Issue 270 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
British Social Attitudes
National Centre for Social Research
|Out and proud|
There are always nuggets of fascinating information in the annual British Social Attitudes surveys. What is interesting about this year's is the themes that develop through some of the studies. One is the growing liberalism expressed by the findings on race, sexuality and drugs. The other is the gap found between some of New Labour's flagship policies and popular opinion.
When asked what are the 'most effective measures to improve secondary education' only 3 percent answered 'more emphasis on exams and tests'. Instead the top priorities for people were smaller class sizes (27 percent) and better quality teachers (24 percent). As for funding for higher education, 94 percent of respondents believed that all or some students should get grants. Again on selection, less than half the population support selection in secondary schools.
On drugs, tobacco and alcohol come third and fourth after only heroin and crack cocaine as drugs seen to be most harmful to regular users. The proportion of people saying that smoking cannabis should be legalised rose from 12 percent in 1983 to 41 percent in 2001. The legal harassment of sufferers from diseases like MS who find that cannabis is the only drug to give them any relief from chronic pain is obviously highly unpopular. So nearly half (46 percent) think that doctors should 'definitely be allowed' to prescribe cannabis for medical reasons, and a further 40 percent think that it should 'probably' be allowed.
Young people have traditionally responded with more liberal attitudes towards drugs, sexuality and race. The question raised in the report is, will they deteriorate into narrow-minded bigots when they get older? Thankfully the British Social Attitudes surveys over the years show that there is what they call a 'period effect' that all of society is to some extent affected by the change in ideas on these issues. Each new generation begins with a more tolerant attitude, so there is a deeper change going on: 'Younger people do not lose their liberalism as they age--nowadays they actually get more liberal.'
On race the percentage of people who believe they are not at all prejudiced has grown from 65 percent in 1985 to 75 percent in 2001. Again levels of racism have fallen across the ages, apart from the very oldest group, not just among young people.
The most dramatic shift is on attitudes to sexuality. When asked about homosexuality 70 percent said it was 'always or mostly wrong' in 1985. In 2001 this had fallen to 47 percent, and those who said there was nothing wrong at all about homosexuality grew from 13 percent to a third.
The chapter entitled 'Where Have All the Voters Gone?' should be required reading for New Labour strategists. This looks at why just 59.1 percent of voters went to the polls in the 2001 general election. This was the lowest turnout since 1918. The experience of living under New Labour has taken its toll. Researchers normally record a high level of political trust after a general election. After 1997 a third said they felt such trust. After the election of 2001 only a quarter felt the same. What is interesting is that nearly half of the electorate who said they had no real party identification were won to vote for Labour in 1997 in the landslide that got rid of the Tories (47 percent). By 2001 such voters had lost that enthusiasm, with only 17 percent voting.
Bill Morris expressed the survey's strongest finding when he said last month, 'The dividing line between our parties seems to be blurred if not erased altogether.' A full 44 percent of people agreed with him, saying there was 'not much' difference between the parties. This is a new phenomenon. In 1964, 48 percent said there was a 'great difference' between the political parties. In 2001 this had fallen to only 17 percent!
The Irish War of Independence
Gill and Macmillan £24.99
The 1980s and 1990s were dominated by attempts by various academics to undermine any notion of popular mobilisation against the ruling order. Nowhere did that reach such a pitch as in Ireland. Many books and newspaper columns tried to denigrate the war fought for Ireland's independence from Britain between 1919 and 1921.
The starting point for most of these 'postmodernists' was topical and not historical. They were vehemently opposed to the Republican struggle in Northern Ireland and determined to paint Republicans as sadistic killers and 'godfathers of crime'. Yet because today's Republicans claim to stand in the tradition of the earlier IRA war for independence, these academics and journalists were forced to extend their denunciation of Republicans down the decades and many whitewashed the vicious record of British colonialism in Ireland. Things have moved on over the last decade, and there has been a fine crop of books dissecting the Republican war at the start of the last century and demonstrating how British repression and sheer bloody-mindedness fuelled support for the IRA and Sinn Fein.
Michael Hopkinson's book The Irish War of Independence is a good, even-handed account of the military campaign which forced Britain to withdraw from all but the north east corner of Ireland. In particular it focuses on the two central areas of IRA military operations--Munster (and County Cork in particular) and Dublin. The latter's importance is highlighted in the book. The British failure to 'pacify' the capital city meant they were always on the back foot and gave encouragement to Irish resistance.
Hopkinson shows that the IRA did not have to militarily defeat the British security forces. Their continued and growing resistance represented a political defeat for an overstretched and overextended British Empire. Once it became clear to the British prime minister Lloyd George that his policy of repression was not working, Britain had to accept a negotiated settlement with the Republicans. Lloyd George does not come out of this book well. Until the last he was determined to use repression to defeat the IRA.
The book ends rather abruptly with the onset of the British-IRA truce and the negotiations that led to the partition of Ireland and a civil war in the new southern state. Partly this is because Hopkinson is the author of a study of that civil war. But because he only takes the story up until the signing of the treaty he does not bring home the political (and dare one say class) weaknesses of the Republican leadership which led them to a shoddy and unnecessary compromise.
