Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

When big politics came back on the agenda

5 days that shook the world
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair
Verso £12

Metal workers demonstatrating in Seattle
Metal workers demonstatrating in Seattle

The protests that wrecked the meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 marked a turning point for the left. More than 60,000 demonstrators faced brutal militarised robocops who were armed with teargas, water cannon and stun grenades, but succeeded in shutting down the WTO and the meeting ended before agreement could be reached.

5 Days That Shook the World is an attempt to explain both the significance of Seattle and the movement which emerged out of it. The opening chapters impart the sense of excitement that the authors held about Seattle and the new unity between environmentalists, Third World activists and workers. They write:

The authors feel that in Seattle they witnessed the birth of an anti-capitalist movement. It wasn't just the scale that marked Seattle out as something new. It was the composition and the politics. It was young. For thousands it must have been their first demonstration, and many travelled for days just to be part of it. Organised workers attended in their tens of thousands, some had taken strike action so they could join in, and 'big' politics was back on the agenda. Queues formed in the early morning for tickets to teach-ins, where debates raged about whether the institutions of capitalism could be reformed or whether they had to be abolished.

Unfortunately, the early optimism of this book gradually gives way to a more cynical analysis. The authors rightly attack the union leaders who wanted to keep the environmental and Third World protesters divided from the workers but are dismissive of the fact that some workers broke from their leaders to join the protests 'downtown'.

There is a staunch defence of those protesters who rejected the non-violent strategy, but when discussing why the police were able to resist the demonstrations outside the International Monetary Fund in Washington, in April 2000, we are told:

Crucially, there is no advice as to how to break workers who are being radicalised from the conservative politics of the leaders of their unions. There is no exposition of the huge ideological changes taking place in the US working class, or of the importance of organised labour to the anti-capitalist movement.

By the time the book reaches the protests outside the Democratic convention in Los Angeles there is a resigned acceptance that the movement is down to its hard core: "What was left in LA was the distilled militant core of the new movement: death penalty opponents, radical greens, Naderites, a few dozen steel workers and longshoremen." If you read 5 Days That Shook the World and knew nothing of how the spirit of Seattle had spread across the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movement had narrowed to all but the hard core. In fact the opposite is true. Anti-capitalist sentiment is growing as more people question the system we live under.

Whilst occasionally this book hits the spot, making you laugh, or sit up in awe of those who have fought in the anti-capitalist battles over the last year, it suffers from serious weaknesses. Its flawed analysis of the struggles in the US over the year since Seattle means that it offers no battle plan for the future.
Yuri Prasad


AUTHORITATIVE, ENGAGING AND ENLIGHTENING

Rogue States
Noam Chomsky
Pluto Press £10.00

Rogue States

This latest helping from the prodigious pen of Noam Chomsky explores the hypocrisy in the application and meaning of the term so beloved of western political pundits, the 'rogue state'.
The book itself is rather small, some 250 pages, and is a compilation of recent lectures and articles. The relative paucity of text, however, belies the breadth of issues explored and discussed. Postwar US foreign policy is examined, with particular attention being given to Central and South America, Indonesia and the recent events in the Balkans. In addition Chomsky places great emphasis upon the postwar structures of international order, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This area is intimately linked to the study of Third World debt and the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Finally the US domestic arena is examined, along with the contemporary debate on socioeconomic sovereignty.
The opening paragraph of the book defines the parameters for discussion as Chomsky elucidates the dual meaning of the term rogue state. There are two uses: [a] propagandistic use, applied to assorted enemies, and a literal use that applies to states that do not regard themselves as bound by international norms'. The old maxim which states that history is written by the victors informs us that the latter category is the one in which to place the most powerful states, particularly the putative global hegemon, the US. Throughout the text Chomsky displays his particular talent for uncovering official documents and speeches which betray the underlying thrust of postwar US foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, certain of the quotations offered require no interpretation or expansion--being stripped of 'positive spin' they starkly reveal the overweening self interest that is US politics.
The text itself is replete with examples of US hypocrisy. For example, the continuous barrage of propaganda to which we are all subjected, and which claims that the US is a champion of freedom, democracy, human rights and development, bears little relation to the documentary record. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights aimed to enshrine the right for every person to 'a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family'. This was vetoed by the US. Indeed, Morris Abram, the US representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights stated that 'development is not a right' and to suggest such could be construed as 'dangerous incitement'. In contemporary US society a corporation is afforded more protection under the Universal Declaration than flesh and blood citizens. Hence corporate donations to the two main candidates in the recent farce which masqueraded as the US presidential election are justified on the grounds that they are an expression of corporate 'free speech'.
Given the huge gulf between governmental rhetoric and deed, it is utterly mind-boggling to comprehend how the ruling class in the US is able to get away with policies which are literally tantamount to murder. This is not an exaggeration. To take one example, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the US ambassador to the UN in 1975, explained in his memoirs how the UN initiative condemning the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor was scuppered. Moynihan states that the US was in favour of the invasion and that 'the Department of State desired that the UN prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.' The result was genocide for one third of the East Timorese people. This disgraceful action was justified on the part of the US by claiming that Suharto had brought 'stability' to the region.
This little book is classic Chomsky--authoritative, engaging and enlightening.
For those familiar with Chomsky's earlier writings the book may prove to be somewhat disappointing, in that it is a collection of individual lectures and articles which have been, to a greater or lesser extent, covered by previously published works. But the range of issues covered, coupled with Chomsky's indomitable style, mark this book out as a good primer for those unfamiliar with his earlier writings.
Andy McConnell


