Issue 257 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Weapons in Space
Seven Stories £4.99
Whatever else needs to be said about the planes that plunged into the World Trade Centre in September, one thing is certain. George Bush's plans for a missile defence shield would have been powerless to stop them. Yet Bush insists that the project will go ahead. Why?
Karl Grossman's excellent small book provides much of the answer. The missile shield, far from being the defensive device its supporters claim, is in fact largely offensive. Moreover, it is conceived by its proponents as just one part of a much wider agenda to militarise space itself, complete with space-based lasers.
This support does not just encompass the right wing of the Republican Party, but stretches right across the entire political, military and corporate establishment of the US. Powerful interests underpin this truly terrifying prospect.
We are confronted with a US military leadership that aspires to dominate the earth, while it still remains wary of mass deployment of ground troops in the wake of the debacle of Vietnam. As if dropping 5,000-pound bombs from ancient B-52 bombers wasn't enough, the military now dream of dropping them from the moon. I kid you not.
Certainly one great advantage is seen as the removal of any restrictions on overflying a nation's airspace. The US Space Command's report 'Vision for 2020' is frank about its imperial aims. It compares the US aim of controlling space to how European nations 'built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests'. The European empires ruled the waves and hence the globe. In the 21st century the US will rule space itself as a vantage point for global domination.
The list of corporations with interests in the missile defence shield reads like a roll call of US multinationals--General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon.
Perhaps above all, however, the US leaders have a political assessment about policing the world order. Just as Exxon and Shell periodically need the US Marines to protect their oil interests in the Middle East, so US multinationals as a whole need to secure their investments by an ever greater concentration of military power. Nor are they shy about admitting this. Listen to the US Space Command's sales pitch:
'The gap between "have" and "have-not" nations will widen--creating regional unrest...The United States will remain the only nation able to project power globally...Achieving space superiority...will be critical to the US success on the battlefield.'
In 1966 the US itself had helped initiate the Outer Space Treaty at the UN. This committed all those who signed up to it to preserve space for peaceful development as the common heritage of all humankind. Behind this laudable goal were US fears that Russia might defeat it in the space race. The Sputnik satellite had been launched in 1957. Such fears have collapsed, and the treaty is now a restraint. Recent attempts to reaffirm the treaty have been vetoed by two nations--the US and Israel.
Now the very attempt to create these weapons could have terrible consequences for all of humanity. Space weapons would require tremendous amounts of energy. The solution is seen as nuclear power in space. To this end, the US military has launched space probes, such as the Cassini in 1999, with plutonium on board. The gap between the rhetoric and reality over precision weapons alerts us to the all too obvious danger if something should go wrong. Remember the Mars Climate Orbiter that crashed into the planet when it came too close to the Martian atmosphere? The scientists involved had mixed up two scales of measurement--one feet, the other metres. Nasa estimated that should the Cassini have crashed into earth 'approximately 5 billion of the world's population at the time could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure'.
George Bush has turned yet another chunk of the world into a war zone. Left unchecked, he would do the same to the very heavens themselves.
United Irishman: The autobiography of James Hope
Ed: John Newsinger
Merlin Press £12
John Newsinger has uncovered a little gem with this book. James Hope was a working class Protestant from County Antrim who lived through the tumultuous years leading up to the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. He was one of the bravest and consistently revolutionary participants in the movement and the unfolding events. The defeat of that rising did not dampen his revolutionary commitment, and he once again played an active role in the aborted rising led by Robert Emmet in 1803.
Despite spending much of his life on the run and evading capture, despite treachery and betrayal, Hope lived into his eighties and was able in old age to relate his story to a historian of the movement, R R Madden.
In his conversations with Madden it was clear that his pride in his efforts, his loyalty to those he had admired and his adherence to his beliefs had not faltered. In his introduction Newsinger gives an excellent account of the nature of the movement and the rising which that movement produced.
The United Irishmen were a movement led by the radical middle classes, both Protestant and Catholic. Despite growing wealth and prosperity, this section of society was denied political power and influence. This rested primarily in England with the aristocratic and large landowning classes. This Protestant ascendancy denied Catholics basic rights, but also acted as an obstacle to the progress of the Protestant middle and lower classes. Many of these landowners were absentees, owning land in Ireland but living in England.
The institution of an 'Irish parliament' did not shift the grip of the Protestant ascendancy. Originally primarily seeing themselves as constitutional radicals, those in the movement turned more and more revolutionary, and the French Revolution of 1789 inspired the movement and completed its transformation.
