Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Luxemburg: reflections and writings
Ed: Paul Le Blanc
Humanity Books £17.50
Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, and became a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) around the turn of the century. During the German Revolution in 1918-19 she helped to found the German Communist Party. She was murdered soon afterwards but her status as a great revolutionary has not diminished. This new book, which brings together personal reminiscences, critical evaluations and her own writings, helps to explain why Luxemburg remains such a potent revolutionary figure.
In his introduction to this edition, Paul Le Blanc points out that her theoretical orientation in the first two decades of the 20th century was already touching on issues that came to dominate the final decades of the century, such as globalisation, war and national conflict. Many of her contemporary Marxists believed in the inevitable upward swing of history, but Luxemburg combated this deterministic view that 'economic development rushes headlong, like an autonomous locomotive on the tracks of history, and that politics, ideology, etc are content to toddle behind like forsaken, passive freight wagons'. Central to Luxemburg's life and politics was the need for socialists to shape events through action and organisation--she was a living embodiment of the unity of theory and practice.
In the late 1890s Luxemburg engaged in a fierce debate with Eduard Bernstein who wanted to revise the central concepts of Marxism. One of the most interesting essays in this collection, by Lelio Basso, explains the theoretical underpinnings of her position. For Luxemburg, the dialectic was a living part of the class struggle. She insisted on the importance of seeing society as a totality of interconnected relationships, whereas Bernstein analysed the economy and the state in isolation from each other. Thus, when Bernstein raised his slogan, 'The final goal is nothing, the movement is everything', Luxemburg pointed out that the daily struggle and the goal of socialism were mutually interdependent, not separate from each other.
In another essay, Paul Le Blanc examines Luxemburg's debates with Lenin on the question of the party. He points out that Luxemburg does not represent a different tradition to Lenin--her Polish socialist party operated under the same illegal conditions as the Bolsheviks and, like them, adopted a centralised structure. The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin arose from her experience of the SPD where centralism was used to hold the movement back. Until 1914 everyone except Luxemburg believed the SPD was a model socialist party and the Bolsheviks were a necessary exception. As Le Blanc points out, Lenin idealised the SPD, although in practice he diverged from it, whereas Luxemburg was aware of the deficiencies in the SPD but could not transcend it. Le Blanc also gives a strong sense of how much Luxemburg admired the Russian revolutionaries: 'Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times... Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades have given in good measure.' Her criticisms were always tempered by her understanding that they were isolated by the failures of European social democracy to match their deeds.
Unfortunately some essays in this collection fall far short of Basso's and Le Blanc's. Nevertheless the selections of Luxemburg's own writings, both polemical and theoretical pieces, and personal letters, contain some important and exciting writing. 'Theory and Practice' is a passionate defence of the mass strike and a devastating critique of Karl Kautsky's attitude, while 'Rebuilding the International' is a brilliant critique of German Social Democracy and its failure to combat the war. In addition, the reflections by Luxemburg's friends and her letters to them from prison give an unforgettable picture of a woman who was compassionate and full of a joyful love for nature, art and literature, yet above all else a revolutionary.
It Ain't Necessarily So
Alas, Poor Darwin
Ed: Hilary and Steven Rose
Jonathan Cape £18.99
This month is likely to see the publication of the first draft of the human genome project, which, when finished, will give an almost complete sequence of the 3.2 billion chemical markers of human DNA. The magazine New Scientist has described this event as biology's equivalent of landing on the moon. The publication will underline the emergence of biology as the dominant science of our age. Elsewhere there are scientists, psychologists and assorted academics, calling themselves 'evolutionary psychologists', who wish to use biology to fill the ideological gap left by the alleged death of Marxism and claim that Darwinism can provide a new basis for the social sciences.
There is a great deal of overlap between the claims of those who run the genome projects and those of the evolutionary psychologists. The human genome has been variously described as the Book of Life, the Holy Grail and the Bible. It will apparently tell us 'what it is to be human' and will supposedly explain our personalities and predict our susceptibility to disease. Companies, especially in the US, are busily patenting newly discovered gene sequences, before any role for the gene is confirmed. They hope they will hold patents worth millions when related drugs are developed.
