Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW
Published November 1998
Copyright © Socialist Review
The good name of journalism
Shaking the World: John Reed's Revolutionary Journalism
Ed: John Newsinger
Of all the accounts of revolutionary events recorded this century, those written by the American journalist John Reed between 1913 and 1920 are still unrivalled. His bulletins from the Mexican Revolution were described by a friend, Walter Lippmann, as 'undoubtedly the best reporting that's ever been done'. And the historian AJP Taylor reckoned his classic Ten Days That Shook The World to be 'not only the best account of the Bolshevik Revolution, it comes near to being the best account of any revolution'.
Exactly what makes John Reed's writing quite so compelling is difficult to pin down. One factor, which puts him head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries, was his passionate commitment to the struggles of the oppressed. He made no secret of his allegiances and always managed to play an active role in the events he was sent to cover. During his first major commission, to report on a general strike by silk weavers in Paterson, New Jersey, he gave up his job and the fee that went with it to work on behalf of the strikers. He ended up inside for 20 days after badmouthing a copper.
Added to this extraordinary degree of commitment goes an exceptional writing ability. Not long after he had graduated from Harvard University, Reed became the most highly paid ace reporter in the US. The reasons why are plain to see in most of the 20-odd articles which have been unearthed for this excellent new compilation. Reed not only describes events, he brings to life their drama, the trains of thought that enliven the participants on all sides and, above all, the class interests lurking beneath the surface.
At times John Reed's powers of description are so vivid that they take on the immediacy of a really good film or documentary. This is all the more remarkable when you realise that what appears on the page as eyewitness 'footage' has in fact been recreated from an assortment of fragments which might include snatches of conversations, lines from rebel songs, newspaper accounts or official reports as well as his own observations. These are then woven into a backcloth which usually comes from a profound knowledge of the particular path of capitalist development and alignment of class forces, whether it be in the foothills of the Rockies, or Europe on the eve of the First World War.
His panoramic account of the 'Colorado War', in which at least 26 coalminers and their families were massacred by company agents, is so evocative that it conjures up images of the Highland Clearances, Soldier Blue and Thatcher's war on the miners all rolled into one. And yet Reed only arrived in Ludlow, where the main conflict took place, towards the tail end of the episode.
In another article, on the trial of more than 100 'Wobblies', Reed turns the whole farrago into an indictment of the society sitting in judgement. The building itself conveys the message. 'The Federal Courtroom in Chicago, where Judge Landis sits in judgment on the Industrial Workers of the World, is an imposing place, all marble and bronze and mellow dark woodwork. Its windows open upon the heights of towering office buildings, which dominate that courtroom as money power dominates our civilisation.'
When the government prosecutor rises to speak, this is how Reed captures his picture: 'Attorney Nebeker, legal defender for the great copper mining corporation; a slim, nattily dressed man with a face all subtle from twisting and turning in the law, and eyes as cold and undependable as flawed steel'.
Reed was by no means unique in taking as his starting point an outspoken identification with the plight of the downtrodden. But few other writers have ever displayed quite the same faculty for laying bare the full armoury of crookery and deception routinely marshalled to uphold the status quo. Even fewer have thrown in their lot unreservedly on the side of the oppressed. John Reed not only exposed the inner workings of a rotten system, he launched himself into the struggle for its overthrow.
For anyone nauseated by the diet of mindless drivel and self indulgent cackle which passes for most contemporary journalism, this collection of writings by a great American revolutionary is a rousing antidote.
Empire's heroes and villains
Revolutionary Empire is a first class piece of history writing which lays in front of us the panorama of imperial development centred on Britain. Its sweep takes in America, the West Indies, India, Indonesia, Ireland and Australia. It spans 400 years.
But not the least of the book's virtues is that it starts with the 'internal empire', the relations between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland which eventually (and much later than we are normally led to believe) resulted in a relatively unitary, if frequently unstable, nation state. This brings home with renewed force quite how artificial a creation the nation state is and how the seeds of imperial domination are present at its very birth.
