Issue 259 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Spaces of Capital
Edinburgh University Press £16.99
The cotton industry of the early 19th century was an international affair. A vital part of the labour force was African, transported through the slave trade to the American South where the raw material was cultivated. Cotton goods were produced in the mills of Lancashire by a workforce which had been drawn from the surrounding English countryside. The finished products were then distributed for sale in Europe but also to India and beyond, with devastating consequences for the indigenous Indian textile industry. Vast areas of the globe were connected; millions of human lives interconnected.
These features of capitalism 200 years ago are lost on today's theorists of the so called global economy. But they are not lost on David Harvey. Harvey is perhaps best known for his book The Condition of Postmodernity. But as this collection of articles and essays amply demonstrates he has, for more than 25 years, been engaged in developing a radical, Marxist, geography. It is striking how clearly Harvey puts Marx's understanding of capital accumulation at the heart of his analyses. Harvey writes, 'The drive for capital accumulation is the central motif in the narrative of historical-geographical transformation of the western world in recent times and seems set to engulf the whole world into the 21st century. For the past 300 years it has been the fundamental force at work in reshaping the world's politics, economy and environment.'
One of the best essays, from 1975, is called 'The Geography of Capitalist Accumulation'. Its starting point is that capital accumulation is the engine which powers growth under the capitalist mode of production making capitalism both highly dynamic and inevitably expansionary. For Harvey, Marx supplies the 'theoretical and material understanding which will allow us to understand the reciprocal relationships between geography and history'. In particular, Harvey analyses Marx's Grundrisse, the notebooks Marx wrote before writing Capital. Here Marx talks of the 'annihilation of space by time', of how capital strives to tear down every spatial barrier to the exchange of commodities and to conquer the whole earth for its markets. Harvey stresses how this process is full of contradictions, and how the globe has never been a level playing field upon which capital accumulation can evenly unfold.
He ties the uneven expansion of capitalism to the Marxist theory of imperialism, discussing Lenin and Luxemburg, though sadly leaving out Bukharin. Elsewhere Harvey talks about Capital and how Marx relates the story of a 20 year old milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, who died from long hours of work in an overcrowded room and small and badly ventilated bedroom. Harvey compares Marx's description of her life to the descriptions of Nike's workers in Vietnam today. The collection also demonstrates clearly how Harvey is at his best when more abstract and geography related and weaker when it comes to strategy today.
The final essay is a talk he gave at the Tate Modern at the start of 2001. It is an engrossing piece about how business, in pursuit of monopoly rent, seeks to trade on values like authenticity, locality, history, culture and collective memory. He gives the example of the redevelopment of Barcelona for the Olympic Games, and how the process opened up questions: whose collective memory was to be celebrated? Was it the anarchists, the republicans, the immigrants from Andalusia or long-time Franco ally and former boss of the Olympic games Juan Samaranch? Harvey suggests that these are key 'spaces of hope' for the construction of an alternative kind of globalisation today in which the 'progressive forces of culture appropriate those of capital'. This shows how the 1980s obsession with culture has affected even the most independent of Marxist thinkers. Nonetheless, reading Spaces of Capital makes you glad there are people like Harvey around, and that they are still looking for such spaces of hope.
Marx and Engels: Collected Works Volume 48
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £45
|Marx and Engels|
Engels' letters are a delight to read. Here we have him as active as ever as he approaches the age of 80. He is immersed in editing volume two of Capital, which involves him working his way through hundreds of pages of nearly illegible handwriting despite his own diminishing eyesight.
He finds time to pour out advice to the rapidly growing socialist movement in Germany. Its leaders Walter Liebknecht, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein are in continual correspondence with him when they are not actually staying at his house in Regents Park Road. So too are Marx's daughter and son in law, the Lafargues, who were central to rebuilding the socialist movement in Paris as it recovered from the defeat of the Commune. He enthuses at a new wave of workers' struggles in the US, and especially the strikes of London's dockers and gas workers, in which Eleanor, one of Marx's other daughters, played a key role.
He rejoices that ideas that seemed to have only a dozen followers in Britain when Marx died are now dominant in a growing movement that can hold a successful international congress in Paris only six years later. He throws himself into the arguments and tactical manoeuvres necessary to free the new movement from the dead weight of old habits and ideas. 'No movement', he writes, 'causes so much fruitless work as one that is still at the sectarian stage, for everything then revolves around tittle tattle.' Elsewhere he complains, in words which many will echo today, 'It has always been our fate that the more we show we are ready to work together with honest and sincere people as long as they stand on a truly workingman's platform--no matter how imperfect--the rogues and adventurers whose company we decline denounce us as intolerant, domineering and exclusive.' He notes that he had to take months off from doing other things to help make the Paris conference a success.
