's bullying father - the chief social problem - apparently killing him.
To have a budget sufficient to produce your movie, but low enough not to have the money men jumping all over your artistic vision, is every film maker's dream. Imagination can run riot - anything is possible. So it's disappointing to see what looks initially like a raw debut but which is conventional in terms of both story and visuals.
Meadows' improvisational methods with the actors produce some authentic sounding dialogue despite the obligatory Tarantinoesque rap on fast food and movie stars. The lads look like real working class youth and the squalor of their surroundings - captured by Ashley Rowe's atmospheric photography - rings true.
But the contradiction at the heart of TwentyFourSeven is that, although it may nod at social conscience through realist technique, its message is actually quite backward. It is not possible to challenge the system. The way you survive is by being a better fighter than the other guy. Keep your temper, stay in control - never mind that the boxing ring might be on the Titanic at full tilt. You long for someone to tell Darcy to change the bloody ring, preferably onto another ship.
But nothing changes. The camera is passive, the characters are passive - an 'underclass' of shadow puppets for the middle classes to gawp at - and, dramatically, the writing is mired in inertia. The one time we see that Darcy has made a difference is in the epilogue under the end credits. One of the black dudes sports a designer suit signifying his new self respect and affluence; having been saved from death, Fagash has had life sprung from his loins and is now a dad in a nuclear family set up; in a timid move on the part of the writer, Tim's dad has survived Darcy's beating unharmed but dumped by his wife.
However, Darcy's success can be given another reading. There's an unintentional horror in this supposedly happy ending, that this is the highest everyone can achieve, with the characters damned to a sort of hell - maybe not the inferno, but at least one of the outer circles of purgatory.
Terry Callier's music is a mix of soul, jazz and folk. It is the sort of music that makes you think differently about yourself and the world. Until recently the 52 year old singer was known to only a handful of followers. His resurrection has begun with the response to his new album, Time Peace. Terry Callier talked to Martin Smith.
The album was made in Chicago and London. It was done mostly at weekends because I still have a day job as a computer programmer. I would leave work on Friday and record the album over the weekend.
The single, 'Love Theme From Spartacus', is based on the movie about the slave rebellion in the Roman Empire. The first line of the song is, 'Can it be? Do you hear? A new freedom song is ringing.' I believe that this song is relevant today. In some respects slavery is still going on in America, maybe not in the absolute sense but we still have racism, sexism and poverty. They're all a kind of slavery. The melody of the song comes from the music in the film. The lyrics were a gift from god, so to speak.
Yes there are more of us than them. There are more people who are non-rich than who have money and power. More wealth is held by an increasingly small number of individuals. I write about what I see and from where I stand, and naturally it is about people who you would meet in everyday life because I am one of those.
The area where I grew up is the near north side of Chicago. It was home to some great musicians including Jerry Butler, Ramsey Lewis and Curtis Mayfield. Curtis gained international acclaim before I was out of high school and he was singing about my community! The inspiration was all around. Older guys were into jazz; our parents were into the big band sounds of Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Young people were interested in doo wop [vocal groups]. Curtis was my inspiration. I hope some of the spirit of his music comes out through me.
Chicago is a great city, but it is also the most segregated city in the US. That is not by accident, that is by design. As beautiful as it is in the summer with the lake and the parks, there is still in the background a lot of racial tension. Latinos stay to themselves and the white Anglo Saxon Protestants definitely try to keep to themselves. More or less out of necessity Afro-Americans are forced to stay to themselves.
One of the hardest things to break down in America is racism. I read a book about the Southern coal miners' unions in the 1920s. They were integrated, not by accident or in a perfunctory way, but because black and white miners were working under the same galling conditions. Just about the time the union was going to make a push to improve the conditions for all miners, the Ku Klux Klan and the employers set the colour thing up and enforced division.
There is no need for racial segregation. That is what I try to deal with in my music. I want all races to live together in peace. I really supported the recent UPS strike. I thought it was going to have the same outcome as the air traffic controllers' strike. Most of those men and women lost their jobs. Some of them still have not found work. But the UPS strike was well organised. The members stood together - it was fantastic.
I'm very worried. I am not a politician. I am not a weapons specialist. I don't believe anybody truly knows what weapons Saddam has. But I do remember that the west gave him a lot of arms, because they sought him as an ally in the ever turbulent Middle East, and that's the truth.
Saddam is refusing to go down the path the US wants. This does not make the US happy, so consequently it has to do something about it! People say that it is about patriotism. I don't think there is anything patriotic or honourable in bombing these people.
