Issue 262 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Clash of Fundamentalisms
This book would deserve a wide readership at any time. With George Bush's 'war on terrorism' in full swing it is indispensable reading. That ever more dangerous war frames Tariq Ali's look at the Islamic world over the last 14 centuries.
The title is a riposte to arch-conservative US pundit Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilisations in the late 1990s. That book attempted to portray the world as divided into eight religious/cultural blocs whose mutual hostility would increasingly become the dividing line of world politics. Huntington's chauvinist tirade against Islamic civilisation provides intellectual gloss for every 'Mad Mullah' headline in the right wing press and, frighteningly, informs what passes for thinking in the White House after 11 September.
Ali demolishes both the hysteria about Islamic fundamentalism and the wider stereotypes about Muslim societies. His account of the origins of Islam shows its essentially political roots, expressed in religious ideas, in the Arabian peninsula, where great empires clashed in the 7th century. His description of the medieval Islamic world, stretching from southern Spain to northern India, challenges both Eurocentric fancies about inherent western superiority and dogmatic Islamist accounts about a golden age when the entire region was governed by what they take to be Islamic law.
He provides a vivid glimpse of varied societies where different cultures and beliefs mixed, argued and influenced one another. The book is in four parts. There is little opportunity for detailed analysis of particular great historical events and issues--such as why the more advanced societies of the Islamic world failed to break through to develop industrial capitalism. That is not a problem. Instead you get readable essays and a series of insights. What holds it together is a twin polemic against western imperialism (and assumptions of cultural superiority) and backward looking Islamic sectarianism.
But Ali does not make the mistake, so common on the left, of simply denouncing both in equal measure. He has described US imperialism as 'the mother of all fundamentalisms'. The chapter 'A Short Course History of US Imperialism' shows why. His critique of Islamist political movements is that they have failed to successfully confront this monster, and instead have reinforced the oppression of those they claim to liberate.
I've seen lots of finger-wagging by liberals (sometimes calling themselves socialists) at young Muslims who, out of bitterness and desperation, have turned to 'fundamentalist' Islamic ideas. Ali's 'Letter to a Young Muslim' in this book could not be more different. Its sympathy for the 'young Muslim's' suffering, and shared (but better informed) outrage at imperialism and capitalism makes its attack on Islamism convincing, not patronising.
Ali's motive for writing this book partly mirrors the reasons why others have looked to politicised Islam. He describes how he has been an atheist since childhood, and how it was the Gulf War of 1991 that reawakened his 'dormant interest in Islam' as the media poured out bilge about the Middle East. That motivation shows through. It means, for example, he has no difficulty in dismissing the idea that Islamism is 'fascism' in a couple of pages.
His central explanation is that Islamist movements have grown where the forces of the secular left have been weak. That is true, but by itself it does not take account of the social bases of support for Islamism, which are more central to his explanation of medieval Islamic schisms and competing movements.
This book leaves plenty of scope for argument. But that is in the certain knowledge that it leaves no room for those who would point to the supposed secularity and civilisation of the US and its allies as justification for war against 'reactionary religious movements'.
Against Global Apartheid
University of Cape Town Press £14.99
In 1995 after Chad, a country in West Africa, had been destroyed by war, an IMF official commented that at last there was an environment that they could work with. Structural adjustment and neoliberalism could proceed unhindered, as the country was now 'ripe for the development of a free market economy'.
Patrick Bond, the leading anti-capitalist writer in South Africa, has written a systematic indictment of the devastating effects of neoliberalism in South Africa and the Third World. He shows that the effects of IMF and World Bank reforms have been catastrophic. Following the advice of these institutions, country after country has suffered massive de-industrialisation, privatisation and price hikes on basic commodities. 'Cost recovery' is one of the many euphemisms for structural adjustment and means forcing the poor to pay exorbitant prices for everyday commodities.
The author argues that South Africa was meant to launch what Nelson Mandela termed the 'African renaissance', and deliver the reforms promised in the liberation struggle. For years the ANC and the South African Communist Party argued that socialist transformation would follow the end of apartheid. But today the government has grown rich pursuing policies it used to decry. For example Trevor Manual--South Africa's minister of finance--was once a fearsome anti-apartheid activist and critic of the IMF and World Bank, but he has now become fanatical about pushing neoliberalism. Socialism, typical of every nationalist movement, was forgotten after 'independence'.
The great strength of the book is that it does not simply list the devastation caused by IMF and World Bank policies but also documents the struggles that have arisen alongside these policies. The book is infused with the spirit of the anti-capitalist movement, a movement that, as he writes, has helped 'break the grip of the greatest tool of repression, the belief that nothing can be done'.