He was less successful in his efforts when it came to the socialist movement in Britain. The first ostensibly Marxist party was the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman. It tried, briefly, to build a revolutionary movement out of mass agitation among the unemployed. But when this failed it turned almost exclusively to making socialist propaganda and standing (unsuccessfully) in elections to this end, while having a completely condescending attitude to strikes and trade union issues. Engels backed the split-away Socialist League of William Morris and Belfort Bax, only to see this fall under anarchist influence and remain just as disdainful of the strike movement that erupted in the late 1880s.
In the end Engels placed his hopes in a group around Eleanor Marx and her partner, Edward Aveling. It attracted trade unionists like the engineering worker Tom Mann who were central to the role of the workers' struggles of the late 1880s. They helped found Britain's biggest trade unions and encouraged the establishment of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s (Aveling was on its executive and Mann briefly its secretary). But they were unable to create a Marxist organisation able to challenge the Social Democratic Federation and overcome its failings. It was not for 30 years, until after the Russian Revolution, that such a party was formed.
The letters are not just about current political controversy. There is, for instance, a brilliant page and a half summary of the reasons for the collapse of the Jacobins at the height of the French Revolution in 1794.
Another page-long passage on realism in literature extols Balzac as a superior novelist to Zola despite his reactionary political beliefs--and then goes on to tell how he has provided 'a complete history of French society from which I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period.'
People who read Marx and Engels usually start off with The Communist Manifesto or other short pamphlets. They then progress to some version of the selected writings. But to really appreciate the sheer breadth of vision, learning and insight of either Marx or Engels, you need to at least dip into the collected works. They are a treasure trove for anyone interested in socialist ideas, the growth of the workers' movement, history, economics, 19th-century politics and a score of other questions--as well as showing the sheer humanity of the pair, with their emotions, their foibles, their occasional prejudices, their endless identification of the struggles of the oppressed, and their sheer zest for life.
Zed Books £15.95
William Blum has written a devastating record of the history of US imperialism since the Second World War. A former State Department official, he left the US government in 1967 because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Since then he has been concerned to expose the role of the CIA and other US government agencies in, as they say, 'defending' US interests throughout the world.
Firstly comes direct intervention in the affairs of another country. There has not been one single year since the Second World War when the US hasn't been trying to overthrow a foreign government. In some cases it is by the use of covert operations such as in Italy in 1947 when the US forced the Italian government to dismiss its Communist and Socialist cabinet ministers before it could receive US economic aid. For decades after the US funded the Christian Democrats to try to prevent left wingers gaining power. In Greece in 1947-49 the US intervened in the civil war taking the side of the neo-fascists against the Greek left and then had the CIA help the fascists create a repressive internal security agency. Sometimes however, it is more overt with the simple use of brute force such as we saw in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Haiti, Grenada, Iraq, Colombia or Afghanistan.
When direct intervention proves too difficult the US government has other tricks up its sleeve. One is the School of Americas (SOA), an army school at Fort Benning, Georgia, whose graduates over the years have included literally tens of thousands of Latin American military and police officials who have been involved in human rights abuses in Latin America often involving torture or murder. In fact, as Blum reports, SOA graduates have led a number of military coups in Latin America, so many that the Washington Post reported that the school was known in Latin America as 'escuela de golpes' or the coup school.
Blum also shows how it is the US government and military which has led the way in developing sophisticated and lethal weapons such as cluster bombs, depleted uranium warheads, chemical and nuclear weapons. Some of the stories Blum tells would be comical were it not for the fact that they are so serious. Not only have they tried to assassinate other countries' leaders with exploding cigars (as they did to Fidel Castro), but they have also launched experiments on their own populations. One experiment, of which the casualties are not known, was when CIA agents released biological agents into the New York and Chicago subways to test their effectiveness. They would do this by smashing light bulbs which contained the germs near ventilation systems and then let the natural flow of air caused by the movement of trains distribute it throughout the system. They found this to be a most effective way to contaminate large numbers of people.
Another experiment to test the capacity of biological weapons involved a warship travelling the San Francisco Bay area releasing a biological aerosol into the air. At one point a cloud two miles long was formed, many people were taken to hospital and one person died.
