Issue 267 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life
Allen Lane £25
I wrote a letter to the Guardian about six years ago suggesting there might be two Eric Hobsbawms. One ended his book on the 20th century, The Age of Extremes, by describing the system as out of control and threatening all of humanity. The other was at that very time praising New Labour's approach to politics.
Both Erics are present in this autobiography. There is the Hobsbawm who still calls himself a Marxist, who wrote Labouring Men and The Age of Revolution, is scathing about the revisionist and postmodernist historians, is damning about the Blair government, and still insists on left wing political commitment.
But there is also the Hobsbawm who backed the Labour right against Tony Benn, told us the poll tax could never be beaten, extolled the Italian Communist Party's cosying up to the Christian Democrats, and sponsored the Marxism Today gang as they galloped towards a political yuppieland of interviews with Tory ministers and columns in the Murdoch press.
The contradictions are as glaring in his account of the past as of the present. His account of the 1930s is heavy on the politics, and mentions so many of his own relatives you cannot possibly keep track of who's who. But it dismisses in a sentence the possibility of successful working class resistance to Hitler in the years 1930-33 if the Communists had tried seriously to force the Social Democrats into a united front. There is hardly a reference to the great strikes in France in the summer of 1936 (although he was in Paris at the time).
The autobiography is similarly disappointing when it deals with the postwar decades. There is a cursory account of the opposition that arose inside the Communist Party in 1956, after Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes before going on to crush the Hungarian Revolution. Hobsbawm was a leading figure in the opposition, even if he stayed in the party when thousands of others left. But there is little sense of the excitement of those years.
The picture is much the same with the late 1960s. At the time Hobsbawm was enthusiastic about the May events in France, and expressed this in Tariq Ali's paper Black Dwarf. The enthusiasm is missing from the autobiography, which sees 1968 as little more than a footnote to a wider rise in youth culture. Hobsbawm the historian seems not to have noticed that in the wake of the student revolts came a massive wave of workers' struggles.
There is much about his two decades of activity as an enthusiastic Communist. But it lacks the sense of day to day involvement in struggle that you get, for instance, from Edward Upward's novels In the Thirties and The Rotten Elements. The references to Hobsbawm's friends and acquaintances in the international Communist movement on both sides of the Iron Curtain provide few insights into what they really thought. His account is much less interesting than the autobiographical volumes of Jorge Semprun, What a Beautiful Sunday and Communism in Spain in the Franco Era.
There are odd flashes of the other, better Eric. He is scathing about the oppression of the Palestinians. He shows how ill thought-out were Guevarist schemes for guerrilla warfare in Latin America, while recognising that the mass of the continent's people desperately need some sort of revolution. He is unreconciled to US imperialism. He pours derision on those who were well rewarded time-servers under Stalinism and now present themselves as heroic freedom fighters in the Daily Telegraph. And he insists that 'history from below' has to be integrated into a broader, total account of events.
But such scattered insights do not make this biography of more than passing interest. The better Eric has written some important works (Labouring Men, Industry and Empire, Nations and Nationalism, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire). This is not in the same league.
Terrorism and War
Seven Stories Press £7.99
Bin Laden, Islam and America's New War on Terrorism
Seven Stories Press £6.99
Terrorism: Theirs and Ours
Seven Stories Press £4.99
These three books may be small in size, but they deal with a big issue and offer big answers. In a series of interviews Howard Zinn offers some illuminating answers to probing questions revolving around 11 September, while As'ad Abukhalil deals predominantly with the rise of Islamophobia since those events. Eqbal Ahmad's book was a talk given at the University of Colorado in October 1998. Ahmad sadly died in May 1999. His talk, however, remains refreshing, and could quite easily be mistaken for having been written after 11 September.
All the authors agree that the abstract notion of terrorism as an act of mindless and fanatical mad men and women who hate/envy the freedom and democracy of the west is useless in offering an analysis and response to the phenomenon. Each locates terrorism in the material circumstances from which it arises. 'There is something in the core belief of these terrorists that may also be at the core belief of millions of other people in the world who are not terrorists, but who are angry at US policy,' as Zinn says.
