Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

Why our rulers have lost the plot

The Constant Gardener
John Le Carré
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99

Kim Philby denies to the press that he is a spy
Kim Philby denies to the press that he is a spy

The Cold War is over. One of the many who earned their living from it was the spy thriller writer John Le Carré. His novels explored the world of espionage and the dilemmas of those like the real life spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who hated the corrupt rotten ruling class they grew up with in Britain and switched their allegiance to the workers' state they thought they saw in Russia.

By the time they recognised the truth it was too late to switch sides again and they had to learn to live with the lie they had fallen for. This wasn't too difficult, mainly because they had been completely right in their assessment of Britain. It was not a country worth fighting for, not at least without some serious changes. Writing thrillers that hinged on the reasonableness of treachery towards a rotten Britain was what Le Carré excelled at. So politically he was always somewhere on the left rather than the right.

But that hardly prepares his readers for his latest book, The Constant Gardener, which starts with the murder of campaigning activist Tessa who has been investigating the deadly side effects of a new anti-TB drug. This is being field tested in the most cynical way imaginable on poor defenceless patients in Kenya. As the investigations and complaints begin to gain momentum the company running the trials, which also has rights to the local market, decides that Tessa has to be got rid of.

For all her upper class connections, Tessa is an anti-capitalist. As her husband puts it, 'Tessa believed that the irresponsible quest for corporate profit is destroying the globe and the emerging world in particular... Under the guise of investment, western capital ruins the native environment and favours the rise of kleptocracies.' In her own words, 'Trade isn't making the poor rich. Profits don't buy reforms. They buy corrupt government officials and Swiss bank accounts.'

Her husband is a British diplomat, an old Etonian, the last word in convention, politeness and gardening expertise. The main plot unfolds with the transformation of this man into an anti-capitalist activist. Not perhaps the most likely story, but it is told well.

It is so well told that not only is this a very enjoyable read, but it is not possible to rubbish it as the Financial Times would have loved to do. Instead, smarting with a sense of betrayal, that paper's reviewer was forced to try to discredit Le Carré's understanding of the international pharmaceutical industry.

In fact Le Carré has studied his target well. In the book we learn a lot about how drug multinationals fix the testing process, bribing tame academics and threatening those who refuse to conform. None of the horrors in the book are exaggerated. On the contrary, as Le Carré himself insists in the novel's postscript, 'by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard'.

What we have here is an unambiguously anti-capitalist novel, one that takes head-on the 'free markets solve all' view being pushed by New Labour. It will sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies and most probably go on to make an excellent film.

Le Carré has moved into the centre of today's New World Order. He no longer asks the question, 'How do people decide which superpower is the lesser evil?' but, 'How do we stop humanity and the planet being destroyed in the mindless pursuit of profit?' He may not have more than the beginnings of an answer but he certainly asks the right question. Read this when you can.
Geoff Brown


IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

Late Victorian Holocausts
Mike Davis
Verso £20

Late Victorian Holocausts

It is sometimes deeply painful to read this extraordinary book, but most of the time it provokes anger and revulsion.
On the surface it is a book about climate and the ravages that nature can produce when air masses gather over the oceans, scoop up great banks of warm water and hurl them at the coasts of Latin America. El Niño they call it--or, even more neutrally, Enso. Its dynamics have only been fully identified in recent years, but it has been happening in regular and documented cycles for centuries, bringing destruction and drought in its wake.
And yet...here's the curious contradiction. It reached its most destructive peak a century ago, just when the British Crown was preparing to celebrate Victoria's Jubilee and announcing to the world how Britain had dragged India kicking and screaming into the modern world. China too was enjoying the benefits of western intervention. Gunboats and opium wars had won for foreign capital, and Germany and Britain in particular, control over China's vast tracts of cultivable land and, crucially, over its water. And across the world in Brazil, droughts scorched the north east and drove millions towards the cities or the jungles. Here too the response was determined by British and European financiers and bankers concerned only with sugar exports.
So, on the one hand, railways were being introduced on a large scale into China and India, new engineering projects were creating dams and canal systems, and these countries--and the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America--were being integrated into an international system of manufacture and trade. On the other hand, famine, drought, disease and malnutrition were claiming new victims in numbers it is almost impossible to imagine even now. Davis's book is peppered with illustrations of starving skeletal figures--the captions tell you that they represent almost every country in the non-European world.
They are familiar enough to us, those bloated faces with their dead eyes. We have heard the descriptions of the floods, landslides and earthquakes as the revenge of an unpredictable, remorseless nature--and the reassurance that 'we are sending aid'.
Davis unmasks the hypocrisy and cynicism of the politicians and the 'aid' givers. By looking back a century he identifies the beginning of this terrible chain of hunger and famine, not in some primitive nature, but in the dynamics of a capitalism that had set about devouring the globe. Famine and ecological crisis are not new phenomena. But as Davis shows, the impact of the regular assaults of El Niño through history was less in the past, because in China there were huge granaries and sophisticated systems of water transport to move supplies quickly to places of need. In India local rulers accepted some responsibility for the relief of famine. Peasants and their communities adjusted the crops they cultivated to environmental change, and diversified what they produced so that if the millet crop failed they could sell their handcrafted textiles and buy food.
This is not to idealise despots or to deny how harsh and precarious were the conditions of survival of peasant farmers. But it does recognise that communal structures did exist to limit the effect of drought and hunger. When the British arrived in India they destroyed those structures, imposed the cultivation of export crops by force of arms, and created new tax structures that priced local producers out of business but protected the Lancashire cotton growers who exported their cloth to the sub-continent. Their aid, or 'relief', went only to those who could work (they had to pass a 'distance test', a ten-mile walk, before they were eligible for below starvation wages). In China the land was given over to growing opium, an export crop that could not be exchanged for food.
The indictment is constructed chapter by chapter. The great hungers, Davis says, 'have always been redistributive class struggles'. It is the scale of devastation that is most shocking. In 1879, 1 percent of the population of Morocco died every day. In India 12 to 16 million died of hunger while Victoria was celebrating her Jubilee. In the Philippines the occupying US forces in 1898-99 used disease as a weapon against national resistance. The book is bursting with examples.
On the other hand, there was always resistance, struggles that ended in a terrible scale of death and repression. The Taiping rebellion in mid-19th century China took on the landlords and advocated common ownership of land. It was defeated in a bloodbath of around 30 million. In Brazil the egalitarian community of refugees and the landless poor at Canudos, in the sertao of the north east, was crushed, finally, by the full might of a British-financed Brazilian army, leaving only one old man alive to tell the tale.
Late Victorian Holocausts is a very important book. To those who have demonstrated their horror at the waste of life from Rwanda to El Salvador, at pollution and environmental destruction, it answers the question, why? It is not nature that is responsible. When Lord Kitchener heard that hundreds of thousands were dying in Egypt, he ordered that they should be left to die--a starving army, after all, is easier to defeat. In Vietnam the US army did not just destroy the food the Vietnamese might have eaten, but poisoned the land for a generation. In Iraq in 2001 the refusal to send medicines to stop the unnecessary death of a million children continues the policies of Lord Lytton in India and Kitchener in Egypt. Disease and hunger are weapons deployed throughout the history of the conquest of world markets by a capitalism 'red in tooth and claw'.
Mike Gonzalez


THE SLAVES REVOLT

The Many-Headed Hydra
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
Verso £19

