Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


No apologies necessary

Paul Flewers (September SR) is wrong on two counts. He underestimates both the impact of the anti-war movement on Nato's strategy in the Balkans and the scale of the crisis in the former Soviet Union.

The anti-war movement had a direct bearing on the options Nato felt able to pursue. The mass demonstrations in Germany, Italy and, in particular, Greece meant that the Nato alliance was subject to increased tensions as a result of popular hostility to the war. In the United States, the Vietnam Syndrome lay behind Clinton's reluctance to commit ground troops. There is still popular hostility to Americans suffering death and injury in foreign military engagements.

Even in Britain the impact of the anti-war movement was considerable. Demonstrations against the war had a real effect More importantly, the proliferation of local groups organising debates and public meetings gave the movement real depth. There was much less sectarianism in the alliances that were established which can be put to good use for other campaigns. Look, for example, at the breadth of support for the lobby of the Labour Party conference.

As K-For colludes with the KLA in the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo, the demand from the liberal press that we apologise for our opposition has a decidedly hollow ring to it. In fact, as these events show, the anti-war movement has been vindicated.

To describe as 'alarmist', as Paul Flewers does, the stance Socialist Review has taken on the scale of the crisis in the former Soviet Union is either unbelievably complacent or profoundly pessimistic. It seems to betray a secret wish that the crisis will go away.

Firstly, the proliferation of conflicts between the states that comprised the former Soviet Union is likely to intensify in the future. For one example, the pro-Nato Guuam alliance aimed at exploiting the oil rich region around the Caspian Sea has already exacerbated tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Paul Flewers also refers to the war in Moldova and Chechnya.

Secondly, in the 82 regions of Russia itself there is increasing conflict between the desire for increased autonomy from Moscow and the inability to go it alone. Thirdly, as Mike Haynes graphically described in the last issue of Socialist Review, the scale of the Russian economic and political crisis 'beggars belief '. Output has fallen by half since 1991, in the last 18 months there have been no less than five prime ministers, and it is now becoming clear that Yeltsin and his family circle are mired in corruption.

What would be truly alarming is if this edifice of political and economic corruption managed to sustain itself much longer. The old ruling class cannot continue to rule in the old way and has not yet found a new way of consolidating or extending its control. Unfortunately, the other element in the revolutionary equation--the refusal of the exploited classes to go on being ruled--has not yet found sustainable expression.
Shaun Doherty
Stoke Newington

  • Max Neill (September SR) is right to argue that socialists should have no illusions in the UN. The UN Security Council consists of governments which have a history of repression, and murder for their own imperial aims. He is also right to argue that international law is often nothing but a cover to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.

    But his interpretation of law is too one sided. In Britain, for example, the law is undoubtedly structured to meet and maintain the interests of capital, but that doesn't mean socialists take no interest in breaches of health and safety law, or don't use 'Fairness at Work' legislation to push for trade union recognition or defend the gains of the Abortion Act. Similarly with international law. Surely Max would agree with nuclear test bans and proliferation agreements, or restrictions on the emission of greenhouse gases.

    The points that Natassja Smiljanic raises (July/August SR) are well made. Nato's breach of international law during the Balkans war has made the world less safe. It sets the US, Britain and other Nato states up to work outside internationally agreed standards--to intervene whenever and wherever they feel their political interests have been threatened.

    If anyone should be in the dock of an International Criminal Tribunal it should be Clinton and Blair.
    Michael Lavalette


    Keir McKechnie and Iain Ferguson (September SR) are right to question the diagnosis and compulsory detention of those with 'severe personality disorder'. The label is almost meaningless. In one survey, 80 percent of psychiatrists questioned said they simply did not know whether the condition was treatable or not. Despite this confusion, the establishment has happily applied the label to certain individuals and then proceeded on the basis that with this category of patient 'anything goes'.
    During the 1980s the Blom-Cooper inquiry into the Ashworth Special Hospital Personality Disorders Unit revealed a history of torture and abuse. One patient was forcibly held under water by staff, others were intimidated using a pig's head, and Nazi propaganda was put up on noticeboards by staff. It was alleged during the inquiry that one patient was beaten to death by staff. The inquiry suggested, only half-ironically, that international torture monitors should be brought in. This major Liverpool hospital is not some obscure corner of the health service, but one of three special hospitals in the country.
    Another more recent case that should concern socialists is that of Michael Stone. In 1998, Stone was convicted for the murders of Lin and Megan Russell. He also had a diagnosis of 'severe personality disorder'. As Keir and Iain point out, Stone had been denied a hospital place due to a legal loophole about the 'untreatability' of his condition. Another equally worrying aspect of the case is the trial itself.
    Stone claimed that he was innocent throughout. There was no forensic evidence to implicate him apart from a shoelace found at the scene of the crime which could not be connected to Stone. All of the eyewitness evidence was completely contradictory. The testimonies of the key witnesses which actually convicted Stone were equally unsatisfactory. Two of the witnesses were inmates who claimed that Stone had confessed to them in prison. One of them retracted his statement the week after Stone was sent down. Another, it emerged, had been paid 5,000 by the Sun newspaper for his evidence. Another witness stated that she had seen Stone with blood on his clothes. This is now in dispute. There are clearly inconsistencies in a range of the evidence.
    Of course we cannot say for sure that this is a miscarriage of justice. What is clear is that Stone's treatment by the police, media and courts was frequently justified by reference to his 'severe personality disorder', more usually translated as 'psychopath'. The attitude was that he was guilty and anything was justified to secure a conviction.
    It was in the wake of the trial that Jack Straw announced the proposed change in the law discussed by Iain and Keir. Rather than attempt to quell the press inspired hysteria surrounding mental illness or improve the chronic underfunding of the British psychiatric care system, the home secretary has chosen to scapegoat a group of desperately ill and isolated people. Socialists should reject these proposals.
    Jonathon O'Brien


