Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

City of demons and delights

London: A Biography
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto £25.00

Selling Bryant & Mays matches

In London the past has an intimate relationship with the present. The texture of the city and the habits of its citizens reveal the layers of history on which London has built itself.

The life of the city can be traced back through the centuries to Roman civilisations (in Southwark a Roman advert for fish sauce was found, while a Roman public toilet contained the remnants of cannabis), and beyond. The remains of a mammoth were found under King's Cross, those of hippos and elephants under Trafalgar Square, and alligators under Islington.

Ackroyd's book reveals fascinating interconnections with the past through physical continuities of buildings, markets and street names. The city is also a mosaic of its previous inhabitants' experiences.

There are invasions and wars (Bodicea's revenge on the Roman town was fierce enough to leave a charred layer in the earth), fires (during the Great Fire of London burning wood buildings appeared to be made of gold, while during the Blitz 1,500 fires raged in one night) and frequent plagues in which the city appeared to consume its inhabitants. But there is also regeneration (epitomised by architect Christopher Wren, who built for eternity), learning and cultivation, a city 'more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history'. London's history is one of destruction and recreation, demolition and renewal, disease and recovery.

One of Ackroyd's favourite Londoners, poet and visionary William Blake, wrote, 'Without contraries, there is no progression'--those contradictions are at the heart of London. Many writers describe London as a prison, a city of imprisonment. There were more prisons in 18th century London than any other European city, of which Newgate was the most infamous. London has also always been a city of freedom, of sexual license and the pursuit of pleasure.

London is a city where criminals become folk heroes--like Jack Sheppard, who escaped six times from Newgate in the 18th century. London is also often described as a theatre, synonymous with trickery, deception and performance, dazzling but untrustworthy. London is the heart of trade and empire--'The great city, an emporium then of golden expectations,' as Wordsworth put it. Yet, as the section on Clerkenwell describes, there is also a continuity of radicalism, from Wat Tyler to the Chartists to celebrations of the Paris Commune, through Lenin editing Iskra, to the Marx Memorial Library of today. This continuity can be traced in many areas of London.

Ackroyd's journey round the city's history is as circuitous as the streets themselves, focusing on the fabric of London life, its social life, clubs and pubs, its noises, smells and food, its orchards, squares and slums.

No aspect of life is beneath Ackroyd's attention, no detail misses his eye. He describes the eternal, spectral presence of fog, one of the greatest characters in 19th century fiction. He describes how ravens, kites and pigs were used in the battle against London's waste, but only when shit became a commodity in the 19th century did the streets become clean.

This book literally makes you see familiar streets differently and feel the past as part of the present. Ackroyd brings together the great diarists, novelists and painters of London, its historians, archaeologists and archivists, and the testimony of its victims, the poor, condemned, enslaved and insane. Ackroyd has immersed himself in the imaginative life of London for many years, through his biographies of Dickens and Blake, and marvellous historical novels.

This is not a radical or materialist history--it tells you little of the forces driving the story forward--but in terms of describing a city, a living entity in which, paraphrasing Blake, 'a universe can be found in a grain of London life', this book is wonderful.
Judy Cox


