Precious few plays get the audience on their feet, cheering and stamping as the curtain goes down. The National Theatre's production of Oh What a Lovely War did just that on a stormy afternoon in Milton Keynes.
The weather was important: the performance took place in the middle of a field in a tent. The cast and crew deserved an ovation just for coping with a power failure, a precariously swinging lighting rig, leaking canvas and howling winds.
But they did far more than stoically get through a three hour play. They turned out a moving, funny and brilliant performance of a play which, although about the First World War, cries out against all war and sends up the warmongering propaganda we saw churned out earlier this year.
Left wing dramatist Joan Littlewood wrote Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 and staged it that year at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. The theatre was and is a long way from the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford East is in Newham, east London. Littlewood meant the theatre and the play for a working class audience.
Oh What a Lovely War is ruthless in exposing the horror of the trenches and the callous incompetence of the ruling classes that plunged Europe into war in 1914. It has the form of an Edwardian music hall show comprising a series of numbers performed by a group of end of the pier pierrots.
Much of Littlewood's material comes from popular songs from the beginning of the century. But in her hands, as with Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who inspired her, they become bitingly subversive rather than sterile pieces of heritage.
'Goodbyeee' sung through clenched teeth expresses bitterness at the bloodshed of war rather than a stiff upper lip attitude.
'Forward Joe Soap's army' sung to the tune of 'Onward Christian Soldiers' captures the gallows humour of the trenches. Even a group of women factory workers singing an innocuous singalong number contrasts with the lifeless formality of a British army dance.
A couple of slapstick sketches show the pressures leading to the outbreak of war. Their absurd humour is the ideal vehicle for conveying the madness of August 1914. From then on, musical and comedy sketches are interspersed with moving scenes of war and its impact. The arrival of the first casualties at Waterloo Station stands out. Transport to hospital is arranged for the officers. The rest have to make do.
The scene showing the unofficial ceasefire and fraternisation between British and German soldiers at Christmas 1914 brings you closer to understanding how it must have felt than any book I have read. A superbly inventive exchange involving two English women and two German women shows how obvious lies can be believed in times of war.
All this takes place as an electronic screen above the stage flashes out casualty figures as the killing intensifies. 'Total dead in the Battle of the Somme: 1,332,000' whizzes above the stage as you watch the actors play a group of demented British army officers. You watch a troupe of war profiteers on the stage as the message board informs you how '21,000 American businessmen become millionaires from the war.' 'Average life of a machine gunner four minutes.'
Other images are projected onto a huge white screen Kitchener's recruitment poster, prowar propaganda and an advert advising, 'Beware German umbrella frames. Make sure yours is a trusty British umbrella frame.'
There is no doubting which side you have to take. The ordinary soldiers French, German and British are humane and full characters. The officers are buffoons and, as in the case of Britain's Field Marshal Haig, lunatics. He justifies the slaughter by claiming that, because the Germans are losing more men than the British, the war will reach a point when 'we have 10,000 men left and they have 5,000, and we shall have won.'
It is absurd, but so too is the trench warfare: it is therefore frightening because it is as sensible an explanation of what went on in Haig's mind as any.
The Saturday matinee I saw in Milton Keynes drew an overwhelmingly working class audience. Everyone from pensioners to infant school children was spellbound. It showed just how popular really good theatre can be. The audience's response also revealed why so many people were sceptical about our rulers' warmongering over the Gulf earlier this year.
The second performance I saw was in London not far from the symbol of New Labour's cultural vision the Millennium Dome. The contrast with this piece of vibrant, critical, popular theatre could not be greater.
This production is touring the country. You have to find a way to get a ticket.
Oh What a Lovely War will be visiting Brecon, Telford, Dewsbury, Chester, Richmond, Salisbury and Nottingham during May and June
Once again Sebastian Barry has plundered his family history as the inspiration for his latest play. Last time, in The Steward of Christendom, he used the story of Thomas Dunne, his grandfather and an ex police superintendent in Dublin at the time of Irish independence. Our Lady of Sligo looks at Mai (played by Sinéad Cusack), Barry's maternal grandmother whom he never met but learnt of through lurid family stories. Barry's skill is to weave intensely personal stories into a wider picture of Irish society and history. This was more successful in The Steward of Christendom in which Dunne's loyal service to Britain seemed to have no place in the new Ireland being born around him. Mai, like Dunne portrayed at the end of her life in a lonely hospital bed, recalls a life which seems to hold less weight, where personal disappointments and tragedies linger while the political turmoil of war and partition form only the backdrop.
Sinéad Cusack, on stage for virtually the whole performance, is brilliant as Mai. As her memories ebb and flow she transforms from a frail dying woman to a young energetic one entranced by Hollywood movies and fashion, or a tortured drunk who feels responsible for her baby son's death. As her family past and present appear on stage we learn of her life. It had been full of promise. She was clever graduating from college when few women did, and she was privileged her family was part of a Catholic middle class who aspired to the lifestyle in the cosmopolitan cities of Europe.