Hopkinson's book is a good starting point for those wanting a good introduction to this crucial episode in the fight for Irish freedom. It is quite old fashioned, in that it concentrates on 'high politics' and the military campaign to the virtual exclusion of the popular mobilisations which gave expression to the mass support for independence that existed. Neither does it draw extensively on the increasing number of local studies of the Republican struggle which show how, in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, subsequent British repression and the threat to extend conscription to Ireland fuelled support for the Republicans and set off a train of intensifying militancy which broke out into armed struggle in 1919.
The question of class is virtually absent as well. There was a class dynamic to the Irish independence struggle--sometimes submerged, sometimes open. The British were haunted by fears of the Republican struggle linking with the Bolsheviks in Russia and its effects on the growing opposition to its own imperial rule in Egypt and India. On the latter they were right to worry. The Irish war of independence acted as an inspiration for generations of future fighters against British imperialism. For that alone we bear those Republican fighters of eight decades ago a debt.
However, this is a book that is well worth reading and it is a welcome sign that its success in Ireland demonstrates that the pro-British, postmodernist tide has waned.
The Spirit of Terrorism
Welcome to the Desert of the Real!
The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were, among other things, a cultural event. The destruction of the twin towers in particular was intended to have a symbolic effect. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, the towers 'have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol. They, which were the symbol of omnipotence, have become, by their absence, the symbol of the possible disappearance of that omnipotence--which is perhaps an even more potent symbol.'
Baudrillard is perhaps best known for the idea that we live a world of simulation, where images--particularly on television--now constitute reality. This is of course false, but Baudrillard's version of cultural criticism has perhaps some use when applied to an event that was experienced by almost everyone by watching it on television. Like many other commentators, he points to the similarities between the images of panic-stricken New Yorkers fleeing the collapsing World Trade Centre with scenes from Hollywood disaster movies from King Kong to Independence Day.
Given these symbolic resonances, it wasn't a bad idea for Verso to mark the first anniversary of 11 September by publishing these three pamphlets by three leading cultural theorists. They are, however, a mixed bag. Baudrillard offers insight and bullshit in roughly equal measure. He hints at his longstanding and very silly idea, developed at greater length in a more recent article but dating back to the 1970s, that terrorism is somehow an authentic response to a west that has systematically destroyed its own values.
The theme of western decadence is taken further by Paul Virilio in what seems to be largely a conservative rant about how everything has been going downhill since the Renaissance. Along the way he makes some good points, particularly on the progressive commodification of everything in contemporary capitalism, but the general picture he paints of a human species that is busy abolishing itself through sexual licence and genetic engineering is rather reminiscent of the politically ambiguous outlook expressed in the novels of Michel Houellebecq, notably Atomised.
The pick of the bunch is provided by Slavoj Zizek. The title of his pamphlet is a line from The Matrix. When Keanu Reeves first discovers that, in reality, the world has been devastated in a nuclear war with humans reduced to the source of energy for the robots that now control them and manipulate their perceptions, he is greeted with the words, 'Welcome to the desert of the real.' It certainly helps, when confronted with events such as 11 September, to be able to distinguish appearance and reality, though for Zizek the Real has a technical psychoanalytic meaning as the unbearable Thing that is presupposed but cannot be contained by our schemes for maintaining a well ordered and harmonious 'reality'.
These days Zizek tends to equate the Real with capitalism, an idea that is the source, here as elsewhere, of much perceptive criticism of various manifestations of the dominant ideology--for example liberal apologies for torture in the 'war on terrorism'. There are also, again as usual, some good jokes that often press hard at the boundaries of political correctness (for example a funny but outrageous comparison between Afghanistan and Belgium). Zizek's scattergun approach means that there are misses as well as hits in a book that is broadly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Among the misses: an obscure denunciation of the anti-war left's reaction to 9/11; a defence of the role of Zizek's native Slovenia in the break-up of Yugoslavia; a criticism of boycotts of Israel; and a view of Europe as a potential counterweight to American hegemony. But, as always with Zizek, the ride is fun, and he's heading roughly in the right direction.
Carrying the elephant
We spent the afternoon in the park. He ran around like a loon playing French cricket with the girls and ate too many peanuts. In the evening we had cold meat and salad, and then went to bed. A couple of hours later he called out my name and I knew he was dying. Then the doctors said he was dying. Then they operated and he didn't wake up. Two days later I came home and saw his plate where he had left it. On it were two curled slices of salami he'd rejected. That was when the grief hit.
A few days later a voice on the telephone told me that Mike Rosen's son Eddie had died. One day he'd been alive. The next he wasn't. Meningitis. He was 18. Nothing in the world seemed safe or certain any more. I rang Mike. I thought shared grief might help us both, but it didn't.
Reading Mike's new book, Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss, more than three years later brought back those bleak days with an intensity I didn't expect. The subject of my grief had long since recovered. Mike's hadn't, of course.