Calder's detailed and careful analysis of England's, later Britain's, dealings with its oldest colony, Ireland, make this point time and again. Less familiar but no less interesting is Calder's account of how Wales was incorporated into and Scotland made a partner in England's emerging empire. Coincidental with, and in part dependent on, the growth of the internal empire was the external empire. Most important were India, the West Indies and America.
Revolutions, notably the English of the 1640s and the American of 1776, emerge from this process as decisive turning points, fundamentally reshaping the forces which bound our existence. The American Revolution was, of course, also a colonial revolt, a 'war of independence'. As such, the history of empire can hardly be separated from the history of revolution. But even the best part of 150 years earlier at the imperial centre, the English Revolution owed a debt to the then much weaker American colonies. Those colonies, clinging to the eastern seaboard of the New World, frequently wiped out by disease or warfare only to be founded again with seemingly ant like tenacity, were havens of Puritanism where the 'godly' fled from the Stuart kings.
The colonies were much more democratic in structure than the country which claimed to rule them. In Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 a 'generall Assemblie' met, elected by universal male suffrage. In Bermuda a year later the governor called an assembly 'because every man will more willingly obey laws to which he hath yielded his consent.' The same sentiment, using almost the same words, would be hurled against Oliver Cromwell by the Leveller leader Thomas Rainsborough 27 years later. And 130 years further on the same idea would echo back across the Atlantic as the revolutionary slogan 'No taxation without representation.'
The power of Calder's book stems from his ability to combine analysis of the long term social, economic and political causes of imperial growth with vivid anecdotal and specific accounts of particular events. But perhaps best of all are the literary miniatures of various heroes and villains in the imperial saga. Imperial soldier of fortune Clive of India, revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine, Warren Hastings of the East India Company, black Jamaican guerrilla Cudjoe, all come to life. But they never interrupt the overall narrative, nor do they merely act as its ciphers, instead they demonstrate the way that grand economic or social forces can only exist as the actions of human beings.
Here is an example of Calder's style. Anyone who remembers their British history from school will know of Richard Arkwright, the 'inventor' of the water frame which revolutionised the spinning industry during the Industrial Revolution. But Calder's very first sentence about Arkwright probably tells us more than we learnt at school: 'in 1768, a Lancashire barber and wig maker took up someone else's 30 year old idea for the use of rollers in spinning, in his own "water frame".'
With his characteristic sympathy for the victims and resisters of industry and empire, Calder continues, 'At Arkwright's three mills in Derbyshire in 1789, about two thirds of the 1,150 workers were children. Children commonly laboured at this time up to 15 hours a day, six days a week... 'Wholesale" it was. "To lett," an advertisement called in a Manchester newspaper, 1784, "the labour of 260 children. with rooms and every convenience for carrying on the cotton business".'
And what happened to the money Arkwright made? Calder tells us how at least some of it was spent: 'Arkwright... rode into Derby in 1787 in a style that would have impressed Calcutta, with a tail of gentlemen, 30 javelin men in rich liveries, and trumpeters dressed in scarlet and gold.' Not then the figure for the school textbooks.
These are only small excerpts from the vast knowledge which informs Revolutionary Empire. There are a few occasions when the wealth of detail makes it difficult to trace the general outline of events, for instance in some sections dealing with the machinations of the East India Company. And on a number of occasions maps would have been of considerable help. But these are small criticisms because the dominant feeling on finishing this 500 page Pimlico edition, an abridged version of the original book published in 1981, is that Angus Calder should have cut fewer passages, not more.
Motor of a movement
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying
Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin
Standard histories of the 1960s rebellion in the US tell of antiwar demos, campus sit-ins, the Black Panthers and maybe ghetto uprisings. Workers rarely feature. It is implied they were untouched by the wave of radicalisation. This book tells the story of how a group of black socialists built revolutionary rank and file groups among car workers in Detroit that spawned a movement that terrified corporate America.
Based on interviews with participants, I Do Mind Dying blows apart the myth that there is no revolutionary tradition amongst US workers, and that the race divide amongst workers cannot be overcome.
Weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King a group of workers at the Detroit Dodge Main plant of the Chrysler Corporation set up the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) after organising a successful wildcat strike against speed ups. They were inspired by the great urban rebellion of Detroit in 1967 but they were also responding to 'niggermation' in the car plants--speed ups linked to conscious divide and rule tactics in the factories. Meanwhile the racist leadership of the United Auto Workers union was doing nothing to challenge the desperate conditions in the factories. Even according to official figures, more auto workers were killed each year in the car plants than soldiers were killed in any one year in Vietnam.
The DRUM activists were masters at improvising tactics to raise their profile and build workers' confidence. After their first wildcat in May 1968, they organised a campaign against a local bar that did not hire blacks. After a quick victory they then organised a rally and a march to the local UAW headquarters demanding they listen to criticisms of the company and unions. Unsatisfied with the response, DRUM activists immediately called a wildcat strike at Dodge Main for the following morning which closed down the plant. Workers spent the weekend demonstrating outside Chrysler headquarters faced with police and troops armed with teargas and then pulled off another successful strike on Monday.
They followed this up with workplace bulletins and a bitter fight against the leadership in UAW elections. The wildcats, the demos, the standoffs with the police and the constant propaganda detonated a movement across Detroit. Workers across the city started to set up RUMs.---Revolutionary Union Movements, not just in the car plants, but in hospitals, offices, schools and universities.
The founders of DRUM were revolutionaries. They seized the opportunity to, build a militant network across the Detroit working class with tactical brilliance. In Wayne State University DRUM supporters won control of the student newspaper and turned it into a city wide daily voice for black and white revolutionaries. Students sold the paper outside car plants to protect auto workers from victimisation and police harassment. The paper was opened up as a platform for anyone who 'opposed those who would further impoverish the poor, exploit the exploited and take advantage of the powerless'.
RUM activists argued that, just as the company and the state worked together, their organisations must tighten their links. In 1969 they set up the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to coordinate the workplace groups and tie them together with various political and community initiatives, and to set up a printing press and a routine of political education. The League made quick advances--building a big youth movement in Detroit schools and gaining support from radical groups and even black churches.
To its credit as well as the successes, I Do Mind Dying discusses some of the problems the movement ran into. Most glaring was in its uneasy mix of class and black nationalist politics. Although most RUM activists realised the need at least to work with whites, in practice it didn't always happen. RUM leaflets were often not handed to white workers, and though the RUMs attracted the best white militants, sometimes anti-white rhetoric would alienate the bulk of the white workforce, critically weakening action. This was related to the impatient ultra- leftism of many RUM activists.
There was a permanent tension in the League between the plant based activists who saw workplace groups as the key to the movement and some of the political leadership who were looking for short cuts to building a mass national organisation through media stunts and alliances. No faction found how to tie revolutionary organisation and politics systematicaIly to the day to day struggles in the factory. Many from the political wing drifted away from class politics.
The book's big failure is to draw lessons from the League's decline. But it remains an inspiration and an education for anyone who wants to fight the system.
Surviving and telling
Primo Levi--Tragedy of an Optimist
Aurum Press £25
Primo Levi was born in 1919 in the Piedmont district of Italy and trained as a chemist during the period when the racial laws were introduced. Levi joined the anti fascist resistance movement Justice and Liberty. He was captured in February 1944 and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. During his 15 months in Auschwitz, his only thought was to 'survive and tell'.
In the first major biography of Primo Levi, Myriam Anissimov tells the story of his life through the chronicle of his books. She fills in the background but lets Levi speak for himself. Occasionally her obvious admiration for Levi leads to a surfeit of detail, which makes the book overlong. But at its heart is a description and analysis of the concentration camp system, which is as good as anything Levi himself wrote.
In Auschwitz Primo Levi observed and recorded. Nothing escaped him. He drew on all his mental energy to memorise each detail, in case he should survive, in order to tell his story, to bear witness. In 1947 he wrote If This is a Man, the story of his deportation and survival in Auschwitz. It sold only a few hundred copies but Levi had testified, and it was not until the 1960s that he felt the need to write again. Books such as The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved mark Levi out as one of the great writers of the 20th century. During his life Levi was never recognised as a literary writer. He was pigeonholed as a witness and chronicler of the camps. He was more than that--a lover of books. he wrote poetry and fiction--a Dante of our time.
