Issue 255 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Cold War on Welfare
|Rail worker pickets over pensions|
The World Bank wants to eat your pension. You may think a pension scheme is a guard against penury in old age, but to the neoliberal whizzkids they are great big fat piles of money. They desperately want their hands on this cash. Pensions must enter the 'new risk culture' and be gambled on stock markets. They particularly need pension cash to pay for newly privatised firms. 'Experts' from the bank and their allies in academia are busy 'proving' that stock markets can look after old people better than state welfare systems. Thankfully, there are a few experts on our side too. Richard Minns has been cutting through some of the neoliberal nonsense on pensions for years.
Older-style state-run schemes are typically 'pay as you go'--today's workers pay for the pensions of the old, in 'inter-generational solidarity'. Under 'funded' schemes, usually private, we pay only for ourselves. However, the World Bankers don't just object to solidarity in favour of 'self reliance'. They really want the cash for capital. Minns estimates world pension assets at $12,000 million, or a huge pot of gold for speculators.
This is an academic book rather than one for the general reader, taking on the World Bank agenda in detail. Minns shows how the market won't sustain pensions--a case reinforced recently by the failure at Equitable Life and the withering of Labour's stock market funded 'stakeholder pensions'. He also has the insight to see that the pension privatisers really aren't interested in old people at all. What they want is to increase the role of stock markets and financial deregulation generally, using pension cash to fertilise the process. As a result, speculative 'pension dollars' have taken the place of the 'petrodollars' of the 1970s.
While Minns's book is a sustained attack on the privatisation agenda, it does have one weakness. A clue lies in the title. Minns himself admits that he has 'perhaps melodramatically characterised' the world as competing welfare blocs, with European and south east Asian states sticking by social schemes, while the Anglo-American axis fights for privatisation. However, it is surely the degree of working class resistance to reform, not the division between casino, crony or bankers' capitalism, that will define how far privatisation goes. The Cold War analogy also casts social pensions in the role of the former Soviet Union, which is hardly inspiring. Because Minns defines the pension bad guys purely by one formal, although important, test--their attachment to the stock market--he pays less attention to some important questions about working class and democratic influence on pensions. Minns does note that the World Bank is also trying to 'reform' company pension schemes, but he seems less interested in the battle, as these schemes are already based on stocks and shares--although in reality they also require a degree of 'inter-generational solidarity'. Minns spends a little time showing that the World Bank wants company pensions to shift from 'defined benefit' to 'defined contribution' schemes. The former pay some percentage of final salary. The latter risk the payout on stock market performance.
Company final salary schemes with worker representative trustees are important company level victories for the union movement. The battles to stop firms taking 'pension holidays', and now the fight to stop firms ending final salary schemes in favour of 'defined contribution' funds, are important if unglamorous battles. Minns is also unnecessarily rosy about state-funded schemes. He admires the idea that governments could use pension funds for useful social investment. However, they could also use the cash for useless anti-social investment, like arms. Again, it depends on the degree of working class political involvement in the decisions.
Minns draws attention to one very salient fact--World Bank employees themselves have a generous 'defined benefit' final salary pension scheme. It seems the bankers themselves don't want to trust their own old age to the market--just yours.
Drumcree: The Orange Order's Last Stand
Chris Ryder and Vincent Kearney
For seven years the small Catholic housing estate around the Garvaghy Road in Portadown has been put under siege by members of the Orange Order, who insist they have the right to march there on the return journey from Drumcree Parish Church, and argue that it is part of their 'culture'. The local residents, led by the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition(GRRC), insist that the parade is an exercise in sectarian bigotry. Drumcree: The Orange Order's Last Stand by journalists Chris Ryder and Vincent Kearney is a history of this standoff.
In 1995 the residents reluctantly agreed to the parade in return for a deal which would mean that in future no parade could take place without their consent. They were infuriated when Paisley and Trimble triumphantly led the parade into the centre of Portadown, and both the Orange Order and the RUC denied any deal had taken place. In 1996 and 1997 the RUC beat a path through the residents to allow the parade to take place.
Since 1997 the government has banned the Orange parade from going down the Garvaghy Road. This has been achieved by the sheer determination of the local residents and the GRRC.