If we took time to list everybody we would be here for a long time. I was into rhythm and blues but got into folk music while I was at college. I worked in a coffee house and played the standard folk repertoire until I saw John Coltrane in 1964. I watched two Coltrane sets a night for five days. I stopped playing music for about six months. I didn't want to be Coltrane, but I did want to bring some of Coltrane's dignity and spirituality to my music. So from 1965 until 1979 I brought out six albums and wrote material for Jerry Butler and the Dells.
I have never stopped listening to music. Charles Stepney, the producer on my Cadet recordings, said, 'You should listen to what is happening in music, but when you get into the studio you should use the truest material you have that will reflect you.' Charles said, if you do this, time will not affect it. Right now a lot of people are using my material. I have recorded with Beth Orton, Urban Species and I might hook up with DJ Shadow.
I would like to say what I think is the most important thing is that we as human beings have more in common than we do differences. It's time to say that straight out.
A child dies while in the care of a young woman. Shortly afterwards, she attempts to commit suicide by poisoning herself. Between taking the poison and the death she hopes for, the women tells her story to a newspaper and becomes a cause célèbre.
This is the background to Pirandello's Naked, showing in a new production at the Almeida. The play begins with the arrival of the woman, Ersilia (Juliette Binoche), at the lodgings of a famous novelist, Nota, who has offered her his room after her failed suicide bid. On arrival, Ersilia is almost immediately thrown out by Nota's landlady who assumes she is a whore. On realising who she actually is, the landlady quickly retracts and attempts to ingratiate herself with Ersilia.
This initial encounter sets the tone for the rest of the play. Every other character we meet has assumptions about Ersilia and has created for themselves a version of her life to fit those assumptions - and even worse, to enable them to exploit her. Ersilia assumes the novelist has rescued her from the streets in order to write her story. His real motives are much seedier (and, ironically, more of a cliché than the 'fallen woman' story he assumes is her reality).
Her ex-lover, believing his desertion is the cause of Ersilia's suicide bid, arrives gallantly declaring his desire to marry and rescue her. We soon discover his less than noble recent behaviour. The journalist, who greedily gobbled up her story, barges in after he is forced to print a retraction. He is angry that her story has not led to the sparkling success he had expected. Finally, Ersilia's ex-boss, Grotti, adds to the pain and guilt she is suffering over the child's death - although who is exactly to blame for the death gradually becomes more uncertain.
The outrage, hypocrisy and competing versions of reality professed by the four men make for much humour and ironic comedy - especially when their truths come crashing down and come up against each other.
Yet the farce-like quality that Pirandello creates is frequently broken - and finally shattered - by the ultimate truth of Ersilia's grief and unquenchable feelings of guilt. It is almost painful for the audience to watch her search for reality she can live with - and to see her attempts distorted and destroyed by those around her.
This production is lively, fast-paced and copes brilliantly with a complex play. Juliette Binoche's portrayal of the tortured Ersilia moves from strong resolution to childlike despair, taking you with her most of the time. The play offers much thought on reality, the nature of truth and the relationship of art and life. Pirandello has a very cynical view of human nature that makes sympathy for most of his characters impossible - and tragedy his only conclusion.
Naked plays at the Almeida Theatre, London
The revisionist interpretation of the Russian Revolution that has been all the fashion recently has certainly taken its toll. In its new production of Mikhail Bulgakov's play Flight (new adaptation by Ron Hutchinson), the National Theatre is hoping to appeal to those who have been influenced by these ideas. Unfortunately Bulgakov's play fails to make a clear distinction between the two sides in the civil war which followed the revolution - one, the Reds, fighting for a better world under workers' control, and the other, the Whites, fighting for the re-establishment of the old order.
The tone for this is set in the first scene when we first encounter some Bolsheviks. They come across scared peasants fleeing the civil war. The Bolsheviks are portrayed as nothing more than thugs intent on a quick execution. There is only a small hint in the play that part of the reason why the Bolsheviks feared for their lives was that they feared the peasants would alert the Whites to where they were - and in the end the peasants were not executed.
But this is a play mainly concerned with the Whites, and Bulgakov achieves limited success in poking fun at the Whites, and the dreams and desires of the old Russian ruling class, as they are forced to flee the Crimean peninsula under attack from the Bolsheviks.
This is done by constructing a play over eight dreams, and we follow the lives and the dashed hopes of a cross-section of Russian society caught up in the civil war, but whose sympathies at the end of the day are with the old order. So we see Sergei Golubkov, a naive student from St Petersburg who falls in love with the young and beautiful Serafima - but they are separated as they flee the war. Serafima ends up in Constantinople, and Golubkov pops up like a Zelig figure in almost every scene looking for his lost love.
