Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Simon & Schuster £14.99
Scott Ritter was chief weapons inspector for Unscom, the United Nations operation charged with disarming Iraq, until he resigned in disgust in August 1998. His book should be required reading for all those who have illusions in the current Nato war on Serbia. It should also be read by all those who believe that somehow national liberation or progressive ends can come from hitching your political fortunes to the power of imperialism.
The essence of Ritter's book is a detailed description of how the US government increasingly began to manipulate the UN disarmament mission in Iraq to meet the requirements of domestic politics. He eventually resigned because he could no longer stomach the way inspection operations were timed to coincide with US plans for bombing raids on Iraq, and the way those raids were increasingly dependent on Bill Clinton's political needs.
Ritter writes of 'the cosy relationship between Butler [the head of Unscom] and the US in aligning the inspection timelines with those for military action'. This culminated in last December's Operation Desert Fox, which was launched without UN approval while Clinton was mired in the Lewinsky scandal.
Ritter shows how the CIA was involved in the UN inspection process from the start and used it as a cover for a series of operations aimed at deposing Saddam Hussein--all of which ended in abysmal failure.
In the process we are reminded that the US government has always feared the Iraqi masses more than it does Saddam Hussein. At the end of the Gulf War US president George Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They responded with a mass uprising, but Bush ordered coalition forces to stand back and allow Iraqi forces to butcher tens of thousands. The CIA then tried to launch coups, which resulted in the plotters being killed, and set about preparing an Iraqi military opposition to Saddam Hussein.
'By 1995,' writes Ritter, 'the Iraqi National Congress had recruited a 100,000 man army and was poised to launch large scale military operations against Iraqi troops in northern Iraq. The goal was to establish a sanctuary with US airpowers operating in the no-fly zone providing cover, where Iraqi troops could defect and organise armed resistance to Saddam Hussein. On the eve of battle, in March 1995, the US changed its policy and the CIA was ordered to inform INC head Achmed Chalabi that no military assistance would be forthcoming.' Chalabi launched his attack anyway but was soon routed by the Iraq forces.
Ritter is not against US imperialism and neither is he a pacifist. He would like to see a ground war to finish off Saddam Hussein, but he understands this would now be politically impossible. His alternative, his 'endgame', is not to see the solution lying in the hands of the ordinary people of Iraq and the Middle East. It is to accept the French and Russian governments' calls for an accommodation with the Iraqi regime.
To justify such a proposal, Ritter has to accept many of the points made by anti-war campaigners over the years.
We are told, 'Since 1990, Washington has vilified Saddam as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Adolf Hitler. His monstrous behaviour makes such a comparison easy, but it is mistaken.' We are reminded that Saddam Hussein 'did not fabricate the Iraq-Kuwait border issue. He is not the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His extreme positions have exacerbated these problems, but they would have arisen without him.' Above all, we are reminded that 'prior to Desert Storm the annual mortality rate for children under the age of five in Iraq was a little over 7,000. Today it is over 50,000. That increase can be directly attributed to sanctions.'
US intervention in Iraq has led to more bloodshed and suffering than the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein could have imposed alone. It has destroyed the Iraqi political opposition, strengthened the country's rulers and, after a decade of suffering, led to calls for accommodation with the existing regime.
Has anyone learnt the lessons?
No One Left To Lie To
How, on the face of it, can Bill Clinton be such a mate of Tony Blair? Surely an evening in the pub together would end in disaster--Bill regaling those present with his sexual conquests while Tony blushes, says 'crikey', finishes his shandy and bolts for Chequers.
And yet they have so much in common. Hitchens' brilliant book on Clinton flows with marvellously researched disdain, not only for the man himself, but also for that generation of the US left who have succumbed to his dubious charms. 'It is the left which swallows the soft promises of Clinton and the right that demands, and gets, hard guarantees,' he writes. Or, quoting the conservative David Frum, 'the left gets words; the right gets deeds.'
