Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition
Many readers of Socialist Review will be acquainted with Tony Cliff's classic work, State Capitalism in Russia, and with the three books he wrote shortly before his death a year ago--Marxism at the Millennium, Trotskyism after Trotsky, and A World to Win, his political autobiography. But he wrote much more in his nearly 70 years of political activity, with hundreds of articles and 15 books providing incisive Marxist analysis on things as varied as Zionism in his native Palestine, Mao's China in the 1950s, the shop stewards organisations of the 1960s, the great strikes of the 1970s and the Labour left in the 1980s. Some of the books remain in print. But some of his writings have been difficult, and sometimes near impossible, to get hold of.
This first volume of his selected works begins to rectify the matter. And it shows how much people who have only read a very small portion of Cliff's output have been missing, for each of the pieces in it shows how the Marxist method should be used. They combine a scrupulous regard for facts, even when these clash with old dogmas, with the ability to fit the facts into the broader picture of the development of the world system and the forces fighting against it.
The core of the volume is made up of three of Cliff's major works. His 1959 study of the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is an invaluable introduction to the life and ideas of one of the most inspiring figures in the history of revolutionary socialism. His 1968 analysis of the events in France in May of that year remain relevant today, showing how great struggles can erupt but also how old political forces (in this case Stalinism in particular) will seek to neutralise them. And 'Portugal at the Crossroads', written in the summer of 1975, was an intervention into a vital argument about what needed to be done to turn the sort of revolutionary turmoil Portugal was undergoing after the collapse of fascism into a successful socialist revolution.
The volume would be worth getting just to have access to any one of these writings. But it also contains other gems. Especially interesting are pieces on the interplay of imperialism, Zionism and liberation in Cliff's native Palestine. In the first piece, published in 1938 when he was only 21, he grappled with the dilemmas created as the colonial power (Britain) set out to divide and rule by using Jewish people who had fled vicious persecution in Europe as a means of confusing and weakening the anti-imperialist struggle. He developed the argument further in a second piece, written a year later, pointing out that the Arab upper classes benefited from this state of affairs despite occasionally clashing with imperialism themselves.
Finally, Cliff laid out a marvellously clear Marxist approach to the whole problem in 'The struggle in the Middle East', originally published as a pamphlet in 1967. It came when the third war between Israel and Arab states (the Six Day War of June 1967) was presented by the whole of the media and by nearly all the parliamentary left as 'a struggle for survival' by 'plucky little Israel'.
He showed that the roots of the conflict lay in the machinations of the same imperialism (US) that was devastating Vietnam, that all wings of the Zionist movement were drawn into collaboration with it, and that none of the Arab regimes could wage a serious fight against it. The pamphlet had the immediate effect of enabling a new generation of young revolutionaries--including some from Zionist backgrounds--to understand the real issues involved and recognise the need for solidarity with Palestinian resistance. It is an understanding that has served well down the years.
The volume in its entirety provides wonderful insights into some of the great issues that confronted socialists in the 20th century--issues that usually remain central today. But it also provides a sense of what living, undogmatic revolutionary Marxism is about. This was something which was rare through much of Cliff's lifetime, as Stalinism paralysed all too many minds. But it is something the new movements of the 21st century will desperately need. Get the volume, read it and learn from it.
In the Name of Justice
Vilified for his courageous stance on Vietnam and Iraqi sanctions, scorned for his claim that the British government provided support for Pol Pot, derided for his emotional commitment, John Pilger has survived these insults.
Hayward has written a sympathetic and useful book that should perform good duty as an appendix for Pilger's own writing. This book not only provides an account of Pilger's impressive documentary output, which amounts to a savage indictment of imperialism, chronicling the postwar period with his unerring eye for shameful acts in the service of western democracy. But Hayward's approach puts things into a behind the scenes context. As a result, he has afforded the reader a glimpse into the workings of authoritarian television regulatory bodies, practical problems faced in entering a closed society such as East Timor, together with a synopsis and excerpts from Pilger's eloquent commentary. He also captures the ripples created by Pilger's work--skirmishes with the courts, television critics and Foreign Office officials, as well as the consequent galvanising effect on wider society, informing and hardening the resistance.
