Issue 240 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
A World to Win
At the age of 83 Tony Cliff still seems to set about things with an energy and urgency which would frighten the life out of most of the rest of us. After 65 years of constant political activity, he still takes on an average of three meetings a week. And here we find him taking his mind off an impending heart operation last year by dashing off an autobiography and political memoir. The idea that he might pursue the alternative--of doing nothing--was one that he says 'filled me with horror'.
It becomes clear from the early chapters of the book that this response should not really come as much of a surprise: Cliff has always displayed a deep-rooted aversion to passivity in any form. His political activity began in Palestine at the age of 14, and by the age of 18 he had already read the three volumes of Capital, as well as the works of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg.
When he was sent to prison a few weeks after the start of the Second World War, for printing and distributing anti-war leaflets, he came up with two ideas to overcome the tedium and shortage of literature. One was to learn French, which he did by comparing, sentence by sentence, a French edition of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days alongside an English translation. he then became intrigued by the possibility that he might be able to undertake a marxist interpretation of the Bible (much easier to come by in the gaol) guided by Engels' writings on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State!
During Cliff's first few years of political activity, in the early 1930s, his politics moved rapidly from mainstream Zionism to a more 'marxist' variant, then briefly to Stalinism and finally to Trotskyism. Within a few weeks of Hitler coming to power, Cliff realised that Stalin's theory of 'social fascism' was a disaster. But he only became aware of the existence of a thought-out alternative set of ideas which could explain why Stalin was wrong when he came across a few articles written by Trotsky that brilliantly analysed the nature of Nazism and accurately forecast the utter catastrophe which would ensue if Hitler were victorious.
From this point onwards Cliff became a Trotskyist and subsequently never wavered in his detestation of Stalinism. But it was not such an easy decision at the time. Stalinism exerted a powerful emotional strangehold on many of its adherents. As Cliff writes, 'It would be a mistake to underestimate the agony of the break with Stalinism [which had] a huge attraction for people fearful of Hitler...the more defeats the working class suffered, the greater was the attachment to Stalinism as a force that could stand up to Hitler in the future.'
For many readers of Socialist Review, who are reasonably well acquainted already with Cliff's activities since he arrived in Britain in the 1950s, possibly the most engrossing passages in this book relate to the many trials and tribulations shared with his lifetime companion and best comrade, Chanie Rosenberg, in earlier years. But there is much else here on the development of Cliff's ideas and the precarious first steps taken to build the International Socialists and Socialist Review groups which has not previously appeared in print to my knowledge.
Explaining how he came to the conclusion that key tenets of the Trotskyist tradition needed to be urgently re-assessed in the postwar period, Cliff says that 'Marxism as a living theory must continue as it is and change at the same time'.
There is plenty here to chew on, both for those of us who started our political lives in the middle of a massive upturn, followed by a lengthy downturn, and for younger comrades. Either way, Cliff makes a number of interesting admissions about coming to terms with the downturn, in the late 1970s, and its disorienting impact on party perspectives.
One of the positive aspects of the downturn was that, already in his late sixties, Cliff then found he had enough time on his hands to write a number of books, including four volumes on Trotsky and two devastating Marxist critiques of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. Typically, he rounds off at the end of the book by expressing regret that circumstances have conspired to make it impossible for him to play a more direct and active role in the development of sister organisations to the SWP overseas--even though, as in all else, his own contribution has been immeasurable.
A Natural History of Rape
Randy Thornhill and Craig T Palmer
MIT Press £17.95
I would like to shake the hand of the woman who spat in Thornhill's face after a lecture he gave in the 1980s. I hope he and his partner in crime, Palmer, encounter more women like her in the future.
Their book is a vile piece of pseudo-scientific right wing nonsense. It serves only one purpose: to excuse rapists and to justify the continuation of women's oppression. It is an attack on the women's liberation movement and social scientists. It is derogatory to men, insulting to women and homophobic into the bargain.
