The central event of this dazzling new play by Michael Frayn is a meeting between two scientists that took place in Copenhagen in 1941. At the height of the Nazi domination of Europe, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg paid a visit to his friend and former colleague Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark. Heisenberg was the head of Germany's nuclear research programme. Bohr subsequently escaped into exile (he was half Jewish) and became a key member of the Los Alamos team which developed the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Einstein, the two men were probably the most eminent physicists of the 20th century.
The meeting has been a topic of controversy among scientists and historians who have argued ever since about the purpose of Heisenberg's visit. Was it a spying mission or did he want to alert Bohr, and through him the British, about the German research? Was he offering protection in exchange for information? Did Heisenberg seek a pact among scientists not to develop the bomb, as he was to claim after the war? Whatever happened, Bohr was outraged and the relationship between the two men was never the same again.
Heisenberg's historic contribution to science was the development of quantum mechanics and above all the 'uncertainty principle' about the behaviour of subatomic particles, which he first demonstrated in 1927. Uncertainty in this sense does not mean that the behaviour of particles is impossible to discover or measure, as is often supposed. The point is rather that the more closely you try and track one variable - for example the speed at which a particle is moving - the less precise the measurement of a related variable, such as the position which it occupies, becomes.
The parallels between Heisenberg's science and his life are obvious and Frayn is not the first to observe them. But his play brings them together in a way which is dramatically totally convincing. The result is a genuine work of art, in which the dialogue and conflict between the three individual characters - Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe - crystallise all the issues involved: personal morality, responsibility to science, duty and love of one's country, responsibility to humanity.
The themes which the play addresses are the largest imaginable, yet they are never conveyed in the abstract. It is testimony to the power of Frayn's writing and vision, as well as the quality of the acting and direction, that the dramatic contrivance on which the play depends never for a moment intrudes. We are transported into an imaginary world where Heisenberg, Bohr and Margrethe enact the events of the 1941 encounter again and again, as in an experiment, seeking each time to track and understand the course of events. As one element is clarified another retreats into obscurity. The encounter begins again. This time it's different. What seemed certain before is now elusive, mystifying.
It is as if quantum mechanics has become the science of human activity and relations, and the beauty of this insight is continually reinforced and enhanced by the stage set on which the three characters circle, converge on each other, embrace, are repelled, and circle again. The stage is marked out like a two dimensional globe of flagstones. The characters enter and re-enter along a set path, pointing like a dagger at the heart of this world. But once they enter their movements are no longer predetermined, their positions always slightly different from those expected. We are reminded that nuclear physics is the science of unimaginably small particles, but the reactions produced can have the most catastrophic consequences imaginable. Humanity has the power to make history and to master and mould natural processes - but not in conditions we can choose or predict.
Frayn does not resolve our uncertainties about Heisenberg, nor does he want to. Margrethe's understanding of the relationship between the two men provides an explanation of the encounter, but it may not be the 'right' one - and if it is right, it is not the only truth.
As far as the actual history of the events is concerned it now appears that the German nuclear weapons programme was much less advanced than the Allies thought. Heisenberg may have been partly justified in his claim that he was able to mislead Speer and Hitler and therefore divert the research to other ends. He was certainly no Nazi. Yet, as Frayn himself writes in his commentary on the play, 'Heisenberg was subject to entirely unreconcilable pressures long before he needed to explain himself - the real question is what he knew himself about what he was doing. And when we look into ourselves we do come up against limitations on what we can observe and know that they are not entirely unlike the barriers that he and Bohr had established as restricting our knowledge of events inside the atom - limitations at least as crucial to our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.'
This play is a masterpiece - do not miss it.
Copenhagen is at the Cottesloe, at the National Theatre in London, and will be touring to Oxford at the end of August
That there is a small and welcome revival in the plays of George Bernard Shaw says a lot about our times.
Shaw has been the staple of repertory and amateur theatre for years in productions where his celebrated 'Shavian' wit has been put on display, but with his politics somewhat relegated. But two current productions, Major Barbara and The Doctor's Dilemma, have been concerned to highlight the radical content of Shaw's writing. Both plays were written within a year of each other in the first decade of the 20th century when Shaw was intent on exploring the implications of the 'new' world of vigorous industrial capitalism.
Both plays are concerned with big ethical questions - Major Barbara with arms dealing and The Doctor's Dilemma with the medical profession. Of the two Major Barbara speaks more obviously to 1998 Britain. Shaw would have appreciated the irony that the views of the chief protagonist, Andrew Undershaft, would be reborn in New Labour's foreign policy.
When Tony Blair announced during the Sierra Leone affair that New Labour's 'ethical' foreign policy amounted to supplying arms to 'the good guys' he entered the realm of Undershaft. One of the people suggested as real life model for Undershaft was the British arms manufacturer Sir William Armstrong who placed the responsibility on the buyer to make 'legitimate application' of the arms he peddled. And once you have decided that basing a chunk of economic life on manufacturing arms is legitimate, what is to stop embracing Undershaft's (a)moral vision completely? As Undershaft says, 'My morality - my religion - must have a place for cannons and torpedoes in it.'