As a result, the more radicalised and revolutionary within the movement sought to pull in the dispossessed Catholic poor. They formed an alliance with the Defenders, a Catholic secret society that had been waging guerrilla war in defence of Catholic tenant farmers and artisans against the ravages of ascendancy rule.
As with all bourgeois revolutionary movements, the United Irishmen had their radical and moderate wings. The moderates tended to be the most prosperous, those who feared they had most to lose. Many of them also feared the forces they might unleash from below as much as they hated those who blocked their path from above.
Hope had no time for such moderates and was firmly on the revolutionary wing of the movement. Living in pre-socialist times, he was nevertheless driven by egalitarian instincts and a class consciousness that made him deeply suspicious of the vacillating well to do sections of the movement. Instead he was firmly rooted in that radical wing of the movement led by Wolfe Tone and the man with whom he had closest contact and for whom he had the greatest admiration--Henry Joy McCracken.
When the time came for the rising, Hope's suspicions of the moderate wing of the movement proved well grounded, as many of them deserted the cause. The crushing of the rising also saw Tone and McCracken lose their lives.
Hope, a Protestant, also expresses his contempt for Orangeism, a movement invented by the ascendancy to promote sectarian strife and keep the Protestant poor away from the revolutionary movement.
Today in Ireland a variety of revisionist historians seek to dismiss each crime inflicted on the Irish people and debase every episode of resistance. Hope's testimony is a magnificent defence of the radical principles of the movement, an account of the movement's heroism, and a manifesto against oppression and sectarian strife.
The Forging of a Rebel
|Spanish dictator Franco: trained in Morocco|
This gripping 750-page trilogy tells the story of Barea's own life in order to illustrate his generation's 'midnight of the century'--war and defeat at the hands of fascism and Stalinism. His express aim was to show the underlying causes of the Spanish Civil War.
Barea (1897-1957) only began to write in the middle of the siege of Madrid during this war, when he himself was 40. It was his way out of a nervous breakdown brought on by shelling, sudden death seen in the streets, 16-hour days as head of foreign press censorship, and political tensions he did not know how to resolve. A left socialist at the start of the war, Barea admired the small Communist Party because it seemed the only force capable of stopping arbitrary executions and building a disciplined army to fight the fascists. As the war progressed he realised the CP was strangling the revolutionary unity of July and November 1936, but like many he could find no alternative.
Barea recounts all the above in the third volume of the trilogy, The Clash. It would be a mistake to turn straight to it, though. Voices as disparate as Tory peer Hugh Thomas, George Orwell and Gabriel Garcia Márquez hailed The Forge, the first volume, as one of the great accounts of working class childhood. And it is. Barea subtly shows how both nature and nurture forged him, the various influences around him playing on his rebellious personality. Gradually he builds up a picture of the church, the education system, capital and the unions, but always through vivid personalities and anecdotes that speak for themselves. He avoids explicit propaganda.
Two among the many highlights of The Forge are his account of how a young boy is taught to be a 'real man' and fear homosexuality, and his riveting portrait of an adolescent's development of socialist consciousness. Son of a widowed washerwoman, Barea had to leave school at the age of 13 to work in a bank, unpaid for his first year's 'probation'. Eventually he joined the Socialist Party trade union, the UGT, one of the first generation of white collar workers ('black-coated beetles') in Spain to be unionised.
The Track, the second volume, covers Spain's colonial war in 1920s Morocco, 'a battlefield, a brothel, and an immense tavern', in Barea's words. Illiterate conscripts are sent to slaughter, while sergeants get rich by fiddling supplies. At one point army horses are sold to the enemy. Barea nails the corruption to the right places--the king and heavy industry making fortunes out of army contracts. The Track contains, too, a frightening portrait of the demented General Millán Astray ('Long live death!' was his battlecry), founder of the Legion, which incidentally still patrols Ceuta's frontier fence, built with EU money to keep Africans out. The ascetic and ambitious Franco also appears. Morocco was the training ground for a generation of generals with political ambitions.
Differences of genius accepted, Barea is not unlike Goya in his colour, descriptive vigour, sincerity and unflinching look at the brutalities he saw and felt. He is a very direct writer, with no distancing irony--one reason he fell from literary fashion.
Barea believed truth and objectivity only came from partisan involvement--a view of the committed writer also out of fashion now. He did not conceive of objectivity as sitting back, weighing up options and coming down 'balanced' in the middle. To be truthful, you had to understand--and to understand you had to take part.
