Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Turn Again Livingstone
Profile Books £6.99
The title of this fairly friendly biography of Ken Livingstone is full of ambiguity, an accurate reflection of its subject matter. Livingstone may yet 'turn again' and become mayor of London, like Dick Whittington in the old rhyme. It would be his turn again after the years in the wilderness following the abolition of the GLC. And of course Livingstone has turned and turned and turned again in his political career. No one could accuse Livingstone of being without principles, although these have become increasingly flexible, but his methods have always been characterised by opportunism and factionalism as this book reveals. As long ago as 1976, when Livingstone was still in Lambeth, one fellow Labour councillor described him as 'a waltzing mouse, who goes around from one group to another vilifying the other'.
Some of the material in this book (by the Guardian education editor) has appeared before. It is nevertheless useful to be reminded of Livingstone's political trajectory, and in particular that he joined the Labour Party in 1969 when, as he puts it himself, 'half the people... had resigned in protest about what Wilson was doing' (ie support for the Vietnam War, attacks on the unions). 'They'd gone off to join the other left wing groups like the International Socialists or just devoted themselves fully to trade unionism... I recognised that you weren't going to achieve social change other than through the Labour Party. No outside group was going to replace it.'
In this, at least, Livingstone has proved consistent. He has never tried to build an organised following inside Labour, let alone independently. His defiance--whether of the law, the 'establishment', or Tory governments--has always been fundamentally about propaganda rather than agitation.
When the Law Lords ruled that the Greater London Council's 'Fares Fair' policy was illegal, Livingstone said the law should be defied, but any idea of building a real movement that could win--that London Transport workers should take action to defend the low fares policy--was ruled out. And in the campaign which made his reputation--against the abolition of the GLC--he ensured everything was kept within strictly constitutional bounds.
For virtually the entire period of the GLC campaign the Thatcher government was engaged in its year long struggle to crush the miners. The government scrapped the GLC elections just as the miners' strike began. Public opinion turned in favour of the GLC as the strike gathered strength. By September 1984, when the strike was at its most critical stage, opposition to the abolition of the GLC in opinion polls was running at 74 percent. Yet never at any stage was there any question of linking the two movements.
This book reminds us of how Livingstone combined radical rhetoric about defying the law and occupying town halls with practical activity aimed at winning a propaganda battle and strengthening his own position with the party leadership and Neil Kinnock. In January 1985 Livingstone spoke of a 'city in revolt' and of operating 'within the state in defiance of the state'--two months later he led the climbdown over ratecapping in the wake of the miners' defeat. The waltzing mouse decided it was time to tango instead.
Apart from the GLC campaign, Livingstone's reputation as a left winger largely rests on his support for British withdrawal from Ireland, and the way that the GLC donated money to minority groups and radical causes. His stance on Ireland has been courageous. He was witch hunted for several years by the tabloid press and shunned by the Labour leadership, simply for insisting that there should be talks with Sinn Fein. The GLC's grants policy was similarly aimed at 'changing hearts and minds', but it was on quite a different scale. And £40 million a year inevitably meant that large numbers of activists were indebted to the GLC for their jobs.
It may be objected that all this was 15 years ago, but in truth Livingstone has done almost nothing since then. A chapter entitled 'Destination Wilderness' says it all. As MP for Brent East he was more prominent in point scoring and internal faction fights than in fighting the Tories. For a man who built his reputation in Lambeth and Camden on resisting cuts in council spending, he's been strangely passive as a local MP. That's not to say he doesn't support particular campaigns against racism or a school closure, but his attention is evidently elsewhere, as his token bids for the Labour leadership and his moves to establish his personal economic think-tank indicate. The latter is a very curious exercise: it's hard to come up with a less sensible use of £35,000 than attempting to set up an alternative database of world economic statistics.
