Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright İ Socialist Review
The Crowned Harp
Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth
The latest twist in the Northern Ireland peace process has focused on the future of the RUC and the implementation of the Patten report. Those who want no change to the RUC include Ian Paisley, the Orange Order, Ulster Unionists like Jeffery Donaldson, and sections of the British establishment. They argue that the history of the RUC is a noble one of fighting against the forces of evil.
But the real history of the RUC is somewhat different, as this book shows. It argues that the role of the RUC has been to defend a system of sectarian oppression and the exclusion of the Catholic minority. They say that policing 'goes to the heart of the conflict in Ireland...due to the blatantly sectarian nature of the Stormont state and the role of the RUC as direct agents of Unionist power'.
By the mid-1920s the Unionist government had built a police force that provided one police officer for every 160 people--at the same time in England there was one officer for every 700 people. In Ulster this force included the full time RUC as well as the part time Ulster Special Constabulary --the A, C and B Specials. The Specials were little more than a militia for the Unionist Party--many of them did not have uniforms and had to supply their own firearms.
One fascinating aspect of the book is the use of interviews with ex-members of the RUC and Specials. One ex-member fondly reminisces of his encounters with Catholics, 'It was good crack in them days...like you'd maybe pull in a few boys and give them a bit of grief...or the Specials would give them a bit of a rub over when they met them out some night.' One ex-officer who served in both the full time RUC and the Specials said that the Specials were '100 percent Protestant', and also that 'the Specials regarded every Catholic as an enemy'. One ex-RUC sergeant relates how on one occasion he stopped an Orange band from approaching a group of Catholic homes. For this his senior officer demanded that he apologise to the Master of the local Orange Lodge and told him, 'Sergeant, Scott you can stop a Catholic band any time you like, but don't you ever stop a Protestant band again!'
This heavily armed sectarian force was not all powerful. In fact it was brought to its knees, not by speeches in parliament or the armed struggle, but by the mobilisation of tens of thousands of people on the streets of Belfast and Derry in August 1969. The authors argue that during this time, under pressure from the civil rights movement, the RUC had ceased to exist as a functioning police force. It was 'demoralised, discredited and exhausted'. It was then that the British army was sent in to prop up a state that looked as if it was about to be overthrown.
The history of the RUC since 1969 has been one of systematic human rights abuses. This includes the use of torture to extract confessions, collusion with Loyalist death squads, and covert operations where suspects were executed instead of being arrested. Some 70 people have died in circumstances like this in the past 30 years.
One criticism, however, is the book's uncritical endorsement of the Patten report. Patten does not address the emergency legislation that has given the RUC so much power. It says nothing about the use of plastic bullets by the RUC, which have killed 20 people, including nine children. Neither does it address past human rights abuses by the police. The report also says nothing about the intimidation of lawyers by the RUC, despite the fact that two lawyers have been murdered after receiving death threats from them.
Despite all the talk about a new era in policing, just a few weeks ago the 'moderate' SDLP representative in the town of Larne said that the RUC was allowing a campaign of intimidation against Catholic homes by Loyalist paramilitaries to continue.
This is a valuable book that will strengthen the argument of those who want to get rid of the RUC completely.
A defence of history and class consciousness
How certain can we be that socialism will triumph? A common assumption in the Second International at the end of the 19th century was that socialism was an objective necessity that grew out of the contradictions of the capitalist system. The triumph of socialism would follow the breakdown of capitalism as inevitably as day follows night.
This kind of determinism seemed to flow from Marx's own analysis of the 'laws' of the capitalist economy. But if socialism was inevitable, what role was left for socialists other than to accumulate working class supporters and wait?
The disastrous consequences of this determinism became clear during the First World War, when the leaders of the Second International passively adapted themselves to circumstances--the better, they argued, for socialism to reappear on the agenda once normal business was resumed. The main exception to this was the Bolshevik Party. When workers' revolution succeeded in Russia in October 1917 it seemed to be, in the words of the Italian revolutionary Gramsci, the revolution 'against Karl Marx's Capital'--in other words, the revolution that rejected the fatalism and passivity of depending on impersonal laws of history.