Independence meant the demise of these aspirations as they were thrown into an Ireland in which they felt stifled and which increasingly isolated them from the rest of the world. It also meant the end of the British whom Mai's husband, Jack (played by Nigel Terry), had so earnestly sought to emulate. Mai remembers, 'Jack turned himself into the thing he had admired in Sligo as a child, those Midletons and Jacksons and Pollexfens, big-house Protestants who would never have spoken to the likes of him. And by the time he did that, those people were gone, or sunken back into a different life... Jack tried to turn himself into a sort of British gentleman but by the time he achieved it, death and independence had erased his template.'
Jack's dislocation in independent Ireland is well portrayed. He sees his years travelling the British Empire while in service as the high point of his life the experience has seeped even into his way of coping in the present: 'Act the white man, let's shake a leg and go to bed,' he tells Mai when morphine and memories drive her to bitter despair. Their relationship has at times been violent 'She must have thrown the best part of a dinner service at me over the years' drunken 'It's not so hard to drink a house' but now there are also moments of poignancy.
Barry's work is renowned for the beauty and poetry of his language and once again this is the strength of Our Lady of Sligo. Images of Mai's memories begin to haunt your own. Mai as a tiny baby being washed by her father in a 'basin hard as a tooth, white as a tooth, and me so tiny, so soft, a little soiled by daytime doings...a fistful of little features, toes, knuckles smaller than baby snails... 'Or Jack's vivid memory of the promise of independence, 'Ireland, where is that country? Where are those lives that lay in store for us, in store like rich warm grain?'
Those lives were never to be, and Our Lady of Sligo is seeped in the unfulfilled hopes of a family and a people.
This is a joint production, between the National Theatre and Out of Joint. It is at the National Theatre, London until August after which it tours to Liverpool, Bath, Dublin and Cambridge
Closer is a sexual black comedy involving two couples with criss-crossing encounters over a four year period. Marber is examining the problems of commitment and honesty in a society where relationships are dogged by our alienated attitudes to life and sexuality, where love is akin to possession. The result is pain, cynicism and power games, an inability to meet others except on our own emotional ground. Our experience of the play's vision, moreover, is heightened by its grim humour.
Dan (Lloyd Owen), an aspiring novelist who earns a living as an obituarist, rescues Alice (Liza Walker), a waif with streetwise sophistication, following a car accident. At the hospital they meet Larry (Neil Pearson), a dermatologist who briefly examines Alice. Eighteen months later Dan meets Anna (Frances Barber), a middle class art photographer, who spurns his advances. In revenge, he sets her up through the internet on a blind date with Larry in a hilarious and original scene where their sexually explicit communication is written up on a large screen.
Larry and Anna start a relationship, then marry. What follows is a frantic bout of partner swapping described by one critic as a sexual square dance.
Alienation is thus expressed in the way sexuality is divorced from emotional life. Dan seeks to conquer Anna, a more marketable commodity than working class Alice, in order to boost his flagging ego. Larry tries to win her back so as to repossess a valuable object and to punish Dan. As he tells him, 'I didn't fuck her to give her a nice time. I fucked her to fuck you up.' And Anna, a Catholic, uses sexuality to assuage her guilt. As she says of the two men, 'They spend a lifetime fucking but never know how to make love.'
The play shows how society commodifies both sex and human beings in general. This in turn creates pressures on all of us to behave dishonestly. Both men and women practice dishonesty but, according to Marber, men are guiltier insofar as they induce women to be dishonest. Men require women to appear and behave in ways that elevate their self esteem. For example, Anna fakes orgasms in order to please both Dan and Larry.
Sexual dishonesty is part of a general lack of integrity. Alice suggests that Anna is lying in her photography when she prettifies the sadness of down and outs for the benefit of 'the rich fuckers who appreciate art' and 'say it's beautiful because that's what they want to see'. Larry, abandoned by Anna, drops his principles and enters private practice.
The sexual merry go round is also perhaps a metaphor for the typical alienated relationships of modern capitalist society, as Marber suggests through the irony of the title. We bump into people, engage with them superficially and move on.
However, the characters have real substance and are portrayed with genuine sympathy and wit. Dan and Larry are not just selfish chauvinists but betray a vulnerable side, not only the outwardly tough and upwardly mobile Larry but also the sophisticated Dan who at times resembles a defenceless adolescent. The play is spiced with sparkling dialogue which, with four fine performances, tempers its onesidedly gloomy picture, making for an entertaining as well as an enlightening evening.
Plays at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London till the end of June
Set in Savannah, Georgia, and based on a true story, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a sombre tale of the sexual, racial and class tensions that lie beneath the surface of Southern convention.
A young journalist from New York, John Kelso (John Cusack), visits Savannah to interview the wealthy art collector Jim Williams (played by Kevin Spacey) for Town and Country magazine. When Williams shoots his working class lover dead after the party, Kelso stays to write a book about Savannah and the trial of Williams for first degree murder.
Clint Eastwood has made a very interesting film that is full of contradictions partly a picture of the contemporary South, part courtroom drama, part character study. He exposes the hypocrisy of the Southern wealthy socialites very effectively they can cope with Williams's homosexuality as long as he is not open about it. He is also concerned with the differing attitudes to sexuality in different classes and the extent to which wealth enables the compromise of ethics.