So what of the future? This book hedges its bets, always a wise choice when dealing with Livingstone. The tentative conclusion is that he might stand as an 'independent' if Blair blocks his candidacy for mayor of London and 'at the time of writing it feels as if the last act may end in tears'. But at the same time there are significant hints that Livingstone is, as ever, ready to manoeuvre if the opportunity is there. An anonymous 'Downing Street source' reveals that 'Tony likes him. They can have an amiable chat' and the one issue which Livingstone apparently refuses to talk about is whether there have been private discussions with Blair. Don't hold your breath.
The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class
This book is invaluable for anyone who wants to understand fascism, and why Hitler was different from Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic.
Hitler's Third Reich lasted for only 12 years and yet it was responsible for the worst atrocity in human history. A total of 55 million people died in the Second World War, but it was the Holocaust, the calculated use of modern industrial methods to destroy 6 million Jewish lives, which cast a shadow over the 20th century.
In his new book Donny Gluckstein analyses the class relationships which lay at the heart of the Nazis' rise to power. He convincingly refutes theories which claim that the Nazi Party was not a product of capitalism and that anti-Semitism was inherent in German society. In developing a critique of the ideas recently made popular by writers like Daniel Goldhagen, the author gives a powerful Marxist analysis of Hitler's rise to power.
Gluckstein points out that after Germany's imperialist aspirations were thwarted when the First World War ended in a revolution the bourgeoisie was continually haunted by the spectre of revolution, encouraging some sections to consider unleashing counter-revolutionary violence in the future. However, the Nazis, with their rampant nationalist propaganda and street violence, remained a marginal sect until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 sparked an economic crisis.
The crisis created a breeding ground for the Nazis. They attempted to appeal to workers by posing as a radical protest party, but organised workers proved the most resistant to Nazi ideas. Gluckstein demonstrates how the Nazis' real base was amongst the middle classes, trapped between ruthless capitalists and powerful workers' organisations and driven into counter-revolutionary despair by the economic collapse. To the ruling class the Nazi Party offered the increasingly tempting possibility of diverting anger towards Jews and destroying the threat of the German working class. The Nazis began to win the support of newspapers and businessmen. Hitler was not swept to power on a wave of popularity. His electoral support was actually declining when he was made chancellor in 1933 but the ruling class wanted him.
Gluckstein explains that--contrary to the arguments put by Goldhagen--the Nazis were sparing in their use of anti-Semitic propaganda before 1933--precisely because it would have been unpopular. The passing of anti-Semitic laws, the violence of Kristallnacht in 1938 and the creation of Jewish ghettos were instigated by a Nazi government which needed a universal enemy, not expressions of popular anti-Semitism. Hitler's anti-Semitism was bound up with his hatred of socialism; his ideology equated Bolshevism and Judaism. Thus only after the invasion of Russia in 1941 did the policy of expelling Jews from Germany develop into organised genocide. Both the extermination of Jews and the exploitation of Jewish labour were embodied in the horrific selection process at camps like Auschwitz, which was run jointly by the SS and a private company, IG Farben.
The Nazis kept control by unleashing massive repression and atomising society. Despite the dangers there was resistance--some from within the ruling class but much more from socialists, youth groups and the Jewish underground. There were inspiring revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor camps in 1943. But many workers felt so betrayed by the total failure of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party to effectively oppose the Nazis that they became demoralised. However, when the chance to act came at the end of the war a gigantic movement of Anti-Fascist Committees sprang up in every area which was liberated. The victory of the Nazis was not inevitable--Germany's powerful working class movement was never mobilised. In France in 1934 united opposition to the French Nazis beat them back and swept society to the left. We cannot erase the past, but we can shape the future and this book is a very valuable contribution in helping to do that.
Dispatches from the Weimar Republic
Morgan Philips Price
Pluto Press £20
A successful revolution in Germany between 1918 and 1923 would have meant a very different 20th century: no 'socialism in one country', no Stalin, no Hitler, no Holocaust. So anything that helps us understand the situation on the ground in Germany in this period is to be welcomed.
Morgan Philips Price was the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in Russia from 1914 to 1918. But despite the quality of his reports he was sacked for being too sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. He then went to Germany, and between 1919 and 1924 he was correspondent for the Daily Herald.