Shaw's plays proceed not so much by action but by the clash of characters and opposing ideas. So in Major Barbara there is the three pointed contest between Undershaft, his Salvation Army daughter Barbara and her suitor Adolphus Cusins. Peter Hall's production brings this dynamic to life, helped with the skills of Peter Bowles as Undershaft and Jemma Redgrave as Barbara. The flip side of Undershaft's ascendancy is the misery down below, with one act of the play set in West Ham. Shaw's portrayal of the east end, with its violence and desperation, scandalised critics at the time who thought it all too crude to be depicted on stage.
That the Undershafts have the whip hand in capitalist society is brilliantly depicted. Undershaft tells his son who wants to go into politics that, 'you will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. You will find that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover my want is a national need.'
The emphasis on character driven plots mean that Shaw's plays spill over with dialogue. The way Shaw constructed his plays was a radical attempt to break the straitjacket of Victorian theatre into forms more suited to modern times. Shaw was trying to make a political intervention from the stage. He was famously a member of the Webbs' Fabian Society, with its reformist and elitist conception of gradual change by 'permeating' the institutions of the state. Prior to that, Shaw had been part of the radical politics of the 1880s, first around the Social Democratic Federation and then William Morris's Socialist League. Shaw literally fled involvement in the class struggle in 1887 after Bloody Sunday, when police brutally attacked demonstrators in central London.
As Shaw said of himself, 'think of me always as a hero of a thousand defeats, it is only on paper and in my imagination that I do anything brave.'
Shaw's plays during this period are usually prefaced with a full length essay where he lays out his views on the subject he is tackling artistically. So The Doctor's Dilemma has a 'Preface on Doctors' that starts, 'It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community, as at present provided for, is a murderous absurdity. That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity.'
This contradiction is savagely explored in the play. Colenso Ridgeon, a man at the height of his profession is captivated by Jennifer Dubedat, who comes to his surgery asking for him to cure her husband, Louis, of tuberculosis. But Ridgeon has to somehow surmount the existence of her beloved Louis - the 'doctor's dilemma'.
It is the way in which Ridgeon does away with Louis that makes Shaw's play succeed. Ridgeon uses his fellow medical practitioners to kill Louis by allowing them to treat him with their mad pet theories. Ridgeon's knowledge that Louis's death is bound to be the outcome of this experimentation makes him a murderer. Shaw is not making an anti-science point here - he is saying that making doctors into commercial pedlars of cures is a condemnation of the whole nature of society. Instead of the state organisation of health you have a profession that profits from illness and has an interest in its continued existence. Shaw was outraged that top doctors were rewarded by society, even as they regularly killed off their patients in great numbers. As the insightful character Sir Patrick Cullen says in The Doctor's Dilemma of the 1900s fad for subcutaneous inoculations, 'I've tried these modern inoculations a bit myself. I've killed people with them; I've cured people with them; but I gave them up because I could never tell which I was going to do.'
The amiable, but deadly, fellow doctors of Ridgeon's acquaintance were all based on real figures as were the Dubedats. Jennifer Dubedat was a mixture of people, including Eleanor Marx, and her scoundrel of an artist husband Louis was modelled on Eleanor's lover, Edward Aveling.
In The Doctor's Dilemma there is the delicious moment when the assembled doctors, supposedly England's most brilliant medical minds, find that they have one after the other been soft soaped by Louis and tapped for money as though they were naive children.
Shaw's plays do not always work fully, with themes often left half explored and plot lines untidily abandoned. But there is a great deal to be said for him. In the 1900s he was exploring a critique of a social order that at least could boast a vitality. Now in the 1990s we can appreciate his work in the light of that same order's decay.
The Doctor's Dilemma tours Britain during July and August. Major Barbara is at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, until September
The Theatre Works company is marking the 100th anniversary of Brecht's birth with a production of his play about the lives of Germans under Nazism.
It provides a powerful challenge to the notion of German collective guilt. From the wife of a Nazi henchman, horrified as she discovers the methods they use against unemployed workers who criticise the conscript labour scheme, to the dying man whose last words are a curse on the Hitler regime, the play is shot through with an unease and a quietly spoken resistance.
Brecht stated often that the objective of his theatre was to make the apparently ordinary seem extraordinary, to promote an 'attitude of criticism', of social and political insight, in his audience. In Fear and Misery of the Third Reich he faced the problem of dealing with a 'normality' which had reached unbelievable depths of terror and depravity. He uses the lives of the 'little people' to illuminate the bigger social and historical picture. We are, for example, shown the horror of the early days of the Holocaust, not in a concentration camp, but in the heart-wrenching farewells of a Jewish woman forced to flee to Amsterdam.