The initial meeting between Kelso and Williams is a great dialogue about Williams's class background, all couched in perfect politeness, culminating with the undeniably accurate: 'I'm nouveau riche, but after all, it's the riche that counts.' His sexuality is his Achilles' heel in Savannah society.
Eastwood is sympathetic to Williams who comes out in the midst of the trial but is clear that his wealth affords him better treatment than that meted out to his lover, or other working class gays.
Occasionally Eastwood strays from the plot as when Kelso visits a ladies' bridge club and, with very funny results, a middle class black prom. But these snapshots of Savannah society on both sides of the racial divide help to paint a portrait of the South which in the main escapes stereotyping. Eastwood is not ridiculing the South he also pokes fun at Kelso's wide-eyed Yankee, amazed by the violence, superstition and repression he witnesses but he is trying to examine the claustrophobic social attitudes of the wealthy classes.
A consistent theme running through the film is the centrality of the past in people's present lives, and especially the dominance of the past in the South. The opening shots of Savannah set the scene the camera hovers over the songwriter Johnny Mercer's gravestone; the bus driver points out colonial homes where General Sherman stayed. Cusack points out that every wall in Savannah has a dead person's picture on it. The film looks lovely all lush hanging willows, heat and rain conjuring an atmospheric South suffused with a feeling of slight decay and old fashionedness.
On the whole, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It moves fairly slowly and is concerned with characters rather than events, but it isn't at all boring. Although some of the characterisation is a little thin, it adds up to an interesting study of repression, sexuality and class differences in the South.
Already this film is being dubbed the Japanese Strictly Ballroom, but the comparison does not do this film justice. Mr Sugiyama is a staid middle aged salary man whose life when we first meet him is a routine of commuting to his job where he is successfully working his way up the firm's hierarchy and providing for his wife and daughter. One night travelling home on the train he catches a glimpse of a woman standing at a window among the neon lights. He notices that the window is part of a school for ballroom dancing.
After several days of looking out for the woman on the way home he finally takes the plunge and enters the dance studio where his experience of learning to dance is to change his life. Suo explains that in Japan ballroom dancing has been frowned upon as it was associated with seedy dance halls where men paid to dance with women. It is also unusual for husbands and wives to go out to social functions together and so Sugiyama keeps his new found hobby secret from his family, practising his dance steps on station platforms and in the men's toilets.
Suo explores the small details of one man's experience as he breaks out of the rigid slot life has allocated him, but the film reveals so much more. We get an insight into the pressures to conform at work, the beer drinking to unwind in the crowded noodle bars at night. The fact that even the formalised routines of competitive ballroom dancing are perceived as daring and liberating says a lot about the repressive nature of Japanese society. Because physical contact between the sexes is frowned upon and interpreted as sexual, being close to a woman who is not his wife means breaking a taboo. Such is Sugiyama's embarrassment that he talks of his feelings about dancing with shame, as if he was suffering from a drug addiction. As he begins to enjoy the dancing for its own sake and not just to watch the woman at the window, his wife and daughter notice the change in him. He is happier, more relaxed, but there is a problem he comes home late several times a week smelling of perfume.
The film moves with ease from slapstick comedy in the kitsch ballrooms (where a visit to the ballroom dancing finals in Blackpool is every dancer's dream), to intimate and touching observations of the characters' emotions. The development of the relationship between Sugiyama and his wife is beautifully done, as they struggle to communicate their love.
Shall We Dance? has already been a success in Japan where it has stimulated a new openness and interest in dancing for its own sake, for in the past insisting on the competitiveness of ballroom dancing was one way of attaining respectability. British audiences may not have experienced the extent of the repression that forced Sugiyama to lead a double life but few will fail to be touched by this sensitive and funny film.
For over 100 years posters have been mass produced in an attempt to persuade and influence us. A new exhibition charts their progress. The First World War saw the British state using posters as part of its anti-German propaganda. Crude paintings depicted the 'Hun' as evil monsters who murdered for sport. But the poster has also been put to spectacular use by those who oppose war and the system which breeds it.
During the 1960s groups of radical artists designed posters to support the struggles of students and workers. Although many were produced in difficult conditions, the results were impressive. In the US graphic anti Vietnam War posters made sure that the horrors of a war abroad were brought home.
This exhibition also deals with art produced in many of the revolutions of the last 100 years and so gives us a glimpse of the way art can be part of the struggle to transform society.
The Power of the Poster exhibition is at the Victoria and Albert Museum London until 26 July.
Keir Hardie Caroline Benn Richard Cohen Books £15.99
Keir Hardie is perhaps the best known of all British socialists associated with the Labour Party, his memory still invoked as symptomatic of Old Labour values. Certainly Labour's early history is deeply entwined with his life: he was elected as a socialist MP for West Ham in 1892 and became one of the first independent labour representatives in parliament. Hardie formed the Independent Labour Party in 1893, was instrumental in forming the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 which became the Labour Party, and later led the Labour MPs in parliament. This excellent biography tells his story.
Hardie came from a poor working class background. Born in Scotland in 1856, he had a grim childhood: out to work at the age of eight to help support his family, being sacked on New Year's Eve at the age of ten, and then having to work down a pit. His life experience led him to union work and politics, although at first these were Liberal politics and only later in the 1880s did he experience a slow conversion to socialism.