Having just come from Russia, Price was well placed to note similarities and differences. In January 1919 he immediately observed that, despite the high level of struggle, there was a lack of effective organisation. 'I am particularly struck with primitive organisation and lack of leadership among workers,' he wrote the following month. This was indeed the crucial difference. In Russia, despite frequent chaos, the Bolshevik Party played a vital organising role. In Germany the Communists were still trying to lay the foundations of their own organisation in the heat of battle--a near impossible task.
Price gives a vivid picture of conditions in Germany during the years of revolutionary upheaval. He shows the terrible poverty of workers, and of the impoverished middle classes. In a fashionable Berlin restaurant one wealthy person spent as much in a day as a working class family had for a month. Yet the main aim of the ruling class was to extend the working day so as to solve Germany's economic crisis by raising profit levels.
Though much of the book depicts working class suffering, Price was aware of signs of hope. When France used African soldiers to occupy the Rhineland, he noted that the middle class responded with racist indignation but that workers fraternised with troops. 'They know that the black soldier is not an enemy but a friend'; off duty black troops could be seen playing with German working class children.
Though Price was pro-Communist in sympathies, and in contact with Radek, a senior figure in the Comintern, he tells us relatively little about the role of the Communist Party. But he makes some acute political judgements, dismissing the centrists who refused to join the Communist Party as 'groups who don't know what they want and won't be happy till they get it'. When the republican government appointed generals to defend the Weimar Constitution in 1923, he recalled the German proverb, 'It is not wise to appoint the goat as a gardener.'
Unfortunately, Price has been badly served by his editor, Tania Rose. On the excuse that Price's reports were short, she has added a long and often irrelevant commentary which takes up about half the book, despite the fact that Price wrote several longer analytical articles for Labour Monthly which are omitted or given only in abbreviated form.
Rose is quite out of sympathy with Price's Marxism, equating Nazis and Communists as 'extremists of the left and the right'. Moreover, her commentary is full of factual errors (she confuses Otto Bauer and Gustav Bauer, rather like mixing Gordon Brown up with James Brown). Readers would be well advised to skip the commentary and stick to Price's articles, using Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution for background where necessary.
Nonetheless the book is welcome. Together with Pierre Broué's history of the German Revolution and Victor Serge's writings from 1923 (both hopefully to be available in English soon), it makes a contribution to understanding one of the great defeats of our epoch.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Jonathan Cape £18
Rushdie's new novel is nothing if not ambitious. This is an epic transcontinental story of love, death and rock and roll.
Ormus Cama, youngest son of a well to do Parsi family from Bombay, falls in love with Vina Aspara, half Indian, half American outcast of wrecked families. Together, in opposition to their different backgrounds, they achieve worldwide rock stardom.
But they are pursued by shades and shadows. Ormus is obsessed by his dead twin and the music that he believes his twin brings him from some otherworld beyond. Vina, in prey to her own hidden furies, repays Ormus's adoration of her with sexual treachery. To his single minded love she opposes her right to multiple affairs, including (ironically) one constant but unconfessed affair with Rai, also from the same Bombay background as Ormus. Ormus and Rai are also interconnected as opposites. Where Ormus as the handsome god of music attracts all eyes, Rai is a famous photographer who manages to capture events without being perceived: he possesses, so to speak, the knack of invisibility.
Thus the plot takes, multiplies, reinterprets and distorts its theme. Every relationship has its double or twin, its dark and light side, its divine and hellish aspects. Opposites merge into one another so that what we take to be solid ground beneath our feet never remains so. Even images of real life are not secure. Rai's career as a photographer whose pictures expose the truth rests on a lie.
Stable, coherent values are impossible because there is always something outside the frame, which calls into question what is being framed. There are figures who belong nowhere, who tear open borders.
It's impossible not to be impressed by the novel's ability to comment on our times. The personal fate of the characters exists in a recognisable historical continuum, from the 1930s onwards, the world of Anglo-India, independence, the growth of corruption and communalism, as well as the globe spanning world of popular music.