The overwhelming atmosphere of the play is one of fear, of the Nazis' near total control of German civic life. We see the absolute terror on the faces of the parents who imagine that their missing little girl - who is a member of the Hitler Youth - has gone to inform on them; we also feel the immense tension in the laboratory where the physicists fear for their jobs, perhaps even their lives, as they discuss Einstein's theories ('Jewish nonsense', not science, according to the Nazis).
Although a little uneven at times, Theatre Work's production is largely successful in creating the 'alienation effects' which Brecht saw as crucial to evoking social criticism in his audience. The absurd brutality of the dying fisherman's fearful wife and priest attempting to prevent him uttering his last defiant words is just one of a number of points in the play where the presentation of the playwright's dark irony is spine-tinglingly poignant.
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is at the Edinburgh Festival, 17-31 August
Journalism is often seen as an honourable profession where the mission is to keep the public informed and the truth is king. Television news still has some of this reputation - after all, can pictures lie as easily as words? In Mad City they do.
Sam (John Travolta) is a security guard in a small private Californian museum until he is 'downsized' by the owner, whose grandfather's personal collection is the core of the display. Unable to cope with losing his job he takes a gun with him to see the owner - it is his last desperate attempt to make her listen and let him have his job back.
This would be just an ill fought out stunt, but for the presence of Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a local television reporter who is in the toilet of the museum after interviewing the owner about the cuts. Brackett suddenly finds himself in the middle of a hot story and gets his station to broadcast him 'live from the siege'. The stunt has gone out of control. Sam did not want to take anybody hostage but within minutes the museum is surrounded by police and cameras. Brackett convinces Sam that he is on his side and suggests using the siege to get heard on national television.
The way the story is treated by the media develops into the central plot of the film.
Brackett starts off looking like the good guy. His interview makes Sam look human again, and his reports explain what has led an ordinary man to take such a drastic action. But Brackett also has his own agenda - to return to big time reporting - and Sam is his ticket out of the provinces. He wants the siege to continue despite Sam having no real 'demands', because as long as Brackett is in there he has an exclusive.
Brackett's young assistant, Laurie (Mia Kirschner), is a raw reporter. She leaves the camera to help the shot guard and gets told off by Brackett. A reporter's job is not to put out the fire - just to take the picture. The scruples she starts off with get lost and end up with framing the report to fit with the latest opinion poll, and the offer of a job from the big network.
This is not an optimistic film, but it features great performances by Hoffman and Alan Alda who plays Brackett's rival and former colleague.
It's Leicester, 1972. Cue bellbottoms, Slade, T Rex, transistor radios, smocks and maxi-skirts and as a special treat for tea: arctic roll! Jack is a mixed race popular 13 year old who shines at athletics, has a talent for art and is always in trouble. She tries her best to please the teachers going out of their way to give her a brilliant future, but she knows there's more to life than timetables, training after school and extra lessons. There's smoking, boys, drugs and the all-important First Sexual Experience that she and all her mates are desperate for. She meets glamorous 'grown up' Spanner and has a romantic introduction to intercourse and cannabis. This is no simple nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings looking for a lost youth. Although TGWBIHF is an endearing period piece, it's a remarkable contemporary reminder of the fragmented teenage world.
Symbolically, the only alteration the production's art team had to make to the housing estate location where Jack lives was to install an old style red phone box - otherwise time has stood still. Similarly, the innovations and new ideas of her progressive teachers are clearly shown to be at the mercy of more dominant reactionary attitudes and methods. And the silly 'Love Thy Neighbour' type remarks of her friends are clearly distinct from the vicious racism depicted in union jack swathed houses she passes.
A huge part of this film's charm is in the acting, particularly that of black newcomer Joanna Ward in the title role. Most of the characters are 'young and unknowns' and the few familiar experienced actors participate in the slightly vulnerable style of the playing. This achieves a beautiful naive atmosphere, a sense of shifting levels of innocence and the subtle ongoing embarrassment and confusion which are, tragically, all part of growing up in our society.
While a newly rich Indian middle class flaunts its wealth, the poor find that little has changed. These pictures show the working lives of the poor. Many of the images strike you immediately. Hundreds gather round a truck which arrives from a steel foundry carrying hot waste products. It has small quantities of steel in amongst it. People crawl over the rubble looking for the steel and in the process burn their skin. Another picture shows a huge pipeline surrounded by a shanty town. The town has no clean running water or sanitation and the poor use the pipeline as a walkway - it contains clean water being taken to the rich suburbs. You are confronted by images which show workers involved in the production of India's wealth, like the diamond cutters on a factory production line - the value of the stones they polish being more than they are likely to earn in a lifetime.
India 50: A working people, photographs by Sebastiao Salagado, is showing at the National Theatre, London (free entrance)
'There is perhaps no event in the annals of our history which excited more alarm at the time of its occurrence.'