The US government is so worried about dissent at home and abroad that it launched a system codenamed Echelon. This was initially set up to spy on Soviet satellites, but is now used--along with systems in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand--to spy and intercept any phone call, fax, mobile, text message, or e-mail throughout the world. In actions that were quite illegal, the US government authorised the navy to have submarines attach tapping pods to underwater cables. In 1999 the House Intelligence Committee of the US Congress sought internal National Security Agency documents about its compliance with a law prohibiting it from deliberately eavesdropping on Americans, but the NSA stonewalled the committee. The Pentagon also struck a deal with Microsoft in 1999 so that all their software now contains a special 'key' which makes it easier for the US government and security forces to access your computer.
Blum has given a comprehensive and exhaustive account of the power and brutality of the world's strongest superpower. If I have one criticism it is that at times you can be overwhelmed by the lengths to which the US establishment will go to try to maintain their dominance, and forget that each step of the way they have been met by resistance, dissent and confrontation. In part this explains why they have resorted to such high degrees of repression. But also why despite the resources and level of technology at their disposal, the resistance they meet has often meant that the world's number one power is vulnerable to defeat.
What is history?
E H Carr
I first read this little book many years ago. Yet I had forgotten how engagingly well written it was, and how stimulating, until I reread the new edition. What is History? began life as a series of lectures delivered in 1961, before then being broadcast on BBC radio and then turned into this book.
Carr was a curious figure--a longtime career civil servant in the British Foreign Office who went on to become assistant editor of the Times during the Second World War. He never had a degree in history, and in his early adulthood said he had no interest in history. Yet when he died in 1982 he was among the most important British historians of the 20th century.
Carr was spurred to study history by the experience of social change and upheaval in the present--more precisely the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath. As he wrote, 'There is nothing like a revolution to create an interest in history.'
Carr's main historical work was his monumental 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, published from 1950 through to 1978. What is History? is an entirely different kind of work to that detailed study. It discusses general issues in the study of history and polemicises, in a sharp yet usually amusing way, against views Carr disagreed with.
Carr's overall approach is Marxist. His main target is that deadly disease that has long had a peculiarly strong grip on British intellectuals--empiricism, the collection of 'facts' and disdain for theory. Carr instead defends the notion of theory and generalisation as being crucial to any real understanding. He is certainly no cavalier with facts, as his own work on Russia amply testifies. But, he argues, facts are useless unless they lead to generalisation and theory which increase our understanding. And that understanding, for the historian, is above all one of social change. 'History', argues Carr, 'is preoccupied with fundamental processes of change. If you are allergic to these processes, abandon history!'
Carr also polemicises against views which were to grow stronger in the years after his death, and which have been labelled postmodernist--'the theory that history has no meaning' or 'the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right that any other, which comes to much the same thing'.
Carr insists, 'It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes. It does not follow that because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another.'
Carr marshalls his arguments on history in a tour de force that touches on art, poetry, the writers of ancient Rome and Greece, and much more. He defends Marx from some of the distortions to which his writings have been subject, such as charges of determinism. He also polemicises against mid-20th century intellectuals who devoted themselves to attacking Marxism, such as Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper.
Some of Carr's optimistic belief in progress in history I now find a little jarring in the light of the history of the two decades since his death, and the growing threat of environmental destruction and climate change. He also has a tendency, at times, to write a little too much of a history from above with insufficient attention to the role of collective movements or ordinary people, a fault evident in his wider historical writings. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone who wants to think about social change, past, present and future, could do themselves a favour by reading this brilliant book.
Made in Indonesia
Dan La Botz
South End Press £12.99
This riveting book is in part the story of how capitalism transformed the 14,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago into a modern, capitalist, nation. It is an important story because Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation on earth.
Capitalism came to Indonesia through 400 years of European imperialism. It took until 1949 before Indonesia won its independence from the Netherlands. The exploitation of the indigenous ruling class was no less brutal yet the key event of post-independence Indonesia came in 1965 when Suharto took power in a military coup which saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of people. This atrocity, aimed mostly against socialists and labour activists, was cheered by the US ruling class and lauded on the cover of Time magazine as 'the west's best news for years in Asia'. This event laid the basis for Indonesia's expansion.
In the 1970s billions of dollars were invested from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Europe and the US. The pundits hailed another 'economic miracle'. Suharto's dictatorship made Indonesia attractive to investors by brutally suppressing workers' organisations and ensuring pitifully low wages. Indonesian society became characterised by rampant exploitation, anti-Chinese racism and the routine sexual abuse of women workers in factories. In the 1990s the average worker could put in 12-to-14 hour days for the sum of one dollar.
But in 1998 Suharto's dictatorship was brought down by mass protests in which the working class played a key role. After years of oppression and the elimination of political democracy and civil rights the Indonesian people are faced with the challenge of transforming their society into a more just, equitable and democratic one.