What has proven unacceptable to Pilger's detractors is his direct flouting of the notions of 'impartiality', 'balance' and 'objectivity', which he argues are simply a mask for the real face of power. From early on in his television career, Pilger's efforts to document hypocrisy and contemptuous acts have often been dogged by censorship and excessive regulation.Here's an interesting archive piece of censorship from the IBA (the regulatory body of the ITV companies), in which Pilger, having directed Conversations with a Working Man (1971), was requested to change the description of 'working class' to 'working heritage', and the word 'people' could not be used as it was Marxist. In the name of 'balance' Pilger's programmes often came with 'health warnings' or balancing programmes. Hayward lays bare the correspondence and arguments behind such restrictive activity as IBA's unprecedented demand that a documentary be commissioned especially to counter Pilger's Truth Game, the programme that exposed successive British governments' connivance with the nuclear industry.
Television critics, often unable to challenge Pilger on the basis of fact, either try to damn him with faint praise before skulking back to their columns, or denigrate his appearance and impassioned delivery. The journalists' establishment's disapproval reached its apotheosis when David Dimbleby and Robin Day campaigned against Pilger receiving the prestigious Richard Dimbleby Award.
They recognised that his work has the power to insinuate itself into the mainstream and reset the political agenda. Witness his reports on thalidomide, Burma, Cambodia and East Timor, which galvanised millions of viewers and directly challenged government policy. His dogged persistence in finding out the uncomfortable truth often paid off despite having to settle an out of court libel action for alleging that the SAS were used to train Pol Pot's murderers in Cambodia. In 1991 vindication came his way when the government, supported by reports from UN Asia Watch, finally admitted it was secretly training allies of Pol Pot.
Hayward also reveals for our amusement and education the off the screen spats with spokesmen from the US military, corporate South Africa or our very own Foreign Office, all impaled by Pilger's close questioning. As James Rubin, Madelaine Albright's deputy, later told colleagues, 'He was so well prepared and he wouldn't let go, as if he really believes in the issues he was raising.' And Pilger's films can still rattle the powerful in a dramatic way. The response to Paying The Price--Killing the Children of Iraq on the barbaric effects of UN sanctions included questions raised in parliament and an extraordinary exchange with Robin Cook in the New Statesman.
|Taken from Chairman Blair's Little Red Book by Steve Bell and Brian Homer, Methuen £6.99|
In this celebratory work Hayward succeeds admirably in conveying the spirit of Pilger's tenacity, wit and a work guided by socialist conviction.
The Hollow City
Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg
San Francisco is dying, claims Rebecca Solnit, who wrote Hollow City in collaboration with photographer Susan Schwartzenberg, but not in the sense that people are no longer living there. On the contrary, the city's close proximity to silicon city has seen it become the focus for a multitude of hi-tech dot.com and telecommunication companies. And here's the rub.
The huge demand on scarce space has pushed up rents to such a degree that the city's longstanding communities of radical artists, ecologists, political campaigners, gays and so on are being squeezed out at an accelerating pace. Its postwar history of bohemia is under threat as never before.
Solnit's central point is that 'wealth has proven able to ravage cities as well as or better than poverty'. And the new economy has created an ever-widening gap between those on board the gravy train and those who are not. Of course, the same could be said of nearly every developed city in the world. And there's nothing new about gentrification knocking the heart out of once vibrant, yet semi-derelict areas of cites across the world.
But Solnit's description of the damage currently being done to San Francisco suggests the city is not only suffering the ravages of redevelopment more than most. In addition the city's array of bespoke shops, art galleries, book shops, independent cafes and coffee shops, drop-in centres and so on are being demolished or redeveloped to make room for the sanitised corporate brands--the Nikes, the Virgins, the Gaps and so on.
