Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
McCann: War and Peace in Northern Ireland
Hot Press £9.99
Eamonn McCann writes unashamedly on the side of the poor and the oppressed or, as he puts it, for those 'at the bottom of the pile'. His writings on Northern Ireland, most famously in his book War and an Irish Town, rage against the injustices committed against ordinary people. McCann has written columns for the Dublin based magazine Hot Press since 1987, and in his latest book they have been collected together to mark the 30th anniversary of the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland.
McCann was one of the organisers of the early civil rights marches and he has remained a committed and active socialist ever since. As Paul Foot writes in his introduction to the collection, 'He is as outraged now as he ever was by the condition of the working people in the North of Ireland and in his native Derry.'
Most media pundits talk about the lives of people in Northern Ireland as if they lived on a totally different planet to workers in Britain or elsewhere. But McCann's writings brilliantly capture how it is class, and not religion, which is the most fundamental divide in Northern Ireland, as it is in Britain and everywhere else.
Take the article about the bigots who united to oppose the setting up of a Brook family planning clinic for young people in Northern Ireland. On the one side are ranged an unholy alliance of 'the Roman Catholic church, the Free Presbyterian church, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, the Orange Order, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Knights of Columba, the Official Unionist Party and Opus Dei'. What they have in common 'is that young people mustn't be allowed to enjoy sex'. But as McCann so sensibly writes, 'My own impression is that most people in the North, Catholic and Protestant, don't differ much from their contemporaries in the South or across the water in their attitude to sex. They want an active sex life, they want to enjoy it, they don't want to worry about pregnancy, VD or Aids.'
Everyone, no matter how new they are to Northern Irish politics, will gain from reading this book. McCann is scathing about the British state and its defenders who have created and upheld bloodshed, bigotry and oppression in Ireland. No politician or church leader is spared. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the leaders of Southern Ireland, and religious bigots of both Protestant and Catholic variety are all lambasted for their hypocrisy.
Without giving an inch to the bigots and defenders of the system, McCann provides an insightful critique of the leaders of Sinn Fein who have made their alliances with Southern Irish politicians and the greatest imperialist of them all, Bill Clinton. He points out that when politicians talk of creating unity between Protestants and Catholics, they always mean the unity of those at the top of society. But as McCann argues, 'We don't need a new, more subtle and sophisticated, fairer way to manage our sectarian society. We need a great angry crusade against the causes of sectarianism. Against poverty, and the powerlessness and unfairness which goes with it, and the new measures devised almost every week now to drive working class people even deeper into poverty.'
There are moving descriptions of how the poor on both sides have suffered most from violence in Northern Ireland. As McCann puts it, 'It's always been the working class doing the bulk of the killing and the dying, and the long years in jail.' There is a powerful description of McCann meeting, on a television talk show, the relatives of the victims of the Greysteel massacre and the Shankill Road bombing.
One of the most moving stories is that of a young Protestant lad, Davy, who approached McCann at a rally against sectarian killings in Derry in 1993. Davy's cousin was convicted of a Loyalist sectarian murder. Davy is a Protestant but he works on a construction site with mainly Catholics. After the killing his life was devastated. Yet despite everything, he had the courage to join a protest against sectarian killings. As McCann points out, there are thousands of stories like Davy's which show the resilience of ordinary working class people. McCann never sees ordinary people as victims. They are survivors and fighters.
That makes this a book full of hope rather than despair. Some of the stories will make you laugh out loud, while others will move you to tears. This is a book that will make you rage against the class system which has produced injustice and sectarianism and, above all, it will also give you a real insight into the lives of the ordinary men and women, Protestants and Catholics, who have the power to change things.
Allen Lane £20
This is the most thorough, persuasive and complete life of Hitler to have been published.
Ian Kershaw is friendly towards socialist history. With this background, Kershaw is alive to the great dilemmas faced by any socialist account of Hitler's life. How is it possible to avoid treating Hitler simply as the master of his destiny? Hitler named his own early autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle), believing that his rise to power was simply the product of his own strong will.