Tellingly, one of his problems in the Madrid censorship office was that he thought censors in a war should stop journalists telling lies. The government, of course, thought the censorship existed to suppress unwelcome truths.
Barea started his trilogy in 1938 in Paris, and wrote most of it in rural Worcestershire. For him it was a way of carrying on a working class struggle from exile, by giving voice to the millions silenced by Franco's 1939 victory. As such, he bears comparison with Victor Serge, another rigorously truthful writer who wrote his books when, through internal exile in the Soviet Union, he could no longer be politically active.
This trilogy is autobiography at the service of social and political explanation. It shows how we are formed and how we can rebel against that formation. And it is history told from the bottom up--from the viewpoint of bank workers, not bankers, of soldiers, not generals, of the 'intractable people', as he called himself, not the 'reactionary, sated bureaucrats'.
No-Nonsense Guides: World History, Sexual Diversity, International Migration
New Internationalist/Verso £7 each
With the world thrown into crisis by another war, the thirst for an explanation of what's going on is greater than for decades. This series is clearly an attempt to key in to the major issues within the movement (globalisation, climate change, fair trade), but also to go wider and confront controversial issues in a simple way.
In the guide to migration Peter Stalker systematically goes through the reasons millions of people choose or are forced to leave their homes and travel abroad. Be they refugees from war, immigrant workers or young girls trafficked into the sex trade, he puts their stories into the context of the global marketplace. This guide is particularly useful. It is also timely and important. As war and repression rage and economic crisis deepens, refugees and migrants are sure to be simultaneously created in large numbers, and blamed for unemployment and collapsing services. This guide gives a clear historical picture of migration, and governments' responses to it in relation to boom and bust.
Chris Brazier takes a welcome approach to world history. He examines the great civilisations of South America, West Africa, ancient China and India, which were all centuries ahead of anything in Europe at the time in terms of science and culture. He also pays special attention to the role of women throughout history--I particularly like his deft two-paragraph explanation of what Engels called the 'historic defeat of the female sex', whereby the introduction of intensive agriculture in hunter-gatherer societies led to women's role on the land being usurped by men.
Brazier tries to look at history through the eyes of the oppressed and exploited. Though important, it sometimes leads him to be dismissive of some of the peaks of history--so the English and French revolutions achieved little, he argues, because monarchies were reinstated and the lives of peasants were still hard.
In the guide to sexual diversity Vanessa Baird takes you through the birth of the gay liberation movement, and also talks about the problems within it and the 'pink pound'. Where some would argue that economic equality equals liberation, she is quite clear that 'the market cannot deliver political rights', and refers to a demo against anti-gay legislation which, as it turned into Oxford Street, took up the chant, 'We're here, we're queer, and we're not going shopping!' In attempting to understand the root of homophobia she puts an emphasis on the importance of the family for capitalism, and all the ideological consequences.
The No-Nonsense Guides are limited by their length and leave you thirsting for more--though this is no bad thing. They achieve an overview of a subject which allows you to look at it in a new way.
Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930-1950
Texas University Press £18.50
The core of this book is a blow by blow story of the strikes and lockouts that shook Hollywood in 1945 and 1946. These were massive confrontations, part of a strike wave that swept the US after the war which involved huge pickets, big bust-ups between strikers and company goons, and a crisis for the left. The strikes were a turning point--the culmination of two decades of growing radicalisation in the industry and the moment when the retreat of the left started.
Horne starts promisingly. His stated aim is to examine how union organisation, the growth of the Communist Party (CP) and organised crime affected both the battles of the period and the films themselves. Some of his anecdotes are fascinating. From the 1930s onwards various mob groups clearly had massive influence in the industry. They had been brought in by the studio bosses partly to infiltrate and pacify the unions, and partly to head off competitors. By the time Scarface was made Al Capone had a hand in the editing process. Contemporary critics put the huge number of gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s down to the number of mobsters working in the industry.
Horne makes the point that mob influence in Hollywood output was probably greater than that of the CP. But the radicalisation in Hollywood was very real, affecting a long list of stars from Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davies to Edward G Robinson and James Cagney, as well as thousands of rank and file trade unionists. He quotes a young Ronald Reagan starting a speech by acknowledging that 'all hope for social progress depends on organised labour'. But despite this there were only a few films that openly reflected Communist politics from the era. As Horse points out, the Hollywood red scares had a largely symbolic value. At least for the saner sections of the ruling class the concern was with industrial unrest rather than film content. Even on this front, the real point of red-baiting was to criminalise all trade union activists by association. Such tactics were successful in isolating the best militants in the bitter strike defeat of 1946.