We also meet Roman Khludov, the White army chief of staff. When we first see him he is in his prime, at the hub of directing operations, determined to see off the Bolshevik threat. By the end Khludov is reduced to a pathetic figure - his army has lost and his world has fallen down around him. To survive he tries to get by as an organ grinder. 'I never thought civilian life could be so complicated,' he says.
Paramon Korzukhin, deputy minister of trade of the old regime, arrives at the White army headquarters in the second dream, very sophisticated looking, wearing an expensive fur coat, with the aura of a man who is destined to rule. But at the end he lives a sad and lonely life of exile in Paris, and eventually loses all his wealth in a game of poker.
This production is helped by some fine performances. In particular, Alan Howard as Roman Khludov brilliantly captures the demise of the Whites, from his arrogant beginning to his eventual decline. The imposing set begins by resembling some futuristic scene or wasteland from a science fiction movie, moves to being a busy railway station waiting room which serves as the headquarters for the Whites, and then converts to a bustling street scene in Constantinople.
Ultimately, however, this play lacks the bite necessary to put the boot into the Whites. This is not simply the result of Ron Hutchinson's adaptation, but lies with the author himself. Bulgakov wrote this play in late 1926. He was trained as a doctor and fought in the civil war - on the side of the Whites. He was later to write some devastating criticisms of what they represented, but in Flight his judgement was weakened by his previous allegiances.
Flight plays at the National Theatre, London
Showing at the Hayward Gallery is a 90th birthday celebration of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. This exhibition focuses on his travels and shows the humour and generosity of ordinary people.
At the Hayward Gallery, London, until 5 April
In reaching for the sky there is always the danger that one might fall flat on one's face. Despite the grandiose title of this new book from the author of The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker's view of the human mind turns out to be not merely cheap, nasty and downright reactionary, but also profoundly mistaken in its whole approach to the study of consciousness.
Pinker's case can be reduced to two central claims. The first is that our minds are a kind of super-computer and that thinking is primarily about processing information. Although this view has become dominant in psychology, it manages to completely disregard the true complexity of human consciousness in favour of a sterile and mechanical substitute. Unfortunately, in trying to rectify the limitations of the computer model of the mind, Pinker has attached himself to an equally mistaken idea - that we are basically controlled by our 'selfish genes'.
Pinker is on reasonably safe ground when dealing with those attributes that we share with other animals. One of the few decent parts of this overlong book is the section about perception, where Pinker explains how our powers of stereo vision arose through the needs of the forest dwelling lifestyle of our evolutionary ancestors.
It is when Pinker turns to human thought in all its complexity, however, that the true paucity of his vision is revealed. Pinker's representation of Freud's concept of the unconscious is stunning in its insight. He tells us that the unconscious is equivalent to a computer having its printer switched off and receiving information that the printer is off, but not having access to the reason why it is off!
The question of self awareness is solved in similarly dazzling fashion. Pinker reveals it to be nothing more complicated than 'a piece of software that examines, reports on, and even modifies itself'.
Pinker is attempting to grapple with major questions in psychology. Any serious materialist account of the mind must be able to explain how the complexities of human consciousness can at the same time take place within what is a lump of meat, the brain. Also, how can our minds be so different from those of chimpanzees when we share around 98 percent of the same DNA?
In trying to answer these problems, the present debate centres around two models of how our brains work. The first, 'connectionism', argues that the uniqueness of consciousness can be explained by the sheer number of connecting nerve cells that make up the human brain. The opposite point of view, which Pinker subscribes to, views the human brain as composed of a series of separate modules. Pinker's arguments here are valid ones. There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the view, expressed by Stephen Gould, that human consciousness arose simply as a by product of our brains reaching a certain size.
Yet Pinker's alternative is itself fundamentally flawed. The modules which make up his version of mind are completely separate entities, so much so that biologist Steven Rose has compared the model to a 'Swiss army knife' view of the brain, with each little device or gadget in the brain doing its own thing. Pinker again uses a computer analogy to justify his model, but there is a crucial difference between our thought processes and the individual software packages one finds on a computer. While the latter are created specifically to function as discrete entities, the brain evolved as a unified whole. And although there is evidence for some localisation in the brain, it appears that the thought processes that most distinguish us from animals are distributed throughout different regions of the grey matter.
In discussing the evolution of the brain, Pinker argues that because human brains finished their biological evolution while we were still living in caves, somehow human behaviour is still marooned in the Stone Age. Pinker seems almost completely ignorant about the facts of human evolution. He is oblivious to the role of tools and cooperation, now accepted by most serious anthropologists as the driving force behind the process. Instead he offers what amounts to a 'Flintstones' version of human evolution, with American middle class values projected backwards into the mists of prehistory. Pinker also disregards the fact that biological evolution may have stopped but the mind is itself structured by social influences in each new generation.