The Many-Headed Hydra

At the very beginning of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels declare that class struggle is a constant feature of society. Elsewhere it is argued that, as well as owning and controlling the means of production, the ruling class also controls the means of mental production--schools, universities, the press and media. There is a direct link between these two points. The ruling class has a clear interest in concealing the reality of class society and in presenting their dominance as natural, inevitable and justified by law, god or usually both.
I was reminded of these key concepts of Marxist theory as I read The Many-Headed Hydra. The book covers a 250-year span from the 17th to the early 19th century and touches upon a number of subjects that will be familiar to anyone schooled in the traditional British education system, such as Greek mythology, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and the works of William Shakespeare. What is different about this book, however, is that it stands on the side of the dispossessed.
The title of the book is a reference to Hercules' heroic slaying of a hideous beast in Greek mythology. As the emerging working class fought back against the effects of enclosures, enslavement and exploitation, the chroniclers of early capitalism frequently referred to the many-headed hydra as a metaphor for this new monster that needed to be tamed.
The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, features prominently in the early chapters of the book. The conquest of the sea established a critical new stage in human history and played a crucial role in globalising capitalism. Alongside this, however, there was a transatlantic circulation of experience and struggle. Poorly paid, malnourished sailors were thrown together with slaves, transported criminals and conscripts in circumstances which created a common bond. Shakespeare was himself a minor investor in commercial shipping and was therefore aware of the turbulent changes that were occurring. One of the attractions of Linebaugh and Rediker's book is that it encourages a reinterpretation of the struggle between the master Prospero and the motley crew gathered around the half-beast Caliban.
Indeed, the 'motley crew' is another key feature of The Many-Headed Hydra. The term is usually used negatively to describe a dishevelled and disorganised rabble. However, an alternative characterisation is that of a multi-coloured or indeed multi-ethnic group and such a motley crew was to be found on the ships that sailed the Atlantic stirring up a revolutionary current. The book brings to life the multi-ethnic and internationalist nature of a whole series of struggles including the English Revolution, the Masaniello revolt in Naples in 1647, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
There are also a series of short but fascinating portraits of key figures, and a blistering exposure of the slave-owning founding father of the United States Thomas Jefferson. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Edward Despard, an Irish born British navy colonel who served alongside Horatio Nelson. Despard ended his days married to an African American woman and was executed in 1802 for conspiring to form a revolutionary army, seize control of London and establish a republic! In addition the book includes a number of excellent contemporary illustrations and poetry from, among others, William Blake.
This book provides an excellent introduction to a series of hidden struggles and should encourage the reader to explore other works, including Christopher Hill's great works on the English Revolution, CLR James's The Black Jacobins and Frederick Engels's and EP Thompson's respective accounts of the development of the British working class movement.
Many of the struggles highlighted ended in heroic defeat. However, in contrast to Hercules's opponent, the working class has not been slain.
Brian Richardson


REVOLUTIONARY AS DEMON

Lenin
Robert Service
Macmillan £25

Lenin

Robert Service's biography of Lenin is another in a long line that set out to portray him, and all that he stood for, as flawed from the start. Service's previous works on the same subject attempt to chart a direct line between Lenin and the Bolshevik Party through to the Stalinist monolith that followed the defeat of the revolution.
His latest offering goes a stage further, attempting to root the brutal and undemocratic Stalinist state in Lenin's personality. He attacks the Stalinist biographers for portraying Lenin as an infallible saint but shares their method of ignoring the interaction between Lenin and historical circumstances. For Service, Lenin is a demon.
We are served up the usual descriptions of Lenin as a cold, callous, brutal and obsessive man. The rot had apparently set in by the age of three when his parents gave him a papier-mâché horse. Lenin's instinct, we are told, 'was to creep off with the toy and twist off its legs'. There you have it: from toddler temper tantrum to the 'Terror'.
Service is clearly obsessed by the terror that was unleashed after the revolution in 1917 and he is hell bent on blaming Lenin and the Bolsheviks. When describing how the Tsarist authorities dealt with Lenin after he took part in a student demonstration, Service states that the ministry of the interior under the Tsar was nothing like as oppressive as the police force set up by Lenin at the end of 1917.
This is an incredible position to arrive at when you think of how the Tsarist regime orchestrated pogroms which massacred tens of thousands of Jews, and crushed the democratic and workers' movements.
Many millions did die after 1917 through starvation brought about by the economic blockades imposed by the imperialist powers, over 16 invading armies, and a White Army led by bloodthirsty killers like Wrangel and Denikin, who were trying to restore the old regime.
The Bolsheviks did have to use force against those who wanted to drown the revolution in blood. But Service downplays the historical situation the Bolsheviks faced, as if they acted in a vacuum. And even many of the facts about Lenin's life that Service cites do not hold up. For example, Service spends a lot of time putting Lenin's death down to syphilis, only to retract it by saying that all the tests proved negative. Similar asides about there being 'no evidence' follow other assertions which are designed to smear Lenin.
The only area of Lenin's ideas that Service does spend some time on is the relationship between Lenin and what Service calls the 'agrarian socialist terrorists'. He argues that Lenin's politics were not really rooted in Marxism, but in the Narodniks, the populist revolutionaries of the 19th century who resisted the Tsarist state. Their leaders believed that the peasants, who made up the majority in Russia, were the agents of social change and that assassinations of key Tsarist figures would spur the masses into action.
It is no secret that Lenin greatly admired these revolutionaries for their courage. Lenin's brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the Tsar.
However, Lenin broke with the Narodniks because he saw that a revolution in Russia had to be based on mass action led by the working class. Service can say that this has little to do with Marx because he sees orthodox Marxism as a mechanical theory of the evolution of society through economic progress. That was the view of the reformists in Lenin's time and, interestingly, their attacks on the Russian Revolution are the models for Service's own.
Missing from this book is Lenin's great strength: his ability to apply the Marxist method in concrete circumstances, taking into account the historical peculiarities of the society in which he was operating. It is 500 pages long, but key events that shaped Lenin's ideas, such as the 1905 revolution, get cursory treatment.
Service worries that a new generation, disgusted with capitalism, could turn to Lenin for inspiration. That fear betrays a lot. For if Lenin were really the ogre Service says he was, then there would be little chance of anyone taking him seriously and, of course, no need for this pricey hatchet job.
Sean Vernell