The central essay in Lewontin's book demolishes the claims of the proponents of the genome project. He attacks the project on several levels. Central to his criticism is to dismiss the idea that DNA is somehow a 'master molecule' that determines the nature of an organism and its behaviour. Instead he takes a philosophically more sophisticated approach of describing the interactions of genes and the internal workings of cells with the environment which they both experience as an external reality and help to shape. Key to his understanding is a developmental approach which sees an organism as a series of complex processes unfolding through time. The supporters of the project claim that it will lead to huge advances in medical science. Lewontin argues that thus far knowledge of gene sequences has not led to effective treatments. In order for them to do so much more research will have to be done on the complex role that individual genes play in the biochemistry of organisms.
Alas, Poor Darwin, edited by Hilary and Steven Rose, takes head- on the arguments of the evolutionary psychologists which claim 'to explain all aspects of human behaviour, and thence culture and society, on the basis of universal features of human nature that found their final evolutionary form some 100,000 to 600,000 years ago'. Male 'philandering' is explained by the alleged evolutionary advantage to males of spreading their sperm around as widely as possible. Female 'coyness' derives from the advantage they gain in sticking with a single mate who will invest in their offspring. Evolutionary psychologists even have something to say about art--they can explain our supposed preference for landscapes including grassland and water as a reflection of our origins on the Pleistocene savannah.
This theory focuses on so called universals in human culture rather than differences between 'races' and individuals (unless these are differences between men and women). It goes without saying that the 'universals' reflect the biases of modern society: age differences between men and women in marriage, child abuse by stepfathers and alleged universal standards of female beauty, to name a few. We end up with the Flintstones view of history--take a few 'commonsense' ideas about human nature, claim with little or no evidence that these reflect Pleistocene society, and, bingo we have science! In reality, of course, what we have is straightforward right wing ideology dressed up as science.
Alas, Poor Darwin contains a series of essays written by professional academics from a wide range of fields, from psychology to anthropology and neuroscience. The authors use recent advances in their subject areas to dismiss the simplistic assumptions of evolutionary psychology. I don't agree with every nuance of all the essays, but each one has something useful to say. The strongest essays are those by Hilary and Steven Rose, which manage both to undermine the scientific and sociological claims of evolutionary psychology and to give a political context to its growth in Britain and the US.
It Ain't Necessarily So is also a collection of essays, in this case, book reviews published over the last 17 years. Together they provide an overview of the major political controversies which have arisen out of the advances in molecular biology. Several essays are followed by outraged letters from the authors, which are great fun, especially as Lewontin's replies always leave you more convinced of his case than theirs. My only criticism of both books is that at times the language becomes too academic. The overwhelming strength of both books is that they suggest whole areas of work in which biological determinism is being undermined, leaving you with a huge list of books you want to read next. Both books are invaluable for anyone who wants to take on the latest, supposedly scientifically sophisticated, version of the old argument that you can't change human nature.
Workin' on the chain gang
Ballantine Books £11.99
America's most important novelist sat down to write a book about racism in the US at the turn of the millennium. Yet the more he analysed, the more he decided he couldn't do it, at least not in the way he had planned. What Mosley found was that the question of racism in US society is bound up with the exploitation of the majority of the population and so with the question of class. To look at racism in isolation from the system that produces it would be pointless.
He describes the richest nation in human history being unable to afford the majority of its citizens--black and white--a minimum standard of healthcare or job security. For Mosley, the problem is the 'profit margin' or, to put it another way, capitalism. The more he examines this the more he is forced to conclude that every aspect of our lives is subordinated to the drive for profit. And so the title, Workin' on the Chain Gang, is not derived from US history, but from US present. We are all modern day slaves.
Mosley is not arguing that race is no longer an issue. He is saying that the poverty and abuse that black people have endured for centuries have spread to include the majority of whites. Therefore, the history of struggle against racism in the US is relevant to all of the exploited. We can all learn from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. We should all learn that 'rebellion is the primary movement in understanding'. And so Mosley's book is not just an indictment of capitalist society, it is also a call to arms.
But on the question of how to fight and what to fight for, the clarity of Mosley's argument recedes. Attempts to bring change by collective action are fraught with the danger of 'dictatorship by the enlightened minority'. So he dismisses Marx because the experience of Russia showed that socialism merely replaced one dictatorship with another.
Mosley says that unions are rendered impotent because global corporations will simply move to where labour is cheapest. But he misses crucial points. Firstly, the recent victories of organised labour in the US suggest that capital cannot simply pack its bags when faced with resistance. Secondly, the growth of union organisation in developing countries shows that there is opposition to exploitation there as well.
He rightly attacks Republican and Democrat machines as part of the system of exploitation, but concedes that at present our resistance should aim to influence our elected 'representatives'.
