Issue 265 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

'Friend of the unfriended poor'

Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland
Paul O'Brien
Redwords £11


Percy Shelley
Percy Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley set sail for Ireland in 1812 he was only 19 years old. He was full of radical enthusiasm and energy, having recently been expelled from Oxford for making his atheism public. He went to Ireland precisely to put his political ideas into practice: 'I beheld in short that I had duties to perform.'

The misery and oppression he saw in Ireland roused him to fury. He wrote:

This was amazing stuff for a teenager from a privileged background. But Shelley was born in the shadow of the French Revolution and the desperate struggles of the Irish to be free, like the rebellion of the United Irishmen.

Shelley was increasingly impatient with Whiggish parliamentary reform and compromise. He wanted to agitate for revolutionary change, to stir up the masses to fight for their rights and for justice. The pamphlets he wrote for an Irish audience, his Address to the Irish People and the more urgent Proposals for an Association were not whimsical fancies. They were direct attempts to shape a political movement that could win Catholic emancipation while opposing the grip of the Catholic church. And Shelley did have a real impact, recorded in Irish newspapers at the time, just as his engagement with the masses of Dublin had an impact on him.

Paul O'Brien's original and engaging new book tells the previously untold story of Shelley's relationship with Ireland. And it makes for a great read. Two things strike you instantly about this book. The first is how deeply the struggle of England's first colony affected every aspect of the lives of both the oppressors and the oppressed for centuries. The book shows that it wasn't just the future of British tyranny over the Irish that was at stake. When the Irish rose up, there was the ever present possibility that the English masses would make common cause with them. This possibility provoked the tyrants to repression and the radicals to action.

The second thing Paul's book reveals is just how thoroughly and whole heartedly the young poet Shelley threw himself into the cause of Irish freedom and justice. Irish freedom was not a passing fad for the young poet--it became a central part of his outlook on life.

Later generations of Irish writers appreciated Shelley's influence. For example, the poet WB Yeats said, 'Shelley shaped my life', and playwright Sean O'Casey described himself as a 'Shelleyan Communist'. Reading Paul O'Brien's fascinating exploration of Shelley's relationship with Ireland is an antidote to the Shelley industry which was in full swing just decades after his death.

Shelley was one of the first poets to be interred in a mausoleum of his own poetic genius. He was portrayed as a brilliant lyrical poet, but an ineffectual dreamer whose poetry improved when he outgrew his youthful radicalism. Generations of poetry lovers were brought up without any knowledge that Shelley's radical opposition to all tyranny and oppression was central to his art and his life. And the cause of Ireland was central to Shelley's radicalism.

Paul O'Brien describes Shelley's world with great skill and a real depth of understanding. The book is full of great quotes and insights. The political ideas and artistic movements generated by the great revolutionary struggles of Britain and Ireland in the early 19th century are fascinating and inspiring. And so is this chapter in the life of 'Red Shelley', who was proud to call himself 'the friend of the unfriended poor'.
Judy Cox


THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE

Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta £8.99


Nickel and Dimed

Anti-war activists are frequently accused of anti-American bias, of blaming all Americans for their government's actions. This is very far from the truth. Anti-capitalists have long been aware of the extent to which the US, like the rest of the world, is divided between a tiny minority who benefit from global capitalism and the overwhelming mass of people who produce the wealth but, in the race for the bottom, are denied even a living wage.

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Nickel and Dimed, explores what it's like to live on low wages in the US. It should be required reading for anyone given to spouting on about the US being the land of freedom and democracy. Ehrenreich took almost a year out of her 'real' life as a writer to see whether the 4 million or so women who were thrown onto the labour market by Clinton's welfare 'reforms' could actually live on $6 or $7 an hour which most unskilled jobs in the US offer. The result is a wonderful book that exposes the realities of life for low-income workers in the US, but does it in the can't put down, page-turning way normally associated with thrillers or detective novels. You'll find yourself wanting to get back to the book to see whether she'll be able to make this month's rent! And most of the time it is the rent that causes most trouble.

Nickel and Dimed is full of facts and figures (mostly in footnotes). We discover, for example, that 7.8 million people in the US had two or more jobs in 1996, that cleaning services now control 20 to 25 percent of the housecleaning business and claim to be growing by about 20 percent a year. Ehrenreich worked as a cleaner and a nursing home aide (at the same time) and was able to feed and house herself while doing both jobs. As a waitress and an 'associate' with giant department store Wal-Mart, she would have ended up homeless since neither paid well enough to cover the rent on even the nastiest bedsit.

