Issue 260 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Allan Lane £9.99
|'That dreadful Terry Eagleton'|
Prince Charles once dubbed him 'that dreadful Terry Eagleton'. It's not often a royal is so indelicately forthcoming about a former professor at Oxford University but, then again, this one's no hoary old academic. He is, of all things, a revolutionary Marxist who, as these short memoirs reveal, has mixed his time as an Oxford don and Britain's foremost literary theorist with stints selling socialist newspapers in the street and leafleting workers at the local car plant.
Eagleton's memoir is no conventional A to Z narrative, but a witty set of reflections on a life marked indelibly by the chasm between his Irish Catholic working class origins in Salford, and the bourgeois respectability of Oxbridge, where he studied and taught for over three decades. It is perhaps his leap across this chasm which makes this memoir so exceptionally sensitive to the dialectical complexities of our times, or he may just have picked up a few tricks from his wily Irish grandmother who found 'shoddy motives lurking behind others' good deeds with a dialectical subtlety which Hegel would have envied.'
This blend of levity and profundity is typical of Eagleton's style. When describing his experiences as a young boy who acted as gatekeeper to novices at the local convent, he notes how the nuns escaped the world to serve one man and 'he, being conveniently absent from earth, required no cooking, laundry or sexual comfort.' Hints here of Eagleton's early left Catholicism which gave the religious concept of redemption--that the flaw of the world was so deep only a thoroughgoing transformation could cure it--a distinctly collective inflection.
Sketches of cowed working class life are as hilarious as they are serious. His recollection that a knock at the door would send his family 'scrambling in terror like the thump of an SS rifle-butt', so unaccustomed were they to visitors, has a sadly comic and familiar ring. Such sketches are sprinkled throughout the memoirs, often interspersed with pithy, epigrammatic reflections on Brecht, Wittgenstein and Oscar Wilde and asides on subjects such as the film cliché or the comic jest. As such, the very form his memoir takes is as autobiographical as its content.
It is no surprise that he stumbled through Cambridge 'sick at heart' and 'as ignorant as a fish'. Having a supervisor who recruited for MI5, was 'as warmly spontaneous as a shaving brush' and who got his servants to switch on the electric fire only feet from his chair can't exactly have helped.
By the Thatcherite 1980s Eagleton was teaching at Oxford where he recalls that students approached Marxist academics as if they were 'encountering their very first coprophiliac.' There he joined what seems to have been an ultra-left revolutionary sect for whom the working class could 'be trusted no further than you could throw it.' He recounts how the sect tried to enter the Labour Party and how he was refused entry, only to be let in later 'long after it was worth joining.'
The problem, though, is that Eagleton's tone of ironic detachment about these experiences leaves you wondering whether, for him, the very idea of revolutionary organisation is now merely of historical, but not practical, interest.
This immensely entertaining journey through the arcane worlds of Catholic monasticism, Oxbridge academe and sectarian revolutionary politics never loses sight of the fact that Eagleton's own good fortune in doing a job he has enjoyed would never have been possible but for people like his father, an engineering worker for 30 years, who 'thought the idea of enjoying your job the most sublimely utopian one imaginable.' Ultimately, this is why his faith in socialist revolution remains undiminished, and why many of us are still glad we were taught by the dreadful Terry Eagleton.
John Murray £22.50
Jane Jordan's biography of Josephine Butler exposes the brutality of women's oppression at the height of British capitalism. In particular, our attention is turned to the treatment of working class women under the Contagious Diseases Acts passed in the second half of the 19th century. Jordan shows the 20-year struggle it took to finally defeat these vicious acts and celebrates the life of its determined leader.
Josephine Butler came from a family of genteel moral reformers. Her father, Lord Grey, opposed slavery. She was also a deeply religious woman, although non-conformist, and anguished over the plight of prostitutes--women she felt were denied the chance to return to God's grace. Privately, she had visited and taken into her home those who wished to be 'saved', and attempted to provide the material means by which they might gain another living. However, her life was transformed forever at the age of 42, with the passing of the first Contagious Diseases Act. Outrage pushed her into leading a repeal campaign, a role that involved a serious confrontation with the establishment.
At first Butler balked from taking this role, terrified about the repercussions on herself and her family. Her fears were well founded. She was immediately ostracised by many of her 'liberal' friends and was considered degraded for even speaking about such things in public. She was viciously lampooned in the press, denounced as 'worse than a common prostitute' by a respected MP, and meetings where she spoke were violently attacked.