THE RETURN OF HISTORY

Lockout: Dublin 1913
Pádraig Yeates
Gill & Macmillan £19.99

Lockout: Dublin 1913

CL Falkiner, in his Sketch of the History of Dublin, concluded, 'In recent years Dublin has been happy in having no history.' Falkiner must have been disappointed when history made a dramatic 'reappearance' in 1913, and Dublin's working class took on the might of the employers, police and courts in one of the great working class battles of the last century--the Dublin Lockout.
In the years running up to 1913 the workers of Dublin were in the ascendant. Jim Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union were leading an offensive against the employers that brought one victory after another for workers. The watchwords of Larkinism were struggle, solidarity, the sympathetic strike and socialism. Pádraig Yeates estimates that Larkin's 'industrial blitzkrieg raised the pay of unskilled workers who joined the ITGWU by between 20 and 25 percent'. Between January and August 1913 there were 31 major strikes, most involving the ITGWU and all leading to victory for the workers.
Against the background of approaching Home Rule for Ireland, the employers' response was the lockout--an attempt to crush the ITGWU and subdue the working class at the birth of the new arrangements under Home Rule. In August the employers' leader William Martin Murphy ordered workers at his Irish Independent newspaper to leave the ITGWU and sacked those who refused to do so. The ITGWU then blacked the Murphy publication, and the employers began sacking workers taking action in support of the ITGWU. So began the Dublin lockout that eventually involved up to 30,000 workers.
There is much that is valuable in Yeates's account of the lockout. The way in which the employers were backed up by the state comes out very clearly. The systematic use of violence by the Dublin Metropolitan Police against the strikers is told using eyewitness accounts. James Nolan and John Byrne were beaten to death by the police. Michael Byrne, an ITGWU branch secretary, was tortured in a police cell and later died. The scabs employed by the bosses were given special firearms licences and carried guns while scabbing. They frequently fired on pickets and killed one striker, Alice Brady. These scabs were given the protection of the police and courts, while 600 strikers were injured in a single night of police violence.
Yeates examines the attitude of the various political groups to the lockout. Sinn Fein's Arthur Griffith, who had always denounced Larkin as 'that English socialist', came to the defence of capitalism in its time of need. As many thousands of Dublin workers began moving to the left, Griffith tried to convince them that there was no alternative to capitalism: 'I deny that capital and labour are in their nature antagonistic. I assert they are essential and complementary. I deny that socialism is a remedy for the existent evils', and 'Gaelicism and socialism mutually repel each other.'
Ultimately Yeates's account fails, however, because he cannot explain the eventual defeat of the Dublin workers. He argues, 'It is a mistake to portray the TUC's action as some form of betrayal of the Dublin men.' But the events themselves tell a different story. Larkin and Connolly were convinced that the road to victory lay in spreading the strike to Britain by persuading British workers not to handle goods coming from or going to Dublin. Larkin toured Britain, speaking at packed meetings, calling on British workers to take action in support of Dublin. Tens of thousands of transport workers struck in South Wales, Birmingham, Bradford and Liverpool in solidarity. But each time workers struck they were denied strike pay and ordered back to work by union leaders.
At a special TUC conference in London attended by Larkin and Connolly, union leaders refused to back action in support of the strikers. Connolly returned to Dublin and said, 'We went and asked the trade union leaders to isolate the capitalists of Dublin. Instead they isolated the workers of Dublin.' This isolation led to defeat. Yeates attempts to justify the inaction of the trade union leaders by arguing that 'they had learned that the use of the sympathetic strike was not only costly and risky but frequently ineffective', and 'experience had demonstrated unequivocally that the sympathetic strike did not work'. Experience, however, had demonstrated the exact opposite. The power of the sympathetic strike was demonstrated by Larkin in the run up to 1913. In these years he had won almost every battle he fought, built up the ITGWU from nothing to 20,000 members, raised the wages of his members by 25 percent, and struck fear into the heart of every boss in Ireland.
Padraig Yeates has written a big, absorbing history of the Dublin Lockout, but it is not the definitive one.
Sean McVeigh