In one telling spread, nine Starbucks coffee bars are shown with a caption beneath explaining what the buildings were before the brand sank its claws into the city, where it now has an astonishing 60 outlets--places like Ratto Hardware, 1934-1992, Jeff's Jeans, 1978-1999, the Batman Gallery, 1961-1996, and so on.
Yet none of these massive changes have occurred without resistance. Solnit describes time and again often highly imaginative and stirring episodes of protest, but it is against a relentless drive for profit which is, more often than not, encouraged by a city administration more and more in hock to the big corporations.
But overall Solnit's book is tragic. The author, born and bred in the city, provides a fascinating account of the artistic and political movements that have provided it with so much vitality, but this is interspersed with descriptions of how this is being brutally torn apart, forcing out many of the city's most celebrated eccentrics and radicals. She does, however, end with the questions more and more people are asking--about 'greed, shortsightedness and the distribution of power and resources'. And she concludes, 'This time around the answers could be surprising.'
Liberty or Death
Lawrence and Wishart £12.99
The American and French revolutions were earth shaking events that sent a tremor of fear through the British ruling class, but for those who wanted a more just society they were a source of inspiration.
In Liberty or Death Ray Hemmings tells the story of two very different political reformers whose lives highlight a debate that still rages within the anti-capitalist movement today--should we look for reform at the top, with change being brought about by parliament, or should the oppressed organise themselves.
The first of Hemmings's heroes is John Cartwright. He was a wealthy landowner and had been a officer in the British navy during the Seven Years War, fought in America between Britain and France, which Britain won in 1763. Cartwright had been impressed by the free way of life in the colony, though he disliked the treatment of the 'Red Indians', so when the colonists rebelled against British rule he turned down a commission in the war to keep the colony and instead wrote one of the first tracts in support of American independence.
In 1780 Cartwright launched the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI), which supported the cause of parliamentary reform. At this time just 450 rich landowners in Cornwall elected 42 MPs, but the new industrial cities in the north of England like Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield had not one MP between them. The SCI wanted to make parliament more representative of the ruling class as a whole by giving the vote to all men who earned £100 a year. A worker, then, would have to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week to earn half of that, but the SCI began the movement for reform.
One of these hardworking men was a London shoemaker called Thomas Hardy. Like thousands of others, he was filled with hope by the French Revolution of 1789. Throughout Britain in the 1790s hundreds of political clubs and debating societies had formed to discuss the ideas of the revolution. The members were mostly tradesmen, workers and some people from the middle class. Hardy believed that a body based in the capital was the best place to link up the groups in the different parts of the country. So along with nine others he launched the London Corresponding Society (LCS) on 23 January 1792.
The LCS soon had 600 members, meeting in 24 branches across London. They used the then novel method of flyposting to promote their aims, which included universal suffrage and elections every year. However, they were on a collision course with a government 'living in cold fear of revolution'.
On 14 April the LCS held a protest meeting at Chalk Farm Inn in London. Some 2,000 people gathered to display their outrage at the transportation of four reformers for 14 years for organising a 'convention for the discussion of parliamentary reform'. The convention was the name given to the revolutionary government in France, and this filled the British ruling class with horror. The meeting decided to hold a convention in London. However, before it happened, Hardy and other leaders of the LCS were arrested on 12 May 1794.
Hardy was seen as such a danger that he was interrograted in person by the prime minister. Hardy was charged with high treason which carried not just the 'death penalty but the full savagery of hanging, drawing and quartering'.
At his trial Hardy was defended by the radical lawyer Thomas Erskine, The bulk of the state's case was that the LCS planned to 'murder the present royal family', and carry out an insurrection. The 'evidence' was provided by a rogue gallery of 'spies, informers and provocateurs', who contradicted each other and themselves. When the jury returned a not guilty verdict, there were shouts of joy. Hardy was carried through the streets like a hero, and tens of thousands of people turned out to show their support.