Ehrenreich's description of the housing crisis in the US will seem familiar to anyone trying to find a place to live in London or Dublin. A footnote tells us that the last few years have seen a steady decline in the number of affordable apartments nationwide. In 1991 there were 47 affordable rental units available to every 100 low-income families--by 1997 there were only 36 such units for every 100 families.

While working for $7 an hour in Minneapolis, she learned that in 1997 the Jobs Now Coalition there estimated that a 'living wage' for a single parent supporting a single child in the area was $11.77 an hour, but no one had updated this 'living wage' to take account of accelerating rent inflation in the years 1999 and 2000. To be considered 'affordable', rents are supposed to take less than 30 percent of one's income. But housing analysts report that almost two thirds of poor tenants, amounting to a total of 4.4 million households, spend more than half their income on shelter. She was unable to discover how many people in the US live in cars and vans, but many of her workmates lived in their cars. Quite a few lived in trailer parks where a tiny trailer [caravan] cost from $400 to $700 a month depending on location. Others had moved back to their parents' home with their children. Others shared motel rooms with two or three others, often with people who were neither relatives nor friends. They were living in motel rooms because they could not get the deposit together for a trailer or the cheapest bedsit. Sounds familiar?

Just as house prices are excluded here from the figures that determine inflation levels, so in the US the official poverty rate, which has remained at about 13 percent for years, excludes the cost of housing. The official poverty level is calculated using the cost of food. But food is relatively inflation-proof. In the early 1960s, for example, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget and housing 29 percent. In 1999 food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent. As Ehrenreich points out, economists explain this by pointing to the law of supply and demand. When she was working for $6 or $7 an hour, there was supposed to be a labour shortage. Yet this did not lead to an increase in wages. Indeed, Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve has gone so far as to suggest that the economic laws linking low unemployment to wage increases may no longer operate.

While much of this sounds harrowing--and it is, Ehrenreich manages to make you laugh out loud quite a lot. The 'personality tests' that have become a routine part of hiring in the US are hilarious--the 'right' answers to the questions are obvious to anyone: 'Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders.'

Every socialist who has ever gone for a job interview will recognise this: 'The effort to look both perky and compliant at the same time, for half an hour or more at a stretch [is draining], because while you need to evince "initiative", you don't want to come across as someone who might initiate something like a union organising drive.'

The 'unskilled' workers who are paid least under global capitalism, Ehrenreich reminds us, are 'the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.' Like all anti-capitalists, she looks forward to the day when they tire of getting so little in return and demand to be paid what they're worth. This book is a great contribution to the anti-capitalist movement.
Goretti Horgan


OVER LAND AND SEA

Asians in Britain
Rozina Visram
Pluto £15.99


Asian and European authors reading for the Eastern Service of the BBC
Asian and European authors reading for the Eastern Service of the BBC

Asians in Britain are increasingly in the media spotlight, yet there is little historical research on this community and there is an endemic view that Asians did not come to Britain until the 1950s.

Rozina Visram's excellent book challenges this mindset, and does for Asians what Peter Fryer achieved for African Caribbeans in his groundbreaking book, Staying Power. Spanning four centuries, Visram traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain, specifically Asians from the Indian subcontinent, from the formation of the East India Company in 1600 to the end of the Second World War.

In the 17th century servants and ayahs (nannies) were brought over by British families returning from India. The most significant group of workers were lascars (Indian sailors) who, by 1938, formed 26 percent of the total number of workers employed on British ships. Life was not easy, with high death and sickness rates and labour conditions lagging far behind their white counterparts. Racism was rife and shipping companies played off white against black and in the process kept down the wages of both. Even in 1942, despite winning significant gains through strike action, lascars earned approximately 25 percent of the wages of their white counterparts.

From the 18th century, a trickle of Indian emissaries, visitors and Indian wives of British colonialists crossed the seven seas. They were followed in the 19th century by a growing number of students, many of whom stayed to practise their professions. Even then there were fears concerning numbers of Asians. Some academics thought there were too many Indians in too few colleges and proposed scattering them across Britain (mirroring the dispersal of asylum seekers today). Whether these early Asian migrants before the First World War could be considered a community is debatable.

The same is not true of the situation by 1945, as during the two world wars significant numbers of Indians arrived. During the First World War over a million Indian soldiers fought for Britain and during the Second World War some 2.5 million. Institutions and infrastructure usually associated with the postwar generation of migrants were already firmly in place. Asians formed their own organisations, such as the Indian Workers' Association and had their own places of worship, their own shops supplying Indian goods and their own restaurants. Yet they were also integrated into British society, as indicated by the high number of mixed marriages.