The rebirth of British socialism at this time meant that the socialist organisations contained within their admittedly tiny ranks some of the best working class militants and the finest intellectuals of their generation. These included the artist William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, Eleanor Marx and her lover, Edward Aveling, as well as workers who went on to lead mass movements such as Tom Mann and Will Thorne.
The tragedy of British working class politics was that these socialists were either unable to get their ideas across to large numbers of workers, or they led movements which only had a loose commitment to socialist change, and so they were unable to break out of their isolation. Yet these were times of immense hope: there were mass protests against unemployment, the working class finally erupted at the end of the decade in the fight for the new unions, and socialists were able to put themselves at the head of the movement. The struggle for an eight hour day, enthusiastically taken up by those such as Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann, appeared to be the issue which could bridge the gap between the socialists and the mass of militant workers.
Hardie was strongly committed to bringing socialist ideas to working people and he was initially admired by Engels and Eleanor Marx (although they later became disillusioned, Engels describing him as 'the super-cunning Scot'). The formation of the ILP was hailed by many including Engels as a great step towards a socialist party of the continental model and had Aveling centrally involved at its inception. However, the ILP failed to live up to this expectation. In large part the reason for this lay in Hardie's own politics. The roots of these were in Liberalism, which was adhered to by even the most militant of workers until the 1880s, and his religious ideas and temperance background led to a form of moral politics which hindered his understanding of how to change the world. He wrote, for example, in 1904, 'capitalism is the product of selfishness... But selfishness is not by any means a monopoly of the rich.' He went on, 'That socialism is revolutionary is not in dispute, but that it can only be won by a violent outbreak is in no sense true.'
He mixed with a number of Marxists and was at various times enthusiastic for the ideas of Marx but saw them as merely being added eclectically to a whole number of other ideas.
His ability as a man as a popular agitator who constantly made speaking tours, as a well known socialist who was a symbol of what we would today call the Labour left was not therefore matched by any organisational or theoretical legacy. Indeed the direction of the British left was not at all as Engels had envisaged. The ILP did not herald a mass socialist party, but the peculiar British concoction of Labourism, enshrined within it the separation of economics and politics which led to trade union struggle being totally divorced from Labour representation in parliament. Even the left tended to approach political issues from a moral rather than a class point of view. This was true of Hardie over the questions of women's suffrage where he caused controversy on the left by giving virtually unconditional backing to the rightward moving Emmeline Pankhurst and in his opposition to the war.
Caroline Benn demonstrates that the level of mysticism among the British left was high. It is somewhat frightening to read that 'Hardie and Ellen Wilkinson had para-religious beliefs, like faith in reincarnation. The Glasiers as well as the Hardies practised spiritualism, to communicate with those who had died... The suffragette Annie Kenney...claimed she had seen God and that he looked like Tolstoy.'
Despite the deep commitment to social action which Hardie and those around him believed would alone bring change, their politics were unable to seriously challenge the class basis of capitalist society, leaving them impotent in the face of attacks either from the ruling class or from right wing Labour or trade union bureaucrats.
This is all spelt out in great detail and with much honesty in Caroline Benn's book. She is more sympathetic to Hardie than many readers of this Review might be, but she always details the different sides of particular arguments and points out many of Hardie's personal and political weaknesses. This makes it an extremely well researched and good read about a period of British working class history which was decisive in forming the modern workers' movement and whose weaknesses we should try to avoid in the future.
Every child who gets a kit to build a space rocket will learn about two people: the American Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and the Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
The image produced by a whole generation of enthusiasts for space travel is that of a great adventure pursued selflessly by the various governments in the interests of mankind. However, the truth is something different. Yuri Gagarin's story as told in Starman illustrates how the race into space was a central part of the Cold War.
Both the US and Russia poured money into space research. They both wanted to develop nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of being launched anywhere in the world and blowing the other side into kingdom come. The rockets that took Yuri Gagarin into space were developed both to be used for space exploration and to carry nuclear warheads. During the Cuban missile crisis the rockets intended by the Russians for space travel were converted, armed with nuclear weapons and aimed at the US.
In addition both sides were concerned about national prestige. The Russian leader Khrushchev wanted to show how successful 'Communism' was compared to the US as a way of pulling foreign governments into his orbit. So after his famous trip Yuri Gagarin was used as a roving ambassador for Khrushchev around the world, taken from one country to another in a manner more akin to a pop star. During one day in Ceylon he carried out 15 separate speaking engagements. In Russia itself Gagarin was hailed as a hero and received over one million letters.
In order to achieve this an image had to be created. So one reason Gagarin was chosen for the first flight was because he came from a peasant background. When he re-entered the earth's atmosphere he had to parachute down. However, because this would have technically invalidated the claim to the world altitude record, the official line was that he had returned in his spacecraft. A cover up ensued to make sure that he was 'found' in his craft.