The problem arises when he proposes alternatives. Bond argues rightly that there is no alternative but to 'smash' the neoliberal world, and that the chains of global apartheid must be broken. He also dismisses with derision the futility of reforming the IMF and World Bank. But in their place he proposes a series of 'measures' or 'reforms' that amount to what he terms an 'internationalist nationalism', which will 'fight for national concerns that fit best into a framework of international solidarity'. The 'state' must be allowed to use capital controls in order to enable countries to 'adopt pro-poor policies'. The last chapter is devoted to these measures and what he calls 'locking capital down'. There is the need to explore, he argues, the 'enormous unexplored opportunities for nation-states, working with progressive activists'.
In identifying the state he correctly highlights the central question for the anti-capitalist movement. However, the idea that 'progressive radicals' can use the state is an illusion that leads him to identify Cuba and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela (which is facing a wave of working class militancy) as examples of progressive nationalism. This was the question that confronted the national liberation movement across the Third World 40 years ago. Movements that seemed radical while struggling for 'nationhood' proceeded to transform themselves into the exploiting class that they had overthrown once national liberation was achieved. Isn't this the experience of South Africa since 1994? The nation-state does not have progressive 'potential' but is a violent tool of capitalist exploitation.
Bond argues that the groups which may be able to push for his 'internationalist-nationalism' are 'radical people's movement NGOs', which he distinguishes from earlier co-opted ones. Yet there is one group that he fails to consider--the 'Southern' working class, who have led political struggle across the Third World. This class and their potential to break the nation-state are never seriously analysed in the book. He does, however, express some ambiguity and doubt about whether his NGO strategy 'will ever substitute for traditional revolutionary class-orientated approaches to socialism from below'. Exactly. It is only this tradition that offers us hope of real transformation. The book is still an excellent examination of the global south and the struggles to change our world.
Vietnam and Other American Fantasies
H Bruce Franklin
University of Massachusetts Press £15.95
|Burning the draft card|
Over the Xmas of 1972, with an agreement between North Vietnam and the US imminent, Richard Nixon ordered an all-out aerial assault on the North, with B-52s flying over 700 sorties in 12 days. The response to this stepping up of the war was a strike by those working at the secret 6990th air force security service base on Okinawa. The strikers cheered every time news came through that a B-52 had been shot down. At the same time four aircraft carriers, Ranger, Forrestal, Coral Sea and Kitty Hawk, were incapacitated by sabotage and mutiny, unable to play their part in the bombardment. This brings home the part the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement within the US army, navy and air force played in the defeat of the US in Vietnam.
H Bruce Franklin's marvellous book is a cultural history of the movement against the war, and of the way it was subsequently written out of history. He chronicles the movement's increasing radicalism, a radicalisation in which he actively participated. He was victimised by Stanford University in 1972 and sacked from his professorship for his incorrigible belief that the US was an imperialist state controlled by the big corporations. He was, the university authorities judged, 'incapable of rehabilitation'. They were absolutely right.
Franklin identifies the anti-war movement as a major cultural phenomenon, telling the truth about the war when the official media was little better than a lie machine. In two superb chapters he examines the impact of the war on US science fiction, with major writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm coming out strongly against the war, and Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman producing his classic anti-war novel, The Forever War. At the same time, other science fiction writers rallied to the war. As Franklin shows, one of the architects of the murderous Phoenix programme, Roy Prosterman, actually published a science fiction short story in 1973 advocating 'a global Operation Phoenix' whereby the US assumed the right to intervene anywhere in the world--a chilling blueprint for US policy today.
But what happened to the anti-war movement? Franklin identifies the 'missing in action' (MIA) phenomenon as the strategic fulcrum of the right wing's ideological counter-offensive. In 1969, with Nixon's encouragement, Ross Perot launched his MIA campaign, a determined campaign to recast the US as the victim in the conflict. This was to become, and remains, a significant movement that has successfully defied all the arguments and evidence against it. There are, for example, still 78,794 US MIAs from the Second World War and 8,100 from the Korean War, but only 2,020 from the Vietnam War, the lowest proportion from any war in US history. Some bodies are never recovered from the battlefield, but in Vietnam the right took this up as an ideological club. State after state passed MIA laws, over 10 million MIA bracelets were sold, the MIA flag flew over public buildings and the White House, 135 million MIA stamps were sold, and Hollywood made some of the worst films in its history.