Visram provides a number of historical 'firsts' which made me rethink the pattern of Asian involvement in Britain. For example one of the first Anglo-Indian marriages was in Deptford in 1613; the first curry house opened in 1810; the first mosque opened in 1889 in Woking; the first MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected in 1892 in Finsbury, north London (there was even an Asian Tory MP elected in 1895!); and the first Asian cricketer in the English team was in 1895. Yet so much of this important history has been forgotten, lost or misreported.

Radical nationalist movements challenged discrimination against Asians in Britain and British rule of India. They highlighted the fact that in India life expectancy had reduced from 30 years in 1881 to 23.5 in the 1920s. But many Asians were not narrow in their concerns and they participated in other political struggles for social justice such as the suffragette movement. One of the most impressive individuals was Shapurji Saklatvala, who was elected Communist MP for Battersea in the 1920s.

By the mid-20th century there was a small Asian population which had roots in Britain. They were not just located in the ports of Britain but spread far and wide, including the Outer Hebrides (where a Pakistani Gaelic-speaking community still thrives). Visram is highly informative about the numbers of Asians who came to Britain, and the professions, classes and geographical areas they were part of. This is extremely useful as it gives a real idea of what influence this growing band of Asians had on British life. As a result she does not exaggerate or downplay the importance of Asians during this period.

The book is full of personal histories. Visram analyses the reactions and perceptions of British people and the responses of Asians themselves. It offers a very useful starting point and brings together much previous research and primary sources. Importantly, it provides useful data to challenge many racist arguments about the contribution of Asians to British society.
Mubin Haq


EVEN THE BEST LAID PLANS GO WRONG

Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000
Mike Haynes
Bookmarks £12


Russia:Class and Power 1917-2000

For most of the 20th century anyone who described him or herself as a socialist would quickly be asked where they stood on Russia.

Today such questions are presented as being of historical interest, but as soon as we try to articulate a vision of a different world, the question of Russia reappears. Is any attempt at a radical transformation of society doomed to reproduce the horrors of Stalinist repression?

One of the difficulties in answering this question has been that Russia's history has been rewritten many times. For Stalin's supporters, the all knowing party assumed power in 1917 on behalf of the workers and proceeded to construct socialism. The standard right wing alternative is very similar, though the main actors have different motives. Again a minority seizes power, and goes on to build a dictatorial one-party state that eventually collapses due to its inefficiency.

Mike Haynes rejects these opposite but related interpretations in an important work that deserves to be widely read. If you have been reading for years about the history of Russia in the 20th century, this book will add something to your knowledge. If you haven't read anything before, it is a great place to start. The opening chapters show how the events of 1917 were driven by the mass participation of the workers in the cities and the peasant farmers in the countryside. Haynes adds his knowledge of recent historical research to condense the story into 70-odd pages without losing any of the key moments or issues. The different chapters in Russia's history are linked together with a stress on socialism from below and an analysis of state capitalism.

Haynes shows how the bureaucracy around Stalin transformed itself into a ruling class, which was driven by global military competition to reproduce the same drive to accumulate productive capacity that existed in Russia's Western rivals. As he puts it, 'Earlier accounts had no trouble thinking of explanations for the spectacular growth. Later accounts had no more trouble in explaining the decay. The difficulty is to have an account that is capable of explaining both.'

Most books on Russia in this period describe it as a planned economy. It was at best characterised as clumsy, centralised direction. Although the text of the first five-year plan ran to over 1,700 pages, 'subsequent five-year plans were no more than declarations of intent. The second had nearly 1,300 pages, the third 238, and from then on they could be found in an issue of Pravda with space to spare.' Military production and the heavy industry it depends on were king, while consumer goods were poor relations. Each plan tended to overachieve its targets in the first sector and miss them in the second.

Many valuable books about the industrialisation and repression of the 1930s have packed their pages with tables and statistics after which even determined readers start to glaze over. Mike cuts jokes and poems of the time into such passages to give a sense of popular feeling that could only be officially recorded later.

Stalin's death in 1953 led to the release of many prisoners. Terror gave way to more everyday repression, but it was no great relief. One account of a camp survivor tells of the demoralisation that followed his release. In the gulag there were miserable conditions and no scope for revolt, but political dissent could be relatively open among prisoners. On his release he found that the fear that had spread through society meant you could not speak your mind without the risk of being reported. A self imposed censorship of thought could destroy the soul where the camps had destroyed the body.