The Orange Order has consistently refused to talk to the residents' coalition. It argues that the residents' groups are simply a new post-ceasefire tactic by the IRA, and that there had been no problems with parades in the past. The authors show that this is simply not true. In 1972 such was the opposition from Catholics in Portadown to Orange parades going through their areas that 'hundreds of members of the UDA, clad in masks and military uniforms, formed a phalanx around the bowler-hatted Orangemen of Portadown district to ensure the march was not impeded'.
The Drumcree parade continued to cause trouble throughout the 1970s and 80s. In recent years Loyalist violence surrounding the Drumcree protests has claimed the lives of the three Quinn children, Michael McGoldrick, Elizabeth O'Neill and, this summer, Gavin Brett.
The order has also argued that the GRRC is not representative of the local residents. However, Breandan Mac Cionnaith, spokesperson for the group, stood for election in 1997 as an independent and received the highest ever Nationalist vote in Portadown.
What emerges from this account is an Orange Order that is in crisis. It is an organisation in steady decline. At the foundation of Northern Ireland it had about 100,000 members. In 1972 its membership stood at 60,000. In 1997, after three Drumcrees, it was 43,000. Today it stands at 38,000.
It is also deeply divided. There are hardliners and 'liberals', but inside each of these camps there is further division. At the height of the protests the Orange Order could bring up to 50,000 members and supporters to Drumcree. This year the crowds could be counted in hundreds rather than thousands.
This crisis gave rise to a faction within the order, the now defunct 'Spirit of Drumcree', which didn't bother to hide its bigotry behind talk of 'civil liberties' or 'Protestant culture'. One leading member, David Dowey, declared to a meeting of 1,200 cheering Orangemen in 1995, 'Brethren, I'm a sectarian bigot and proud of it. There's nothing to be afraid of in those words. Sectarian means you belong to a particular sect or organisation. I belong to the Orange institution. Bigot means you look after the people you belong to. That's what I'm doing. I'm a sectarian bigot and proud of it.'
|Mass on the Garvaghy Road|
There is much that is wrong with the book. The RUC emerges as 'piggy in the middle', caught between a rock and a hard place, with its senior officers spending 'sleepless nights' agonising over the choices they were faced with. Only the briefest references are made to RUC violence. Instead various RUC commanders are shown as tireless in their pursuit of compromise. Many people will remember the pictures of a bloody-faced Breandan Mac Cionnaith which were flashed around the world after he was beaten by police. This is dealt with in a single sentence: 'The RUC later admitted that one of its officers struck McKenna on the eye.'
This is very much a view from above. Their account is peppered with quotes from politicians, bishops, cardinals and senior police officers. This would be helpful if their statements reflected what they believed. Instead we get self justification and excuses. We do not get a sense of what it must be like for the people of the Garvaghy Road to live through the yearly nightmare.
Nevertheless it is a worthwhile read. It prints in full the leaked government 'Gameplan' document to 'get Orange feet on the Garvaghy Road', and how the government would use 'key influencers'--the Catholic church, the SDLP and the newspapers--to get Nationalists to accept a 'controlled ' parade along the road. The secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, adhered to this plan while going through the charade of mediation and attempting to find compromise. When the RUC cleared a path for the Orangemen, graffiti appeared on the Garvaghy Road--'New Labour, same old shite'.
The authors end on a fatalistic note, seeing Drumcree as an 'intractable problem'. However, there is a way out of the parades controversy. This was shown in 1907 during the Belfast dock workers' strike. The strike took place at the height of the marching season, at a time when the Orange Order was much more powerful than it is today. There were no pogroms against Catholics and no sectarian attacks. The only Protestant 'incursion' into the Falls was when Protestant strike leaders addressed mass meetings of Catholic supporters. The only riots during Drumcree week 1907 were when 2,000 shipyard workers fought the police in East Belfast, while Catholic workers on the Falls hijacked carts and blocked the roads--all in support of the dockers. Orangeism and sectarianism can be challenged and defeated when working people fight for a better world.
Payback Press £9.99
This slim, meticulous work is both a scrapbook chronicle of reactions to a song first recorded in 1939, and a fascinating case study in the tug of war between art and propaganda.
As a short poem or song 'Strange Fruit' is revered by many, hated by rednecks, yet also pooh-poohed in some surprising quarters. The bravest of artistic protests to some is a tuneless rant to others. So what's the fuss?
Only with this book has the full story of the song's author emerged. Long credited to one Lewis Allan, these were in fact the two first names of children born to Abel and Anne Meeropol, who had both died in infancy. The Meeropols went on to adopt the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their Cold War execution. He was a New York schoolteacher who wrote thousands of lyrics and poems, forsaking the classroom for paid work in Hollywood during his later years.