Horne raises lots of interesting questions along the way about the impact of class struggle on screenwriters, about the extent to which radical workers managed to shape Hollywood product, and about the limitations of the CP in Hollywood. But in the end he doesn't answer them satisfactorily. His line of investigation is too narrow and his style too anecdotal. Hollywood radicalisation and the growth of the CP were part of a much wider process that you cannot understand without a broader look at the US wide explosion of mass unionism in the 1930s, the contradictory impact of the Second World War, and the CP's own dizzying policy twists and turns. Horse's intentions are admirable, and he gives us lots of thought-provoking material. But because he concentrates too much on trade union detail he can't really explain why the great strikes were defeated, let alone effectively examine how labour struggles can affect ways of seeing.
The Sweetest Dream
Doris Lessing has written the third volume of her autobiography as a novel, to protect those who feature and may still be alive. It is a wide-ranging work, which sweeps from a London beginning to swing in the early 1960s to a newly independent African country in the 1980s. The story focuses on one family and the relationships established round a kitchen table in a large old house in Hampstead. Julia, the old fashioned matriarch, emmigrated from Germany between the wars and understands how a generation of children were irrevocably damaged by the experience of war. Frances, her daughter in law, is the pivot around which the family revolves, an agony aunt professionally and personally.
Frances provides a refuge not only for her own two sons, Andrew and Colin, but for their friends and extended families. Frances nurtures them physically, through food, and spiritually, giving comfort to those struggling to survive their destructive childhoods, especially the pernicious influence of her ex-husband, Comrade Johnny. We follow the children's progress through their experiences of education, their emotional entanglements, their attempts to establish themselves in the world.
However, as the novel developed, I found it increasingly irritating. The children's efforts at achieving their liberation are thwarted less by the unbending structures of society than by the poverty of all left wing ideology. Lessing's underlying message seems to be that the only thing that messes you up worse than your family is political commitment. This wholly negative view of political activism is summed up in the character of Johnny Lennox, Julia's son and Frances's ex-husband. He is a caricature of a Communist--egotistical, dishonest, unscrupulous and ruthless--more than willing to sacrifice his family to his politics, discarding a succession of women according to the dictates of his ego.
If it was just Johnny, it would not be so galling--Lessing obviously knew people like him. However, in this novel every one of the young people who becomes politically active becomes corrupt. The section when the narrative moves to Africa seems driven almost exclusively by the need to show how the young idealists under Johnny's influence become the officials overseeing the destruction of the new republic of Zimlia (a thinly fictionalised Zimbabwe). Geoffrey, head boy turned Communist, has exploited his contacts with exiled African politicians to become 'Africa expert' for Caring International.
His ignorance has caused huge amounts of aid money to be diverted from the needy to the greedy. An even more extreme example is that of Rose Trimble. She is a bitter, poisonous girl who becomes a Communist en route to becoming a filthy gutter journalist, imbued with the ethics of the 1980s. And it is not just Communism which distorts people--any women in the novel who call themselves feminists are invariably bitter and twisted. Lessing's most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, and Walking in the Shade, the second volume of her autobiography, express the crushing disappointment of Communists who discovered the truth about Soviet Russia.
I felt that in The Sweetest Dream there is more than the disillusionment of an ex-Communist. In those works, especially The Golden Notebook, there was a plea for the liberation of women and for sexual liberation. In The Sweetest Dream, it is domesticity, adopting the role of nurturing housewife, that provides Frances with her happiness. She describes Frances and her new lover enjoying a satisfying sex life in secret: 'And they were not the only ones: ideology has pronounced their condition impossible and so people keep quiet.' But not all ideology is equally as damaging. Sylvia becomes a Catholic and a missionary doctor. She learns to question her faith, in the face of what she experiences in Africa, but this ideology is seen as motivating people for good. It seems that left wing political ideology is the only damaging kind.
Thus, for all the beauty of the writing, the plausibility of the characters, the historical sweep, the cynicism of this novel has you groaning out loud. Lessing's pessimism about the possibilities of political change is hopelessly dated--it will find little echo amongst today's young activists.
