Issue 268 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Fences and Windows
Naomi Klein is a brilliant witness to the rise of the anti-capitalist movement. Her style is spare but atmospheric and thought-provoking at the same time. She remembers significant detail to convey the potency of the protests. 'These protests,' she writes, 'are like stepping into a parallel universe... Corporate logos need armed guards, people usurp cars, art is everywhere, strangers talk to each other, and the prospect of a radical change in political course does not seem like an odd and anachronistic idea but the most logical thought in the world.'
She empathises with the movement because she believes the radicals are right. She too feels the depth of change that is needed and the futility of negotiated solutions. 'Democracy is always demanded, never granted,' she writes, and later she says, 'Corporations don't have a communication problem, they have a reality problem.'
Klein was in Seattle, Washington and Genoa. She's sensitive to the mood swings of the movement and to the difficulties it has had to face. While she admires the emphasis on self organisation and autonomy of the many groups on US protests, she also sees the problems. In Washington in a tactical debate about boxing the IMF conference in, delegates ended with an agreement that each group should do their own thing--with the result, as Klein points out, that delegates easily walked free.
Klein is admirably honest that this book is not an attempt to answer the question, what comes next? But the problem is that this is the question which keeps coming up. Sometimes it feels as if she is so besotted with the early experience of the movement that she wants to make a virtue out of its chaotic spontaneity. So she admires Maude Barlowe's comments, 'We are up against a boulder. We can't remove it, so we try to go underneath it, to go round it and over it.' As if exuberance and diversity might on their own just get us through to the other side.
In some of the more recent essays she has moved on, and in truth started raising some of the big strategic issues and questioning the virtues of pure autonomous action. In a discussion of the impact of 11 September on the movement she writes about the limitations of symbolic anti-corporate protest organised by groups like No Sweat. 'The symbols were only ever windows. It's time to move through them,' she says, and goes on to say that 'what is needed is a political framework that can both take on corporate power and control internationally, and empower local organising and self determination.'
In fact the events of the last 18 months--police repression in Gothenburg and Genoa, the western response to 11 September--have posed huge challenges to the movement. Partly they show what our opponents are prepared to do in self defence, but also they have thrown millions more people into active opposition to the system. As Klein suggests, in these circumstances protesting against the corporations or simply celebrating autonomy and diversity is just not enough. Activists now need to be devising strategies that can respond to state violence and mount a real challenge to the world elite.
This is where there is a missing link in Klein's analysis and even in her reportage. Talk about the importance of working class struggle to the anti-capitalist movement can no longer be dismissed as a far left fetish.
The link between working class resistance to neoliberal programmes and the wider anti-capitalist movement was tentative in Seattle but it has become progressively stronger through Genoa, Barcelona and Seville. When anti-capitalist politics start to interweave with mass economic struggle no fence can hold us back.
The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini
The battles against Italian fascism in 1921-22 erupted as spontaneous self defence against the terror tactics of Mussolini's squads. Many of the left at the time dismissed these brave struggles. The reformist Socialist Party preferred to think that they could beat Mussolini at his own parliamentary game and paid for their error dearly. The new Italian Communist Party (PCI), instead of jumping in feet-first where workers resisted fascism, stood on the sidelines finding errors with those who fought back. The cost of failing to join the struggle on the streets was the victory of fascism.
Tom Behan's marvellous account restores these working class acts of resistance to their rightful place in history. What he describes was erased from official left accounts for a long time.
The tragic defeat of the militant occupation of the factories in the 'Red Years' from 1919 to 20 paved the way for Mussolini. Behan explains that even in this situation united action against the fascists could have turned them back. The centrepiece of his book is the Arditi del Popolo. Arditi means literally the 'daring ones' and the original arditi had been the assault troops founded in the First World War. Later some of these followed the nationalist D'Annunzio and joined Mussolini's fasci. Others became anti-fascists and in 1921 in Rome they formed the Arditi del Popolo. The movement's first manifesto declared that they were subversives committed to opposing tyranny. They were made up of socialists, republicans, anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists and Catholics. It was a military grouping aimed at fending off fascist attacks but it had close connections with the working class. In Rome, for example, donations came from builders, railwaymen and post office workers.
