Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Final Frontier
As the US prepares to invade Iraq, ostensibly to stop Saddam Hussein using biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, a historical account that looks at how the United States played a central role in the development of such weapons is very timely. The book begins in July 1921 with New York in ruins following a bomb attack, the majority of its inhabitants wiped out by poison gas. Theoretical ruins, that is, as although the bombers really did fly over the city, the whole attack was nothing more than a spectacular stunt staged by the US air force to persuade the American people that they should support a massive build-up of military air power.
It's not just air power though. The reference in press reports to poison gas played upon people's fears about chemical weapons following horrific accounts of how such weapons had been used in the First World War. What Jenkins goes on to show in the rest of the book is how a significant section of the US establishment sought to use such fears to justify their own development of such weapons on a grand scale.
After 11 September 2001 the US government used its 'war against terrorism' as a means of furthering its imperialist ambitions. Jenkins shows that in the first part of the 20th century the US establishment used similar fears about the threat of invasion from a hostile power--Germany in this case--to justify its entrance into the First World War. In fact, despite the excuse that the US was forced into the war by German submarine attacks on ocean liners like the Lusitania, its entrance was practically guaranteed by the fact that US munitions factories had been producing the vast bulk of the armaments used by Britain and her allies, making huge profits in the process. A good deal of this book is taken up with looking at how one section of the US army, the Chemical Warfare Service, sought to use fears about German poison gases as a justification for the US to develop its own weapons.
If Germany was the most visible enemy, behind all the propaganda coming from the US establishment there was fear and hatred of a far more serious threat--the workers' revolution in Russia led by the Bolsheviks. Here was not just a foreign menace but also the enemy within. Poison gas and the threat posed by socialism became intertwined in the pronouncements of the times, such as in a speech by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 when he worried how 'in other parts of Europe the poison spreads--the poison of disorder, the poison of chaos. And do you honestly think, my fellow citizens, that none of that poison has got into the veins of this free people?'
In fact, popular opposition to a new arms race and the horrors of chemical warfare were harnessed by a strong disarmament movement to put the warmongers on the defensive for a while. At the height of hostility to chemical weapons in 1922 the Chemical Warfare Service was forced to disband its more overt operations and instead began concentrating research into the development of insecticides. Jenkins shows how under capitalism the war drive at the heart of the system dominates and distorts science. The most sophisticated technology on the planet becomes a means to destroy rather than save life. The cynicism, but also the sheer brutality of the ruling class is shown by the circumstances surrounding the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were dropped even though Japan had already effectively surrendered. Jenkins argues that one of the reasons President Truman used the atomic bomb was to give him a winning card in negotiating with Stalin. Truman delayed his Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill until after the atomic bomb had been dropped. On a ship crossing the Atlantic to the meeting, he told an associate, 'If it explodes, as I think it will, I'll certainly have a hammer on those boys.' Such is the nature of the system we seek to change.
The Secret History of the IRA
These are two very different but equally invaluable books charting the tortured journey of contemporary Irish Republicanism towards constitutional politics. They are particularly illuminating about the transformation of the Provisional IRA from its pursuit of armed struggle against the British presence to ministerial office in the Stormont Assembly following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which at the time of writing has been suspended for the second time in recent years.
Moloney, a highly respected journalist first with the Irish Times and later with the Sunday Tribune, relies to a large extent on unattributable testimonies from Republican volunteers. He provides a gripping, blow by blow account of how Gerry Adams and his supporters moved Republicans away from armed resistance towards 'respectable' politics. The willingness of the volunteers to talk in such compelling detail provides his book with a genuine ring of authenticity.
Feeney is a Belfast academic and former executive member of the SDLP who provides much more of a historical and political overview of the same process. He shows how Sinn Fein became transformed during the last decade from political pariahs to 'having its leaders in government, hobnobbing with the great and the good'. He argues that this is not the first time that Republicans have travelled down this road. Michael Collins in 1921 and Eamon DeValera in 1926 both moved from armed resistance to the British to accommodation with them through constitutional politics. Adams is following in their footsteps.