Russia's rigid social structure was matched by an authoritarian and conservative ideology. Abortion was illegal from 1936 until 1955. A Soviet psychologist argued that 'it is desirable that sex relations, as far as possible, take place without resort to contraceptives and with a view to conception'. Homosexuality, which had been repressed until the revolution of 1917, was once again driven underground. There is also an excellent discussion of the nature of Soviet ideology as expressed both in non-fiction and fiction. Not many in the west will have been forced to plough through the minor works of Socialist Realism, which show a public morality that would not have been out of place in Victorian England.

Running the economy by central direction produced record growth rates up to the 1960s, as people were driven off the land and into industrial cities. But it proved ineffective as this period of intensive development came to an end. In the countries with which Russia was competing, capital spilled more and more over its national borders.

When the system that claimed to rule in the interests of the workers was finally buried in 1991, the workers did not strain a muscle in order to defend it. The promises of a new prosperity to be brought by the introduction of the market did not last long. A decade ago various pro-market 'experts' touted their 300-day or 500-day plans for the economy, and Russian newspapers debated whether the country should try to be more like Sweden or Germany. Today a minority have managed to grab enormous wealth while millions suffer the fall out from a decade-long economic depression that has led to an unprecedented peacetime collapse of life expectancy.

Much of the old ruling class has changed with ease into its new clothes--one sign that this was a shift sideways from bureaucratic state capitalism to market-based capitalism--though the state still plays a key role.

Russia is seen as a country where socialism was tried and failed, even if it went badly wrong. If socialists are to convince a new generation that we have an alternative, we will need the kind of analysis contained in this book.
Nicolai Gentchev


REVOLUTION ON A GALACTIC SCALE

Dark Light
Ken Mcleod
Orbit £16.99


Dark Light

Dark Light is the second instalment in Ken Macleod's science fiction space opera, Engines of Light. Ken Macleod is one of a handful of contemporary left-wing authors--others being China Miéville, Iain M Banks, Marge Piercy and Ursula LeGuin--who have shown the power of this genre to explore alternative histories and imagined futures.

Some may mourn the relative dearth of Trotskyist in-jokes in this novel (compared to, for instance, the shameless plugging of Tony Cliff's biography of Trotsky in Cosmonaut Keep--the first book in the series) but this has made room for a more serious penetration of materialist politics into the structure of the plot. Put simply, this is Trotsky's theories of combined and uneven development and of permanent revolution played out on a galactic scale.

The interaction between the two civilisations on the planet of Croatan is brought to prominence--on the one hand, the sprawling, technologically advanced city of Rawliston, populated by species brought to Croatan by 'gods' with mysterious motives; on the other, the more rudimentary aboriginal 'sky people'. The focus on sleek Promethean technologies in Cosmonaut Keep gives way to more anthropological concerns. Of particular interest is the character of Stone, a male of the 'sky people' who has crossed genders to live as a woman because he is unwilling to take part in what he has judged to be a barbaric initiation ceremony.

As in Cosmonaut Keep, in which people are baptised into a religion based on the ancient materialists such as Epicurus, Macleod demonstrates how ideologies are conditioned and shaped by history. The transportation of people to Croatan by the gods before they could develop the technologies to do so themselves has had anomalous effects: pre-Copernican astronomy persists in Rawliston, Christianity is now a language, and every year--on 'Dawson's Night'--bonfires are lit to celebrate the burning of a Christian heretic who taught the sky people they need not give up their indigenous religion.

However, an extra layer of sophistication is overlaid onto this social tension by the presence on the planet of interstellar traders, colonialists, adventurers, revolutionaries and immortals--all with their own agendas. When a democratic revolt against the mercantile Port Authority breaks out in the city, and popular assemblies begin to be held in the streets, the logic of revolution is played out.

The 'Stalinist' cosmonaut Volkov--an immortal apparatchik from the Communist Party of the European Union back on earth--argues for a cross-class alliance of 'progressive' forces in a cynical manoeuvre designed to further his own wider interests, which will produce a free trade capitalism destined to expand into and wipe out the aboriginal culture. It is left to others to fight for the revolution in a way which will not produce war with the indigenous people and, for that matter, with the gods.

