Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Marxists, Labour and the struggle for socialism
Caroline Benn (January SR) surely speaks for many who have placed a large amount of time and effort in the Labour Party over the years. She raises important questions about the achievements of Labour over the last century, and questions whether the whole approach of parliamentary representation hasn't turned out to be something of a dead end.
She takes the debate beyond simply how appalling Blair is to discussing the very viability of the Labour Party's central political tenet--namely, can real gains for working people come through parliament?
Caroline is right to point to the fact that while real gains may have come through parliament, these are rapidly being rolled back, not least by the current Labour Party leadership. On the other hand, movements outside parliament have a vibrancy and effectiveness entirely absent from New Labour's electoral machine. She again hits the mark when she points to Seattle as the way forward here.
I also found fascinating her acknowledgement that force, in other words revolution, may be necessary for real change. I think this has enormous implications for the type of socialist organisation we need.
The formation of the Labour Party was, of course, bound up with such debates. But the left on the whole has accepted the parliamentary approach for much of the last century although there have been important challenges throughout this period. Nevertheless, the argument for reform at each crucial moment won out, and the Labour Party has been the embodiment of this.
This is the reason why so many of the gains made by working people this century have been transitory. Labour has always, in the last analysis, been prepared to accept the system as it is. The welfarist policies of the 1940s, 50s and 60s have therefore been abandoned by New Labour under the impact of successive crises, and of Thatcherism.
How then do we take the debate forward today?
I think, firstly, that anyone wanting to explore these issues would immensely benefit from an engagement with the classical Marxist tradition, which has posed the argument as to the limits of the ability of the capitalist state to make concessions to the working class.
Secondly, while we pursue these questions, let us work together on the ground--as Caroline Benn describes how the left, in the shape of Labour Party members and Marxists, were doing a century ago.
It was lamentably sectarian, particularly in its unwillingness as a party to relate to the real struggles of workers, and its legacy was of considerable negative significance on the British left. Even so, Caroline Benn (January SR) dismisses the SDF too easily in comparison with the Independent Labour Party--many of whose members were also Marxists, of course.
When the SDF pulled out of the Labour Representation Committee it is not exactly true to say that 'it never fared very well afterwards and broke into various sects'. In fact, many of its members spent most of the first 20 years of the 20th century trying to organise a united left wing organisation.
The SDF eventually became the British Socialist Party, by which time it had kicked out Henry Hyndman as its leader, and the BSP went on to supply, for better or worse, the largest number of recruits to the Communist Party of Great Britain on its foundation.
Nor is it true that Marxists congregated in London and left the rest of the country to get on with it. The SDF had significant support in the north west of England and Scotland, amongst other places.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Labour Party it is a fair bet that the role the SDF played in its foundation will either be ignored or belittled. We can't afford to allow that to happen.
The SDF is part of our heritage, however awkward that may be.
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
Misha Glenny made a number of powerful points in his interview (December SR). However, the understanding of western policy in the region as 'a mix of bullish cultural superiority, complete incompetence and a lack of understanding of what they are doing' seems flawed. While these elements are certainly important, the role of Nato expansionism cannot be played down.
Glenny says, 'I was talking regularly with all the US diplomats in the two years prior to the bombing campaign, and I can say categorically that they were trying to find anything that did not involve the use of force.' This can be taken at face value. After all, the US treated Milosevic as an ally for a long time prior to the bombing, due mainly to its desire to see him succeed as a counterweight to the German ally in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman. It was Germany, trying to re-establish itself as a power after reunification, that took the initiative in recognising the autonomy of Croatia.
However, this is not a reason for suggesting that Nato expansionism had nothing to do with the war. For one thing, it is clear that a negotiated peace was available from the outset. For another, the obvious fact is that Nato is now in Kosovo.
This could have been achieved without war but, as in Iraq, where there was a negotiated deal available on terms that US Secretary of State James Baker thought worth looking at, the resort to war was a calculated message to the rest of the world. Uncle Sam remains the key global player, and any challenge to this will be crushed with brute force. It was not oil, resources or incompetence that sent the US to war with Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador or Vietnam. It was the need to assert the political authority of the major imperialist power.
Nato appears to be the new tool for this kind of intervention, and we are likely to see more of the same warmongering, accompanied by 'bullish cultural superiority, complete incompetence and lack of understanding of what they are doing', well into the future. With, of course, the one proviso--if we let it happen.