Socialist arguments are back on the agenda. La Botz looks at the different forces in Indonesian society which are struggling for social justice since the fall of Suharto--the activists who developed under a horrifically brutal dictatorship, and the unions and labour organisations who learned to organise under the most difficult conditions. He also argues that the Marxist tradition is absolutely relevant to Indonesian society. This means rediscovering the centrality of the working class and the internationalism which are at the heart of the genuine Marxist tradition. La Botz also makes the point that Lenin's theory of the party and Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution are indispensible.
The Indonesian people have suffered terribly from the economic collapse which ravaged the East Asian region in 1997 and continues to cause misery. Capitalism has created a world in its own image, just as Marx argued. But it has also created its own gravedigger in the world working class. This magnificent book tells the story of Indonesian workers and the key role they can play in destroying this rotten system.
A New World Order
Secker & Warburg £17.99
Caryl Phillips is an interesting writer. He writes in a confident, polemical way about the 'black experience' on both sides of the Atlantic. As Caryl Phillips points out in newspaper and magazine articles that make up his new book A New World Order, many black people, in both the US and the UK, have never felt quite 'at home'. Phillips's writing is all about not quite belonging, and is divided into the four corners of his world--the US, Africa, the Caribbean and Britain.
The first section contains a very interesting article about the US black writer James Baldwin and the way in which he lived a lot of his life in self imposed exile in Europe (Phillips has gone in the other direction--brought up in Leeds, he now lives in Greenwich Village, US). Phillips describes how in the 1950s Baldwin refused to be pigeonholed as a 'Negro author', and how his publisher tried to get him to change his book Giovanni's Room because it had homosexuality as its subject matter. In another essay Phillips defends the black US Communist novelist and activist Richard Wright from charges that Native Son, his incendiary novel about the corrosive nature of racism, was 'too political'. Wright, like Baldwin, also emigrated to France from the US to escape the 'race label'. One of the best essays in the book is about the degraded descent into the gutter of soul singer Marvin Gaye--dragged down by the racism of US society that branded the black man a purely sexual creature.
I found the section on the Caribbean the most successful in this book. Phillips hits on the unique nature of those islands--shaped by people from across the globe who were flung together through the historical process of slavery and imperialism. Phillips describes how the ideas of Trinidadian Trotskyist C L R James was constructed on 'two guiding principles. First, he believed in the power of reason, which was a clear legacy of his classical British education in early 20th-century colonial Trinidad... Second, he believed in the inventive potential of the masses when engaged in social movement'.
In his essay on recent Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Phillips rightly castigates the author for his outrageously bigoted views, but praises him for his early stories, such as the classic A House for Mr Biswas and The Mystic Masseur.
The section in the book on Britain is also very good--especially the piece on Jamaican poet, musician and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson. He goes to see Johnson in Paris, and finds the man feted as a hero by the French (another example of a black intellectual in a sort of exile). Phillips captures well the poet's impatience with those former black activists who have abandoned the struggle. LKJ is asked by Phillips, 'What happened to the black radicalism of the 1970s and early 1980s?' Linton shakes his head and sighs, 'They've all gone to Channel 4 or parliament, or got a television show. They're part of the establishment that is saying it's alright, no problem. Tell that to Stephen Lawrence's parents'.
I don't agree with all that Phillips says in his book, and there are inaccuracies (for example, his take on Trotsky's conversations with C L R James), but his writings have much to offer. One warning--many of the essays are written as journalism and follow a formula that gets a bit tiring. But his central preoccupation of 'belonging' is an important one. As he writes, 'We are all unmoored. Our identities are fluid. Belonging is a contested state. Home is a place riddled with vexing questions.'
Edward W Said
Exile, in the words of Wallace Stevens, is 'a mind of winter', in which 'the pathos of summer and autumn as much as the potential of spring are nearby but unobtainable'. Edward Said reflects on his and the Palestinians' political condition, in one of a wide range of subjects and styles of essays in this collection.
Said attacks much of 20th century Western literary criticism for its emphasis on form, literary technique or an abstract scholarship. Within this he sees that those currents on the left influenced by Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, such as the Frankfurt School and the postmodernists of today, encouraged literature that was unable to grasp the immediacy of the suffering of the majority of humanity.
At the same time Said makes a distinction between the elitist modernists such as Eliot and Pound, and Joyce's modernism in Dubliners that sought to give expression to the hopes and pain of Irish society, and create a new and liberating freedom in language. Said goes on to look at the writing that challenged orthodox literary circles, the writers that emerged from the movements against imperialism in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Rushdie and Marquez challenged the main narratives by giving a voice to those who had been excluded. In response to the writing of the post-colonialists and radical feminists he warns that this can 'obscure the wellspring of hope, generosity and courage from which those approaches originally derived'. To reinterpret did not mean rejecting all aspects of western literature and of its influences on those same writers--WEB DuBois was, he argues, 'partly shaped by the great American and European poets'.
