Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Cost of Living
'World leaders can't have lunch together these days without somebody organising a counter-summit,' says Naomi Klein in No Logo, which captures the anti-capitalist mood so well it seems unbelievable that it was written before the 'Battle of Seattle'. Seattle crystallised the 'bad mood rising' that Klein argues has been going for some time. She argues that 'anti-corporatism is the brand of politics capturing the imagination of the next generation' and the stories she tells of companies like Nike and Starbucks explain why Seattle's 'robocops' had to protect them from protesters. She also exposes the distorted priorities of a system that sees $250 million spent every year on marketing Nike, while 1.3 billion people survive on less than $1 a day.
Klein concentrates on the marketing of a few big brands: how they send reps into inner city areas to pick up ideas from black youth and, to the horror of campaigners, even co-opt aspects of rebellion, feminism, anti-racism and alternative music into their advertising.
She then goes on to describe the shift to subcontracting by companies like Levis and Nike eager to cut costs. But, Klein writes, 'production has a pesky way of never quite being transcended entirely.' She then travels to Indonesia, the Philippines, Latin America--anywhere where anonymous factories, often in tax free, labour law exempt 'export processing zones' produce for some of the most famous labels in the world.
Here Klein meets workers who secretly smuggle out tags that will identify where finished clothes will go. When workers hear how much a pair of trainers or jeans that they stitch will sell for, some weep with despair. They live and work in conditions more akin to the Industrial Revolution in Britain--in some dormitories the girls' beds are no more than rectangles painted on the floor, like a car park. But despite these conditions and the repression the workers experience, there is a growing feeling that they deserve better. The solidarity they have received from anti-sweatshop campaigns, especially in the US, has fuelled this confidence. She celebrates the fact that people can find out about, and feel solidarity with, workers thousands of miles away.
Klein exposes the power of big business to impose frightening censorship. K Mart is the biggest retailer in the world. If it doesn't like an album or video cover then it refuses to put it on sale. As a result some bands make 'K Mart versions' with safe covers and sometimes even cutting certain tracks.
At its most dangerous the power of corporations is used to shape education and scientific research. Channel One's programmes and ads are broadcast in 12,000 US schools reaching around 8 million pupils. Viewing is compulsory, and the volume is preset and unadjustable! Channel One, of course, charges double for these ads, as they have a captive and potentially lucrative audience.
And there are the schools with fast food chains like Pizza Hut and McDonald's on the premises. Not content with this access, companies lay down conditions: they will not accept vouchers from children on federal lunch schemes. Poorer kids on such schemes may not even be able to eat an unbranded pizza in the school cafeteria because many are forbidden to serve any pizzas or burgers as it is deemed 'unfair competition'!
Klein describes the example of research commissioned by Boots, from a doctor at the University of California, hoping to prove their thyroid drug was more effective than the (much cheaper) generic one. The results showed that the opposite was the case. Boots blocked the publication of the article and were backed by the university, who didn't want to lose sponsorship money! The important results were only published when the deal was exposed in the Wall Street Journal.
But this book is more than a catalogue of horror stories. Klein makes it clear that all the time there is resistance to what is happening and that resistance is growing. She looks at everything from the first strike at a McDonald's (by mainly teenage workers) when an older worker was bullied by the manager (they won), to US students whose campaign forced Pepsi to disengage with Burma, and the UPS strike and Reclaim the Streets.
The only problem is that all these are treated as just different aspects of struggle. The UPS strike isn't seen as any more significant than a Reclaim the Streets road block. So although Klein acknowledges the importance of class in places and quotes the words of a union organiser in the Philippines--'The most significant way to solve these problems lies with the workers themselves, inside the factory'--her own emphasis is more often on consumer boycotts, publicity seeking stunts or legal battles. This is the fundamental flaw of the book.
But what Klein does brilliantly is express the rage that so many people feel about what is going on in the world. She gives us ammunition against the bosses and the governments who seem to act as their poodles.
Further ammunition is also given in Arundhati Roy's new book, The Cost of Living.