The favourable review of East is East by Belinda Affat (December SR) is wide of the mark. The story is preposterous. If it is based on reality it is so unique as to have little relevance to the general experience of British Asians. The main character, George Khan, by the very fact of his leaving his first wife in Pakistan and marrying a white woman in England, has broken his links with traditional values. This is just about the most drastic act a 'traditional' Muslim can make. So it is just not credible when he tries to impose values on his kids that he himself has rejected.
Moreover, no traditional Muslim worth his salt would assume a Christian name, and he would furthermore be unlikely to open a fish and chip shop. Also, as the film is set in the early 1970s, it is not really applicable to the reality Asians face today.
The film is a comedy and gains many of its laughs by showing the kids breaching one taboo after another. So you have the eldest son running away from his arranged marriage ceremony and later coming out as gay; the kids eating bacon while the dad is away; one son kissing his girlfriend, out drinking and dancing in a nightclub. This would be fine if the film showed genuine empathy, for these taboos are areas of enormous concern and anguish, especially to young Asians. Instead what is provided are crude and insensitive portrayals.
If Tarantino is responsible for bringing 'nigger' back into the public domain, then East Is East appears to be trying to do the same for 'Paki'. Thankfully, this detestable racist term is no longer acceptable.
The closing scenes are probably the worst. The manner of the father arranging marriages for two of his sons to, shall we say, rather 'unattractive' Asian women is handled appallingly, as well as being ludicrous. These are, in fact, forced marriages. The irony is that traditional Asians may well in the end be comfortable with this film, for they could conclude it shows what they know all too well: mixed marriages just don't work, so don't be surprised if the children turn out to be decadent and disrespectful.
I disagree with Belinda Affat's praise of East is East, which has been lauded generally in the press as part of the new 'Asian cool'.
Despite undoubtedly positive intentions, I felt the film played to all the negative stereotypes of Asians, and downplayed the often vicious racism faced by this community in the 1970s. It was like watching a modern version of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. Almost without exception, Asians were portrayed as religious fanatics, child beaters and conniving capitalists. The local whites, with the exception of one ineffectual Powellite, were loveable 'salt of the earth' stereotypes who would have done a great job of raising the children if it wasn't for all those unreasonable Muslims.
While I'm at it, I'll also have a pop at Ali G, who everybody seems to think is such a hoot as well. I get the idea that he is sending up young middle class whites who want to mimic black gangsta rappers, while taking the piss out of establishment figures who want to appear hip. At one level it succeeds. But most of the time it degenerates into a more sophisticated version of the alleged comedian Jim Davidson doing his 'Chalky' impersonation, a crass Jamaican stereotype, stupid and lazy.
Irony is only funny when you know it's irony, otherwise you think it's real. That in itself is the joke, but used without sufficient thought it can tend to reinforce what it tries to undermine. Racists aren't too hot on irony--they don't get it--which is kind of my point.
I don't see why the placing of Tracey Emin's bed and surrounding paraphernalia in a gallery and the associated label of 'art' makes it a 'tremendous experience' (John Molyneux, January SR), any more than taking a step into any young woman's bedroom would be described as such.
I'm drawn to exhibits which outrage or stick two rebellious fingers up at the snotty art establishment. But when 'My Bed' appeared in the news I asked people I work and mix with for their responses in case I had missed the point. But those with an opinion identified little more in the exhibit than another example, like Damien Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde, of the current trend of art to 'shock' for the sake of attracting some (any) sort of media attention.
I watched a television programme about Tracey Emin hoping to learn something about the meaning of her work beyond the apparent egoism and the ability to shock. Emin talked much about herself, but with seemingly little concern about the 'simple everyday social truths about the experience of women'. Nor did I detect the 'powerful protestations against women's oppression' suggested by John.
When trying to relate Tracey's bed or tent to the society in which they were created, the trend in advertising springs to mind in which the ability to shock increasingly equates with selling and success.
Those of us who've missed the insights offered by this form of art--seeing the bedroom scene as a bedroom scene which shocks when labelled an 'art exhibit'--can be made to feel as philistine and alien as when the elitist art world talks incomprehensibly of artistic qualities apparently only experienced by a self selected few.