The Arditi del Popolo (ADP) were extremely well organised. They repelled a fascist attack in Sarzana, on the Ligurian-Tuscan border, in the summer of 1921 with methods which showed that a band of fascists were no match for collective class action. Railway workers alerted the town to the arrival of the fascists and they were run out of town by armed agricultural workers. The ADP drove back the fascists again in Parma the next year under the leadership of Guido Picelli. Picelli, a Socialist Party member who had resolutely opposed the war and was secretary of the local trades council, understood far better than the party he belonged to that the fascist threat was not just another attack from a right wing government but a fundamental shift that threatened the very existence of working class organisation. 'We can only win if we are united!' was his rallying cry.
When 20,000 fascists under Balbo descended on Parma, Picelli and the ADP took them on. Guns were distributed, and pickaxes, iron bars and tools used to dig up the cobblestones and carts and benches piled up to make barricades. Workers were allocated shifts, and food rations and meals prepared centrally. The resistance ran like clockwork. Even the fascist Balbo was forced to concede that 'for the first time fascism found itself facing a well organised and well trained adversary--equipped, armed and prepared to fight to the finish'.
Picelli's ADP organisation and political understanding exposed the weakness of the policy of abstentionism by some of the left. The PCI saw unity with the social democrats as a sellout instead of a necessity. Bordiga, the obstinate defender of this position, believed that the newly founded party had to be the puri and the duri--the purest and hardest.
This sectarian view of the fortress party blocked all unity with anyone outside the party. Instead the PCI told its members to keep away from the PSI and the ADP and issued the ridiculous call to go on the military offensive with a members-only military organisation. The Communist squads remained weak and ineffective while many PCI and PSI members followed their instincts and fought alongside the ADP.
Tom Behan's book is an important read for anyone who wants to understand how to oppose fascism. He describes the tragic lessons of sectarianism clearly, with wonderful detail and in clear, forthright language. By the same stroke his descriptions of resistance to fascism, like Bertolucci's film 1900, bear proud witness to the incredible resilience of workers in the face of both terror and poor leadership. Thereby he points to a different set of politics and one which will stand us in good stead today.
In Search of Fatima
Edward Said has described Ghada Karmi's memoir as a 'novelist's envy'. Praise indeed and well deserved. Ghada will be well known to many readers of this magazine as one of the most prominent representatives of Palestine in Britain, a regular in TV and radio studios, as well as a staunch supporter of the Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In her book Ghada unpacks her multiple identities: upper middle class Palestinian, Muslim, woman, atheist, doctor of medicine, daughter of a father to whom the Queen awards an MBE at Buckingham Palace for the excellence of his professional Arab/English translation skills, and most unexpected of all, 1950s teenager living in one of Britain's most Jewish areas, Golders Green.
But this is no postmodern indulgence. Ghada is in no mood to celebrate these identities. Only one identity really matters, the one the world tried to eliminate from her childhood memory, and the one that Suez, Nasser, the 1967 Middle East war, PLO guerrillas, good old fashioned English racism, as well as Zionism, insisted on reviving. The question to the teenage Ghada, 'You say you are from Palestine? Don't you mean Pakistan?' is particularly offensive precisely because it is asked in innocence. Zionism poisons most, though by no means all, of her Jewish friendships at school. When she finds Zoe Steiner's notebook full of made-up tales about herself, her family, and all the other Arabs in the world, smelling of camels, she wallops Zoe. There's hardly a way back to English middle class tranquillity after that.