That was the verdict of one 19th century historian on the dramatic events which swept the British navy in the 1790s.
We are often told that Britain is not a country of revolutionary upheavals and rebellion. Yet the 1790s saw a series of great mutinies in the British navy which struck fear into the hearts of our rulers.
Tens of thousands of ordinary seafarers took control of their ships and red flags fluttered from the masts of the fleet in what was dubbed the 'floating republic'. Elected delegates on each ship formed committees to run the revolt, and forced the head of the navy to meet and negotiate with them.
The rebellion came while the country was at war and faced the prospect of invasion from France. It came as the government also feared revolt in Ireland and the spectre of revolution at home too.
This great naval rebellion, largely written out of history by those at the top of society, is the subject of Jonathan Neale's marvellous new novel Mutineers.
Almost all the characters in the novel are real historical figures, and it sticks rigorously to known historical facts. But around this the author weaves a story which manages to bring alive both the brutal conditions sailors suffered and their eventual revolt in a way that will have you turning page after page eager to discover what happens next.
We meet Valentine Joyce and his mates who organised the successful mutiny in the great war fleet anchored at Spithead off Portsmouth.
Through the fictional character of Polly, a prostitute who becomes a key player in the revolt, the Spithead mutiny and that at the Nore in the Thames which followed it are linked together.
At the Nore we meet Richard Parker, president of the floating republic, and the revolutionary John Blake. Blake's stirring manifesto sums up the spirit of the mutinies: 'Shall we', he asked, 'be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derive from us alone their honours, their titles and their fortunes?
'No, the Age of Reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavouring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.'
Jonathan Neale brings two important elements to his writing which add to the strength of his novel.
Firstly he knows his subject well, and has a real feel for the realities of naval life. Just as important is that, as an active socialist himself, Jonathan has an instinctive feel for how people organise when they fight back.
He understands, in a way that only those who have organised and tried to lead strikes and protests can, how mass movements develop, and the kind of arguments and problems that arise in them.
This makes the scenes where he describes the shifting moods of the mutineers and the debates over how to carry the fight forward especially convincing.
If I were to recommend one book worth taking on a summer holiday for an enjoyable and inspiring read it would be this one. Get it, make yourself comfortable and start reading. It may be an old cliché to say you won't be able to put a book down until you are finished, but it was certainly true for this reviewer.
This collection of essays keys into some of the central ideological debates about women's role in the family and the workforce.
It looks at why and how the idea that men should be the sole breadwinners in the family emerged, covering the impact of the development of industrial capitalism on the family in 19th century Britain, and similar developments in Spain, France, Germany and Bengal.
Many feminist historians, most notably the American feminist Heidi Hartmann, have argued that working class men colluded with the bosses in the 19th century to exclude women from certain jobs. In The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism Heidi Hartmann argued that working class men acted to preserve 'male privileges' by driving women out of jobs or marginalising them into 'women's jobs'. They were rewarded by the bosses, according to Hartmann, through the payment of a 'family wage', supposedly adequate enough to keep all family members. Her conclusion is that working class men have no interest in common with women workers and that the main divide is along lines of gender rather than class.
The essays in this collection challenge this feminist idea of a pact between male bosses and workers in various ways by examining the complex factors which led to demands for a family wage and women's exclusion from certain areas of the labour market. This approach, which looks at strategies of employers, wage rates and various regional factors, is far superior to the simplistic analysis of those like Hartmann.
The studies are very detailed, but two main factors can be drawn out. Firstly, the rise of the male breadwinner family has to be seen against the bosses' attempts to use women workers to undercut the wages of men. Secondly, the demand for a family wage among workers arose in part as a defence against barbaric conditions for women workers and as a class defence of the living standards of the whole of the working class.
In an article on women workers in the Stephanois region of south western France, for example, Michael Hanagan argues that demands for a family wage were not accompanied by demands for women's exclusion from the workforce.
Rather the demand for a family wage grew as a class demand in the face of imminent wage cuts. A strike in the area in 1869 mobilised whole communities in defence of working class living standards. 'Women and children participated in strikes hinging on familist demands, such as those of 1869, because these were incorporated into militant working class culture that portrayed itself as the defender of the entire local community...the demand for a family wage was usually a response to a reduction in the wages of adult male workers.'
Jane Humphries and Sara Horrell, writing about 19th century Britain, argue that most workers never received a family wage. Women and children's labour often remained vital to the family's survival and so the development of the male breadwinner family was not at all universal.
Among factory workers, for example, women continued to work even when overall wages were higher, if jobs, such as in the textile industry, were available. Among agricultural labourers and outworkers, where there were no such opportunities for women, families suffered greater poverty.
Things were even worse for the 20 percent of families which the authors estimate were headed by women in early industrial Britain. As the authors conclude, 'The prevalence of female headed households and the inadequacy of male earnings to cover family needs in certain key stages of the life cycle show that for most families the participation of women and children in some circumstances or at some stages was essential for survival.'