Disgusted by the continuing lynchings of Southern blacks, which improved lithographic printing was bringing photographically to the daily papers and weekly magazines of mid-1930s New York, Abel Meeropol sketched out 12 lines of bitter irony, contrasting the 'Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.' He showed them to Cafe Society founder Barney Josephson and asked if he could run it by the singer Billie Holiday, then at the peak of her powers.
'The wrong place for the right people.' 'A nightclub to take the stuffing out of stuffed shirts.' The hangout of 'labour leaders, intellectuals, writers, jazz lovers, celebrities, students and assorted leftists'. Cafe Society not only catered for this lot. In Lush Life, David Hajdu's biography of Billy Strayhorn--Duke Ellington's gay music writer--Aaron Bridgers recalls, 'Billy and I were never made to feel anything but completely at home there. Nobody looked at the two of us like we were strange because of who we were.' In fact they were such regulars that bartenders specialised in serving 'Billy's Martini'.
Both the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village venues epitomised progressive metropolitan boltholes from the Depression's thrift and small minded mores. Performers could relax after hours, pick up new material and jam with peers. Guests could do business, eat, gossip and enjoy kindred spirits. Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Lillian Hellman and Langston Hughes were known as patrons. Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Carol Channing and Zero Mostel were sometime performers.
Josephson seems keener on 'Strange Fruit' than Billie Holiday was. She asked the meaning of 'pastoral'. But perform it she did. It was so devastatingly atypical of Billie's work that it could only be performed at a set's end. Throughout 1938 and 1939 Josephson enforced an intricate set of rules appropriate to the song's impact--house lights out, a single spot picking out Billie's face, tills and doors shut, staff immobile, rowdy customers asked to pay up.
'Bloodcurdling', 'shocking' and 'beautiful' recall many survivors of those performances, yet others noted its uneasy place in a club setting, recommending the greater reverence of a concert hall. But it became Billie's song, her one lash at otherwise unspeakable horrors, withheld when she felt the audience to be too square, or played early to curtail a set when she felt spiteful. She was so possessive of 'Strange Fruit' that folk singer Josh White was attacked with a knife by Billie for refusing to stop performing it in his different way.
Billie's label Columbia saw the song as 100 percent proof agitprop and refused it, for fear of losing Southern trade. But her producer John Hammond, who had set her up with the Columbia contract, also disliked the song on artistic grounds. Billie's insistence meant cutting two sides elsewhere, at Commodore. Margolick details the network of plays the vinyl version received in left wing and jazz circles.
Max Roach, surviving bebop drummer and black activist, adores it. It inspired his own forays into a hybrid drum-choral-gospel-agit-jazz as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s.
But Jerry Wexler is another agnostic in this debate. Moulder of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin's later careers on Atlantic, and coiner of the term 'R and B' as a Billboard journalist in 1948, his Trotskyist mother probably offerred a critical distance from popular front socialist realism: 'It's so un Billie Holiday. It's got too much of an agenda. A lot of people who had tin ears and who wouldn't know a melody if it hit them in the head embraced the song only because of the politics. It's so polemical, and musically it has very little to recommend it in terms of a melodic line, and the melodic line was her meat. I absolutely approve of the sentiment. I think it's a great lyric. But it doesn't interest me as a song.'
The song's elemental montage shames modern rap, but it remains a minimal lyric. As a document of exasperated outrage it was groundbreaking.
On balance, however, my vote goes with Wexler. No amount of righteous anger can compensate for artistic poverty.
But perhaps the best service this book does for every buyer is to enclose a mini-CD, so you can make up your own mind. Happy arguing!
Leadership and Social Movements
Eds: Colin Barker, Alan Johnson and Michael Lavalette
Manchester University Press £15.99
For activists engaged in the anti-capitalist movement, the Socialist Alliance and the emerging industrial struggle, the question of leadership in recent years has never been more sharply posed. This exciting, engaging and timely collection of essays begins to redress what the editors describe as the 'under-theorising' of leadership in social movements.
The book examines aspects of leadership across a range of social movements and their contexts, from the black civil rights movement to contemporary Brazilian youth movements. While various (and more or less convincing) models of leadership are proposed and discussed, most of the essays share a conception of leadership as a dynamic, interpersonal process extending all the way through movements.