Her recreation of childhood memory of Palestine slipping into oblivion, a blend of childhood naivety with mature reflection, is devastating. No punches are pulled. The squabbling, corrupt, aristocratic Palestinian leadership receives no mercy. Not only are these leaders incapable of standing up to the Zionist militias, their murderous internal feuding spills over and threatens members of her family. Hatred for the Jews grows as the Zionists start the killing spree that would wipe out her country. But this is no European-style anti-Semitism. This is hatred for Jewish migrants who turn into colonisers and who murder and expel Palestinians.
Earlier her family, along with many other Palestinians, befriend the migrants. The German Jewish doctors fleeing Hitler, and providing first class medical support to Palestinian families, earn enormous respect. Shlomo Goitein, the world's leading expert on Jewish history in the medieval Islamic Arab world, is a family friend. We suddenly have a fascinating, if momentary, insight into a very different outcome for Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine.
But, above all else, there is Fatima, the peasant maid. This is Fatima who becomes an additional mother, Fatima, whose peasant manners upset and infatuate in equal measure. (Think carefully when you read this book about Fatima's brother's cure for Ghada's brother's earache.) This is Fatima with a kaftan, black with a bodice of intricate dark red embroidery. This traditional dress was typical of the villages of Palestine--each region had its own distinctive pattern and colours. Before the Naqba 'no woman who was not a peasant would have been seen dead in such a kaftan,' writes Ghada. 'No one could have known that this despised peasant costume would become a symbol of the homeland, worn with pride by the very same women who had spurned it.' Finally, this is Fatima, completely shattered, who had no choice but to stay behind when Ghada's family realised the game was up and quit the country.
Ghada's search for her is real and poetic at the same time. But in her conclusion (the final paragraph of her book), Ghada misunderstands the reason why she cannot find her, or at the very least identify with her. There is an unfinished argument here about detached intellectuals and mass resistance movements. Maybe she should address that in her next book.
A Different World
Liverpool Women's History Group
Bluecoat Press £7.99
This book, beautifully produced, is a collection of memories of Liverpool in the 1930s and 1940s. They are recalled by a group of 15 older women, three of whom are octogenarians, others in their mid to late seventies and the youngsters who are between 50 and 60 years old.
The women had all attended a 'second chance to learn' course at Liverpool Community College. After the course ended, they stayed on to study 'Women's History, Women's Lives', another optional course, and from this became conscious that women, particularly working class women, had been overlooked in history books. They sought to redress the balance by writing books such as Born to Serve and Women on the Waterfront.
Later, schools requested that they visit and tell the children what life was like when they were young. However, travelling on public transport proved difficult, but an opportunity arose to use the Maritime Museum for a base and the children could then come to them, plus they had the opportunity to borrow artefacts. They describe how they set up scenes, using painted backdrops and various props, representing a typical kitchen or corner shop, and engaged the children in workshops, describing how the women coped with the poverty and drudgery, reproducing and acting out such scenes as the weekly bath night in the 1930s.
The 1940s workshops deal with the war years, the separation and disruption of people's lives, and the threat of bombing. The women bring humour, songs and rhymes into the workshops and the children appear to get fully engaged. After the description of the workshops each of the women relates her own story of what life was like. Many of these will certainly arouse anger at the appalling injustices suffered. One example, which makes clear the nature of the system, was the story of Vera's father, who was gassed in the First World War, and received a pitiable pension which was stopped after a short time. He managed to obtain a job but never regained good health and died when Vera was six. Her family had to apply for Public Assistance and suffered the harassment of the PA official, who ordered them to sell any item he deemed not to be essential for their existence. (They didn't have a radio so he ordered them to sell their gramophone.)
From the descriptions and illustrations in the book, up to the 1960s Liverpool must have had some of the worst housing in Europe. Many working class families lived in two up two down houses, with no bathrooms, no piped hot water, and shared toilet facilities. Washing clothes and sheets without machines meant a whole day was spent on that chore alone. Later washhouses helped to ease the burden and were places where women could socialise.
|Phyl Kenny in Liverpool in 1948|
Before the NHS illnesses were particularly feared. One of the women remembers her mother's dilemma when as a child she fell ill and her mother paced up and down, waiting for her husband to come home to ask him whether she should send for a doctor or buy food for their tea as she could not afford both.
