Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Threads Through Time
Threads Through Time is a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the postfeminist right wing drivel that dominates the pages of the Guardian and the classrooms of universities. It is refreshing to read accounts of women's struggles for sexual emancipation and against brutal employers instead of 'girl power'.
For people subjected to superficial and supercilious explanations for the continuation of women's oppression, Rowbotham's arguments pose a challenge to those who want to move beyond immediacy and who desire a theory and a framework in which to fight for equality. There can be no doubt that she desires this passionately, and she applauds those who have changed the world. Women like Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst feature in her book, with much praise heaped upon them for overcoming the obstacles put in their way as they took on the capitalist system.
For those who want a glimpse into the role of women in the magnificent battles which established today's general unions, she tells of the battles between women of opposite classes. In 'The Trouble with "Patriarchy"', she brilliantly denounces any idea that you can explain women's oppression, or overcome it, through the theory of a fixed and unchanging notion of male power:
The Great Shame
Chatto and Windus £25
Thomas Keneally is perhaps best known for his book Schindler's Ark on which Steven Spielberg based his film about the Holocaust, Schindler's List. In his new book, Keneally uses the story of his own Irish-Australian ancestry to tackle the much bigger story of Irish emigration around the time of the great famine in the middle of the 19th century.
Unlike Schindler's Ark, and many of Keneally's other books, this is not a fictionalised account of an historical event. Nevertheless, much of the tragedy and adventure Keneally describes is as compelling and dramatic as any novel. Above all, the book is shot through with stories of rebellion and resistance.
The starting point for The Great Shame is the story of Keneally's wife's great grandfather, Hugh Larkin, one of the thousands of Irish dissenters deported to Australia in the last century. He was a 'ribbonman', a member of a secret society which organised direct action against the landlords who lorded over poverty and injustice in Ireland. It was during one such attack that Larkin was arrested, tried and transported to Australia. One stark fact raised by Keneally is that 'the population of Ireland had, by the time of the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, shrunk to barely more than half the population of 1841.' Indeed, this is no revisionist account of the Irish famine. Keneally does not let the British government off the hook for responsibility for the famine. He quotes Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel saying, on hearing reports of the famine, 'There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable'.
There are stark descriptions of the human despair caused by such British policies at the time of the famine. In a recent interview Keneally said he thought there was no great conspiracy by the British to starve the Irish poor. Rather, 'it was simply a blind belief in the free market which saw millions of pounds of produce leave Ireland on barges at the height of the Famine--great convoys of grain, protected by the British army.'
This is a vast and detailed book, containing some fascinating stories of rebellion against British rule, the contempt of the British and Irish ruling classes for the poor, and the struggle of Irish emigrants to survive in often hostile terrain. Keneally's own great grandfather was part of the Fenian uprising against British rule in Ireland, and he describes how many Fenian leaders were framed and then deported.
The book also contains vast documentation of the Irish emigrants who fought on both sides during the American Civil War, such as Thomas Francis Meagher, a prisoner who escaped from the Van Diemen's Land penal colony to go on to become a general in the Union army.
Unfortunately, some of the broader political explanation and analysis gets lost amid the vast array of stories and flamboyant characters. I found that Keneally did not give enough of an overview which places the lives of the individuals he describes in a much broader historical context. That makes the book much less powerful than it promised to be.
However, to his credit, KeneaIly does point out at the end of the book that one of the great shames of the title is the 'misgovernment of Ireland under British rule, and the continuing discrimination against northern Catholics in the decades following the Treaty'. Keneally's sympathies lie with the poor, oppressed and those who resist. For anyone who enjoys real life stories of adventure and rebellion, this book is a treat.
Explaining the Crisis
Since the collapse of the east Asian economies and the growing economic crisis there is a renewed interest in the ideas of Karl Marx. However, there is still contention--how can a theory which was outlined in the last century, offer an understanding of the collapse we see today?
Explaining the Crisis, which has just been brought back into print, is a restatement of Marx's analysis of capitalism, which Chris Harman has extended to cover the way the system has developed since Marx's time. We see how many of the features that Marx observed re-occur in different forms as the system evolves.