'Common sense' myths about leadership are laid open. Two of these myths are particularly insidious. Colin Barker deals convincingly with the first of these--Michels's argument that social movements are doomed because organisational leadership inherently tends towards oligarchy. Central to Barker's critique is that Michels fails to distinguish between social democratic forms of organisation and the revolutionary tradition, where self emancipation is at the heart of questions of leadership.
Reicher and others revisit the second of these popular myths--Le Bon's influential theory of crowd psychology. Le Bon and others consider that individuals within a crowd lose their sense of self and therefore their capacity to evaluate their own actions. For Le Bon the mob, and therefore mindless violence, rules. Reicher applies concepts of social identity theory to the 'Battle of Waterloo Bridge', where students protested over funding. Fleshing out insights that people's ideas change through struggle, Reicher contends that, confronted with police violence, protesters actively redefine their sense of social identity, forming alliances with radicals whose leadership they would previously have rejected.
Particularly relevant to the debate within the anti-capitalist movement is Hanisch's discussion of her experiences in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s. She looks at the 'tyranny of structurelessness', the anti-leadership ideology which, she argues, developed in some parts of the movement, damaging the effectiveness of the movement as a whole. Purkis's study of the 'leaderless' Manchester Earth First! attempts to offer a counterpoint, describing a genuine attempt to prevent the dominance of a small clique within the group. However, he presents only a snapshot. The effects of the group's ideas about leadership are not yet evident. That may be a luxury the movement cannot afford.
Birchall's essay on the 'reluctant Bolsheviks' Serge and Rosmer advocates a different leadership tradition. Birchall argues that Rosmer and Serge came from traditions hostile to party organisation, giving their testimony to Bolshevik leadership added credibility. Rosmer's encounters with Lenin suggest that Bolshevik leadership learned from and listened to the class, exercising leadership as members of a social group rather than as a few 'great men'. Birchall points out that 'revolutions create leaders rather than leaders creating revolutions'. Here the party is the brain of the class, as useless without a body as a body without a brain.
Lavalette and Birchall's introduction sets out the most theoretically incisive contribution. Drawing on Russian post-revolutionary 'dialogists' (Voloshinov, Vygotsky and Bahktin), their conception of leadership is that exemplified by Lenin--actively constructed by 'leader' and 'led', located in richly textured dialogue and interpersonal relationships operating at every level of the movement. This conception contrasts with the position set out by some new social movement theorists, such as Melucci, here criticised for an 'economistic approach'.
Although in part aimed at an academic audience and therefore a little heavy in places, the activist experience of the authors and editors creates a volume which engages closely and critically with questions of leadership. The debate between the contributors is itself as informative as any of the positions advocated in individual chapters. As the slogan goes, 'Its ideas, stupid!' The ideas in this volume are essential reading for those who want to lead and participate in the struggles of today, and the ones which are to come.
Information technology--the internet in particular--has been the subject of enormous hype in the last few years. Fortier attacks some of the most widespread myths about IT. There is little evidence, for example, that computers have increased productivity, despite the billions invested in them. The claim that IT has empowered consumers, who can effortlessly compare different products and get best value, is shown to be false, as the net is increasingly dominated by a few companies such as online bookstore Amazon. Far from diversifying the media, the net has been characterised by further centralisation, as in the merger between AOL and Time Warner. Finally, rather than IT allowing increased freedom of speech, governments are doing everything they can to censor and spy on communication--the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows the state to monitor internet communication, and arguably permits bosses to read employees' e-mail.
Fortier also surveys different theories regarding the relationship between technology and society. He rejects the idea that technologies are socially neutral, or produced by rational, efficient scientists. Nor does he accept that technologies have inherent characteristics. Rather he argues that technological development reflects capitalist society. Technologies are developed which reflect ruling class interests, and in a way that benefits the ruling class. Radio could have been developed as a two-way medium instead of having millions of receivers for every transmitter. The internet reflects this. The physical infrastructure of the net is owned by huge corporations. A leading internet body like the World Wide Web Consortium 'is largely composed of over 400 companies which pay annual dues of $50,000'. Even if you have a good idea for an internet business, now that start-up costs for a dot.com are between $50 million and $100 million, access to profits is restricted to those already rich.
This little book contains many useful and interesting ideas, proving a useful corrective to much of the postmodernist rubbish talked about the net. I have two reservations. The first, and less important, is stylistic--Fortier's academic prose style will put off people not used to phrases like 'this fortified homogenisation of discourse'. More accessible language, and more examples of the ideas he describes, could have won this book a much wider audience.
