Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Promise of a dream
Allen Lane £18.99
Sheila Rowbotham is one of only a few feminists from the 1970s to have stood the test of time. Promise of a Dream is her autobiography of these years. In it she remembers the decade which preceded the emergence of the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM). The book therefore seems to promise a prehistory of the WLM, and it was with this in mind that I set out, enthusiastically, to read it.
Some 250 pages later I wasn't quite sure what I thought. Sections of Promise of a Dream are genuinely interesting. Rowbotham's personal narrative gives you a sense of how the movements of the 1960s emerged over time and of the ways they were shaped both by the conditions and by ongoing political ideas and debates.
The influence of the New Left is one example. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a whole generation of radicals struggling to come to terms with Stalinism rejected Leninist organisation in favour of small, decentralised groups which stressed participatory democracy. Rowbotham's personal friendship with the socialist historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson provided one medium through which New Left ideas influenced the women's movement, which from its start stressed the need for small, leaderless groups.
Perhaps one of the most striking things about Rowbotham's account of the 1960s is the ways in which she expresses the inability many women felt to speak out about their own oppression. A succession of small, personal stories in her memoirs in which she rages against the sexist behaviour of some of the men in her life but feels forced to bite her tongue provides an insight into what life was like before the women's movement. Rowbotham also documents the conflict which emerged in the 1960s between a newer openness about sexuality and a continuing fear, silence and stigma. Stories like that of a friend who got pregnant while at Oxford and was expelled, while her boyfriend was only briefly suspended, illustrate the moralistic double standards which still dominated. These experiences were to lead eventually to an explosion of anger over women's oppression and the emergence of the WLM. But that, as Rowbotham tells us, is another story, and not one which she documents here.
This was, for me, part of the frustration with Promise of a Dream. It ends just where you want it to start. We still lack a real reckoning with the WLM from any of its key players. As a woman born after the movement, I want not just the why and the how but also, and perhaps most crucially, the what went wrong. Yet Rowbotham seems either unwilling or unable to engage with this task, and ill at ease with any possibility of speaking about the future. Revealingly perhaps, at a recent conference on the women's liberation movement she announced her relief to be speaking about the 1960s rather than a later period or even feminism's future prospects.
The result is that Promise of a Dream is an unsatisfactory and often flawed book. Rowbotham sometimes seems to be writing exclusively for a small, select minority. She also seems unable to sort the relevant from the irrelevant, so what we get here is often jumbled and fragmentary. Thus she tells us how impressed she was when she witnessed for the first time 'the incredible power of workers in a large plant' on a visit to the Ford strikers in 1969. Yet rather than develop the point and perhaps explain in what ways it influenced her, in the same breath she recounts how the Ford stewards equally impressed her with their complex mental arithmetic during a darts game in the pub after the mass meeting.
In the end I couldn't help feeling that Rowbotham does herself a disservice. She seems intent on dodging anything which smacks of serious analysis and too often leaves you with an impression of the young Sheila Rowbotham as a slightly scatty, not always terribly politically serious individual--someone who moved in and out of campaigns, and who did not always know quite how or why she had got there. Her other, earlier writings belie this. But you have to read between the lines to capture the angry young woman that she rightly was and the political fighter that she became.
High Art Lite
A cursory flick through the pages of High Art Lite reveals some empty spaces accompanied by an artist's name, the title of the specific work, a date, and the seemingly apologetic explanation, 'Permission to reproduce denied.' Given the media-friendly and publicity-hungry nature of the book's subject matter--contemporary British art--such censorship signals a certain tension between the author and those concerned with cultivating its particular image. More significantly, however, this rupture suggests that finally a critical text has emerged to counter the growing body of gushing monologues, fawning overviews and reactionary polemics that currently saturate the ever-expanding body of literature dealing with this topic. Such books as Mathew Collings's Blimey!, Sarah Kent's Shark Infested Waters and Louisa Buck's Moving Targets in turn all contain their own empty spaces, but do not grant the reader the courtesy of providing the label 'Permission to criticise denied.' It is this critical void that Stallabrass attempts to navigate with High Art Lite.
The general tone of the book is encapsulated in its title, as it seeks to both replace and undermine the ubiquitous yet inaccurate tag of 'Young British Artists' with the author's own confection 'high art lite'. As with 'Marlboro Lights' or 'Bud Light', 'high art lite' resembles, but does not quite match up to, the real thing, lacking that extra ingredient that would confirm it as the 'genuine article'. Over the course of the text, which is divided into three parts--'Rising From Recession', 'Playing For Time' and 'Everything you Want'--Stallabrass seeks to outline the reasons why contemporary British art, despite appearing as something of a cause cél¸bre, offers nothing more than a diluted imitation of avant-garde interventionism.