This being Rushdie, there is a jokey crisscrossing of history and fiction. President Kennedy is not assassinated (or not as it really occurred) and Britain sends troops to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam.
Madonna turns up as a cultural critic and recognisable rock bands are subtly renamed. Vina's abrupt disappearance unleashes outpourings of feeling which closely parallel those which greeted Princess Diana's death.
There are, however, elements which detract from the novel's brilliance. The theme of the outsider has become a bit of a postmodern cliché and at times Rushdie pursues his notions of doubles in an abstract way. It really is a bit too neat to give Ormus not only a dead twin but to have two elder brothers who are also twins milked for their symbolic functions.
Where The Ground Beneath Her Feet is weak is in its concessions to postmodernism. Important though popular culture is in defining our dreams and myths, are rock stars really the 'outsiders' of our times, the ultimate rebels against boundaries? However, when Rushdie thrusts it away and allows his imagination to engage with the mutually self deluding encounters between India and the west, the novel is as good as any of his earlier work.
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families
Five years ago at least 800,000 people were killed in the central African state of Rwanda in the space of 100 days. During this terrible slaughter the US government did nothing--or rather it chose to ignore the bloodshed.
As the murders began, the United Nations took determined action. It reduced its peacekeeping force by 90 percent to a mere 270 troops. Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, was outraged. She considered that 270 was far too many and wanted the lot out. This is, of course, the same Albright who has urged on a Nato firestorm in Kosovo involving hundreds of aircraft and thousands of troops because to do otherwise would be 'appeasement of genocide'.
The first half of Gourevitch's book is one of the best introductions to what happened in Rwanda you could find and it is also full of compassion and empathy with those who suffered so much.
Gourevitch is rightly angry about the great powers and their claims of humanitarian concern. He also explodes the key myth of the 'age old enmity between Hutu and Tutsi In Rwanda' which is supposed to explain the horror. Gourevitch carefully assembles the evidence of the unity of Rwanda before the colonial era. Systematic and inflexible distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi (backed up by identity cards) arrived only after the Belgians came. The colonial process of granting favours to an elite of Tutsis and using them to carry out the task of government on behalf of the colonialists 'permitted the Belgians to perfect the administration of an apartheid system rooted in the myth of racial superiority.'
Gourevitch also notes the key class question, that 'among the peasant masses, Hutus remained very nearly as downtrodden as Tutsis', and he also realises that the immense economic turmoil of the 1980s and early 1990s was a key factor leading to the 1994 massacre. Leaders in trouble facing revolt from below turned to scapegoating--a familiar tale that in Rwanda had particularly dreadful consequences.
He underplays the degree to which united struggle by the Hutu and Tutsi poor together against the rich has emerged at various points--particularly in the early 1970s and 1990. He also spends too little time on the way in which a significant minority of ordinary Hutus refused to take part in the slaughter and--often at terrible cost to themselves and their families--tried to save Tutsi lives.
But the greatest fault of this otherwise excellent book is the last third which seeks to praise the new Rwandan government or at least say it is the best that can be achieved in present circumstances. Of course what exists now is infinitely preferable to the blood soaked regime of 1994. But, for all the good intentions of some of its members, the present Rwandan leaders have not been able to offer a way forward for the mass of the people, Hutus and Tutsis, who remain poor, insecure and still facing periodic outbreaks of violence.
The weakness of Gourevitch's analysis is shown where he champions the Rwandan military activities in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in order to bring Laurent Kabila's rebel alliance to power. Gourevitch sees this as one force for liberation helping another into government. Today the Rwandans and Kabila have been at war for six months, part of a fight over the Democratic Republic of Congo which has grown to involve seven African nations and has caused immense suffering for millions of people.
Gourevitch's book is well worth reading and gives great insights. But, five years after the massacre, it is even clearer just how much needs to change for people to win real freedom in central Africa.