To those who are critical of Clinton in general but defended him over his impeachment, he asks, 'Is it not clear that Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky case represents a microcosm of Clintonism itself?' Hitchens' case is that the lying, cheating, bullying hypocrisy exposed by his dollop of DNA on Monica's dress is the same quality he employs to destroy the lives of working class Americans and to deposit cruise missiles around the planet.
At certain points he was pursuing Monica and his social policy at exactly the same time. Ms Lewinsky's testimony referred to proceedings in the back room being interrupted one day when Clinton fled to take a call from a Mr Fanjul in Florida. Kenneth Starr saw this as an unimportant detail, but Mr Fanjul is one of America's leading, and richest, sugar growers. He has also been prosecuted for dumping phosphorous waste, maltreating black labourers, and contributes donations of half a million dollars to the Democrats. And his company receives $65 million a year in 'price supports', which ensure a virtual monopoly of the US sugar market.
Hitchens devotes one chapter to the bombing of the Sudanese chemical factory. Having bombarded the reader with evidence that the target could never have produced chemical weapons as claimed by Clinton, he turns to asking why the attack was made in such a hurry. The answer, he concludes, is that it was the perfect day for diverting attention from a delicate moment in the Starr proceedings.
President Roosevelt, says Hitchens, created welfare in the 1930s to save capitalism from itself. But Clinton has gone much further than any other president in dismantling that welfare. And so, with unfaltering rage, Hitchens attacks from every angle those who defend the man as being an opponent of the right, or who argue that his political and philandering habits are two separate issues. During the Starr proceedings, says Hitchens, 'women who told the truth were accused of trying to lure a sitting president into a "perjury trap". As if it were necessary to trick Clinton into telling a lie.'
And that's why the president gets on so well with his counterpart in Britain. The manoeuvring, the false humanitarianism, the soap opera concerned face at appropriate moments, the appearance of youthful radicalism by wearing jeans and liking Fleetwood Mac--they deserve each other.
There's something else they have in common. As with Clinton, a layer of middle class liberals have jumped into line with Blair's attacks on the welfare state and gleeful games with cruise missiles. For example, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, who adores the pair of them, screams for a ground war in Kosovo, and whose grubby, sycophantic little book on America, The Unfinished Revolution, was launched at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
Hitchens' book, I suspect, will not be quite as welcome there.
Ecology of Fear
Metropolitan Books £18.99
Mike Davis's latest book, Ecology of Fear, takes an insightful look at his main preoccupation, the city of Los Angeles. Far from presenting a simple catalogue of disasters to have hit the city and surrounding area, Davis examines a city built on contradictions and subject to the booms and slumps inside the US economy.
The rapid urbanisation, successive waves of migration and short term manipulation of the environment were meant to produce a 'place in the sun', backed by the myth that the area represented a placid Mediterranean idyll.
Davis shows in great detail that the area sits at an extraordinary convergence of climatic and geological conditions and experiences--monsoon type rainfall, flash flooding, droughts, forest fires, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. There is therefore a powerful image of a city suffering more than its fair share of 'natural disasters'. But Davis goes on to document exactly how different sections of the population are affected.
While the rich Malibu area suffers from widespread fire, often developing into fire storms, the tenements of the Downtown area suffer a similar fate, but with far less money spent on fire prevention. The book charts the way that responses to the various disasters have become a political football for cynical vote grabbing. Vast amounts of money are spent on rebuilding, but the whole process is distorted by what Davis calls seismic Keynesianism. Successive cuts in public services hit the fire department but not, of course, the racist LAPD.
Nothing shows this more than the wide scale rioting in 1992 following the beating of Rodney King by LA cops. The army and police took days to quell a popular rebellion of the urban poor in the second largest city in the US during which over 17,000 people were detained. As hundreds of fires raged in Central LA, a multi-billion dollar weather satellite revealed what a report called 'an exceptionally large thermal anomaly extending over more than 85 square kilometres'.