Levi was a socialist but kept a distance from the Communist Party, while maintaining a critical position on the political currents in Italy. This was to bring him into conflict with sections of the left, which in 1978 criticised his first major work of fiction, The Wrench, the story of a journeyman steel erector, Libertine Faussone. Surprise was expressed that the book had no political project to put forward. Why was Faussone not a keen trade unionist or involved in Italian political reality? Levi defended himself, asserting the absolute freedom of the writer.
Controversy also followed with the publication of The Drowned and the Saved. Levi took the risk of rejecting the interpretation that saw the pure oppressor on the one hand, and on the other the victim, 'sanctified in the role of victim'. For Levi this was too simplistic. Man was a more complex creature.
He writes of the 'grey area', where compromises have to be made in order to survive. He does so without judging, and in the process gives us an insight not only into the workings of concentration camp life but of the human condition as well. Written a year before his death, this was the most pessimistic of his books, which hurt the feelings of veterans of the extermination camps who owed their survival to sheer chance.
Levi died in controversial circumstances in 1987, found dead after a fall down the stairwell of his house. His suspected suicide shocked his friends and readers around the world. His writing had sustained his spirit, but in the end could not save him. He was tortured by a sense of guilt for having survived: 'The best had been murdered'--a judgement both absurd and untrue.
In the last year of his life he was deeply affected by the rise of the far right and the publicity given to the claims of those who denied the Holocaust. But despite bouts of depression and difficult domestic circumstances, Levi never gave up the fight against the rewriters of history. Levi did not die in silence--he left us his books, an explanation of the past and a warning for the future.
An honourable fight
The Proud Highway
Hunter S Thompson
If, as Oscar Wilde surmised, the cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, then Doctor Hunter Stockton Thompson, author, journalist and self confessed political junkie, is a cynic precisely because he does know the value of everything but thinks no one else does, especially anyone in power.
Thompson's writing spans four decades from his early sports journalism to his novelised adventures whose explosive style spawned a multitude of imitators. Thompson's belief that the truth is best told as fiction, is manifested in his unique form of 'Gonzo' journalism which came of age in the fantastic romp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Written in 1971, it is a drug crazed, death defying journey to the dark heart of the American dream.
The following year Fear and Loathing.. on the Campaign Trail '72, originally written as regular bulletins for Rolling Stone, was Thompson's account of the US presidential campaign. This was Nixon's second shot at the number one spot. There were even more warts than usual, a festering boil of corruption into which Thompson sank his literary fangs with pit bull intensity, but which went largely unnoticed by Washington media poodles.
The Proud Highway is a bulky collection of Thompson's outgoing correspondence from 1955 to 1967, when he was working to establish himself as a novelist.
George Orwell's first hand account of the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia and life among the dispossessed in Down and Out in Paris and London are probably Thompson's supreme influences. Like Orwell, Thompson knew extreme poverty. He spent the American boom years of the 1950s and 60s facing a string of evictions from various hovels and scraping for the next few bucks. As a teenager he spent several months in jail for a robbery he didn't commit. 'The police lie,' he wrote. 'Injustice is rampant.'
In The Proud Highway we see his published juvenilia skewering middle class conformity, his first job as sports writer in the airforce and his discussions of political upheavals. This includes the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the fight for Asian territory between Taiwan, supported by the US, and Communist China, backed by Russia 'to the limit'. Despite the best efforts of an old schoolmate to draw him into the Communist line (read Stalinism), Thompson resisted while insisting he was not 'antiMarxist'. Thompson remained a maverick, true to himself and only corruptible in the most innocent of ways.
Thompson found inspiration in Joseph Pulitzer's 1883 manifesto for good journalism: 'Always fight for justice and reform, never tolerate injustice and corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing the news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.'