Faber & Faber £16.99
The Good Times
Secker & Warburg £14.99
If I told you that Andrew O'Hagan's second novel, Our Fathers, was a tale of new and old Labour centred on the history of high rise housing, you would probably yawn. If I mention allegations of corruption, gerry built homes, broken lifts, graffiti and council chambers, you would turn the page. O'Hagan's book is about all this--but is not a boring history. It follows the passions and fears of three generations of Glasgow men whose lives are shaped by grandfather Hugh's passion for building high rise council flats.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks through the eyes of Jamie--the grandson who has made it his life's work to knock down the crumbling tower blocks that his grandfather built. Jamie feels his childhood and personality are scarred by the effect that Hugh's all consuming passion had upon his father, Robert, and later upon himself. A lot of the book is taken up in describing this childhood and its traumas and how, until he hears that Hugh is dying on the 18th floor of one of those blocks, Jamie turns his back on Scotland and his family. His journey back to be with his grandfather is all about the rediscovery of his past--personally and politically. It is about coming to terms with Robert's alcoholism and alienation and with an understanding of why Hugh's life revolved around housing.
The most powerful writing, however, is about women, not the men upon whom the story centres--for example the chapters that describe how Hugh's mother, Effie, becomes one of the women who led the Glasgow rent strikes during the First World War. It is here that the ghost of the organised working class crosses the pages. The marching women shake first the shareholders and then their government into passing the rent restriction laws.
Effie's struggle recedes--almost unnoticed by O'Hagan--into Hugh's dream of getting up the 'streets in the sky'. For Hugh the streets and factories are replaced by the council chamber as the arena of struggle.
The weakness of O'Hagan's book is that his obsessions keep on peeping out to irritate. It's not that these personal issues and Jamie's relationships are uninteresting--it's just that they are all spelt out in that slightly earnest identity style politics of a Guardian column.
And then his morality tale is too thinly disguised. For O'Hagan the project of Old Labour and the goals of the Blairites are summed up in housing. And in some ways of course he is right. Hugh screams at Jamie, accusing him of tearing down the homes and replacing them with nothing--and that is precisely what is happening as New Labour tears down the old blocks and privatises the new. All the way through the novel you can see O'Hagan searching for some role he can assign to Jamie other than tearing down his grandfather's work. But he can't find him one that is in keeping with the realism of the novel. So in the end Jamie can only understand his grandfather's idealism and explain the Old Labour project in terms of an unachievable but noble dream centred on the needs and psychology of men from 'traditional' cloth cap industrial areas like Ayrshire.
On the plus side, in defending Hugh from the charges of corruption, O'Hagan makes it clear that he hates the New Labour contempt for what went before. But of the future he has nothing to say at all!
Nevertheless, with all its weaknesses, O'Hagan's book is worth a read, which is more than I can say for the other Scottish novel dealing with men and their relationships which is out this month, James Kelman's The Good Times.
In the worst traditions of postmodernism this is simply the 'narrative' of James Kelman, a series of events, thoughts and conversations that deliberately scorn politics. 'Wee shites' he calls the young people giving out leaflets as he passes by in the street. The same sentiment is expressed again when he comes across another young political barman. It 'doesnay mind' what the politics are to Kelman. That isn't even important enough to tell us.
This is not to say that only political novels are any good. But the point of so publicly and viciously eschewing political discussion seems to be to say that this book is not going to address anything in the outside world, just the stream of consciousness in Kelman's head.
The Dahlgren Affair
WW Norton £18.95
'We are tired of the war on the old camp ground. Many are dead and gone.' A popular song caught the mood of America in 1864 as it entered the third year of war. For the slave power, the Confederacy, the previous year had promised victory. But defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had brought it to the verge of defeat. Lee's army was melting away as hungry soldiers deserted. The South's supply of 'canon fodder' was running low and so the draft was extended from the age of 17 to 50.
In the North huge casualties and war weariness were leading to massive disaffection. Anti-draft riots had followed the union victory at Gettysburg. The 'Copperhead' opponents of war were gaining mass support. Horace Greeley, a leading Lincoln supporter, argued, 'Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace.' Lincoln could look forward to electoral defeat in November if he could not secure military victory. And all the while the press clamoured for something to be done for union prisoners held in degrading conditions behind Southern lines--why wouldn't Lincoln act?
