Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

When something was worse than nothing

Masters of the Universe? Nato's Balkan Crusade
Ed:Tariq Ali
Verso £15.00

Kosovo: War and Revenge
Tim Judah
Yale £12.95

The arguments against last year's Kosovo war are increasingly being vindicated. A recent BBC2 documentary by Allan Little showed how Madeleine Albright and the US State Department manipulated the Rambouillet 'negotiations' in order to prepare their Nato allies for war rather than to achieve a peace deal.

Faced with widespread opposition to the war, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer claimed he had intelligence of an 'Operation Horseshoe' that planned the systematic expulsion of Kosovan Albanians regardless of whether there was bombing. Yet according to a recent Sunday Times article this operation was invented by German intelligence services. If Operation Horseshoe did not exist, it was necessary to invent it to prop up the argument that Nato was trying to stop, rather than provoking, a humanitarian catastrophe.

No wonder then that, reviewing Tim Judah's book in the New Statesman, Stephen Howe wrote, 'Even those of us who endorsed Nato's declared aims--who believed that international action to stop Slobodan Milosevic was both necessary and morally right--tend to be upset about the means used, and depressed about the lasting consequences.'

The new collection of anti-war essays edited by Tariq Ali will be very useful to those who opposed the Kosovo war, and not just with the benefit of hindsight. It develops an analysis of imperialism after the end of the Cold War. Alex Callinicos shows how the ideology of humanitarianism has been increasingly used to cloak imperialist interests. Other essays look at the phases of the break-up of Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia and Kosovo.

During the war we were repeatedly told that the west had no interests in the region. Yet in a speech as the bombing commenced, Clinton explained that a strong US-European relationship 'is what this Kosovo thing is all about'. Gilbert Achcar, in one of the most interesting essays, details how the US state used the expansion of Nato--previously justified as a defensive alliance against the Soviet bloc--to reach right to the borders of the former Soviet Union. Nato's southern flank would reach right up to the Caspian Sea--a key area of oil reserves. The US has been involved in building a new oil pipeline avoiding Russian territory, and thus is constructing new alliances with former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Azerbaijan. In this context the credibility of Nato's threats became something worth going to war over in the Balkans.

Did this war finally bury the US state's fear of the Vietnam Syndrome? To many the US is now the sole superpower, free to declare certain (weaker) states as 'rogue states' and launch military action, even if the identity of these 'rogue states' can change overnight to reflect US strategic interests. But while the US is undoubtedly the strongest imperialism today, the Vietnam Syndrome has not been buried. As Giovanni Arrighi argues in his essay, the tactic of bombing from 15,000 feet was dictated by fear of US casualties and the opposition to the war this might provoke: 'In Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, they have demonstrated that the new ostensible function of US wars... is not worth a single American life.' The post Cold War world we live in may be even more dangerous and unstable, but it is still vulnerable to anti-war opposition.

Tim Judah's book has a much more narrow focus, but it is useful for his firsthand knowledge of events in Kosovo before the bombing, and in particular the development of the KLA. He shows how a central part of its strategy was establishing links with the US, dating back to July 1998. The military commander of the KLA, Agim Ceku, had been a general in the US-trained Croatian army that ethnically cleansed the Krajina in 1995.

Judah wants to sit on the fence when it comes to the question of support for the war. At times he criticises anyone who took a clear position. When fence sitting becomes impossible, he tends to fall onto the pro-war side, but his book is not a pro-war polemic. His access to both Nato and KLA sources sometimes yields insights that show how the gap between truth and propaganda gets even wider in times of war.
Nicolai Gentchev