The articles are of varying quality and some view gender and class as two equally determining factors. Even in one of the best articles Humphries and Horrell argue against 'grand theorising'. So while there is lots of interesting information, it lacks a Marxist framework which can explain the debates theoretically. They also underestimate the way industrial capitalism destroyed the family as a unit of production as all family members were thrown onto the labour market.
The book is also written for a specialist academic audience, so I wouldn't recommend it for anyone new to the debates. A better starting point would be the chapter on the family under capitalism in Lindsey German's Sex, Class and Socialism.
Nevertheless for those interested in pursuing the arguments, there is some interesting material collated here which can help explain why working class men are the allies and not the enemies of working class women.
How we understand the past is of tremendous importance. If history has no pattern or shape then any attempt to grasp it as a whole is futile. The aim of this collection of essays, most of them based on talks given at a History School organised by International Socialism journal, is to arm socialists with vital arguments about what makes change in society possible.
The stakes in the argument are high. Chris Harman's opening essay sets the tone by defending the Marxist method, particularly Marx's famous distinction between base and superstructure. On the one hand the development of the forces of production entails conflict between the exploiting and exploited classes and, on the other, institutions like the state or the family, and belief systems like religion or ideology, are used by the ruling class in an attempt to freeze development in society.
At a certain point in their development the forces of production threaten to turn society upside down. All the elements of the superstructure are subject to massive crisis and society enters a period of revolution. But the victory of new productive forces is not predetermined. Sometimes society collapses or stagnates because the new forces do not break through.
Why is the relationship between base and superstructure important? The main point is that it argues that the contradictions 'out there' are ultimately more important than the contradictions 'in our heads'. If they weren't, very little would ever change. We would be prisoners of the assumptions we inherit from the world around us. The fact that objectively workers are an exploited class, independently of how they see themselves, explains why in struggling to defend themselves they can come to a conscious understanding of their position and role in society.
The contributors take up the importance of class to illuminate different aspects of the past and of the way history has been understood. Alex Callinicos attacks the baleful influence of postmodernism which tries to pretend that history consists merely of 'texts' - that it can never be more than histories of the way in which people have represented the world to themselves. This denial of history as a totality has also damaged 'history from below'. Where once this represented an attempt to rescue the experience of those neglected by 'official' history, it has become an excuse for avoiding evaluating which experience is more or less important in understanding history as a whole.
Lindsey German attacks patriarchy theory, which presupposes in a completely ahistorical, idealist way that all men have an interest in oppressing all women.
The Russian Revolution is defended by Mike Haynes against the critics who see a continuity where there is none (the emergence of the Stalinist counter-revolution) and a discontinuity (the 'triumph' of capitalism in the last decade) where, again, there is none.
Brian Manning, in an equally closely argued essay about the 17th century English Revolution, looks at what was happening to the class of small producers and to the growing class of the propertyless dependent on selling their labour power. As capitalism developed, the revolution came to mean different things to different class interests, however much both had a common interest in ending the domination of feudal lords and merchants. That ruled out a second revolution because the forces of impoverished small producers and wage earners were neither united nor sufficiently developed to challenge those who had benefited from sweeping away the old order.
Postmodern interpretations of the Chartist movement of the early 19th century are challenged by Mark O'Brien who argues that its aims can only be understood in class terms. And Chris Bambery demonstrates the weakness of the idea that somehow British workers' 'natural' tendency is towards conservatism. Sam Ashman shows that, for all its faults, the strength of the Communist Party Historians' Group lay in its refusal to confine the writing of history to the academy. John Rees's essay, which concludes the collection, develops this argument. Only by developing an intellectual understanding of history which is organically linked to the working class movement by revolutionary organisation can the pressure of bourgeois ideology be resisted.
Anyone wishing to describe or define Irish society, or even what it is to be Irish, as Fintan O'Toole does in this collection of essays, cannot avoid the effect that migration continues to have in rending families and communities apart - meaning that, for many, what they call 'home' is not the place where they live. Certainly the notion of Ireland held by those who have left and the experience of those who remain can sometimes have little in common, but at least the personal pain and sadness of having to catch the Liverpool boat or the Boston flight have been generally recognised. Not, however, by this writer of this book who celebrates migration as having created a new Ireland where 'longitudes and latitudes refuse to hold their shape' and which, we are told, 'touches down now in the Bronx, now in Bonn, now in Britain, seeking connections with a set of overlapping places, but always taking off again into its own outer spaces.'
This new Ireland is not one I recognise and it is unsurprising that Terry Eagleton has accused O'Toole of forming a 'postmodern myth of Erin' in this book.
This myth fails to consider the plight of the Irish living in the housing estates of Cork, north Dublin, or Birmingham for that matter, and nor does it question the practices of the multinational companies that have spawned the booming Irish economy.