It is a frustrating conclusion to a brilliantly written attack on capitalism. But when Bill Clinton's favourite novelist makes a sustained attack on the system, you know something is changing.
Class struggle and social welfare
Ed: Michael Lavalette and Gerry Mooney
'Poverty', wrote Jeremy Bentham in 1796, 'is the state of everyone who, in order to obtain subsistence, is forced to have recourse to labour.' Political economists two centuries ago had the virtue of honesty. They openly acknowledged that capitalism required that the majority be poor. Using that as a starting point, they then tried to work out what kind of public welfare was appropriate. Their answer was straightforward: as little as possible, and on the most grudging and punitive terms available. The poor (most of us in this definition) must be kept working for wages, and subject to the authority of the capitalist class and the state.
Their thinking shaped the development of the 19th century workhouse system, and the 20th century welfare state. Not surprisingly, those same poor have regularly contested just about every aspect of state welfare provision. From its beginnings in the 16th century, state-organised 'welfare' has been an important field of class struggle.
That struggle provides the subject matter of this valuable collection of articles. In a period when 'postmodern' (actually liberal) ideas about welfare struggles have been gaining some predominance, the 15 contributors insist on the continuing relevance of a socialist, class struggle centred perspective.
Mark O'Brien and John Charlton examine the pressures which the growing presence of the working class placed on the state in the 19th and early 20th centuries, producing an ever more centralised and bureaucratic machinery for handling the question of poverty. The response of workers was regularly hostile. They attacked the new workhouses after 1834, providing one of the major impulses that fuelled Chartism, and they organised unions, friendly societies, cooperatives and a host of 'self help' bodies which practically contested the forms of state provision. Where the existing system of local government permitted it, radicals and socialists attempted to seize control of local welfare machinery and turn it to working class purposes.
Chartists, as John Foster showed years ago, took control of the Oldham Poor Law Board for a period. In Poplar in the early 1920s, as Alan Johnson shows in a splendid reconstruction, socialists used their positions as local councillors to conduct an open war on the government of the time, uniting employed and unemployed, men and women in a struggle to meet local working class need. The councillors went proudly to jail, compelling government concessions.
The ruling class responded by further bureaucratising the mechanisms of welfare, so as to remove any possibility that the 'wrong' people could get charge of them. Nothing of popular democracy remains today in the machinery of state welfare.
Other contributors examine, in different ways, the continued relevance both of socialist theory to understanding welfare struggles and of socialist practice inside these movements. Two articles (by Sean Damer and Charlie Johnson) consider two battles over rents and housing on Clydeside, criticising those who deny that these were class struggles and of showing how tenant organisation could be decisive in forcing through reforms. The editors themselves provide a cogent history of the great struggle against Thatcher's poll tax, and Iain Ferguson completes the volume with a sharp critique of 'identity politics' within the mental health users' movement.
Altogether this is a very useful book. Readers might hope that, in a second edition, more might be said about such matters as education, health, or prison policy--and no doubt a host of other topics. But it's pleasant to criticise a book only for not saying even more.
Peter Phillips & Project Censored
Seven Stories Press £11.99
If you want to know why the protests against the WTO in Seattle happened last year, this little book has many of the answers. Called 'The Top 25 Censored Stories in 2000' they are in fact stories which the mainstream press in the US chose to ignore. They include profits from healthcare, corrupt charities, profits from brutality and war, and stories of racism and oppression.
With an introduction by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Censored 2000 is also about organising resistance. A series of cartoons throughout the book offer sharp political comment. One excellent chapter discusses the media battle of Seattle, and argues that the press was forced to sit up and take notice when thousands of people fought back.
This book clearly shows that media manipulation and propaganda play a vital role in western democracies, not only in the sphere of foreign policy, but also in 'containing' the domestic population. For readers familiar with that doyen of US journalism W Lippman's phrase 'the manufacture of consent', the articles on display in this collection will further serve to show how the media and state oligarchy work together to 'protect' the public from 'disturbing' information. The authors have selected a broad range of censored articles covering a variety of subject areas to show that the media is an essential aspect of the ruling class in the US.
The account of American sweatshops producing military uniforms tells how workers at Lion Apparel tried to unionise their workplace. As part of the campaign they wrote to Al Gore and eight Kentucky senators to appeal for support. In their letter they tell of the intimidation and dirty tactics the bosses used to stop the union drive. The letter was sent on to Lion's management, who posted it on the staff noticeboard. The union drive was ended, and the workers gained a 30 percent wage increase as well as air conditioning.