My second reservation is political. Marx argued that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas'--but this doesn't mean that the only ideas available are ruling class ones. Fortier, on the other hand, implies that 'states and corporations...preserve a monopoly on discourse'. This exaggerates the power of the bosses, because it ignores the potential conflicts which are structured into the ruling class.
For example, individual capitalists are in competition with each other and so want to keep their communications secret. Meanwhile the state acts on behalf of capitalists as a class, and wants access to all communications so it can try to detect threats to the continuation of capitalism. This conflict has been echoed in arguments about IT both here and in the US, where corporations have strongly opposed government plans to allow access to their encrypted e-mails.
Such conflicts make it less likely that 'cyberspace could open the way to a dreadful cocktail of disinformation and panoptic surveillance'. Government IT systems--undermined by underfunding and PFI--are in no position to coordinate information from CCTV cameras, card purchases and so forth. On several other issues--such as data protection, mobile phone licence costs, the market share of e-commerce--Fortier ignores conflicts within the ruling class, or problems that corporations face in carrying their strategy through. Meanwhile unions and campaigns are increasingly using IT to help their work--the chapter on this, 'Alternative Strategies', is the weakest part of the book. Use of the Globalise Resistance website has reached an all-time high after Genoa--the bosses may dominate the web, but we're fighting back!
A Fierce Hatred of Injustice
The Jamaican socialist and writer Claude McKay is better known for books such as Harlem: Negro Metropolis than for his poetry, especially his early work.
Winston James's assessment of those poems is the first of its kind. A Fierce Hatred of Injustice sets out to discover if any of McKay's formative political sympathies can be read from the poems--and, as the title suggests, they can.
His hatred of oppression in all its forms is there: in 'Constab Blues', where McKay makes his dislike of the Jamaican constabulary abundantly clear; in 'A Country Girl', where he identifies with women driven into prostitution in Kingston, the island's largest city; his siding with, and affection for, the Jamaican peasantry. Songs of Jamaica opens with a discussion between Quashie (a 'black' country bumpkin, lowest of the low in the class-race hierarchy that was colonial Jamaica) and buccra, the symbol of power, the white oppressor:
'You tas'e petater an' you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
Cause you no know how 'tiff de bush fe cut.'
His affinity with the world of the struggling peasant stands alongside his nascent black consciousness, evident before the term had come into use.
McKay, from the county of Clarendon on the north of the island, was from peasant stock, although his parents had acquired a holding large enough to in fact make them independent farmers, a rare thing among the black peasantry at the beginning of the 20th century in Jamaica. We should take special note of the blackness of his father's skin. In slave, colonial and independent Jamaica, until relatively recent times, the lighter your skin the better your chances of social advancement. Therefore to see a successful 'black' farmer was a rare sight indeed.
Since abolition in 1838 agricultural wages had barely risen. Chattel slavery had been replaced by wage slavery. This was the background to Claude McKay's upbringing. The grim reality of life in the countryside meant that by 1911 only 58 percent of the population lived there, whereas in 1871 it was nearer 70 percent.
His elder brother U'Theo, a respected teacher, certainly influenced McKay in his early rejection of religion and adoption of a rationalist outlook--he joined the London-based Rationalist Society--and in his gradualist approach to change. 'It is not in our blood to be revolutionists,' U'Theo was to tell his brother in the 1920s. McKay thought otherwise, as he threw himself into support for the Russian Revolution.
Deciding against becoming a teacher or a preacher, McKay briefly trained as a carpenter before going to Kingston where he ended up joining the police, mistakenly thinking it would be a worthwhile and interesting job. He was disabused of such notions within days of walking the beat. He left the police after nine dreadful months and went back north. What hurt McKay most about being a cop was the way it cut him off from the rest of the community. No one would talk to him any more, as he explains in 'The Heart of a Constab':
'Oh! Where are de faces I loved in de past
De frien's dat I used to hold dear?
Oh say, have dey all turned away from me now
Becausen de red seam I wear.'
(Jamaican cops, then and now, have a red seam to their trousers)
After resigning from the police, McKay returned to Clarendon, where he met the English aristocrat Walter Jekyl for the first time. Jekyl genuinely took to McKay's verses written in the Jamaican vernacular. Much has been made of the relationship between the two men.