Thornhill and Palmer present us with a theoretical justification for rape based on Darwin's theory of evolution. Yet Darwin would never have offered us anything as crude and as ill-researched as our foes. They may use his language and studies but Darwin was not a biological determinist--Thornhill and Palmer are. They say that 'science has nothing to say about what is right and what is wrong in the ethical sense. Biology provides understanding, not justification, of human behaviour.' They want us to believe that theirs is a science book, using objective rules and laws. In fact it is a political book--similar to those used to justify capitalist greed (Dawkins' The Selfish Gene) and to condone racism (Murray's The Bell Curve). Now we have one on rape!
They have written off society as a factor in our behaviour, believing that our sexuality and sexual behaviour are predetermined by our genes and mirroring the behaviour of animals. Everything is offered up, from scorpionfly rape to monogamous harbour seals. 'We would not be surprised to hear social scientists suggest, next, that insects, other anthropods, other invertebrates, and most vertebrates are somehow being influenced during development by music videos, television and movies.'
They use the available studies and data on rape, particularly 'date' rape, to justify their view of men as animals with one mission: to reproduce. In doing so, they offer us no explanation for the small number of rapes committed by strangers and tie themselves in knots about 'evolved behavioural psychology'. If you can't explain it--make up a theory! For example, 'We call a behaviour learned when we have identified a specific experiential factor as necessary for its occurrence.' Or try this one: 'Women's sexual jealousy toward their mates could more accurately be called resource and commitment jealousy.' So, if rape is biologically determined, it is justifiable on the grounds that men just can't help themselves. As they say: 'The large size of the human penis and testicles relative to those of other primates also appears to be an adaptation for sperm competition.'
Coupled with their homophobia, the book makes horrific reading: 'The sexual behaviour of homosexual men also illustrates men's evolved motivation for sexual variety without commitment. Although heterosexual and homosexual men desire new sexual partners in equal number, homosexual men have far more new partners because their sex partners are men, who share their desire for new partners.'
It gets worse: 'Rapes and other sexual assaults of males by males constitute only about 1 to 3 percent of sexual assaults, but data show that these sexual assualters also prefer youthful features in their victims. This pattern is likely to be a byproduct of men's evolved preference for young sex partners.' This could be the editorial line of the Sun--gay men are promiscuous and prone to paedophilia!
Thornhill and Palmer are at least consistent--their views on women are as progressive as their opinion of homosexuals. Women are, in the tradition of the right wing, blamed for rape and sexual violence. Of course, they wouldn't court disaster by saying that we 'asked for it', but that is what they are in fact saying. Women are offered 'advice' on how to avoid rape: don't wear low necklines, etc. Sound familiar? We're reading the Sun again.
There are many problems with this book, one being that the straw doll being knocked is a right wing caricature of feminism. Therefore, rape is about sex for Thornhill and Palmer, about violence for the feminists. What about the relationship between the two put into a social and economic context? Even Susan Brownmiller had to end up contradicting herself in her pathbreaking book on rape. She wanted to write a book to prove that 'every man is a potential rapist', and after careful research discovered this wasn't the case.
Every right wing bigot will applaud their 'scientific' justification for rape and its conclusions. We need to see it for what it is--filth. And the only two animals worth mentioning are the pigs who wrote it.
Dragons Led by Poodles
If I was to tell you that this book was written by a man who describes himself as a fan of former Labour leader John Smith, and who at one point argues for partnership with big business and competitive tendering in councils, you would hardly expect it to get a great review. Yet this is a man who has been wounded by the party he loves, and stung by a plethora of stitch-ups in the leadership contest for the Welsh Labour Party in the run-up to the leadership elections. Paul Flynn sees this as the first time in its history that Labour has acted without principles. We could point to a long line of betrayals from Labour governments, ranging from James Callaghan shutting down Cardiff's steelworks to Ramsay MacDonald crossing the floor. But that's not the point. It doesn't immediately answer the question--why did Blair and his Millbank muppets plump for an android like Alun Michael rather than Rhodri Morgan when polls suggested Labour's vote would have been 9 percent higher under Rhodri?