CAUGHT BY THE MIDDLE

Ehud's Dagger
James Holstun
Verso £25.00

Ehud's Dagger

Basing his book on wide reading and deep thought, James Holstun has produced a comprehensive critical analysis of historical and literary theories relating to the English Revolution. He demonstrates the weaknesses of revisionism and mounts one of the best Marxist accounts to have appeared since Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946). The differences between Dobb's work and Holstun's show many of the creative advances of Marxism.
This book links literature, history and theory with a series of empirical studies which illustrate that Marxism is well able to combine a focus on autonomous individuals with associative collectives. These studies include John Felton, who assassinated the Duke of Buckingham; Edward Sexby, who sought the assassination of Cromwell; and reflections on political violence and terrorism. A chapter on Anna Trapnel, the prophetess, embraces an excellent account of the Fifth Monarchists as radical small producers.
There are important chapters on the New Model Army in 1647 and the Diggers in 1649. The former finds the root of the differences between the soldiers in the acceptance by the chief officers of a hierarchical order in the army and the state, and the strivings of the rank and file for participation in the governing of the army and the state. This was in the context of the efforts of military and civilian radicals 'to preserve small property and the democracy it underwrites against capitalist engrossment'. The background to the Digger movement illuminates an issue which lay at the heart of the revolution--the struggle in agrarian relations 'between a rights-based model that gave the direct producers some measure of immediate access to the agrarian means of production, and a model of absolute property that gave them such access only through the mediation of the capitalist wage form'. Holstun relates the struggle of the Diggers to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, and the resistance of small producers in Amazonia to capitalism.
He explores the notion of 'the containment of subversion', in which revisionists maintain that opposition cannot surmount the ideology of the dominant ruling class culture but in the end reinforces it rather than subverts it. He proceeds to an interesting analysis of how radicals do not start from an attempt to subvert the dominant culture or produce a counter-culture, but come to recognise the hypocrisy of the ruling class in betraying or abandoning the principles which the people themselves hold and thought that their rulers did also.
Holstun places his interpretations in the context of revolutionary actions emerging from the class of small producers--peasants and artisans. He associates small producers with wage labourers and the poor in general under the category of the 'labouring classes'. This serves his purpose of putting the focus of the revolution on the struggle against developing capitalism. This is an important element, but it shifts attention from the 'middling sort'--the propertied peasants and artisans--who provided the main force of revolution in the 1640s. In the end they sided with economic 'improvement', enclosures and the expropriation of direct producers, and the imposition of wage labour and the ideology of absolute property, against the radicals who are the chief concern of Holstun's book. Looking beyond the scope of his work, the 'middling sort' who made the revolution in the 1640s were also the people who ended the revolution in the 1650s. It was not foreign invasion, or royalist insurrection, or a coup by big landowners and city financiers, but the swing of the 'middling sort' to conservatism that brought about the restoration of the monarch and old institutions in 1660--a swing paralleled in most modern revolutions.
Brian Manning


'WRONG IN POLITICS AS IN THE ARTS'

Picasso: The Communist Years
Gertje R Utley
Yale University Press £35.00

Picasso: The Communist Years

In the wake of the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, the artist Pablo Picasso joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1944 and remained a member until the end of his life. Gertje Utley's theme is whether Picasso's membership of a political organisation as repressive as the PCF could obliterate the freedom of his creative mind. To try to answer this she places his life in the context of the period in which he lived.
For Picasso, joining the PCF was the logical conclusion of his life's experience. Unaware that within a year the PCF, on instruction from Moscow, would attack his art as 'decadent', he enthusiastically placed himself at the disposal of the party. Utley traces Picasso's political and artistic trajectory from his Blue Period--the passive depiction of the poor--through the not so apolitical Cubism, and beyond to his famous dove of the peace movement of the 1950s. In the polarised climate of the First World War, Cubism came under attack as a Judeo-German invention because of the support it received from certain German dealers.
Picasso lived in Paris throughout the Nazi occupation and was well aware of the fate of modern art at the hands of the Nazis. Found among Picasso's papers were excerpts from Hitler's speech against 'certain expressions of modern art'. At least one of Picasso's works was included in the Munich exhibition 'Degenerate Art' in 1937.
Although never formally part of the resistance, his studio provided a relatively safe meeting place for members of the underground. A group of German officers on a search mission to his studio discovered a postcard of Guernica, his depiction of the German bombing of the Basque town. Upon their asking, 'Did you do this?' Picasso is said to have answered, 'No, you did.'
These early days of membership for Picasso were to be times of the freest interchange of ideas between him and the party. The days of the heated debates of Socialist Realism were yet to come. When they did, they became the stage on which political loyalties were tested. The Liberation of 1944 was immediately accompanied by a liberal cultural climate. By June 1945, at the tenth PCF congress, Communist painters were accused of painting only for an audience of snobs and decadents. By 1946 the PCF's chosen aesthetic was Socialist Realism. Picasso became the focus of a polemic when Pravda published an article by Russian painter Aleksander Gerasimov in August 1947, which accused him and Henri Matisse of 'poisoning the air of Soviet art'. From this point on Picasso was marginalised and isolated within the party.
The relationship between art and politics is not one-sided. Sometimes Picasso's art spoke for itself even when he would not. When Soviet tanks entered Budapest in 1956 many looked to Picasso for a condemnation. As the painter of Guernica as well as a leading member of the peace movement, Picasso was seen as the champion of civilian victims of military force, but he remained silent. Frustrated by his silence, protesters in Warsaw used a reproduction of his earlier painting Massacre en Coree to show their support for the victims.
Utley warns against exaggerating the political nature of Picasso's art, insisting that Picasso's political language was art, not that of the politicians. Yet she acknowledges that he knew art played an important role in strengthening political beliefs. John Berger wrote in 1965, 'Stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art. On the contrary, we protest against the intrusion. The intrusion is most marked in times of crisis and great suffering. But it is pointless to deny such times.' The PCF wanted Picasso but, as a party that had long ceased to be revolutionary, it wanted to stifle the revolutionary in Picasso. Only in private would he admit that 'they were as wrong in politics as in the arts'. Gertje Utley brilliantly expresses this tension throughout the book.
Karen O'Toole


