Sixty years after Tennessee Williams first expressed outrage at the baking to death of four prisoners after a prison riot, his play, Not about Nightingales, received its world premiere in London.
With the Great Depression fresh in workers' minds and Nazism rampant in Europe the play horrifically dramatises the true story of a Philadelphia prison in 1938 when 650 prisoners staged a hunger strike against gruelling conditions and an appalling diet. We see the horrendous treatment of the prisoners, their revolt, their punishment and their deaths, alongside the lives of the prison staff the brutal officers and others terrified of the dole queue.
The ringleaders are consigned to the 'Klondike', a tiny, airless cell, equipped with steam radiators sufficient to heat a baby skyscraper. After days trapped in temperatures up to 200 degrees, without water, the doors are opened. Four men are dead scalded to death their hearts shrunk to half their normal size.
Williams pits the brutish warden (played by Corin Redgrave) against Butch, the prison ringleader. Existing unhappily between the two opposing camps is the sympathetically portrayed Canary Jim, the warden's lackey, who is ostracised by other inmates and puts up with humiliation and bullying from both sides. Does he keep his head down so that later he can expose the barbarism behind prison walls or does he join the rebellion? He is not prepared to jeopardise his parole but in the end his individual solution proves to be for nothing. The autocratic warden has no intention of letting him go. The only solution, it turns out, was to fight.
An aspiring writer, he tosses aside 'Ode to a Nightingale' by Keats, angry at its sentimentality which is a million miles away from the harsh reality of prison life. He's determined he's not going to write about anything as innocuous as nightingales.
A particularly powerful scene exposes the alliance between the church and the state. A liberal priest who sympathised with the prisoners' complaints is sacked. The warden wants fear instilled into the men about the consequences of continuing with the hunger strike. He 'suggests' to the new priest the three things the sermon should contain food, heat and Klondike. It's a great scene, not only because the priest gets pelted by the prisoners for his clumsy threats, but because you see the strength and determination the men get from fighting back together.
After days with no food some of the hunger strikers question whether they should carry on will it achieve anything apart from the worst punishment of all Klondike? It is an inspirational scene as you listen to Butch. He rouses their spirits and fires them up again they can't break all of them! Klondike is their last card! Sure, some won't survive, but those who do will have won and then, imagine what revenge!
Some critics have said Not about Nightingales is melodramatic and looks like a first draft. I disagree. As Tennessee Williams wrote about a news clipping on the deaths, 'If you think my play is melodramatic read this!' Even if it were rough around the edges, it was written as an instant reaction to a horrific event and was meant for production at the time. Williams himself was proud of it, saying that he had never written anything that could compete with it in violence and horror.
The only reason it is now being performed is because Vanessa Redgrave sought out the manuscript, determined to see it on the stage. The production does everything possible to conjure up the brutal, spirit breaking existence of the prisoners, many of whom are in for petty crime (stealing food to feed the family, much like the mushrooming prison population today).
Everything in the two halves of the set, the warden's office and the cells, is a steely grey. There's no comfort anywhere. The noise is deafening the guards' bellowing competes with cell doors slamming, whistles, bells and clanking keys it makes for an oppressive atmosphere. The action surrounds the audience who are forced to endure the terror of no escape.
It would be comforting if this could be viewed as a prison horror from the past. Unfortunately, atrocities continue today. A report on
8 February 1998 from the Observer reports on the inquest into the death of a man in a British jail, who died after eight officers 'restrained' him during an examination.
You can normally tell that a television adaptation of a classic novel is going to be worth watching if it is not a slavish imitation of the original. The BBC's version of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, originally published in monthly parts between May 1864 and November 1865, shows what can be done. The adaptation has pruned the structure in a way which brings out what is strongest in the novel's understanding of mid-Victorian society.
At the heart of Our Mutual Friend is a savage attack on the worship of money and status. This is a society which is corrupt to its core and which sacrifices all human instincts particularly those of love and sympathy to what another eminent Victorian critic called the 'Goddess of Getting On'.