The focus of the book is not upon individual artists and artworks, but rather concentrates on the social and economic landscape from which high art lite has emerged, and more specifically its relationships with the art market, the mass media and mass culture. The author manages to weave his argument in a clear and lucid language, providing a comprehensive and widely researched text for the general reader.
Central to the book's trajectory is the defence of contemporary British art by those who argue that the use of mass culture for its subject matter breaks down the boundaries between high and low art, providing accessible and anti-elitist work that appeals to a far greater audience than its impenetrable and theory-obsessed predecessors. Stallabrass challenges this idea, arguing that high art lite only gives the impression of democracy and, much like the Third Way, conceals the real divide behind a shallow, classless rhetoric. The reference to a supposed working class culture confirms high art lite's bourgeois orientation, as it consolidates the middle class preoccupation with a cliched and stereotyped proletariat consisting of Sunday Sport reading philistines. As the book makes clear, the audience for art has indeed increased over recent years, but this is certainly not to say that it is an art for all.
The way in which high art lite has been co-opted by New Labour and multinational corporations further testifies to its complicity with the establishment and its failure to provide a meaningful critique of the present social structure. As Stallabrass notes, much of high art lite self consciously avoids any social or moral responsibility, but in doing so invalidates its claims to 'ordinariness' and reinforces its 'lite' status.
Although a generally bleak scenario is depicted, there still exist certain channels of resistance, most notably in the work of Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen, Michael Landy and the artist-curators' group Bank. Dealing with such issues as homelessness, alienation, ethnicity and corporate exploitation in a sympathetic manner, they distinguish themselves from their apathetic and cynical contemporaries yet remain something of a silent minority. However, the book ends with a suggestion that, given the increasingly destructive global force that capitalism is being revealed as, art may find its salvation in the impending social and political conflicts that are beginning to emerge.
Perhaps the major criticism of High Art Lite is that it does not develop its ideas of hegemony beyond the select few art schools where the majority of the artists were trained. No mention is made of the power and influence of a handful of key players who control the contemporary scene, such as the Arts Council's Gerry Robinson, director of the Tate Nicholas Serota, and the small number of dealers who represent the majority of the prominent artists. However, beyond this discrepancy High Art Lite provides a thoughtful and much-needed left wing perspective on a subject that has managed to avoid the analytical gaze, and perhaps signals the start of a critical backlash.
The Holocaust Industry
Norman G Finklestein
With this book Norman Finkelstein attempts 'to represent my parents' legacy'. Since his parents were Holocaust survivors, that is a stern task.
Finkelstein has garnered enormous publicity for his argument that the real danger to the memory of Nazism's victims comes not from the Holocaust deniers but from the 'prominent, self proclaimed guardians of Holocaust memory'. He argues that the horror of Hitler's death camps has been subsumed by an ideology constructed by a 'Holocaust industry' that has hijacked the memory of those who were murdered in order to boost the state of Israel, and the role it plays in aiding US imperial domination of the Middle East.
A second theme of Finkelstein's argument is that the ideological construct of the 'Holocaust industry' has been used to justify the shift to the right among US Jews in the years since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with opposition to their politics being declared 'anti-Semitic'.
Finally he denounces as a 'double shakedown' recent efforts to win compensation, particularly from Swiss banks and German companies, for Holocaust survivors. According to Finkelstein, most survivors' claims were settled after the war. It is, he says, the lawyers and the institutions of the 'Holocaust industry', rather than the survivors, who have been the main beneficiaries of the settlements reached in the late 1990s. Tragically, Finkelstein's years of political confrontation with the pro-Israeli Jewish establishment in the US have distorted his judgement and produced a book that does more harm than good.
Finkelstein does have some insights into the way the Holocaust has been used in Jewish, Israeli and US politics over the last 50 years, but these are lost amidst the author's provocations and polemic, and he condemns the outpouring of work on the Holocaust in recent years. Books, films and the construction of new museums on the Holocaust are scathingly dismissed. 'Too many public and private resources have been invested in memorialising the Nazi genocide,' writes Finkelstein. 'Most of the output is worthless, a tribute not to Jewish suffering but to Jewish aggrandisement.'