This is where the importance of this newly discovered manuscript by Hungarian Marxist philosopher George Lukács comes in. Lukács broke from his wealthy, cultured background to join the infant Hungarian Communist Party under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He served as a commissar in the shortlived Hungarian workers' republic of 1919 before fleeing to Austria to escape counter-revolutionary persecution.
Lukács's masterpiece was History and Class Consciousness, a collection of essays that he started to write after his decision to become a communist and which reflected his evolution towards a new understanding of the Marxist method. These were published in 1923. They immediately attracted criticism and have remained controversial ever since, not least because Lukács himself apparently repudiated them even before he accommodated to Stalinism.
The principal charge levelled at History and Class Consciousness is that it was steeped in an ultra-left impatience with the fact that most workers still looked to reformist leaders despite their wartime betrayals. The publication of Lukács's own Defence of History and Class Consciousness, written in 1925 or 1926 and then lost in the archives for over 70 years, shows that the central thesis of History and Class Consciousness was very far from this ultra-left caricature.
John Rees's introduction to the book spells out very clearly what was at stake. Lukács's account of working class consciousness starts from Marx's account in Capital of how the products of human labour confront their producers as alien forces over which they have no control. This fetishism of the commodity means that the market, with its atomisation and isolation of individuals, appears to be the only way in which society can be organised. Under these circumstances, not surprisingly, workers tend to accept ruling class ideas as part of their everyday consciousness.
What changes this picture is the fact that the market operates antagonistically as far as workers' interests are concerned. From this contradiction we can impute (to use Lukács's controversial term) workers' true class consciousness--one that is revealed in their resistance to the market. Workers' class position enables them to grasp the totality of social relations in a way that is denied an exploiting class. Far from being the passive object of history, workers are its revolutionary subject.
This viewpoint has often been condemned as ultra-left idealism. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this new book proves. For all the density of his philosophical language Lukács formulated theoretically what the Bolsheviks had more or less stumbled upon empirically. Necessarily the class interest of workers is at variance with their dominant consciousness because they are alienated. Necessarily, therefore, the revolutionary socialist party must organise the active minority of class conscious workers in order to overcome, in the day to day struggle, the confusion which prevents the majority of workers realising their class interests.
Capitalism does indeed tend inevitably to crisis. Such a tendency is objectively inherent in the way it works. But only through the subjective element--the way workers organise themselves in accordance with their class interests--can we ensure that socialism will triumph.
New Labour, New Language?
Running on Empty
Comerford & Miller £12.95
Norman Fairclough, a professor of language, examined 53 speeches by Tony Blair--for which he should get some sort of prize--plus a huge wodge of other texts to produce a fascinating if somewhat detailed analysis of New Labour's use of language. As he says early on in New Labour, New Language?, 'Media communications are more carefully handled and more centrally controlled by the New Labour government than any previous government.'
In one sense, this follows on from what Fairclough calls the 'mediatisation' of politics and government and the transformation of political leaders into media personalities--something he traces back to Harold Macmillan in the 1950s. But Fairclough rightly puts much greater emphasis on New Labour's need to develop a language which conveys policies that are almost by necessity vague--the Third Way being a classic example.
This vagueness is the result of a political programme which seeks to do the impossible. On the one hand New Labour is, more than in any other previous Labour government, committed to the free market. On the other hand, it 'claims continuity with the Labour Party's commitment to social justice and to protecting people from the negative effects of the market. This is a circle that cannot in my view be squared in reality.'
Fairclough identifies how New Labour uses language to cover the gaps between what it says it is doing and what it is really doing. The most obvious is the way it has changed the traditional meaning of words. For example, 'internationalism' has always meant solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed across the world. For Blair and co, it means the relationship between nation-states in a world of increasing globalisation.