Arundhati Roy won fame and fortune from her prize-winning novel The God of Small Things. This short book is the result of her decision to 'step out from under the fairy lights and say what's on my mind'--and it is devastating. The first essay is a brilliant attack on the actions of the Indian government and the effects of its massive dam building programme. The second lambasts India's nuclear weapons testing and the nationalism it has unleashed. Of Indian nationalists' welcoming of nuclear weapons she writes, 'I'm a little baffled by their logic: Coke is western culture, but the nuclear weapon is an old Indian tradition?'
This is a beautifully written book which is also full of facts. Roy has become politicised by her research and when looking for the root of the problems she has described, she writes, 'To run the risk of sounding like a 1960s hippy dropping acid ("It's the System man!")... But it is the system, man. What else can it be?' Absolutely.
Iraq Under Siege
Ed: Anthony Arnove
Did you know that over the past year more than 1,800 bombs have been dropped on the people of Iraq by the UK and US air forces in attacks that take place almost every other day? It would be surprising if you did, as this murderous campaign has been virtually ignored by the western media.
Nine and a half years of war and sanctions, instigated and led by the US, have killed a million Iraqis, 600,000 of them children, and devastated a once-prosperous country. Targeted air strikes have wiped out electricity, transport, water and sewage networks--cholera, typhoid and other appalling diseases are widespread. Hospitals, schools, libraries and museums have been obliterated. Around 300 tons of depleted uranium shells have contaminated water, crops and people, resulting in massive increases in birth defects and cancers.
The sanctions have destroyed Iraq's economy, agriculture, industry, health service and education system--all once the envy of the region. Doctors and teachers can barely do their jobs because of lack of equipment, and drive cabs or sell fags to top up their miserable $3 a month wage. Medicines that are allowed in cannot be transported, refrigerated or administered because other necessary equipment is banned. Schools that have survived have no desks, books, heating or lighting. Even pencils can't be imported as graphite is deemed by the US to have military uses.
Today the vast majority of people are hungry, poor, unemployed and desperate. The only thing preventing mass starvation is a reasonably efficient and equitable system of rationing. Politicians here and in the US claim that the suffering is unnecessary because the ban on Iraqi oil sales was partially lifted in the £6 billion a year oil for food deal. They do not publicise that a third of this goes to the UN compensation fund (to compensate for the cost of 'liberating' Kuwait) and to pay for all UN expenses incurred in relation to Iraq, including the US spies who posed as inspectors with Unscom, the arms monitoring team.
What can possibly justify the infliction of so much misery on 22 million people? The UK and US governments say their objective is to free Iraqis from an evil dictator and destroy Iraq's military capability. But this claim does not stand up to a moment's examination. The same governments armed and supported the same dictator when he was massacring and gassing his own people. The same governments allowed Iraq's military to suppress uprisings in the north and south of Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War, uprisings that could easily have toppled the dictator. The same governments allow their Nato ally Turkey to fly in the no-fly zone in northern Iraq in order to attack the very people the west is supposed to be protecting--the Kurds. This siege has had the consistent effect of shoring up the dictator's popular support. As for Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, even the UN's own inspectors say they have long been destroyed.
The real reason for the siege is simple--oil. Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq is well populated and has long had the capacity and popular desire to break free of imperialist domination. For the US to continue exploiting and dominating this oil rich region, Saddam Hussein and the whole country had to be cut down to size.
This marvellous collection of essays is both heartbreaking and inspiring. The many contributors who have visited Iraq in the past decade paint a consistent and deeply disturbing picture of genocide. All are united by their opposition to Saddam Hussein and their fury at the US and UK's punishment of Iraq's people. Several of the contributors stand out for their bravery: the Voices in the Wilderness group who openly break the sanctions to take medicines to Iraq's sick; the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, who resigned from the UN after 34 years loyal service to protest against the sanctions; and writers such as John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, who go against the stream by investigating the truth and then presenting the truth as they find it.
Yet all of the contributors have spoken out in an overwhelmingly hostile environment in the hope that a movement can be built to stop the slaughter in Iraq. This book will be of enormous help in that task, and should be mandatory reading for Robin Cook and all the other people responsible for the carnage.