In trying to answer this Paul Flynn is pulled between 'common sense' arguments about the market, and wholesale opposition to the private finance initiative in hospitals. As such, the book gives an insight into the mindset of those Labour members who just can't stomach the arm-twisting, the backbiting and the wholesale destruction of the core values that many joined Labour to fight for, but who also can't see an alternative. This turns the book into a well-lobbed incendiary at the Blairite project.
Flynn begins with the resignation of Ron Davies after his 'walk on Clapham Common'. He is filled with disbelief. Flynn obviously has a stereotypical image of what a gay or bisexual MP might look like and Ron wasn't it--after all, he went to the rugby, didn't he?
Soon the Labour Party, already weary after one leadership election, was embroiled in yet another. Alun Michael, who was quite happy with a job in Westminster, was 'persuaded' to stand as Blair's favoured candidate against the popular Rhodri Morgan. They were both MPs in Cardiff but, although there wasn't much to separate them politically, it was their approach that showed their differences. This could be seen in their attitude to local issues such as the Cardiff Barrage. Rhodri attended several public meetings, including those of opponents of the scheme. Alun Michael automatically sided with the pro-barrage speculators of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. Both MPs had constituencies in the affected area.
The leadership election plunged the Welsh party into a civil war, and according to the polls Alun Michael and ultimately Tony Blair were staring defeat in the face. A telephone poll gave Rhodri Morgan 84 percent to Alun Michael's 16 percent. A poll in the South Wales Echo had Rhodri on 1,754 to Michael's 334. More importantly, in Unison--one of the few unions that actually balloted its members--Rhodri won by three to one. Peter Hain immediately denounced Unison as Trotskyists! Rhodri called for an assembly for the people, not the establishment.
A remedy to this outcome was found by the Blairites in their electoral college--which they kitted out with a variety of arm-twisting, stitch-ups and the good, old fashioned practice of trade union leaders casting votes on their members' behalf (a bit like the election of Frank Dobson over Ken Livingstone, really). Every hand-crafted stitch and well-choreographed spin is detailed in this book, as is the hilarious account of Michael's search for a constituency that would actually have him.
The effect of this on the Labour Party in Wales and the elections to the assembly was devastating. Labour lost its strongholds in Islwyn, Rhondda and Llanelli to Plaid Cymru. As Paul Flynn writes, 'Some of the best in the party are disillusioned and have gone--others will soldier on with little conviction or hope.' And what was the 'Michael for leader' campaign all for? He was forced to recently resign, and was replaced by the man that Blair was so desperate to stop, who now apparently has Blair's blessing. At least with Ken Livingstone you get to cut out the middle man.
I remember being at an anti-barrage meeting where Rhodri Morgan was speaking. I pointed out to him that the reason he didn't get offered the job at the Welsh Office was because he still had some principles . At the last ever demonstration against the barrage, Rhodri, the economic development secretary, was being slated for giving the barrage the go-ahead. During the election for leader we used to say you could only separate Rhodri and Alun's politics by a cigarette paper. I think the cigarette paper has just slipped.
The Heart of the War in Colombia
Constanza Ardila Galvis
Latin American Bureau £11.99
In an attempt to explore the psychological effects of the civil war in Colombia, Constanza Ardila Galvis brings together ten ordinary Colombians whose lives have been devastated by the conflict that has engulfed their country. They have come together to make sense of the war and their participation in it. Each has a harrowing and painful story to recount. Invariably their accounts reflect lives despoiled by violence, abuse and injustice, and each is told honestly and sincerely.
The background to this suffering is an unspeakably vicious civil war that has cost the lives of 35,000 civilians in the last decade alone, with 3,000 to 4,000 political assassinations occurring each year. Left wing guerrilla groups, controlling nearly 40 percent of mainly rural Colombia, are pitted against the army and the savage paramilitaries who have perpetrated massacres of farmers, trade unionists and activists. The violence in the countryside is mirrored by a deep economic crisis. Industrial production has fallen by over 9 percent, and official unemployment now stands at more than 20 percent.