The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in Britain with the stated aim of controlling sexually transmitted diseases (mainly syphilis) in the armed and naval forces. However, they didn't aim to target servicemen, but prostitutes. They instructed plain-clothes policemen to forcibly register prostitutes on a list, and haul in for fortnightly internal examination women suspected of being prostitutes. Any woman with a disease was detained in a locked hospital with a harsh prison regime for nine months.
Any woman registered as a prostitute had to carry around for public display a 'clean' ticket with her last examination date. When Josephine Butler addressed meetings she would talk of the plight of ordinary women who had turned to prostitution through 'starvation hunger'. With the Contagious Diseases Acts she argued they were 'no longer women but only bits of numbered, inspected and ticketed human flesh, flung by the government into the public market'. Throughout the campaign she argued that only by improving the lives of working class women could this cattle market be ended.
Furthermore, Butler saw it as an issue about the rights of women. The 'Spy Police' (as the cops were known) targeted working class women in general. She visited many women who had been imprisoned for their refusal to undergo the internal examination and found many had never even been involved in prostitution. Many working class women came to repeal meetings to give account of the police harassment.
The internal examination itself was an extremely brutal affair. This was not the unpleasant but polite examination we undergo today in the NHS. Instead it was doctors carrying out police duty upon unwilling women whom society considered already debased.
One woman's testimony at a meeting described being physically forced into a position that was 'disgusting and painful...then they use these monstrous instruments, often several. It was as if you were cattle and hadn't no feeling.' Pregnant women were not excluded. Josephine met one who had endured three such examinations since she was pregnant, all of which had caused her to haemorrhage and risk miscarriage. There were also frequent accusations from women of molestation by both police and inspecting doctors. Many women chose to go into prison rather than be subjected to the regular examination. Others would go to extraordinary lengths to escape the ordeal, even suicide.
Butler did persuade many members of her own class to join the repeal campaign but, crucially, she also looked outside the traditional liberal reforming committees. She addressed meetings of soldiers and of working men, and drew hundreds of working class women to meetings she organised both in Britain and Europe.
This is an interesting biography in terms of mapping out the political development of a woman who was destined for a comfortable bourgeois life, yet was moved by the injustices of the times to ally herself with working class women. Be warned, the first 60 pages are a tedious, gushing account of her family life. But when Butler's life takes a political turn, Jane Jordan does full justice to the horror of the times and to the courage of one woman who fought back.
The major impression one is left with after reading this book is the utter brutality of British imperial government policy towards subjugated people who threaten its interests anywhere in the world--and that applies equally to Tory or Labour governments.
The book deals with counter-insurgency in 'Zion', Malaya, the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, Cyprus and Eoka, Yemen (and Aden), Omar and Dhofar, and Northern Ireland, and spans the latter three quarters of the last century. Over that period the military and diplomatic representatives of the imperial power gained much experience in quelling revolts of subjugated colonial people, and then transferred the most effective (ie the most brutal) methods to later uprisings in other colonial countries, often deploying the same personnel.
One instance is Malaya in the 1950s, where British troops and police devised a 'coercion and enforcement' policy against the insurgent Communists (or 'f-Reds', as their assailants called them) who were nearly all Chinese, and were fighting, and winning, a guerrilla war against the government in the jungle. The imperial power inevitably suffered from poor intelligence because of the overwhelming support of the population for the insurgents. So after failing to defeat the Communist offensive through curfews, bans, collective punishment, vigorous food controls and, general racist brutality, they resorted, in 1950, to forced resettlement of whole village populations. This meant using overwhelming force to surround villages before first light, occupying them without warning, rounding up the villagers and preventing escapes, then burning their homes and crops, smashing their agricultural implements and killing or turning loose their livestock. They were then transported by lorry to the site of their 'new village', which was little more than a prison camp surrounded by a barbed wire fence, illuminated by searchlights, heavily policed, and the inhabitants were deprived of all civil rights. Half a million people were thus forcibly relocated. The scale of this 'coercion and enforcement' was what eventually broke the back of the Communist revolt, giving victory to the government forces.