In truth, historical events are not created simply by the ambition of great men. Individuals are capable of playing an extremely important role in the chain of historical events, but only as Marx said, 'under circumstances not of their choosing'. Hitler was able to come to power because of a specific crisis in German society - the combination of an economic crisis, which drove millions into poverty and made the Nazi message popular, with a political crisis which left the socialist movement divided and the right eager to cut a deal.
Kershaw is also wary of the other great dilemma faced by left historians - how can a biography of Hitler avoid glamourising its subject? Hitler became the dictator of the most economically advanced state in Europe, ruling over a nation of 70 million people. As a result of the Second World War and the Holocaust, he has stamped his mark on the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Hitler's account in Mein Kampf explains his success in terms of his own astute leadership, his great knowledge and his powerful speaking.
Fortunately, this biography recognises that Hitler had few talents, except luck. Routinely underestimated by its opponents, the Nazi Party benefited from an economic crisis which it did not manufacture, and the wavering of its opponents who could have blocked it and failed. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read Mein Kampf will step with joy through the early chapters of this book, which trace Hitler's story through the lies, half-truths, boasts and self deceits that Hitler produced, and which other historians have lazily repeated. These chapters describe in detail how the tiny Nazi Party, with one branch in Munich in 1920, was able to grow until it exerted a hegemony over the German far right.
Yet, although there is so much that is good about this volume, it does seem to lose its way. The sheer burden of facts weighs heavy from around 1930 onwards. Kershaw seems to have no explanation of why it was that Hitler's party was able to benefit so spectacularly from the recession that began with the Wall Street Crash in 1929. At this stage, the biography invokes Hitler's ambition, the flaws in his psychology, and the enormous energies that the Nazi Party put into propaganda. These are then used to explain how Hitler moved in three years from being the leader of a far right sect, to Chancellor.
It is important to remember that Hitler was invited to power in January 1933, at a time when his party was in crisis, its vote slipping, and several of its leading figures were in revolt. The Nazis then had 37 percent of the vote, and only two seats in the new cabinet. This was an unlikely beginning for dictatorship, and Hitler's final victory had more to do with the failure of his enemies than it had to do with his own abilities.
Crucially, the German left failed to unite. The Socialists and the Communists had between them more members, more supporters, more votes, and because of their links to the working class, more weight in society than the Nazis. Yet because of Stalin's influence on the ultra-left German Communist Party, and because of the timidity of the official German Socialists, no practical unity was reached. United action was possible, and would have reversed the Nazi rise.
Peepal Tree Press £9.99
In 1922 workers in Battersea, south London, voted overwhelmingly to elect Sapurji Saklatvala as their MP.
He stood against a sitting Liberal MP as the Labour Party candidate and as a member of the Communist Party.
Saklatvala, Comrade Sak as he became known, was Britain's first black Labour MP. He used his position in parliament as a platform to denounce exploitation, racism and imperialism. As a consequence he was shunned by other Labour members. For Sak, the problems of poverty among workers in Battersea and the shackles that Britain placed on India and other colonies were the result of a single evil-capitalism.
He came to this conclusion by an unusual route. Born into a wealthy Indian family from Bombay, he came to Britain to work for the Tata corporation in 1905. At that time he saw himself as a radical liberal, but whilst in Britain he became attracted to socialist ideas and the working class movement. He joined both the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Party.
Sak was radicalised by the 1917 Russian Revolution. He fought the leadership of the ILP, arguing that they should all join the newly formed Communist Party and struggle for a workers' revolution in Britain. When it became clear they wouldn't do this, Sak and others left the ILP to join the Communist Party.
In the years following his election, the Labour Party moved to ban Communists from Labour Party membership. But Sak's support in the Battersea labour movement was so great that Labour's national leadership did not interfere when the Battersea Labour Party and trades council again voted to adopt Sak, the Communist Party candidate, as their candidate in the 1924 general election. Sak was re-elected and was the sole Communist MP in the 1924 parliament.
Sak toured India to spur on the fight against British colonial rule and he was greeted as a hero. He urged unity between Indian and British workers as a means by which both could improve their standard of living. In 1923 Bombay cotton workers went on strike. Sak appealed to British trade unions to support them, pointing out that the bosses of the cotton mills of Bombay also owned the mills of Dundee.