Both governments were close to breaking point and both looked for desperate measures to save a desperate situation. Then came the Dahlgren raid.
A daring cavalry raid to release prisoners from behind Confederate lines was launched. One of its chief organisers was Ulric Dahlgren. Son of a leading union admiral, and a colonel at the age of 21, Dahlgren was already an emerging Northern hero. Dahlgren led his men to the outskirts of the Confederate capital, Richmond, but the raid was a failure mainly due to the hesitations of its commander, Kilpatrick. In the retreat Dahlgren was killed. Only then does the real story begin.
On Dahlgren's body papers were 'found' authorising his command to murder the Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The papers' authenticity was immediately questioned (Schultz just about proves that the papers were forgeries) but upheld by the South. The contents were used to justify the launching of a campaign of sabotage and terror in the North carried out by Confederate agents hoping to bring about a Copperhead revolution. In the North the public display of Dahlgren's body by the South and the mistreatment of his corpse led to outrage, adding resolve to radical elements in their call for total war against the South.
Schultz gives us a glimpse inside the secret world of spies and diplomats that lay behind the military conflict. He gives a picture of an increasingly desperate regime prepared to go to any lengths to protect its failing power (the South was to consider arming its slaves to defend the Confederacy!). He also points to the incredible bravery of many prepared to fight the slave power.
The Union's eventual victory depended on the development of revolutionary changes in Northern society such as the arming of thousands of black troops. But the Dahlgren affair played its part in radicalising the North and the book is a fascinating insight on that revolutionary process.
Eat your Genes
Genetic modification has arrived in a big way. It is used to engineer the clothes we wear, the drugs we use to make ourselves better and the food we eat.
The all pervading nature of genetic alteration was demonstrated by a recent edition of Newsnight. They investigated GM foods and found that even foods such as vegetarian sausages contained GM soya. From vegetarian cheese to beer, the use of genetic modifications has spread like wildfire. And yet until recently most of this seems to have taken place without any real public debate.
The recent highlighting of the dangers of GM foods makes Stephen Nottingham's book more than welcome. It could be best described as a very good idiot's guide to GM foods. It provides a scientific explanation, the history of GM foods and a political overview of how world economics and politics have delivered products such as Flaw Savr GM tomatoes to our supermarkets.
Nottingham provides a wealth of facts to refute arguments like those from Monsanto that claim GM food is for the good of humanity. For example, he shows how herbicide resistant crops can themselves become weeds and how the use of such crops is likely to lead to an increase, not decrease, in the amount of weed killer used. Purveyors of GM foods like Monsanto tell us that this technology could provide an end to famine. But food shortages in places such as Africa are due to policies forcing farmers to switch to cash crops and the inability to distribute food surpluses to areas of food shortages. This situation will be made worse, not better, if the big food multinationals get their way.
Nottingham also raises the risk that GM crops pose to the wider environment from upsetting the ecosystem to the possible dangers to humans eating GM foods--poisoning, allergy transmissions and increased levels of resistance to antibiotics. Finally he describes how the multinationals have tried every trick in the book to stop the labelling of GM foods.
This book is worth reading for anyone who wants a background to GM foods. However, at the end Nottingham simply calls for more debate, openness and monitoring of GM foods rather than an outright ban. Now there are some very useful things that genetic modification can produce--the ability to produce drugs in animals that can then be passed on to humans via milk being one. But when it comes to GM foods it is hard to see any justification for them. Indeed the strength of Nottingham's book is that he demolishes all the reasons given. I suspect like lots of scientists the thought of simply saying stop sounds like a return to ignorance. However, the danger is, as seen by the famous geneticist Steve Jones, that you attack the eco-warriers for scaremongering while missing the real target--the multinationals. While ignorance is not bliss, not all science is progress. It wasn't progress to build the atom bomb and it will certainly not be progress to use human beings to try out untested foods with possible catastrophic results.