Maloney graphically describes this most recent journey. By naming names and detailing who said what in IRA army council and convention meetings he has embarrassed the current leadership. Adams in particular cannot be too pleased about the revelation of the role he has played within the IRA and the levels of secrecy and subterfuge he employed in pursuing his peace strategy. What is absolutely clear is that he could not have won support for this strategy had he and his allies like Martin McGuinness not been at the centre of the debate within the IRA.
Both books describe how Adams was one of the first of today's generation of Republicans to realise the difference between defending the streets of Ballymurphy and the other nationalist ghettos and defeating the British army in a guerrilla war. His assessment, mirrored by British Army intelligence, was that while the military campaign could be sustained over an extended period it could not win. It had led Republicanism into a political cul-de-sac.
Maloney describes how, imprisoned in Cage 11 in Long Kesh from 1975 to 1977, Adams was the key figure in the debates about the future strategy of the movement. He began to advocate a shift from a military to a political strategy. He also recognised that the credibility the IRA had established in the nationalist areas could provide the basis for considerable electoral support. This assessment was vindicated in 1981 when Bobby Sands, a dying IRA hunger striker, won a stunning victory in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.
The problem Adams faced, however, was the long-established Republican policy of abstentionism from the Irish Dail, the British parliament and the various institutions of the Northern state. For the next 25 years he painstakingly manoeuvred to change this policy and to promote Sinn Fein as the political face of Republicanism.
No one should have any doubt about the scale of his success. Today there are five Sinn Fein TDs in the Irish Dail, four MPs at Westminster and (until its suspension) two ministers in the executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But what kind of politics is represented by this success? As Feeney points out, not only have the original objectives of the Republican struggle been jettisoned, but any other kind of political radicalism has too. Sinn Fein has stolen the clothes of the moderate nationalist SDLP and accepted an agreement with Britain that was worse than the Sunningdale agreement of 1973 that they fought to destroy. Their ministers pursued a policy of support for privatisation and advocated a reduction in corporation profits tax in the Northern executive. They also refused to rule out coalition with the ruling Fianna Fail party prior to the recent elections in the South despite denouncing them at the hustings. Both these books are indispensable tools in any understanding of how this process has come about.
Marx and Engels: Collected Works Volume 49
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £45
The English translation of the Marx-Engels collected works is nearly complete, with the letters Engels wrote in the last years of his life, and there are still wonderful treats to be found in them.
This volume contains the first full translations of his various letters to Conrad Schmidt on the method of 'historical materialism' (the phrase itself was first used in his letter of 5 August 1892). In these he is concerned to show the power of the approach, but also to prevent it being interpreted in a narrow, mechanical method that reduced everything to mere immediate economic interests. In doing so he provides an account of the method that destroys so many of the crude attacks on Marxism for alleged 'economic reductionism'. Thus in his letter of 27 October 1892 he shows how 'politics' both arises out of 'economics' and reacts back on it. He points out that once society has reached the point where there is a division of labour there is the need for some mechanism to hold society as a whole together: 'Those nominated for this purpose form a new branch of the division of labour within society. They thereby acquire interests of their own.'
In this way a state arises, which reacts back upon the economic processes which have given rise to it. The result is an 'interaction of two unequal forces, of the economic trend on the one hand and the new political power which is striving for the greatest possible independence...By and large the economic trend will predominate but it must also be reacted upon by the political trend which it has itself induced and which has been endowed with relative independence.'
As a result, history is not the mere automatic working out of economic processes. The political power in the state may go along with the trend of economic development, speeding things up. But it may also follow a path of blocking economic development, so wreaking 'havoc with economic development' and causing 'energy and materials to be squandered on a vast scale', on occasions leading to 'the destruction of economic resources which...could ruin economic development both locally and nationally...' When this happened, as Marx noted in his famous Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the whole of society could be thrown into crisis. State power can obtain a degree of autonomy from the immediate play of economic forces, but it cannot ignore their long term trend without the risk of driving itself to the point of collapse.