Talk of the 'Emerald Tiger', the rash of hideous Irish theme pubs all over Britain, indeed the world, and Dublin becoming the place of choice for your stag party have all played a part in transforming the image of Ireland. It would appear to be Europe's trendiest spot, and for sure, as O'Toole illustrates, change is taking place. However, he states that, since this new country is hard to imagine as a political entity, it is hard to imagine a way that it might be changed and so 'change becomes personal, not political, you change your location, not your society'.
This misses the point. More young people are staying in Ireland, or returning there, and their influence is demonstrated in attitudes to contraception, abortion and divorce radically different to the past.
However, it would be wrong to condemn all of these essays as postmodernist confusion. O'Toole's often unconvincing analysis cannot efface his own journalistic insight. His exploration of the contradictions of the Irish immigrants and racism in America is fascinating and he brilliantly examines the role of the Irish Americans in American politics, especially the Kennedys whose goal was never more than power itself.
Later O'Toole picks apart Charles Haughey and his flamboyantly flaunted wealth. How did this man become so fabulously wealthy from a life supposedly devoted to public service? The portrait devastates his smug hypocrisy. 'What we see in the huge gap between what he was saying and what he was doing is not compelling drama, but an awful emptiness. It is the vacuum that Irish economic success has not been able to fill.'
Also compelling is his account of the Catholic Church's position in Ireland from creating an administration involving virtually every aspect of society separate from and contending with British rule to becoming a constitutional part of the new state. So powerful was the church, O'Toole suggests, that it never needed a Catholic party like the Italian Christian Democrats since both major parties were in effect Catholic parties. O'Toole describes well the consequences of the continuing scandals of bishops' children and endemic paedophilia on its status, although over 80 percent of the population still regularly attend church compared with under 50 percent in Spain. Nevertheless mistrust in the institution has grown.
These well written, intelligent essays allow the reader to glimpse the transition taking place in Ireland where, for example, the major employer in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, is a Halal meat plant run by a Pakistani businessman. Unfortunately the collection finishes as it sets out with allegories and anecdotes that serve only to obscure.
At best O'Toole's writing is sharp and insightful. At its worst it reads like a carefully worded sludge. Only when he does emerge from complacent postmoderninst hype is he worth reading.
The current media cult of Tony Blair and all his works has become so suffocating that any critical voice is very welcome. The Age of Insecurity, written by the economics editor of the Guardian and one of his fellow journalists, is refreshingly free of the sycophancy that debases much of the rest of their paper.
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson take aim at the orthodoxies of the age. We are seeing, they argue, 'the simultaneous freeing of capital and control of people'. Thus, on the one hand, Tory and Labour governments alike allow the market free rein in more and more extensive areas of social life. On the other hand, people's lives outside work are more and more closely regulated by the state. 'Constitutional reform and social authoritarianism' are, say the authors, 'the two main areas of activity for the modern British left', by which they mean the Labour Party. It's as if New Labour's acceptance of free market economics is compensated for by intense effort devoted to tinkering away at constitutional structures and bullying teachers, parents and children alike.
The left, Elliott and Atkinson conclude, has lost its way. It needs to return to 'practical Keynesianism' by restoring 'democratic supervision of capital'. The book defies the reigning economic orthodoxy by advocating the reintroduction of controls on the movement of capital, arguing that this would be feasible despite the development of internationally integrated financial markets over the past 30 years.
The Age of Insecurity naturally invites comparison with another critique of market economics, The State We're In, by Will Hutton, Elliott's predecessor as Guardian economics editor. Their book is less intellectually adventurous than Hutton's, but it is free of the illusions in the efficacy of constitutional reform, which led him to hope, against all the evidence, for radical policies from Tony Blair. Indeed Elliott and Atkinson make some effective criticisms of the German model of 'stakeholder capitalism' which Hutton believes is superior to Anglo-American free market capitalism.
For all these strengths, The Age of Insecurity suffers from two major weaknesses. The first is its explanation of the triumph of the free market. The authors argue that a cultural counter-revolution developed in the 1970s - the middle classes reacted against stagflation, state bureaucracy, and militant trade unionism and gravitated towards Margaret Thatcher. This is, to say the least, an oversimplification.
The argument is developed through much potted cultural history. Some of it is quite enjoyable but some is pretty odd. For example, we're told that 'John and Robert Kennedy seemed to epitomise the alliance between the blue collar working class and the left intelligentsia' in the 1960s. Eh? Which were Jack and Bobby - workers or intellectuals?