    Neil Rogall's letter (September SR) about my article on Kashmir raises an important objection. It would even be a decisive objection if the organisations of chauvinistic Hinduism (the Sangh Parivar) were calling for a reconquest of the provinces lost to Pakistan in 1947. The point is that, apparently perversely, they don't, and haven't since at least 1957.
    Instead, since 1957, they have held the position that partition will be undone by Muslims realising their essential Hindu heritage and voluntarily reconverting to Hinduism. This is not as daft as it might seem. Muslim' communities in south Asia have historically embraced a large number of Islamic features, fairly obviously of Hindu origin. This is why the Islamist movement in both Pakistan and India is so obsessive about rigid doctrinal purity.
    There is always the danger of the community regressing to non-Islamic practices, and the very fact of the Islamists' success in imposing a wide degree of orthodoxy in a few decades only makes things worse--it would be possible for people to regress just as quickly. Undermining the Islamic community in south Asia (and therefore Pakistan) by reconversion would therefore seem a reasonable prospect to the Sangh Parivar, however ludicrous it might appear to us. When the chance actually came for reconquest with the war of 1971 and the separation of Bangladesh, no one argued for it to be reincorporated into India.
    This fits in with the oddest feature about the RSS, the fascist mass paramilitary movement at the heart of the Sangh Parivar, which is that it consciously does not want to take state power.
    The problem for Neil's argument is that the Indian state only exists as a consequence of the communal partition. Overthrowing it means that you have to overthrow the entire communal settlement--to pinch someone else's metaphor, you can't draw a tiger's teeth one by one. Socialists in either country will be directing their efforts against their own state, since that is the one which they will have to overthrow, but the position for the international organisation can only be for the overthrow of the entire partition, which means, in reality, the two states.
    Barry Pavier


    The 100th anniversary of the formation of the Labour Party falls next year. However, anxious to spin its own version of events, Labour HQ at Millbank scheduled the celebration for this year's conference instead.
    The September issue of Socialist Review refers to two books which are essential reading for those anxious to get a feel for the struggles and political debates that went on in the period immediately before the Labour Party was formed in 1900. As Lindsey German notes, sadly Yvonne Kapp's marvellous biography of Eleanor Marx is now hard to come by. Fortunately the other book, John Charlton's important reassessment of the grassroots of the London dock strike, is easily available.
    Neither book will be on the reading list at Millbank, but it is important for socialists to remember the real reasons why many of the late 19th century left hoped that a Labour Party would change things for the better.
    Keith Flett


    Ralph Tebbutt's letter (September SR) reminds pensioners of the issues involved, the lack of response from all governments since the last war (especially on the Pensioners, charter), and outlines action for the future. His call for more of the same is praiseworthy and should spur pensioners to respond to Jack Jones's appeal at the recent Pensioners' Parliament at Blackpool for more local direct action. In this area we are taking Jack Jones's advice, going to lobby our local MPs and creating as much 'fuss' as possible.
    We are campaigning for direct action which will potentially make every politician sit up and take notice: direct action which could involve every pensioner at the next general election. If, instead of voting for a candidate (who promises little for pensioners), ten million of us voted 'Pensioner--X' by writing that on the ballot papers instead of putting a cross against the name of a candidate or party we would have virtually won the Pensioners' Charter--or a lot of it.
    Make our individual marks for once in this century, and for our children and grandchildren who will become pensioners in the next century. Hit the politicians where it will hurt most--in the ballot box.
    All that is required to make this a most revolutionary use of the so called democratic electoral process is a profound change of attitude among pensioners. We need to think more widely than our political allegiances, Tory, Labour or Liberal, and decide that we can do something positive.
    For many of us this will he the last chance to vote. Promise yourselves, pensioners, to get something done about our abysmal lot--if only for our children and possibly other pensioners who may still be alive!
    EC Jones
    Erith, Kent

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