Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The March edition of Socialist Review carried three interviews with long standing members of the Welsh Labour Party. All of them expressed their disgust with New Labour. All of them thought nationalisation was part of the answer to the job losses we are experiencing in Wales. While Roy Thomas thought 'there definitely is a future for socialists in the Labour Party', Janet Clowes thought the opposite. Marc Delaney said. 'I am not going to vote Labour any more. I don't know who I will vote for.' Roy looked with hope to someone like Rhodri Morgan to lead a fightback whilst Janet and Marc leaned towards Plaid Cyrnru for a protest vote.
In other words, although they hate what the Labour Party has turned into, they are still looking for answers that are stuck within the traditions of reformism. It is now very nearly 100 years since Keir Hardie won a parliamentary seat in Merthyr Tydfil. We have had a century of following leaders who said, 'Put your faith in us. When we get into power we'll change the system, we'll make it better, we'll do something for you.' But they never got to real power. As Nye Bevan said, he chased it all his life; first in his union branch, then the local council, then the county council and finally parliament. But when he came to introduce the NHS, with the biggest parliamentary majority in history backing him, he still had to 'stuff the doctors' mouths with gold' and make huge concessions on private medicine to get it through. Now, at the end of the century, where are we? We are with our backs to the wall hoping desperately to hang on to the last of the few reforms that were won. Do we really want to make the same mistakes in the next century and spend another hundred years fighting for a few extra crumbs? The reformist road has failed and is completely unrealistic as a way forward. Look at the following two real life examples.
I am a parent governor of a local primary school. The school has just had a brilliant inspection report--the best in the area--and letters of congratulation from the Director of Education and the Welsh Office. And yet the head is worried we could lose a teacher next year because of the way local funding is worked out. Part of the problem is that just before being kicked out of government the Tories changed the rules so that schools had to pay the actual salary bill for their own teachers instead of contributing the average amount to a common pool. The result is that schools like ours with good, experienced, older teachers have bigger wage bills. Labour could have reversed this--it had not yet been implemented. But it didn't. This is just one tiny example of hundreds of Tory policies adopted by Labour. But can anyone really argue that the best way to reverse these policies, let alone win something extra, is to be in the Labour Party or Plaid Cymru, to spend years working through the branches, the districts, the conferences, only to be told that there isn't any money because they won't tax the rich and Britain must 'remain competitive in world markets'. if reformism did not work in a century when Britain was a major imperialist power dominant in world markets, how many crumbs will we win now we are the 'poor man of Europe' and still declining?
The second example is on the jobs front. In Bridgend 400 jobs are to go at Fiona Footwear. Hundreds of workers in the two local Sony factories are waiting to hear how many of their jobs the company's 'international restructuring' will wipe out. These are on top of the 1,100 jobs gone at British Steel in Port Talbot and Llanwern, many others at numerous smaller firms, and the 700 Lucas workers at Ystalyfera.
What are the reformists that Roy, Marc and Janet look to doing about this? Well, on the Lucas workers' protest march local MP Peter Hain (previously a left wing hopeful) did not even bother to turn up--he was too busy in Cardiff helping to ensure Alun Michael's leadership victory over Rhodri Morgan. But Rhodri Morgan was not there either. If he was the sort of person to lead a left wing rebellion against New Labour, this was a golden opportunity to show the differences between himself and Blair and to call for a real fightback. But instead he spent much of the leadership campaign seeking to minimise those differences. A Plaid Cymru candidate was at least present but her only answer was a hope that the Welsh Assembly could get more funding from Europe--no fightback there either. And there will not be from Plaid. At the recent Socialism in Wales event there was a debate with Dr Phil Williams of Plaid in which he said that they believed in 'decentralised socialism'. When I asked him whether Plaid would support such 'decentralised' and 'socialist' measures as factory occupations against closures, he had to say it was not possible because Plaid Cymru was a constitutional party that could not advocate breaking the law. Do we really want to spend the 21st century putting our faith in such people and parties?
On the Lucas march the workers were clearly angry and bitter. But at the rally all they got from the platform was commiseration, not commitment to supporting a fightback. All, that is, except for the SWP speaker, who urged an occupation--but our voice was too small. We need the hundreds who share Ray, Marc and Janet's disgust at New Labour to join us in fighting to turn anger into action and protests into victories. That is what will lay the foundations for the fight for a socialist society.
I generally don't respond to reviews of my work, but I feel impelled to say something about Hassan Mahamdallie's remarks on my book Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, which you carried in your February issue.
First of all, despite its pretensions to the contrary, it can hardly be called a review. In fact there is no evidence that your reviewer read the book in its entirety; if he did, it certainly doesn't show. There is no indication of what the book does or what its author attempted to do. All that Mahamdallie does is provide a poor summary of one strand of Caribbean radicalism, Bolshevism, found in the book. The reader would never know from his 'review' that a disproportionately high number of those who led radical movements in the US were from the Caribbean; that there is a detailed discussion of the political economy of the Caribbean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that explains the massive migration to America and elsewhere; that the book dealt not only with migrants from the English speaking Caribbean, but also with those from Cuba and Puerto Rico, from the Danish Virgin Islands and from Suriname. Going by his 'review', the reader would never know that the book discusses black nationalism, especially as expressed in the Garvey movement, and the relationship between black nationalism and Bolshevism; that many turned to Bolshevism because they saw it as a solution to the 'Negro Question' in America; that there is a detailed discussion of the peculiarities of Afro-Hispanic radicalism in America; and that there is a detailed analysis, the first of its kind, of Afro-Cubans in Florida and their role in, and contribution to, the Cuban independence movement led by José Martí The readers of Mahamdallie would also never know that the book carries a substantial critique of Harold Cruse's influential and chauvinistic discussion of Caribbean radicals in America as presented in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.