Having succeeded in this way in Malaya, the British soon after, in 1954, deployed this method against the Mau Mau in Kenya who were revolting against the wholesale theft of the tribal land of the Kikuyu by white settlers. Some 12,000 square miles were occupied by 30,000 whites, while a quarter of a million Kikuyu were penned into just 2,000 square miles of the worst land.
The brutal aspect of counter-insurgency is strongly portrayed and the author, John Newsinger, is clearly sympathetic to the struggling insurgents. But the British ruling class are far too experienced to rule by stick alone--they also dangle the carrot . A 'hearts and minds' campaign is usually conducted to win over a reliable pillar of support for the regime among a favoured section of the population. So in Kenya the British managed to contrive a land system similar to the clearances in Britain. In Kenya it brought about, and bought off, a class of black large landowners who supported the government. It also won over Jomo Kenyatta, who previously supported the revolt, to head a government. This would continue to safeguard British interests after independence was granted in 1963.
In Cyprus the British gave favours to the Turkish population in return for much-needed intelligence and assistance in the repression of Eoka, the Greek Cypriot insurgent movement fighting for enosis--unity with Greece. Without this the British would probably not have been victorious.
In Aden the struggle against the British had a strong trade union element organised in Atuc and a nationalist movement, the NLE. Despite enormous brutality towards the rebels, the British attempt to build a movement of support based on the sheikhs in the Yemeni hinterland failed completely and the British had to make a humiliating withdrawal in 1967. This left the country to the 'self proclaimed Marxist revolutionaries' who promptly proclaimed the 'People's Republic of South Yemen'.
The book is crammed with factual evidence of Britain's counter-insurgency campaigns, listing the brutality, hypocrisy and deceptiveness which were never reported at the time in the British media. Instead the media castigated the progressive rebel movements and applauded the 'civilising' intentions of the invading British army.
In today's world, where the replacement buzzwords are 'terrorists' and 'western values of civilisation', this book is well worth reading.
Voices of Revolution
Columbia University Press £13.50
As the radical journalist Upton Sinclair once noted, the establishment newspapers generally do not challenge the status quo, but rather construct a 'concrete wall between the public and alternative thinking'. Hence the need for the dissident press whose primary purpose is to effect social change.
This book covers some 30 dissident papers in the US, and sketches the social needs that led to their publication. Among them are the early labour presses, journals against lynching, those for sexual reform and papers which sought to organise the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s (one publication, Ramparts, had a circulation of a quarter of a million). The book also contains fascinating portraits of familiar figures such as Emma Goldman, Ida B Wells and the Black Panthers, as well as lesser known figures who all shared the same aim of changing society in a fundamental way.
The labour presses wanted to transform individual workers into a united political force. Journalism was a way of organising and propagandising. There were some 50 labour weeklies in the 1820s and 1830s. Dissident journalism provided a forum for open discussion and encouraged readers to share their experiences.
The lowly status of women was illustrated by an article in a Philadelphia newspaper which stated, 'A woman is nobody. A wife is everything.' Against this background two middle aged women set up the Revolution in 1868, with circulation peaking at 3,000. They wanted facts and experiences 'as hard as cannonballs' from their readers. They were inundated with stories of marital abuse. The brutal facts they published fired their campaign for divorce laws.
Sending printed information about sex education through the post (considered obscene) carried a fine of $5,000 and a year in jail. To help working class women find out how to prevent unwanted pregnancy Margaret Sanger, whose mother's 18 pregnancies brought early death, published Woman Rebel and Birth Control Review (circulation of which topped 30,000 in the early 1930s). These newspapers went beyond just reporting. They encouraged political activism by organising and advertising demonstrations and protests. The Free Press helped give birth to the Working Men's Party, which in 1828 elected 21 candidates to local office.
At the start of the 20th century the socialist press numbered over 300 papers with a combined circulation of 2 million. The socialist paper Appeal to Reason had a paid subscription base of 760,000. This paper supported the socialist Eugene V Debs, who went on to poll almost 1 million votes when he stood for president in 1912.
Throughout history, mainstream newspapers have treated all dissident presses virtually the same. First they completely ignore them. Then if they start to gather influence and galvanise protest, the authorities and establishment press unite to vilify the ideas and individuals involved. Whatever your knowledge of radical history, this book is an interesting and highly readable account of the history of dissident press in the US.