One example is the Veneerings, 'bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London'. They have come from nowhere but can buy themselves social position. This takes the form of having superannuated aristocrats (Lady Tippins, with a throat 'like the legs of scratching poultry') grace their tastelessly opulent dinner table alongside businessmen who have no names other than what they manufacture 'Boots' or 'Brewer'.
This is a society driven by nothing other than making money on the stock exchange. 'Traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything! Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares!'
Human beings themselves are reduced to instruments for accumulation. This alienation takes a number of forms. At the comic level it is the pair of minor villains Mr Venus, who makes a living out of trading in animal and body parts, and Silas Wegg, with a wooden stump for an amputated leg (in Venus's possession), who does not like to be 'dispersed' but wants to be 'collect' himself 'like a genteel person'.
Making yourself a gentleman out of bits and pieces is what underlies the central plot: the fortune made from dustheaps which turns the virtually illiterate Boffins into people whom society is very anxious to feed off. (Dickens has a brilliant passage about how all 'manner of crawling, creeping, fluttering, and buzzing creatures' particularly charitable ones like the 'Society for Granting Annuities to Unassuming Members of the Middle Classes' are attracted 'by the gold dust' of Mr Boffin, 'the Golden Dustman'.)
Dickens calls this source of wealth 'dust', but he might just as well have called it (had it not been for Victorian sensitivities) shit. The glittering opulence of society flows as from a sewer and people make their living out of the excrement that flows through this sewer.
This is a society founded on decay and death, in which everyone feeds off everyone else a perfect image of bourgeois society at the zenith of its power and arrogance. No relationship remains untainted by this reality. The merest whiff of money is enough to turn someone into a mercenary wretch, which is what the heroine of the novel, Bella Wilfer, sees herself becoming as a result of the Boffins pulling her out of genteel poverty into their world of gold and glitter. The Boffins themselves seem to be corrupted, all their generous impulses rotted by contact with wealth.
Is there any way out? Dickens looked for an answer, hoping that there might be individuals who could rise above their environment and set an example. He looked for these among children, not yet corrupted by the adult world, or eccentrics, so separated off from the world by their behaviour that they too would be immune from corruption. Hence the sentimental, tearjerking side to his writing which the modern reader so dislikes.
The problem is that Dickens would like bourgeois wealth to be responsible, to advance the interests of the poor and dispossessed, but the increasingly utilitarian narrowness of society forces him to recognise that bourgeois wealth cannot be innocent or humane. So Dickens hangs onto his sentimental solutions, while revealing sometimes half consciously that all they amount to is escapism. Our Mutual Friend was Dickens's last complete novel and shows the desperate pitch to which this contradiction in his work had grown.
So the plot is more than usually convoluted and incredible in order to show that money both corrupts and doesn't corrupt. The Boffins and Bella Wilfer will both yield to what they have become part of and at the same time not yield. This doublesidedness comes out
in other ways and sometimes a lot more ambivalently. In the struggle for the affections of the poor rivergirl, Lizzie Hexam, the lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn, is set up as the opposite to the schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone. Eugene, secure within the bourgeois society he despises, seeks to redeem the uselessness of his life by devoting it to Lizzie.
Bradley, on the other hand, has climbed up from social obscurity into the middle ranks of society, and his obsession with Lizzie is part of the darker side of the novel's portrayal of the predatory tendencies of society. Dickens clearly intends us to side with Eugene against Bradley, with the noble, altruistic individual against the murderous egoist.
But in the confrontations between the two it is impossible not to feel Eugene's class arrogance and the pathos of Bradley's terrible social and sexual insecurity. It is almost as if Dickens's imagination could not fail to see how ambiguous 'taking an interest' in someone's welfare was.
All this makes Our Mutual Friend a compelling vision of Victorian society. If you were impressed by the television version, read the novel.
Gattaca is an entertaining, well made film which conjures up a science fiction vision of society 'in the not too distant future'.
Its theme is the way genetic science could be used by the wealthy and powerful to create a sharply divided society. Powerful corporations select, on the basis of genetic makeup, those who will form the privileged elite in this Brave New World.