The bombing of Yugoslavia and the war in Kosovo are reported in several excellent articles which discuss the role of Nato and the US in feeding false information to the media. One article titled 'The Disappearing "Mass Graves"' reports how after Nato occupied Kosovo it was repeatedly announced that 10,000 Albanians had been killed--though no evidence was ever offered to substantiate this figure. Similarly the continual reports of 'mass graves' were never backed up with any hard evidence. One mass grave, supposedly containing 350 bodies, near a mountain village in Kosovo, turned out to be 4 decomposing bodies which had been discovered near an ash heap.
The articles on the 'free media' discuss the impact of mergers on the media and the effect this has on workers and media output. This leads to a tiny minority of the wealthy having huge control over what is produced. Clear Channel Communication bought AMFM, the largest radio acquisition in history, and now owns 830 radio stations in the US--almost a quarter of all US radio stations.
The story of the resistance of one independent radio station to takeover is astonishing. KPFA was a community radio station in Berkeley and was eventually taken over by Pacifica Radio, which then wanted to push through its own agenda for what the station would air. Pacifica Radio used the 'gentle' approach of sackings, lockouts and a private army, and forced the staff to give up their much loved radio station.
The message from this book is that democracy and freedom of speech are paid only lip service in the US, and the propaganda and self censorship system in place must surely be the envy of any totalitarian regime.
The stories in this book show that Seattle didn't come out of the blue, but from an undercurrent of bitterness and resentment against the greed and wanton destruction imposed by corporate America--not just on its own population, but on populations across the world.
Me Against My Brother
What can we learn about conflicts in Africa from a journalist who filed his copy for the Daily Telegraph and the Christian Science Monitor? The answer is a surprising amount.
Scott Peterson began his travels in Africa soon after leaving college. He knew little about the continent and learnt about it as he went along. Peterson is weakest when analysing the roots of the conflicts he describes. There is an occasional lapse into the theory of 'ancient feuds'. But, as the author points out himself in the section on Rwanda, this wholly fails to explain why societies that have lived for decades and centuries at peace are suddenly plunged into the most terrible conflict. He also virtually ignores the role of capitalism and of bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in pauperising African societies and creating the conditions in which a descent into fearsome violence becomes much more likely.
The great strength of the book is its honest appraisal of the role of the west in stoking division and hostility rather than extinguishing them. Peterson writes, 'In essence this book is about war crimes and how people come to commit them. There are many crimes here and do not think that the culprits are limited to Africans. American and other foreign forces in Somalia committed startling acts of savagery, hiding behind the banner of the United Nations; French authorities and some church officials in Rwanda were complicit in genocide.'
Peterson is particularly good on the US military in Somalia, partly because he went through the process of at first believing that western intervention might bring good results and then recognising what it really meant. He details the events of 12 July 1993 when US missiles slammed into a meeting of clan elders who had gathered to discuss bringing peace to the country: 'Anywhere else this attack would be murder, a barbarous act blamed on terrorists, a premeditated assassination--a massacre--but here the Americans and the UN were pulling the trigger, sanctioning this destruction.'
Peterson points out that by this stage 90 percent of the UN spending in Somalia was on the military, not relief. 'Somalis were now being killed, not saved, and after this attack aid workers were forced to stop their work altogether. The relief community was appalled and the irony was difficult to hide. "If I were a Somali woman, I would take up my bazooka against the Americans for their crimes," the head of one agency said. UN motives had never been more clear, nor more flawed.'
The US and the UN claimed they had come to Somalia to bring peace and settle the differences which tore the country apart. President Bush declared that his forces were engaged in 'God's work'. But, says Peterson, 'the humanitarian mission chose sides in a local battle and became Somalia's chief warlord.'
Peterson shows that the same US which spent $1 billion a day on the military during the Cold War used lack of funds as an excuse to deny aid to Rwanda during the crisis period which led up to the death of at least 800,000 people in 1994.
This is a work of journalism. It has the sense of being stitched together from a long series of reports for newspapers and it lacks an overall view of the way the great powers and the multinationals work. But as New Labour has ordered British paratroopers and marines into Sierra Leone, this book is a very useful reminder of just what western intervention has meant for the people of Africa.