Whole areas were left abandoned and burnt out. Money was poured into high profile projects aimed at presenting an image of the city with no problems.
Following the devastating Northwood earthquake of 1994 money was quickly spent on rebuilding the Santa Monica Freeway, so that the mainly white commuters could avoid being diverted through the devastated, run down, mainly black areas of Creenshaw, which were left to rot. This relatively minor quake stretched the overburdened public services to their limits and showed the inadequacy of quake proof building regulations. Time after time the effects of 'natural disasters' have fallen most heavily on the poor.
Davis also looks at representations of the city in popular culture, which often carry a deeply ideological explanation. From the racist 'Yellow Peril' stories of invasion from the other side of the Pacific to plague, earthquake, fires, floods and--more recently and absurdly--volcanoes and even meteorites, Los Angeles is presented as the most hazardous and frightening place to live in the US. There are over 100 books and films in which either the city or its population are destroyed.
Davis points to the paranoid, neurotic and even biblical interpretations of events and their aftermath by pundits and journalists. He does a good job in counteracting this and pointing towards explanations much more rooted in the nature of US society, such as the devastation of a four year long recession, unemployment, cuts in welfare and public services, a racist backlash against 'immigrants', the failure of police 'reform' and the fact that young black men are twice as likely to end up in prison as in college.
More than any other place, LA was supposed to represent the hopes of the American Dream. This book is a fascinating exposure of its increasing contradictions.
Mara and Dann
Doris Lessing's new novel comes against a backdrop of a flourishing post-apartheid South African literature that searches for and tries to carve out a new form of literature and a new South Africa.
On the surface Mara and Dann is a reworking of a traditional story--an orphaned brother and sister going on a journey where they confront many enemies and obstacles. The story is set in the future, in Ifrik (Africa), one of the two continents to have survived a new Ice Age. What is left of the world is dominated by climatic changes--ice, flash floods and, worst of all, drought. Entire civilisations, cultures, languages, skills and inventions have been destroyed. Such 'governments' that exist inevitably descend into corruption, war and a thirst for power. The 'tribes' who people the continent are characterised by their 'sameness', their ignorance, their barbarism or their passivity. Few retain their 'humanity'. A small minority of people, 'Memories', have any idea of the past. There is a preoccupation with the compulsion to 'breed' and with the overriding necessity to possess water.
Against this backdrop Mara and Dann go on their journey north in search of precious water, but also in search of knowledge, truth and their own real identity. They survive by their wits, their determination, their endurance and their possession of gold.
As in legends, they reach their journey's end--and they find their identity.
But there is no traditional happy ending, for there is a continuing threat of war and aggression, and the mood of restlessness, dissatisfaction and searching is never ending.
Lessing's novel works on many levels and it is impossible to do them all justice in such a short review. She weaves our deepest environmental, emotional and sexual fears into the pages of her novel. But above all, this is literature that has been born out of the experience of South Africa.
Water and land are key symbols in much South African literature. Often said to be the most beautiful country in the world, South African society was despoiled by the system of apartheid. The search for water is the search to irrigate the land, to rejuvenate the people, to create a new future and to let the beauty of the country triumph.
The novel's theme of constant war contrasts with the thirst for truth and mirrors the view of many South Africans: that the choice is between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and potential civil war. The character of Dann epitomises the schizophrenia that exists in South Africa's turbulent society. Mara and Dann's journey is a quest to find truth and identity--an identity that much of South African literature is searching for--to come to terms with, to forget or deny their history.
Mara and Dann find a truth that is less than they had yearned for--it is a bitter and flawed truth that offers them no reconciliation. So Lessing poses her readers a question: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or constant warring between different 'tribes'? The novel shows neither of these to be fruitful. Lessing uses literature to search for another alternative, one that can cease the restlessness, that can bring resolution.