The challenge facing scientists is not how to produce more food in the world (under conservative estimates there is 50 percent too much food produced) but to find ways of making the food we eat healthier, tastier and cheaper. Industrialised farming methods have delivered cheaper food, but at the price of BSE, e-coli and salmonella. Above all else the challenge is to end the obscene spectacle of people starving in a world of plenty.
Nottingham himself writes that a 'massive social protest could slow the rapid spread of this technology into food production. However, although this is happening in a few countries nothing short of a social revolution can stop it.'
The job of scientists and socialists is to build massive social protest. Stephen Nottingham's book has provided us with ammunition to take on what George Monbiot described as the hunger merchants of the 21st century.
Rosa Parks: My Story
On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks fought back against segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She was promptly arrested. Her action led to a boycott which lasted 382 days and marked the beginning of a mass movement for civil rights. Rosa Parks: My Story provides a personal insight into the experiences which ensured her place in the history books.
Rosa's story begins in early childhood growing up in a small southern town under 'Jim Crow'. Her early realisation 'that being black made a difference' is brought home in the poverty and discrimination which permeate every aspect of life for the black people around her. To be treated like 'an ordinary girl' is so rare that such occasions are given almost mythical status, to be talked about for years to come. This is a world where the ever present possibility of racial violence means the lives of Rosa, her family and community are constantly underscored by fear. As Rosa recollects, looking the wrong way at a white person could cost you your life. In such circumstances individual acts assume a huge significance as symbols of defiance.
This is perhaps part of the reason why Rosa sees racism as a problem for the individual rather than an inherent feature of the capitalist system. For her, racism is a matter of attitudes in people's heads, to be fought by a few hardworking and committed individuals, with the support of the community, attempting to pressure government to bring change. It is not surprising that many of her recollections focus on the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) of which she was a member for many years. But while she is selective in the way she presents its activities, she points in many ways to the ineffectiveness of its politics without realising.
So we learn that, while others, like Rosa, had fought against segregation laws, the belief in the importance of presenting itself as respectable and law abiding led the organisation to refuse to take up cases where the prospective plaintiff's reputation could be called into question.
Similarly, rather than calling for a mass demonstration against the injustice, the local NAACP leader spends most of his time trying 'to negotiate small changes... on behalf of the community'. Not surprisingly, of the hundreds of cases bought to their attention 'they didn't have too many successes'. It is only with the commitment to mass action that the difference is made.
Rosa Parks's autobiography is of course not a scholarly piece of history, neither does it provide an effective analysis for fighting racism. It is, however, a very personal and often moving account of life under the vicious system of 'Jim Crow' and one person's attempt to fight back.
Eds: Antje Harnisch, Anne Marie Stokes and Friedmann Weidauer
'Something is not right in Germany.' So wrote Elie Wiesel, writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He went on, 'There was a time when I was convinced that Germany would never let itself be seduced again by the violence and ugliness of anti-Semitism. I told myself it would be one of the few countries in the world in which hatred did not have a right to existence any more... I was wrong.'
In about 40 pieces by ethnic minority writers living in Germany, we get a vivid picture of just how wrong he was and is. The experiences of Jews, Africans, Italians, Turks, so called ethnic Germans from Romania and others bring out the realities of racism in Germany today. Germany may be reunified after 40 years of the Cold War, but it remains divided. It still has an explicitly racist definition of nationality. There is at the moment no right to German citizenship for Turkish children born in Germany--indeed, as in a recent case, they can be deported to Turkey though they may never have been there. Yet there is a 'right to return' for those whose ancestors left Germany hundreds of years ago. And the recent history of racist murders in Germany is every bit as bad as Britain's.
The writing ranges from autobiography to magic realist fantasy, poetry to prose. The subjects covered include the naked and shameless racism experienced by a young black woman growing up in postwar, ethnically cleansed Germany; the struggles involved in being German, Jewish and anti-Zionist; a description of the most blatant institutional racism as an everyday experience for migrant workers, categorised with official hypocrisy as 'guest workers'; and the pain of those who fled Ceausescu's Romania, where to speak German was by definition to be suspect as an 'outsider', only to find themselves just as much the outsider when they reached 'the Fatherland'.