Parents with money have access to the techniques of genetic engineering to select the makeup of their babies. Those without the necessary complement of desirable genes are doomed to life in an underclass, 'in-valids' as the film puts it.
Gattaca centres around the way one man, an in-valid, refuses to accept his lot. He wants to be an astronaut for the Gattaca corporation.
Despite his 'genetic' limitations he is talented and driven by the passion and imagination that has been bred out of the biological elite. Through an intricate web of subterfuge he seeks to outwit the corporation. Weave in a storyline with a murder and a detective chase, and you have the makings of an entertaining enough couple of hours.
Director/writer Niccol clearly wants to ask questions about the way genetics is being used in society today, and how it could be abused in the future. His overriding concern seems to be to warn of the dangers of the wealthy and powerful abusing science. Much of this is interesting and valid, but there are deep flaws with Gattaca.
At the most basic level, the subterfuge the hero engages in is at times simply unbelievable. But even if you suspend belief there are other deeper problems. Some of the warnings about where genetic science could lead are valid. But the film makes a series of fundamental mistakes about what genes do, and do not do. It ends up reinforcing a series of fashionable myths which seek to reduce all aspects of human behaviour to our genes.
Genes only operate as part of a wider biological framework. Human beings also develop in interaction with their environment both physical and social. This is more obvious with wider human characteristics which Gattaca suggests are controlled by our genes. Among the attributes you can select genes for are listed 'dazzling intelligence, a non-violent nature'. Passion, desire and other such characteristics are also suggested as being genetically determined in the film.
This is simply nonsense. There is not and cannot be a gene for intelligence, violence or passion.
Such qualities are rooted in our biological makeup, in which our genes play an important role. As a certain type of biological organism we have the capacity to understand the world around us in various ways, as well as a capacity for emotion and passion. But these complex qualities are developed as part of our social existence. Claims to reduce them to a crude production of a few strands of DNA are simply bad science.
A second flaw with Gattaca is shared by much science fiction. It paints a picture in which a small elite live in a high tech world and outside this lies an underclass of either criminals, alcoholics or those performing menial tasks.
Yet this is a world of massive buildings, complex transport and communication systems, of unlimited power on tap and much more. Who produces and maintains this vast infrastructure? Who builds the buildings, produces the power, constructs the communications links and so on? This question is never asked?
The answer can only be the collective social labour of millions of skilled workers, yet not a glimpse of this reality is ever hinted at. From as far back as Orwell's 1984 this weakness has been a problem with much science fiction, and it remains one here.
The result is either a depressing vision of the future, or at best one in which only the courageous battle of a few individuals can challenge the elite.
It is a shame writers who are capable of imaginative work are so limited in their grasp of social realities today, and those of any possible futures.
The Voice of the Multitude: Radicalism and Unrest in Britain 1790-1918
A rare chance to glimpse some working class history usually hidden inside the archives of the Public Record Office. This exhibition includes posters, letters and personal accounts of events and movements including Peterloo, anti Poor Law agitation, Chartist demonstrations, the growth of New Unionism, the Suffragettes and the Great Unrest.
It runs until 19 April at the Public Record Office at Kew and then will be on loan to the TUC, Great Russell Street and North London University.
For more details or to enquire about loaning the exhibition phone 0181 392 5295.
Any book bearing the authorship of John Pilger promises to be a gripping, informative read. Hidden Agendas does not disappoint.
The breadth of the book is astonishing as many familiar Pilger themes, events and places are revisited. Behind each essay lies Pilger's outrage at the inequalities, injustices and horrors of the capitalist world in which we live, and the role journalism could, should, but all too often doesn't, play in exposing them.
His introduction starts by describing what is known in the media as a 'slow news day'. Such days are when nothing of real importance happens. No glamorous princess is photographed in the gym. No footballer has beaten his wife, no US president has been caught with his pants down. So you are left with the mundane news, the boring, the unsexy. Iraqi women and children are dying because of the west's sanctions; slow news. Strikers are fighting for their very livelihoods in Liverpool; slow news. Indonesian troops have massacred entire East Timori villages; slow news.