In Britain, Sak was a relentless fighter in the labour movement. During the 1926 General Strike he was jailed for two months for sedition. Following the TUC's betrayal of the strike, which led to its defeat, the working class movement in Britain suffered acute demoralisation. Sak lost his seat in the 1929 general election.
Much of Marc Wadsworth's biography of Saklatvala is spent recounting this history. He is not the first to do this. What distinguishes Wadsworth's book is that he is describing the life of a black Marxist in an attempt to discredit the record of Marxists in the fight against racism.
Wadsworth describes Marxism as Eurocentric, and socialist organisation appears as just another way in which whites are able to dominate blacks. He admits, however 'There is...no record of Saklatvala making specific criticisms of the Communist Party or the broader socialist movement on radical issues.' Wadsworth finds himself unable to use Saklatvala as a stick to beat the left with.
One of the campaigns that Sak was involved in towards the end of his life was that of the Scotsboro Boys. Nine black US teenagers were falsely accused of raping a white woman and were sentenced to death by a court in the deep South. The Communist Party launched an international campaign for their release. In Harlem, Communists organised marches and rallies which involved thousands of black and white workers. In Britain, Sak toured the country arguing for solidarity with oppressed blacks in the US. The campaign eventually won and Marxists were known, to black and white workers alike, as fighters against racism.
Despite his intentions Wadsworth's conclusions fail to undermine the story of Comrade Sak and the fight for socialism.
Class in Britain
Yale University Press £19.95
The crisis has made Karl Marx's economic writings fashionable again, but when it comes to his ideas on class Marx has far fewer friends.
Partly there is far less in Marx's writing to go on. His section on class in volume 3 of Capital is frustratingly brief and unfinished. The assumption of his theory of history is that history's development was through the clash of class struggle and he explained this very largely through his brilliant descriptions of that history itself. Nor could Marx have predicted or imagined the huge expansion of areas such as sociology, which attempt to define class by individual attitudes, patterns of consumption or social habits. He instead saw class as essentially an objective relationship: it was defined by a person's relationship to the means of production.
A generation of historians who followed Marx's approach produced some of the finest works of postwar history by looking at why and how class relations led people to think and to organise in certain ways. Best known of these works is probably EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. But Marxist history has been under attack during the 1980s and 90s.
David Cannadine's book continues this critique. It opens with an attack on Marx and specifically on Thompson. In this he echoes a number of postmodern historians who detest the 'grand narrative' of Marxism. They regard it as simplistic. Marx, they claim, did not understand gender and underestimated the number of different classes and groupings which existed. Thompson oversimplified the degree of struggle and class consciousness.
Cannadine writes: `The development of capitalism in the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rise of new technologies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the growth of consumer oriented industries during the interwar years, and the decline of the great Victorian staples since 1945: all these phases of economic change turn out, on closer inspection, to have been extremely complex, varied and gradual developments.'
The argument in general is therefore that change did not take place through dramatic upheavals, much less revolutions, but through gradual consensus and constitutional change. But Cannadine puts forward another argument: that we can judge class and how people perceived it not by what people did but by what they said. So his book develops a thesis that there are three different British ways of looking at class: as a hierarchy with a place for everyone and everyone in his place; as three layers (upper, middle and lower class); and as us against them.
This makes for rather a lot of dreary examples of the different ways in which people of different social status viewed themselves in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. All they tell us is that people see themselves subjectively in all sorts of different ways. There is no sense of what happens in history, how it moves and why people act as they do. Marx would have called Cannadine's approach idealist, meaning that it started from ideas and used them to explain society, rather than looking at how society worked and was changing and showing that ideas developed from these changes. Cannadine writes, for example:
'But in the aftermath of the French Revolution there was a clear and definite change [in social attitudes] - not so much because the working and middle classes were "making" themselves where no such classes had existed before; but rather because the proponents of different visions of the social order increasingly sought to assert their own mutually exclusive notions of how society was - and of how society should be.' It is hardly surprising given these views that Cannadine spends so long attacking Marx. We are treated to the profound view that 'even for the working class, there was always more to life and living than work and working.' This, according to Cannadine, was ignored by the Marxists. Perhaps he has not read Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England which describes housing, diet, illness and much more about the working class and was written in 1844. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class talks about the social conditions of working people and the poor.