The Story of American Freedom
'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose,' wrote Kriss Kristofferson in his epic American hippy song, 'Me and Bobby McGee'. Reading Eric Foner's new book, you begin to understand that the concept of freedom in the history of the US is a much looser one than that of Kristofferson.
Freedom has apparently been the bedrock of American society. It is a bequest from the founding fathers, older than the Stars and Stripes. It is the 'American Way'. Eric Foner's book contrasts the use of the term 'freedom' with the realities of American history, and does so by telling the story of the country. This attempt does not always work. Frequently the narrative is slow and has been better written by books specialising in the different periods Foner covers. Nevertheless this is a valuable and at times fascinating book.
Foner shows that, whilst some of the ways in which the concept of freedom have been used are laughable, others as products of their time have a validity. For all the limitations of the 'freedom' envisaged by the leaders of the revolution, nevertheless they represented a huge step forward. Breaking with the notion of monarchy, they developed a concept of democracy and representation which stood far in advance of anything else at the time. That is, as long as you were white and free.
This ultimately led to a situation where coexistence between wage labour capitalism and slave labour capitalism was impossible. The American Civil War was the end result. Again the concept of freedom had its limitations. The war was not at first fought ostensibly for the abolition of slavery. Despite itself, however, the war became precisely about black freedom. So while the pro-slavery 'rebels' yelled about the freedom to own slaves, or the freedom of states to decide for themselves, it was ultimately a hollow and ridiculous cackle compared to the freedom being won by blacks. However, once the bourgeoisie had won its revolution, and forged its new society in civil war, it ceased to be revolutionary and became a conservative ruling class.
Economic inequality became the freedom essential to all other freedoms. The freedom to employ others and hinder the rights of those employed became a central tenet of the 'American Way'. The right not to join a union was and is absolute, the right to join one highly conditional. Freedom was white, male and rich. Yet, as the Second World War loomed, Franklin D Roosevelt argued it was a war for the 'four essential human freedoms'... 'Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.'
Once the war was over Roosevelt's successor, Harry S Truman, was able to reduce the 'four freedoms' to three. Freedom of speech and worship remained, but he announced that freedom from want and fear would be replaced by 'freedom of enterprise'! Indeed, Truman was being less than honest, for with the advent of the McCarthyite witch hunts freedom of speech became a very limited concept.
Today most leading US politicians argue that freedom not to pay taxes to support a decent welfare system is much more fundamental than freedom from want; freedom to buy up, downsize and relocate much more important than the right to work; freedom to make profit much more important than any general notion of the common good.
There is another side to all this, though. If freedom is sold as the 'American Way', then many take that at face value and demand real freedoms. If America is free, then so must its citizens be free from discrimination and oppression, demanded blacks. If we have freedom to choose, then we must have the freedom to choose not to fight unjust wars, said the anti-Vietnam-War movement. If we are free, then we must be free to organise, said union activists. If we are free, then we must be free to control our bodies, said the women's movement.
There has always been a section of radical thought in America that believes that the constitution, the Bill of Rights, even the flag, really belong to the people and have been stolen by capitalism, rather than that these things themselves were products of capitalism. Indeed, Foner himself seems to lean in this direction in the final section of this book. His contempt for the values of today's conservative politicians is well placed, yet if the 'better angels of our nature', as he puts it, are to triumph, then the foundations of US capitalism will have to perish rather than be reformed or readjusted.
That is the reality that led to people coming onto the streets of Seattle demanding change, demanding a different world, demanding real freedom. People with 'nothing left to lose'?
Laureate's Block and Other Poems
The collection is named Laureate's Block after the poem which was published in the Guardian, to the great delight of all republicans, as the powers that be were pondering who should be honoured with the title of poet laureate. In Laureate's Block Harrison weaves together his personal feelings about love and the death of Ted Hughes with the writing of the 18th century poet Thomas Gray, one of a long line of poets who have refused the toadying of laureateship. Gray understood how seductive 'bland emollient saponaceous qualities of sack and silver' were, and yet refused to be 'rat catcher to his majesty' and smell of rats for ever after. Harrison claims his right to freely criticise the establishment, to 'scatter scorn on Number 10' and, memorably, to 'blast and bollock Blair's Britain'.