Over the years since the end of the Vietnam War the MIA campaign has been crucial to establishment efforts to exorcise the anti-war movement, to purge it from memory. The war was apparently fought to rescue US POWs who were being tortured and enslaved by the fiendish Vietnamese. As Franklin shows, comics, television programmes and films have all conspired to reverse the images of the war, so that when he shows his students newsreel footage of General Loan shooting a manacled Vietcong prisoner in cold blood during the Tet Offensive they assume it is a Communist executing a South Vietnamese soldier.
Franklin is relentlessly honest in confronting the success of the US ruling class in rewriting the history of the Vietnam War for most Americans but, as he shows, this has to be weighed against the success of an anti-war movement that helped bring the most powerful war machine in the world to its knees.
The Angst-Ridden Executive
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Serpent's Tail £6.99
One of Europe's best known writers, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán was born in Barcelona in 1939, the year of Franco's civil war victory. He became an underground activist when he was a 20 year old student. Arrested in 1962, he was beaten up by the notorious torturer, police inspector Vicente Creix, and spent 18 months for political offences in Lérida jail. Throughout his successful literary career he has remained faithful to the PSUC, the Catalan Communist Party, which he joined while in prison.
Montalbán's enormous output includes poetry, novels, essays and journalism. He is most famous for his Pepe Carvalho detective novels--these were big sellers that chronicled the 1970s transition from dictatorship to parliamentary government, and the years of disenchantment that followed.
The Angst-Ridden Executive is the third Carvalho book. It introduces the characters who form Carvalho's 'family' and run through the 15-book series--his callgirl girlfriend Charo, the ex-fascist Bromide, who acts as the detective's eyes and ears on the street, and Biscuter, the car thief he met in jail who becomes his 'secretary'.
As well as the humour Montalbán extracts from this plebeian group of misfits, their histories give the series resonance and depth. His books are very much about recovering the crushed memories of the oppressed, written out of history by Franco and ignored since by the Socialist Party.
The Angst-Ridden Executive is a political thriller set in 1977, at the height of the mass struggle that characterised the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Fast moving and wisecracking as a thriller should be, it exudes the freedom of the times--the joys of sex, drink and food are described exuberantly, all to the background of street demonstrations and endless talk.
The insalubrious Antonio Jauma, womaniser and Spanish representative of a multinational, is found dead with cologne-soaked knickers in his pocket. Nearly everyone jumps to the obvious conclusion--he has died because of some sex intrigue. Everyone, that is, but Carvalho--and in one of the subtle shifts in perception that Montalbán enjoys, we find that Jauma has been killed not because he is a Don Juan but because he is honest. He was threatening to expose the illegal financing of the far right by the company he works for. As a character in the book explains, right wing terrorism may not eventually be needed, but the bourgeoisie likes to cover all contingencies.
The Angst-Ridden Executive is the book to take with you to Barcelona. It combines an awareness of history, solidarity with the poor and hatred of a rancid right.
Harlequins of the Revolution
'A disgusting, crass and degrading broadcast which offended the Catholic faith and the religious sentiment of the Italian people...this is the first time that a national television network has broadcast a programme of such blasphemy.'
This was the Vatican's reaction to Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo, a series of scenes adapted from medieval and biblical tales, when it was first braodcast on Italian television in 1977. Fo replied that this was 'the finest compliment the Vatican could pay me', and the incident secured him a place in 20th century history as Italy's 'most blasphemous writer'--and its most popular one.
It was not the first time the Catholic church had tried to ban him from stage or screen. Nor was it the only institution that attempted to censor him--throughout Fo's 50-year career it was joined by the Christian Democrats, the PCI, most mainstream newspapers and virtually everyone representing the Italian political establishment. So why did he become one of the most successful European playwrights and performers, attracting millions of people to come and see his shows?
Harlequins of the Revolution, the first comprehensive biography about Dario Fo and his lifelong partner and collaborator Franca Rame, sets out to explain the two artists' enormous popular appeal by following their journey from their childhood in prewar Italy to their most recent performance in 1999. One of the book's focus points is the couple's break from the bourgeois theatre cicuit in 1968 and the formation of Nuova Scena, a theatre collective which, it declared, would be 'at the service of the revolutionary forces not so as to reform the bourgeois state, but to favour the growth of a real revolutionary process which could bring the working class to power'.
Franca Rame describes the exhilaration sweeping through Nuova Scena at the time:
'In the first year we performed in more than 80 workers' clubs, indoor bowling alleys, occupied factories, suburban cinemas, and even in some theatres. We performed before 200,000 and more spectators, of whom 70 percent had never before seen a play. The debates that followed our show were always lively, going on till very late at night. Everyone spoke--women, boys, grown-ups and old people. They all talked about their experiences--the resistance and their struggles--and they told us what we could put on the stage in future--their history.'