CAGED BIRDS SING

The Antonio Gramsci Reader
Ed: David Forgacs
Lawrence and Wishart £14.99

The Antonio Gramsci Reader

The ideas of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci have suffered enormous distortion since his death in one of Mussolini's prisons in 1937. Despite having fought his entire life for revolutionary change, Gramsci was portrayed as a loyal Stalinist by the Italian Communist Party after the Second World War and then claimed in the 1960s and 70s by reformists keen to deny the possibility of revolution in the west. The introduction and chapter notes in this new collection are infused with this misinterpretation, but that should not put anyone off what is an excellent introduction to Gramsci's political and cultural writing.
In his own words, it is clear that the reality of Gramsci's active political life set him against such politics time and again. He welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917, arguing that the new order based on the soviets represented the triumph of freedom, and the 'elevation of a people'. As a member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) he threw himself into the factory occupations of 1919-20 in Turin. Editing the socialist paper L'Ordine Nuovo, Gramsci argued that the factory councils which sprang up embodied the potential of a workers' state and lambasted the reformists in the PSI who helped to derail the movement.
The factory councils taught Gramsci that class consciousness develops fastest in struggle and through workers' self organisation, but also the need for a revolutionary party capable of providing leadership for such struggles. In 1921 he was part of the split from the PSI which formed the Communist Party (PCI), and the years before he was imprisoned brought new lessons: crucially how to relate to workers once the revolutionary wave has receded. 'The Lyons Theses', included in this collection, coupled hostility to reformism with an understanding of the need to expose it before the masses through united front activity in a period where fascism was smashing workers' organisations.
Gramsci's active political life ended in 1927 when, 'to stop his brain from working', he was sentenced to 20 years in a fascist jail. Mussolini did not succeed in his aim. His Prison Notebooks, often complicated and coded to evade the censors, represent the theoretical expression of his experiences in the Turin workers' movement, and an attempt to generalise and deepen an understanding of how revolutionaries relate to workers in changing circumstances. In the extracts from his notebooks contained in this book Gramsci contrasts the insurrectionary struggle for power seen in the Russian Revolution, which he described in military terms as a 'war of manoeuvre', to the 'war of position' that involves trying to win influence in a period where the classes appear deadlocked and there is no immediate revolutionary possibility.
Contrary to the reformist conclusion, that the war of position was a permanent state in which socialists gradually achieved their aims through alliances with representatives of other classes, Gramsci was clear that the existing state needed to be overthrown for revolution to succeed. The war of position is still war, not class collaboration. Winning support amongst workers in a non-revolutionary period was a precondition for, not an alternative to, the final assault on state power. Gramsci grasped that in doing so the job of revolutionaries was to relate to workers' consciousness that is fragmented and contradictory, and attempt to win workers to an awareness of the world around them and their ability to change it.
There are weaknesses and ambiguities in Gramsci's work: his view of why workers hold reformist ideas is limited to the influence of ruling ideas, missing out the impact of the alienation arising from the economic reality of workers' lives which is a key component of the hold of reformism. Gramsci's incarceration denied him access to much of Trotsky's writing, which affected his ability to grasp the nature of Russia under Stalin, and indeed his appraisal of Trotsky himself. Prison also cut him off from the living heart of Marxism, the practical intervention in the class struggle. Gramsci was painfully aware of the impact of enforced separation from the working class on his development: 'Books and magazines contain generalised notions and only sketch the course of events in the world as best they can. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.'
For all that, Gramsci's work is a valuable asset for any revolutionary, and this collection is an extremely valuable insight into the life and thought of a committed Marxist who fought in tragic and difficult circumstances.
Megan Trudell


CRADLES AND COFFINS

The Imaginary Time Bomb
Phil Mullan
IB Tauris £18.95

The Imaginary Time Bomb

This book is to be welcomed--any book on pensions which is not a tissue of lies can only help the pensioners' cause. Considering that workers now spend some quarter (and rising) of their adult lives as pensioners, the subject gets far less attention than it deserves.
The chapters--'Ageing in Perspective', 'The Preoccupation with Ageing', and 'Can Ageing Stunt Economic Growth?'--show the authors' main interest is in debunking the ageing myth. He demonstrates that the supposed dire effects of people living longer are part of an ideological and political agenda not backed up by facts or logic. His first concern is to demonstrate that the increasing number of the elderly, set against that of the working age population (the 'demographic deficit' or the dependency ratio) is not increasing at an alarming rate and has increased more rapidly in the past than it is expected to in the future. He also shows how 'dependency ratios' are related not only to the number of coffins, but also to the number of cradles.
He shows that labour productivity always increases much faster than the dependency ratio so there is no basic problem. He asks how there can be a problem over lack of production when there are millions of unemployed and early retired. They, by definition, are prevented from producing. He concludes that the ageing 'problem' is a problem of the system and not of the numbers of the elderly.
I particularly liked his phrase that 'some jobs are more productive than others. Compare a bond trader with a steel worker.' It shows a basic understanding of the nature of British capitalism in particular, which exhibits, among other things, the worst pensions and the biggest financial services sector in the EU--both very relevant to pensions.
British governments have made the growing numbers of the elderly and longer life expectancy an excuse for the unaffordability of the NHS. The NHS has always spent more than 50 percent of its money on the over 60s and a good deal on perinatal services--another instance of cradles and coffins. Mullan exposes the fraud of community care, another example of where a cuddly sounding word hid cuts by transforming free NHS care into means tested care for millions. The act which accomplished this, incidentally, went through parliament without a dissenting voice from Labour.
Mullan notes the very low expenditure on state pay-as-you-go pensions in Britain compared to the rest of the EU, but does not pursue the matter. He shows that the government wants to take pensions expenditure off its balance sheet, but that pensions have to be paid for somehow. He also notes the false claims of the funded pensions providers. He rightly derides their claims that funded pensions are in any way a better, safer, cheaper or more efficient way of providing pensions. But he fails to recognise that the government will go to the stake in support of the City anyway.
I think Mullan is rather unclear about the role of social, or national, insurance as against general taxation in pension provision. State pensions are paid from contributions, as a proportion of wages, from workers and employers. In the UK employers' contributions are less than half to a quarter those of other EU countries. He also misses points about the size of the bloated UK capital market, whose value exceeds that of Germany France and Italy put together, and half of which consists of pension funds. These explain a great deal about not only British poverty pensions, but much else besides.
My biggest criticism, in spite of the fact that this is a very useful book, is that the author does not bring a clear class angle to his subject, for instance over the class division of contributions to National Insurance. Nor does he detail the huge discriminatory consequences against women arising from the 'time bonus' myth. The much better pensions elsewhere in the EU come about because workers fought for them, while union leaders in Britain have put their weight behind funded occupational and lately 'stakeholder' pensions, thereby delivering workers and pensioners to the tender mercies of the City.
Hugh Lowe


