Issue 218 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1998 Copyright Socialist Review


The Powell principle

Paul Foot's obituary of Enoch Powell (March SR) was excellent. One of the most nauseous sights of the year was Tony Benn snuffling into his handkerchief at the disgusting racist's funeral.

But it is not really adequate for Paul to comment on the notorious dockers' march that 'the racist campaign in the docks soon died out'. It is important to remember that racism in the docks was confronted, and that our organisation had an honourable role in doing so.

The one London docker in the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP), the late Terry Barrett, together with a small group of International Socialists and others opposed to racism, attempted to dissuade the dockers from marching by distributing a leaflet which might stand today as a fitting obituary to Powell:

'Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class. He is a director of the vast National Discount Company (assets 224m) which pays him a salary bigger than the 3,500 a year he gets as an MP. He lives in fashionable Belgravia and writes Greek verse. What does he believe in? Higher unemployment. He has consistently advocated a national average of 3 percent unemployed. Cuts in the social services. He wants higher health charges, less council houses, charges for state education and lower unemployment pay. Mass sackings in the docks. Again and again he has argued that the docks are "grossly overmanned".'

Barrett failed in his effort to stop the march. But his courage should not be forgotten. It was on the basis of such interventions that our organisation established its anti-racist credentials, and was able to take much more effective action later on with the Anti Nazi League. Racism does not 'die out'; it must be fought wherever it appears.

Ian Birchall


Not beaten but betrayed

It is a mistake to view the state of the working class purely in terms of the level of industrial struggle. I feel Tom Behan heads for this trap in his letter (March SR).

To catch the mood and potential for action we need to look deeper. Dismissal of the Tories in May last year has been followed by rising discontent with Blair's New Labour. The New Musical Express caught the mood when page after page attacked New Labour from the left. Betrayal was the word that summed up the sentiments.

I think this is an expression of many people's views at the moment political, feeling betrayed and wanting answers to questions.

This was not how people felt in the mid-1980s after the Wapping dispute. The print unions had previously been seen as the last word in union power and Murdoch had smashed them. Bosses round the country took this as a signal to go on the offensive. Our side put their heads down. There was industrial struggle after Wapping, for example the seafarers, but the struggles were primarily defensive amid a general mood of 'we can't win'.

Today things are different. The dockers' strike lasted for two years precisely because it both fed off and nurtured the political mood in the working class. The dockers were not beaten but betrayed, both by the trade union leaders and New Labour. It was interesting the lengths to which Bill Morris, boss of the TGWU, felt he had to go to attack supporters of the dockers and defend his position. Brian Dooley, one of the Liverpool dockers, writing about the strike in last month's Socialist Review, is very clear that he believes workers can win in the future. He also vividly describes the politicising effect of the dispute on those around him.

This political mood cannot last for ever in the absence of class struggle. Either the struggle must rise to the political level or the political level will fall. The mistake is to miss out the time factor. Political change takes place over a span of time and is never crudely determined. There is no sign of the political mood ebbing yet.

Around the world we have seen the bitterness explode. The support for the UPS victory in the US, the public sector strikes in Canada, strikes in France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Spain and South Korea all point to a general trend. Britain would be the exception if the bitterness didn't eventually express itself in action. The key for socialists is a realistic assessment so that we are not surprised when the class starts to move.

Dave Sellers


Count them in on class

One of the prime problems confronting the socialist movement is the constant shift of the working class, as the changing demands of the capitalist system determine the skills it requires of the workforce.

Where manufacturing industry has declined it has been overtaken by the service and technology industries. Even in those surviving manufacturing industries the manual element has been supplanted by automation to a great extent. This gradual rearrangement from manual to non-manual labour, coupled with the relative success of the capitalist's bribery by way of increasing home and share ownership, has led to the strange situation of a disproportionate increase in the working population against that of the working class due to their absorption into a greatly enlarged middle class.

Let's look briefly at the term 'middle class'. Middle, meaning intermediate, neither at one extreme or the other, halfway between, in class terms neither working class nor ruling class in effect a nothing class, a whole section of society conveniently removed from the equation.