While Lessing's novel demonstrates that truth brings no peace, she also shows the danger of having no memory. Her message is simple. South Africa must remember--it must not forgive.
The Trouble With Tigers
Harper Collins £19.99
The crash of the south east Asian Tigers which began with Thailand in 1997 sparked a crisis whose effects travelled further than any mainstream economist or social commentator predicted. This wasn't just an economic crisis that brought turmoil to 40 percent of the world economy. It also created an ideological crisis in the heart of the ruling class and amongst their economic advisers and 'experts'.
The crash was followed by a whole series of explanations, often wrong, about why the Tigers crashed. Victor Mallet attempts to set the record straight by giving a history of the growth of these economies, the effects of that growth on society as a whole, and on the nature of government. Mallet's book is far more a social commentary than an economic one.
The book starts by challenging 'Asian Values'. This was a set of ideas that Mahatir Mohamad of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore developed during the 1980s and 1990s which, they believed, were responsible for the success of Asian economic growth. Their ideological offensive was about attacking the liberalism of the west, which produced crime, loose sexual values and poor economic growth, and it was also about attempting to justify the authoritarian nature of their governments. Mallet paints a good picture of the hypocrisy involved in this--on the one hand the idea of valuing discipline, the family and honesty, and on the other hand using these ideas to justify the corruption that took place between the state, their family members, their friends and the strict regimes to which ordinary people were subjected.
Mallet also shows the hypocrisy of the western capitalists who poured money and capital into south east Asia when things were good, relying on the cheap labour and authoritarian nature of those regimes, and yet who blamed the lack of free market economics when the crash came. As Mallet points out, the idea that Britain and the United States built their economies on laissez faire economics is a joke--they too relied on the heavy intervention of their nation states.
Quoting Hobsbawm and Dickens, Mallet moves on to look at the effects of industrialisation on the working class of south east Asia. A common theme throughout the book is the comparisons with the industrial revolution in Britain--the gap between the rich and the poor, the vulnerability of those moving from village to city, and the human cost of capitalism. His main criticism of the rulers of south east Asia is that they learnt nothing from the devastating effects of the industrial revolution in Britain and elsewhere. The environmental disasters that have occurred in the forests due to the 'slash and burn' practices of big business, the rivers that have been turned into sewers by the level of pollution, these he suggests could have been avoided without affecting economic growth. Unfortunately, Mallet is prone to vacillating between the inevitable ravages of capitalism that are a consequence of its dynamism and the idea that the correct form of state intervention can prevent these consequences from being inevitable.
He finishes his book with a chapter entitled 'The Half Finished Revolution' which starts with a quote from EP Thompson on the industrial revolution in Britain. Mallet's book is a sincere attempt to understand the problems in south east Asia and to point to a way forward. His criticisms of western capitalism and their intervention into the south east Asian 'miracle' are honest and encouraging, but there is a catch to Mallet's appraisal.
His hope for the future is with the up and coming educated middle class, with whom he presumes the task lies of bringing democracy to the masses. He therefore ends with an unavoidable contradiction. On the one hand he criticises the limits of western democracy and economics, and on the other he sees the most promising future for south east Asia in copying that democracy and those policies. In doing so he almost points the blame for the crash on the proponents of 'Asian Values', something he was keen to avoid in the beginning. Mallet's book is a very interesting and an easy read. However, the limits of reformist ideology are wide open for all to see.
Orpheus and Power
Michael George Hanchard
Princeton University Press £13.95
For socialists and all those concerned with racial politics, racism and the struggle for black liberation, Brazil poses a compelling, if unfamiliar, set of challenges. Brazil is home to the second largest black population in the world after Nigeria. It has been hailed as a racial paradise where artistic and religious traditions that are explicitly Afro-Brazilian in character, such as samba and carnival, are celebrated as the heart and soul of the national popular culture. Yet there is no end of data to confirm that, in terms of income distribution, employment, police harassment and imprisonment, and general day to day discrimination and violence, racism against black Brazilians remains an indisputable fact.