RADICAL REALISM

John Maynard Keynes
Robert Skidelsky
Macmillan £25

John Maynard Keynes was the greatest bourgeois economist of the 20th century. But he was not just a theoretician. He was deeply involved in planning macroeconomic policy in the wartime British economy and in representing the British government in the negotiations which produced the Bretton Woods agreement and the immediate postwar deal over British indebtedness to the US. These are the principal events covered in the third and final volume of Skidelsky's comprehensive biography of Keynes.
Keynes's perspective was informed by two fundamental considerations during this period. Firstly, he wanted to see international arrangements in place after the war that would prevent the collapse of the world economy similar to what had occurred in the 1930s. Secondly, he wanted the British economy restored to health and removed from the indebtedness to the US which had kept the British economy afloat during the war.
Keynes was no radical. For example, although he welcomed the Beveridge Report which heralded the welfare state, his primary concern was to reduce the cost by limiting the 'cradle to grave' welfare provisions contained in its recommendations. But he was a realist about the position of the British state and economy. He was at the 'progressive', 'internationalist' edge of British ruling class economic thinking which recognised the central position of the US in establishing a liberal postwar economic order.
The 1930s saw the collapse of trade as the US and other countries imposed import controls, the rise of mass unemployment and political instability out of which the Nazis came to power in Germany. To overcome the legacy of the Great Depression, Keynes wanted to see a restoration of international trade, and stability in the foreign exchanges and international credit facilities to prevent deflationary pressures.
Skidelsky recounts at enormous length the intricacies of Keynes's positions, his influence over the outlook of first the war cabinet, and then the Labour government and the different perspectives and interests he found himself up against in negotiating with the US government.
Skidelsky has worked on his three-volume biography of Keynes for the last 20 years. This and the previous two volumes add significantly to an understanding of Keynes, his intellectual and practical achievements, and his relations to his times and his class. However, the biography as a whole is flawed. Apart from the fact that Skidelsky is self evidently anti-Marxist, this volume, like its predecessors, is excessively detailed on less important matters. Also Skidelsky is not an economist and seems not to have the confidence or the knowledge to explain for the layman just what the significance of the issues was.
It would also have been reasonable to conclude that the postwar economic boom had less to do with the details of Keynes's analysis and influence on postwar economic arrangements, and much more to do with the development of the Cold War and the increased military spending by the US. But Keynes's real legacy came with the political and economic ideology which has become known as Keynesianism. This prevailed throughout the postwar period until economic crisis struck in the 1970s.
Rob Hoveman