Secondly, and more seriously, Elliott and Atkinson make nationalism central to their alternative to the unrestrained market. Thus they take an entirely justified critique of European economic and monetary union to almost paranoid extremes, implying that Norman Lamont was pushed out of the treasury by sinister forces suspicious of his Euroscepticism, and that Robin Cook may be falling victim to a similar campaign of dirty tricks. The simpler explanation that Lamont's incompetence was so total as to be obvious even to John Major doesn't seem to occur to them. 'Only the nation state - by legal virtue of its social and political solidarity - can mount an effective challenge to international capital,' Elliott and Atkinson assert, going on to outline policies 'to secure our national home', for example - a reaffirmation of parliamentary sovereignty which Michael Portillo could cheerfully endorse. If they are right, then we are in deep trouble. For the collapse of Keynesianism in the 1970s arose from the manifest failure of the nation state to prevent, or cope with global economic slump.
The Age of Insecurity is thus a timely challenge to New Labour's embrace of market capitalism. But is suffers from the characteristic reformist delusion that it is possible to find some remedy consistent with capitalism to cure its ills. In fact, the only cure lies in getting rid of capitalism altogether.
Here is a scene from the oil-rich sultanate of Kuwait - 'The occasion was a wedding ceremony held by a wealthy family in the Kuwait Sheraton Hotel... Expensive flowers were flown from the Netherlands together with a flower arranger. The following morning I saw the luxurious flowers thrown outside the hotel and large pieces of lamb and turkey scavenged from two huge rubbish bins by a number of hungry boys."
In this book the Egyptian economist Riad El-Ghonemy attempts to explain the vast inequalities in the Middle East, both between and within nations, and to suggest possible solutions. His background is in academia and the UN, so it is no surprise to discover that his suggested solutions are far from revolutionary. His aim is to suggest how the region can make a transition to an efficient capitalism with a human face, and he sees inequality as a barrier to this process.
However, within these limitations he makes some important points. He makes clear his disgust at the human cost of social inequality, and often breaks from the accumulation of statistical data to include personal recollections like that quoted above. He has no time for economists who see humanitarian concerns as irrelevant to economic development, stressing the value of human resources. He demolishes the record of IMF and World Bank sponsored 'structural adjustment' programmes, demonstrating how they have increased human misery without bringing greater economic efficiency.
El-Ghonemy analyses the economic performance of the region in the last 50 years, using economic and demographic statistics, which often make for difficult reading. He demonstrates how the legacy of colonialism, and subsequent rule by local elites, has led to the creation of self perpetuating corrupt ruling classes, and that inequality has been growing, not declining. This has been as true for 'socialist' states, where nationalisation was used to develop a native capitalist economy, as for 'reactionary' ones. 'Development' has helped the rich - wealthy farmers rather than poor peasants have benefited from irrigation schemes, and redistribution of land and nationalisation of industry have worked in favour of government bureaucrats, not workers or peasants. The oil revenues of the Gulf states have enriched their rulers, not the people.
The weakness of El-Ghonemy's analysis is the lack of a wider political perspective. He ignores the role of US imperialism; he never explains how the prosperity of Israel is based on huge aid from the US and does not address use of armed intervention by the US and its allies to keep the region economically tied to western economic interests - principally oil. He calls for economic strategies based on 'people, not things', but sees the people as recipients of more enlightened policies, not as conscious agents in changing their conditions.
He looks to more democracy and better education, paid for by a 'peace dividend', without explaining how the dictatorial and parasitic governments of the region can be reformed or removed. Hope for a peace dividend seems ever more remote, as Clinton and Netanyahu have been stoking the fires of conflict.
The book is a valuable addition to our understanding of the region, and the facts El-Ghonemy has collected are useful weapons, but we must look elsewhere for an analysis of how to end inequality.
Until fairly recently, not much that was reliable had been written on the industrial cadre who played a leading role in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1920s. For a while, most of what we knew came from the autobiographies of such luminaries as Willie Gallacher, Harry Pollitt, or Wal Hannington. Although these memoirs are often impressive in their descriptions of wartime struggles and the impact of the Russian Revolution on militants in Britain, they are usually blighted by deference to party orthodoxy at the time they were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The first of these new books looks at the life of another key figure from this period from a more critical standpoint, tracing the intellectual development of JT Murphy from driving force behind the First Shop Stewards' Movement to Comintern representative for Britain, before hurtling into a political tailspin in the early 1930s.
Murphy first came to prominence as a leader of industrial militancy during the First World War in Sheffield, where around 50,000 engineering workers were employed in the production of armaments. As in other key industrial centres like Glasgow, London, Manchester and Belfast, the district wide workers' committees which emerged during this period were headed exclusively by skilled men, radicalised by their wartime experiences.
Murphy was to prove his mettle not only as an exceptional organiser of the Sheffield Workers' Committee. As a self taught working class intellectual and prolific writer, he arguably made the most significant theoretical contribution to the development of the movement nationally. He was among the first to see the potential of the workers' committees to create a proto-soviet rather than purely syndicalist form of organisation. And he took a lead in pressing for the creation of a national organisation linking each of the main industrial centres. Early on, Murphy recognised the Achilles' heel of the leadership of the more celebrated Clyde Workers' Committee to be its tendency towards isolationism.