For anyone looking to make sense of these contradictions, Michael Hanchard's Orpheus and Power is a good place to start. Readers should not be put off by the turgidly academic style, which depoliticises what is a very political book. Using speeches, essays and extensive interviews with postwar black activists, Hanchard sets out to explain the relatively low level of racial self identification amongst Brazilian blacks, and the black movement's limited success in mobilising politically to achieve significant reforms.
His attempt to adapt the Gramscian concept of hegemony to racial politics, while it has some questionable implications, does have one important advantage--by focusing on the detail of specific people's experiences and understanding of Brazil's racial politics, he is able to explain how the ideological battle between dominance and subordination is waged as a continual tension within the contradictory consciousness of real individuals.
As the first half of the book demonstrates, Brazil's long ideological tradition of 'racial exceptionalism' or 'racial democracy' does have a lot to answer for.
The spurious claim made by 19th century slaveowners, that the Brazilian plantation regime was benign by comparison with the US model, resurfaced in Gilberto Freyre's 1933 The Masters and the Slaves. Freyre's hugely influential argument was that the peculiar sociability of Portuguese and Africans fostered a domestic and sexual intimacy between the slaves and their owners, which dissolved the normally violent antagonisms of race and class in the aftermath of abolition.
The 'commonsense' evidence of widespread miscegenation 'confirmed' a lack of racial prejudice, the large mixed race population blurring any clear demarcation between blacks and whites. Brazil's different racial character neatly translated into an outright denial of racism. One of the key mechanisms in defusing black political initiatives has been what Hanchard calls 'pre-emptive sanctions' against anyone publicly challenging racism or asserting black autonomy. Prime examples recounted are Freyre's own denunciation of the 1970s Black Soul movement and the Unified Black Movement (MNU) of the 1980s as 'racist', and the state's repressive response to the alternative black commemorations of the centenary of the abolition of slavery in 1988.
Just as serious for the black movement has been the accommodation to these ideas from within its own ranks, and the failure on the part of the left to take contemporary mechanisms of racial oppression seriously, seeing racism as nothing more than a vestigial 'throwback' to slavery. No wonder, then, that in the general absence of a politics based on race and class, the history of black organisation has been marred by sectarianism and ideological incoherence. The one promising exception has been the MNU, formed in 1978 by a nucleus of black Trotskyists, which has worked within a range of left wing organisations, attempting to link black oppression to that of political prisoners, women, trade unionists, peasants and gays.
The key stumbling block, as Hanchard sees it, has been the movement's culturalism, the celebration and mythification of black traditions of self identification as a substitute for direct political action. While this has undeniably been the case, Hanchard is wrong to argue that the movement should retreat from its identification with the history of black struggle and that it should be more national. What this means is that he has given up on the prospect of any wholesale challenge to the system that produces racism. All that is possible for the movement is to find ways to situate itself in national public debate and bring further pressure to bear upon formal politicians and their institutions.
Hanchard's evidence points to a different conclusion, though, which is that the national popular mythology of racial democracy has been most sharply contested, as in the recent explosion of Brazilian rap, precisely when there has been an identification with other, international expressions of black resistance. It is here that, instead of being turned into myth, cultural traditions can reclaim their living historical content as forms of refusal capable of intervening ideologically and materially in the present, and thus of overflowing into political practice.
Lords of the Horizons: a History of the Ottoman Empire
Chatto & Windus £18.99
'The Ottoman system made no national distinctions; and truly there were few to be made with any clarity. Language was a very uncertain indication of nationality. The men of Koritza, for example, looked identical, lived in the same round huts, and wore the same blue robes, though different groups of them spoke Greek, Vlach and Albanian. With Greek and Turkish the only official languages of the empire, you could easily find Albanian families in the capital who spoke only Turkish; notional Bulgars who had nothing but Greek. Race was meaningless. Southern Albanians looked more like Greeks than Albanians from the north, whose language they shared.'