Unfortunately, not joining a party leaves him, like so many radical loners, fighting an honourable fight in grand isolation. However, Thompson remains an international treasure in his unceasing agitation against a corrupt system. Where's his Pulitzer Prize?
In constant battle
Ed: Rickie Solinger
University of California £12.99
The 18 essays in this book document the history of abortion in the US prior to legalisation in 1973, the struggles which led to legalisation, and the subsequent vicious attacks which have dramatically reduced legal abortion in the US.
All the contributors are prochoice and committed to abortion rights. Taken together the essays document a catastrophic defeat for women's rights. This defeat affects the lives of the mass of US women but hardest hit are the poor, single mothers and black women. The essays share an analysis which points to the weakness of the women's movement in defence of abortion, and the book charts the ways in which the religious right made abortion one of its key ideological spearheads.
Rickie Solinger looks at the history of abortion from the 1950s. During the Second World War and its immediate aftermath illegal abortionists had operated with a degree of secrecy but on the whole were safe from prosecution. As attempts were made to enforce morally restrictive cultural messages about the role of women, law enforcers increased the number of prosecutions. In the 1950s doctors began to reinterpret abortion as an essentially moral issue and deny medical abortion even in circumstances where the woman had serious medical conditions.
There was widespread support for legalising abortion in the 1970s. Women began to act as abortion providers as well as a network for women who needed abortion. There were mass court actions in which feminists recruited women who had had abortions to become plaintiffs against restrictive state laws. The result was a 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Roe v Wade, which legalised abortion.
The weaknesses of the legal strategy adopted by feminists--is identified in several of the essays. The struggle for abortion rights was not connected to broader social struggles. The political left in the US was fragmented.
In 1976 the Hyde Amendment to Medicaid prohibited abortion funding except where the life of the mother would be endangered. Many of the essays document the social inequality in access to abortions, and the disgusting way women who use illegal drugs are imprisoned for the term of their pregnancy. The Republican Party campaigned for the appointment of antiabortion judges, and in 1989 the Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning Roe v Wade. While abortion remains legal, they upheld a Missouri law that human life begins at conception, which means that states can pass restrictive conditions to limit legal abortion and override the privacy of the woman's body with arguments for foetal rights. Between 1989 and 1992 state legislatures introduced over 700 anti-abortion bills. Meanwhile Operation Rescue attacked abortion clinics, even murdering health workers. By 1992 some 84 percent of US counties had no physician willing to perform abortions.
While this was going on, however, the National Organisation for Women (NOW), the mainly middle class voice of the women's movement, was concentrating on the Equal Rights Amendment. NOW ignored the Hyde Amendment, which did not affect middle class women who were not dependent on Medicaid, and only turned its attention back to abortion when it became clear that there was a severe risk of it once again becoming illegal. Feminists used a conservative message in attempting to woo voters and politicians. This, not surprisingly, allowed the debate to slip further rightwards towards more restrictions.
Sadly, the authors of this important book fail to provide a convincing alternative which could win back lost ground, but if you want to understand the struggles for abortion rights in the US read this book.
The mob and the market
Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafia
Yale University Press £11
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s left wing opponents of the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) referred to group members as *state caps'. In the late 1940s Tony Cliff argued that Russia was best defined as state capitalist, opposed to the 'orthodox' Trotskyist position that Russia was a degenerated workers' state. If Russia was some form of workers' state, then it was capable of being reformed, but if it was state capitalist then workers' revolution was needed.
Now, thanks to Stephan Handelman's book Comrade Criminal.. Russia's New Mafia, we have detailed knowledge of the extent of the corruption in what many socialists saw as a workers' state.
The Russian Mafia capitalism of the 1990s grew up under Stalin and his political successors, who introduced massive incentives and differentials in the workplace, provided special shops for party officials, and ensured that their children went to elite schools. Russian workers had few illusions about the class nature of the society in which they lived. Any form of collective action in the workplace would result in a long term sentence in a gulag from which only a minority returned. By the 1970s a popular workers' joke was, 'We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.'