The book gets so bad as to be almost surreal. Surely he is pulling our legs when he argues that the average suburban dweller's passion for hedge trimming is about recreating the transition from the forest to the savannah. Or when he uses the example of Helen of Troy to argue that modern war is really about men fighting over women!
Pinker is using his theories to promote the most backward views about women and the impossibility of changing society. Yet for all his earlier bluster, Pinker's final conclusion is that those features of the human mind which philosophers have debated for centuries - what constitutes free will, how do we gain true knowledge about the world, how do words get their meaning, and so on - are probably unknowable anyway because our Stone Age minds are too primitive to grapple with such questions! Such is the great anti-climax to a book which will hopefully soon wend its way into the dustbin of bad ideas and silly theories.
When James Connolly led the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 he guaranteed that his name and legacy would be surrounded with ambiguity. The rebellion has come to be marked as the start of the struggle for Irish independence. Imagine the difficulty for those who celebrate the event in dealing with the fact that one of the key leaders of the rebellion was a Marxist, who warned prophetically that changing the post boxes in Ireland from red to green would do little to change the class rule under which workers suffered.
One way of dealing with this dilemma was to repackage Connolly as a Catholic nationalist. Thus one biography of Connolly claimed that Connolly was the greatest exponent that the Catholic Church ever had! Unfortunately this distortion of Connolly affected the Irish labour movement quite profoundly. Up to the 1960s the main collection of Connolly's writing was edited by Desmond Ryan, published between 1948 and 1951 with the financial assistance of Ireland's main trade union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The ITGWU was engaged in an anti-Communist witch hunt and the collection is therefore highly selective. It conveyed the impression that Connolly was hostile to the British labour movement. An important article where Connolly praised the solidarity of rank and file British workers during the 1913 Dublin Lockout and attacked the growing union bureaucracy was simply left out.
The other main publisher of Connolly's writings has been the tiny Irish Communist Party. In an attempt to ward against the anti-Communist climate that prevailed up to the 1960s, the CP often operated under front organisations such as the Connolly Youth Movement or the Connolly Association. The main theorist of the latter organisation, Desmond Greaves, wrote a biography of Connolly which sought to present him as an adherent of the view that national liberation had to be achieved in Ireland before there could be any fight for socialism.
All of this means that socialists should welcome the publication of The Lost Writings. These bring together a series of previously unpublished articles from a number of newspapers that Connolly edited. Some are extraordinarily relevant for today. Take, for instance, Connolly's denunciation of all-class alliances. As I write, Sinn Fein is about to be excluded from the peace talks by the British and Irish governments. This is a shabby little manoeuvre that has been inspired by David Trimble. But the irony is that up to recently the Sinn Fein leadership was assuring its supporters that a 'nationalist consensus' with its Fianna Fail allies was necessary at this stage of the struggle. The fact that these same allies are now helping to expel Sinn Fein will inevitably bring forward cries of treachery.
Yet a cursory glance at a marvellous article by Connolly on a pan-nationalist alliance established to commemorate the 1798 rebellion might have indicated a different approach. Connolly was always aware that the weakness of constitutional politicians in confronting the British empire did not arise primarily from a lack of nationalist fervour - but from their class position. As he noted, 'In the midst of their most fervent vituperations against the British government, there rises up before their mind's eye the spectacle of Irish working people demanding freedom for their class from the economic slavery of today.'
He added, 'And struck with affright the middle class politician buttons up his trouser pocket, and shoving his hand deep into the pockets of his working class compatriots, cries out as his fingers close on upon the plunder: "No class questions in Irish politics".' What a biting comment still fitting for those who believe they can postpone class issues until after their alliance with Bill Clinton and Fianna Fail delivers a united Ireland!
One other of Connolly's writings deserves mention. In recent years Republicans have increasingly switched to an emphasis on cultural nationalism. Martin McGuinness has argued for example that one of the main causes of the conflict has been a British desire to 'suffocate our Irishness'. Connolly's piece on 'The Spiritual Inheritance of the Celt' is a great antidote to this. While ever willing to defend people's right to speak Irish or express their particular culture, Connolly had little time for the mystical claims of all nationalists to their unique character. He writes that marks of 'Celtic spirituality' are 'but the impression left upon the Celtic mind by the operation of the natural phenomena of his material surroundings'; that some of the stories which belong to Celtic culture can be found among Hindus and that 'it is not Anglo-Saxonism but capitalism which pours its cheap filth into our news agencies and deluges our homes with its gutter literature'.