BLOOD CONFESSIONS

The Road to Terror
J Arch Getty and Oleg V Naumov
Yale University Press £22.50

The Road to Terror

Is there anything new to be said about Stalin's terror of the 1930s? That Stalin was a ruthless murderer, that he acted not simply out of personal viciousness (though undoubtedly he was a vicious person), that those he repressed were innocent of the absurd accusations made against them (though often not of opposing and detesting Stalin)--all this has been known for years.
New documents from the Russian archives cannot change this basic picture, but they can give us a better understanding of how events unfolded. Six hundred pages, with 199 documents translated, are not light reading, and the book is profoundly depressing. Yet it is also strangely fascinating. Even to someone like myself who has long been aware of Stalin's crimes, there is a sense of shock at the sheer human debasement involved. The authors have discovered horrifying letters from the victims. Some clearly could not understand what had happened to the party--Yezhov, one of the chief purgers before being himself purged, informed the court, 'Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.' Others were simply broken physically--Tukhachevsky's confession actually had bloodstains on it. In a letter to his old comrade, Stalin, Bukharin pleads for his life--he offers to go to America to wage 'mortal war' against Trotsky, even suggesting he might leave his wife as a hostage.
Another case is AA Andreev. I first encountered him in Alfred Rosmer's memoirs, Lenin's Moscow. Rosmer describes a visit to Hamburg in 1923: 'He was a friendly and modest companion, who didn't mind us joking about his name--Andrei Andreevich Andreev.' I often wondered how such a genial person survived and became deputy premier after the Second World War. Now I know--he was one of Stalin's most enthusiastic accomplices. In one speech he commented on the suicide of Tomsky, a party member since 1904, 'He committed suicide because he decided to avoid shame, public shame, and to evade the investigation. We would have surely convicted him.' No more Mr Nice Guy.
Members of the Left Opposition The authors stress that there was no masterplan, drawing out evidence of indecision and temporary retreat. Yet there is a danger of getting lost in detail. The overall situation was clear. As they write, 'Peasants sang about Stalin chewing bones on top of a coffin. Student groups cranked out incendiary pamphlets, and well known party members gathered in the night to write platforms calling for the overthrow of the leadership.' Such opposition had to be terrorised out of existence and any possible alternative leadership destroyed. The whole process was monstrously irrational. Scarce resources of skill and experience were wantonly destroyed. A letter from east Siberia describes the situation after the purges: 'There are no officials left to work in either the party or soviet apparat.' It ends pathetically, 'Please help us by sending more cadres from Leningrad.' With jails overcrowded, a halt had to be called--'excessive vigilance' was now a failing. But for the younger generation--people like Khrushchev and Bulganin--career opportunities were greatly expanded.
Few people nowadays defend Stalin. Yet books such as this remind us that Stalin's sternest critics--Trotsky or Victor Serge--seriously underestimated the sheer horror of Stalinism. Today the basic facts are known to millions of people. No organisation which claims that Stalin's Russia was even 5 percent 'progressive', or that it was worth defending, however halfheartedly, will be able to rebuild the socialist movement that is so sorely needed today.
Ian Birchall