Pilger's entire book is devoted to 'slow news'. The first chapter of the book sets the scene and the pace. Entitled 'The Terrorists' Pilger argues, with devastating effect, backed by anecdote and statistic alike, that the real terrorists are the mighty powers of the world. Pilger is not one who falls for the US myth of precision bombing. In this chapter, though, his own targets are hit with great precision. He relates the shocking story of the carve up of Diego Garcia. This island in the Indian Ocean was handed by the British to the US for nuclear testing the entire population being first forcibly dumped in Mauritius. Pilger contrasts this with the British government's attitude to the Falklands.
Britain's history in Malaya and Kenya are further used to illustrate the point that real terrorism does not emanate from an Armalite or an AK 47 but from the powers that dominate the globe. The point is emphasised by looking at the history of horrors of the US in such places as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and worst of all, perhaps, Cambodia. Nor does the record of Israel, so frequently overlooked by the western media, escape the precision of Pilger's pen.
Part of what makes the book so readable are the personal touches which he uses to set a scene or make a point. This is particularly true of the two chapters on Australia. Pilger is very clear that whatever ideals may have existed in the young Australia (and one does detect some illusions on that point), they were all built on the notion that the Aborigines were a non-existent people, with no history, no culture, no land and no rights. He outlines the horror at the treatment they have received throughout the history of white controlled Australia, just as he rages at the new Australian racist right emerging to deny even the few rights Aborigines currently enjoy.
Pilger also uses a personal tale, this time of family history, to take us to the Liverpool docks and the strike. The chapter contrasts the honesty of the workforce to the get rich quick crookery of the employers and the heroism of the strikers and their families to the spineless betrayal of their union leaders.
The arguments he puts forward will be familiar to any one who read his articles in the Guardian on the subject, articles which drove TGWU leader Bill Morris to fire off a series of indignant letters. Pilger pulled no punches, nor does his journalism allow him to.
Two chapters are dedicated to the fate of the Daily Mirror. Both chapters are fascinating yet are also somewhat problematic. Pilger paints the pre-Maxwell Mirror as almost the model socialist daily. It is easy to understand Pilger's enthusiasm. Certainly the Mirror was a far better paper in the past than the rather shabby Sun replica we have today.
It was also the paper that gave Pilger a journalistic start that must have seemed like a dream come true, allowing him to develop what has become a superb journalism from locations as different as the back streets of the north of England to the war zones of Vietnam.
Nevertheless it was at best a mainstream right wing Labour paper, one which always sided with the Labour establishment against the left, with moderate trade union leaders against militants.
Pilger, though, seems to overlook this in a clouded judgement which untypically for him skates over the unpalatable with a sleight of hand. So the wartime cartoon strip, Jane, which featured a young woman losing her clothing at every possible moment was 'wonderful nonsense'. Pilger writes at some length about a successful early attempt by journalists led by Marje Proops to stop 'page three' style pin ups, and barely acknowledges that the pin ups soon made their way back in.
Most notably he makes light of former Mirror boss Cecil King's attempted plots to overthrow the Wilson government and replace it with a government of businessmen. The plot may never have amounted to much, but I can't help feeling Pilger would have been somewhat less philosophical had Maxwell or Murdoch been the agent of an equally absurd plan.
Nevertheless even these chapters are fascinating. Reading Pilger is reading journalism at its best. This book is personal without being egotistical, polemical without being one dimensional and full of the sort of 'slow news' items which will hold every socialist riveted.
'If in time, as in place, there are degrees of high and low,' wrote the philosopher Hobbes in the 1660s, 'I verily believe that the highest time would be that which passed between the years of 1640 and 1660.'
It was indeed 'the highest time' in the history of political thought. It is difficult to find another period which brought forth such a range and depth of political thinking. This was the result of the acute political conflicts and social struggles of the time. It gave voices for the first time to people of the subject classes, '...the beastly Laws of the World, opens the mouth wide, for those that have a large purse to plead their Cause, whilst the poor are sent empty away', but '...the Laws of God sayes, Open thy mouth wide for the dumb...and plead the Cause of the poor and needy.'