Observing from a European viewpoint, and concentrating far more on the Balkans than the eastern provinces, Goodwin's is an impressionistic, but, as this passage suggests, often insightful picture of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Initially further developed militarily and more socially flexible than feudal Europe, the Ottomans spread from Turkey at their peak to besiege Vienna while dominating Central Asia and the Middle East. Many Balkan peoples preferred Muslim Ottoman domination to remaining in 'Christendom' as there was greater religious tolerance (and a lower tribute burden). Orthodox Christianity flourished where it had been oppressed by dominant Catholicism. There was no great pressure to convert to Islam--not that any idea of equality existed, religious or otherwise. The empire was run on a hierarchy of separate legal systems based on religion, guild and rank. A Jew's life was regulated by Jewish law unless he or she came into conflict with a Muslim, when Islamic law would predominate.
The absolute ruler was a hereditary sultan. At its height the empire's bureaucracy was recruited from a tribute paid in boys, usually from the Christian Balkans (as Muslims could not be enslaved). They were converted to Islam and, after a harsh selection, the brightest grew up to run the empire, right up to the rank of Grand Vizier. This custom 'cut clean across the hereditary principle, which Western visitors held so dear.'
From the 17th century, as the empire's borders stabilised, it could no longer finance itself through conquest and so peasant taxes increased. Over time its military class became a burden and an internal threat. The court, losing its martial role, turned inward and became ever more extravagant, further raising taxes. The boy tribute stopped, but was replaced by a parasitic hereditary ruling class. In theory the sultan remained absolute ruler, but he was increasingly circumscribed by internal ruling class feuds.
Even as the empire began rotting from within, the growth of the capitalist states picked away at its edges for 150 years. The European powers fought each other for the empire's spoils from Egypt to the Crimea, until it was finally divided up after the First World War.
Imperial rivalry centred on the Balkans. For example, Belgrade was besieged and captured five times between 1717 and 1813. Goodwin comments of neighbouring Kosovo that it 'was so often a theatre of war that even now it rumbles with discontent, and the Albanians who moved or returned there after the great exodus of Serbs to Austria in the 17th century retain a prickly and dangerous hostility to the Serbs who govern them now.' But people are not inevitably trapped by their history. Wars continue in the Balkans precisely because the peoples there became the playthings of imperialism, not through unchanging animosity.
Episodic and anecdotal, the book touches on philosophy and culture. It discusses court intrigue and the peculiarities of particular sultans at great length. It is good at presenting the non-European thoughts and manners of the Ottomans, though occasionally it slips into 'orientalism', making them exotic and finally beyond understanding. This is a weakness as it is only through comprehending the forces behind past irrationalities that we can come to untwist current events. At his strongest, however, Goodwin intimates how it is possible to understand a non-European, pre-capitalist society.
Loach on Loach
Ed: Graham Fuller
Faber and Faber £11.99
'I'd rather not crowd the actors or be so intrusive. If you give people space you give them dignity.' This comment, actually on technical specifics, tells us a great deal about Ken Loach's radical simplicity. He sees the working class lives he focuses upon not as an opportunity for caricature, but for empathetic enquiry. How do people, unemployed, in low paid work, with relationship trouble or family problems, actually live?
So straightforward is Loach's approach it now has an air of the revolutionary. Each film has been unwilling to shape characterisation around notions of character types. Loach truculently gives back to the image industry the reality which advertising, television and cinema carelessly and cavalierly borrow.
There have been problems with such an approach and skirmishes with his conscience. Of his own advertising work in the 1980s he has said, 'It was indefensible really. The difficulty for me was, having been publicly identified with a socialist point of view, I shouldn't sell my services to advertisers. You can't be in both camps.'