MORRIS MAJOR

William Morris: The Art of Socialism
Ruth Kinna
University of Wales Press £14.99

William Morris: The Art of Socialism

For the first time since EP Thompson wrote his magnificent defence of William Morris's socialism, at the height of the Cold War, there is a serious attempt to examine the role this giant of Victorian Britain truly played. As Ruth Kinna touches upon the collapse of Stalinism, far from consigning Morris the revolutionary to the dustbin of history, she has opened up space for re-appraising him.
His reputation stands the test of time in a number of ways. His powerful broadsides against the 'degradation' brought about by the profit motive connect very much with today's anti-capitalist movement. His awareness of the destructive nature of capitalism, his early environmentalism, his unerring belief that the true potential of humanity was being stunted by capitalist relations, his love of art and his internationalism make him a modern figure. And of course Morris's great strength, played down by most of his biographers, of sketching out visions of how a future society based on need not profit could look and work, demonstrates how socialists have an alternative worldview.
Morris most famously articulated his imagined view of a communist society in News from Nowhere, in which the narrator wakes up in 1952 to a post socialist revolutionary world. Morris said he wanted the hugely popular novel to 'add a little hope to the struggle'.
Kinna argues convincingly that there are not two Morrises--one the Romantic artist, and then from the age of 43 onwards the full time revolutionary. Kinna shows that 'Morris's socialism was the result of a complex weaving of radical, revolutionary and Romantic Utopian ideas', and that 'he developed his socialism by selectively combining ideas, from the prevailing currents of thought'. GDH Cole's assertion that Morris crudely grafted the old guild model of manufacture onto Marx's version of history is rejected. Instead he 'consciously modeled his vision of the future on an idealised conception of the medieval past'.
Morris adapted the model of medieval guild society as his model for a future communist society. From his formative years he studied medievalism, believing that artisans during this period 'were well fed and clothed and housed, and had abundance of holidays'. Although he recognised there were limits to this historical parallel, he insisted that this kind of economic relationship was superior to the way in which workers under capitalism were alienated factory-fodder, forced to become the appendage of a machine. So, Kinna argues, Morris expropriated the past to project into the future.
Kinna is always clear that Morris was never a Utopian in a derogatory sense, in that he was merely a dreamer of a pleasant but unrealisable future. It is gratifying to read a book on Morris whose starting point is his revolutionary outlook, rather than the usual of Morris the great artist unfortunately fallen amongst fanatics. You are reminded that the British revolutionary socialist tradition at its best was never a narrow, barren movement, but was full of individuals who added vision and imagination to it alongside scholarship and activism. For this reason Morris deserves rescuing from obscurity and condescension.
Reading his political writings is always a joy. His writings during the campaign against 'sweated labour' in 1888 echo down the years to those today fighting Nike's exploitation of child labour: 'The misery of those who are sweated, whether by the drill of the factory or the many links of the sweated chain, is the high price we pay for the glory of sustaining a class of idle rich men. Is the gain worth the price? Working men, it is for you to answer the question and act according to your answer.'
Hassan Mahamdallie