However, the explicit political purpose of Nuova Scena and the debates with the audience led to tensions with the PCI and its cultural organisation ARCI, which provided the group with performance venues and publicity. Farrell explores Dario Fo's complex relationship with the organised left, as well as the arguments within Nuova Scena about the future of their theatre collective. He also gives some valuable insight into theatrical techniques, and traditions employed and developed during this time.
Fo's commitment to popular theatre, and his fascination with commedia dell'arte and the jester as the ultimate form of political farce is dealt with beautifully and in depth throughout the book. Farrell also reveals that Franca Rame's kidnap and rape by a neo-fascist group in 1973 was in fact commissioned by Milan's high ranking officials in the carabinieri, and gives some insight into the court cases surrounding this incident and other right wing attacks.
He explains the difficulties facing Fo, Rame and the Italian left during the 1980s, their involvement with Red Aid, and Rame's work as a playwright and performer within the women's liberation movement.
The last part of the book focuses on the controversy surrounding Fo when he won the Nobel prize in 1997 and his theatrical activities up until 1999.
Harlequins of the Revolution is a hugely enjoyable read, and a detailed account of the lives of two immensely popular theatre practitioners and dedicated political activists.
This pocket size book starts with a history of how humanity came to terms with the universe and its creation, and then seeks to explain the modern understanding. On its way it covers Einstein's theories of relativity, how we know the age and size of the universe, the process of the Big Bang, and how the matter we see around us was created. In the latter stages it describes the structure of the cosmos in terms of galaxies and clusters, and ponders on matters such as whether a grand unified theory of everything can be created.
Much of the book is arranged in the chronological order that cosmological principles were discovered, with much trouble taken to explain which scientist should be credited with which discovery. This approach, while successful in places, can lead to frustration if you are eager to hear the final answer. Nevertheless one cannot help but be stunned not only by the wonder of the universe but by how humanity has come to understand it. By studying galaxies unimaginably far away scientists are studying events billions of years ago--the time it has taken for their light to reach us. We can now know what occurred milliseconds after the formation of the universe.
Physicists use the language of mathematics to be able to describe the universe. Many people will be thankful that here we find only two equations, and both of them easy to cope with. This, however, leaves the the hurdle of describing in plain words things that are much beyond our everyday experience.
Although we are sure about the Big Bang there is much left to know. Since time itself began when the cosmos was created there may be little point in asking what happened before, but rather what will be the final fate of the universe--will it expand forever or end in a big crunch? Some things stand out for a socialist, particularly that the universe has always been in a process of change, with order appearing out of chaos and matter undergoing fundamental shifts between states.
Ed: John McIlroy, Kevin Morgan, Alan Campbell
Lawrence and Wishart £19.99
At a time when biography is expanding greatly in the book world, the near absence of biographies of Communist leaders in Britain is noticeable. The purpose of this book is to redress the balance--different authors have written the biographies of leading Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) figures around the first half of the last century. The different authors of the biographies seek to show that even within the tight confines of the monolithic party the individual loyal Communists proved to be different from one another in many ways. The causes for this are sought in their class, their early lives, their occupations and trade union affiliations, their characters, their travels, including to the Soviet Union, and so on. The people do indeed come to life as varied individuals, who then went their own way despite the party line.
The most outstanding aspect in which this happened, according to a number of the biographies, was in the members' attitude to the Third (ultra-left) Period of the Comintern, from 1929 to the early 1930s, when Communist Party members--particularly leading ones--were instructed to form red (ie revolutionary) trade unions, separate from and critical of the traditional social democratic trade unions. Leading Communist miners, like Arthur Horner in South Wales, or Abe and Alex Moffat in Fife, achieved their leading trade union positions through the support of the members in the traditional trade unions. There were few Communist miners (some 55 employed in Scottish mines in 1931), and the 'red union', United Mineworkers of Scotland, one of two red unions formed by the CPGB in 1929 had 1,000 members, compared with 400,000 in the Miners Federation of Great Britain. The leading Communist miners justifiably felt uncomfortable about carrying out the Comintern instruction, which went against the grain of traditional trade unionism, and could not be realised as an effective force in the conditions at the time.
All the relevant biographies cover the difficulties of carrying out the Third Period line (called Class against Class) in fair detail. The cataclysmic events that followed the closure of this ultra-left period into its opposite, the Popular Front, is, surprisingly, not mentioned. Nor are the mass show trials of 1936-38, when the entire Bolshevik Central Committee of the 1917 Revolution was purged, together with thousands of other prominent and non-prominent Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks in all walks of life. Not a single hint is given of the attitude of any of the people written about in the long biographies to these major purges that must have shattered their composure even if they could rationalise their meaning for themselves.