This volume shows how, even before Laureate's Block, Harrison had made his feelings pretty clear in 'A Celebratory Ode on the Abdication of King Charles III', another great, and hopefully prophetic, republican rhyme. In this poem Harrison savages the Divine Right and 'anything that still pretends/divinity shapes human ends'. He bemoans the lost opportunity of the beheading of Charles I, so that 'it has taken all this while/desceptring this sceptred isle'.
These republican poems are great, outraged and outrageous, but Harrison's skill at subversion goes further. It takes a great imagination to see the revolutionary possibilities of the 'beetle bonkers in the beams' which 'spell the end of old regimes', but in Deathwatch Danceathon this is exactly what Harrison sees:
Zed Books £14.95
'It was necessary to leave the villages in the daytime to hide from the aeroplanes that would drop bombs. The land would shake because of the bombs dropping... So in the mornings at first light we would move back into the hills, leaving behind the old and the sick who could run no more.' Thus an East Timorese villager describes the attacks of British-Aerospace-supplied Hawk aircraft in 1978. The three Hawks en route to Indonesia during the recent vote for independence may yet be used against separatists in Irian Jaya or Aceh by the new 'democratic' president, Wahid.
John Taylor's comprehensive account of the Indonesian army's brutal occupation of East Timor was first published in the early 1990s and breached the wall of silence maintained by an international community up to its neck in the blood of innocent East Timorese through arms deals, oil contracts and continued economic aid to Indonesia. Thus the republication of this book, with a new introduction and a detailed chronology of events up to the present, is welcome.
Taylor demonstrates the crucial involvement of US imperialism right from the inception of Indonesia's plans to annex East Timor. The invasion was delayed by several days to allow President Ford and Henry Kissinger to leave Jakarta. He explains the importance of the Ombai and Wetar straits north of East Timor as the only deep sea passage from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean open to US nuclear submarines following their defeat in Vietnam. Shortly after the invasion Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser travelled to Jakarta with JB Reid of BHP, the company that was to negotiate drilling rights in the oil-rich Timor Gap.
What has been the cost for the East Timorese? Of a population numbering less than 700,000, some 200,000 were murdered or died of starvation and disease. The continued resistance of the East Timorese guerrillas of Fretilin against incredible odds forced the occupying forces to act with extreme brutality. Thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps. The generals embarked on a series of campaigns against Fretilin employing a strategy known as 'pagar betis' or 'fence of legs'--every East Timorese male between 15 and 50 was forced to walk in front of Indonesian lines for hundreds of miles to flush out the guerrillas--many died as a result.
Social engineering was to become an increasingly dominant strand of the generals' strategy as the military stalemate persisted. Transmigration from Java was encouraged, thousands of East Timorese women were forcibly sterilised. The authorities also encouraged Catholicism as a means of social control, but this rebounded on them as the church became a centre of resistance. Bishop Belo (later to win the Nobel Prize) became a figurehead of opposition.
Unfortunately the main narrative of this book concludes in the early 1990s, so it fails to convey of the rising class struggle in Indonesia that inspired renewed confidence in the possibility of liberation in East Timor (although these episodes are recounted in some detail in the chronology). From being a classic guerrilla movement supported by the passive resistance of the mass of the population, the struggle was transformed as the mass of urban youth centred around Dili University took to the stage, working closely with protesting Indonesian students.
However, the new introduction provides authoritative proof of the extent of Indonesian army involvement in the arming of the militias--$2 million was paid directly by the military to equip and train them. It also demonstrates the cynical realpolitik of the western powers in trying to stabilise the region behind the masquerade of UN legality. Under the current settlement, where the militias continue to operate freely in West Timor, there is every possibility of some form of informal partition emerging to impede East Timor's democratic development. Only the continued rising levels of class struggle in the region will sweep away this legacy of imperialism.
Working Class Movement Library £6
This is a modestly priced biography of socialist, labour activist and historian Eddie Frow, written by his partner Ruth Frow, a well known activist and historian in her own right.