It is not necessary to have read the first book in the series to understand this novel, but, if the idea of Trotskyist politics intermingled with dope-smoking lizards, anti-gravity and the odd accidental deicide appeals, then this is a book for you.
Vicky Williamson


SCAR ON THE CONSCIENCE OF THE WORLD

Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa
Ed: Leo Zeilig
New Clarion Press £12.95


Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa

Tony Blair's stance towards Africa effectively sums up that taken by the rulers of the world more generally. At the Labour Party conference last October he called Africa 'a scar on the conscience of the world'--before authorising the sale to impoverished Tanzania of a military air traffic control system that even the World Bank has condemned as inappropriate. Africa, in other words, is a basket case, there just to be exploited economically and militarily.

The plight of Africa is indeed grim. Giovanni Arrighi sums it up in the latest issue of New Left Review:

'In 1975, the regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 percent of "world" GNP; by 1999 it had dropped to 10.5 percent ...Life expectancy at birth now stands at 49 years, and 34 percent of the region's population are classified as undernourished. African infant mortality rates were 107 per 1,000 live births in 1999, compared to 69 for South Asia and 32 for Latin America. Nearly 9 percent of Sub-Saharan 15 to 49 year olds are living with HIV/Aids--a figure that soars above that of other regions.'

There are many explanations--some of them ill concealing their racist assumptions--that effectively blame the peoples of Africa for their continent's decline. Arrighi traces the source rather to the much harsher competitive conditions produced by the long economic crisis of the past 30 years, reinforced by the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and by the venality and incompetence of the African ruling classes.

But there is another side to the story, which is told in the essays and interviews gathered together in Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa. Already during the 1970s and 1980s the initial austerity policies imposed by African regimes in response to the crisis provoked large scale popular resistance. But, as the Stalinist states were swept away in Eastern Europe and the USSR, one nervous African ruler said: 'The winds from the east are shaking the coconut trees.'

The example of the East European revolutions encouraged African workers and poor people to rebel against corrupt regimes that had forced through neoliberal structural adjustment programmes at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank. As Leo Zeilig and David Seddon put it,

'A second wave of popular protest, now more explicitly political and with more far-reaching aims and objectives, spread across the continent like a political hurricane ... In a four-year period from the start of the protests in 1990, a total of 35 regimes had been swept away by protest movements and strikes, and in elections that were often held for the first time in a generation.'

Towards the end of the decade came social and political explosion in Zimbabwe. Workers' struggles and food riots in 1997-98 threw the regime of Robert Mugabe into crisis and created the context in which the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) could emerge from an alliance of trade union leaders and human rights organisations. These and other struggles form the background to this book, in which activists and intellectuals come together to map out the course taken by mass resistance to capitalism and imperialism in Africa.

In an important historical overview, David Seddon dismisses the idea--very popular among the African left and their western hangers-on in the 1970s and 1980s--that wage-labourers in Africa form a privileged elite, a 'labour aristocracy' whose interests conflict with the rest of the urban poor and the peasantry. As Nigerian activist Femi Aborisade puts it elsewhere in this collection, the latter have come to see: 'That the lot of the workers determines their own lot and that indeed they have a common interest. When workers are not paid or are poorly paid, the poor peasants and the poor petty traders (mainly women) know from their own experiences that their sales suffer. In an age of increasing unemployment, there are several dependants on the worker, and they have come to appreciate that their interests and that of the worker (who sustains their survival) are the same.'

By far and away the dominant version of Marxism in Africa has been Stalinism. It is now much weakened, but its legacy survives in the widespread pursuit of popular fronts uniting--and also subordinating--workers and peasants to sections of the middle classes and to capital itself. Thus the South African Communist Party has helped to defuse working class resistance to the ruling African National Congress's neoliberal economic programme.

In his foreword Zambian political exile Azwell Banda admits that the left failed to organise independently within the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMP) at the beginning of the 1990s. This allowed trade union leader Frederick Chiluba to ride to power on the back of the MMD and install an authoritarian neoliberal regime that still misrules Zambia. In the final case study Munyaradzi Gwisai and Tafadzwa Choto of the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe describe how they have had to grapple with a similar problem in the MDC, whose neoliberal leadership has given Mugabe the space in which to regain the initiative and hang on to power.

A crucial difference between the two cases is that the ISO exists in Zimbabwe. It represents one of the first precious shoots of the real Marxist tradition in Africa. This excellent collection should contribute to the further growth of this tradition in the continent that bears the most eloquent witness to the horrors inflicted by capitalism.
Alex Callinicos


COMMUNITY CHALLENGE

The Attack Queers
Richard Goldstein
Verso £14


The Attack Queers

The 'attack queers' of the title are various right wing gay journalists in the US, and Goldstein's book is a critique of everything they stand for. He sees in columnists such as Camille Paglia and Andrew Sullivan a fundamental threat to the gay movement.