DEALING IN FUTURES

Perdido Street Station
China Miéville
Macmillan £16.99

Perdido Street Station

The bookshops are stocked with fantasy novels, desperate sub-Tolkien attempts to cash in on a large readership's need for escapism. Overwhelmingly the books on offer are pseudo-medieval romances, feudal fantasies that recount the exploits of upper class heroes and heroines, confronting and eventually, at the end of the third volume, overcoming evil. Almost without exception these imaginary worlds assume inherited privilege, inequality and hierarchy, endorsing a shallow conservatism and celebrating monarchy. Now at last all this is overthrown. Perdido Street Station, the new fantasy novel by revolutionary socialist China Miéville, has swept away all the feudal rubbish and offers in its place a new vision for the 21st century--the city of New Crobuzon.
Miéville's first novel, King Rat, was a dark urban fairytale, a reworking of the Pied Piper story set in contemporary London. On this occasion the Brothers Grimm were temporarily joined by Comrade Grimm. King Rat gave warning of the considerable literary skills and fertile imagination that now explode onto the larger canvas of New Crobuzon. In his new novel Miéville continues the story. The successful creation of a great city is now inhabited by a variety of species and races, living and loving in a society characterised by inequality, exploitation, oppression and resistance.
As the story unfolds, the city is in the grip of industrial conflict with an alliance between human and vodyanoi dockers threatening to close the port down. When the strike eventually breaks out, it is ruthlessly broken by an exemplary massacre carried out by the militia on the orders of the city authorities in the best Chilean fashion. The underground revolutionary newspaper the Runagate Rampant condemns the slaughter and calls for 'an all-race union against the bosses'.
The city is ruled over by Mayor Rudgutter of the Fat Sun Party, who works hand in glove with the city's crimelords, in particular the monstrous Mr Motley. Informers and spies are everywhere, dissidents are tortured and disappeared, and the militia maintain order by brute force. The casual brutality of Fat Sun rule is best captured by the judicial system where criminals are 'remade', having their bodies reconstructed, in part or whole, as machines. In such a society people take heart from the urban myth of New Crobuzon's Robin Hood hero who the authorities cannot capture, Jack Half-a-Prayer, himself one of the Remade.
It is in this world that Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, the novel's protagonist, finds himself forced to save the city from catastrophe. He has inadvertently released a terrible evil into the city that Rudgutter and Motley hope to recapture for their mutual profit. The cost of destroying this threat for Isaac, his friends and companions is high.
Miéville tells an exciting story, inhabited by weird and wonderful creatures (the Weaver, the Construct Council, the garuda Yagharek, Isaac's khephri lover Lin), that reaches its climax at Perdido Street Station. But this is no juvenile fantasy. Mieville has a genuinely tragic vision that leaves the reader disappointed, but at the same time aware that no other ending was possible. Perdido Street Station is a marvellous fantasy novel. Hopefully it will not be Miéville's last visit to New Crobuzon.
John Newsinger


THINGS DIDN'T GET BETTER

Leading Labour
Ed: Kevin Jeffreys
IB Tauris £24.50

A Century of Labour
Keith Laybourn
Sutton Publishing £20.00

These two books, written to mark the centenary of the Labour Party, come out just as the cracks are appearing in the Blair government. Both concentrate on the internal conflict in the Labour Party over the last 100 years, and the constant struggle between the different factions for control over the party and its policies. They show how the contradictions and confusion were built into the Labour Party, which formed as a coalition of socialist groups, individuals and trade union leaders with Liberal Party allegiances. They also show that, apart from the 1945 government, very little has been achieved for the working class by Labour governments.
The writers report the betrayals but present no alternative. Ramsay MacDonald was 'forced' into cutting the dole by 10 percent, Attlee was 'obliged' to spend on arms at the expense of the welfare state, Callaghan and Wilson 'had no choice' but to hold wages down and cut social spending. There is no suggestion of capitalists sacrificing profits or dividend payments.
Keith Laybourn acknowledges that the growth of the Labour Party was linked to collective action but there is very little mention of the class struggles that reverberated through the last century.
The two histories trace the conscious move to pull the Labour Party to the right that began under Neil Kinnock in 1983 and continues right up to the present day. The writers accept the false premise of the disappearing working class and the permanent changes in the electorate as justifying these 'reforms'. The landslide Labour victory of 1997 is credited to the modernised party and Blair's charisma. Keith Laybourn welcomes the changes as necessary, saying the Labour Party is 'no longer a socialist party...a party of the trade unions and the working class'.
Both books cover similar ground. Leading Labour is the better of the two, but A Century of Labour leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Certainly these books are not the best on offer if you want a detailed yet critical look at Labour's history over the last century.
Jo Benefield


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