You will learn more about workers' lives from either of these books than from Cannadine's very poor effort. At least the narrative of history tries to carry some explanation of how the world changes. This book has no such explanation. However, Cannadine does put forward a solution to the problems of class, perhaps best summarised in a recent article he wrote on the subject for the Financial Times.
'What is unusual about late 20th century England is not that it is a particularly unequal society - because it is not - but that we have an unusually wide repertoire of models with which to describe these inequalities.
'From this perspective, the best way to make our nation a classless society is not to try to abolish inequality, but to urge instead that we all stop talking about class.'
Amazing no one thought of that before.
The People of the Abyss
Jack London describes the horrors of working class life in East End London in 1902. He describes the misery of the homeless and unemployed but also the poor lives of a cook on a 90 hour week and a cobbler with teeth black and rotten from spitting metal tacks.
His descriptions of homeless lives ring true today. We are reminded that locked parks and spiked railings are to stop the homeless from sleeping on the grass at night. They sleep in the day not from laziness but because the police keep them on the move at night.
Brilliantly, he contrasts the colour and elaborate tomfoolery of Edward VII's coronation with the grey misery of the East End. He hates the 500 hereditary peers who then owned 32 percent of the country's wealth. The coronation was a 'gala night for the homeless', as they could sleep on the Embankment because the police were elsewhere.
The author identifies with workers and doesn't sit in judgment: 'The English working class may be said to be soaked in beer [but] not only is the beer unfit for people to drink, but too often the men and women are unfit to drink it. Hunger, squalor, overcrowding drives them to the glitter and clatter of the pub... Man cannot be worked worse than a horse is worked, and be housed and fed as a pig is housed and fed, and at the same time have clean and wholesome ideas and aspirations.' He attacks the upper class moralising - 'the lie they spread is thrift' - and argues the thrifty worker is a menace because he undermines wage levels and increases poverty. Poverty is not about individual character defects. He uses hard socialist facts about incomes and expenditure to show this and backs his case histories with figures on industrial accidents, infant deaths, pauperisation and the vicious class nature of the law.
Not all his writing is socialist. He has a racist admiration for the 'best of the breed who helped build the British Empire'. There are contradictions and gaps in his understanding. He expresses vividly the waste and chaos of the system and class oppression - 'Why do millions starve when five men can produce bread for a thousand?', but he strangely concludes that the fault lies with civilisation and mismanagement.
Nevertheless, this book is powerful. New Labour MPs wanting to undermine welfare should be forced to read it.
The Word from Paris
A short book with clearly written 4,000 word chapters on modern French thinkers and literary figures including Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Althusser and Barthes sounds like a great buy. But don't waste your money. The essays in this book are simply ideologically remastered versions of old book reviews. Few if any give a rounded treatment of their subject, and Sturrock's prejudice combines with ignorance to give some very misleading accounts.
Sturrock's preference is for writers who engage in word games rather than bother about the world around them. He loves Georges Perec, who wrote a whole novel without the letter 'E', and praises Boris Vian for being 'no extremist' over the Algerian War. He's also quite fond of the founding fathers of postmodernism and doesn't share the illusion that they might be on the left. Usefully, he notes that their reaction to May 1968 was generally negative - Barthes accused the students of 'petty bourgeois narcissism', Lacan treated Sorbonne students with 'scathing disdain' and Foucault noted that Tunisian students were worse off so French students had nothing much to complain of.
When dealing with the novelist Céline and the literary critic Paul de Man, Sturrock notes that they were anti-Semites but dismisses this as irrelevant to their literary achievement. But he constantly belabours Sartre for being utopian and having 'wild man politics'. Now there are valid criticisms to be made of Sartre, but Sturrock sticks to the old invalid commonplaces. Sartre is criticised for setting up his own Resistance group when, we are told, the only valid choices were to join the Communists or the Gaullists. Sturrock clearly hasn't heard of the Hitler/Stalin pact - the Communist Party was not in the Resistance at the time. We are told that Sartre was an admirer of Stalinism. In fact he spent the late 1940s advocating a Neither Washington nor Moscow line and associating with Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists.