Life was not totally grim. Though they could rarely afford holidays, they recount the days out, on the ferry to New Brighton, the beach and the donkeys, the walks in the Wirral and the escape of a night out to the cinema, or a dance at the Grafton.
The experiences of the war are poignantly described, particularly the experiences of evacuation, mainly to North Wales or Cheshire. Some children had good experiences, appreciating the beauty of the scenery and the abundance of fruit and fresh eggs. Others were not so happy being treated as cheap labour on the farms or filling in for servants lost to the richer houses because of the call-up. Though there were grim experiences during the war, one woman recalls that the poverty and hunger of the 1930s were much worse than anything she suffered during the war years.
The women who contributed to this book should be proud of their achievement. It is a valuable contribution to our social history. One question arises, however. The courage, ingenuity and determination of the women are clear from these pages, but there are no stories of collective action against the injustices.
I recall that my own mother (who was a union organiser of women cleaners on the docks in the First World War) was involved, in the 1930s, with a small band of Labour Party members in various fightbacks against injustice. They engaged in threatened rent strikes, and defended neighbours against bailiffs, and this in Bebington, not known as a hotbed of revolution. Birkenhead had its riots. Perhaps there are more stories to be recalled by the group who produced this fine book.
Free at Last!
Tony Benn is equally loyal to socialism and the Labour Party. The latest edition of his diaries, covering the last decade, describes a period when the rightward gallop of Labour brought those two loyalties into greater conflict. The decay of Westminster politics is so great, Benn jokes, leaving parliament leaves him 'free at last' to be involved in politics.
Benn is there as the corporate takeover of Labour begins--under Kinnock, not Blair, nearly a decade before Labour's sticky relations with businessmen become headline news. He reports a 1991 Labour National Executive Committee where the 'High Value Donor' scheme attracting the rich to Labour is launched by 'Julia Hobsbawm who must be the daughter of Eric, the old Marxist historian--which is an indication of the state we reached'. Asked about ordinary members, Labour's officials suggest a raffle 'so some ordinary working class people could attend the dinner with rich people to raise money.' After the death of the Daily Mirror's crooked proprietor, Benn records, 'National Executive this morning, where we stood in silence for Robert Maxwell, which I found a bit much.' By 1994 he is invited by Labour MP Janet Anderson to a champagne reception celebrating the launch of Sainsbury's new cola--neither the firm nor the MP see any irony in celebrating cola for the many with champagne for the few.
Whereas Benn always emphasises politics from the bottom, he takes a top-down view of the old Soviet Union, and is left with an unappealing beauty contest between Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the generals. Benn believed the Soviet system remained a positive force long after the workers' state of 1917 was replaced with the Stalinist bureaucracy. He writes that the 1945 reforms happened because 'the Russian Revolution created an anti-capitalist superpower and forced the Western establishments to make concessions to the working class'. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he admits, 'It's very hard to make sense of it all. The old socialist arguments, class war and so on, don't really fit the facts. With the collapse of socialist analysis, and its disappearance as a force, nationalism, fundamentalism, xenophobia, racism, fascism are all beginning to appear again.'
Sinking, he is buoyed up by fightbacks. Benn helps organise the enormous protests against pit closures in 1992, only to see the wave of anger allowed to dribble away by Labour's limp leaders. He is enthused by the occupation of University College Hospital in 1993. First he addresses a union meeting with a minor worry that the hospital 'has a reputation for having a Trotskyite trade union branch'. He soon finds the mass meetings 'thrilling really' and 'a bit like St Petersburg in 1917'.
Benn has a back door to Blairism: his son Hilary is a modernising junior minister. The sons of his friend, socialist historian Ralph Miliband, are advisers at 10 and 11 Downing Street. While proud of their boys' achievement, the two men commiserate over their politics. A night with the boys leaves Benn despairing over 'part of my own party which saw itself as being absolutely separate from, and superior to, anyone else'. A Labour Students meeting is made up of those who 'saw the Labour Party as a quick ladder to the top'.