One must understand the role of US foreign policy around the world, particularly the Middle East, to understand such acts of powerlessness. The US's political, economic and military support for Israel, its support for dictatorships in the Arab countries for oil and maintaining US military bases in those countries, its financing of and political support for the very organisations now labelled as terrorist, its principal role in the mass murder of 500,000 Iraqi children through sanctions, are in themselves state terrorist acts.
However, the remits of these books are not restricted to US foreign policy. Abukhalil takes on the notion that we are witnessing a clash of civilisations where the new monolithic blocs of the west and Islam replace those of the Cold War. Sartre once said, 'For the purpose of the anti-Semite, I am a Jew.' Abukhalil explains how when all Arabs are treated with suspicion and hundreds are detained without trial in the US, 'Living in the US makes me say, for the purpose of the anti-Arab, I am a proud Arab.'
Zinn, a Second World War bomber pilot, delves deeper into the issues to address the root causes and consequences of war. Quoting former US president Eisenhower, he explains war is economic at root and raises key questions of class division in society: 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.'
Ahmad raises a very important issue. The impact of Stalinism has meant 'the absence of revolutionary ideology has been central to the spread of terror in our time. You do not solve social problems by individual acts of violence. Social problems require social and political mobilisation.'
Given the build-up for another horrific imperialist attack on Iraq and the inevitable new recruits to be enlisted to terrorist groups as a consequence, these books offer information and analysis for an alternative to war, terror, and capitalism, the system that breeds such destruction.
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Serpent's Tail £12
Easy Rawlins is back! For fans of Walter Mosley's most famous character, this latest chapter in the series, written after a six-year break, is a real treat.
Beginning with Devil in a Blue Dress, the Easy Rawlins novels are brilliantly written and sensitive stories which combine noir crime fiction with social history. Mosley has created a character who one reviewer described as the black Philip Marlowe--showing a whole other side to Raymond Chandler's 1950s Los Angeles, but with much of the same wit and style. The entire series is also rich with insight into the social conditions experienced by black working class people in the period after the Second World War in the United States.
This latest book is no exception to the high standards Mosley has set himself. Bad Boy Brawly Brown finds Easy in his forties, working as a school janitor and looking after his family. He has left behind his adventurous past, but is plagued by haunting dreams about the death of his best friend Mouse. When an old friend asks for help finding his stepson, it is those dreams which propel Easy into new danger. It is his memories of Mouse that give Easy the courage to keep going when the situation is perilous. Thus Mosley ensures that the relationship between the two men--so key to the earlier novels--continues, despite Mouse's physical absence.
It is now 1964, and tremors of earthquakes to come are being felt. Brawly Brown is a young man in trouble. A member of a radical black nationalist group infiltrated by a shadowy US security force, he becomes implicated in murder, and his life--like those of the rest of the group--is threatened. The growing civil rights movement and the escalation towards the US joining the war in Vietnam provide the background for the story, which is peopled with sharply observed characters, and told through sparkling dialogue and plenty of humour.
Mosley is currently writing a social history of the events of 11 September 2001, and there are parallels in this book with the current paranoia around terrorism. It is interesting that, without giving too much away, the state and government bear a heavy responsibility then and now.
This is crime fiction, but not as we know it. Easy Rawlins is no private detective, just a black man helping his friends--which in the US means coming up against racism and the state. Easy's tactics are born of oppression, and his experience comes from staying alive in a racist country still stamped with the legacy of slavery.
There are some truly beautiful passages in Brawly Brown. My favourite is when one character describes the superficial way that history is taught at school, and how liberating learning and genuinely understanding the past can be. Easy comes away feeling that he didn't quite grasp the point, but feels sure that 'it was important to my life'.
Easy has returned with as much honesty and anger as before, but with more subtlety and complexity--a character maturing in a changing world. This book is a joy to read for anyone already impressed by Mosley's writing, and a compelling introduction to some of the best crime fiction around. It is hard not to be already impatient for the next instalment.
The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson
Harper Collins £16.99
A community of souls are reincarnated time and time again, experiencing various lives in a kaleidoscope of relationships--as lovers or family, rulers or ruled, oppressor or oppressed. After each lifetime they meet in the bardo, the antechamber to eternity, to have their karma assessed and a judgment made against them which will determine the nature of their next life.
