Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge, the novel that didn't win this year's Booker Prize, is set in the Crimean War and deals with a group of Liverpudlian characters who make an ill-fated journey to Sebastopol and punctures the complacency of Victorian and Edwardian society. Intellectual Impostures, by Alan Sokal and Jean Briemont, debunks the highbrow pretensions of postmodernism and unmasks key postmodernist thinkers as intellectual charlatans who were willing to abuse science in order to bluff and intimidate. Revolutionary Empire by Angus Calder, is a work of exception - a socialist scholarship in which the English and American revolutions, of the 1640s and 1770s respectively, are seen as the decisive forces that shaped the construction of the British Empire. The book combines a panoramic sweep with vivid detail.
You've seen the movie (Reds), now read the glossy hardback book. The new illustrated edition of Ten Days That Shook The World - US journalist John Reed's eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution - was published last year with Reed's favourable impression of Trotsky reinstated. Reed captures the exciting atmosphere of this momentous occasion, the first time the working class had ever taken power - an ideal pressie. One modern journalist who was influenced by John Reed's passionate, political commitment is Hunter S Thompson, whose idiosyncratic style spawned a multitude of imitators I finally got around to reading him this year and could kick myself for missing him for so long. If you only read one Thompson make sure it's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his hilarious drug fuelled search for the American Dream.
Two very short and very rewarding books which grapple with those key questions for socialists: why do people hold the ideas that they do and how can those ideas change? Franz Jakubowski was a young Polish Trotskyist in the 1930s who fled to the US to escape the Nazis. His brilliant (if occasionally flawed) book, Ideology and Superstructure, shows how workers can develop revolutionary ideas, and is written with a confidence that comes when you are part of a generation which has witnessed revolution in Europe. The historian George Rudé's Ideology and Popular Protest draws on experiences as diverse as medieval Europe and Latin American peasant uprisings to explain the different elements of consciousness and what makes it contradictory. He looks at the great revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and describes what made different classes fight for, or resist, change.
'I stand with those who have never been mastered' says Walt Whitman who celebrates with joy, rage and an exuberant sexuality the complex lives of ordinary people. He rushes through the world gesturing, protesting and discovering the world as if he were the first person to see it. Just for the occasional glorious illuminating passages it's worth getting Walt Whitman, in the Everyman Poetry series. Pablo Neruda is at the mercy of his translators'; but his Selected Poems diplomatically discard his odes to Stalin along with his more extravagant rhetorics. What remains are his fine early love poems, the discovery of beauty in ordinary things, anger at fascism and much more. Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm is a curious book. Its fascination with the sheer power of the storms at Newfoundland's Grand Banks leads into a kind of heroic thriller, as the working fishermen are trapped in an extraordinary but unequal struggle. A hypnotic read.
Inevitably the 200th anniversary of the great Irish rebellion of 1798 has produced a large number of commemorative books, some of them really good. Among the best is Kevin Whale's The Tree of Liberty. The chapter on 'The Republic in the Village' is worth the price of the book on its own. Essential reading for anyone interested in Ireland, yesterday and today. Another useful book is The Global Media by Edward S Herman and Robert W McChesney. This account of the great media corporations - Time Warner, Disney, New International et al - and their drive for world domination is essential reading. The reason Blair thinks the Sun shines out of Murdoch's arse is because it patently does! Lastly, Ralph Darlington's The Political Trajectory of JT Murphy. Not the most inspiring title, but a fine book about a key working class activist, intellectual and Communist.
Recent widespread concern about genetically altered foods has been dismissed as irrational and anti-scientific by representatives of the food industry. Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare, by the geneticist Mae-Wan Ho, which shows that people have a right to be concerned. The book is both angry and well informed in its argument that what should be a gift to humankind is instead being distorted in a potentially very dangerous way by the drive for profit by the food multinationals.
As someone who was put off history at school, I thought Essays on Historical Materialism, edited by John Rees, was superb. It points out that the Marxist view of history is so powerful not only because it shows that ordinary people make history, but also because it provides a framework, rooted in its analysis of class society, which explains the actions of both rulers and ruled. One of the novels I have most enjoyed recently was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a beautifully written love story set in the American Civil War.
One of the incidental pleasures of the shift to the left in popular consciousness during the 1990s has been the undermining of postmodernist fashion. There is now a slew of books pointing out that the emperor is underdressed. Richard Evans's In Defence of History may be weak in posing an alternative to postmodernism, but it is a devastating and entertaining demolition of many postmodern icons. While the social sciences have been under the postmodern spell the natural sciences have carried the torch of serious intellectual debate. In the forefront of the discussion stands Marxist biologist Steven Rose whose Lifelines is a joy to read and a triumphant vindication of the dialectic in the natural sciences. I've often read one or other of Marx and Engels' writings on Britain separately, but this year I sat down and read the collection Marx and Engels on Britain from cover to cover for the first time. This gives you an excellent overview of British history from the English Revolution to the late Victorian era, in trenchant prose, unrelenting in its opposition to the capitalist class, careful in its analysis and full of unexpected and original insight at every turn.