Into the 1990s, however, and Loach moved from provincial pariah hanging around Soho looking for film finance to an unequivocally international film maker. Several awards at Cannes, European financing and an interest in struggles beyond Britain upped Loach's profile. He was also working once again with people he could trust. Those two great early films, 1969's Kes, and Family Life, made in 1971, weren't products of self expression. They relied greatly on the protective instincts of producer Tony Garnett on both movies, cameraman Chris Menges for Kes and the presence of strong writers: Barry Hines on the earlier film, David Mercer with Family Life.
Now it's Sally Hibbin or Rebecca O'Brien as his regular producers and Barry Ackroyd looking through the lens. His scriptwriters include Jim Allen, a longtime Loach collaborator in TV, who has written Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones and Land and Freedom, and Paul Laverty, responsible for both Carla's Song and My Name is Joe. Here Loach has found another extended family, a team of people the director can rely upon without feeling beholden to any of them--most obviously his writers: four in seven movies. This has given the films a degree of inconsistency (Allen is more suited than Laverty to Loach's observational perspective), but also an impressive range. Risk taking, Loach now reckons, is of immense import: 'The more you try for safety first, the less successful you are.'
That's, of course, a debatable point. Are Carla's Song and My Name is Joe, incorporating aspects of melodrama and broad comedy, really better films than Kes and Family Life? Nevertheless, the movies have become bigger, broader and more popular--never a dirty word in Loach's vocabulary. Also his actors, initially employed for their regional attributes, are now, if not stars in the ordinary sense, then actors with clout, capable of shaping material to their own ends instead of skulking support for lazy directors looking for a bit of rough--Robert Carlyle, Ian Hart and Peter Mullan all having benefited from Loach's direction.
Excellently edited by Graham Fuller, Loach on Loach, casually, conversationally, explores the director's own aptly self effacing voice. £11.99 may be a bit steep for so slender a volume, but Loach is an incisive talker. There's little waste in its 150 pages.
Life and Terror In Stalin's Russia 1934-1941
Robert W Thurston
Yale University Press £11.95
During the Cold War Russia was seen by the right as the embodiment of 'totalitarianism', and nothing better illustrated this than the Great Terror. Here was a plot by Stalin against society that showed the regime terrorising the people. But not every historian accepted that it was as simple as this, and in the 1980s a major quarrel exploded, first about the numbers involved and then about the logic of the purges.
With the partial opening of the Soviet archives historians of all persuasions were anxious to see what light they threw on the scale and nature of the terror. In Russia itself many now took up the cry of totalitarianism, including commentators and historians closest to the old regime. They were urged on by conservative western commentators like Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest. It is easy to see why this view was attractive at the top of Russian society--if the blame could be laid at the door of a Stalin and a tiny number around him then the wider beneficiaries of his rule and their descendants could breathe a sigh of relief and escape blame themselves.
Challenges to this view like Robert Thurston's book have therefore produced explosive responses. Robert Conquest denounced Thurston for his 'honest naiveté' and there were even more vitriolic attacks in the US.
Thurston makes three main arguments. Firstly, Stalin was not a paranoid leader who planned the purges but a leader who reacted to events, sometimes in an indecisive way, and perhaps only in 1937 did he personally urge the terror on. Secondly, the most rational explanation of the terror is that the leadership and the lower orders did genuinely believe that there were plots, spies and saboteurs and that there was sufficient evidence to at least make some charges credible. Thirdly, though the numbers involved were huge they were not as great as Conquest and others suggested (here Thurston accepts the data from the Russian archives widely reported by other western and Russian historians). The purges operated mainly at the top and in the middle ranks so that the mass of the population were not affected by constant terror.
In the process Thurston throws up a mass of information which is too often put together in an indiscriminate way to support his argument. But the main problem is that Thurston cuts his analysis adrift from key issues in Soviet history. To start the account in 1934 seems bizarre and leads him to casually treat violence in the revolution, civil war and the era of the first Five Year Plan in an undifferentiated manner. He has no sense of revolutionary degeneration, no sense of a new social order being built and no sense of a new class society emerging. The valuable nuggets in his account which are genuinely there and make this book worth reading therefore lack context.