The creation of this nothing class did not occur by accident, but came about by the deliberate actions of the ruling class in order to create a cushion between themselves and the rest of society; so any increase in the numbers of this class, particularly to the extent we have seen over recent years, must be seen as an incentive to up the tempo of our fight.

Only by removing this protective barrier the ruling class has so effectively managed to build between itself and the working class will we be able to progress to a better society, for while this barrier exists the only class war that is really going on is between the working class that is and the working class that isn't who in their denial of their true class are as effective a weapon of oppression as any army or police force.

We must continually be reminding people that if they receive a wage or salary in return for their labour, in whatever form that takes, and do not receive a fair and equitable share in the benefits of that labour, they are slaves albeit wage slaves, whatever the level of remuneration they do receive; and as such are working class and part of the oppressed whether they like it or not. And the only way out of oppression is to join their brothers and sisters in the fight against that oppression and for a fair and just society, a socialist society.

Keith Forbes


Sentimental miseducation

Both Socialist Review and Socialist Worker have rightly welcomed Steven Spielberg's latest historical epic, Amistad. Any film which explains the horror of the greatest crime in human history, the African slave trade, on which capitalism was built, should be welcomed by socialists. However, it is, I think, insufficient to simply praise the movie for its politics when its artistic shortcomings prevent it from being the truly great film it should have been.

Whilst the picture does have some political weaknesses, it is Spielberg's aesthetics which damage the film most. It may seem churlish, considering the truth which Amistad does portray, to criticise the form which the movie takes, but some of Spielberg's techniques undermine the film and weaken its political impact.

If we consider, for example, the scene on board the slave ship from Sierra Leone to Cuba. It would be well nigh impossible to depict the conditions of the slaves on the ship and the mass drownings which took place in a way which was less than powerful; and yet Spielberg's use of intrusive sentimental music, presumably intended to heighten the scene's emotional impact, actually detracts from our response.

Spielberg uses the same sort of crude sentimental filming and musical techniques in Amistad as he has used in his science fiction fantasy movies such as ET and Gremlins. This suggests that the audience needs to be given obvious signposts as to when to feel moved. Despite his good intentions, Spielberg is ultimately guilty of patronising his audience and, as an unintended consequence of his directorial techniques, of actually failing in his attempt to portray the full magnitude of the slave trade as genocide and human tragedy.

Amistad is a decent film, and the story it tells should be told in as many ways as possible but in the hands of a more astute and more sophisticated director it would have been the cinematic classic it demanded to be.

Mark Brown


A composer of our time

I wish to congratulate you and Rob Hoveman on your Michael Tippett appreciation (February SR). Tippett deserves attention in socialist circles. He was fond of repeating Nelson Mandela's stirring words, 'One justice, one humanity,' and, as noted by Hoveman, his oratio A Child of our Time reflects the composer's profound compassion for the human predicament. I should like to direct your readers to his Third Symphony with its programme of healing and, once again, compassion. The three vocal 'Blues Songs' with which the symphony climaxes form an ecstatic and visionary response to this century's social flashpoints.

Also, asked in an interview if he saw himself as a Prospero (Tippett was certainly a master magician of his most fragrant and richly scored orchestras), Tippett responded with Dov, the character from his Knot Garden opera, 'who sings songs for those who cannot sing for themselves.'

Colm O'Sullivan


Music practice and theory

I was very pleased to see the interview with Terry Callier (March SR). Those who do not know this artist will glean that he makes an important contribution to the radical culture socialists need in order to counteract the 'capitalist media? How can we give our readers a 'real alternative' culture unless we expose music makers of this calibre?

In this interview he repeats the Socialist Worker argument about the hypocrisy of the US offensive against Iraq and when he speaks of his native Chicago he acknowledges that the only way to stop it being the 'most segregated city in the US' is for it to take from the tradition of black and white unity of the Southern coal miners' union in the 1920s.