Sturrock is equally weak on other figures of the left. Louis Althusser proposed a new way of reading Marx. It was ignorant, wrong and Stalinist but it had some influence and deserves serious refutation. Sturrock devotes all but one paragraph of his chapter on Althusser to the story of how he strangled his wife.
Henri Barbusse wrote some bizarre things, notably parallel lives of Stalin and Jesus Christ. But his World War One novel Under Fire gave a remarkable account of life in the trenches. Soldiers read it under shellfire because it gave a voice to what they were going through. Sturrock, by discussing it in narrowly literary terms, makes it quite impossible to understand why Barbusse was such an influential figure.
Sturrock claims to stand midway between journalism and academic incomprehensibility, treating serious subjects in accessible language. Unfortunately all he has produced is tabloid journalism for snobs.
Five Leaves £7.99
Michael Joseph £9.99
Benefits is a bleak fictional portrayal of life in Britain towards the end of the 20th century. The right wing Family Party gains control of the government and women are forced back into the home. The welfare state is dismantled and the most intimate aspects of people's lives are controlled by an incredibly repressive state.
An isolated pole of resistance is a feminist squat in a condemned block of council flats. It becomes a refuge for women persecuted or abandoned by society. It is through the lives of three women - Lynn, Marsha and Posy - who help to establish the squat, that the story unfolds.
What is remarkable about Benefits is that it was written 20 years ago. In 1979 homeless beggars on the streets of major British cities were fiction, not an obscene reality.
After 18 years of Tory rule society has edged closer to this fictional depiction, which has been reprinted as the statements and policies of a Labour administration echo those in the novel.
Benefits is a political novel warning us what the future can hold. That is its strength. Its weakness is that it does not give any idea of how we can prevent the fiction becoming a reality. The author sees a world divided by gender, where men constantly conspire to oppress women.
The working class appear briefly as dull witted, downtrodden, manipulated figures. Only the feminists in the squat oppose the rise of the Family Party and organise resistance to it. However, their methods prove unequal to the task facing them. It is only when society is about to self destruct that the state comes to its senses and pulls back from the brink of disaster. It is this air of pessimism that permeates the book that makes it an unsatisfying read. Zoe Fairbairns' new novel, Other Names, is a much lighter affair. It's the sorry tale of two women, middle class, middle aged Marjorie and young, poor Heather and their passion for the thoroughly obnoxious upper class Boniface, an agent for a Lloyds underwriting syndicate. He swindles wealthy clients by exploiting their greed and snobbery.
For a feminist Fairbairns seems to have a low opinion of women. Her characters are easily duped by an extremely offensive man. Both women allow their lives to be disrupted, and in Heather's case suffer physical and sexual ill treatment. Heather's mother, Julia, a single parent and feminist shows some spirit early on. Even she ends up refusing to support the pit camps of the miners' wives and is prepared to abandon her political life to follow her man.
Richard Painter and Keith Puttick, with Ann Holmes
Will the 'Fairness at Work' white paper bring fairness at work? Certainly not. Employers continue to exploit, bully and sack workers. Those who need employment rights most, typically those on temporary contracts or working in small non-union workplaces, will go on finding it hardest to get their rights. Nevertheless the new union recognition rights, still under threat from further watering down, plus the improved employment protection rights, weak as they are, will make a difference.
Even though the new European Directive on Working Time is a dog's dinner, full of loopholes for employers to exploit, it still provides opportunities for workers in the battle with their employers to limit hours at work, to gain paid holidays and breaks, however minimal.
For all the legal attacks on our organisations carried out by the Tories the law remains a double edged sword. Regulations restrict both workers and bosses. Every year tens of thousands of workers take their bosses to court. This pressure on employers is a part of the class struggle.
So we have no choice but to try to gain some understanding of how the law at work operates - how to conduct a legal strike ballot, how to make an equal pay for equal value claim, how to get the pay we are entitled to including the national minimum wage. For this reason, this handbook is to be welcomed as an up to date guide to employment law. It is inevitable that its coverage is brief in some cases, but the book is comprehensive in the range of topics it tackles. Trade unionists faced with problems at work will find this a useful first point of reference - even though the introductory sections are written in such turgid academic language.
Socialist Review readers can receive a copy at £17.50 from Pluto by calling 0181 348 2724.