Handelman writes, 'Over the last 20 years of Soviet power, organised crime had become a silent partner in the black economy. The Russian mob, working with corrupt officials, developed the underground channels of trade which helped that economy to prosper. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, most major Russian cities already had powerful organised gangs. Their cohesiveness and wealth enabled them to survive the collapse of the old regime, and to profit from the disarray of the new one.
'The fall of the Soviet regime in 1991 left senior members of the former apparatus--the so called nomenklatura--in administrative control of most of the assets of Soviet power. They ran the large state enterprises and farms, operated the factories of the military industrial complex and continued to determine the policies of most central ministries and local governments. Many had grown rich thanks to the judicious investments of party wealth.'
The effect for the Russian working class is that 40 percent of the population are living below the poverty line; they manage to survive on a combination of produce from garden allotments and the constant bartering for goods and services. Workers are paid months in arrears and in currency that is effectively worthless.
Because Russia was already state capitalist, it was possible for organised crime, black marketeers and corrupt party officials to make the transition to private enterprise (albeit a distorted form) without much difficulty.
According to Russian authorities, nearly three out of four commercial companies paid protection money to criminal organisations in 1996. Mafia syndicates directly controlled 40,000 businesses and 500 banks. These activities have enabled criminals to purchase thousands of villas in France and Spain, open Swiss bank accounts and send their relatives to public schools in Britain.
During the 1970s and 1980s the state wholesale food distribution network was one of the most corruption riddled enterprises, with Moscow as its golden hub.
With the collapse of state capitalism senior members of the Russian ruling class have been prepared to provide confirmation of what Marxists like Cliff had been saying for decades. Georgi Arbatov, an adviser to Andropov and Gorbachev, said, 'We had an enormous parasitic apparatus that gives or takes away, permits or allows, takes care of everything, can fire anybody, demote anybody, often even throw him in prison, or, on the contrary, raise him up. And who with such a power at his disposal can resist temptation?' Party bureaucrats spent less than 10 percent of their income on food, most of which was not on sale to the public, while ordinary families would spend several hours a day queuing, and two thirds of their income on food. Large numbers of party officials resorted to corruption.
From 1976 to 1986 the regional party secretary in Yekaterinburg was Boris Yeltsin who, on his return to Moscow, made a name for himself by campaigning against corruption. Yekaterinburg is now a centre for the Russian Mafia where power, wealth and crime are inextricably linked.
In less than ten years Russia has gone from being a superpower to an economy where even a letter to the Financial Times in Britain can cause a massive devaluation of the Russian currency. The murder rate has gone from being one of the lowest in the world to one of the highest. The Colombian drug cartels are now using Russia as a means of getting narcotics into western Europe.
Russia now has surprising similarities with Colombia. In both countries politics and economics are closely bound to organised crime. Murder and drugs pose everyday problems for ordinary citizens. Most important of all, the differences between those with great income, wealth and power and those without continue to grow.
The price of freedom
Pillar of Fire
Simon and Schuster £25
History rarely does justice to those who make it but Taylor Branch's book comes close. It chronicles the Martin Luther King years between 1963 and 1965, when more than 14,733 arrests took place of black people fighting for basic rights in the Southern states of the US. The book shows the day by day growth of a movement whose shock troops were children.
Thousands of schoolchildren were arrested attempting to desegregate the town of Birmingham, Alabama. They were blown up by bombs, beaten with cattle prods and jailed. Taylor shows the leaders of the children were often middle class students who were unprepared for the ferocious violence they received. But they built a mass movement and the book lovingly recreates a period that radicalised a whole generation.
To the ruling class led by John F Kennedy (a man who could declare freedom in Berlin but not in his own country) the civil rights movement was a law and order problem. In the end he reluctantly supported civil rights in order to limit the movement that could potentially threaten the stability of the US. Kennedy is exposed as a Cold War warrior, obsessed with building a nuclear arsenal and overthrowing Cuba.
Interestingly, the book shows the struggle against the black middle class to launch a genuine civil rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People opposed freedom marches. King was expelled from the Baptist Convention and his old college refused to hold his papers. It was ordinary people like Fannie-Lou Hamer, the half literate daughter of a farmer, who led the movement. She changed from someone who couldn't look a white man with authority in the eye to someone prepared to smash the whole edifice of the Southern Dixiecrats. People changed more in a few weeks than they had in generations.