THE ART OF COMMUNICATION

Graphic Design in Germany 1890-1945
Jeremy Aynsley
Thames & Hudson £36

A Heartfield anti-Nazi montage
A Heartfield anti-Nazi montage

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 had effects far beyond the narrowly political. It widened workers' mental horizons and transformed their attitudes to subjects as varied as sexuality, race and art. Russian workers flocked to the theatre and ballet, read classic literature, and saw new sculptures and posters in the streets.
For us today, 'design' may seem superficial--pointless luxury ('designer jeans') or simply a matter of surface prettiness. But in the late 19th century the development of capitalism in Britain and Germany raised crucial questions. How could mass production by machine, for a profit, produce goods of quality and beauty? In both countries the ruling class was keen to educate the new class of manufacturers in artistic matters. In the late 19th century William Morris argued that only a socialist society could guarantee beauty and quality--which he believed would mean a return to small-scale handicraft production. This 'arts and crafts' movement was influential in Germany, though Morris's politics were ignored.
A second strand feeding into the revolutionary art of the 1920s came from artistic movements like Cubism. These had developed in the years before the First World War, as artists rejected the idea that they should simply represent objects, turning to abstraction.
With the German Revolution after the war, artists moved from being marginal bohemian figures at the edge of society and were caught up in fighting for socialism. At the Bauhaus--one of the key centres of the new 'modernist' school--students and staff designed workers' housing and memorials to those killed in the German revolutionary movement. Modernism was a self consciously internationalist movement which believed in the power of machines and efficiency to bring about a new and better world. It's no accident that the best known modernist typeface is called Futura.
The political commitment of many modernists was clear at a printing exhibition in Cologne in 1928. The reformist Social Democratic Party and unions organised the House of the Workers' Press, designed in the modernist style and including books and a film on the history of the workers' movement. A Berlin paper described the English and Russian contributions to the event: 'England: pious, aristocratic, historically reverent, at peace in its confidence; so it was and so it will be to all eternity... And Russia: one must admit, grandeur in its exposition of social conditions, with real mechanical equipment, conveyor belts of great cubistic zig zags: causing a stir by its enormous steps of progress which are depicted in bold and bragging manner, always in glaring red.'
Two of the leading modernist designers identified with the left. John Heartfield had joined the Communist Party on its foundation in 1918. He used montage and photography--the new technologies of the time, rather than fine arts like oil painting--to attack capitalism, militarism and the Nazis. Jan Tschichold had gained a traditional typographic training when he visited the Bauhaus in 1923. He met with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an artist and member of the short-lived Hungarian revolutionary government, and the Russian revolutionary and artist El Lissitzky. Tschichold developed the 'new typography', using new, geometric typefaces, asymmetrical arrangement page layouts and photographs rather than drawings.
As hopes of revolution faded, an apolitical version of modernism became reconciled to capitalism. Many German modernist designers worked in advertising, and themes of standardisation and efficiency fitted with capitalist mass production. After the Second World War, a version of modernism--the international style, under the aegis of Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus--would be seen in the form of monolithic skyscrapers worldwide.
The fact that modernism isn't inherently left wing is reflected in the fact that even the Nazis used some modernist ideas--the swastika has much in common with the geometric company logos produced by designers of modernist adverts. But the Nazis rejected the experimentation of modernism, its tendency to question accepted ideas, its eagerness to reject the traditional in favour of the future. They condemned modern art and typefaces as 'degenerate' and tended to prefer old, gothic typefaces--though they were inconsistent, and the gothic typefaces were condemned in their turn as 'Jewish' during the Second World War. Artists like Tschichold and Heartfield were forced to emigrate.
Every revolutionary struggle inspires new artistic movements and the creative use of new technologies to make art and communicate ideas.
Colin Wilson


BUCKING THE TYRANNY OF THE MARKET

We Will Not Dance On Our Grandparents' Tombs
Kintto Lucas
CIIR £8.95

Ecuador's poor suffer from neo-liberal policies
Ecuador's poor suffer from neo-liberal policies

