Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
My favourite read of the year has to be Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Perez Galdos.
It is set during a key time in Spanish history, the years 1868-75. The brief formation of the first Spanish republic was quickly followed by the bourgeoisie abandoning any revolutionary pretensions and welcoming the monarchy back.
Galdos's protagonists are two women, one from the upper classes, the other a slum dweller, they are desperate rivals for the love of the same man. The dynamic of the novel comes from the efforts of the women to cope with a situation beyond their control.
The man they are infatuated with is the epitome of the high bourgeoisie. He is colourless and insipid, after turning away from a youthful political fling and interest in ideas to a life of moneyed idleness. This, the novel seems to say, is what the bourgeoisie has become.
As with Dickens and Zola, Galdos uses his novels to throw light on the way social forces mould characters from every section of society. But he has the advantage over Dickens of never succumbing to sentimentality and over Zola of never reducing his characters to mere mechanical reflexes of the world around them. This makes Fortunata and Jacinta a magnificent novel.
Surprisingly, for I read few novels and less science fiction or fantasy, the book I enjoyed most this year was China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. From the first page I was captured by its special dark, dystopian atmosphere--its vision of the decaying polluted metropolis of New Crobuzon. Fantasy this may be but its urban landscape is only one step beyond New York and London, Mexico City and Cairo.
What held my attention was the book's sustained inventiveness.
I also liked the way the book carried its politics. This is an adventure story, not a political fable or allegory--but Miéville's revolutionary socialism permeates everything. That we identify with the ruled and not the rulers is a given. There are moments of unbearable cruelty and pain, but they are never gratuitous nor are they revelled in, and they are offset by moments of love, tenderness and solidarity.
Some of the characters are insufficiently developed, but this does not prevent the book being immensely engaging and stimulating. It is a tour de force of creative imagination.
Until this year 11 September was remembered as the day of the 1973 coup in Chile when General Pinochet's forces brutally overthrew the government of Salvador Allende. Santiago's sports stadium became a killing field where thousands of trade unionists, socialists and activists were tortured and murdered.
Victor Jara was one of them. He was a world-renowned singer and poet who brought Chilean folk music to mass audiences. He was also a Communist. Victor: an Unfinished Song by his wife Joan Jara is the story of his remarkable life. It is told often in his own words through his poetry and songs, including his final moving poem smuggled out of the stadium just before he was murdered. Jara remained a symbol of resistance even after his death. Though she was in exile for many years, his grave was never without flowers as people risked arrest just to keep his memory alive.
Mike Davis's book Late Victorian Holocausts should be compulsory reading for all anti-capitalists and socialists. It is the story of one of the greatest and least known human tragedies of all time--the death of some 50 million people in Asia and northern China in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Davis explores the climatic patterns of the late 19th century, the 'mystery of the monsoons' and how the storms and droughts contributed to famine. But the exceptional weather conditions interacted with the triumph of western imperialism, the tariffs and laws, the exports and armies that brought the modern world system into being. This deadly combination created the huge pools of poverty and underdevelopment that we know today as the Third World, throwing sophisticated societies backwards: 'Millions died, not outside the modern world system, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures.'
Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is not true at all. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Australia's most notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly who was hunted and eventually caught by the Victorian police at the end of the last century. What makes the novel unique is its style, what can best be described as 'Kellyspeak'. Peter Carey is Ned Kelly himself, and the book is a letter written by Kelly to his daughter in America explaining the hardship of rural Australian life and the difficulties the early settlers faced.
International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition brings together a rich collection of Tony Cliff's writings. They vary from his 1959 study of the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, to his analysis of the events in France during 1968 as well as his intervention to the revolution in Portugal in 1975.Yet it is the section of the Middle East that I found fascinating. Cliff showed many years ago that the roots of the problem lies in the interests that oil and imperialism have in the region. He argues that none of the Arab regimes could seriously wage a fight against it and the power lies with the workers of the region. As the US once again tries to assert its global dominance these writings are invaluable to understanding why imperialist interests lead to such bloody conflicts.
The Constant Gardener, John le Carré's latest novel, is about the multinational pharmaceutical companies, their role in the ravages of the African continent, and the courageous campaigns against them. Even more, it is about love and commitment, both personal and political. It is a sad story but one which leaves you strangely uplifted.