Coming up from the Streets
Few counter-cultural publications could claim the distinction of being namechecked by both Oasis and Ruth Rendell, but the Big Issue has that dubious pleasure. While providing a stark visibility to the iniquity of homelessness throughout the 1990s, it has also given a voice to a multitude of progressive campaigns--the Hillingdon Hospital strikers, the Ricky Reel campaign, the defence of asylum seekers and opposition to ID cards, to name but a few. With the Big Issue having now reached the grand old age of ten, Coming Up From the Streets attempts to lead the birthday celebrations.
In some respects it is effective. In a brief survey of homelessness since 1979 Swithinbank charts the devastating effects of Thatcherite policies, with growing inequality mushrooming the number of rough sleepers to 8,000 per night by 1990. But this, she rightly argues, is only the most visible aspect of a much wider housing crisis--a crisis produced and exacerbated by relentless government attacks on council housing. In 1991 local authorities accepted 170,500 households as statutorily homeless--with no access to secure, ongoing accommodation--leading to over half a million people being forced into bulging hostels, bedsits or squats.
Much of the research is from interviews. Many of the vendors' contributions are touching or insightful. Several remark on the importance of human contact as a counter to the stigma of homelessness, a contact that the Big Issue helps to facilitate. Unfortunately the vendors are often crowded out of the analysis by the views of the administrators of the magazine and the charitable foundation it set up. This reflects a wider preoccupation of the book--that of charting the developing structures of a 'social business'.
We are regaled at some length about the questionable virtues of 'social entrepreneurialism'. The Big Issue's legacy has apparently been to bring 'a businesslike approach to homelessness, encouraging homeless people to think of themselves as consumers.'
And whilst there are no definitive answers to the social problems the welfare state and voluntary organisations both try to address, there are arguments which may point towards getting rid of the dependency culture, and implementing a more business-like approach to social problems.'
Moreover, the assertion that 'there are no definitive answers' to homelessness is a profoundly pessimistic one. The work the Big Issue has done in rebuilding people's sense of self worth should not be dismissed lightly, but neither should it be elevated to a panacea. What is ultimately needed is not a more effective palliative, but a cure--and by necessity this means challenging the corporate control of housing. Only within the mad logic of capitalism could the existence of mass homelessness run alongside an even greater amount of vacant commercial property.
To advocate 'social entrepreneurialism' as the solution is to leave the mass of ordinary people prostrate at the altar of corporate philanthropists (such as the anti-union Anita Roddick). The Big Issue is a worthy project, but this treatise does its spirit no favours.
Echoes Down the Corridor
Arthur Miller, besides being the famous left wing American playwright, is at the same time author of numerous fiction and non-fiction works, and also a large body of essays from which the present selection is taken.
The essays take one on a whirlwind tour through modern history, embracing the Nazi war criminal trials, Vietnam, Watergate, the Balkan conflict and Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. There are passionate discourses on his personal contact with censorship, the McCarthy witch-hunts of 'Communists' in 1950-54, a meeting with Mandela, the death penalty.
In the America of the 1930s writers, unlike their counterparts in Europe, still lived in an ivory tower separated from the world of politics, and those who, like Miller, wanted to raise the banner of social protest through their works had to challenge and change the convention. This proved a great effort at a time when lynching was still common in the South; when the Ford plant had teargas in its sprinkler systems in case workers went on sit-down strike, and the private Ford police had the right to enter any employee's house to see if he was living as Ford thought he should. It was also a time when there were discreet signs in front of New Jersey summer hotels reading 'No dogs or Jews' (Miller was a Jew); when a boatload of Jews allowed by Hitler to leave Germany was not allowed to land in an American port and was forced to return to Germany to deliver its cargo to the ovens; when auto workers, newly organised and freshly aware of the ideas of social justice, would still insist on separate white and black picket lines; when the New York police force was wholly white and the armed forces were tightly, tightly segregated.
That early striving for honesty and social justice informed Miller's thoughts and activities throughout his life. The essays are mostly not overt political expressions, but their political content bubbles up and pushes its way into print constantly, among sometimes seeming trivia. In general the essays range over a number of issues connected with the subject in question, and introduce his left wing political or social comment as an example of historical flashback or a specific point of view. Many of the essays are complex collections of a wide variety of ideas around a subject, allowing for a number of different styles of writing--humorous, satirical, serious, passionate--always skilful and elegant, and engaging the reader.
The essays cover a very rich variety of subject matter, of style, of tone. They are a worthy extension of the output of one of the greatest dramatists of our time.