But the fact that Mahamdallie had not read my book did not stop him from making a rather silly criticism of it in the coda to his 'review'. He accused me of 'trying to prove that Caribbeans who came to the US were somehow innately more radical than their US born counterparts.' He went on to say, 'James's theories of "peculiarity" become mystical at points, and at points banal--such as saying that travel broadens the mind!' if these accusations were true, it would be right to regard me as almost as silly as Mahamdallie himself, but there is no substance to these canards. What I did in the book was to document as carefully as possible the involvement of Caribbean migrants in radical movements in the US. Having done that, and noticing their conspicuousness and disproportionate presence in the leadership of these movements, I attempted to explain it.
The burden of my book is concerned with revealing the features of Caribbean society, the characteristics of the migrants who went to America and the America they entered, and how all these work to explain Caribbean involvement with radicalism in America. It is a materialist explanation that has no truck with inane notions of 'innate' radicalism. On pages 70-72 I argued that it is not surprising that Pan-Africanist ideas developed more readily among Caribbeans than Afro-Americans because of the former's greater exposure to the wider world and the common plight of black people the world over. Garvey explained his own Pan-Africanist awakening in these terms (p71). And, after citing Garvey, I pointed out, 'It is easier for those who have travelled than for those who have not to develop a Pan-Africanist consciousness. It is no accident that the Caribbean, being the area that has historically produced the most peripatetic of all African peoples, has also thrown up an extravagantly disproportionate number of Pan-Africanist political activists and intellectuals.' I then point to the distinguished line of Caribbean Pan-Africanists from Edward Wilmot Blyden to Waiter Rodney. There is nothing 'mystical' or 'banal' about this.
In short, Hassan Mahamdallie has not only done my book an injustice, he has also done a great disservice to your readers through his incompetent and misleading discussion of the book. This is a pity, for I've always held the SWP in the greatest esteem and my own political and intellectual formation owes a great deal to the SWP, stretching back to my days as an undergraduate at Leeds University in the late 1970s.
One of the things I've always admired about Socialist Review is the seriousness with which it treats the arts. The magazine generally avoids the heavy handed, almost entirely political critiques of art works of which others on the left are guilty. I was disappointed, therefore, to read two pieces in the February edition (reviews of Liz Lochhead's play Perfect Days and Stephen Poliakoff's television drama Shooting the
Past) which fell into this trap.
Leon Trotsky argued forcefully that art criticism must start from what he called 'the laws of art', rather than those of politics. That is to say that an art work cannot be merely read as a political polemic and criticised on that basis. The form a work of art takes can be at least as important as its content, and the relation between the two is a dynamic and intricate one.
In the cases of the reviews of Perfect Days and Shooting the Past, I thought the writers substituted an overwhelmingly (and, in my opinion in both cases, wrong) political analysis for a proper aesthetic criticism of what I found to be extremely emotionally engaging and thought provoking pieces of drama. Both reviews negated whatever aesthetic comment they did make by seeming to dismiss the works on purely political grounds. Perfect Days, a play about a 39 year old woman who decides to have a child (albeit by artificial insemination of sperm donated by a gay man), is described as reflecting 'the status quo' as regards capitalism, women and maternity. Shooting the Past, in which there is a conflict between the interests of a US business school and an English photography collection, is ultimately denounced for its supposed 'misconception that British capitalism is fundamentally different from US capitalism'.
Firstly, Lochhead's play might be better understood politically as a progressive consideration of new, non-conventional family relations, whilst Poliakofl's drama could be seen as an assault on the philistinism of the John Birt 'revolution' within the BBC and the 'modernisation' of New Labour. Secondly, and more importantly, left wing writers should not be judging art works simply by the political definitions of 'progressive' or 'reactionary'--we should not be laying down prescriptions for art. In short, socialist critics should be careful to criticise, aesthetically as well as politically, the work they did see, rather than using a politically defined template of what they wanted to see.
In the 1960s and 1970s we voted for Harold Wilson to help rescue us from those who'd 'never had it so good' with Harold Macmillan. Labour claimed that Lord Cromer, then Governor of the Bank of England, undermined Wilson's rescue package by devaluing the pound, so our hard fought wages and pensions increases were knocked back again. The pound slipped to buy only one dollar. With Wim Duisenberg at the European Central Bank little has changed except that speculators will need more dollars to destabilise the euro than the yen. Price increases every Xmas are clearly evident. The rise and fall of the pound against the yen or the euro are more hidden. Wilson assured us that the pounds in our pockets were just as good as ever; but only our industrial actions sustained our purchasing power. We came to realise that elections and referendums are just highly promoted opinion polls, where filling in the pools coupon was more satisfying. And we got Heath's three day working week. The way forward to change for the better was persistently turning out on demonstrations with the International Socialists. We don't want to be stuck with the peanuts pounds on a Taiwan like, off-Europe US aircraft carrier. On balance we'll probably vote for the euro; we're encouraged to vote, but preferably with our feet. In Europe feet voting is a growth industry.
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