The less obvious methods are, however, much more devious. Fairclough explains how the use of lists and bullet-point programmes can look impressive, yet can obscure major contradictions. For example, Blair claims he intends 'reconciling themes which have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic', such as patriotism and internationalism, rights and responsibilities, the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination. As Fairclough says, not only does this method help deflect attention from how reconciliation is to take place, it also makes each pairing seem equivalent. It hides the quite different levels of antagonism between, say, rights and responsibilities on the one hand, and the promotion of enterprise and attack on poverty on the other.
Perhaps most powerfully, Fairclough identifies what he calls 'a series of slippages' within New Labour's language. This hinges particularly around agency--who is doing what to whom. No one in particular is responsible for the 'refashioning of industries', for example. It just happens, almost miraculously. Globalisation is presented as an inevitable fact of life, a presupposition, not as the complex and contradictory process it really is.
Running on Empty by Andrew Scott is a good account of the modernising of the British and Australian Labour parties. Scott's basic theme is that the leaderships of both parties have, throughout the past 100 years, and particularly over the past 15 or so, learnt important lessons from each other. This has led to a situation where they have ditched so many of their traditional aims and values that they are 'running on empty'.
He is particularly good at explaining how the use of the term 'modernisation' has helped--from Harold Wilson in the 1960s onwards, both leaderships conceal their rejection of traditional principles.
Valuable insights aside, however, both books have their weaknesses. Despite his well-meant aim to make linguistics accessible, Fairclough's book is still heavy going. Also, New Labour, New Language? was written when Blair was still basking in popularity. But within a very short space of time that has changed. And with that change, so the media has begun to dig holes into the linguistic fabric which has held New Labour's policies together--its pronouncements on health and education spending being cases in point. What New Labour sees as one of its greatest strengths could become one of its weaknesses. In Fairclough's defence, however, it's clear he would be one of the first to applaud such an outcome.
Scott's concentration on individuals and fractions means he misses the impact of capitalism's gradual, ever-deepening crisis and the impact this has had on reformist parties across the world. Blair's reformist government is incapable of carrying out real reforms, just as Hawke's and Keating's were in Australia. This means Scott's plea for both the British and Australian parties to 'engage in more rigorous thinking about alternative economic approaches' is really quite meaningless.
Both parties are committed to running capitalism rather than destroying it. This means that, no matter how much rigorous thinking each party engages in, they will, more than at any time in their histories, always end up attacking the very people who elect them.
The Power to Choose
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country is also seen as backward, where women are oppressed and kept within semi-feudal conditions. Similarly Bangladeshis in Britain are viewed as a traditional, conservative group where women are denied opportunities. This new book by Naila Kabeer sets out to question such assumptions about women from Bangladesh. Through a series of interviews with almost 120 women in Dhaka and London, Kabeer shows that these women are not passive individuals content to be at home, but are increasingly being pulled into the labour market.
Kabeer's focus is on the garment industry and the restructuring it has experienced in the last 30 years. She describes the development of an export-oriented manufacturing sector in parts of east and south Asia. For example, in the last ten years Bangladesh has witnessed a phenomenal growth in clothing manufacturing--from 700 factories employing between 80,000 and 250,000 workers, to around 2,400 factories employing 1.2 million workers. At the same time the British clothing industry has continued to decline, with less than a quarter of a million people currently involved.
The clothing factories of Dhaka are overwhelmingly female. Kabeer's research shows that the majority of women workers are young--80 percent are under 25. The majority are migrant workers from rural areas whose main reason for moving was the search for work. However, 32 percent of women in the sample were educated to secondary level, and 10 percent had gone on to higher education.