Pluto has also published a more standard collection of James Connolly's Selected Writings edited by Peter Berresford Ellis. Unfortunately, his introduction to this collection reflects the type of past distortions that surrounded Connolly's writings. So we are informed that Connolly's Catholicism inspired him to revolt against capitalism and that he saw 'god's place in history as a force that could rally man to hurl himself against mammon.' There is also the nonsensical claim that the SWP tradition in Britain and Ireland has set out to warn people off Connolly's ideas.
We have certainly challenged that tradition which distorted Connolly for the purpose of claiming that revolutionary socialists had to trail Republicans until the national question was sorted out. This meant an open and critical assessment of Connolly's strengths and weakness. But as Connolly was a revolutionary socialist to the marrow of his bones, he deserved no less.
The Holy City is a story of working class life in Clydebank from the 1930s through to the present day. It is told through the recollections of Marion Macleod as she is taken to hospital after collapsing in the street. She remembers her early childhood in the flat roofed tenements of Clydebank.
The book also portrays other areas of life in the period before the Second World War on Clydebank - life in the shipyards, the insecurity of employment, the harsh working conditions, the hatred of the 'bastards in bowlers' (foremen) and the hard humour of the yards.
All of Marion's family are killed in the first air raid on Clydebank in 1941. Marion and Wee Davy, the boy from downstairs, are the only survivors from their tenement. They are dug from the ruins and spend years recovering in hospital. At the age of 13 she takes on responsibility for Davy. From being part of a large, loving family she is suddenly on her own, with a youngster to look after. The tremendous sadness and pain she feels is brilliantly portrayed.
When Davy's brother Jimmy returns from the war they soon marry. Jimmy is a weary, sad man whose war experiences, coupled with finding the city and most of his family destroyed, make him unable ever to readjust successfully to normal life. They are unable ever to develop any real relationship, sexual or otherwise. Her son, Colin, is the result of a single coupling between them.
The novel captures the atmosphere of Clydebank in the period after the war - the constant worries about money; the intimate relationship with the shipyards and the Singer's sewing machine factory where most of the women worked; the appalling treatment of the shipyard workers by the bosses; the complete lack of health and safety provision; and the constant war of attrition between management and workers. As Marion's responsibilities mount, the opportunities for her own happiness seem to close down. She wanted the life that she should have had, the life that was taken away from her by the bomb in 1941.
I felt disappointed with the end of the book as it sped through the 1970s and 1980s mentioning the closures of the shipyards and Singer's and the work-in only in passing - it had no impact on the narrative. All the threads are pulled together too nicely in the final pages. However, the book is well worth reading. It is immensely sad and moving, but it is told with a wonderful humour.
'The writing of history has always been a battle against the self styled expert,' claims Christopher Hill in this brand new collection of never before published articles, lectures and reviews.
It's the kind of bold, take no prisoners approach that has characterised all of Hill's work over the last 50 years. From his path breaking The English Revolution 1640, written just after the Second World War, down to today Hill has been at pains to put out of joint the noses of the history establishment. For example, reviewing GM Trevelyan's book English Social History in 1946 Hill points to 'the first great defect of the book: a smug acceptance of liberal-bourgeois standards as something absolute...So he can talk about "the Englishman's instinct to better himself" as though we are all born good little bourgeois.' Hill has never lost his loathing of pomposity or the bourgeoisie. Also in this 1946 review Hill set out his manifesto:
'Our task is to rewrite this splendid story with as much learning and artistry as the Master of Trinity [Trevelyan], with his human sympathy but without its limitations, and with a pride which he could never know: to write it as a story which did not stop or peter out with the culminaton of the triumph of the middle class, a story which so far from being finished is barely beginning.'
That's not a bad starting point for anyone writing history today and Hill has rarely wavered from this approach in the half century since its formulation. Hill was a graduate of the Communist Party's historians group. The project came to a shuddering halt in 1956 as Russian tanks rolled into Hungary to put down the workers' revolt. Hill, EP Thompson and many others left the party in disgust.
The creativity initiated and fostered by the group helped produce a wealth of Marxist historians and historical writing over the next decades.
Some of the best pieces in this new collection are the short polemical book reviews and outraged letters to editors. In a piece on the socialist historian RH Tawney, Hill writes, 'Oxford gave him a second class degree, and he always seemed something of an outsider in the academic world, the establishment never succeeded in taming him. "No dog ties a tin can to his own tail," was his retort to the offer of a peerage.'
In a letter to the Times in October 1949 commenting on a book review Hill writes, 'To say that "the function of national representation" has been "in an indefinable manner to reproduce and balance the complex pattern of live forces and dominant interests" is to make verbosely and vaguely the Marxist point that parliament at all stages in English history has represented the interests of the economically dominant class.' This determination to engage head on with current political debate, to use history to light up the present, remains one of Hill's great strengths.