Growing concern over the strength of the guerrillas has provoked Clinton into asking Congress this year for a fourfold increase in military aid to the Colombian government, raising it at a stroke to over $1 billion. A neat sleight of hand has been employed to blur the distinction between the guerrillas and the narcotraffickers, thereby raising the spectre of a 'narcoterrorist' threat to US trade with Latin America.
It is against this background that the testimonies in this timely book must be considered. Some of the subjects joined the guerrillas to achieve a better society, others were born inside guerrilla groups and had no option but to join, while others merely exploited the opportunity to make a living with the impunity that a civil war endows. The hopes, ideals and principles of these people have been crushed by the conflict.
Again and again their attempts to explain inequalities in society end with them blaming themselves and each other for being born poor and without access to proper food, clothing or shelter. But in this search for an explanation to the violence that has corrupted their lives, they begin to make connections between the rigid education at home and the path this makes for the intolerant and violent society they live in. From here they proceed to question the most untouchable values of family, church and army.
It is plain that the individuals in this book are prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to achieve a non-violent society. The leaders of the FARC, the largest guerrilla organisation, have good grounds for arguing that a peaceful road to change is not viable, but have a limited approach towards pursuing their aims. The working class is not seen as an independent political force, despite the involvement of 2 million trade unionists in a general strike in September 1999, but rather as part of a broad front that fights for democracy. Paul Reyes, a FARC leader, told Richard Grasso, head of the New York stock exchange, that they don't oppose foreign investment or free market mechanisms as long as social justice is guaranteed.
This book provides insights into the psychological effects of political violence. It fails, however, to provide a wider analysis that locates the suffering in the context of the struggle for a totally new society; one in which workers not only have equal rights, the right to education, the right to work, to vote, but also to be free and to control their own lives.
Engels After Marx
Ed: Manfred B Steger and Terrell Carver
Pennsylvania State University Press £14.99
In what is by far the best essay in this collection, SH Rigby challenges the 'self-serving demonisation of Engels' that is characteristic of the bulk of academic Marxism. 'Twentieth century Marxists, who otherwise differ profoundly amongst themselves, have found some measure of agreement in attacking Engels for supposedly transforming Marx's thought from a critique of political economy based on the concept of revolutionary praxis to a passive materialistic science that was to form the foundation for Soviet dialectical materialism.' Rigby goes on to show, through a comparison of the historical writings of Marx and Engels, that this demonisation is unjustifiable. Engels did not in substance differ in his method from Marx. Both of them made a real contribution to intellectual history.
Rigby is not a Marxist. If the other writers in this book are Marxists then neither am I, because with one or two exceptions, the essays in this book merrily continue the demonisation of Engels that Rigby so rightfully challenges. This demonisation has been made a kind of cottage industry, in no small measure because of the work of one of this collection's co-editors, Terrell Carver. It was Carver in an earlier work who made the outrageous speculation that Marx probably had criticisms of Engels' Marxism as developed in Anti-Dühring, but kept quiet about it so as not to jeopardise Engels' financial support for himself and his family. This ridiculous assertion, never backed up by any evidence, is repeated by Carver and others in this collection.
We discover that old Engels was responsible for many bad things. His Marxism apparently laid the basis for the reformism of the Second International and for the 'official Marxism' of Stalinism. These are charges that have been made before. Lawrence Wilde takes this one step further, saying that Engels' writings on military strategy 'revealed a hideous ideal of the militaristic education of boys, which was later taken up in exaggerated form by the Nazis'. Engels apparently 'laid the groundwork' for the leaders of the Second International's rush to support world war in 1914, and the tenor of these same writings 'played its part in the premature revolutionary actions of 1917-19'.
How one man could lay the basis for the pro-war socialists of 1914 and the revolutionary anti-war socialists of the years 1917 to 1919, is a little hard to imagine. But there's more. Apparently, it is in his polemical style of writing that we find 'the origins of 20th century Marxist invective.'