It is, therefore, very welcome that this book by Perez Zagorin, which was first published in 1954 but remains one of the best accounts of political thought in the English Revolution, has been reprinted in a series of 'Key Texts: Classic Studies in the History of Ideas'. It is a clear, succinct and penetrating study, written with passion. It is not the conventional survey of 'great thinkers', although it contains powerful essays on Hobbes, Harrington and Milton, but it embraces Levellers and Diggers, as well as a seminal analysis of republicanism and a sympathetic account of the Fifth Monarchists (millenarians who expected the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom on earth).
The structure of the book is interesting, because it passes over the debates between royalist and parliamentarian propagandists during the civil war, and begins with the Levellers and Diggers, thus locating the English Revolution in the great radical outbursts of 1647-49.
Zagorin interprets the revolution as the seedbed of democracy. His starting point means that he places political ideas in the social context and in relation to demands for social reforms. It is uncertain how far the failure of the radical revolution was due to the imprisonment of the people in a world of inherited ideas and habits, and an inability to believe that they could change the world. Or as Zagorin argues, was it due to the failure of the Commonwealth and Protectorate in the 1650s to implement the social reforms demanded by the radicals to remove the bias of legal proceedings in favour of the rich; to abolish tithes (the tax which supported the established church); and to convert copyhold land tenures into freeholds?
In the end it became a pertinent question whether military rule or government by a small oligarchy of self seeking politicians was preferable to a Stuart restoration.
The political thinking forged on the anvil of revolution remains highly relevant today. It was class conscious. 'Who are the oppressors, but the Nobility and Gentry; who are oppressed, is not the Yeoman, the Farmer, the Tradesman, and the Labourer?' asked Laurence Clarkson, addressing the people in 1647. Adding, 'Your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity.'
The Levellers explained the various oppressions and different forms of exploitation experienced in isolation by individuals, small groups, particular localities, by relating them all to an unjust political system which gave power to wealthy landlords, rich merchants, and their attendant lawyers and clergy. They sought to decentralise political power and bring it under popular control.
But the Diggers recognised that political democracy was impossible without economic democracy, and what Zagorin calls 'the eternal inseparability of political liberty and economic equality'.
Fifth Monarchists and others called for a redistribution of wealth: 'to redeeme again the Vineyard of the poor, which the Ahabs of the earth have taken away; to take away an house from them that have many and a field from them who have plenty of more, to appoint them for a Portion to supply them that have none, until...he that hath most, hath nothing too much, and he that hath least, have nothing lacking, that so...the Land may grow up towards her true Sabbath, where she shall no more bring forth her children to Oppression and Bondage.'
Of course, there were limitations to the Levellers' conceptions of democracy they excluded the poorest in their society and they gave insufficient attention to agrarian questions; the Diggers' condemnation of private property in land ran counter to the aspirations of the peasant majority; and the Fifth Monarchists relied on divine intervention to bring about the social revolution and looked to give power to a self appointed oligarchy of religious fundamentalists.
But together, as Zagorin makes clear, they broke the mould of inherited political ideas, which was one of the things that made the English Revolution, as he says, a decisive event in history. In the 1650s the democratic impulses were diluted, distorted, abandoned. The legacy includes undemocratic principles, which were implemented, and democratic principles which have yet to be accomplished.
The renewed threat of war in the Balkans over the question of Kosovo makes any book on the partition of Bosnia a timely occurrence. Western intervention in former Yugoslavia was supposed to have solved the problems of the region by carefully separating hostile groups. Yet, socialists at the time argued that western intervention would only entrench divisions instead of overcoming them. Many on the left disagreed. Our focus on working class struggles uniting workers from different ethnic groups was unrealistic, they said, and the only hope was humanitarian intervention by the European Union or United Nations.