LOCAL HERO

True History of the Kelly Gang
Peter Carey
Faber & Faber £16.99

True History of the Kelly Gang

Over 120 years ago Ned Kelly was hanged in the Old Melbourne Gaol. Some 8,000 people demonstrated in his defence, and a petition was signed by 60,000 people calling for mercy. Today the memory of Ned Kelly is still revered. At the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics last year 100 Ned Kelly figures in body armour, as depicted in the famous Sidney Nolan paintings, bounded across the main stadium--a celebration, we were told, of Australian culture and heritage.
Yet the figure of Ned Kelly also provokes debate and outrage. Why, say pro-establishment and right wing figures, should we celebrate the life of someone whose only claim to fame was to shoot three policemen, rob banks and live as a common thief? Others, however, see Kelly as Australia's equivalent of Robin Hood.
It is clear what side Peter Carey is on. His new novel looks at Kelly's harsh life growing up in the rural areas of north west Victoria during the 19th century, the harassment he and his family faced from the rich landowners, and the persecution they faced from the police. Out of this environment grew the bushrangers, of whom Ned Kelly and his brother Dan were the most famous.
Kelly made a reputation of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. When he held up the banks at Euroa and Jerilderie not a single shot was fired, much of the money stolen found its way into the hands of the local poor, and at the end of his day's work he celebrated by going to the local pub and burning the deeds, which were the debt accounts that local people owed to the bank. No wonder when he was hunted by the police he was helped and sheltered by many people.
Carey's book is unique in its style. He writes as though it is Kelly himself speaking. Carey constructs a fictional daughter for Kelly--Mary Hearn--who lives in California and writes a book of 'Kellyspeak', with Ned talking to his daughter, explaining his life and background. Carey's style is based on the language that Kelly actually did use in his famous Jerilderie letter--a 10,000-word document which has survived to this day. Kelly wrote it to try and get his mother released from jail. It is full of anger against the harsh conditions and persecution the Kelly family faced: 'I have wronged...and is my brother and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also, who has no alternative, only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords, which is better known as officers of justice or Victorian police, or some call honest gentlemen.'
At first 350 pages of this may appear a daunting prospect--the grammar is irregular and inconsistent, there is very little punctuation within paragraphs, and there appear to be no formal sentence boundaries. But it does work, for very quickly you are drawn into the dialogue and prose, which is full of outrage--'the queen of England should know her prisons give a man a potent sense of justice', or 'the union jack--that flag, three crosses nailed one on top of the other'. And Carey describes Australia as 'a colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their jailers'.
We are drawn into the life of Kelly, his detention in prison, his relationship with veteran bushranger Harry Power, the other members of the Kelly gang (brother Dave, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart), his shooting of the police at Stringybark Creek, and his final showdown at Glenrowan railway station (where all the members of the Kelly gang except Ned were shot dead by the police). It was here that Kelly wore the armour for which he is famous. Carey spends little time on this--it was, after all, only one day in the short life of Ned Kelly. But he reprints a graphic newspaper account of the final siege where Ned Kelly, surrounded by dozens of armed police, refused to give up, was shot, injured and then beaten. Carey does stay true to the facts of Ned Kelly's life (apart from the fictional daughter). Ned Kelly still faces the wrath of the Australian establishment--an excuse, if one is needed, to welcome this book.
Peter Morgan


ORDINARY PEOPLE

The Dictionary of Labour Biography: Volume Ten
Ed: Joyce M Bellamy and John Saville
Macmillan £85.00