Woven into the book is the steady influence of the left within the civil rights movement. King's closest adviser was Stanley Levinson, a Communist Party member. He advised King on how to build a mass movement, much to the ire of the administration.
Freedom was paid for in the blood of the martyrs in the civil rights movement. Taylor exudes the history of the time. Sam Cooke, inspired by Bob Dylan and the freedom marchers, wrote his song' A Change is Gonna Come'. Those changes were not only in the South. There were riots in Harlern and in Watts. In 1963 only 40 percent of black people had heard of Malcom X. By 1965 that figure reached 80 percent, the same as had heard of Martin Luther King.
The book shows that the complete inability of the Democratic Party to bring about any real change led to changes in ideas. In 1964 the anti-segregationist Mississippi Democratic and Freedom Party demanded seats at the Democratic Convention. They were thrown out and a white, segregationist delegation seated instead. Fannie-Lou Hamer said that things were never going to be the same again. Also, voter registration drives in the South were often armed. Thus in practice King's central philosophy of nonviolence was rejected as campaigners came up against the reality of the state.
Ironically, Stokely Carmichael was sent southwards to reassert the theory of non-violence and later joined the Black Panther Party. Malcom X's ideas fitted the needs of the movement but his organisation, the Nation of Islam, did not. Elijah Mohammed told people 'not to march, not to vote, worship'.
The book's characters are often a roll call of famous names we associate with the Clinton adminstration: John Lewis (now personal adviser to the president), Washington mayor Marion Barry, Jesse Jackson--the list is endless. It is a stark warning. Although many people risked their lives and were radicalised by the experience of the 1960s they have forgotten how real change was achieved. Civil rights were won by the masses and this book is a great contribution to the legacy of revolt and rebellion.
Ring of steel
The film The Full Monty begins with 1970s footage of Sheffield, 'a city on the move', promising prosperity for everybody. When I went to see it, bitter, hollow laughter echoed around a packed cinema at the Meadowhall complex--built on the site of the last big steelworks in Sheffield--as the film panned to a derelict works 20 years later to show the devastation.
Those were the Tory years, the Thatcher era when Britain's rulers claimed, but failed, to have halted the terminal economic decline that had beset it since the start of the century. Sheffield had 90,000 steel workers in the 1960s. Now it has less than 10,000. Between 1979 and 1993 manufacturing jobs fell nationally from 7 million to 4.5 million, a fall of 36 percent.
That's the backdrop to Geoffrey Beattie's book, centred on Sheffield, about people who lived through Britain under the Tories. Sheffield, a 'city of steel,' now 'full of ex steel workers with shopping bags'.
Beattie's book is a homage to Frederick Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote from Engels' masterpiece, written in 1844 after he travelled around the country, speaking to workers and studying official statistics.
Engels started by looking at how the Industrial Revolution had transformed the old ways of working as it created the new wage labourers--the proletariat--driven to live in large cities like Sheffield.
Beattie's theme is also about social change, change symbolised by the huge Meadowhall mall. As he says, 'They still call it Steel City today, as they try to market it as a new city of leisure with modern sports facilities and the largest, most up to date shopping complex in Europe. But the lower Don Valley seems eerily quiet as the shoppers go in search of Meadowhall.'
Beattie, a journalist who spent years in Sheffield, has a knack for getting people to talk. It's like a fly on the wall documentary, slices of life that show the price paid in human misery in Thatcher's 'entrepreneurial Britain'.
The book is not, as Beattie says, about statistics or economics. And to that extent it is not about politics either. But the individual stories, in people's own words, reflect the spirit of resistance that finally put paid to the Tories--like the miner talking about the 1984-85 strike: 'I don't want to end up on the scrapheap. People say it's political. Sure it is, because we're opposing the government.'
The stories are both comic and tragic but they are full of warmth, as well as the slightly bizarre.