However, the Russian space programme was dogged by one problem. The US, with an economy twice the size of Russia's, could afford to put more resources into space. Once Kennedy had decided to compete, Russia was bound to lose. Nasa took 5 percent of the entire US federal budget, a total of $20 billion over eight years, and employed 250,000 people. Its race to the moon was only ever meant as an exercise to do over the Russians.
This created problems for Sergei Korolev, the chief designer behind the Russian space programme. He had spent ten years in a Siberian prison camp and had been recalled to Moscow at the end of the Second World War to learn from the Nazis' V2 rocket building programme. In order to sell the Kremlin space programme he had to resort to a series of gimmicks: the first dog in space, the first women in space, the first walk in space, the first multicrew in space. All this did was hide the backward nature of the Russian space programme.
The Kremlin took chances launching unsafe rockets, culminating in the death of Vladimir Komarov, who himself commented before the launch that he was being sent to his death. The cosmonauts including Gagarin knew the launch was unsafe there were 203 separate faults known to the technicians. However, when they tried to stop the unsafe rocket launch they were frustrated by the KGB which buried a memo arguing for the launch to be cancelled.
At the time of his death in an aircraft accident Gagarin was effectively ruled out of going into space again. He had found it hard to come to terms with his celebrity status and had been cold shouldered by the new regime in the Kremlin under Brezhnev. Effectively Russia had given up trying to get man on the moon before the US and concentrated its efforts on satellites and better nuclear missiles.
This story is one of heroism in getting into space and of the futility of it all. In the end, what is often presented as one of humankind's greatest achievements was a result of two countries threatening to blow each other off the planet.
Marx said The Communist Manifesto was written to answer nursery tales about communism. Now we need to do the same with the Manifesto itself. Reading Socialist Register felt like watching Bambi on the ice. Brute facts keep pulling the writing towards something that looks like it might make sense then it falls into strange heaps again.
There are 11 articles of varying length and quality, plus a version of the Manifesto at the end. Some themes do emerge from the heaps. A main aim is to correct the 'youthful, enthusiastic authors' of the Manifesto. The writers nobly accept their 'obligation to interpret'; to identify 'intriguing questions about which the Manifesto remains silent'; to pick out 'clues' which just need 'properly embellishing'; to produce a 'reading' which overcomes the 'systematic slippages and contradictions'; to boldly go...
Except we have been here before, too often. There is an underlying pessimism about the prospects for socialism. The left is 'mired in a crisis of legitimacy'; 'for all practical purposes socialism simply doesn't matter'. Contributors worry about the 'political absence' of the left, the 'historic absence', the 'historic failure of Bolshevism', the 'failure of Leninism', 'the failure of planning'. Like a Chris Woodhead, they want a radical new agenda to deal with these absences and failing socialists. There isn't much confidence in the working class to bring about socialism. Several writers identify the need for a party but worry that this will open the door to centralisation.
Much of this is expressed in academicese. Even the simplest of ideas and observations is dressed up like this 'the active stimulation of inter-worker competition across space has likewise worked to capitalist advantage' and capitalists use their 'superior powers of spatial manoeuvre' to defeat 'place-bound' workers. So, bosses in each country get workers to fight for their jobs against the threat of foreign workers undercutting them. But the language misses an obvious question. Do bosses have decisively superior powers of spatial manoeuvre?
What about just in time production and production processes linked across a whole range of 'spaces' which can make the system vulnerable to quite small numbers of place-bound workers? And given these 'superior powers of spatial manoeuvre' you would think bosses would be more relaxed about such 'place-bound' things as, say, oil.
There is plenty for the Socialist Register's authors to disagree with. The Manifesto is Eurocentric. Workers in advanced capitalist countries benefit from the oppression of the global working class. Men benefit from the oppression of women. The Manifesto paves the way for Stalinism because of the inherent possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat becoming institutionalised and the emphasis on centralisation and the need to expand productive forces. The history of Russia shows the failure of planning, which led to an accommodation with capitalism. Socialism isn't on the agenda so all we can do is prepare socialists for the long march within capitalism.
The barriers to unity among workers are emphasised and so is the chasm between the 'essence of socialism' and the existing working class. But this ignores the key point in the Manifesto about why the working class is the only agent of change and how workers will change themselves in changing society.
Eric Hobsbawm's introduction to Verso's new edition of the Manifesto praises the 'passionate conviction, the concentrated brevity, the intellectual and stylistic force, of this astonishing pamphlet' and the brilliance of its 'concise characterisation' of capitalism, before also rejecting this key point about the role of the working class. He argues that 'the Manifesto still has plenty to say to the world on the eve of the twenty-first century'.
But he then claims that Marx was simply wrong about the revolutionary potential of the working class. He accepts that Marx was right that under capitalism most people would end up as waged workers. He also accepts that political movements based on the working class will have a central role in society, but he tends to equate these with simply Labour Party type movements. He dismisses Marx's central insight about the role of the working class as 'a hope read into his analysis'.
Hobsbawm agrees with Marx's analysis of the self destructive contradictions of the market system but is left with no way out.
Fortunately, Marx's argument that there is inevitable class conflict between workers and capitalists, that this allows for the development of a class in itself into a class for itself, and that this makes socialism possible, is being demonstrated all around us. We don't have to share Hobsbawm's pessimism.