However, James convincingly argues how it was the political discussions with his brother, rather than with the Fabian aristocrat, that were probably more influential on McKay.
Many have misread his poem 'Peasants' Way of Thinkin' as an idealisation both of the countryside and the peasantry. Undoubtedly the fatalism he ascribes to the peasantry was accurate, but it should be seen alongside his sympathy with the peasants' demands for land. So on the one hand McKay writes:
'We may n't be rich like buccra folk;
For us de white, for dem the yolk,
Da's de way dat the egg divide,
An' we content wi' de outside.'
But on the other hand he has the peasant saying he 'won't grudge buccra wha' dem got', providing he gets his piece of land:
'A piece o' lan' fe raise two goat,
A little rum fe ease we t'roat
A little cot fe res' we head--
An' we're contented till we dead.'
McKay was invariably on the right side of the argument, and when he exiled himself from Jamaica his real socialist journey began. James both informs us of the Jamaica of his birth and reminds us of the continuing battles. Last year more than 500 people died in Jamaica, many of them shot by policemen.
Although McKay was to turn his back on some of the ideas and ideals he had believed in--such as his Trotskyism and atheism--he always considered himself a socialist.
The form McKay adopts for his poetry in itself reveals his sympathies. Writing in Jamaican had been done once before, but only for the consumption of literary types in London. In the case of McKay the poems were for ordinary people to read and remember--and so they did.
The Left Book Club Anthology
Ed: Paul Laity
The Left Book Club, which ran from 1936 until 1948, was a successful exercise in building a popular audience for left wing literature at a time when capitalism was in deep crisis and fascism threatened throughout the world. Its orange-covered volumes are still easily available in second-hand bookshops today.
The LBC was the work of three men--the left wing writers Harold Laski and John Strachey, and the publisher Victor Gollancz. The idea behind the club was of the Communist Party's popular front--that liberals and the left must unite to defend democracy against the threat of fascism. Communist Party members played key roles in organising the club and its local branches, but it went much wider than this.
It was estimated that it would need 2,000 supporters to get the thing off the ground. A month after the launch in May 1936 there were 6,000 supporters, and by the end of the first year of operation in 1937 there were 40,000.
A wide range of books were published from a variety of political perspectives. Attlee, later to be Labour prime minister, wrote for the LBC, as did George Orwell, who produced the club's best ever selling book, The Road to Wigan Pier, which sold 42,000 in the cheap 2/6d club edition. Some of the books, such as AL Morton's A People's History of England, remain in print today.
The club encouraged political activism by its members. By 1939 there were 1,200 local LBC groups. The first national rally at the Albert Hall in February 1937 attracted 7,000 people. The issue that motivated members above all was the Spanish Civil War, with Strachey's cry that 'all of Europe is a suburb of Madrid--we do not want to wait until London is suffering the same fate'.
Of course there were problems, and Paul Laity, in an excellent introduction, highlights some. With the Communist Party making the political running in the LBC, books from a Trotskyist or anarchist background did not get a look in. Gollancz refused to publish Orwell's Homage to Catalonia precisely because it was hostile to the role of the CP in Spain from a socialist perspective. Laity also argues that the local clubs were overwhelmingly middle class. Here he is on less strong ground, firstly because the CP members who provided the club's organisational core were rarely middle class, and secondly because there was a wide readership for the books amongst workers.
While the books sold in their thousands, it is more difficult to know what was actually read and what the impact was. The claim is made that the Left Book Club was central to creating the climate of ideas that led to the election of the 1945 Labour government. The books that sold best were those of reportage and memoir. The book reprints extracts from some of them such as Edgar Snow's record of his meeting with Mao in the 1930s, Red Star Over China.
George Orwell was famously critical of the club's politics and what he saw as its cranky middle class socialist support. Laity's introduction shows that support for the club grew on the basis of a capitalist crisis, with a very weak Labour opposition and a thirst for left wing ideas. The very thought that left wing books could find a mass readership and inspire political activism still alarms those who have reviewed this book in the Independent, the Observer and the Guardian. After all, it could happen again.
Propaganda and the Public Mind
This book contains seven interviews conducted over the period from early 1998 to June 2000 with Noam Chomsky whose knowledge is wide and deep. He is highly attuned to the political power shifts and wrangles throughout the world. He sums up the pressures that dictate US policy in the Middle East--volatility, a ton of oil and heavily armed states. He observes how information is presented to the public through the media--what is left out and what is emphasised. On the bombing of Iraq he finds almost 100 percent agreement on the justification, namely that Saddam Hussein is a monster. He explains that as soon as anything is given near unanimity you should ask yourself, 'Is that correct?'