For the theory behind anti-capitalism try David Harvey's Spaces of Hope, which uses Marx's ideas to understand geographical development and much more, or August H Nimtz's Marx and Engels. This is a fine example of never judging a book by its cover, as the academic looking text explains, in accessible language and with great sympathy, the two men as democrats, activists and thinkers. Both books are thought provoking and rewarding.
The Europe of Victor Serge was one of wars and revolutions. From his youngest years Serge was determined that he would play his part in the turmoil, and that he would record the rise and fall of this revolutionary wave. The literary portraits he paints in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary give us a real depth of feeling and an understanding of the times.
Serge arrived in Russia in 1919, during a crisis that most predicted would see the end of this 'experiment' in workers' democracy, and the death of the Bolsheviks. Petrograd, the Russian capital city, seemed certain to fall to the 'white' armies. He joined the Communist International but brought with him a sharp critical faculty. He argued that the defence of the revolution whilst it was in a state of siege necessitated 'red terror' against its opponents but that on many occasions the terror went too far. Serge asks tough questions about the nature of the Russian Revolution and the questions get tougher as the revolution degenerates. The answers that Serge provides to the questions he sets himself do not always satisfy, but his writing allows us to feel what it would be like to have lived through those decades of turmoil.
First things first. If anyone can tell me where in Britain I can get a cannoli--a Sicilian delight of ricotta cream tube wrapped in pastry--I will send them a free copy of this book.
For holiday reading Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily is a delight. Robb unravels the era of Giulio Andreotti, 70 times prime minister of Italy, a key figure in the Christian Democrats who ran Italy for 40 plus years, and a 'man of honour'--in other words a man who, in 1987, on arrival in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, held a private meeting where he kissed Salvatore (Tottó) Riina, head of the Corleone Mafia clan, who lived in hiding in Palermo from 1969 until 1993. When Riina was arrested he could not believe it was the cops who grabbed him, so used had he become to the protection given him by the Italian state.
The collapse of the Christian Democrats in 1992 amidst massive allegations of corruption was a crucial event in Italian society, the effects of which are still being felt. The demonstrations against the Mafia in Sicily were a precursor of the protests that have swept Italy since Genoa.
The book examines the killing of another Christian Democrat leader--Aldo Moro--by the Red Brigades, showing how Andreotti hung him out to dry. But with politics it combines food, history, art and a travelogue about Sicily.
John Brown's life is probably the most bitter testament we have to the futility of violent vanguardism, because we so want him to have succeeded. As WEB du Bois,the author of John Brown, puts it, Brown had concluded that 'all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is worth less than the price of repression.'
A Christian anti-slaver, prepared to hack Kansas pro-slavers to death with his own broadsword, Brown's vision of racial equality contained nothing of the envy or condescension felt by most northern reformers. His consultations with Frederick Douglass prior to his fatal 1859 raid on the armoury at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, make for a dramatic narrative. Capture came on the brink of success. Brown was imprisoned, tried for insurrection, treason and murder, and executed.
Published first in 1909, this assessment is filtered through the author's contemporary battles with the conventional Booker T Washington over the best way forward for black Americans. Reading it in 2001 reminds us not only of those ongoing debates, but also of the violence at the heart of all American history.
I finally read Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov this year. The story of three brothers and their debauched buffoon of a father, it contains enough jealousy, betrayal, lust and scheming to fill a dozen Xmas special episodes of Eastenders. Dostoyevsky creates complex characters who at various points seem unpleasant yet capture your sympathy and interest as they come centre stage. Though he had become religious and conservative by the time he wrote Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky remembered enough of his early radicalism to fill the book with both believable schemers and dreamers. And through their lives you glimpse a late 19th century Russia that is simmering with change.
I read Robert Shiller's Irrational Exuberance at a time when the stockmarkets were first tumbling, then rallying. He is an advocate of globalised free market capitalism, but demolishes the idea that stockmarkets are the ultimate rational way to allocate resources. Written before this year's collapse of dot.com companies, Shiller is scathing about the talk of a 'new economy' where people live on thin air and capitalism has escaped the boom-bust cycle. If you are annoyed by the way that every news bulletin must end with the latest value of the FTSE or Nasdaq indexes, and are not put off by a book full of figures and economic arguments, there is plenty here to get you thinking.