The growth of Islamic ideas has been a dominant feature of politics in the Middle East over the last 20 years. Islam has become the new bogeyman for the west and fighting fundamentalism has replaced the threat of Communism. Islamic ideas are presented as the greatest catastrophe to confront civilisation and the growth of Islam is viewed as a backward tendency that threatens to takes us back to the Dark Ages.
This Islamophobia is not confined to the Middle East. For the right and many on the left, Muslims who make up sizeable minority communities in the west are also held in suspicion. Whether it is Bengalis in Tower Hamlets wanting to build a mosque or Algerian girls demanding the right to wear a headscarf, these incidents are seen as opening the door to intolerance that threatens the very fabric of western society.
Any work that aims to dispel these myths is welcome. In A Heart Turned East Adam Lebor hopes to further our understanding of Islam and to show the development of what he hopes is a western, more Europeanised Islam. He journeys across western Europe and America meeting Muslims from a variety of backgrounds. He shows there is not one homogeneous Muslim community but diverse groupings divided by language, nationality, ethnicity and tradition. He meets brandy drinking and pork eating Muslims in Sarajevo who have more in common with their Serb and Croat counterparts than with Pakistanis in Yorkshire.
Most Muslims in western Europe came as immigrants in the postwar years and their lives are shaped by their experience as workers employed in low status, low paid jobs and also by racism. The author explains that the recent identification with Islam amongst these communities cannot be understood without considering how the state and the fascists use jingoism to scapegoat minorities.
There is a constant theme running through the book of Europe's lost heritage. For Lebor Europe owes its history as much to Islamic influence as to Christianity. He provides useful ammunition against those who claim Europe has only ever been white, Anglo-Saxon and Christian.
Despite this, the book is weakened by its liberal premise. Lebor has faith in the supposed secular liberal values of western democracies. For him the majority of Muslims are good, law abiding, tolerant and willing to make Europe their home. The west, he believes, should put aside its prejudices and accept these people.
He gives credence to the idea that if Nato and the UN had intervened on the side of Bosnia in 1992, they could have prevented ethnic cleansing and checked the growth of Islamic fundamentalism across the Balkans. He quite rightly lays the blame equally on Milosovic and Tudjman for the carve up of Bosnia, but fails to recognise that even Izetbegovic was not averse to using nationalism when it suited him.
If Bosnian Muslims are 'good' there are also the extremists such as Hamas, FIS and Hizb-ut-Tahrir who supposedly give Islam a 'bad name'. In the chapter on Britain, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is represented as a major threat to Jewish students, women and gays. Lebor favourably quotes sources from the National Union of Students which, in its zeal to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, has spent much of its time attacking Asian students and Islamic societies. Certainly the politics of Hizb-ut-Tahrir are reactionary, but to exaggerate its influence is mistaken and lacks an understanding of what causes these groups to gain a hearing: the constant vilification of Islam, in which the NUS leadership has dabbled; and the very real racism experienced by Asian students. The liberal values of freedom and tolerance that the author believes to be the pillars of western democracy also seem very hollow when applied to the Middle East. When elections are cancelled in Algeria because the west doesn't like the result, or Iraq is threatened with nuclear weapons while Israel is allowed to ignore every UN resolution, it can leave a very bitter taste, and Islamist groups, whether in Britain or the Middle East, will find an audience. In order to understand this phenomenon a Marxist analysis of religion and imperialism is required which sadly this book is lacking.
Some months into the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85, the NUM staged a national demonstration in Mansfield, the heart of the Nottinghamshire coalfield and spiritual home of the UDM, the scab union. On the demo that day were 100 colliers from South Celynen in Gwent. Hardly surprising. Yet every man from South Celynen knew that his pit would close as soon as the strike ended. The seams had petered out the geology was hopeless. In a pithead ballot only three votes had been cast in favour of the strike. Nevertheless, on the first morning of the strike, when flying pickets from Maerdy appeared at the gate, not a single South Celynen man crossed the line. Most stayed out for 12 months.
If The Fed had been written in the 1980s rather than in the 1970s, this is one of the stories that surely would have been recorded there. It's a history of the South Wales Miners' Federation (the 'Fed' to its friends). Founded in 1898, the Fed became the South Wales Area of the NUM in 1945. The book is a marvellous description of the courage and solidarity that often characterised struggles in the coalfield.
At its most prosperous, the coalfield employed over 270,000 men. There were 39 pits in the Rhondda Valley alone. Today there is only one deep mine in Wales, run by the miners themselves, in a final act of defiance. However, the audience for this book has not declined. Union activists in the black townships of South Africa, the mines of India and the company towns of South Korea would immediately recognise their brothers and sisters.
But if description is there, the necessary analysis is lacking. To learn from the past, we need not only the solace of cheering on the victories, but also to realise why defeats have occurred. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the British mining industry. Workers have to know why even the most resolute trade union officials, trapped between the two most powerful forces in society, the bosses and the workers, always falter at the showdown. Their role as mediators in the class struggle would vanish if the working class took power.