A TRIANGULAR RELATIONSHIP

The Triple Helix
Richard Lewontin
Harvard University Press £15

The Triple Helix

Richard Lewontin's latest book challenges the commonly held view that everything about an organism, be it a cabbage, a mouse or a human being, is determined by its genes. This viewpoint has been expressed in its most extreme form by the eminent molecular biologist Sydney Brenner, who first made his name by helping to crack the DNA 'code'. Brenner has recently begun introducing his seminars with the claim that if he possessed the complete DNA sequence of an organism and a large enough computer he could compute the organism.
For Lewontin, genes represent only one of the three important strands of life, the other two being the organism itself and its environment. Together these three strands form the triple helix of the title. Like a helix, they are thoroughly interwoven.
Using a number of examples drawn from plant and animal genetics, Lewontin shows that an organism is moulded by a unique combination of both genes and environment. Thus the genome is best viewed as a set of boundary conditions that limits the nature of the organism, not a blueprint that defines it. Moreover, a particular set of genes may behave in complex, unpredictable ways when the organism is placed in different environments. There are practical implications here. Novel varieties of plants that have been created in a laboratory and thrive under certain conditions have been miserable failures out in the field.
If the importance of the environment in shaping life forms is often ignored, an equally mistaken viewpoint is to presume that this relationship is a one-sided affair. Darwin's radical distinction between organism and environment, in which he saw organisms occupying fixed ecological niches, was a necessary and revolutionary step which led him to the idea of evolution by natural selection. However, it is also a distortion of reality which ignores the fact that organisms create, modify and choose the environment in which they live. The beaver building its dam is one example of such activity.
A key question in modern biology is how a single cell, the fertilised egg, develops into a complex multicellular organism such as a newborn baby. Our knowledge of the basic processes at work during the development of the embryo remains remarkably unclear. On the one hand, there has been undoubted success in identifying genes involved in embryogenesis. There was much excitement over the discovery that genes involved in specifying the direction of an organism from head to tail appear to be conserved between humans, insects, worms and even plants. The expression of such genes can even be visualised, with the help of fluorescent stains, as pretty patterns across the embryo.
Yet there is a great deal missing from current accounts. While we have a long list now of the genes involved in development, there is much less idea about the actual physical processes they are involved in. All too often we hear accounts that tell us a particular developmental process is triggered by gene A, which then turns on gene B, and so on, without it ever becoming clear what is happening with the living cell or tissue. According to Lewontin, developmental biology is likely to remain in such an impasse until it is recognised that genes cannot be treated as isolated entities but must be examined as a part of a dynamic system within the living cell.
Overall I found this book to be stimulating and readable. If I have a disagreement with Lewontin's stance, it is that I would like to have seen a more positive appraisal of the ways in which some scientists are seeking to transcend the limits of reductionism. For instance, I found his assessment of the contribution of chaos and complexity theory to biology overly negative. It may be true, as Lewontin says, that the input of these disciplines to biology remains largely speculative, but they have certainly helped to create a receptivity among some biologists to the idea that life is complex but nevertheless has patterns and regularities.
It would also have been interesting to hear about new technological developments that are allowing us to visualise some of the complex interactions taking place within the living cell. These are minor criticisms, however, that should not discourage anyone from reading what is an important and fascinating book.
John Parrington


WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN

Civil Resistance in Kosovo
Howard Clark
Pluto Press £14.99

A detailed insight into the tragedy of the otherwise heroic struggle of the Kosovan Albanians-spearheaded by the striking miners of Trepca in 1989 only to become a Trojan horse for Nato intervention in 1999--is the heart of this
Clark's focus is the strategy of non-violence adopted by Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the main representative of Kosovan Albanians from 1989 following Milosevic's abolition of the province's autonomy. Acknowledging that this strategy 'imposed itself' on the LDK for pragmatic reasons given the might of the Serbian state, Clark sets out to explain why it failed and why the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) superseded it.
The core of Clark's critique is that the LDK's 'nationalist intransigence' prevented it from applying sufficient tactical flexibility to develop the struggle and so retain leadership of it. He notes how the decision in 1990 to boycott Serbian elections may have been appropriate 'for the early mobilisation of opinion', but criticises it for then assuming 'the status of an immutable principle'. He attacks Rugova's 'stance of indifference' towards the democratisation of Yugoslavia, and notes how 'left democrats' outside the LDK like Shkelzen Maliqi and Veton Surroi 'were thrown into the political wilderness in the early 1990s for being too open to the Serbs'.
Most importantly, Clark describes the failure of the LDK to support the mass anti-Milosevic demonstrations that swept Belgrade in the winter of 1996-97. He contrasts the 'exaggerated lack of interest' displayed by the LDK towards the Serbian demonstrators with the minute's silence they held to mark the death in police custody of a Kosovan Albanian teacher. He points to significant figures in Kosovo like Adem Demaci, known as Kosovo's Mandela for spending 28 years in prison. Later a KLA representative, he argued strongly for support as a way of breaking down the nationalist illusions of the Serbian opposition leadership and their supporters.
The parallel structures that sprang up in response to Milosevic's aggressive Serbianisation of the province, such as independent schools for Albanians free from Serb state control, were testimony to the powers of self organisation of the Albanian masses. However, in the absence of a radical social programme, they 'tended to patch up gaps rather than prefigure how life could be'. As Clark discovered, the mobilisation of women by the struggle in a deeply patriarchal society was sidelined because 'the national question came first'.
This tactical inflexibility was exposed in acute form after November 1995, when the Dayton agreement left Kosovo to Milosevic. The urgent need then felt across Kosovan society to remobilise the struggle was not reflected in any tactical innovations by the LDK. Indeed, Clark describes the LDK's 'passive non-violence' as 'extreme passivity, waiting for something to happen on the international stage while taking a posture of laissez-faire on improving daily life in Kosovo'. Rugova even refused to convene the parallel parliament elected in 1992 on international advice. Inevitably, the active violence of the KLA designed to provoke foreign intervention proved more attractive, especially to young, radicalised Albanians. In this sense, the KLA amounted to nothing more than the LDK with guns.
Despite his support for the Kosovan Albanians, Clark opposes Nato's bombing, if somewhat uneasily. He does so more because of his pacifist principles than because of any deeper recognition of the nature of imperialism. As a result, his anodyne final chapter offers little by way of answers for the future. Nevertheless, the heart of his book offers useful insights into how socialists might intervene in a national liberation struggle to steer it away from becoming a tragic pawn of imperialism.
Dragan Plavsic