Engels goes on to discuss how ideological structures play a role: 'As soon as the new division of labour becomes necessary and creates professional lawyers, yet another new independent field is opened up which, for all its general dependence on production and trade, is nevertheless capable of reacting in its own way to those spheres. In a modern state not only must the law correspond to the general economic situation and be its expression; it must of itself constitute a coherent expression that does not by reason of internal contradictions give itself the lie...'
The volume contains many gems such as Engels' advice to Schmidt on making sense of Hegel, his comment to Kautsky about the extent to which the Reformation in Germany was a 'bourgeois movement', his letters to Danielson about the impact of capitalist development in Russia in both expanding productive forces and damaging the productive base of agriculture (something still relevant to many Third World countries today).
As in previous volumes, the letters about the attempts to create a socialist current inside the British working class remain fascinating, as do the arguments within the recently founded Second International. Engels' letters exude optimism about the development of the international movement. It was growing to an extent barely imaginable when Marx died only eight or nine years earlier. But it was doing so in conditions that made the work of revolutionaries quite difficult--more difficult than Engels himself sometimes saw. There was class bitterness everywhere--particularly in Germany where the emperor still enjoyed semi-autocratic power and socialist activists were habitually given jail sentences. But the growth of interest by workers in politics was not matched by a particularly high level of direct class struggle. It was not until more than a decade after Engels' death that the Russian Revolution of 1905 opened up a new phase of worker insurgency internationally.
While Engels lived, the movement was still caught between two dangers. On the one hand, a day to day practice that consisted almost entirely of struggling for small demands within the system could lead to an abandonment of revolutionary ideals. On the other hand, people could become so frustrated at the lack of revolutionary action that they cut themselves off from the growing workers' movement.
Engels was aware of both dangers, but saw sectarian isolation as the biggest. So although he initially welcomed an influx of young members into the German party from an academic milieu in Germany, urging the leadership to open the party up to discussion, he soon veered the other way and backed the expulsion of the jungen ('youth') who he now saw as a sectarian obstacle. What he could not foresee was that within five years his own protege Eduard Bernstein would go to the opposite extreme and call for the abandonment of revolutionary goals.
Engels was only human and could not always be right. In these letters he continued to see Russia as the main enemy for the left and therefore to write about the importance of supporting Germany if war broke out. He had not noticed what, apparently unbeknown to him, the young Rosa Luxemburg was already seeing--that the Russian Empire was about to crumble and that socialists should no longer view it as the main centre of reaction as it had been in 1815 and 1848.
But even when Engels is mistaken, there is much to learn from his approach. For anyone who wants to seriously study the history of the revolutionary movement, many of the letters in this volume are a must.
Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life
Shakespeare, we're told, is uniquely great--every school student aged 11 to 16 has to study his works. Yet the dominant ideas about Shakespeare--which Irish drama critic Fintan O'Toole confronts in this cheery polemic--make the plays seem boring and incomprehensible.
One problem is that the plays are taken out of their context in 17th century England. Shakespeare's society was dominated by conflict and change. Over a third of the population existed at subsistence level while the court lived in ostentatious luxury. The fixed social order of feudalism was challenged by a new class of merchants and small traders as capitalism began to develop. Trade with India began in 1600, while the first English colony in America had been established in 1585.
Political and religious ideas were also in ferment. King James I wrote a treatise on witches in 1597--one hundred years later Newton was describing the world as an ordered mathematical machine. James believed that kings ruled by divine right--in 1649 his son and successor Charles was beheaded and a republic proclaimed. The four plays which O'Toole discusses--Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello--reflect the clash between the feudal and capitalist views of the world. This is quite different from the account you get in GCSE revision aids. These centre on the characterisation of the main role--the 'tragic hero'. The tragic hero has a 'tragic flaw' (Macbeth is ambitious, Othello is jealous...) which inevitably causes them to bring destruction on themselves. The good end happily, the bad unhappily.