Like the rest of the right, the gay right reject the concept of oppression, which leads directly to them blaming the oppressed for their situation. So just as Paglia has berated rape victims for disposing themselves to being raped, Sullivan calls on gay men to stop moaning and act more like 'real men'. They get away with it, are even lauded in the liberal establishment, precisely because they are gay. In fact Sullivan's position stands in a long assimilationist tradition of gay rights which advocates 'normality' as the road to acceptance, but whose agenda goes no further than creating conditions for a gay elite to thrive, and never mind anyone else.

Goldstein argues that the fight for gay rights doesn't just relate to who we have sex with, but to the way that gay sexuality transgresses established gender roles, and that it is this which accounts for gay oppression. The 'attack queers' bolster rather than attack these gender roles. He also points out that the gay movement stands in a left tradition, what he calls a 'queer humanism', from German socialist Magnus Hirschfeld to founder of the pre-Stonewall gay rights group the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay, who was a member of the US Communist Party. It is this tradition which he hopes to re-establish among gays and lesbians.

The assimilationist tendency was fundamentally challenged by the rise of the gay liberation movement after the Stonewall riot in 1969. Although spontaneous, this militant fightback against police brutality was a product of the rising tide of struggle among the oppressed across the US and the world, and the movement it spawned began to see capitalism as the enemy. The radicalism of the times pushed groups like Mattachine to the sidelines.

While The Attack Queers passionately advocates real liberation as a goal, on exactly how we defeat the gay right it remains rather muted. Goldstein concentrates too much on counterposing Democrats and Republicans, and though he mentions that Ralph Nader got a good vote among gays and lesbians, he seems to miss entirely the anti-capitalist movement from which Nader's campaign came. Just as in the late 1960s, it is surely building this movement which holds out the best prospect for our liberation.
James O'Nions


FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The Irish Famine
Colm Toibin and Diarmaid Ferriter
Profile £8.99


The Irish Famine

'The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight but the English created the famine'--a voice from the time of the Irish Famine of 1847-1849 during which 1 million people died and a further million emigrated. John Mitchell, a journalist, historian and political activist, wrote one of the documents collected in this new volume from a wide spectrum of people affected by the tragedy. From politicians debating their response, to the clergy in Ireland attempting to alleviate the suffering, this selection gives an insight into the lives and deaths of the Irish population.

The culpability of the British government in exacerbating the devastation concerns the last section and is probably the part of this book of greatest interest to socialists. The extent of this culpability was debated during and after the famine itself. The debate continues to this day with Tony Blair's apology in 1997, referring to the failure of a government that 'stood by while a crop failure turned into a massive tragedy'.

In the main, contemporary British press coverage was negative and unsympathetic, particularly to the many demands for state intervention. The prevalent argument was that the famine was divinely initiated and that it was the slovenly and unwholesome character of the Irish which made the problems insoluble. There was much praise of the land clearances, which drove the farmers from their holdings and homes, claiming that the improvement in the quality of Irish agriculture that would ensue was the most important consideration.

One article from the Times demonstrates the lack of compassion: there is 'nothing really so peculiar, so exceptional, in the condition which they [the Irish] look upon as the pit of utter despair'. However, by the end of 1849 the Illustrated London News questioned whether the British government's alleged benevolence had achieved a relief in the suffering or had in fact made the situation worse. Instead of increasing cultivation of land, employment and hence food the 'landlords and the legislature [were led] to believe that it was a favourable opportunity for changing the occupation of the land and the cultivation of the soil from potatoes to corn'. The requirement of the Irish poor to give up their land before receiving any form of relief and the sanctioning of mass evictions by the British government did more to increase the suffering than to relieve it. It is estimated that around half a million people were evicted during the famine.

The aim of this selection of documents seems to be to examine both the causes and the effects of the famine in broad historical terms and the human cost in individual stories. Toibin asks, '[as historians] Why should we remain cool and dispassionate and oddly distant from the events of 150 years ago?' He argues that there is still a great deal of work for historians to understand what happened in Ireland in the late 1840s, why it happened and who was to blame. In the first 100 issues of the journal Irish Historical Studies only five articles on the famine appeared.

The wealth of sources include material amassed by the Irish Folklore Collection of recollections of the famine taken from people across Ireland in the mid-1940s. These sources can be problematic in terms of credibility, but nevertheless provide a vital source of legends, tales, information and a history of the memories of the famine.