Consider, for example, the issue of 'rationality`. The charges were absurd, the evidence virtually nonexistent. Thurston is right to say that this can be understood rationally, but only if we first appreciate that at the top of Russian society a double separation was occurring in the 1930s--first the crystallisation of a new ruling class and second, within it, the crystallisation of a ruling group that was divorced from the mass of the population and therefore susceptible to a belief in conspiracies and plots. No less, reactions to the purges need also to be set in the wider context of a society built upon class contradictions. The alienation of those at the bottom might well lead to indifference to the fate of those at the top and a willingness to believe any stories about them.
Thurston therefore takes us inside the terror, often in fascinating ways but leaves us with a social history in which not only is the politics sometimes missing but also important elements of the social too.
A Right to Roam
'For the most part... when you go into the countryside you will do so as a trespasser.' So states Marion Shoard in this excellent book on the need to change the law to open up Britain's countryside. This is, we are often told, our nation, our land. So why can't we walk on it? If Shoard walks at the same pace at which she writes, you would have to jog to keep up. This book is filled with detail but it races along, telling of how the land was gradually taken off us so that the elite could hunt unhindered. Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, for example, is so called because some Norman baron established a private hunt there. The later encroachment of capitalism saw thousands more driven from their land with the enclosure movement, which abolished communal arrangements for administering the land and the elimination of common rights to it, all in the name of profit. In the 18th century the laying out of great ornamental gardens and parks saw whole villages demolished. And, according to Shoard, it was at this time that large landowners first developed a sense of themselves as a coherent group who felt themselves charged with caring for the countryside at the expense of the rest of us. A hundred years later we get this same kind of guff from the Country Landowners Association or the various proprietors of country houses who deign to open them up so we can peek briefly at their wealth under the glare of their forebears' portraits.
Shoard is clear throughout in her criticism of those in possession of the land, mentioning one landowner, for instance, who disliked the presence of climbers on a crag in the Peak District of Derbyshire. He simply took dynamite to it and blew it up. Such landowners, far too many of whom have held the land in their families for centuries, still like to refer to themselves as the guardians of the countryside, but Shoard makes the point strongly that the erosion caused by walkers following the Pennine Way or climbing Box Hill is nothing compared to the destruction of much of our countryside through industrial farming.
However, Shoard also tells the story of the continual resistance there has been to our exclusion from our own country. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was at least in part over the issue of land. During the period of the English Revolution the Diggers occupied St George's Hill in Weybridge in pursuit of the right to common land. In the 1700s a wider interest in natural history and scenery (the word was coined at this time) saw more people travel from towns to enjoy the countryside for recreation. However, this century's battle for the Peak District, including the Kinder Scout mass trespass, made the greatest assault on the ability of landowners to exclude us from their property.
Though a gripping account of what has gone before, this book is also a powerful polemic in support of the right to roam today. Shoard argues strongly that agreements from landlords, even if they may provide a way forward in the short term, cannot guarantee our rights. Certainly we now have the right to be on public paths, but implicit in that concession is that we are not allowed on what is on either side of the path, no matter how attractive or interesting. In fact, as Shoard suggests, this right seems to legitimise our exclusion from elsewhere. Where the owner has given permission to walk on his land, it can be withdrawn without notice. Even the moors fought for through the mass trespasses of the 1930s are closed today if some ghastly inbred aristocrat wishes to entertain some equally ghastly social climbing businessman to a day of blasting grouse.
With New Labour having considerably watered down its pre-election promises of the right to roam, this book puts that right in its historical context, and is a searing indictment of those who hold the countryside of Britain. It also makes an extremely convincing case for the need for that right to safeguard the countryside for all of us to enjoy, not just the privileged few.