The same is true of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin. For instance, the essay 'Miners' Heroes' states that Abe Moffat, President of the Scottish Area National Union of Mineworkers, refused to follow Alex (hiis brother, who succeeded Abe as president) out of the party in 1956. No reason is given for his leaving, or that of the poet Randall Swingler who remained in the party 'until 1956'. Hundreds left the party at this time and the reason for Moffat's and Swingler's defection should have been given if the account of their lives is honest.
The omission in the main biographies is fully made up in one of the last chapters which covers the fate of a number of important Communists, though lesser lights than those in the main biographies, who visited Russia mainly in the 1930s. Many of these suffered cruel and terrible fates at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucrats, and many inspired big campaigns in Britain to try and get justice. Reading this chapter makes it all the more astonishing that the purges got no mention in the major biographies.
This book is interesting in the way the authors intended it to be--to individualise these party people, and show the variety of ways in which these individuals handled the instructions emanating from the Stalinist bureaucrats. There are also illuminating essays on prominent Communists one may not have heard of before--pioneering people like Dora Montefiore, the first woman to be elected to the executive of the CPGB at the 1920 convention to form the party. This is a very illuminating biography of an upper class woman revolutionary who embraced the struggle of the working class and women's place in it.
William (Bill) Rust was a very different character. He was the mouthpiece of the Stalinists' 'Communism' in the CPGB, swallowing every twist of the Comintern line and attempting to get the other party members to do likewise. His path, consequently, differed radically from that taken by the Welsh and Scottish miners' leaders, particularly on trade union affairs.
This is a useful if not fault-free addition to the history of Communism in the first half of the last century, looking at it from a slightly different angle to the usual one.
Stupid White Men
Harper Collins £18.99
This book almost didn't make the shops. It was being printed when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. Any criticism of the US and the people who run it, the 'stupid white men' like Bush and Cheney, was deemed unpatriotic and unacceptable. So the publisher, Harper Collins (which is owned by Murdoch), refused to release the books for sale and at one point said it was going to pulp the 50,000 copies that had been printed.
A few weeks ago it eventually released the book, although it thought no one would buy a book attacking a president who had 88 percent approval ratings. The good news is that the book has gone to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, as well as a host of others. It has been reprinted at least 15 times, and everywhere Michael Moore goes to do a book signing thousands turn up to hear him speak.
Michael Moore, who made the film Roger and Me and is the author of Downsize This!, has long been a critic of inequality in the US. This book continues that tradition--it exposes the inequality between rich and poor, the racism and the power of the corporations, the collapse of the education system, the destruction of the environment, and how right wing George Bush and his cronies are.
The book begins with the presidential election result in Florida and looks at how Republican election officials, put in place by George Bush's brother, systematically excluded voters. Any voter who had ever committed a felony in their life was excluded. This meant that some 31 percent of black males were ineligible to vote. But the scandal did not stop there. Anyone who had a similar name, date of birth or social security number to a felon was excluded. In fact, if 80 percent of your personal details matched a felon you were removed from the voting list. Some 173,000 mainly black people were removed from the electoral list, and in some cases were prevented from even going to the polling booths by police set to ensure the 'felons' could not vote. The book also shows that if, you count the presidential votes, Bush actually lost.
The book is relentless in its criticism of Bush and the Republicans, but it is equally harsh on the Democrats. Moore argues, 'Bush is only the uglier and somewhat meaner version of what we already had throughout the 1990s.' He shows that Clinton and Gore's record was every bit as bad as Bush's. The only difference, he argues, was that they were cleverer about it. They pretended to be doing one thing while doing the opposite. Clinton said he was pro-choice while restricting abortion rights. He said he was pro-environmentalist while letting the oil companies exploit more areas.
The book finishes with a very strong defence of Ralph Nader's campaign for president, of which Moore was a prominent supporter. Not only does he argue that Nader was right to stand, but says that he and others should stand again against the Democrats: 'It was not us who abandoned the Democratic Party, but you who abandoned us,' he says. The focus on elections as a strategy for change has huge weaknesses that Moore does not address. However, it is clear that breaking the idea that the Democrats are a party that workers and activists should support would be a huge step forward.
The most important thing about the book is the huge enthusiasm with which it has been received. The fact it is so popular shows that the anger that gave us Seattle is still very much there.
Moore concludes by saying, 'I want us all to face our fears and stop behaving like our goal in life is merely to survive. Surviving is for wimps and a gameshow contestant stranded in the jungle or on a desert island. You are not stranded. You own the store. The bad guys are just a bunch of silly, stupid white men. And there's a helluva lot more of us than there are of them. Use your power. You deserve better.'