The Movies as History
Ed: David W Ellwood
Sutton Publishers £14.99
This series of essays sets itself two tasks: to place a series of well known films in their historical context, and to work out what light the films themselves shed on attitudes to their historical moment. At a time when most film reviewing boils down to chit chat or, at best, impressionism a serious historical approach is very welcome. The results depend on the authors' approach to history--some of the essays are purely descriptive and a bit dull, particularly for some reason in the section about war films.
The more controversial films force the historians off the fence. Brian Winston's essay about Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is excellent. First he documents Riefenstahl's support for the Nazis, despite her subsequent denials. Then he trashes the commonly held view that the film is a formal masterpiece. He points out that any aesthetic qualities the film has were a product of Albert Speer's choreography of the event she was documenting--a 1934 Nazi rally--rather than any particular brilliance of the film maker. He goes on to argue that its impact depends entirely on endless repetition of the mechanical movement of thousands of marching SA members. Far from being a masterpiece, 'the film leaves one finally with an impression of insanity.'
Brian Neve's essay about On the Waterfront explains why socialists often feel ambiguous about the film. The product of ex-Communists Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront records the life of a working class community more realistically and with more force than almost any Hollywood film you can think of. The storyline about a dock worker who takes on and exposes a corrupt union leadership is one socialists can warm to. Neve points out the problems, however. The bosses hardly get a mention, and Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) manages to defeat the union leaders through individual strength of will. So the film has an ambivalent attitude to the union.
As Neve points out, the reason for this is that Schulberg and Kazan had recanted on their politics and were in the process of moving to the right. Worse, they had cooperated with the anti-communist witch-hunts organised by the House Un-American Activities Committee a couple of years before the film came out in 1954. For them the film was a chance to prove that, though they were no longer socialists, they still cared about working people, but it was also a kind of symbolic justification for their individual stand against the Communist Party.
The Movies as History also contains a fascinating discussion on how and why liberal George Lucas's Star Wars has been adopted by the right wing in America. Despite a terrible essay about Visconti's The Leopard, which for some reason claims the film's strengths are largely aesthetic, this is a collection every socialist film buff will enjoy. It shows you cannot understand culture without studying history.
How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America
Pluto Press £14.99
This is one of those rare books that was immediately hailed as a classic when it first appeared in 1983. Its publication was poignant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is dedicated to the memory of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese radical who Marable succeeded as black politics and history lecturer at Cornell University just months before Rodney's assassination in May 1980. On a wider scale, the book was written against the backdrop of the Reagan administration's onslaught against the achievements of the civil rights and Black Power era. A measure of Reagan's opposition to policies such as affirmative action was the fact that during the eight years of his presidency he met representatives of black communities on only eight occasions.
Marable's study is a critical assessment both of America's history and the struggles by blacks to challenge and overcome their oppression. He takes as his starting point the analysis developed by Rodney in his own pathbreaking book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Marable argues that 'Rodney's major theoretical argument was that racism as a social force, in both Africa and the Americas, was generally subsidiary to the dynamics of capitalist exploitation.' He declares a debt to WEB Du Bois who also exploded the myth that US society was built on democratic foundations.
From this theoretical base, Marable is able to develop a critical analysis of the historic struggles for black emancipation. He clearly believes they have been hamstrung by a lack of clarity, and argues that the black movement 'from its beginnings until today has been overwhelmingly petty bourgeois in its leadership and dominant ideology'
He provides concrete examples which illustrate how the competitive nature of capitalism sets black and white workers against one another. It is the marginally superior status and incomes of white workers that provide the material basis for their acceptance of racist ideas. However, as Marable clearly illustrates, 'the critical irony here is that neither the material interests of white workers as a whole nor of the labour unions are advanced by white racism.' Rather, black and white workers have a common interest in uniting to overcome their enemy, the capitalist class.
Marable has updated his analysis with new data on poverty, health, employment and education which highlight the worsening plight of black, and also of working class white Americans. The statistics on criminalisation and imprisonment are especially chilling.
With the benefit of hindsight, Marable moderates his criticism of black leaders. He prefers instead to focus on the greed and treachery of the capitalist class.
The other major player in this drama is, of course, the working class. The revival of a radical anti-capitalist mood is epitomised by the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation. In his own assessment of his work's relevance today, Marable pays a warm and eloquent tribute to those protests:
'Wherever there is oppression, there will be resistance, and from the lessons of struggle will flower the hopes for a better life. The construction of a new world, freed from hunger, poverty and racial hatred, can begin to be realised by how we struggle here and now. The oppressed have in their hands the capacity to make a new history and, ultimately, a new society.'