Later on, Murphy's record was less creditable: a fervent advocate of independent mindedness in his early years and always suspicious of those he regarded as 'yes-men', he all too easily fell under the thrall of Stalin. Eventually, Murphy won the dire distinction of being the Comintern delegate chosen to formally move Trotsky's expulsion from the Communist Party at a special hearing before the executive of the Communist International, held in the winter of 1926. Five years later, Murphy himself was on his way out, this time on the receiving end of an all too similar campaign of vilification.
Murphy's fiercely independent analytical ability changed from the early 1920s onwards, until 'the overriding thread affecting Murphy's political trajectory was his loyal commitment to the defence of the USSR and the Stalinist bureaucracy...the baneful influence of Stalinism inside the USSR and the Comintern was directly responsible for encouraging him to abandon his identification with the working class as the only force that could achieve the fundamental change...and increasingly look to alliances with left trade union officials and Labour Party figures as crucial allies'.
Soon after the end of the war and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Murphy married the woman who was to become his lifetime companion, Molly Morris. Molly had played an active role in the suffragette movement in Manchester, before taking on the job as Sheffield organiser for the suffragettes. Weeks after their marriage, at the beginning of 1921, the couple travelled to Russia, where they arrived in the midst of famine and on the eve of the Kronstadt uprising. Virtually the first person they met was Alexandra Kollontai.
Molly Murphy's account of her own extraordinary life (which, among much else, includes an audience with Lenin and a stint attending to the wounded during the Spanish Civil War) was put to paper in the 1960s, but remained unpublished until it was unearthed by Ralph Darlington in the course of his research on Jack Murphy. Although this book is mainly a collection of reminiscences, the author has a lot to look back on and this makes for an engrossing read.
A fully trained nurse of the old school, and clearly a stickler for no nonsense, Molly Murphy appears to have taken to events in Europe with the same matter of factness that she would have approached any of her ward rounds. In one aside, she notes, 'I understand that in later years, after the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky had ended, the history of the Kronstadt revolt was rewritten and all the credit for the suppression of the revolt is now attributed to Stalin. It may be the latter account is nearer the truth than the former. Also it may be further from the truth. I can't appoint myself as judge on the matter, but I do know this - that in all the exciting discussions among the residents of this hotel during the period it happened, the name of Stalin was never heard.'
It is worth making the effort to go through both these books together, the first for rescuing the positive contribution made by JT Murphy from partial oblivion, the second for its lively portrayals of individuals and events during a tumultuous period.
The central argument of The Global Trap is that with the huge expansion of the international finance markets over the last two decades (£1.5 million million change hands every day) the world economy is now dominated by shareholders and investment funds. Any country with uncompetitive wage rates or high taxation, it is argued, will simply lose investment to cheaper rivals, often in 'developing countries'. Governments and workers, the authors argue, are powerless.
This sounds convincing but does not stand up. The notion of 'footloose' capital is a myth. Three quarters of all overseas investments are concentrated in the US, western Europe and Japan.
John Gray, in his more balanced book False Dawn, explains this concentration. Wages, he points out, are only one part of a company's calculations. They must also take into account skill levels, infrastructure, taxation regimes and political stability. For example Siemens' German workers receive higher wages than their American counterparts - but they are twice as productive.
Gray also points out that the majority of multinational companies hold two thirds of their assets and make two thirds of their sales in their 'home' countries. They continue to be reliant on national states and are indeed quite 'weak and amorphous' organisations. Significantly, the 'Multilateral Agreement on Investment', which would have allowed corporations to sue national states, was shelved in April due to governments' opposition.
The author, a former Thatcherite, demonstrates the horrors of free market policies. Gray stresses there is nothing natural about the 'free market', as its supporters claim.
But it is here that Gray's argument begins to founder. His main contention is that the 'free global market' is a purely Anglo-Saxon invention. Different countries, he argues, have developed their own variants of capitalism, and if they are allowed to flourish these differences could hold the key to renewed expansion in the world system. For example, the emphasis on 'wa' (harmony) in Japanese business culture has allowed the country to prosper. In reality, however, Japanese capitalism grew because it found a niche in the world market after the Second World War, and its growth was export led.
The author never considers democratic socialist planning as an alternative. This is due to his inaccurate interpretation of the Russian Revolution. Firstly he mounts a defence of the late Tsarist period, suggesting that Russia was showing signs of successful 'modernisation'. Yet Russia's expansion was heavily reliant on foreign capital and the regime dragged the empire into the barbarity of the First World War.
Gray claims that the terrible conditions in Russia in the 1920s were a result of Lenin's 'utopian programme', as if the First World War and the Civil War had not happened!
All this allows him to reject Marxism as a redundant 'enlightenment ideology'.
These books both contain a wealth of fascinating information, much of which confirms Marxist arguments about the market economy. What they lack is any solutions. The current revolution in Indonesia highlights the need to fight for workers' control, which all the authors reject.