Chomsky trawls the press for information, such as the period of 1969-79, the decade of US-backed genocide in Kampuchea carried out by the Khmer Rouge. He does this expressly to assess the level of media suppression round certain issues. He opens our eyes to the true horror of the society we live in. Special weapons were designed for use in Laos--'bombies', colourful mini-bombs with a 30 percent failure rate. These unexploded bombies lie on the ground. Their rainbow colours attract the attention of children who think they are toys and pick them up, only to have limbs shattered as the lethal weapons explode.
'Humanitarian intervention is an orthodoxy, and it's taken for granted that if we [the US] do it, it's humanitarian.' He goes right to the heart of the matter--this is not a new term, but one that has been used to justify war for centuries. It was used to justify the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and north China, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and Hitler's takeover of Sudetenland. Today we are familiar with the term in connection with the bombing of Yugoslavia, and many African adventures such as Somalia. There is a real need for our rulers to present things in a way acceptable to the mass of the population. This has led to an obsession with focus groups in an effort to find out what is acceptable. For example, growing protests around the world have forced the IMF to change the name of structural adjustment programmes to poverty reduction and growth facility. Chomsky is quite optimistic, despite the massive efforts of propaganda, that the majority of people's beliefs and ideas are on the left.
This book gives a fascinating insight into the major events and political policy of the west post the Second World War. Each interview has referenced sources, and the book has a little directory of organisations of activists and information sources.
Socialist Register 2001
Eds: Leo Panitch and Colin Leys
Merlin Press £16.95
It is the 'unprecedented combination of old and new proletariats in the face of global capital' referred to by the editors of this volume which gives rise to its central preoccupations. The book sets out to challenge two prominent orthodoxies--that we live in a 'post-class age', and that globalisation can be explained purely in terms of the increased mobility of capital.
Many of the discussions provide detailed and informative examinations of a range of issues worldwide--notably the interaction of capital, caste, class and politics in India, uneven development and political organisation in southern Africa, and the challenges facing the labour movements of western Europe, Russia, Iran, Brazil and the US.
The strongest chapters here address how the labour movement must face up to changing class configurations intensified by the globalisation of capital, and to the emergent post-Seattle movement. Although for the most part the book deals comprehensively with the former, it only fleetingly conveys the extent to which old sectarian divisions are being eroded by the ongoing reshaping of the left. Indeed, some of the contributors seem constrained by a wariness of political leadership and organisation, and a tendency to exaggerate the dangers of paternalism and parochialism.
Clearly the tasks facing the labour movement internationally differ in scale depending on context, but to claim that the capacity of the Indonesian working class for self emancipation may be hampered by mobilisations called 'from above' by student activists is to turn the problem on its head. This is compounded when the principal reasons for the lack of independent working class leadership--that the Indonesian labour movement is young and inexperienced due to the massacre of an entire generation of activists by Suharto--are barely mentioned.
Likewise, AFL-CIO opposition to Chinese entry to the WTO is placed in the context of prewar racist anti-Chinese campaigns, while the benefits of Chinese economic growth for the working class internationally are championed without detailing the immense damage that entry into the WTO would inflict on Chinese workers. This places a disproportionate emphasis on protectionist tendencies within the US labour movement.
The equation of Third World elites' collusion in the neoliberal Washington consensus with the alleged complicity of working class 'Reagan Democrats' in the break-up of the welfare state creates a similarly warped perspective.
These occasionally downbeat assessments of the state of the labour movement are accompanied by an apparent underestimation of what globalisation represents. For Leo Panitch it is less 'an objective economic process' than a political strategy advanced by nation-states which can be countered by 'democratic investment control within each state'.
Yet despite the crucial importance of placing demands on nation-states and challenging their role in facilitating the internationalisation of capitalism, globalisation itself cannot be characterised as a primarily political project.
Its dynamic derives from the imperatives of competitive accumulation. This may be checked or restrained but, for as long as capitalism survives, not mastered or controlled. Instead the anarchic logic of blind accumulation will continue to defy checks and balances, and spread to every corner of the globe. In the process, it is reproducing a labour force which remains capable not simply of imposing regulation but also of creating an alternative society.