Radha Kumar's book is a refreshing break from this consensus. She challenges the idea that the western backed partition of Bosnia into a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation was a 'lesser evil'. She develops her argument by looking at examples of partition in Ireland, India, Cyprus and Palestine. She concludes that, whatever the good intentions of the partitioners, the effect has been to institutionalise communal divisions.
The book contains a wealth of detail to back up its argument. Unfortunately, this is also one of its weaknesses. It reads like a blow by blow account of the negotiations to partition Bosnia, in which it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. This is a reflection of Kumar's political approach. The view we see in this book is the view from the top EU ministers and Nato generals 'gallantly' battle to separate warring tribes. Although Kumar's introduction challenges the assumption that different ethnic groups can't live together and need to be policed by benign imperial powers, her account of partition ends up reinforcing exactly that assumption.
The collapse of Yugoslavia is hinted at in a very sketchy way. Kumar sees the drive to war as a result of the 'crisis of Communism' , but any proper account of that crisis would have to show the impact it had on all parts of society, not just the ruling circles.
Kumar describes how regional Communist Party bosses responded to the collapse of state capitalism by whipping up racial hatred (in fact this started in Kosovo, with Slobodan Milosevic inciting local Serbs against the Albanian majority). But what she leaves out of the picture is the mass workers' movement that exploded onto the scene in the late 1980s, briefly uniting Serbian, Croatian and Muslim workers. At one point the federal parliament was stormed by thousands of striking workers from different ethnic backgrounds.
It was not inevitable that the crisis should lead to inter-communal slaughter. This depended as much on the lack of a socialist organisation on the ground as it did on the strategies of those at the top of society. But Kumar sees none of this. For her the hope of unity between different ethnic groups is symbolised by religous leaders holding joint services in Sarajevo, or by the 'international artists and journalists' who supported the besieged city.
Having ruled out a solution from below, Kumar has no choice but to reluctantly accept a solution from above. The conclusion of this book is a feeble hope that, although western peacekeeping has so far failed in every instance, western leaders might learn the error of their ways and get it right in the future.
This is a shame, as the author clearly has the sense to see through the idea of civilised westerners keeping the warring natives apart. But her lack of interest in the working class is compounded by her forgiving attitude towards imperialism.
Our ruling class is very fond of giving safe labels to decades which they would like us to forget ever happened. So the defining points of the 1960s become not mass radicalisation in the US, not the biggest ever general strike in France nor the break of revolutionary socialism from the grip of Stalinism, but 'psychedelia', 'free love' or, at best, 'flower power'. Thus is history turned into ideology.
As this very good book demonstrates, much the same applies to the 1920s in England. Bourgeois commentators call it the 'Roaring Twenties', where society is best summed up in the novels of Evelyn Waugh: middle class 'bright young things' dancing to jazz, taking soft drugs and generally being decadent.
On the contrary, the First Word War had caused massive disillusionment across all classes, and led a whole generation to reject the wisdom of their elders. Lucas is not original when he says this was the 'lost generation', as Gertrude Stein put it, but he goes on to argue that political and social radicalism was the reaction of many to the perceived hollowness of postwar society. Even the antics of the 'bright young things' contained an element of protest at the old order but, says Lucas, 'The behaviour of Betjeman et al is of small importance compared to events taking place elsewhere.'
The Russian Revolution and the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920 with 10,000 members led the mainstream press to debate seriously the prospect of revolution in Britain. This was against a background of increased industrial militancy and the General Strike of 1926. Also, there were huge improvements in the status of women, who in this decade were finally granted the vote.
These were the fundamental aspects of the decade, hidden behind the glitz of high society in bourgeois accounts, and it is these themes which figure most strongly in the literature of the decade. Eliot's famous lines in The Wasteland, 'That corpse you planted last year in the garden/Has it begun to sprout, will it bloom this year...' are only to be understood against the background of the war and the war wounded who begged in London's streets. This exemplifies the rejection of the 'rural idyll' image of England, common in middle class literature before the war, where every man knew his place and bowed to his masters.