One of my own favourite examples in this collection comes in Hill's discussion of the idea that children are born evil in an article entitled 'Puritanism and the family in 17th century England'. This concept might seem outdated and medieval, but scratch below the surface of David Blunkett's scapegoating of ill behaved kids as a means to explain away Labour's underfunding of schools and there it lies festering. Hill argues, 'Original sin explained not only the wickedness of children but also the existence of private property, class inequality and the state which protects both. It was a doctrine held to be essential to the stability of society. As it justified the use of coercion by the state, so original sin explained the need for parental authority, for rigid discipline, at home, school and university.'
This is a lovely way of understanding the interrelationship between ideologies and the material base from which they spring. Hill's grasp of this is a central reason for the continuing influence of his work on historians, Marxist and non-Marxist alike.
My main memories of adolescence are unfortunately not of endless sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but of hours sat listening to awful 'progressive' rock lyrics. Ben Watson clearly shared this experience - but whereas the rest of us got better, he is still obsessed with the late Frank Zappa. You would have thought that writing a complete book on Zappa, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, would have got him out of Ben's system; but no, in Art, Class and Cleavage there are scores of references to Zappa as well as quotes from the poet Jeremy Prynne, both clearly Ben's enthusiasms.
The problem is that the book's attempt to define and theorise a dialectical (hence the 'Cleavage' of the title) Marxist analysis of art - a 'materialist esthetix' (shortened pointedly to ME in the text) - often ends up as an exposition of Ben's own tastes. So we are informed that materialist esthetix has a 'predilection for dinosaur rock'! Consequently large parts of the book are unreadable for anyone without a grounding in musicology and Surrealist poetry.
Despite Ben's assurances that the 'unfamiliar names aren't for any coterie', he lacks any sense of his potential readership and constantly falls into the obscurantism for which he rightly criticises postmodernist writing. With Ben's last book the audience was clear...fellow Zappa victims. But an exposition on the links between Surrealist art and revolutionary Marxism requires greater focus and tighter editorial control.
The constant attempts to play linguistic games and the self confessed 'Wildean wisecracks', pale after the first few dozen pages - how much of the likes of, 'It's sad to see scholars up a gum tree that long since came unstuck, but capitalism did at least invent the Pritt stick,' can you digest at one sitting?
These real flaws mask some interesting and stimulating writing. Ben Watson is scathing in his attack on postmodernism and quite rightly locates postmodernism in the disillusionment of Stalinised intellectuals. He makes a powerful case that it is only on the basis of a clear analysis of the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism that we can develop any coherent Marxist analysis of society and culture.
Hidden in amongst the Zappology are some important debates. What, for example, should the relation be between revolutionary politics and art? Ben places himself in the camp of the Surrealists André Breton and Guy Debord in arguing that there is an 'objective link between Surrealist art and revolutionary politics', calling as evidence Trotsky's defence of Breton in the late 1930s. I don't happen to agree with Ben on this, defending the Surrealists against the assault of Stalin's 'Socialist Realism' does not imply complete unity...yet it's an interesting debate. A trenchant attack on the 'post-Marxist' gurus Deleuze and Guattari raised some cheers, and within a rambling chapter on the Russian linguist Voloshinov there were some useful observations.
There is a need from within the revolutionary Marxist tradition for engaged and partisan writing on culture and philosophy. In doing so socialists need not write as if they are penning an agitational article for Socialist Worker. However, Ben's self proclaimed 'obnoxious yet rewarding' prose style will deter all but the most determined reader, or those on his particular cultural planet.
For the rest of us, for whom there are interesting and useful nuggets amid the bizarre rubbish, a selective approach is advisable. As Zappa himself once sang, 'Watch out where the huskies go, don't you eat that yellow snow.'
For anybody who wants to understand the recent outburst of American trade unionism, Strike is an essential read.
For the past quarter of a century American workers have faced declining wages, growing economic insecurity and worsening working conditions, whilst the corporations and their owners have got richer and more powerful. However, last summer 200,000 UPS workers belonging to the Teamsters union went on strike. This was the largest strike the US had seen for 20 years. UPS lost $30 million a day in profits. After 15 days on strike UPS management conceded to most of the union's demands. By any standards it was a great trade union victory.
Brecher shows that the UPS strike was not the first and nor will it be the last victory for the US working class. During much of the last 100 years the class struggle in America has remained at a low level. However, on several occasions it has erupted into a force that has openly challenged the authority of the state.
Strike is a history of the high points of American working class history, the periods of mass strikes. As the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said, the real nature of society is exposed during a mass strike. The question of power, class relations and solidarity are exposed for all to see.