The main reason given for taking paid factory employment was one of economic necessity. They took up work in factories either as the sole or main breadwinner in their family. In some cases this was because they were widowed, divorced or abandoned. Some had lost land or were unmarried. For women who come from very poor backgrounds, factory work means better pay, more status and more responsibility. Many of the women in this survey display a sense of pride in being able to provide for their families, even though this means going against family wishes. Some of the respondents state that they cannot afford the luxury of cultural norms and staying in purdah. As one woman says bitterly of those who harangue her for immodesty, 'Can they feed us?' Some of the women pool their income, send part of it to their families in the villages or hand it over to their husbands, and some keep part of their earnings for themselves.
In contrast, in Britain the clothing trade has historically been based in London's East End, and Bangladeshi women are the latest in a series of immigrant workers who have come to dominate it. Unlike their Dhaka counterparts, Bangladeshi women in London do not work in large factories. Their involvement in the clothing trade has been largely home-based. The reason for this, Kabeer explains, is partly the background of the women themselves--they are overwhelmingly married with young children, have little formal education, limited English and are from the more conservative region of Sylhet. Consequently home-based work offers companionship,fits in with childcare, and conforms to family and cultural norms. In addition, racism within the labour market and wider society affects the employment prospects of this first generation of women workers. The garment industry is characterised by low pay, low status, unsociable hours and little security.
Kabeer also explains that employers may have their own reasons for favouring Third World or poor immigrant workers, such as racist assumptions of their manual dexterity and compliant natures. However, the fact that these women are increasingly taking up manufacturing work--especially in countries like Bangladesh--indicates that they are now part of the workforce and they will be involved in struggles to improve their conditions.
The main problem with the book is the unfortunate use of quite dense academic language. Despite this drawback, Kabeer has provided valuable statistical data and informative personal testimonies on the lives of an often neglected section of women workers.
The Origins of Scottish Nationhood
Brian Souter, Cardinal Winning and the tabloid scapegoating of asylum seekers have angered many in Scotland, and across Britain. If you are asking what has happened to the so called caring, sharing Scotland, then you should read Neil Davidson's new book.
The history and argument in this book are unique. They take on, in a serious and readable way, the series of myths and versions of Scottish history.
Neil argues that the formation of the Scottish nation and the British nation happened together through the formation of a united ruling class, and that the Scottish and English working class were forged together as a British working class: 'The Scottish nation was only formed in the late 18th century, so too was the British nation, and these two processes were not simply chronologically coincident but structurally intertwined.' In other words, Scottishness and Britishness are built on each other.
He also describes the relationship of Highland history, both fact and fiction, to the Lowlands, and he thoroughly describes and explains so called Scottish national consciousness. A large part of Scottish mythology consists of seeing small, plucky Scotland struggling through the centuries against oppression by the English. The arguments against this are both convincing and impressive.
The formation of a national consciousness is linked to the capitalist mode of production, and its need for a centralised and cohesive market. These factors were missing from Scotland prior to 1707, the Act of Union, and for some time after. The decisive events which allowed the development of a Scottish national consciousness came later, between 1746 and 1820: 'The catalyst in provoking change was the suppression of the '45, the elimination of Jacobitism as a political movement, the abolition of feudal landowning, and the clearing of the Highland estates.' This Scottish national consciousness developed as a part of a British national consciousness: 'At the centre of this project was the Scottish bourgeoisie themselves.This bourgeoisie was the class that had the clearest conception of what it was like to be Scottish, but they were also the class most insistent on being recognised as British.'
This insistence on being British was brutally extended around the world by the British Empire.The accounts of the role of Scots in this bloody process show that Scotland was no victim of empire, contrary to commonly held views. It was not even a junior partner.
The final chapter deals with class consciousness and national consciousness: 'The transformation which took place in Scotland between 1746 and 1820 was unprecedented in European history and would not be seen again on such a scale until the industrialisation of Russia after 1929.' Scotland developed rapidly, as did its working classes. Here Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development is applied to help explain and understand how a united Scottish, English and Welsh working class was formed under brutal conditions lacking any kind of democracy--this in a society that boasted the world's best available technology. Workers faced a united British state. In 1820 the first general strike in history took place: 'The proclamation which detonated the strike was addressed to the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland, whom it calls Britons evoking those rights consecrated to them in the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.' Workers on both sides of the border adopted each other's radical imagery and saw each struggle as their own.