It is true that the hardline Zionists have increasingly cited the Holocaust as an excuse for the violence and terror meted out by the Israeli state. It is true that hypocritical politicians will appear at Holocaust memorials and then go away and play the race card. But it is also true that the memory of the Holocaust is the biggest barrier to the rebirth of a modern Nazi movement.
Finkelstein seems unaware that one major explanation for the growth of Holocaust studies and memorials has been as a reaction to the growth of new Nazi movements around the world. He has clearly forgotten Jörg Haider's malevolent influence on the Austrian government, or French Nazi leader Le Pen's remark that the Holocaust was 'a mere detail of history', or the recent murderous Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany. He also defends free speech for Holocaust deniers, and attacks those who expose them for giving publicity to 'obscure cranks'. He tells us the Nazi historian David Irving has made an 'indispensable' contribution to our knowledge of the Second World War. This is the David Irving who sees himself as the intellectual leader of Europe's new Nazis, and who was shown during his recent libel trial to be a systematic falsifier of history.
Unlike Finkelstein I have no Holocaust survivors in my family. In the 1930s my mother's family lived in London's East End, where they were involved in the fight against Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts. My father's family lived in Germany before the war. Some made it out by 1939, others simply disappeared. While I was reading Finkelstein's book my parents were sorting out the papers of an 88 year old fellow refugee.
The letters reveal the horror of living under Nazi rule before the Holocaust, and the racism and cynical hypocrisy of the politicians who talked about tolerance but slammed the doors in the face of those fleeing oppression. My parents hope the correspondence will find a home in one of the Holocaust museums--probably one that Finkelstein condemns--either in Britain or Berlin. This will not be an act of Jewish aggrandisement, but their memorial to a victim of the Nazis.
There is an important history to be written about the Jews, racism and politics after the Holocaust. It would have to begin with the physical destruction of the anti-Zionist socialist tradition among Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It would have to talk about the cynical way the Allies refused to bomb the gas chambers even though they knew what was going on there. It would have to deal with the failure of much of the leadership of world Jewry to fight for an open door policy for refugees before the war, and for rescue during the conflict. It would have to discuss the very real anti-Semitism which existed among the political elite worldwide before and after 1945, and the confusion caused by Stalin's rush to recognise the state of Israel even though the country was born amidst the ethnic cleansing of up to 1 million Palestinians. It would have to explain the politics of the Cold War and the changing strategies of imperialism in the Middle East.
Only in this context is it possible to discuss the way the Holocaust has been used by certain sections of the Jewish establishment to defend the indefensible. Finkelstein makes only passing references to this history.
Quoting his mother Finkelstein says, 'The time is long past to open our hearts to the rest of humanity's sufferings.' Unfortunately his book offers no help to those who are today fighting humanity's sufferings.
Allen Lane £22.50
For some commentators 'racism' and 'anti-racism' are old hat. One-time black nationalist Paul Gilroy is among those who regard such terms as overly simplistic. Instead he says, 'We are immediately required to move outside the frustrating binary categories we have inherited: left and right; racist and anti-racist. We need analyses that are alive to the fluidity and contingency of a situation that seems to lack precedents.'
Gilroy once argued that black people, whether they were factory workers or factory owners, had more in common with each other than they had with white people of the same class. Now race is to be regarded as one of the 'cheapest pseudo-solidarities'.
What could justify such a change in attitude? Gilroy says that the idea of race as a scientific category has been disproved. Geneticists like Richard Lewontin have shown that humanity has much more in common across 'races' than within them. But Gilroy, in common with most anti-racists, never subscribed to a biological theory of race anyway.
Much of Between Camps is an attempt to understand the changing nature of race as a cultural phenomenon. Gilroy says that what in the past might have been considered examples of black culture are now far more universal. So many black actors, sports stars, rappers and models have at least as much appeal to a white audience as they do to black people, and in an era of economic globalisation there is now a global culture. Having dark skin is now a 'postmodern badge of prestige'.
In this context, race and racism must be hangovers of a previous society. Gilroy is not saying that we should ignore injustice and prejudice, but that anti-racism should be replaced by 'planetary humanism'. We should no longer accept the categories of race, or class for that matter--instead we should point out our common humanity. This is the basis for a future utopian society.
In addition to whole chunks of the book being written in such an academic style that it is virtually unreadable, there are at least two major theoretical problems in Between Camps. Firstly, Gilroy seems to be suggesting that the spread of what might have been regarded as 'black' culture into the mainstream is evidence of a decline of 'racialised thinking'. There are dangers in this line of thought. Racism is riven with contradictions--it always has been. It is entirely possible for someone to love black music but hate black people. Also, racism has always found ways of reigniting old hatreds and finding new groups to hate. Even if it were true that racism against Afro-Caribbeans was on the decline, and there are many reasons to doubt this, surely the attacks on refugees from eastern Europe must constitute a new racism?