The publication of the tenth volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography, a herculean project whose origins date back to the late 1950s, also marks a turning point. The longtime editors, Joyce Bellamy and John Saville, are handing over future volumes to the capable hands of socialist historians David Howell and Neville Kirk.
It may be asked why, when the DLB is published only in expensive hardback format and generally available only in academic libraries, readers of Socialist Review should be thankful for the scholarship of Bellamy and Saville. In a brief history of the project from 1959 to 2000 John Saville provides an excellent answer. 'I was not', he writes, 'interested in producing a dictionary concerned only with the elite of the labour movement. There had to be a record of the devotion and self sacrifice of the thousands of ordinary people without whom neither the trade union movement nor the political groupings would have rooted themselves in the social and political life of Britain.' To leaf through this volume is to stumble across records of labour, social and political activism by individuals, some of whose concerns and projects will seem odd or obscure. it carries extended pieces--and excellent bibliographies--on the Chartist leader George Julian Harney, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Noonan (Tressell), and Jim Connell, author of The Red Flag.
The DLB has set itself the task of publishing, in time, entries for all those active in the British labour movement since 1790. It does not print material on those still alive, and the bias remains much towards those who died before 1945. It might be suggested that there should be more entries on women activists and, arguably, on those who built the British Trotskyist and anarchist movements. In the meantime, however, the effort and scholarship of Bellamy and Saville has provided us with an unsurpassed resource for finding out a bit about the lives and thoughts of those who were active before us, and who built the ground on which we fight today. If you are able to get access to a reference library take an hour to look up the DLB. It is guaranteed that you will be fascinated and occasionally appalled, depending on whose entries you look at.
Keith Flett


A GREAT LEAP FORWARD, BUT ONLY FOR SOME

The Chinese
Jasper Becker
John Murray £25.00

The Chinese

Most writers on contemporary China fall into two categories. There are the enthusiasts--China's market reforms have transformed a backward and repressive society, revived the innate Chinese spirit of enterprise, and given birth to the largest consumer market in the world. In the more extreme versions, China represents the future of world capitalism.
Then there are the catastrophists. Chinese society is close to collapse, crime and corruption are unstoppable, the state itself may fall apart, and if it doesn't China might spark World War Three over Taiwan.
Jasper Becker is refreshingly different. A longstanding journalist on the South China Morning Post, he's also the author of Hungry Ghosts, one of the best books on the Great Leap Forward. This new book stands alongside John Gittings' work in its ability to give a rounded picture of the contradictory state of China today.
The Chinese is aptly named. Becker's focus is on how people's lives have changed underneath the statistics. Each chapter looks at different areas of Chinese life, mixing history, journalism and analysis in a way that makes it very accessible. What results is a bleak picture, without ever being catastrophist, and his understanding of the inequalities between different regions adds to its strength.
His technique makes for uneven reading and a degree of repetition, but the chapters on industry are among the best. In the 1980s Chinese industry boomed as village industries and later foreign investment took off in ways the government hadn't foreseen. This growth, however, was primarily at the expense of state-owned industry, most of which is now technically bankrupt.
Becker acknowledges the growth, and the enormous changes it has made to everyday lives. But he is equally clearsighted about the human costs involved, in particular the desperate working conditions and the unrestrained pollution. And he comes up with a viciously accurate description of the town of Shenzhen, the major showcase for the success of the reforms: 'The murky region where benign tolerance of private enterprise drifts into corruption and capitalism becomes barely distinguishable from piracy.'
He also records the massive growth in unemployment that has resulted from closures and cutbacks in the state sector, and more recently in the village industries too. One chapter gives a particularly stark account of the rapid decline of north eastern China, where half of all workers in state-owned industries were sacked during the 1990s.
The chapters on health and education are equally compelling. Both show how the wholesale privatisation in the countryside has almost destroyed the minimal state provision that used to exist. For the vast majority of the Chinese, access to healthcare or secondary and further education is strictly based on their ability to pay.
What saves his account from being catastrophist is the thread of resistance that runs through the book. From the tens of thousands of textile workers who rioted in two remote Sichuan towns in 1997 to the numerous peasant demos and protests against high taxes and thieving officials, the book documents the growing resistance to the effect of the market.
There are problems with his approach, in particular his view of China's rulers as simply continuing imperial Chinese traditions of dictatorship. Some of the analogies he draws with Chinese history are strained or simply wrong, but this doesn't detract from the value of his insights into today.
Ever since Seattle some World Bank and IMF spokespeople have been mounting a sophisticated defence of their neoliberal, pro-market policies, insisting that only the extension of the market can pull the underdeveloped countries out of poverty--and they invariably cite China as living proof of this. The Chinese provides essential ammunition to prove them wrong.
Charlie Hore


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