A description of a march in 1819 near Paisley says, 'They marched to Meikleriggs in military style, each body of men carrying banners with political slogans, and headed with a brass band. The most popular marching song was "Scots Wa' Hae". The flags were edged with black crepe, black cloth draped over the platforms, and most of the speakers were dressed in the clothes they reserved for funerals, all in token of mourning for those who had been killed in the Battle of Peterloo.'
The Origins of Scottish Nationhood is a remarkable piece of work that dares to seriously challenge the basis for the national myths accepted by many historians and a number of socialists. It does so in a fraternal, sophisticated and rigorous way that is best appreciated by reading the book yourself.
As Serious as Your Life
Serpent's Tail £8.99
Valerie Wilmer's study of the 1960s jazz scene in New York was first published in 1977. It is full of fascinating details on the political ideas and daily lives of the African-American jazz musicians who helped transform black music during an intense period of political struggle.
Wilmer lived in New York from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Although a brilliant freelance photographer, she also earned a living writing 'New York Jottings' for the British music weekly Melody Maker, interviewing musicians and becoming an integral part of the musicians' milieu. She documents both the main innovators and supporting musicians, pointing out that for a collectively improvised music the role of the latter is a scandalously unrecognised component of the music.
Wilmer states her case briefly in the introduction. Jazz, along with film, is the most innovative and influential art form of the 20th century, yet it is still not recognised as the important art form it objectively is. The primary reason for this is the African-American origins of the innovative musicians who forged this tradition. Her description of English classical musicians sniggering behind the back of the great saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman establishes the basic point.
Her second argument is on the nature of jazz itself. The book concerns what was then known as 'The New Thing', or 'Free Jazz'. She rightly shows how the musicians believed they could create structured music without preordained structures, on the basis that they had sufficiently internalised the language of the music. Like Wynton Marsalis later on, they believed knowledge of the past was an essential part of change, both musical and political. They were steeped in history, their interviews full of historical references.
Thirdly, Wilmer shows how the image of free jazz being in some way a whitening of a black tradition, or of making jazz somehow middle class, is also wrong. The book starts with a description of a concert at a local community centre in New York to an all-black audience. Throughout the book we meet musicians with very working class occupations. The ferociously academic pianist, Cecil Taylor, whose music is extremely demanding to both audience and musicians alike, used saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who 'laboured in a copper mill'.
Around these three loose themes Wilmer expertly weaves extracts of interviews, descriptions of the music and social comment. Musician after musician see their music as part of a political process of social change, not just reflecting a movement but expressing it, reinforcing it and strengthening it. Now 25 years on, black music has changed in ways that Wilmer did not foresee, but the exploitation of musicians and the racism which surrounds the music remain unabated. Jazz music is recognised as a minor art form, but underfunded to breaking point, while hip-hop and R 'n' B are boxed off as entertainment and their considerable musical inventiveness denied. The tragic litany of premature deaths remains unabated.
There are elements of this book I disagree with, including what comes across as a tendency towards musical sectarianism and a lack of clarity on the relationships between class and race.
But the great strength of the book is the accuracy with which she has documented a particular period in the evolution of a musical tradition which constantly reinvents itself, and rightly shows how this process is driven by the struggle for racial equality. She has produced a fascinating document, full of the energy of political struggle.
Chatto & Windus £25.00
Ed: Geoff Andrews, Hilda Kean and Jane Thompson
Lawrence & Wishart £15.00
In 1906 the first Labour MPs were asked which books had most influenced their beliefs. The clear winners were those written by the 19th century writer John Ruskin. William Morris's socialist utopia News from Nowhere was an interpretation of Ruskin's ideas. The most famous art critic of his day, Ruskin, also taught drawing at the Working Men's College, founded in 1854 to give working class men access to higher education. After his death, in recognition of his contribution to the Working Men's College, Ruskin College was named after him.