By the middle of 1798 the LCS had collapsed due to repression and falling membership, but it laid down the foundations of the traditions of struggle from which the Chartists would arise.
Hemmings's book is a clearly written and moving account of the remarkable people who put Britain on to the road of becoming a democracy.
Reasons to be Cheerful
On the back of this book there is a recommendation from John O'Farrell which goes, 'If the revolution was to be led by Mark Steel, it might not be such a terrible idea. The trouble is that his sense of humour is so good he'd be shot in the first week.'
O'Farrell himself wrote a book about being a socialist, which, although at times very funny, was essentially a 'goodbye to all that' account of a man moving swiftly to the ranks of New Labour. This book is far funnier and no less frank about the absurdities, peculiarities and eccentricities that any revolutionary activist of the last 20 and more years would encounter along the way. But there the similarity ends.
Unlike O'Farrell, Steel sees no reason to give up on the struggle--indeed every day he sees further reasons to carry on. If O'Farrell fell in love with Blairism, Steel sees it as one more vital reason to keep on keeping on. That he does it with a huge grin on his face and a biting wit should surprise nobody who has seen his comedy act down the years or read his newspaper articles.
This is fortunate, for Steel did not choose his time or place to become a revolutionary very well. Arriving at the revolutionary platform after the train of 1968 had pulled out, and just as the ugly freight of Thatcherism was arriving, was not the best of times to set off on the journey towards revolution.
Like most of us when first discovering revolutionary politics, it all made so much sense--wouldn't everyone agree if it's just explained to them? Steel captures that new excitement, impatience and, at times, naivety brilliantly. Strangely enough Swanley wasn't quite ready back in the late 1970s and Steel had to move further afield--into the exotica of London squatting. In doing so he discovered that the police weren't neutral, and couldn't quite understand why his fellow pickets didn't share his amazement at this fact.
He also discovered that his fellow revolutionaries were full of ideas that seemed very strange. Of course you hated the police, the Tories, foreign dictators, bosses. Of course you hated a system that, after educating you in a dead end school with petty rules (no banana eating in the corridor!), put you in a dead end job.
That was all given. But what was this stuff about supporting gays and actually going through the exotic experience of meeting a gay couple? How and why should he defend the IRA (a question Steel admits he had most trouble coming to terms with), and hey, what was it with all the books that these revolutionaries had all over their homes?
If naivety helped carry him through those first years, discovery did even more so. As he threw himself into the great battles (and defeats) of the 1980s, you sense that more and more it was discovery that saw him through. From the striking steel workers he tried unsuccessfully to secretly smuggle into his mother's house, to the miners he met during their great struggle. From visiting Belfast to catch the realities of Northern Ireland, to invading Eton with right to work marchers. Each experience, whatever its outcome, became a vindication of struggle and confirmation of the need for change.
Steel hates capitalism and, like most of us, it was grand themes and great injustices which set him on his path. Also like most of us, though, there are moments from our own lives that touch us deeply and confirm our world view. There is a very moving description here of Steel's father locked up in a mental hospital, discarded, drugged up and disowned by the system that had exploited him for so long. In an understated way Steel conveys his rage and that growing understanding that his father was no less a victim of the system than many he fought alongside.
The book finishes with a rather startled Steel running for the Greater London Assembly elections as a Socialist Alliance candidate. In doing so he outlines how many of the ideas that once belonged to a tiny minority are now held as the common sense, common decency ideas of many. It is an important change, and although there may be many more absurdities and eccentricities for Steel to amuse us with on the way, there is every reason to be optimistic.
As for shooting him after the revolution, we will only do so if he stops being funny--and there's no sign of that happening in this excellent book.
The Rotters' Club
Many Socialist Review readers will have been greatly entertained by What A Carve-Up! Jonathan Coe's savagely witty blast against Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s. The Rotters' Club is different. The politics of the 1970s form the backdrop rather than the main focus of the novel.