The authors are unable to share this vital insight for two reasons. Firstly, their book was commissioned by trade union officials, the South Wales Area Executive of the NUM. Secondly, although both historians are socialists, they are unable to challenge the popular front politics associated with the union's tradition of militancy. So they correctly show how the best militants before the war were in and around the Communist Party. They honestly describe the ambivalence of the CP towards the Spanish Civil War regular collections and donations for the Republicans, miners going to fight and die in the trenches opposite Franco's armies while at the same time, when Arthur Horner, president of the Fed, returned from Spain in August 1937, 'he spoke in favour of crushing the POUM...and claimed the anarchists were obstructing the war.'
Incredibly, Francis and Smith reckon that 'this political position held by the SWMF leadership and its rank and file could be explained by the general lack of information on the situation in Spain.' It could be explained somewhat better by the CP's dedication to securing the British and French capitalists as allies for the Russian ruling class, at no matter what cost to the international proletariat.
Not surprisingly, by the 1970s the best militants in South Wales were to be found outside the CP, men like Mike Griffin of Penrhiwceiber and Tyrone O'Sullivan of Tower. And when the final test had to be faced in the 1984-85 strike, the CP was a positive obstacle to victory. While the national union sought to shut Orgreave, flying pickets from South Wales received 'sealed instructions', directing them anywhere but to Orgreave. And CP figures played a significant role in organising the miners' eventual surrender.
This reprint coincides with the centenary of the Fed. It would have been a good opportunity to add a fresh chapter, drawing out the lessons of 100 years of struggle. Courage and solidarity are not enough. At the core of every workers' organisation we need women and men who don't simply favour one section of the world's capitalists over another, but are determined to finish with capitalism once and for all.
In 1924 Zinoviev opened the fifth congress of the Communist International with an attack on Lukács: 'If we get a few more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories,' he said, 'we shall be lost... we cannot tolerate such theoretical revisionism in our Communist International.' Lenin had just died, the German Revolution was defeated and there was a growing pessimism about the possibility of revolution spreading beyond Russia's borders.
Lukács that year produced Lenin as a reply to the criticisms levelled against his earlier book History and Class Consciousness. But it was more than a reply. In defending key elements of the Marxist tradition, Lukács produced a powerful account of the Marxist method underpinning Leninism. Crucial to this method was Lenin's application of the dialectic.
Rather than accept the apparent permanence of capitalist society, Lenin's starting point was 'the actuality of revolution' in every situation he saw the possibility and necessity of socialist revolution. Thus even in the carnage of the First World War Lenin had recognised that imperialist war 'creates a world situation in which millions of proletarians must murder each other...in order to strengthen and extend the monopoly of their exploiters'. At the same time, however, 'it creates a situation in which the proletariat can become the leader of all the oppressed and exploited in ...its struggle for liberation.'
This was to be proved in practice when workers across the world revolted against imperialist war and in 1917 in Russia took power. The resolution of such contradictions, however, was dependent on the activity and consciousness of the working class. As Lukács argued, 'The choice is not whether the proletariat will or will not struggle but in whose interest it will struggle.' Central to the dialectical method therefore is the question of how the working class arrives at the level of consciousness necessary to carry through revolution, particularly given the dominance of ruling class ideas. Lukács suggests, 'Lenin was the first and, for a long time, the only leader and theoretician who tackled this problem at its theoretical roots and therefore at its decisive practical point, that of organisation.'
Capitalism generates a fragmented view of the world, 'ideologically disorganising' the working class. This is not merely a matter of workers accepting ruling class ideas. Rather it arises because workers are denied any meaningful control over the direction of society and its institutions, including the state, because of their lack of control at the point of production. This, Lukács argues, is compounded by trade unions and reformist parties which insist on a permanent split between economics and politics, reinforcing 'the illusion that a purely formal democracy, in which the voice of every citizen is equally valid, is the most suitable instrument for expressing and representing the interests of society as a whole'.
Lenin, however, would accept no such partial view of the position of the working class under capitalism. He saw the state as an instrument of class rule against which workers must struggle. Lenin recognised that the concrete form this struggle takes is a tactical question. It is at the same time part of the process by which workers must create their own institutions. In their highest form these institutions, the soviets or workers' councils, become an instrument for the whole class which must simultaneously disorganise the bourgeois state and begin the task of founding society anew.
Workers in Russia succeeded in taking power. In many other countries, however, the fledgling soviets created as workers fought against their rulers were crushed under the twin weight of bourgeois reaction and the efforts of reformist parties to dismantle them. This brings to the fore the decisive role Lenin gave to the revolutionary party in the making of the revolution. Since workers' ideas under capitalism are contradictory since they are consistently disorganised by 'their own' organisations, the trade unions and reformist parties it is not automatic that workers will fight in their own interests. The revolutionary party must bring together the most clear and militant sections of the working class who understand that only revolution can deliver liberation. Lukács insists, however, that 'in no sense is the party's role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary it must continuously learn from the struggle and conduct of it.'