Ecuador is not a country well known or widely discussed in Britain. More famous for its giant turtles and rainforest than for its history and politics, news of the country has often been hard to come by and books on it in English are few beyond academic circles. It is, however, a land with a tradition of struggle and in the last couple of years in particular some notable successes for its popular movement. There are still not too many places where an uprising and the seizure of parliament have dispensed unceremoniously with the president as happened in January 2000 in Quito. Socialist Review then predicted that there would follow a series of popular struggles. Currently the cities of Cuenca, Latacunga and Quito are again paralysed by strikes and demonstrations in the latest wave of unrest.
This short book, then, is both timely and useful. Written by a leading radical journalist in Ecuador, it tells the story of the mobilisations between March 1999 and January 2000. The spine of the book is a series of news reports describing the escalating economic crisis in a region at the very sharpest end of globalisation. Faced with absolutely crippling foreign debt and a stricken economy, a corrupt and incompetent government tries to implement policies in favour of the obscenely privileged and utterly venal ruling class which it serves. In the process it provokes almost continuous opposition from the organisations of the working class, peasantry, indigenous peoples and large sections of the middle class.
At the centre of Lucas's attention is Conaie (Council of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador). It is the most powerful and coherent of the popular organisations, ready to mobilise hundreds of thousands across the country, especially in the central highlands, and both able and willing to mount the directest of direct action. This description of Tulcan, where the Panamerican Highway crosses Colombian border, is typical: '300 peasants have detained 20 officials in the city... Among those held are the governor of the province, several mayors, the managing director of the National Promotion Bank and a member of parliament. All transport continues to be paralysed.'
The build-up to the rising of January 2000 is gripping, as the indigenous people outwit the police and the army to pour into Quito quite openly announcing that the government will be removed by the mobilisation. The oil workers in the Amazon region come out on strike in support and the whole oil supply of the country--for export and domestic use--stops instantaneously. As local workers in the capital join street demonstrations, with the Conaie members occupying the city and peasants near Quito bringing food in to sustain the demonstrators, the power workers announce their intention to cut electricity supplies in large areas of the country. The army starts to bicker and split. President Mahaud blusters, boasts, threatens and is in the end forced ignominiously from office. An extraordinary day of confusion, during which the Conaie leader is briefly part of a three man governing junta, is resolved when the army high command and the ruling politicians reassert themselves and impose vice-president Noboa in office. His presidency continues in the midst of the same economic crisis and high level of mobilisation as before.
Lucas is excellent on description. His writing is lively and the articles have been well edited to give a coherent account without the excessive repetition often present in collections of articles. Alongside the chronological account are short feature articles which set the main action in context and inform thoroughly--about US involvement, environmental destruction, the background to and activities of the indigenous movement, the incursion of the war in Colombia, and so on. There is a summary of Ecuadorean politics in recent years in the short introduction, plus useful and easily accessible statistical and demographic information. The later section includes interesting interviews with four indigenous leaders on the political perspectives of Conaie.
There are times when you end up wishing that things had been explained more fully or questions asked more searchingly. The centrality of Conaie in the Ecuadorean popular movement is taken rather too much for granted, certainly in the longer historical perspective, and there is a frustrating lack of analysis of the other elements of the movement--especially, for socialists, the trade unions and left parties whose inactivity or ineffectiveness is assumed (unfairly in some cases) and never explained. Equally, the strategies and mistakes of the Conaie leadership are not examined fully. Still, the focus of the book is deliberately sharp and in 137 pages not everything will be covered.
It can be hard reading a book about something or somewhere you know nothing much about. Unfamiliarity with the names of the individuals or organisations, or difficulty in putting events into any historical or political context can deter. Readers of this review should brave these hazards! When we talk about globalising resistance to the neo-liberal agenda, Ecuador should be up there with the finest examples of a daring, active and democratic alternative to the tyranny of the market.
Andy Brown


MORE SINNED AGAINST THAN SINNING

Mary Shelley
Miranda Seymour
John Murray £25

Mary Shelley is best remembered for the extraordinary novel Frankenstein that captured the popular imagination, first as stage drama and then, in the 20th century, in the cinema. In the process the word Frankenstein entered the language as the name of a monster no longer controllable by its creator, though in the original it is his creator, not the monster, who is called Frankenstein.
This shift of name from creator to monster points to a deeper ideological shift. In Mary Shelley's original the monster is more sinned against than sinning. If he performs monstrous acts (like killing his creator's brother and bride) it is because humanity shuns him for his appearance--he has become the victim of prejudice. If there is a monster, it is his creator. Frankenstein may curse his creation, but his creation persuasively argues, out of bitter experience of being abandoned and rejected, 'Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.'
In other words, people are not born evil. They perform evil deeds because of their circumstances. Change those circumstances and you will change people. Such an idea was relatively new in Mary Shelley's period. It came out of the ferment of radical ideas which the 18th century Enlightenment produced, ideas which profoundly influenced the Great French Revolution of 1789 and shook the hold of reactionary religious concepts of morality.
That a young woman should be confidently expressing such sentiments is perhaps surprising. But both her parents were radical writers. William Godwin's Political Justice had attacked all the social evils of the day--at a time when anti French Revolution hysteria made it extremely dangerous to do so. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft (who died giving birth to Mary) had campaigned for women's rights--and been denounced by the Tories as a whore.
If Mary, quite exceptionally for women of her period, had access to advanced ideas she also, as companion and then wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, mixed in the most radical circles of the day. Frankenstein is the product of this kind of milieu. But she was never simply the receiver and transmitter of other people's radical ideas. Biographers and critics have noted elements in her fiction which bring out doubts and worries about Enlightenment rationalism.
There is, first and foremost, the question of the creation of the monster. Frankenstein's infusing of life into inanimate matter has an emotional intensity that parallels birth itself. And the mixture of life and death mirrors Mary's own origins, as well as the dreadful losses she herself sustained (four out of her five children died in infancy). Frankenstein's ability to create life on his own is a kind of usurping of the woman's role, and his solitary passion for science is at the expense of contact with those nearest and dearest to him. Pursuit of knowledge in isolation is an abdication of responsibility to others, making it both monstrous and destructive.
All this has led some to argue that Mary Shelley was dismissing the Enlightenment as a male construct--a point of view that owes more to 20th century feminism than the intricate problems of radicalism in the period itself. If Shelley's concept of women's liberation seems abstract and in pointed contrast to his own personal behaviour, then Mary herself, after Shelley's premature death by drowning, colluded in idealising her husband while toning down the radicalism she had once shared with him.
Any decent biography needs to reflect the complex relationship between the shifting circumstances of Mary's personal life and the radical changes in social, political and intellectual culture that spanned the first half of the 19th century. This biography unfortunately does not. It makes much of intimate relationships, particularly her mood swings, her hopes, her despair, her suppressed feelings beneath a cold exterior--all in very breathless, speculative fashion--but says barely anything about her writing. This is to reduce the adventures of Mary Shelley to the level of soap opera.
Seymour is also remarkably ignorant about history. She seems to think, for example, that being a stout Jacobin admirer of the French Revolution involves a loathing of Marat and Robespierre. And the moderate Girondin, Madame Roland, apparently lost her life because she stubbornly distinguished between anarchy and republicanism--whatever that means.
So rather than fork out money on this biography, read (if you haven't already) one of Mary Shelley's novels, preferably Frankenstein.
Gareth Jenkins