Through their eyes we experience 600 years of history from the 14th century to the present. The twist is that it isn't our history. In the mid-1300s bubonic plague wiped out between a third and a half of the population of Europe. Robinson imagines a world where that disease killed every European. This is the story of world history without the shadow of the Europe we know.
Muslims of various sects repopulate the empty continent. Chinese civilisation, far more advanced than Europe at the time of the Black Death, goes on expanding and 'discovers' and begins to colonise the American continent from its west coast as opposed to the east. The principles of empirical science emerge from the military rivalry between small states around Samarkand. A federation of states in the Indian subcontinent carry through an industrial revolution which challenges the power of both the Chinese and Muslim empires. Imperialism results in a conventional industrial war which lasts over 60 years.
But if the details of history change, the form doesn't. There are dictators, tyrants and wars to match the bloody reality which humanity has lived through, and there are revolutions which give the world hope of a better tomorrow. Robinson's world is different, but not a significant improvement on ours.
The genre of 'alternative history' is hardly new, but this is a particularly fine example of it. Robinson uses it to ask big questions about history, the nature of change, and the role of the individual within it. A number of views on history emerge within the book, and although none is given more credence than another, Robinson appears to be sympathetic to Marxism. Although there is no parallel figure to Marx in this new world, different individuals come up with key Marxist ideas such as the labour theory of value and the notion of change through class struggle.
Robinson has said in interviews that he inclines to a technological determinist view of history one that is led by changes in productive technique. This downgrades the role that social factors play in history and this is apparent in the structure of the novel. But history is not just a question of the technological development of a given society. Productive techniques are held within specific social forms which can develop them or hold them back. If this is not understood then we can't explain why medieval China, with the highest level of civilisation in the world and a very impressive technology, didn't truly expand to dominate the world down to the present.
However, it is enough that Robinson raises these questions, and raises them in a very entertaining manner. For 20 years now the study of history has been blighted by the fashion of postmodernism, with its extreme subjectivity and its abhorrence of 'grand narratives'. It's refreshing to read a bestselling novel which argues that history can be understood, and that understanding can help us shape a better future for us all.
Coffee with Pleasure
Black Rose Books £10.99
It may only be a small cup of latte in your hand but, together with all the other coffees that are simultaneously knocked back across the world, coffee is one of the three most important commodities in the world. The trade, amounting to over $70 billion annually, sits alongside oil and arms at the peak of the world economy. Yet, as the most recent Oxfam report puts it, the huge profits produced by our infinite taste for coffee go to the four or five giant multinational corporations that control its distribution. To take just one of them, Nestlé's annual sales, according to Laure Waridel, amount to $50 billion annually.
At the other end of the chain are the mainly small farmers--some 25 million across the world--who grow and harvest the plain green beans. For every £2 jar of coffee their share is likely to be less than 10p. In the last ten years, in the context of globalisation, the number of farmers has shrunk and the domination of the coffee trade by the multinationals has deepened. At the same time, we drink twice as much coffee as we did ten years ago.
Creating that market is the job of the advertisers and the style makers--their power explains why Starbucks makes more than Boeing (both based in Seattle) every year. Over a decade we've been persuaded that coffee is the route to happiness, power, sexual triumph (remember the Nescafé neighbours) and the final victory over sleep. You used to get just coffee--now it comes with flavours, with chocolate, with swathes of comforting milk, in different shapes and sizes, and with pretty patterns on the top. No crime is solved, no political decision made, no advertising slogan coined without hundreds of cardboard coffee cups in evidence.
But, as is so often the case, as the markets grow control is removed from the producers. The world price of coffee is determined at two exchanges--in London and New York--where the corporations bid for entire crops. It may fluctuate, but you will notice no change in the price you pay at the supermarket. On the other hand, those changes will affect how much goes to the coffee farmers.
Waridel provides a clear and well informed picture of how the trade operates internationally (though her examples are almost entirely North American). And she makes a careful case for fair trade, using one example (the Mexican peasant producers of the south) to show how it can protect both the environment and livelihoods of small farmers. It's a system that guarantees prices for the producers, provides cheap credit to them, and tries to cut out the multiple layers of middlemen who have always profited from their labour. The principle is excellent--and we should seek out certified fair trade coffee, now that it is at least as good as any other coffee.