Yet this doesn't make sense of the plays. Many people die who can't be accused of bringing about their own destruction (Cordelia, Desdemona, Ophelia...). If Othello is chiefly about Othello as an individual, why has he got fewer lines than Iago? We're told the plays are about characterisation, yet characters like Hamlet and Iago remain enigmatic. The destruction and horror is far from smoothly inevitable: the end of Hamlet is a gory mess, with four corpses on stage.
O'Toole's point is that the plays show individuals and societies caught between the old and new world views. The central figures are torn apart because they don't fully belong to either world. If Macbeth was fully a superstitious medieval man there would be no tragedy--he would believe the witches' prophecy and wait for it to be fulfilled. If he was fully a rational modern man he would disbelieve in witches and dismiss the prophecy as gibberish. Macbeth believes in the prophecy enough to act on it, but he also believes he can control his own destiny.
Caught between the two world views, the central figures lose their identity--Lear goes mad, Hamlet at least pretends madness, Macbeth comes under the sway of the witches and Othello under that of Iago. But this isn't just about individuals. An old order is sunk into corruption and decay. Hamlet's society is poisoned by the murder of the king; an aristocrat hides in the queen's bedroom to eavesdrop on her conversations with her son; Lear's daughters drive him onto a heath in a thunderstorm, where he goes mad. None of the plays end with the established order convincingly restored.
Indeed, social inequality is repeatedly denounced in the plays. Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech condemns the rich, who oppress those who 'grunt and sweat under a weary life'. Hamlet stresses that death and decay make all classes equal: 'A man may fish with a worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.' On the heath, Lear rails against the rich and powerful: 'A dog's obeyed in office... Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; robes and furred gowns hide all.'
This is an excellent introduction to these plays--despite the awful title--particularly for anybody who hated Shakespeare at school.
Milosevic: A Biography
The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle once commented that a well written life was as rare as a well spent one. Adam LeBor's biography of Slobodan Milosevic is that common thing--an inferior book about an infamous life.
Milosevic's early years are treated to an irritating dose of speculative pop psychology. When his father commits suicide, LeBor asks us to ponder the fact that Milosevic shared a 'history of paternal deprivation' with Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton. When teenage Milosevic falls for his sweetheart and future wife, she knowingly spots 'the raw material that she could shape into a future leader'. Even her liking for Greek tragedy is interpreted as 'a harbinger of the destruction of Yugoslavia' 30 years later!
Somehow, through all this nonsense, a coherent story emerges of a careerist who steadily progressed into the upper echelons of the Yugoslav ruling class. In what LeBor calls his 'capitalist years', Milosevic made his name as head of a state gas company before becoming president of Beobank, one of the biggest in Yugoslavia, which he 'boldly dragged... into the harsh world of genuine capitalist economic competition'.
As the Yugoslav economy began to nosedive in the 1980s, Milosevic's business experience led to his promotion to the political wing of the Yugoslav ruling class where he was viewed both at home and abroad as a modernising Balkan Gorbachev who would 'build capitalism'. Market reforms led to widespread social revolt across Yugoslavia. In the midst of this turmoil Milosevic took power by assuming leadership of those in the Serbian ruling class who wanted to appeal to nationalism to get them through the crisis. LeBor makes these connections, but his analysis is seriously marred by superficial comparisons between Milosevic and figures of a quite different order such as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.
Milosevic's bloody role in the destruction of Yugoslavia as he strove to create a Greater Serbia is dealt with in some detail, although LeBor does not add much, if anything, that is new. Nevertheless, he does point out that the strident nationalism of Croatian president Tudjman, 'just as hypocritical as Milosevic', was 'Belgrade's best recruiting agent'.
LeBor is more ambiguous about the West's role. He acknowledges that the US played a crucial role in the 'biggest single act yet of ethnic cleansing' when the Croatian army drove the Krajina Serbs from their homes in 1995. But he titles the next chapter on Bosnia 'America to the Rescue'. On the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, LeBor notes that the US did nothing to defend the Kurds in Turkey, or the Chechens in Russia, or the Tibetans in China. But he still claims that the bombing set 'an interesting precedent' for Nato.