Such a vision of class harmony was out of place in the 1920s when the middle class was paranoid about the possibility of revolution. Hence Eliot's fear of 'hooded hordes swarming' and Yeats's prediction that '...the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'. But the 1920s also gave birth to a new generation of left wing writers who looked to the future with hope. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this book is where Lucas looks at 1920s poetry. He comments that left wing poets were mostly bounded by traditional forms while reactionaries like Eliot formed the avant garde. In exploring this contradiction Lucas introduces us to socialist poets like Alan Rickworth who wrote of 'vows rescinded, contracts broken' after the failure of the Labour government. He and many of his contemporaries would join the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Lucas also examines the work of middle class women writers of the period like Nancy Cunard, whose writing reflects a new striving for independent existence and, in some cases, an active role in left wing politics. The absence of working class women from 1920s literature, either as authors or major characters, is a fact which illustrates the limits of emancipation at that time. When Virginia Woolf exhorted women to 'possess yourselves of enough money to travel and to idle, to contemplate...to dream...and to loiter', she was not talking to working women, who were still fighting the same constraints as existed before the war.
Lucas's analysis of political events such as Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government seems a little insubstantial and questionable at times, but this in no way affects his overall argument that the 1920s were a seminal decade, both in terms of radical politics and literature the latter cannot be understood without the former. A very interesting study full of useful insights.
National conflicts and wars continue to multiply, despite talk about a global economy. But if you are looking for an explanation of the phenomenon of nationalism, this book will provide few convincing answers.
Nairn points frequently to the hold of nationalism, in some form, over the consciousness of people in the modern world. He argues that nationalism has been made stronger by economic development, rather than withering away as some theorists suggested. As great powers have arisen, their economic and political domination has often been challenged on the basis of national movements.
This is a valid point as far as it goes, though it is not news to socialists. Around the time of the First World War, Karl Kautsky put forward the idea that, as capitalism expanded across borders, imperialism would be replaced by 'ultra-imperialism', an international system where competition was economic and not military. This theory was demolished by the Russian socialist Lenin. He argued that, as the power of imperialist states grew, there would be both a growth of a reactionary imperialist nationalism, and a nationalist resistance which socialists had to support critically.
Tom Nairn, however, would like uncritical support for nationalism, as long as it is not that of the great powers. He argues that 'internationalism' is pie-in-the-sky for intellectuals. Real workers accept nationalist ideas whichever side they support in Tebbit's cricket test, they still take sides. On both these points Nairn is wrong.
Far from nationalism being a movement whose origins are in the working class, it has often been created and pushed by intellectuals. Nairn admits that this is what happened in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, where the old elite consciously used nationalism, as in Yugoslavia, to preserve its grip on power. In other countries, such as Czechoslovakia, nationalism did not lead to civil war, but it did help disguise the fact that little changed for ordinary people.
Nairn also concedes at one point that the hold of nationalism over workers is not inevitable. The First World War, which he uses as proof that workers would willingly go to slaughter other workers in defence of their nation, ended with revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary. Across the world, revolutionary socialist movements which were internationalist found mass support among workers.
Despite grand promises in the introduction to this book of an alternative theory of how nationalism can be harnessed to progressive movements, the book is a disappointment. It is compiled from a series of short essays and lectures, and the devastating blow to internationalism never seems to come. Instead we get lots of polemical attacks on left wing critics of nationalism, but little coherent alternative strategy beyond celebrating national difference.
Nairn is most concerned with Scottish nationalism. He does admit that there is a difference between Scotland and Ireland, in that the Scottish ruling class entered the Union with England in 1707 of its own free will. But he does not discuss how the Scottish ruling class then took a full part in the growth of the British Empire.
In one essay about contemporary Scotland, Nairn argues that the reforming promise of Blair's government will run aground on the rocks of the archaic British constitution. This was written in July 1997, when most of the left was full of expectations about the reforming zeal of the New Labour government. Nairn's scepticism has stood the test of time. But the reasons he puts forward for Blair's failure whether on the question of Scotland or anything else do not stand up to examination. Blair's collapse to the right is a product of reformist politics in an era when the system is in crisis. It is mirrored in left and centre-left governments all over Europe, regardless of the form of their states' constitutions.