Significantly, he adds that the debates in the New York intellectual milieu over Stalinism were not important to him when he arrived. He therefore fails to recognise the huge and crushing impact Stalinism had on the attempts at social realism and modernism within art and literature.
I found the article on Arabic prose and fiction after 1948 and 'After Mahfouz' inspiring, as both look at the role writers played in creating literature that was not afraid to confront the reality of life in a period of political turmoil. In particular Said looks at the modernist examples of Ghassan Kanafani, and compares that to the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz writing in the historic centre of print publishing, film and television production of Cairo.
The chapter 'Lost Causes' shows his anger and questioning disillusionment with the beginning of the peace process. He recalls in 1992 when as a member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, 'A group of privileged Palestinian intellectuals met with Israeli security officials in secret to begin a discussion of security for settlers and army personnel who would remain in the Occupied Territories should there be some form of Palestinian self rule.' Said has always been consistent in attacking the hypocrisy of the US and Israel, whilst also being the fiercest critic of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. In 1996 all of Said's books were banned from Palestinian-controlled areas. Said concludes that 'no cause can ever be really lost'. The current intifada proves him right.
In his last chapter Said dissects Samuel P Huntington's The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington is part of the highest order of the US establishment, and remembered for providing the rationalisation for saturation bombing of the Vietnamese countryside.
The book will provide inspiration to all those fighting for an understanding of a very different world order from Huntington's. Said looks at what is common to all societies, and an acceptance of culture as diverse and able to overcome racial or national barriers, and thereby provide a radical alternative for the majority of humanity. The lines of the poet Aime Cesaire are often used throughout the book:
'but the work of man is only just beginning
and it remains to man to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of his passion
And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty,
Of intelligence, of force and there
Is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory.'
Dictionary of Labour Biography
Ed: Greg Rosen
This volume is part history, part journalism, and by no means all the figures covered are dead! It is a huge 660-page work of reference with several hundred entries. It boasts some very well known contributors, including John Monks on former TUC general secretary Vic Feather and Gordon Brown on Red Clydesider James Maxton. However much readers of Socialist Review will disagree with many of the assessments made, it is guaranteed that they will exert a peculiar fascination, and occasionally horror, on the reader.
Historically the selection is idiosyncratic but wide ranging. Some of the founders of British Marxism such as Henry Hyndman and William Morris merit an entry. The great pre-1914 revolutionary socialist Victor Grayson's life is summarised by his biographer David, now Lord, Clark. There are also names that older readers will recall from the specifically Labour Party past, such as Patrick Gordon Walker who lost Smethwick for Labour in the 1964 general election to a Tory who campaigned on the slogan 'If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.' However, most who had the temerity to sign up with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1920 onwards are excluded. Even more seriously, rank and file activists and women are almost entirely absent. This book does suggest a British labour movement that is white and male, which is far from an accurate historical picture.
When we turn to the selection for those who are still alive or who have only recently departed, the room for argument about who deserves an entry and who does not gets even greater. For example, Will Hutton maybe an interesting writer, but does he have any place in a Dictionary of Labour Biography? Where figures of the left do get a mention, such as Arthur Scargill, the tone is often one of condescension. In some cases, for example David Lammy on Bernie Grant, there is an unfortunate attempt to rewrite principled socialists of the past into a New Labour present.
On the other hand here you will find biographical details of many of the key lieutenants of New Labour and Blairism. If you ever wondered what the backgrounds of the recently resigned Scottish first minister or general secretary of the Labour Party, Henry McLeish and Margaret McDonagh respectively, were, the details are here. There are many others, including Cherie Booth, Charles Clarke and Clare Short. In short, as a guide to the new enemies of the left the book is absolutely indispensable. There are also entries for a range of trade union leaders, from former miners' leaders such as AJ Cook, dating from the General Strike period of the 1920s, to Joe Gormley, the miners' leader in the 1970s, to the current leader of the GMB, John Edmonds.
Those with even a passing acquaintance with the past and present history of the British labour movement, and in particular the British Labour Party, will find themselves drawn to this book and to argument over the entries. It is not really a book for academic reference, but something to argue about over a coffee or a pint. Or at least it would be were it not so damn heavy!
Finally, it should be said that anyone who is seeking a genuine historical Dictionary of Labour Biography, covering radicals, socialists, communists and others, should consult the ten volumes published under that name and edited by John Saville and Joyce Bellamy.