Yet Ruskin's autobiography begins, 'I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.' Ruskin opposed the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, and condemned ideas of liberty and democracy.
This contradiction has its roots in 19th century British society. The Victorian middle class did not view their period as one of respectable stability. Rather they saw great and disturbing social change. New cities were born housing millions of workers who seemed to threaten unrest and revolution. Darwin's theory of evolution undermined orthodox religion.
Many, from both left and right, wished to retreat to an earlier society. Ruskin's beliefs were an especially contradictory version of this. At times he attacked capitalism from the viewpoint of workers, and at other times in defence of a mythical medieval society of benign aristocrats and contented peasants. Ruskin began to develop ideas about art in society. He rejected identical, machine made products and praised a medieval society which had valued individual craftsmanship.
Ruskin attempted to put his political ideas into practice, though with little success. He organised the Guild of St George, with himself as master, and persuaded Oxford undergraduates to build a road to serve a local village--Oscar Wilde joined the project. The road was very badly made. The guild also tried to develop a 'commonwealth' at a farm near Sheffield. This resembled 'a set of badly managed allotments' until Ruskin's gardener arrived to sort things out.
Throughout his life Ruskin suffered from manic depression. He would work feverishly--in 1875 he was writing seven books at once--and then collapse into depression and hypochondria. A major source of unhappiness was his inability to form relationships or enjoy sex, partly the result of his evangelical Christian upbringing. His marriage failed because he treated his wife with disturbing coldness, while obeying his parents' every instruction. He was never able to have sex with his wife, and after she had left him for the pre-Raphaelite painter Millais the marriage was annulled on the grounds of his 'incurable impotency'.
Three years later, Ruskin fell in love with Rose La Touche, a girl of ten. He waited until she was 18 and then proposed to her--after a further five years, she finally refused to marry him. Ruskin's sanity was undermined by this long obsession, and disturbed still further when Rose died of anorexia at the age of 27.
Three years after Rose's death, Ruskin experienced his first attack of insanity. Over the next 11 years the attacks continued and worsened. For the last ten years of his life his mind failed him completely. Batchelor gives a deeply moving account of Ruskin's dignity and intellect dissolving: he sometimes believed that Rose was still alive, at others he planned to kill himself to be with her, and wrote letters as though he were a little boy again. Ruskin finally died of flu in the spring of 1900.
Ruskin's lasting memorial has been Ruskin College, Oxford, which provides higher education to mature students, most from working class backgrounds and many from trade unions. Yet this legacy was a contradictory one, as Ruskin College: Contesting Knowledge, Dissenting Politics demonstrates. This is a mixed bag of essays. Roger Fieldhouse's account of the origins of the college stresses the importance of the militant 'New Unionism' of 1880s, in which Marxist organisations played a crucial part. He emphasises the long tradition of education in the working class movement--education organised by and for workers. Ruskin College, however, is more contradictory. Are the students studying so they can escape the working class? Or to represent it as Labour MPs and trade union officials, to become integrated into the state? (John Prescott is Ruskin's most famous graduate.) A report from 1908 hoped that by 'broadening his education and strengthening his judgement'. Ruskin College would make the working class graduate 'a more potent influence on the side of industrial peace'. Marx was to remain unmentioned if possible--if he was discussed, his ideas were to be strongly opposed.
Yet John Ruskin believed that working class people had a right to education. He accused the capitalists: 'You imply that a certain proportion of mankind must be employed in degrading work; and that, to fit them for this work, it is necessary to limit their knowledge.' New Labour attacks on education will have just this effect. For all Ruskin's inconsistency and madness, his vision and intellect tower over today's Blairite careerists. His dream of a society of whole, creative human beings can still be an inspiration to us.