Frow was born in 1906 and died in 1997. The book tells the story of his progress from youthful Communist Party member, to full time Manchester official for the AEU engineering union, to one of the best known labour historians in the country. Unlike many who have made similar journeys, Frow did not move to the right politically or acquire a comfortable status. Instead he continued battling for socialist ideas and organisation until the end of his days.
Eddie Frow joined the Communist Party in Leeds as an engineering apprentice in 1924. He was sacked for participating in the General Strike. As an activist Frow combined trade union work with political organisation and an interest in learning Marxist theory. Frow had attended Leeds Labour College from 1923. Moving to Liverpool in 1929, he became the secretary of a small Communist Party branch and went as part of a delegation to Moscow.
During the 1930s Frow was more out of work than in because of victimisation. He sold the Daily Worker, produced a rank and file paper, the Salford Docker, and became chair of Salford National Unemployed Workers Movement. Clashes with police over the means test led to several months imprisonment in harsh conditions. Ruth Frow argues that it was this experience above anything else that finally turned Frow into a convinced revolutionary socialist.
As a Communist in the AEU, Frow was constantly under threat of victimisation by the union leadership. In 1931 he was expelled from the union for criticising an agreement on wage cuts. A rank and file campaign led to his reinstatement in 1932. He first stood for the position of AEU Manchester district secretary in 1937 but was not finally elected until 1961, aged 56. Even then he was soon suspended without pay for three months for contravening a minor rule--collections in Manchester factories paid his wages in this period--and he was denied an AEU pension when he retired.
Frow was dismayed by the revelations made in Khrushchev's 1956 'secret speech' about the real nature of Stalin's rule in Russia. He accepted that it was a reality but did not resign from the CP. Instead he threw himself into a study of British labour history, in search of what he clearly saw as an alternative socialist tradition. It was this that led Eddie and Ruth Frow to amass a vast collection of books, pamphlets and artefacts. Numerous pamphlets and books of their own followed, usually co-written by Eddie and Ruth. The books they gathered are now collected in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.
Despite sometimes distorted politics, Eddie Frow kept on organising and agitating, and he also kept on learning. We are the poorer for the loss of Eddie Frow, but we will see his like again.
Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee
Set in contemporary Britain, this story is told through the eyes of three women--Tania, Chila and Sunita. They have grown up in the Hindu community of east London and have been friends since school. Now, in their early 30s, the bonds of friendship which held them together are facing new tests. Tania is making her way in the hard and highly competitive world of documentary production; Sunita, after being involved in the Anti Nazi League and various political activities at college, has married her university sweetheart, works for the Citizens' Advice Bureau and has two young children; Chila has just married, in a traditional Hindu marriage, to Deepak a young businessman.
The story is full of interesting observations, the everyday experiences of the characters, the crumbling social services and the failing NHS: 'Tania had more reason than most to hate hospitals, but it was not the nearness of death or illness that bothered her, it was the impotence, the handing over of control to an army of well meaning cogs in a slowly fragmenting machine.' This novel also explores the family and the complex relationships which develop. The family is seen in the context of the Hindu community, and the clash between the traditional ideas of the elders and the new-found freedoms of the younger generations.
Deepak's sisters do not approve of Chila--she does not have the right family connections to be a suitable match for him--so he is faced with a series of visits from their single friends in an attempt to entice him away from her. Chila, portrayed as virginal and pure during the marriage ceremony, describes having pre-marital sex with Deepak in a lock up, and how, when you ask a Hindu man if he has protection, you are referring to a car with tinted windows and a baseball bat in the boot.
Throughout her childhood Tania's father constantly embarrasses her with his tall tales to vistors of the family's wealth and success. Yet Tania longs for the familiarity and comfort she has found among her friends and relations. Sunita's serene and wise grandmother, Mata-ji, maintains her poise despite her advanced age and aching limbs by daydreaming of her youthful sexual adventures with her now dead husband: 'Inside her head was possibly the most pleasant place to be... She spent many a happy hour recalling their gymnastic lovemaking in various hot locations.'