It is in part simply bad scholarship which allows respectable thinkers to draw such silly conclusions. Wilde attributes to Marx a quotation that was in fact made by a book reviewer of one of Marx's works. Michael Forman horribly mangles a quotation from the Communist Manifesto to try to show that Marx and Engels believed it would be enough for workers to achieve political rights for them to achieve political supremacy.
But there is more than bad scholarship at work here. A key premise of this book is that there were in the recent past 'orthodox Marxist regimes' (Carver's term), but they suddenly disappeared ten years ago. These authors, then, accept that the official ideology of the Stalinist states was a type of Marxism.
They ignore the rather large, and growing, body of literature, not the least of which comes from the International Socialist tendency, which documents convincingly that the Stalinist regimes were not a variant of Marxism, but a variant of capitalism (state capitalism), whose ideologies were the antithesis of Marxism. Stalinism didn't arise because of a deep flaw in the Marx-Engels legacy. It arose because of bureaucratic degeneration and counter-revolution. Its foundation was built with the bones of orthodox Marxists, not their ideas.
There are some pieces in the collection that avoid the demonisation trap. Joseph Margolis compliments Engels for a sophisticated understanding of historical materialism which avoids the trap of determinism. Peter Manicas, while differing from much of Engels's philosophy of science, does treat the old man with respect. Douglas Kellner presents Marx and Engels as the founders of modern social theory, and argues that 'Engels preceded Marx in focusing attention on the differences between modern and premodern society... Engels played a leading role in theorising the distinctive features of the modern world.'
The fact that any essays emerge which don't castigate Engels for mythical crimes is a welcome change. There seems to be a slight shift in the anti-Engels academic Marxist front. But it is only slight.
Seeing and Believing
Fourth Estate £12.00
There was a time when most scholars believed that the earth lay at the centre of the universe. However, over the last 400 years, a series of startling discoveries have relegated our planet to the status of an anonymous ball of dirt, orbiting an unremarkable star on the edge of one amongst billions of galaxies. The astronomical telescope has played a key role at every stage in this process, and it is the impact of this device on our conception of our place in the universe that Richard Panek charts in Seeing and Believing.
Popular science writing is increasingly characterised by short, engaging narratives, which concentrate on the personalities of the scientists contributing to a narrow field of learning. Seeing and Believing is no exception to this trend; the lack of technical detail is, at times, frustrating. Worse still is the narrow conception of history that this book presents. Panek is so focused on his immediate subject that, rather like some of the telescopes he describes, he loses sight of the bigger picture. The developments he outlines begin to look like a continuous and inevitable unfolding of rationality carried forward by a series of great scientists. This is particularly grating where Panek uses material that contradicts his own method.
The book starts by describing the intellectual climate among academics early in the 17th century. By this time, the renaissance of classical learning had been replaced across much of Europe by a stifling scholasticism that treated the works of the ancient world as an unchallengable dogma. This view was in tension with an emerging scientific worldview more in tune with the embryonic capitalist system of production. It was in this context that Galileo Galilei took up and improved the newly invented telescope, making a series of observations (the craters of the lunar surface, the shifting pattern of sunspots and the moons of Jupiter) that challenged the dominant notion of a perfect and timeless cosmos centred on the earth. However, the ideas that Galileo unleashed were not simply taken up by others and developed in a straightforward and linear manner. Instead they were at once caught up in the wider ideological and political struggles of the time; for a while the counter-Reformation gained the upper hand and Galileo was forced to recant. After his death, post-revolutionary Britain was to become the world leader in astronomy with figures such as Newton, Halley, Flamsteed and Bradley making major contributions.
The circumstances leading up to the invention of the telescope are themselves worthy of analysis. The components necessary to construct a telescope would have been present in any spectacle maker's workshop from the 13th century onwards. It is likely that the telescope was repeatedly 'invented' in different places and at different times. Panek does not attempt to explain why, in 1608, the invention took off in the Low Countries, which were at the time the most economically dynamic region of Europe. Nor does he consider the effect of the market, which was transforming the old feudal order, in spreading the invention.