Tragically, as the Russian Revolution was being strangled, Lukács himself gave way to the ideas being promoted by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Consequently he renounced many of the key tenets in History and Class Consciousness and Lenin. However, Lukács had in Lenin provided a method for understanding the defeat of workers' power in Russia when he stated, 'The crux of the matter is...not to what extent the outward forms of the economy are in themselves socialist in character, but exclusively to what extent the proletariat succeeds in actually controlling...the economic apparatus of which it took possession when it seized power...and to what extent it succeeds in really using this control to further its own class aims.' Lukács's little book remains one of the best accounts of Lenin's political thought and practice.
'We had a free, superior and somewhat lazy education. Then we went on the dole for five years in order to pursue our self righteous politics, before starting to work in the media and making a lot of money.'
This is the summary of his generation given by the narrator of Hanif Kureishi's new novel, Intimacy. It is certainly representative of the experience and outlook of a small identifiable layer of people who have made successful careers in the media and arts. It is hardly the universal experience of a generation.
This in itself should not necessarily mean a bad novel. Much of Kureishi's past work has dealt with middle class life. The Buddha of Suburbia, for which Kureishi is probably best known, pokes fun at middle class suburban life whilst at the same time looking at some of the pressures and conflicts that people face when trying to make sense of the world.
The Buddha of Suburbia contains the vibrancy and humour also found in The Black Album, Kureishi's last novel, portraying the contradictions and attractions of Islamism for young Asian people in this country. Intimacy contains none of the engagement with the world found in Kureishi's past work and for a fan of his writing such as myself it is a huge disappointment.
The novel is narrated by Jay, a successful script and film writer who has decided to leave his partner, Susan, and their two sons. As he packs and wanders around the house on the evening before his departure, he contemplates his motives for leaving, his relationship with Susan and reflects on questions of life, love and sex.
Jay was interested though not overly involved in politics as a student, rising from what he calls a 'lower middle class' background to be a successful film and script writer. Political awareness stops after Thatcher and left wing politics are dismissed with fashionable irony and cynicism. 'There have been too many revolutions.' The solution to the emptiness of his and his friends' lives is to 'live more creatively for pleasure'. In considering his life, Jay seems very detached from it all.
Intimacy perhaps suffers from its structure, from its very lack of plot which only emphasises the weakness of the novel. While the idea of organised politics and the left in general is briefly discussed with ironic dismissal, Kureishi gives a serious tone, apparently free of any irony, to Jay's inane and meaningless observations on life such as, 'We have to make things distinct by indirection,' and, 'We must treat people as if they were real. But are they?' Kureishi does capture some of the emptiness and alienation of relationships that don't live up to the ideal we are told we should achieve. He even manages occasionally to hint at some of the reasons behind this. Ultimately, however, because there is no real context, conflict or human interaction in the novel, it is unconvincing and uncompelling.
Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners became an instant bestseller by trotting out the well worn view of the Holocaust: it was a crime perpetrated by all Germans and if any individual did not personally participate in mass extermination they would have done so given the opportunity. Goldhagen stated the case in extreme form but claimed it was backed up by careful research. Reviewers have acclaimed its 'phenomenal scholarship' and 'implacable logic'.
A Nation on Trial is a devastating critique of this view. It not only demolishes its entire argument, but points out how dangerous it is.
Goldhagen claims to explain the Holocaust as the result of ferocious anti-Semitism that made all Germans 'pathologically ill...diseased...sadistic and psychopathic'. But why only the Germans, and how did they get to this state? Finkelstein and Birn show that to say someone is ill because they are ill is no explanation at all.
Every action against Jews is said to be the result of 'eliminationist anti-Semitism'. In that case all analyses of the development of events in the 1930s are irrelevant because they conceal the same basic intention. History disappears and we are left with a genocidal plan which everyone wanted but nobody except the Nazi inner circle talked about until 1941 and which they concealed until the end.
This eliminationist anti-Semitism, says Goldhagen, was the result of Christianity but why then does he insist that only the Germans suffered from the disease? Worse still, if this ideology predated Nazism by centuries, then the Nazis were not responsible for stirring up hatred it already affected all Germans.
A careful textual analysis of Hitler's Willing Executioners reveals the way argument is twisted and distorted. Goldhagen claims one thing and then tacitly admits (often in footnotes) that the opposite is true. He minimises any evidence that points in a different direction and misrepresents details. For example, he claims 'millions' were responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust, then suggests the figure actually involved was in the 'hundreds of thousands', and finally admits that he had no time to make a proper estimate.
Goldhagen's 'research' concentrates on the murderous work of police battalions and death marches. However, Birn strips this of any credibility and shows that the academic authorities he quotes usually say the precise opposite of what he claims, while his own evidence is selected in such a way as to distort the truth.
Why is this important? As Finkelstein argues, quite apart from the justification it gives to Zionist argument and the actions of the Israel state, by making the Holocaust a unique event in the past there can be no lessons for today. If Nazism was not the cause, then Nazism today can be ignored. If anti-Semitism was unique rather than one form of racism, then racism cannot lead to future horrors on the lines of the Holocaust.
Being short, Finkelstein and Birn's book does not provide its own explanation of the Holocaust, arguing for a genuine effort to understand what happened and no more. This is an inevitable weakness in a book whose main task has to be the negative one of challenging Goldhagen. But A Nation on Trial is indispensable for anyone who has read Goldhagen's book or met anyone who takes it seriously.