The women hold their friendship together through nights out and phone calls. Their lives have taken quite different directions but things come to a head when Tania makes a documentary featuring her friends. A new light is thrown upon their lives which makes everyone sit up and take note. The story is full of optimism, of people surviving and fitting into what is often a hostile environment. The book is not all 'ha ha hee hee', but it is a very good read.
Women, Work and Islamism
Zed Books £13.95
To western media commentators, women in Iran rank alongside those in Afghanistan. They are the epitome of oppression--veiled, marginalised, abused. A very different view is presented in this new book.
Maryam Poya surveys the debate between secular feminists and Muslim feminists inside and outside Iran. They are polarised between two wrong views--one that says the Islamisation of the state has successfully marginalised women economically and socially, the other which says Islamisation has liberated women from being treated as commodities and sex objects. Poya disagrees with the way both views emphasise ideological phenomena. She rightly argues that if you look at material factors a far more complex picture emerges.
The initial rhetoric of Khomeini's regime was that of seclusion--the complete withdrawal of women from the public sphere and their confinement to the home. But this was undermined by a number of factors, particularly the impact of the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, which drastically increased demand for female labour while families desperately needed women to work outside the home in order to survive. Poya writes, 'In the late 1980s and 1990s the state attempted economic expansion and had to respond to the pressures of war, economic dislocation and rigidities in the labour market. Expediency replaced the initial hard ideological line with a pragmatic acceptance of an increase in the female labour force.'
As a consequence of this, the rhetoric of the regime changed from 'seclusion' to 'segregation'. But the segregation of men and women workers in the workplace unintentionally paved the way for even greater numbers of religious women to enter the workforce, and so intensified the process. A comparison of the statistics for the pre-1979 period, for the 1980s and for the 1990s shows that women's participation in the workforce has barely changed.
But the official statistics vastly underestimate the extent to which women work. Many employers do not register women workers to avoid paying tax and insurance. Other women whose work is a vital source of income, like carpet weavers based at home, are also not registered on the statistics. 'This was confirmed by my observation in 1992, when I counted 150 shops in one street in northern Tehran selling female clothes,' writes Poya. 'They all employed female shop assistants; on average, each shop employed three women at different times of the day, and none of them was registered as a worker.'
This is a mainly academic book that surveys debates in academic literature. It is strengthened considerably by two things. Firstly, the author employs a broadly Marxist view of class, and secondly, in researching the book, the author interviewed women workers in Iran. Their quotes, which are both fascinating and remarkably familiar, litter some of the chapters.
Under Islamic sharia law, women must obtain permission from their husbands to go out to work. But Poya's interviews make it clear that permission is often a mere formality: 'When I interviewed a number of women factory workers and agricultural workers/carpet weavers, and asked them about how they obtained permission from their male kin, they looked at me as if I was asking a strange question, and then laughed and said "men have to give their permission, there is no choice".'
Despite her insistence that women are divided by class, Maryam Poya's framework remains essentially feminist. Yet she gives no indication about how women on their own can achieve their liberation. Nonetheless, this must be the most up-to-date study of women in Iran available, and it has a grasp of the complexities of sexual oppression and class exploitation.
US Labor and Political Action 1918-24
The absence of a labour party in the United States is often explained through the idea of American 'exceptionalism'. According to this, workers in the US are not, and have never been, interested in forming such a party, because they are ideologically committed to the 'American Dream'.
As Andrew Strouthous argues in his introduction, this view of history serves as a justification of the present, but does not explore the 'possibilities of the past'. Rather than being content with the status quo today--which millions of Americans are not, as the mass alienation from the two main capitalist parties and the trade union participation at Seattle indicates--workers in the US have periodically attempted to protect and extend their rights through the building of a labour party.
Strouthous explores the struggle for unions to find a political voice in the period after the First World War by examining the experience of building labour parties in New York, Chicago and Seattle. The end of the war ushered in a period of turmoil in the US. Millions of workers wanted to retain and extend the workplace and anti-trust legislation of wartime. The impulse for the new parties came from union officials frustrated with the pro-business Democrats and Republicans and nervous about left wing poles of attraction--the Socialist Party and the newly formed Communist Party. But it also came from rising workers' confidence and the heightened atmosphere of revolt that shook Europe after the war.