Beattie admits that, unlike Engels, his is not a 'faithful picture' of the condition of workers' struggles and hopes, but about 'fleeting images... a succession of vignettes and descriptions of people living sometimes in quite desperate circumstances.'
He does, however, capture the brutal effects of the system that Engels describes--ill health, suicide, drunkenness and 'sexual licence'--which sets workers a 'race apart', miles away from the world of the greedy fat cats.
Engels not only documented how people lived, but also, how things could be changed because of the nature of capitalism itself. Sheffield's Meadowhall may- be sat on the rubble of decades of steelmaking, but it also has the biggest--and most powerful-- workforce in the city. The system cannot do without workers.
As steel workers are once more fighting to save their jobs against the madness of the market in New Labour's 'New Britain' the memory of the recessions of the 1980s can turn bitterness and anger into action.
As one steel worker said to me, 'It's the same bucket of shit, with a different turd on the top'. Beattie's analogy is of a boxer trying to get back on their feet after being hit again and again. His enjoyable though pessimistic book is, as he says, from a 'ringside seat'. But the real fight to give people hope for the future has only just begun.
Children of Bethany:
Said K Aburish
In the early years of this century Bethany was a small Arab village on the Mount of Olives. With the expansion of nearby Jerusalem through the century, Bethany grew and became incorporated into the city. Taking advantage of Western tourism to a Christian shrine in the village after Palestine's takeover from the Turks by the British in 1917, the author's paternal grandfather, Khalil Aburish, enriched himself and became Bethany's chief.
This book is a record of four generations of the Aburish family spanning the century. As such it constitutes a social history of a society developing from restrictive feudal Arab customs and outlook to modern Western or Arab patterns of living and thought. The carefully recorded changes in the family from generation to generation, imbued with a growing awareness of the world beyond Bethany, of having a national identity as Palestinians, part of the Arab world, particularly after their cataclysmic defeat at the hands of the newly established Israeli state in 1948, make very interesting reading.
Aburish deals at length with the position of women over the generations. In grandfather Khalil's time women were completely subjugated to men's needs and desires. Marriages were arranged for very young girls on the basis of first preference for the bride going to a male first cousin. After marriage the sole duty of the wife was to serve her husband and the other men in the family and to bear children, if possible male. The husband's promiscuity was accepted, condoned, indeed almost encouraged as male prowess, by all the family, often including the wife. However, if a woman had pre-marital or extra-marital sex custom obliged the outraged male relative to kill the girl in order to restore the family honour.
This situation led to another phenomenon widespread in the village. Boys at that time were circumcised with much pomp and festivity between five and 12 years of age, and the ceremony constituted a preparation for manhood and an active sexual life which the family encouraged and took pride in. But Arab girls were out of bounds, brothels illegal and expensive, and Western women willing to indulge few and far between. The result was gang homosexual acts by the young men out in the fields, to which a blind eye was turned.
School education for girls was also non-existent in Bethany in the early years, although there was provision for boys. However, the catastrophic 1948 defeat at the hands of the new state of Israel and mass flight of the Palestinians led to a widespread idea that education could raise Arabs to be the equal of Jews and resolve their impasse in that way. The result was a big expansion of schooling, for girls as well as boys, a huge boost for university education and, with universities in the Arab world only partially satisfying the need, a move of many of the later generation Aburishes to the Western world, and the adoption of Western ways, marriages and lifestyle.
The dramatic social changes through the generations induced by the British takeover and British encouragement of Zionist colonisation are very well illustrated. The political history and ideology, however, beyond a strong adherence to a Palestinian entity, is fragmentary and thin. This may partly be explained by the well to do Aburish family's very close ties with the British overlords in business and administrative affairs, hence Aburish's omission of British atrocities before the state of Israel was formed, and lack of close affinity with the poor and working class Arabs who carried through the Intifada with such courage against the Israelis (not mentioned in the book).
The feeling left by the book is that the Palestinians are victims--true. But a way to achieve their national aims--by involving the Arab working class across the whole Middle East is missing.
Return to Contents page:
Return to Socialist Review Index Home page