The events of the revolution in Russia in 1917 serve as the best example we have so far of the ability of workers to take control and run society. The excitement and exhilaration leap off the pages in John Reed's vivid account, Ten Days That Shook The World. To understand the background to these decisive events I turned to the first two volumes of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin - Building the Party and All Power to the Soviets. One of the strengths of Lenin's leadership was his ability to adapt and provide direction for the party at every stage, but this was only possible through a strong relationship between the party and the working class. From Lenin's intervention into the factories by hand copying leaflets to the rapid and necessary changes in tactics during 1917, these books provide valuable lessons for any socialist today.
Two of these books are very similar in that they explain the pivotal role in history performed by two expanses of water, the Indian Ocean and the Black Sea. The first is a really fabulous piece of work called Empires of the Monsoon, by Richard Hall. A former mariner himself, Hall traces the evolution of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean from its earliest beginnings, at least 900 years before the Europeans finally began to muscle in. The brutal trade which developed in slaves, gold and spices is etched deep into the history of coastal ports such as Mombasa, Zanzibar, Calicut and Cochin. In Black Sea, Neil Ascheron interweaves mindboggling descriptions of this enclosed seaway's bizarre ecology with an explanation of the significance of the region for world history, from the Greeks and Romans through to the Ottoman and Soviet empires. Top of the list for a stocking filler in the 'truth stranger than fiction' department is The Liar - The Fall of Jonathan Aitken.
My first choice is Mutineers by Jonathan Neale. Some of the reasons are personal: the author is a close friend and the book deals with the greatest event in the history of my home town of Portsmouth, namely the Spithead Mutiny. Nevertheless it is, by any standards, a brilliant novel combining thorough understanding of the broad social forces at work in the history of the time with deep insight into the hopes, fears, passion and courage of individuals. My second choice, The Algebra of Revolution by John Rees, is, on the face of it, a complete contrast, but there is an underlying continuity. Neale gives us the dialectic of struggle embodied in concrete individuals. Rees, with extraordinary clarity, dissects it and lays bare its theoretical structure. This book will become a key theoretical reference point for a generation of revolutionaries. My third choice, The Bonnot Gang by Richard Parry, tells the story of an anarchist band in pre First World War Paris who practised 'illegalism': the personal expropriation of the bourgeoisie through robbery. This hopeless strategy could end only one way - in the annihilation of the members of the gang. Nevertheless they went to their deaths in massive shootouts with the police with desperate courage and defiance.
John Berger's Ways of Seeing is a brilliant and succinct introduction into that intimidating world of 'art'. In the words of the book, 'Seeing comes before words', and the book recognises this by the fact that much of its argument is made in purely visual terms with one chapter being a series of pictures. It manages both to demystify art and at the same time deepen our interest in it. Nothing if not Critical by Robert Hughes is a marvellous example of good, clear, well informed and committed writing. It consists of short essays that cover a range of subjects from Caravaggio to David Hockney. A completely different sort of book is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces which I could say was a searing critique on the emptiness of modern life dominated by the mindless consumerism of late capitalism, but it would be truer to say that it is extremely funny.
By far the best novel I read this year was Father Ralph, written by a former priest, Gerald O'Donovan, and first published in 1913. It is the gripping story of the aspirations and disillusionment of a young priest in Ireland at the turn of the century. Inspired by the revolutionary uprising in Indonesia in May, I turned to John Pilger, one of the few writers who, in brilliant and inspiring prose, records the struggles of ordinary people against oppression. In his books Hidden Agendas and Distant Voices he describes the unbelievable suffering and resilience of the East Timorese under Indonesian occupation. In a year when biographies have seemingly been published every day, I finally managed to read one written in 1965 - and it is one of the best I've ever read. Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary by Giuseppe Fiorei describes with great warmth and clarity the life and revolutionary ideas of the Sardinian Marxist.
I am a fact book person but I make a partial exception for Nikolai Bukharin's novel How It All Began which he wrote in prison before his murder by Stalin. It is a fictionalised, lyrical portrait of youth. It is compelling and beautiful and a standing rebuke to 'socialist realist' novels. A Mark Steel radio show on the American Civil War made me want to find more about how it fits into American history as a whole. I enjoyed Peter N Carroll and David W Noble's The Free and the Unfree, A New History of the United States. Its emphasis on 'outgroups' rather than class relationships is sometimes frustrating but it is a good one volume history. The Economist annual The World in 1999 is a must for me. It's full of short, informative articles supporting mad ideas and predictions. The last edition promised that '1998 will be a year of prosperity' with 'the fastest rate of growth in a decade'. The next page has a huge advert from the merchant bank Merrill Lynch boasting of their 'intelligence' in spotting opportunities and their 'ingenuity' in making them happen. Come to think of it perhaps I'm a story book person after all.