Full Spectrum Absurdity
Ed: Ken Coates
Spokesman Books £5
The Last Frontier
Ed: Ken Coates
Spokesman Books £5
Socialists by their very nature are internationalists and care about peace and social justice worldwide. These two booklets (part of a regular series from Spokesman for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation) give lively commentaries and background to current issues in collections of short essays.
Have you wondered about the reality of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from Palestinian eyes? Hanan Ashrawi shows just what it is like to be blamed as the victims of the conflict and states the facts of Israel's links with the US right wing in her essay 'Restraint or Racism in Palestine'. But for an even more detailed analysis of the struggle in the region linked to the US fight for control of its oil and mineral supplies, backed up by militarism, read Noam Chomsky's 'Crises in the Middle East'. Chomsky points out the looming dangers of war and marks the US out clearly as the rogue state in the world. It is the US, he states, which has brought us in recent years to the brink of nuclear war--lest we forget.
Ken Coates similarly brings us up to date with references to the history of the Cold War with the new build up of militarism. The brazen plans of the US to take war and weapons of mass destruction into space, euphemistically called 'National Missile Defence', and to achieve world domination are spelt out clearly in several contributions in Full Spectrum Absurdity. If you ever had any doubts as to the role Britain will play in these global domination plans, read Dave Webb's earlier essay, 'The UK's Role in Star Wars'. The Yorkshire bases at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales are key components in US domination of the world and plans for 'Son of Star Wars' missile defence system.
These are vitally important issues for campaigners right now. As I write I have just heard that the planning officer in Harrogate has given permission (he needn't have recourse to any local council planning committee as this is a Ministry of Defence application) for building more defence systems at Menwith Hill. The UK government is going ahead tamely complying with US plans for the militarisation of space. Menwith Hill is a US spy, command and control base in a national park, which makes Harrogate and its surroundings a prime target for 'terrorist' attacks, such as we saw on 11 September. The articles in these books will make every reader ask, 'Why are there US military bases in Britain, or on any foreign territory?'
If you want further confirmation of US imperialism in the world today and what lies behind it, read 'The Spirit and the Budget of a new Cold War', by Gilbert Achcar. This gives a detailed account of the billions spent by the US government and defence contractors on arms.
The themes of these booklets are with us here and now: the power of the corporations to rule the US, the greed of the defence contractors (war is good business), the struggle for control of resources, the careless attitude towards social justice for the disadvantaged both within the US and across the world. The booklets should be read--order them for your library, be it local, college or school.
Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism
Francis Bootle £10
There is now a vast amount of literature on the subject of this book. First and foremost there are Trotsky's own brilliant and voluminous writings, then Isaac Deutscher's mighty Prophet trilogy, Tony Cliff's four-volume political study, works by Victor Serge and Natalia Trotsky, Pierre Broué, Ernest Mandel, Duncan Hallas and many lesser figures.
So the question inevitably arises, what is added by this latest volume? The answer, sadly, is very little. In itself the book has certain things to recommend it, most obviously that much of it--the best part--is written by Alfred Rosmer, a significant and noble figure in the history of Trotskyism. Rosmer writes on the basis of extensive first-hand knowledge of the events and deep engagement in the problems of the workers' movement, with refreshing candour and clarity. In the third part of the book Rosmer provides a brief and lucid account of Trotsky's last years, using Trotsky's own words where he can. But it still doesn't mean that it has anything new to say, either factually or by way of analysis.
Also, as an introductory text this book has a serious defect. Its opening chapters consist of documents dealing with the early years of the French Communist Party by Emile Fabrol, Antoine Chavez and Boris Souvarine, who are much lesser figures than Rosmer and do not write half as well. Moreover, these chapters give the book a lopsided character and prevent it being any kind of balanced overview of the origins of Trotskyism.
It may be that the editor, Al Richardson, and publishers have an implicit political agenda here--emphasising the role and culpability of Zinoviev and his regime in the Comintern for paving the way for Stalin, and noting the link between Zinoviev and James P Cannon, the US Trotskyist leader. If this is the case it seems to me that this is a fairly obscure argument to be having at the moment. Although there may be some truth in this, it can easily be exaggerated to the point where organisational and personal factors are stressed at the expense of the fundamental objective factors conditioning the rise of Stalinism such as the defeat of the international revolution, the isolation of the Soviet Union and the weakness and destruction of the Russian proletariat.