A kaleidoscopic picture builds up, not just of racism, but of resistance as well. Again and again, the stereotypes of Germany and the Germans are broken down. Franco Bondi puts it well in a short story about an illegal worker badly injured at work who is paid off with a couple of hundred Deutschmarks (less than £100). 'I have known this country for almost 15 years. With its apparent coldness, which impressed us so much, its harmony, which doesn't exist, and its love of order and obedience to the law at all costs, which in reality unveils itself as appearance... I am not surprised about anything any more; I have learned that my image of the Germans was often wrong.'
This is a well constructed selection. The translators and editors have carried out a valuable service making these writings available to an English speaking public.
Single & Single
John Le Carré
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
In 1963 Graham Greene described Le Carré's early novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as 'the best spy story I've ever read'. Over the ensuing decades he produced a series of intelligent and compelling best sellers about the Cold War. In the hands of right wing ideologues like John Buchan and Ian Fleming, the counter-espionage thriller was a blend of glamour, snobbery, misogyny and patriotism--a propaganda vehicle for our ruling class. But Le Carré changed the formula of the spy novel. His stories were neither romantic nor escapist; instead he offered his growing readership a privileged, if chilling, glimpse into the secret state. His novels deal with the treachery, inhumanity and incompetence of the ruling class on both sides of the iron curtain.'
Le Carré is not a Marxist, or even a consistent left winger. Yet he is not simply a cynical observer hankering after the past. He grew up a misfit--estranged from the class whose values he was supposed to cherish and espouse.
His novels express a deep felt hatred for the elitism and snobbery of British society. His contempt for the 'top people' and their indifference towards humanity in general, is a recurring theme in all his books. It is a healthy sentiment which helps make his writing observant and memorable. His spies and his spycatchers are anti-heroes--insiders alienated from a crazy system.
The backcloth for his new novel, Single & Single, is the growing instability of the new world order bequeathed to us by Ronald Reagan and George Bush and championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. It deals with the opening up of the Eastern bloc to the world market and with the disastrous consequences that have followed.
It is the story of a London based venture capital firm of international repute, Single & Single and tells how the firm scours the nations of the former Eastern bloc 'in search of opportunity, sound development and mutual profit--the greatest challenge to the commercial world today'. The 'pursuit of mutual profit' leads down a road to mayhem and destruction. The plot takes us on a journey through Georgia, Turkey and the Balkans--it shows a world coming apart at the seams, a world where power and muscle make for legitimacy.
It is not John Le Carré's best novel. In a recent interview he said, 'Single & Single is in some ways a companion to an earlier book of mine called A Perfect Spy. Each has at its heart the anguished relationship between errant father and trapped son... Single & Single resembles to me in retrospect that eternally sought after Hollywood Grail, a tragedy with a happy ending.'
This sentimentalism is a weakness in the novel but it is well worth reading for two reasons: first because it shows the connection between politics, business and crime in the new world order; second because Le Carré's powers as a storyteller are undiminished.
In the same interview Le Carré also said, 'I had also a secondary aim, which was to catch a moment of contemporary history. As I write, Russia is on its economic knees. Few western investors entered post Cold War Russia with any ambition other than to make a fast buck and get out before the roof fell in. The new Russia has no constitution worth a damn, no effective criminal code, no one to trust. When Tiger Single bombastically declares himself to be part of this great new trading alliance between east and west he is only mouthing the nostrums that disguise the west's tragic indifference to the fate of its former enemy.'
In his earlier tales of the Cold War, Le Carré showed how the rulers of the Warsaw Pact and Nato were enemies, yet enemies of the same ilk with a lot in common. In his new novel, he depicts the relationship between established western capital and the emerging free marketeers of the former Russian empire in the same light. He sees that the world has become more dangerous than the one he began writing about 40 years ago. This makes him worth reading.