All this comes to a head with LeBor's skewed assessment of the Serbian Revolution of 2000 that overthrew Milosevic. Here LeBor is determined to prove that the revolution was orchestrated by the West and notes that the US channelled funds to the Serbian opposition. Yet, as he unwittingly shows, this was not critical to the revolution. Quite the contrary. Kostunica, Milosevic's opponent in the presidential elections, declared US support would be 'the kiss of death' for his campaign. And although LeBor devotes just four sentences to the mass strikes led by Serbia's miners that brought Milosevic down, he eventually does tell us, 'If you have a million people on the streets, all over Belgrade and Serbia, then the army cannot do anything.'
LeBor's determination to spice up his story makes it sometimes read like a dime novel about a drink-crazed mafia don. Details such as Milosevic's penchant for double-breasted suits are given a ridiculously sinister air. And, like the stereotypical Balkan male, Milosevic loves his booze. In fact, we see him 'hit the bottle' and 'knock... back his last glass for the night' so often that his incarceration at the Hague must surely have been warmly welcomed by his liver.
LeBor covered the Balkan wars in the 1990s as a journalist. Unfortunately, despite occasional flashes of insight, this mediocre biography reproduces much of the superficial journalism of those years.
Chatto and Windus £25
Peter Ackroyd has written a range of great books that explore the relationships between a variety of historical times and places and the imaginations they foster. In his new book he sets out to find a 'native spirit that persists through time and circumstance' by looking for what was modern in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature.
For Ackroyd being English is not about race--it is the spirit we share from living in the same environment. He sees the history of the English imagination as circular rather than as a line of progress: 'I saw eternity the other night, A ring of pure and endless light.'
Ackroyd quotes these lines from 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to express his approach. He seeks to find the continuity and repetition of certain themes across centuries of literature. He argues that the earth itself, its hills and mists and seas, creates a specifically English language of the imagination. In William Wordsworth's phrase there is 'a ghostly language of the ancient earth'.
He discovers emblems of Englishness and shows how they have constantly recurred in literature. Trees, oaks, beeches, and chestnut trees, have been important symbols from medieval literature to modern fiction. Other emblems of the English imagination he identifies are hills and waves, the weather and giants, fairies and monsters.
A 7th century poet, Caedmon of Whitby Abbey, began a tradition of writing about religious revelations that continued to William Blake in the 18th century. The Anglo-Saxon stories of the lives of St Cuthbert and St Guthlac were central to establishing two traditions. One was that of biography. The other was drama, inspiring plays such as The Death of Thomas à Becket written in 1182, and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama including Shakespeare.
Ackroyd traces the tradition of bawdy English humour begun with the Exeter Book, a book of poems and riddles from the early 8th century: 'I grow tall and erect in a bed, and when a girl remembers our meeting, her eye moistens. What am I?' The answer could be 'onion'--or something else.
Ackroyd then traces the development of comic writing through the wit of John Donne to the nonsense books of Lewis Carroll. According to Ackroyd the English are humorous, but they are also melancholic. A medieval word, 'dustsceawing', or contemplating dust, sums up a feeling of introversion and sadness.
This mournful mood found expression in books like Robert Burton's hugely influential Anatomy of Melancholy published 1621 and in poems like Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' and John Keats 'Ode on Melancholy' .
Ackroyd describes the rise of the novel in 18th century London and of women writers like Fanny Burney who wrote 'in rebellion against the inertia forced upon females'. And Ackroyd seems eager to emphasise the role of immigrants in forging English culture. He quotes Daniel Defoe's 'True-Born Englishman':
'From this Amphibious Ill Born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman...
By which with easie search you may distinguish
The Venerable Bede, born in 672, began a tradition of scholarship. Another great Latin scholar who was Bede's contemporary, Aldhelm, was educated by an African called Hadrian at Canterbury Cathedral.