With Labour abandoning even moderate reform, he muses, 'It may be that, as has happened in New Zealand, a Green/Socialist party will have to be set up. And if for any reason I was thrown out of the Labour Party, I think I would probably stand for that.' Sadly Benn would never jump from the party--and he wasn't pushed. He begins the decade defending the left but worrying that the Militant Tendency 'are an impossible crowd of people,', and 'removing the SWP posters' at a Chesterfield defend the miners rally. By the end Benn admits,'The more I think of the SWP, the more I realise how important that element is in any successful political movement.'
While Benn abhors the idea of being a loveable eccentric--the 'final corruption' he calls it--the diaries display his charm. We find him popping sweets in his mouth from overcoat pockets that turn out to be mothballs, defacing 'no smoking' signs on trains in a display of militant pipe-smoking.
Unfortunately, Benn allowed the Daily Mail to serialise these diaries--the Mail's interest is precisely to make Benn a charming duffer while using him as a stick to beat Blair. The linked 'Daily Mail Literary Luncheon' where the vile Lynda Lee Potter introduced Benn over a £40 per head dinner must be a low point. The Mail, conscious of their ageing readership, were also drawn to Benn's diaries as what they call 'a study of old age and death'. While the entries dealing with the death of his wife and mother are moving, the diaries should be read as a record of the life of the struggle.
The Autograph Man
Hamish Hamilton £16.99
The Autograph Man is Zadie Smith's eagerly awaited successor to White Teeth, which painted a hilarious, honest and moving picture of multiracial London.
Issues of race, culture and identity also play a big part in The Autograph Man. The central character, the 'autograph man' of the title, is Alex-Li Tandem, a Chinese-Jewish man from north London. His job, and his obsession, is collecting and trading in the autographs of celebrities. He first becomes obsessed with buying and selling autographs when his father dies during a trip he has taken Alex and three of his friends on, to the Royal Albert Hall to see Big Daddy wrestle with Giant Haystacks. His father dies of a brain tumour, which he has kept secret, while Alex is trying to hunt down his first autograph.
The novel is populated with characters from different racially mixed backgrounds. But the core of Smith's story is Alex-Li Tandem's inability to come to terms with the death of his father, and his avoidance of meaningful relationships. Instead he is obsessed with stardom, and searching for the unobtainable. In particular he is searching for the elusive signature of an American actress, Kitty Alexander. This obsessive fantasy will see him travel to New York in a desperate search for the reclusive actress. But can he really turn his fantasies into reality or is he searching for the impossible?
During the course of the story Smith has a lot to say about the emptiness of celebrity and stardom and what it means. It is also about the hollowness that so many people feel at the centre of their lives, dominated by TV, films, stars and second-hand experience. So Alex-Li is a man who 'deals in a shorthand of experience'. He can observe life, but he can't really live it.
The book is full of comments on people's hopes and obsessions, and the search for meaning in their lives, in the modern day capitalist world. In the novel's discussions of what it means to be famous, you can really feel how Zadie Smith is getting to grips with the way she was thrust into the limelight and the celebrity columns at the age of 24 after the runaway success of White Teeth.
The novel is written with the same gusto and humour as White Teeth. Zadie Smith has a brilliant ability to be hilariously funny in one sentence and then hit you with something emotionally moving.
The novel is a chaotic tumble of different ideas, jokes and throwaway comments. This is often funny and enjoyable. But it can also be frustrating. I felt there wasn't really enough depth and development of her leading characters. There is an emptiness at the heart of Alex-Li's life, which Zadie Smith captures well. However sometimes you feel that Alex-Li is perhaps too rootless. There is very little reference to the political and social world which Alex-Li and the others characters inhabit, for example.
Zadie Smith has bags of writing talent and a great knack of capturing the absurdities and contradictions of life. And I'm sure many fans of White Teeth will enjoy this book just for its sheer life, energy and humour. But I think she has the potential to write an even better novel in the future.