But there is a problem. With the best will in the world, fair trade coffee can never capture more than 4 or 5 percent of the market. The great corporations use pesticides to control the harvest, economies of scale to cheapen the process of roasting and distribution, packaging to seduce the consumer--and their products cost less as a result. They have even been subtle enough to adopt some of the labels--'organic', 'tree shaded' and so on--to capture part of the green market too. Whether the choice of fair trade goods can do anything to affect the global trade is a difficult issue--though there can be no doubt at all about whose side we are on. The anti-capitalist movement, as Waridel shows, has exposed the ruthlessness of a global economy that wraps itself in images of comfort, warmth and, when all Arabs are treated with suspicion and hundreds are detained without trial in the US, fulfilled desire. That is not an accident--it's the nature of the beast. Fair trade can make a tiny difference--but more importantly it can help to expose the character of the economic system in which we live, and the urgent need to replace it with one where justice governs every area of trade.
Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya
Merlin Books £14.95
The economic crisis in Zimbabwe--with unemployment now at over 60 percent, inflation hitting 114 percent and 76 percent of the population below the poverty line--is in urgent need of analysis.
Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, and inherited debts of nearly $700 million from the white minority regime. The authors of this book argue that Mugabe's Zanu government had the option of repudiating this debt. Had this happened, the government would have had much more flexibility to implement its social policies and address the land question.
Nonetheless, during the first decade of independence the Zanu government did follow what Bond and Manyanya describe as an 'exemplary social policy'. This reduced infant mortality from 86 to 49 per 1,000 live births, doubled primary school enrolment, and raised life expectancy from 56 to 62 years. But at the same time the Zimbabwean government maintained repayments on its foreign loans, and the land question was not fundamentally changed. Some 70 percent of the best land in Zimbabwe is still owned by around 4,000 white farmers, although this picture has changed massively with the recent land seizures.
With the formal adoption of the World Bank's Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) from 1991 to 1997, working class living standards fell significantly. The Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) 'reported in 1996 that their average member was 38 percent poorer than in 1990, and 40 percent poorer than in 1980'. In addition, the social wage fell sharply 'thanks largely to new cost recovery policies for health, education and many other social services'.
Despite this Zimbabwe was often described as the World Bank's African success story in the early 1990s. Even as late as May 1999, the World Bank 'Project Completion Report' for Esap gave the country the best possible final grade of 'highly satisfactory'. Yet Esap 'pushed foreign debt as a percentage of GDP from 8.4 percent to 21.8 percent'. By 1998 Zimbabwe, with debts of nearly $5 billion, spent 38 percent of its export earnings on servicing foreign loans, exceeded in that year only by Brazil and Burundi.
This book outlines the effects of these crippling debt repayments and the economic and political constraints that encouraged the adoption of neoliberalism. However, the speeches of politicians are given far more prominence than the power of ordinary people who spearheaded resistance to the policies of the World Bank and the IMF. For example, the authors dismiss the mass public sector strikes of 1996 and the resistance that followed in a couple of paragraphs. In contrast, three pages of the book are devoted to a single speech by the economic spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The concluding chapter argues that an 'NGO-swarm' at home and the 'world-scale social change' since Seattle could form the basis of a government implementing alternative policies to both Mugabe and the neoliberalism of the MDC. The support for such a government would be composed of 'a variety of civil society groups--church agencies, a resurgent movement of residents' associations, community health workers, and the more progressive currents within the ZCTU'.
The policies of this hypothetical government would include a total repudiation of the foreign debt and the deflation of domestic debt. The government would also regulate foreign exchange while ensuring that any 'resulting distortions...are mitigated through a strong but slim, efficient and benevolent state'.
This book provides a comprehensive summary of the recent economic and political developments in Zimbabwe, and as an example of the effects of globalisation and Third World debt it has a wider relevance. The alternatives it outlines to the policies of the World Bank and the IMF could have practical significance if adopted by anti-capitalist movements, but only when they are based on the power of an organised mass movement.