Many will question why a jazz/soul artist has been allocated substantial space in the only monthly review for socialists when print is so precious. I hope to justify its inclusion by using the very principles we endeavour to govern our lives by.

Terry Callier fully recognises the political importance of Spartacus's slave rebellion so he uses the theme tune of the film to articulate the struggle of this abominable system on 'Timepiece'. This haunting tune encapsulates the painful fight for freedom with the voice of a few well chosen notes. With Callier's addition of words, we can see the more intricate connections of racism and sexism. This is just one example on a phenomenal album that can be seen as nourishment for activists relaxing at home preparing themselves for the daily battles of the twin responsibilities of theory and practice.

The catalogue of work spanning 25 years is a testament to his struggle as a working class black man fighting the exploitation of the music business that denies him a livelihood. He made his last album at the weekends after his day job as a computer programmer. He is a highly sensitive, intelligent, principled artist who refuses to compromise his integrity so his obvious talent is not given the true platform it deserves.

I believe we should give music the same respect we do other art forms such as painting, theatre, literature, all of which have an established place in Socialist Review. Callier has virtuosity equal to Mozart. I hope the Review will expand its cultural horizons, giving more well deserved space to exponents of music that rail against all injustice, inspiring people to change themselves and the world into a place where everyone has the space to develop their own creative potential.

Adeola Johnson


The opposite of progress

A number of points could be added to Henry Maitles' review of Hitler's Social Revolution by David Schoenbaum (March SR). This book is important as, since its initial publication in 1966, it has underwritten an academically influential analysis of the Third Reich as a revolutionary regime. It has spawned a number of studies that perversely stress the Third Reich's progressive or modernising aspects.

Following the bourgeois sociologist Max Weber, David Schoenbaum concentrated on status rather than class and as a consequence argued that the Nazis achieved, as they themselves claimed, a genuine social revolution. This was because the Nazi leadership were not part of the old ruling class and brought about a massive transformation of the status of the German working class.

The problem with this account should be obvious. Status is about perceptions and appearances rather than the realities of exploitation. That bosses and workers all wore the same blue uniforms of the German Labour Front did not alter the fact that the Nazi regime massively boosted industrial profits through a wage freeze, the smashing of the trade unions, longer and more intensive working weeks and rearmament contracts. Indeed, rather than a social revolution, what in reality happened was both the counter-revolutionary destruction of the democratic rights of workers, women and Jews, and the brutal crushing of the workers' movement.

In their place were put Nazi mass organisations which proclaimed that class divisions had been replaced by a single community of the German people. Nothing was further from the truth the facade of egalitarianism masked both an increase in the authority of the employer, army officer, and the policeman and a widening gap between investment and consumption.

Indeed, workers were the first victims of the regime. They were bloodily repressed and contained by Hitler who was always worried about the possibility of a workers' resurgence.

Therefore, the idea that there was a social revolution in Germany is dangerous because it portrays workers as benefiting from a regime that treated them as an internal enemy. It also fails to distinguish between the social changes induced by a capitalist drive to war and real progress for ordinary Germans.

In essence, Nazi social policy, acting largely in the interest of German capitalism, was digging the graves of millions of Germans and non-Germans alike. This was barbarism, not emancipation.

Matt Perry


The limits of Lessing

As Paul Foot writes (February SR), the tragedy of Doris Lessing is that from producing a fine novel like The Golden Notebook, full of desire for a better world and compassion for those struggling to achieve it, she ends up producing right wing nonsense like The Good Terrorist. But I was made uneasy by Paul's account of how this had happened that Lessing moved to the right because she was disillusioned when she realised that the Soviet Union wasn't socialist so I reread The Golden Notebook.

It is highly autobiographical. It is set in the early 1950s and centres on Anna Wulf, like Lessing a novelist who has grown up in colonial Africa, comes to Britain and joined the Communist Party. Anna descends into madness, torn apart by the pain of relationships in a sexist society, and by her CP membership.