The Workers' and Peasants' State
Ed: Patrick Major and Jonathan Osmond
Manchester University Press £15.99
When I was active in Natfhe in the 1970s and 1980s the Communist Party bureaucrats in the union saw East Germany, rather than Russia, as the 'socialist' motherland. In East Germany there were no show trials of the sort that had taken place in the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1950s, women were positively encouraged to enter the labour force and so on.
This new book looks at the reality behind the surface. It contains a range of studies of the politics, society and culture of East Germany between 1945 and 1971.
What comes out is the difficulty the bureaucrats had trying to build 'socialism in half a country'. Until the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 it was relatively easy to cross into West Germany, and the regime in the East had to be wary of measures that might provoke too many to take flight. Notably it was impossible to introduce compulsory military service.
Likewise the fact of a shared language meant it was impossible to exclude cultural influence. Over 40 percent of young people in the East watched West German television. The Beatles were vilified as 'responsible for the waging of war and genocide'. But young people persisted in listening to the Fab Four instead of the officially provided alternatives.
In June 1953 working class discontent came to a head when a strike wave begun by building workers in Berlin spread through the country. While thousands were arrested and some 20 executed, there was no massacre on the scale of Hungary three years later. The police were ill prepared and in some areas refused to fire on strikers, while some army units abandoned their weapons in the face of demonstrators. In some places only Russian troops saved the Stasi (secret police) from lynching. Strikes continued into the autumn, and party officials who tried to address factory meetings were often shouted down.
The authors of this book have few illusions about East German society (though they tend to use the word 'socialism' as though it meant no more than a state-directed economy). They catalogue the harsh repression that did take place and show the ever-present role of the Stasi. Policies towards women are shown as the product of labour shortage rather than of feminist idealism.
As the conclusion argues, the term 'totalitarianism' does not fit the East German experience. This was no 1984-type society. The ruling group operated pragmatically, balancing the demands of Moscow with the pressures of 'public opinion' at home. Unlike other East European countries, East Germany had a working class which, despite Hitler, was only two decades removed from the revolutionary struggles of the early 1920s. It would have been rash to provoke it too far. The history of the regime was determined by the balance of the class struggle, mainly concealed, but coming to open confrontation in the 1953 strikes.
Ed: Robert B Silvers and Barbara Epstein
New York Review of Books £10.99
As George Bush prepares to launch an attack on Iraq the publication of this book is a timely reminder of the horrors of US imperialism. This collection of essays puts together a series of articles that originally appeared in the New York Review of Books in the months following 11 September 2001.
Two articles by Pankaj Mishra on Afghanistan are particularly good. He describes the background to the Russian invasion in December 1979, and explains how Afghanistan was central to the superpowers' influence in that region. Mishra quotes Zbiginew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, boasting how successful the US had been in provoking the Russians into invading Afghanistan.
Mishra's piece on the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal clearly outlines the conditions in which a movement like the Taliban could emerge. Mishra explains how a small but organised force could enter Kabul, and be welcomed by the civilian population for ending the civil war and imposing some order, albeit an austere, Whabbist strand of Islamic order.
The article emphasises the cynicism with which the Saudis, Pakistani intelligence services and the US state bankrolled, trained and armed various Islamic groupings throughout the 1980s. By the mid 1980s the CIA base in Islamabad was second in size only to its headquarters in Langley, Virginia!
There are two articles on the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons. One article by Garwin shows how since the Second World War it has been nuclear reactors, state sponsored nuclear weapons explosions and experiments that have contributed to the spread of germ warfare and disease.
In addition, Matthew Meselson points out how responsible the Bush administration has been stalling and vetoing any multilateral controls and verification policies because such measures would ultimately highlight the US as the biggest perpetrator of chemical and biological warfare.
This collection provides valuable facts and insights into the crazed logic that is propelling the world towards war that unfortunately will make the horrors of New York and Bali more likely.