Good stuff, but there is a big problem with Ackroyd's approach. Writers do develop and respond to other literature. Their vision is shaped both by the physical world and the traditions of the past. But there is dramatic rupture as well as continuity, social protest as well as shared experience. The emblems Ackroyd identifies are invested with vastly different meanings and reflect shifting social and political contexts. The major oak in Keats's poem about Robin Hood is a symbol of the destruction of the natural world in the pursuit of profit--it is an image that looks forward as well as backward.
And there are other traditions in English literature which Ackroyd misses out completely. These include celebrating the lives of outlaws and vagabonds, being hostile to the rich and powerful, championing the poor and oppressed and looking to the natural world as an alternative to the environmental destruction wrought by industrialisation.
Wordsworth may have spoken about the ancient language of the earth, but he developed a new poetic language to express his sympathy with the downtrodden. His was a social vision, full of inequality and suffering, as well as the beauties of nature.
Ackroyd has amassed a huge array of fascinating characters from the past. But not even Beowulf, Bede, Chaucer and Shakespeare can make his argument convincing.
At what cost?
Rachel Morris and Luke Clements
The Policy Press £18.99
This study by the Traveller Law Research Unit (TLRU) seeks to fill a gaping hole in governmental auditing of one of Britain's most vulnerable and maltreated minorities--an estimated 200,000-300,000 Gypsies and travelling people. The authors expose the hidden costs of the 1994 legislation which released local authorities from the duty of providing travellers with authorised camp sites. A primary motive for the reforms was financial. Yet no study was ever done into the costs of not providing safe, legal stopping places.
Well before the legal changes of the 1990s, Gypsies and travelling people were battling to preserve their way of life against regulation, prejudice and the relentless onslaught of 'assimilation'. From the mid l940s, they were subject to 'an accumulation of handicaps' which transformed nomadism into vagrancy. Some relief came with the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which placed a duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies 'residing in or resorting to' their area.
By the early 1990s, however, the cost of providing authorised sites was deemed excessive. With the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, camp provision was privatised, mass evictions were facilitated by sweeping new police powers, and the number of unauthorised camps rose steeply. Under constant threat of eviction, denied access to traditional sites now blocked or trenched off, demonised by officialdom and the media, Gypsies and travelling people became trapped in an increasingly desperate battle for survival. And, as the authors of this study demonstrate, the costs borne by everyone involved--local authorities, the police, landowners, and above all Gypsies and travelling people themselves--rose appreciably.
Spending relating to unauthorised campsites by local authorities already exceeded the £5 million annual cost of public provision--the price tag the Major government had deemed 'excessive'. If the spending incurred by other players, such as the police, businesses and landowners was added to the bill, privatisation emerged as even more profligate. 'Besides being an attack on the lifestyle of a minority group', reported the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in 1998, 'the Criminal Justice Act has created a "merry-go-round" of evictions... the potential health risks, both to the public and the travellers, of inadequate sites include water-borne disease through inadequate water supply and food-borne disease through unclean or crowded conditions. Other risks include infestation by body lice... refuse accumulation, accidents, fire and risks associated with living on contaminated land.'
Aware of the critical force of their conclusions yet apparently hopeful of influencing official policy, the authors tread a delicate line. On the one hand they seek to engage with 'Best Value' as a potential tool of social inclusion, on the other they recognise the futility of reducing human misery to a simple analysis of costs and benefits. The tension is apparent in the language of the report--for the most part measured and legalistic, but with an undercurrent of anger that from time to time surfaces.
As to the likely response of New Labour to the plight of travellers, the TLRU study has few illusions. It points out that travelling people 'are invisible within almost every document and programme emanating from central government', from housing policy to the national census. New Labour's attitude to Gypsies is summed up by Jack Straw's description of 'so called travellers' ready to 'cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other troubles, including defecating in the doorways of firms.' With David Blunkett now at the helm of the Home Office, in full cry against asylum-seeking Roma people from Eastern Europe, the outlook for Britain's Gypsies and travelling people looks no less bleak.