There are two concepts which are central to Marx's analysis of capitalism. Firstly, there is a pressure to accumulate--competition between different firms and the need to make greater and greater profits is what drives the system forward. Those who do not invest are driven out of business.
But secondly Marx showed how the drive to accumulate causes problems for the system as a whole as there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Individual firms increase the amount invested in machinery in proportion to the amount invested in workers, because in the short term this allows them to produce goods more cheaply than their competitors. But since labour is the source of value each time they are forced to make this investment in new machinery the amount of profit they make compared to their investment falls. What appears as a rational decision for a single unit of capital is disastrous for the system as a whole.
Marx also showed that capitalism goes through a cycle of booms and slumps and the combination of this with the falling rate of profit means the booms are weaker and the slumps are more severe.
The capitalists respond by attempting to increase the exploitation of workers--they make us work harder and cut our wages. However, there are limits to how far they can go. To get out of the crisis and restore the rate of profit large chunks of capital are scrapped. Whole firms are driven out of business and workers are thrown on the dole.
By the time of the crisis of the 1930s capitalism no longer comprised many small firms competing against each other in the market place. A small number of large firms dominated. If any of these were allowed to go out of business whole countries could be plunged in chaos. The nation state was forced to bolster weak firms and it increasingly subjected the needs of individual units of capital to its collective will. The crisis of profitability forced the state to look to markets which were previously closed to it, and this in turn produced military competition. Huge arms spending, increased exploitation and the centralisation of capital led the economy out of slump.
The 30 years which followed the Second World War were a period of boom. Output grew enormously and many Marxists were confused. Where were the recurring crises that Marx had said characterised capitalism? In Explaining the Crisis Harman shows how the theory of the permanent arms economy provides the answer.
Arms spending following the end of the Second World War was much higher than it had been before the war. Its effect was to divert a proportion of the capital available for investment into arms expenditure. Effectively this 'leakage' from the system prevented the ratio of investment in machinery to workers from rising. The result was, temporarily, to prevent the rate of profit from falling.
However, countries like Germany and Japan which had their arms spending limited were busy investing in new, more productive technology and exporting their cheaper goods around the world. This forced their competitors to divert less money into arms. As the amount of investment in machinery compared to workers again began to rise, so this produced problems for the system as a whole. In the 1970s the world economy suffered two bouts of recession, and it has suffered two since.
Capital in the postwar period is multinational and spans whole regions and sometimes beyond. It finances its expansion by borrowing from international banks. Crisis in one part of the system quickly spreads to other parts. The level of investment required to compete is huge and yet the rates of profit are often low. Banks which lend are reluctant to call in their debts, even from firms which are obviously unprofitable, because they fear the knock on effect of closure. This pattern sometimes prevents the weakest capital from being wiped out and the result is to prolong the crisis.
By drawing on Marx's ideas Explaining the Crisis shows how the prospect of global economic collapse continues to haunt the system. It is the response of workers to the crisis which will determine the future.
Opium and the People
Free Association Books £16.95
At the beginning of the 19th century opium was in widespread legal use throughout England. The corner shop, not the doctor's surgery or the local chemist, was the centre of popular use. Going to the grocer's for opium was often a child's errand. In the Fenlands it was hard to buy beer which was not adulterated with opium. This fascinating and well researched book tracks the progress of opium from being freely and legally available to becoming a controlled drug subject to restrictive legislation and tightly under the control of a combination of the medical profession and the home office. It attempts to explain the forces at work that restricted availability and criminalised opium and the purer drugs developed from it--morphine and heroin.
The first agitators in favour of control came from the public health movement. Infants were often looked after by childminders while their mothers worked long hours in factories during the Industrial Revolution. High rates of infant mortality caused concern to social reformers keen to ensure that the next generation of workers were healthy. Deaths of infants from morphine overdoses given by unqualified women were a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention away from the wider context of poor living conditions. Attacks on working class use of opium paralleled attempts to prohibit alcohol by the temperance movement. The Westminster Medical Society was told in 1840, 'The consumption of opium is increasing among the working classes to a frightful extent,' and worse, 'It affected all that was good and virtuous in woman, it acted as an aphrodisiac and subverted all morality.'