Because he concentrates on the 'pure' astronomical applications of the telescope Panek mentions only in passing one of the main impetuses behind its development: military rivalry. For example, Galileo was able to market the telescope to his wealthy patrons by promising that it would 'allow us at sea to discover at a distance much greater than usual the hulls and sails of the enemy...on land to look inside the fortresses, billets and defences of the enemy.' This trend is even clearer in the 20th century, with important innovations such as radio astronomy and space-based telescopes coming as a spin-off from, or cover for, the attempts of the great powers to spy on and threaten each other.
Like much of the writing in this genre this book fails to grapple with the vital question: why did history take a certain course? Panek is at his best when explaining how new insights and inventions can impact upon society. But this is a one-sided approach if it fails to explore the way in which ideas and technology arise out of society.
The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans
John Murray £25.00
Eric Johnson has written an important book which shows us in great detail how the Nazis ruled Germany. By studying three Rhineland communities--Cologne, Krefeld and Bergheim--Johnson is able to show who the local Gestapo were. Using thousands of original Gestapo case files alongside interviews with Germans and German Jews, Johnson creates a picture of the Gestapo officers responsible for controlling the local population and persecuting the Jews.
In the process he takes serious issue with Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, which claimed Germans were collectively responsible for the Holocaust which claimed 6 million Jewish lives. He offers instead an explanation which tries to put into perspective the limited opposition the Nazis faced from the German population after Hitler had consolidated his rule.
The result is a far more sophisticated and useful analysis of Nazi terror than anything Goldhagen has to offer, but one that also contains problems. The Nazi strategy, once in power, was to pick enemies off one by one, beginning with the Communists and the unions, then working through other potential sources of opposition, until they culminated in the ultimate obscenity of the Holocaust.
'Never the focus of the Nazi terror apparatus,' writes Johnson, 'most ordinary Germans had an experience during the years of the Third Reich wholly unlike that of the Nazi regime's targeted enemies.
Even the most brutal of police states needs to be able to count on the compliance and complicity of ordinary citizens to destroy its enemies and accomplish its goals successfully. Except on very rare occasions the Gestapo did not dole out terror indiscriminately against the German population.
'It wisely concentrated its limited but sufficient resources on selected targets like Jews, Communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and at times turned its attention to socialists, homosexuals, clergymen, habitual criminals and some other groups. For the unfortunate minorities...there could be no question that they were victims of a police state.'
Johnson is determined not to tag all Germans as Nazis, but to pin blame on the Nazis and the Gestapo. Discussing Goldhagen, Johnson writes, 'It is certainly correct that the Gestapo was not all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnipresent.'
It is also correct that Nazi terror relied heavily on the complicity of the ordinary German population. But the recent trend in historical scholarship threatens to underestimate the enormous culpability of the leading organs of Nazi terror, such as the Gestapo, and to overestimate the culpability of ordinary German citizens.
It needs to be remembered that some Germans were far more guilty than others. However, he has difficulty explaining why Germans did not rise up against the regime or oppose the Holocaust.
He claims the lack of overt opposition from the German population to the slaughter of the Jews stemmed from 'a lack of moral concern about the fate of those who were perceived as outsiders and from a tradition of obsequious submission to authority that the Nazis cultivated but did not originate'. But the failure of the German people to rise up against the Nazis was not the result of moral failure. it stemmed instead from the absolute difficulty of organising resistance after the world's largest Communist Party and Social Democratic Party had been utterly destroyed and the trade union movement with them.
However, he does pay tribute to the Communists' resistance and highlights the way they were the first targets of the Nazi regime. He suggests a united front of Communists and Social Democrats might have thwarted the Nazis in the weeks after Hitler was installed in office, but by then it was too late. Amazingly Johnson appears to be unaware of Trotsky's 1930s writings on Germany whose analysis and insights would have strengthened Johnson's research. Nevertheless, we should not complain when academics produce works of real value to activists.