EQUITABLE LIFE?

Equality
Alex Callinicos
Polity £9.99

Equality

From the storm about 'fat cats' in the dying days of the Tory government and last year's 75 pence increase for pensioners to the movement against Third World debt, anger at inequality has been a central feature of politics in the last 20 years. In the years from 1994 to 1998 alone, the world's 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth from $440 billion to $1,042 billion. Alex Callinicos's book, which examines both the concept and reality of equality, therefore comes at an important time.
The book starts from the contrast between a world that is becoming more unequal--a global rather than merely British trend--and the abandonment by social democratic parties of even the rhetoric of redistribution. This is despite the references to 'social exclusion' and 'opportunity' that season the speeches of New Labour figures such as Gordon Brown.
Callinicos examines the history of the idea that all people should have equal rights, looking back to the revolutions that overthrew the rigid and hierarchical societies of feudalism. Along with fraternity and liberty, equality was written on the banners of the French Revolution of 1789. The Declaration of Independence, the manifesto of the American Revolution of 1776, began with the words, 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.' But from the start there has been a tension built into the concept of equality. The capitalist societies which came out of these revolutions have no hereditary bars on who can become boss of Ford, but the drive to compete and undercut rivals has led to a growth of inequality across the world. The same people who wrote the Declaration of Independence presided over the continuing existence of slavery in the Southern states of the US.
The rising capitalist class projected a universal idea during the bourgeois revolutions despite being a minority class, but the real content of this idea was limited. For neo-liberals, liberty and equality are in conflict--radical equality is about imposing uniformity of taste and lifestyle as well as income. Alex Callinicos argues that a society where liberty is restrained cannot be truly equal, just as inequality limits the real choices people have, and therefore their freedom. The connection between these concepts is what makes equality an ideal rather than an idea, and one that is always open to more radical interpretations. Equality was not simply a con trick on the part of the powerful, but a notion that was easily appropriated by those who gave it a more radical meaning.
The book surveys the major modern writers on equality, from right wing liberals to those such as Gerry Cohen who have come out of the Marxist tradition. He also suggests a number of reasons for the growth of interest in such theories, including the growth of actual inequality, and the shift to the right of the parties people traditionally expected to do something about it. While siding with radical theorists such as Cohen and Amartya Sen who argue against the narrow visions of equality symbolised by New Labour's 'equality of opportunity', Callinicos also points to their limitations. All the writers he surveys accept the market as the organising principle of the economy. They also tend to reject or ignore the concept of exploitation. Marx was suspicious of notions such as equality because he saw how they could rest on an unequal society. Even radical redistributive policies could not make up for the unequal ownership of the means of producing wealth. Hence his motto about the basis of communism--'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.' The book concludes by exploring how a radical version of equality can be brought about, arguing that even limited reforms would involve a challenge to the current system. Contrary to most of its theorists, Alex Callinicos argues that equality is something that can only be achieved in the struggle against capitalism.
Nicolai Gentchev


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