But the first attempts to restrict opium purchase failed to control the use of opium in patent medicines like Chlorodyne and Dr Collis Browne's mixture, simply restricting control to pharmacies and medical men. Again moral panics about deaths from overdoses resulted in further controls and restrictions on the strengths of preparations, culminating in the 1868 Pharmacy Act. At the same time pharmaceutical companies were developing the drug further, inventing morphine and hypodermic syringes for injection. By the end of the 19th century 'the opium of the people' had virtually been taken over by the medical profession. Gradually doctors too became concerned about the issue of addiction, and fought hard for acceptance of this as a disease, which they felt they were well qualified to treat (especially as a substantial number of doctors were addicts). As they had many more new drugs and medicines at their disposal, they were beginning to turn against the use of morphine for anything other than severe pain control.
The First World War took the home office into the drugs arena. Fear of the influence of cocaine and morphine on the efficiency of the troops gave the excuse that these drugs should be included in the Defence of the Realm Act. Troops could no longer be sold drugs legally, and the home office took a position of central power over drug policy, wresting control away from the medical profession. It committed government policy to criminalising drug users, a policy strongly supported by the US in international treaties. The medical profession fought back, successfully retaining the right to prescribe heroin, although it lost the right to prescribe cannabis. Interestingly, this is again being contested.
Berridge tells her story very well, with a wealth of detail. She concentrates mainly on the 19th century and skims over the 20th century, which is not the main focus of her book. She is mainly concerned with the issue of what shaped national policy on drugs, and this focus is the one weakness of her book. She thus does not tackle in depth the commercial interests at stake, for example the vested interest of the alcohol industry, and there is nothing said about the modern, illegal, but highly profitable, trade in drugs. But the 19th century stuff captured my imagination. To learn about the Limehouse opium dens, the myths and the reality was compelling.
All the Trees were Bread and Cheese
Owen Hardisty £2.95
All the Trees were Bread and Cheese is the posthumously printed memoir of a lifelong socialist and grassroots member of the Communist Party, Harold Horne. It is a first hand account of one man's experience of the impoverishment of the East End of London, and how this influenced his decision to join the Communist Party.
Horne documents his involvement in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades and his own experiences of the Soviet Union of 1934. But the most remarkable aspect of this memoir is his untiring and selfless devotion to struggle on the shop floor. In 1945, as the world reverberated with the aftershock of the war, Horne led the first successful strike in his Vauxhall Motors factory.
Although Horne does not discuss in detail the role of Stalinist Russia in Spain he does--almost by accident--offer some tantalising revelations about the realities of the post-1925 Soviet Union. On visiting Russia, he explains his reservations on meeting 'swarms of beggars, mostly children', as soon as he steps off the train. He consoles himself with platitudes. But as Horne himself explains, the capitalist class of the Russian state was already visible: 'Back in the capital, the more decadent amongst the foreign colony scorned the official skiing and other sport fanatics and diverted ourselves with parties, drink, food and fruit obtained from the "Torgsin" store, which only took foreign money or precious metals. When we ran out of foreign cash we sometimes took a gold watch. The girl at the cash desk would rip out the works, weigh the gold and hand over what seemed like a million roubles. This would be enough to keep us going for weeks with drink and stuff unobtainable in normal shops.'
This slim volume is undoubtedly most valuable when used to attempt to understand why so many remained loyal to the CP despite the increasingly vicious nature of Stalinism. Thus we are reminded of the pure power the very idea of a workers' state held over the working class's imagination. How utterly devastating to the psyche it must have been to watch the revolution murdered in its cradle--and little wonder so many refused to acknowledge this reality.
Harold Horne died aged 68 in 1978, still a member of the CPGB. The CPGB was for many years the only party in Britain around which workers and activists could build, and thus retained many loyal members. This does not mean that those members supported Stalin.
Because this touching account of British revolutionary activity comes from the roots, nothing is spared for retrospective political justification. Because it was written by a Communist Party member it is a primary text which cannot stand accused of being artificially bent to the interpretations of Trotskyists. Most of all it explains the motivations of the grassroots revolutionaries and the need for a party unfettered by justifications of state capitalism--while offering a much needed reminder of the resilience and might of the working class.