For some, 'art' and 'propaganda' are a contradiction in terms. Propaganda suggests government sponsored censorship, intimidation or deception, while art implies the pursuit of beauty, truth and freedom. In this book Toby Clark argues against such a partial and negative view. He examines the complex relationship between art and politics, showing how works of art can have a political purpose. The book has a rich array of paintings, posters, photographs, film stills and sculpture. It is easier to understand what Clark means by propaganda by analysing it in the broader context of modernism.
Modernism flared up with the avant-garde movements at the turn of the century like the Russian Constructivists or the Surrealists in France. They began to imagine and create an art which was no longer seen as a refuge from the world but rather as a means to abolish the distinction between art and everyday life as part of the struggle to transform everyday life itself.
A variety of times, places and events are jam-packed into each chapter.
Chapter one deals with the argument over realism and theatre between Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukacs, this is then followed by a quick glimpse at the Suffragettes then over to the German Dadaists, across to the French Surrealists, on to the Mexican muralists and finishing with Picasso's Guernica. Clark pays a brilliant tribute to Guernica but then spoils it by saying that the bombing of the town was only one of the many war crimes committed by both sides.
A whole chapter is dedicated to fascist and anti-fascist art in which the photomontage of John Heartfield is explored. Heartfield, as well as Brecht and Eisenstein, consciously used montage to point out the monstrous contradictions of the system and to encourage the public to see themselves as activists who have the potential to end these contradictions. This section also illustrates how the German Expressionists, who took their inspiration from African art, also fell foul of the Nazi regime and its standards of Aryan beauty.
A confused chapter is dedicated to the 'Communist' states of Russia. Fortunately Clark recognises that for a few years before the Stalinist clampdown the Russian modernists were able to try to unite political and aesthetic revolutions. Tribute is paid to Tatlin, Eisenstein, Rodchenko and the Stenburg brothers.
Revolutionary upheaval spilling into Europe meant the cubist work of Braque and Picasso could celebrate a new found freedom from perspective and a new mastery over form which at the same time seemed to be on the verge of collapsing into chaos.
This new art gives us a fantastic insight into the period. However, while Clark identifies the difference between the work of the avant-garde artists and that of the socialist realists, he falls into the trap of believing that the latter was a continuation of the former. He says that: 'the imposition of Soviet realism in 1934 marked a substantial increase in the Soviet state's control over art.'
Clark both attacks and defends Lenin but ultimately believes that Lenin led to Stalin. He then spirals into pointing out the similarities in art and brutality between the Soviet state and Nazi Germany. Clark has fallen victim to liberal theories of totalitarianism that have been central to Western Cold War propaganda according to which Marxism and fascism sprang from the same roots.
Other topics covered in the book include propaganda and war. This makes interesting reading, particularly concerning the recruitment campaign to get women into factories and to get black men into the army.
The Vietnam War and the anti-war movement are dealt with brilliantly. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) is exposed as having links with Rockefeller who had interests in companies manufacturing napalm.
The last highlight of the book is May 68. The examination of the movies of Jean Luc Godard makes this section a refreshing read, but disappointing considering the scale of events that took place.
From this point on the book suffers from postmodernism. It tumbles through the worst aspects of the women's movement (consciousness raising campaigns), skips in and out of Ireland, Latin America and Africa, and seems to collapse at the end by looking at victims of Aids. Clark's post-mortem of the 20th century is that the Marxist dream of the collapse of capitalism died in 1968, and was verified at the end of the 1980s with the collapse of the Eastern European economies.
He concludes that all artists can do now is find a means of expression in the midst of a super-abundance of messages which are a result of the multinational capitalists' powers and their dispersal across the information systems of global television and computer networks.
It is a real shame that the book ends in this way, as it is a treasure of information and images of the events that have taken place this century, and is definitely worth a read. In the words of Lukacs, 'Once the bourgeoisie secured power, it rushed to bury its revolutionary origins.' Is this what the postmodernists are seeking to do with modernism?