In part, the fight for the labour parties was therefore a fight for an alternative to mass workers' action, which had been glimpsed in the big strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) before the war, and in the general strike in Seattle in 1919. The attempt to create an organisation to both challenge US capital and contain workers' action was summed up by the Chicago labour paper, the Majority, when it stated that the mayoral election of 1919 was a fight between 'big business and labour', and that a vote for labour would help prevent revolution!
However, the impetus for a party that was rooted in working class organisations, with a genuinely reformist platform, was still a step forward for millions of workers, and the book rightly rejects the notion that the failure of the labour party experiment was determined in advance. There certainly was a mood for independent politics, as the presidential election in 1924 shows, in which progressive candidate Robert La Follette won nearly 5 million votes. Strouthous argues that the opportunity was thrown away, at least in part due to the vacillation of the progressives. There was a sharp division within the AFL between the reforming element in the union and the conservative union leaders who fought tooth and nail to prevent the federation allying itself to the new labour parties.
The lengths to which the conservative wing of the AFL leadership went to crush the new parties were extreme, including using thugs to break up meetings. But they were aided by the response of the progressives who were unwilling to break from the AFL and feared the more radical left, and therefore capitulated to the right rather than fight back.
The book illustrates the contradictory pressures within the union movement in a volatile period, arguing that declining militancy and union membership after 1921 weakened the progressives, and shows that the nature of reformist ideology is not uniform but shaped by the different experiences and political forces that workers and their leaders are exposed to. Strouthous details how the relative strength and spread of union membership, the local machinery of the main parties, the role of women and blacks, and the attitude of the socialists and the left affected the labour parties. Unfortunately, the material is very detailed and assumes a great deal. In addition, although the local studies are obviously central, I felt that a wider context would have helped in understanding the general picture behind the comparison of the three cities. However, this is a useful book which deals with an important and relatively unexplored part of US working class history.
Hope for Rwanda
Hope? For Rwanda?
This was the central African country where around 800,000 people were butchered in government sponsored murder in 1994. This is the country where the Hutu-Tutsi division is said to be unbridgeable and where massacres are still horrifically frequent. It is a measure of this remarkable book that by the end you do feel there is cause for optimism.
Sibomana (who died last year) was born poor, and became a Catholic priest. He had a strong sense of the need to fight injustice. While Sibomana (a Hutu) was training to be a priest the authorities tried to persecute the students from the Tutsi minority.
Sibomana helped organise protests and demonstrations. When the leaders of the resistance were disciplined, Sibomana persuaded his colleagues to strike. They won and the Tutsi students were also reinstated.
Sibomana eventually came to work for the Catholic newspaper, the only voice of opposition under the regime of President Habyarimana.
His newspaper tore into government corruption. It also reflected Sibomana's disappointment with the pope's visit in 1990 which only served to entrench Habyarimana in power.
This book leaves you in no doubt about the horror of the 1994 massacres. But it also gives you the material to explain them. Sibomana points out that 'in the early 1990s Rwanda entered a phase of economic recession just as the International Monetary Fund was demanding draconian readjustment plans. Unemployment was continually rising affecting whole swathes of society and fuelling overall discontent.
'There were many, especially young people from poor districts, whose lives were completely empty, who had no family, no religion, no work, and no hope. They turned upside down the value system to which they no longer had access: instead of taking advantage of their youth to build themselves a life they used their energy to destroy the lives of others.' He shows that the killing was organised from the top and driven by official propaganda which marked the Tutsis as subhuman.
When a new government was formed in Rwanda after the massacres, Sibomana continued to demand human rights. He took up the unpopular cause of the tens of thousands of Hutu prisoners who were incarcerated (guilty and innocent together) and left to rot.
The best parts of this book are when Sibomana strongly identifies with the poor against the rich and says that the only way forward is for people to unite for progress. Rwanda is not another planet. There are people from all backgrounds who want a better world but are blocked by governments and the rich.