The narrative revolves around four sixth form students at a prestigious grammar school in Birmingham, Coe's own childhood city. Like many similar institutions, King William's apes the customs and traditions of the public schools with its prefects, cadet corps, secret societies, drama club, house system, sporting ethos and school magazine. Trotter, Harding, Anderton and Chase inherit the editorship of the magazine, the Bill Board, and use it to explore the arguments of the day. Trotter's father is a Tory personnel manager at British Leyland Longbridge and Anderton's is a socialist senior shop steward. The battle for the car industry, the Birmingham bombings, Grunwick's, Blair Peach, the Southall riots and Rock Against Racism are the familiar reference points for political comment.
But the main focal points of the novel are the late adolescent awakenings of the main characters, and their fraught relationship with their families and friends. Coe, perhaps in a more autobiographical vein, keeps politics at one step removed. This sense of distance often comes across as postmodernist whimsy rather than detached objectivity. Weaving a fictional narrative and characterisation into actual historical events and personalities presents any writer with a problem, and Coe is only partially successful.
Those of us who lived through the 1970s as political activists will want to put our own interpretations on events, while younger readers will get only a partial flavour of the times. I was particularly irritated by the treatment of Longbridge. The picture painted is one of unions in the driving seat one minute, and Michael Edwardes supplanting them the next with his 'survival' plan of mass redundancies. Anderton senior is interviewed for the school magazine, and affirms his militancy and his distinctive socialism by saying, 'What they have in Russia isn't real socialism anyway.' At the same time he relates to the real life convenor of the plant, Derek Robinson, as if he were no different. Yet it was Robinson, with his belief in worker participation, his scabbing on the toolmakers' strike and his Stalinist politics, who helped to pave the way for the Edwardes onslaught.
The Birmingham bombings are handled more successfully. We get a real glimpse of the anti-Irish racism both inside and outside the car plant. We also get a real sense of personal tragedy as Trotter's sister Lois heads out for a drink with her boyfriend only to be diverted by a friend from their regular pub to the Tavern in the Town. When she comes round from the explosion, she finds herself nursing the severed head of her would-be fiancé. The trauma remains with her, but Coe is able, admittedly with hindsight, to make it clear that beatings and false confessions led to the wrong men being convicted for the tragedy. In some ways it's a pity that this thread of the novel is not explored more fully.
In his descriptions of the sexual aspirations, fantasies and faltering first experiences of the main characters Coe is funny and acutely observant. Writing about sex with any degree of conviction or credibility is not easy, and Coe does it better than most. Some of the descriptions had me laughing out loud.
The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain
The grandeur that was Rome is still routinely celebrated in numerous books and the occasional television series. Only recently we have been asked to remember what the Romans did for us. Well, Neil Faulkner's The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain reveals that what they did was subject the then inhabitants of Britain to a brutal, exploitative dictatorship. His book offers, in his own words, 'an alternative perspective, arguing that Rome was a system of robbery with violence, that it was inherently exploitative and oppressive, and that it was crisis prone, unstable and doomed to collapse'. There are, he argues, 'lessons for the present in this'. As he insists, 'continuing discussion about the past--especially about the role of violence and exploitation in human affairs--becomes part of an urgent debate about what sort of future we want to create'.
Faulkner lays Rome bare as a predatory imperialism that fed off war and conquest. The spoils of war (slaves, plunder, tribute) were not incidentals but the central dynamic of the Roman system, as important as profit is to capitalism. And the Roman ruling class was very good at it. Its problems began when it came up against territories that offered fierce protracted resistance, but little in the way of plunder or tribute when it came up against the 'plough line'. In Britain, Wales was such an area--slave hauls were low, plunder poor and the cost of pacification disproportionately high. The predatory state had run out of victims capable of sustaining something of its size.
When Rome found itself deprived of the fruits of conquest, the only way it could sustain itself was by increasing the exploitation of the provinces. As Faulkner points out, while Augustus had maintained his 28 legions by conquest, Severus had to maintain his 33 legions by squeezing his own subjects. The predator state turned cannibal.