Certainly you can see from the novel that CP membership would leave people embittered. After Stalin's death in 1953, and after Soviet tanks crushed the revolt in Hungary in 1956, it became clear that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship. Desperate not to abandon socialist politics, members made excuses for Soviet propaganda 'maybe the translation is bad' or retreated into not thinking about ideas at all 'all this theoretical stuff is just over my head'. People felt they were abandoning the struggle for socialism if they left the party, but that intellectual dishonesty was a precondition for staying in it. This experience alone, however, doesn't explain Lessing's shift to the right. Other intellectuals left the CP but remained socialists.

When Anna leaves the CP, she explains the attitude she takes to politics: 'There's a great black mountain. It's human stupidity. There are a group of people who push a boulder up the mountain. When they've got a few feet up there's a war, or the wrong sort of revolution, and the boulder rolls down not to the bottom, it always manages to end a few inches higher than when it started. So the group of people put their shoulders to the boulder and start pushing again.'

In other words, most people are stupid. A few enlightened souls gradually try to shift the world in the right direction. Every tiny change is valuable, because that's the most you can ever achieve. Rejecting the idea that you can change the whole of society is painful, but that's the mature and truly heroic choice to make. Anna hasn't rejected revolutionary change to accept this elitist version of reformism it's what she always believed in. She joined the CP because she thought they were the boulder-pushers and she leaves because she sees they aren't.

Paul writes that Lessing 'lived her life according to her principles', with 'moral fervour' and 'independence of judgement', and that The Golden Notebook 'throbs with a passion for liberation'. All this is true, but these qualities aren't enough in themselves.

Doris Lessing's decline had its roots in her politics from way back. If she had had clear ideas, better politics, we might have had many more novels as fine as The Golden Notebook. In the absence of that clarity, independence of mind just wasn't enough.

Colin Wilson


Rights and wrongs of Cuba

There is a trap in which socialists can easily become ensnared; the argument that the absence of democracy or human rights is only a problem in bourgeois societies but not in Cuba. Why? The fact that workers cannot control their own destiny has always been defended on the grounds that the leaders know best. That is exactly the argument put forward by comrades Hemmings and Arnold (Letters, March SR). Not many Cubans believe it any more.

We have never argued that Cuba is the worst offender in this respect only that it is not qualitatively different from other societies which make no claim to be socialist. Mike Hemmings says that Cuba 'outperforms most of the Third World on collective social and economic rights'. Yet strike action is illegal and quickly repressed; the economy is dominated by multinational corporations now profiting from their investments in tourism, oil and industry. The role of the Cuban state today is not to defend the Cuban workers against these industries, but to create the best conditions for their investment. For Cuban workers the result is the same as in any country creating such conditions, exploitation and a declining lifestyle. They can turn to prostitution, of course as 30,000 women have done or to the demeaning business of serving tourists. There is no socialist defence of either.

Cuba has systematically oppressed gay people and 'contained' people with Aids in military re-education units (UMAPs); dissidents are persecuted and denounced as agents of imperialism. The rectification that comrade Arnold refers to mobilised the masses of Cubans behind Castro in anticipation of the scarcity to come after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet it did nothing about the obvious and widening gulf between a minority of wealthy Cubans and a majority whose lives grow more difficult by the day. This is not propaganda; it is visible to any casual passer-by in the streets of Havana.

Is it collusion with imperialism to honestly expose these realities or to make it clear that there is no direct democracy in Cuba that the much vaunted mass organisations are appointed by the tiny, unelected and shrinking elite that control the Cuban state? Our consistent involvement in the anti-imperialist movement over the years is proof of our resolute opposition to the role of the US.

The real issue is this socialism is a project for the self-emancipation of the working class. How can collusion with an oppressive and undemocratic state which implements the imperatives of capitalism assist that process?

The comrades say Cuba has no choice. The Cuban state may have no alternative if it wishes to negotiate with the world system. But the Cuban working class does have another choice resistance, struggle, and the building of a workers' movement linking all those who face the same forces. That is not a third way but a genuine internationalism.

Mike Gonzalez


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