Secondly, there is a problem with seeing racism as purely irrational with no material basis. Capitalism is a system which is dependent upon a strategy of divide and rule. In its initial phase racism justified slavery by saying that black people were not human. Later it explained European dominance of Africa and Asia by virtue of a racial hierarchy which had white people at its head. Today racism puts people into competing categories who are expected to fight each other for jobs and services.
Of course, we share with Gilroy a desire for a world which is free from 'racialised thinking', but when people are oppressed because of a perception of race those who are against racism have a duty to make solidarity their starting point rather than the dismissal of the concept of race.
But the very notion of such class solidarity makes Gilroy uneasy. 'Planetary humanism' is a call for the whole of humanity to unite to bring about change, regardless of the fact that a minority of people benefit from the way society is currently organised.
John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press £13.95
One of the many false but widely accepted, myths about Karl Marx is that he cared only about industrial growth and the development of economic forces, and ignoring the detrimental effect this might have on the environment. This book uncovers a wealth of evidence to demolish the myth, instead demonstrating how, far from being unconcerned about the environment, 'Marx...denounced the spoilation of nature before a modern bourgeois ecological conscience was born'.
Foster points out that Marx's notion of the alienation of humans from their own labour was connected to an understanding of the alienation of human beings from nature. One of the first political debates Marx ever became involved in was over the 'Law on Thefts of Wood'. Traditionally German peasants had been allowed to collect wood, which enabled them to heat their homes and cook their food. Landowners, however, were increasingly denying the peasants these rights. Theft of wood, along with poaching and trespassing, were treated with the utmost severity. In his first job as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper Marx defended the peasants and opposed the parcelling out of portions of the globe by the owners of private property. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx argued that 'the view of nature which has grown up under the regime of private property and of money is an actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature'. He quoted approvingly the words of Thomas Muntzer, the revolutionary leader of the Peasant War in Germany in the 16th century, who had declared it intolerable that 'all creatures have been made into property, the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth', and who had seen this as an attack on both humanity and nature.
Both Marx and Engels pointed out the human cost of environmental destruction. Engels was particularly concerned with the polluted environment of industrial towns like Manchester. Marx considered the 'universal pollution' and universal suffering he saw in the living conditions of the working class as a major factor in it being the only social class with 'nothing to lose but its chains'.
Marx and Engels' later writings, far from abandoning their earlier ecological awareness, strengthened it with the latest findings from the natural and historical sciences. In Capital, building on the investigations of the German chemist Justus von Liebig into soil chemistry, Marx developed a pioneering critique of the way that 19th century agriculture was depleting the soil of nutrients and degrading its fertility.
The claim that Marx was anti-ecological acquired a resonance less because of what Marx actually wrote, but because of the dire state of the environment in Stalinist Russia. In fact, as the final part of this book shows, in the 1920s--both in theory and practice--Soviet ecology was the most advanced in the world. The two greatest Soviet ecologists were V I Vernadsky and N I Vavilov. Vernadsky achieved international renown both for his analysis of the biosphere and as the founder of the science of geochemistry. Vavilov, the first president of the Lenin Agricultural Academy, determined that there were a number of centres of great plant gene diversity located in the underdeveloped countries 'in tropical and subtropical mountain regions'. Today there is an international struggle between countries over the control of these genetic resources.
This ecological awareness was shared by the Bolshevik leadership. Lenin insisted that a 'rational exploitation' of the environment, or the scientific management of natural resources in accord with the principles of conservation, was essential. He argued for 'preservation of the monuments of nature', and the dedicated environmentalist Lunacharsky was put in charge of conservation for all of the Soviet Union. Lenin had enormous respect for Vernadsky, and at his urging established in the Southern Urals the first nature reserve in the Soviet Union--the first reserve anywhere by a government exclusively aimed at the scientific study of nature. Yet all of this environmental awareness was smashed by Stalin's counter-revolution.
There is much else of interest in this book, particularly its discussion of Marx's materialism in relation to that of Darwin and the question of whether there is a dialectic in nature. Above all, it demonstrates that the battle for socialism and the battle to save the planet are not opposed but inextricably linked, and that Marxist theory is a vital weapon in both struggles.