Toibin's overview points to recent useful histories and moves away from the cold analysis of previous writing. His essay is a useful guide on where to look for histories written from the perspective of those who were not administrators, politicians or landlords. Together with the selected documents this small volume provides a glimpse into a catastrophic period in the history of British colonialism.
Beccy Reese


NOT IN DENIAL ANYMORE

Telling Lies About Hitler
Richard J Evans
Verso £14

The Holocaust on Trial
DD Guttenplan
Granta £9.99


The Holocaust on Trial

In April 2000, at the cost of a three month, £2 million trial, David Irving was confirmed as a 'pro-Nazi polemicist', who had deliberately falsified the historical record in order to deny the reality of the Holocaust. The Holocaust on Trial and Telling Lies About Hitler are two accomplished accounts of Irving's attempt to sue Deborah Lipstadt for libel, after she exposed his methods.

Many newspaper columnists warned of the danger supposedly posed to free speech by censoring an anti-Semitic admirer of Hitler. They missed the rather obvious point that it was Irving trying to gag Lipstadt, and not vice versa. And despite the libel laws demanding that she prove deliberate distortion by Irving, the final judgement upheld every major aspect of her defence. Judge Gray repudiated Irving's denial of the Holocaust's systematic nature, his defence of Hitler, and his claim that Auschwitz had no gas chambers. Six (out of 35) Auschwitz storerooms that the Nazis failed to destroy revealed 368,820 men's suits and 836,255 women's coats and dresses, and the tannery seven tons of human hair. Irving ludicrously maintains that the gas chambers were for 'delousing'.

His 'case', that the Final Solution (to the minimal extent that he accepts that killings of Jews took place) was not carried out with Hitler's knowledge, and therefore was not a systematic aspect of the Nazi regime, was ripped apart by Lipstadt's defence. Irving relies on the euphemisms that the Nazis used to conceal the full horror of what they were doing, and takes them as literal. So, for example, when Himmler is informed of 55,000 Jews sent for 'special treatment' in Chelmno, the site of gassing trucks, Irving thought it 'equally plausible' that they were being sent east (another Nazi euphemism), despite the fact they were travelling westward!

There is ample evidence of Hitler's active involvement in the massacres. But to say the Holocaust's systematic nature depends on the attitude of Hitler is a fallacy anyway. As Guttenplan points out, very few historians present the Holocaust as the simple translation of Hitler's will into reality, or as Daniel Goldhagen does, as the logical conclusion of an ahistorical German 'eliminationist anti-Semitism'. A much broader spectrum of historians reject such simplistic monocausal explanations. Writers such as Tim Mason and Ian Kershaw have helped us build an understanding of Nazi anti-Semitism emerging from, and reinforcing, an 'anti-Bolshevik' ideology forged as an extreme expression of the practical defence of German capitalism in crisis. Though it was to take on a destructive logic of its own, it was bound into the expansionist, recognisably imperialist project of creating lebensraum ('living space'). To reduce it to the manifestation of Hitler's evil is to absolve the corporations like IG Farben that profiteered from it, and the 'respectable' politicians who were complicit.

Perhaps the most telling question raised is not the easily answered if Irving is a Holocaust denier, but how he was able to get away with it for so long. Substantial blame lies with the exclusive nature of historical study. In a world where few people have the resources or access to view the primary documents deliberately mistranslated and selectively quoted by Irving, wilful abuse of evidence is an ever present threat.

Evans's slimmed down version of his report commissioned for the defence at the trial is an excellent dissection of Irving's malicious fictions. The Holocaust on Trial offers a more comprehensive analysis, and advocates not a guilt-driven but a solidarity-inspired response. This is a vital conclusion, as Holocaust denial is not a lapse in rationality, but the preserve of neo-Nazis who wish us to forget what they would like to repeat.

On 4 March, mainly due to his court failure, Irving was declared insolvent. These books, rejected by several major publishers who feared controversy, expose Holocaust denial as equally bankrupt, while never being blind to its danger. They should be read by anyone proud to belong to what Irving describes as the 'odd and ugly and perverse and greasy and slimy community of "anti-fascists".'
Andrew Stone


DEADLY FIBRES

Asbestos Blues
Jack McCulloch
James Currey £12.95


With the exception of cigarettes, asbestos is the most common carcinogen in the developed world. The fibre was once promoted as a 'wonder mineral'--crucial to many of the industrial processes and commodities developed after 1945. Asbestos fibre causes three major diseases--asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma --the last of which can occur with minimal exposure and has a latency period of up to 40 years and is incurable.