A counter-revolution carried out by a succession of soldier-emperors in the period 268-337 saved the empire from collapse and saw the adoption of Christianity as the ideology of a new imperial despotism. The collapse of Roman Britain was only postponed, however. The period 375-425 is, Faulkner argues, 'perhaps the most abrupt and total in the entire British archaeological sequence'. Roman Britain disappeared, swept away by barbarian invasion and peasant revolt. Indeed, he argues that the scale of the peasant revolt might well have been comparable with those that accompanied the French and Russian revolutions. It ushered in 'a short golden age free from landlords and tax collectors' which bourgeois historians have predictably called 'the dark ages'.
Faulkner has written an excellent book, a stimulating Marxist account that is clearly written, tightly argued, superbly illustrated, a book to read and reread.
This is Serbia Calling
Serpent's Tail £9.99
The growing threat of war in Macedonia is once again departing from the standard western script. According to this story, Milosevic was the sole bad guy who, once removed, would clear the way to 'normal' economic development and an easing of nationalist tensions. The same Serbs who were demonised as incorrigible ethnic cleansers overthrew their government in October of last year. Last month Nato leaders, who until recently said the Yugoslav state was the prime cause of the series of Balkans wars of the 1990s, asked the Yugoslav army to patrol the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.
This is a good time to go beyond the standard explanations and look at the complexities of Balkan, and specifically Yugoslav, politics. Matthew Collin's book is an interesting part of describing this picture. It tells the story of the Belgrade-based B92 radio station, and more generally about the music and club scene in Belgrade.
What makes this scene stand out is the way that it both copied and differed from youth scenes in the rest of Europe in the last decade. The similarities were the music--techno, rap and punk-inspired hardcore. The mainstream against which this minority current swam was not the middle of the road pop of Mariah Carey and manufactured boy or girl bands, but a peculiarly Yugoslav phenomenon which has come to be known as 'turbo folk'.
The rise of the Milosevic regime was accompanied (literally) by a weird mix of the old and the new Balkan folk music with faux dance driving beats and a nationalist, often pro-war message. It was no accident that the gangster warlord Arkan celebrated his highly public marriage to the turbo folk singer Ceca.
What made this scene different from the youth subcultures you could sample in Berlin or London nightclubs was that the milieu of the student-based Otpor! movement emerged from it. It was more remarkable given the massive number of Yugoslav youth who emigrated during the 1990s to escape the draft, economic misery and a political scene where nationalist politicians dominated on all sides. For those who stayed, the desire for 'normality', a phrase that is used time and again both in this book and in the speeches and articles of people involved in the Yugoslav opposition, took on an unusually radical edge. The limitations of this guiding idea may not be spelt out, but neither are they hidden in Collin's book.
B92 radio was set up in 1989 as the old regime was crumbling. It fused news that was independent of the regime and hostile to nationalism with avant garde Western music (how many times did you hear Sonic Youth in Britain outside of John Peel's show?) that alienated most but galvanised a minority.
After it was shut down in the wake of the anti-Milosevic demos of 1991, it was allowed back on the air on the condition that it broadcast no news, only music. It responded in typical Eastern European subtext fashion with a barrage of Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power', The Clash's 'White Riot', and other songs whose significance might escape the policemen but not the young radicalised listener.
There was a constant tension between the music and news departments. One wanted easier listening so as not to put off those who wanted a radical message but couldn't stomach Sonic Youth. The others wanted music that was not just a wallpaper soundtrack to the news. Eventually, by the late 1990s, B92 introduced playlists and toned it down on the advice of a western radio consultant.
This book is thankfully too modest to claim that it is the definitive story of Yugoslav politics of the 1990s, though it has to tell parts of that story to set B92 and the youth scene in context. But it is a useful record of the diversity that produced one of the most exciting youth movements of recent years. It is also a record of the tensions that were inevitable once it achieved its central unifying aim of removing Milosevic. The difficulty was that it could see no other problems beyond him.