Brecher begins his account with a chapter on the Great Upheaval of 1877, America's first mass strike, and gives inspiring accounts of the origins of May Day, the fightback during the Great Depression and the revolts of the Vietnam era. Everyone will have their own favourite anecdote. Mine is of the Illinois coal strike where over 1,000 armed strikers, many wearing their First World War helmets laid siege to strikebreakers and the National Guard. They even rented an aeroplane and dropped dynamite bombs on the strikebreakers!
The economic demands of these mass strikes soon included political issues. In 1919 dockers in Seattle organised for better pay, by the end of the year they were refusing to load arms and munitions for the anti-Bolshevik white armies in Russia.
The book shows how on a number of occasions US workers have tried to break down the ideas of racism and sexism.
However, there is one problem with this book. Brecher just looks to the spontaneity of the US working class and is dismissive of the role played by political organisations. He even claims that political organisations are only interested in recruiting workers into their respective organisations rather than in winning the struggle. This is mistaken in two ways. It is unlikely that, without the input of Trotskyists in the Minneapolis strike of 1934 or the American Communist Party in the San Francisco docks strike of the same year, these disputes would have won. It was political leadership that was the determining factor in the strikes' tactics.
Secondly, there are political forces behind all strikes. Much of the time they are those of the trade union leaders and tend to be conservative and reformist in nature. However, throughout the history of the US working class, anarchists, syndicalists and socialists have led struggles.
The answer is not to dismiss political organisations but to analyse the tactics they employed. Working class struggle alone is not enough. Even when US workers have pushed back an employer's offensive, sooner or later the bosses always come back for their pound of flesh. What was needed then and is needed today is an organisation that can unite all workers' struggles and create a force that can challenge the very base of capitalist society. It would be a tragedy if we have to go through another 100 years of struggle and only be able to say it just shows that workers in the US have always fought!
For those who have tried to read philosophical ideas and spent more time reading the dictionary, this small book (56 pages) is a treat. It comes at an important time when there is a crisis of ideas in our society and we are beginning to see a keener interest in Marx's thought.
However, as I read through it with pleasure two sentences jarred. Terry Eagleton writes: 'A socialism which needs to develop the forces of production from the ground up, without the benefit of a capitalist class which has accomplished this task for it, will tend to end up as that authoritarian form of state power we know as Stalinism.'
He is pointing to the old argument that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was premature.
If you consider Russia in isolation from the rest of the productive forces of the world at the time - especially Western Europe and North America - you will come to the conclusion Terry Eagleton implies. However, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, later adopted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, stresses the fact that a successful revolution in Russia could only survive as a precursor to wider successful rebellions across Western Europe and beyond, therefore encompassing the more highly developed means of production. As Trotsky said, 'Thus permanent revolution will become, for the Russian proletariat, a matter of class self preservation.'
Page 43 of Marx was not my favourite page. Terry Eagleton continues, 'And a socialism which fails to inherit from the middle class a rich legacy of liberal freedoms and civic institutions will simply reinforce that autocracy.'
Compared to the absolute right of a single individual to rule - a monarch - the idea that a group of people should collectively govern was, and is, an advance. However, the capitalists' conception of how big that group should be, is very narrow - namely themselves.
The right of universal suffrage has had to be fought for tooth and nail against the entrenched interests of the capitalists, for example, the suffragettes in Britain or the American civil rights movements. As for the civic institutions, elected councils and parliament, our rulers have used these institutions to channel and contain the demand for change into a dead end. The ruling class is content in the knowledge that its control over the means of production and the state remains intact.
What is really needed is for the means of production to be taken under the democratic control of the immediate producers - the working class. With these two exceptions Terry Eagleton's book is an excellent introduction to Marx's philosophy, and, at only £2, is accessible to a wide audience.
'Left Review was a brilliant moment in left literary criticism and cultural democracy. In the three and a half years of its existence, October 1934 to May 1938, it produced the first Marxist literary theory in Britain and a body of criticism of striking originality.' So says David Margolies, introducing this selection of articles. If only his claim were true.
Left Review was born of the spirit of the popular front, which was the strategy pursued by the Communist Party in the mid-1930s as it attempted to construct a broad alliance to stop fascism. In the realm of culture, this meant an attempt to appeal to liberal minded writers shocked by the Nazis' bonfire of 'degenerate' art. After the sectarian policy of 'class against class', which had been the CP line in the early 1930s and which involved denouncing reformist socialists as social fascists, this new policy was very appealing. It corresponded to the mood of unity within and beyond the ranks of the working class.