Although alternatives existed for the heat resistant properties of the mineral, asbestos was versatile and, most importantly, cheap--large companies mined the substance to be used in their own products. In South Africa racial segregation and later the apartheid state ensured a supply of cheap non-white labour. The conditions in the mines were appalling. The mining companies were able to ignore and, when necessary, collude with senior government officials to exempt themselves from mining legislation for the largely non-white workforce. As the author points out, 'Profits depended on the absence of trade unions to protect the interests of labour'. At the height of apartheid British-owned asbestos companies were returning high annual dividends to their shareholders.

Miners usually constructed their own makeshift huts in a hot and dusty environment. In spite of the danger of mine working there was often no medical care provided--miners died unnecessarily from accidents. Women and children were especially poorly paid--they did the dirtiest jobs and were most likely to suffer higher levels of exposure to asbestos fibre. In many cases workers could only be paid in kind or buy supplies from the company store. One manager boasted that the prices were so inflated they were getting the miners' labour for nothing. Miners and their families often suffered and died from malnutrition. In one large mine there was found to be 'no sanitation, no refuse facilities and no washing facilities' for non-white workers. However these were not the conditions that white mine workers experienced--they typically lived in modern houses with gardens, servants, and subsidised recreation facilities.

There was an increasing body of medical research from the 1930s, which is well documented in the book, concerning the health risks of asbestos fibre. However the major asbestos companies and senior officials in the South African government often suppressed these findings.Even after the risks were known the companies invested heavily in new mines and mills boosting production. The author asks how many lives might have been saved if available research not been suppressed and new research not been undermined.

By the mid-1970s the medical evidence was far less easy to ignore outside South Africa. For decades the industry kept quiet about the dangers of asbestos. Pressure from trade unions in Europe and litigation in the US led to a collapse in demand in 1977. The aftermath for South Africa has been an environmental disaster--large parts of the country are permanently hazardous. There are insufficient government funds available to clear up the abandoned mines, fibres from which are blown increasingly closer to major population centres.

The book is written in largely self-contained chapters that give the impression of an academic report--this tends to diminish the impact of some of the events. Some recollections of former miners and those who live in the mining communities would have been welcome--although the author does mention a group of ex-miners who recently fought successfully and got damages in the British courts. This is a well researched and clearly written survey of the asbestos industry in South Africa--and is a good account of how, under capitalism, people are ruthlessly exploited and sacrificed for profit.
David Eaves


EXPLAINING A WORLD OF EXTREMES

World Development: An Introduction
Ed: Prodromos Panayitopoulos and Gavin Capps
Pluto £16.99


World Development: An Introduction

In 1999 World Bank president James Wolfensohn admitted, 'At the level of people, the system isn't working.' This book will help you understand why. Introducing students, teachers and NGO workers to debates about the relationship between state, industrialisation and Third World development, it makes it clear that capitalism is a highly uneven system, creating winners and losers.

Good introductory academic books, such as this, used to be standard in development studies. Hopefully students will read this one before they are fed the routine sycophantic books found on courses today.

It begins with an excellent summary of the historical development of capitalism laying the basis for an analysis of its uneven outcome and the consequences for the majority of humanity. The chapter 'Globalisation in the Millennium' is full of information that subtly exposes the hype surrounding globalisation. Far from patterns of foreign direct investment integrating the world equally, it remains highly selective and concentrated. Japan, North America and the EU received 60 percent of all private sector investment by multinational corporations in the 1990s while 48 of the world's poorest countries account for 0.3 percent of world trade, half what it was 20 years ago.

So what have a poverty-stricken region of Brazil and the employment starved Swansea Valley got in common? Both were, at differing times, the most developed parts of the world. Uneven capitalist development 'lies at the heart of the world system', a world 'of extremities in both the level of economic development and in the state of the human condition'.

The authors ask us to think about the usefulness of the one size fits all argument that free trade and the market are the only path to development. The encouragement to think critically about the assumptions behind such economic and political ideas enables the reader to make an informed conclusion about the desirability of neoliberal polices. This is aided through general discussion and detailed case studies ranging from Mexico to London garment workers and those working in the Spanish tourist industry.

Early sections of the book refer to periodic global recessions without elaborating on them, and detailed discussion on the fundamentals that link recessions in the 19th century through the 1970s to the present day would have aided the political thrust of the book. Considering it is partly dedicated to those who protested in Seattle in 1999, I expected a case study of those resisting the implementation of neoliberal policies, the global anti-capitalist movement, or the role of labour and popular struggles in both developing and industrial countries. This would have complemented, in a vivid and exciting way, the book's critical questioning.
Peter Dwyer


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