FREEDOM ROAD

Thelma & Louise
Marita Sturken
BFI Publishing £8.99

Thelma & Louise

This is a gem of a book, full of insights into the movie Thelma and Louise. It includes comments from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, loads of stills from the film, and quotes from the screenwriter, Callie Khouri.
Marita Sturken first looks at the political and cultural climate at the time when the film was first released. It came out just after the Reagan-Thatcher 'New Right' offensive on the working class, and at a time when the material gains and ideas of the feminist movement had been weakened.
Some implausible claims were made concerning the movie. It was accused of being too violent, and of influencing young women to take up male-bashing. Yet around the same time Total Recall was released, which received none of the criticism for violence or sexism even though in one scene a woman is shot through the head and Arnold Schwarzenegger quips, 'Consider that a divorce.'
Khouri was upfront in answering these criticisms: 'Kiss my ass, kiss my ass. I was raised in this society. Let them get their deal worked out about the way women are treated in films before they start hassling me about the way men are treated. There is a whole genre of films known as "exploitation" based on the degradation of women and a whole bunch of redneck critics extolling its virtues, and until there's a subgenre of women doing the same thing to men in numbers too numerous to count, as is the case with exploitation films, then just shut the fuck up.'
Sturken attempts to identify the genre of the film, and concludes that while not fitting the buddy or outlaw genres it is a hybrid of the two. She looks at the techniques the director, Ridley Scott, uses. The film draws the viewer in and takes you on the journey with Thelma and Louise, pulling you firmly onto their side. It plays on the contrast of the claustrophobic home environment, where the police and Thelma's misogynist husband wait by the phone for the women to ring, and the freedom and space of the open road which has become the new domain of the two women.
Sturken's assertion that the film empowered women is exaggerated. It is certainly a powerful film that had me cheering when I saw it ten years ago. It hit a nerve, audience participation was spontaneous, and both men and women enjoyed it. Thelma and Louise was and is a brilliant film because it shows the victims of oppression taking on the oppressors and refusing to give in.
Fiona Prior


THE GOOD OLD DAYS

British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: Volumes One and Two
Eds: A Campbell, N Fishman and J McIlroy
Ashgate £27.50 or £50 for two volumes

British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: Volumes One and Two

Both Tony Blair and the TUC have branded the trade union struggles that shook Britain during the 1960s and 1970s as the 'bad old days'. They compare this era with Thatcher's alleged 'success' in 'improving' industrial relations post-1979, as well as with their own recent much trumpeted 'responsible' Social Partnership approach. But not surprisingly, in attempting to rubbish the past they portray it in a highly selective and partisan fashion--which is why, amongst other reasons, these two academic labour history volumes are to be welcomed. Their starting point is the need to challenge the self interested myth-makers by providing a more rigorous historical scrutiny of the postwar fortunes of British trade unionism, in particular the period stretching from 1945 to 1979.
The editors have collected together a number of essays by authoritative union-sympathetic contributors who throw new light on uncharted areas as well as taking a fresh look at other well researched themes. Often utilising substantially new archival material as well as oral interviews, they re-evaluate a number of enduring debates concerned with issues such as the limits and potential of shop stewards' activity, the relationship between industrial militancy and political generalisation, and the role of the Communist Party.
Volume One is concerned with the years between Attlee and Wilson (1945-64) underpinned by the long boom and full employment. It includes chapters on engineering shop stewards' organisation, the 1957 national shipbuilding and engineering strikes, the London bus workers' stoppage the following year and the high level of unofficial strike activity on the docks.
Volume Two maps the terrain of industrial politics from 1964 to 1979, marked by the state's increasing attempts to restructure and reintegrate trade unionism through incomes policies, legislation and other means.
Both volumes have their limitations. There is relatively little material on the derailing of the militant momentum under the Social Contract of the mid-1970s, and the revival of struggle during the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent. The central role of the trade union bureaucracy in attempting to restrain workers' militancy at every stage of the period surveyed is generally inadequately understood or explained. A number of contributors display an explicit sectarian disdain for the politics of the SWP, attacking its alleged 'workerism' and 'recipe book' Leninism. The books are written in an academic language that is sometimes obscure. They assume an existing level of knowledge of the period and events.
Nonetheless, these books reaffirm the importance of rank and file union organisation and the intervention of socialist activists, and they serve as a welcome reminder that the current low level of workers' struggle is likely to be transformed into its opposite just as surely as has happened on numerous occasions in the past (despite Blair's hopes otherwise).
Ralph Darlington


Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page