In reality it was neither in the interests of the working class nor truly democratic. It was an attempt to woo supposedly progressive sections of the Western bourgeoisie in order to protect the Stalinist bureaucracy, which was busy consolidating its class interests by terror. Thus the popular front went hand in hand with the monstrous purges and show trials of the mid to late 1930s in Russia.
In the cultural sphere, the popular front coincided with the imposition of bureaucratic control on artistic freedom in the Soviet Union. With writers and artists constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of praising or abusing the wrong people, all genuine debate and criticism disappeared. Under such conditions the idea that the popular front could produce cultural democracy or strikingly original criticism is a travesty of the truth. That is not to say, however, that every piece of writing produced under the aegis of the popular front was worthless.
Some of the genuine Marxist spirit filtered through. So, alongside some truly crude pieces of intellectual bullying in Margolies' selection, there are more thoughtful examples reproduced here. We can see it in the writing of intelligent and independent poets, like Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender, who had moved to the left precisely because traditional bourgeois thinking utterly failed either to deal with the massive economic and ideological crisis of the period or to answer the question of what their art was for.
This spirit of exploration about the social basis of art is not without its failings. It is too reliant on mechanical models of Marxism. But that could have been corrected had the Marxism on offer from cultural publications like Left Review not come poisoned with Stalinism.
In the end the demand to swallow the Moscow trials as the height of Communist democracy led to many doubts and worries. Tragically, writers like Day Lewis and Spender became disillusioned not just with Stalinism but with left wing ideas altogether.
Margolies' introduction skates over this. Although he acknowledges that there were 'lapses' in the way in which some of the CP hacks polemicised against writers who raised questions about the value of Stalinist art, he presents the Moscow treason trials (he puts no quotation marks around 'treason') as something quite separate from the popular front, instead of two sides of the same coin. This means there are all kinds of gaps and fudges in his analysis. Why, for example, was Left Review shut down in May 1938? Fascism had hardly become less of a danger by then. Could it be because of the problem of holding on to fellow travellers as a result of the Moscow trials?
Margolies' obtuseness means that this book, with its conclusion that Left Review was a testimony to 'the period of Britain's most creative Marxism', is deeply flawed. As a throwback to a time when Stalinist ideas were hegemonic it provides a fascinating insight into what cultural politics should not be. For that reason it can teach us a lesson or two.
Books on the Nazi period are coming out with increasing momentum. Many of them give valuable insights into that difficult period. The two dominant themes of the last few years, however, have been, firstly, that somehow the Germans were endemically anti-Semitic; secondly, that there was little that the Allies, the Western democracies, could have done to help the Jews. Both of these arguments need to be taken on vigorously.
The central weakness of many books on the period is precisely that they start in 1933 (or 1939) and the vitally important earlier period is examined predominantly in terms of Hitler's personality or long standing anti-Semitism instead of in the light of the social and political crisis at the time. The welcome reissue of this book adds weight to the challenge to this type of historiography.
The Nazis came to power in 1933 promising to solve the dire economic crisis in Germany, with an ideological programme that was completely impractical. They were hearkening back to some pre-industrial, or pre-capitalist, era of mythical Teutonic, Aryan, agrarian, small scale harmony.
There was no possibility of the Nazis rolling back German industrialisation even had they wanted to - there was no possibility of waging war without a fully developed industrial economy. Thus by 1939 the cities were larger, not smaller; the concentration of capital greater; the rural population reduced; women were not tied to the kitchen but increasingly at work; industry's share of GDP was up and agriculture's down; more department stores were flourishing and small businesses were in trouble. The Nazis accommodated to capital from an early stage. There is no doubt that sections of big business backed the Nazis as a way out of the crisis and did very nicely out of the drive to war and the war itself, including the design, building and killing materials for the death camps. Capitalism survived the Nazis and, indeed, the war.
While it was not particularly in capital's interest that the war against the Jews was eventually waged with such fanaticism, there was a certain twisted logic to it. The war was clearly an industrial and capitalist war, waged by modern industrial society. The crusade against 'Bolshevism' was literally dying on the Eastern Front and the only part of the Nazi ideology that could be delivered was the elimination of the Jews - which by 1941 onwards meant physical elimination. This was executed right up to the last minutes of the war.
Schoenbaum's book is of great relevance today. There is a weakness in its approach, which over-relies on the relationship between the institutions of Nazism and thus misses a lot of its dynamic. For example, there is little mention of the terror waged against the labour movement or of resistance to the Nazis from the opposition. But nonetheless it has a refreshing approach in that it does not start from the racism of medieval Germany or the Nazis but with the economic, political and social effects of the crisis relating to the Nazi programme. It is from this that we can examine ways of ensuring that Nazism never comes to power again.