Only a few of the 72 anecdotes that make up the book deal with Eddie's death. Like all the others, they reveal in a few sentences the essence of some part of Mike's life. And like all good poetry, they find a truth in very few words--a truth that jolts and gives pleasure and pause for thought. With Eddie, the prose-poems deal with their last conversation, the sight of Eddie's shoes where he left them, the words people said afterwards. All echoed in my head--yes, that's how it was.
As a collection, the pieces capture Mike's life and the world he has observed in his wonderfully original and quirky way. They take you through his youth in a Jewish radical family, to Eastern Europe and the BBC, through wars, strange ailments and family break-ups, to a new baby. They reflect his indignation and amusement, his curiosity and empathy, his sadness and joy. They get to the point--the injustice, the resistance, the ridiculous. Not once do they stray into sentimentality or self pity. And best of all, some make you laugh out loud.
'I got a letter home saying that Religious Education is compulsory. So I sent a letter back saying it isn't. They sent me a letter back saying but it is. So I sent them a letter back saying I've got the government papers saying it isn't and you're breaking the law saying that it is. And they sent a letter back saying OK it isn't and we'll write a letter home to everyone telling them it isn't.' Go buy and enjoy.
Revolution in the air
By the end of 1970, in the wake of Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the resulting explosion of anti-war activism across US campuses, the New York Times reported a survey stating that 3 million college students thought a revolution was necessary in the United States. Out of this radical milieu a smaller but nonetheless significant layer of activists set out to actively build new revolutionary organisations.
This book by a former leader of a Maoist organisation in the US during the 1970s and 80s is an attempt to distil the lessons of that period. He focuses on the turn by many of the best activists from the anti Vietnam War and black liberation movements to building revolutionary socialist organisations in the US.
Elbaum challenges very effectively what he calls the 'good 60s/bad 60s' thesis--the claim that the methods of the mid-60s New Left, with its emphasis on loosely structured organisational models prevalent in the civil rights movement and early stages of the opposition to the Vietnam War, are to be preferred to the later post-1968 turn to 'party building'. He insists that in the face of the US state's response to insurgency overseas and at home, particularly the wave of black urban rebellions sweeping US cities in the late 1960s and the vicious suppression of protest at the Chicago Democrat Convention of 1968, the turn to revolutionary politics by many was a logical development rooted in the concrete experience of a whole generation. It was very much a step forward for the movement.
The majority of these young activists adopted what he describes as 'Third World Marxism', above all Maoism. The combination of a high estimation of the revolutionary potential of Third World nationalism, illusions in China and a strong belief by many that revolutionaries by their own actions alone could move mountains (or 'voluntarism', as it is sometimes known) all played a role. This was reinforced by the relatively weak roots of many of the new revolutionary groups inside the US working class. Elbaum also touches on some of the weaknesses of the competing alternatives, including the failure of the main Trotskyist organisation to keep step with the radicalisation taking place.
The rest of the book is an often insightful attempt at a measured balance sheet of the successes and failures of the Maoist organisations. Elbaum is sharply critical of both the voluntarism of the Maoists and the strong pull of ultra-leftism and sectarianism that existed within its various currents. He is, however, adamant in his defence not just of the commitment and seriousness of those who sought to build these organisations but also that they were right to attempt to do so whatever errors were involved. He is inclined to be uncritical of the rightward shift of many Maoists and former Maoists in 1980s, particularly their involvement in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Alliance and the Democratic Party.
For all the energy and commitment displayed by a whole generation of activists, the politics of the Maoists did enormous damage to the revolutionary left in the US and elsewhere. But in offering useful insights into how and why many activists turned to building revolutionary socialist organisations in the early 1970s, by drawing a frank balance sheet of those attempts and above all by continuing to insist that all this retains a real relevance to the renewal of the left today, Elbaum has performed a valuable service.
Seven Stories £7.99
Tanya Reinhart is a linguistics scholar who turned to political writing after the deception of the Palestinian people over the so called peace negotiations of Oslo. Reinhart has been a consistent political activist. She has produced a concise but detailed and accessible analysis of the machinations of the Israeli state. This book debunks myth after myth concerning the Camp David negotiations with a series of illuminating quotes from Israeli military and government officials shedding further light on Israel's true intentions.
Since Sharon's orchestrated visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque provoked the outbreak of the second Intifada Palestinian infrastructure has been gradually decimated. Palestinians are often forced to rely on food aid, which the Israeli state intermittently blocks. Schools and universities have been frequently closed since September 2000. When they are open students are prevented from travelling due to the barbaric system of checkpoints and harassment by the Israeli Defence Force. Reinhart also points to the victims of Israeli bullets who are disabled for life, unable to receive any proper rehabilitation from a destroyed healthcare system. Reinhart asserts that there has been a systematic policy by the Sharon government to shoot demonstrators and civilians in the legs and head to cause maximum damage, often paralysis, without adding to the death toll. This process he calls Israel's 'slow ethnic cleansing'.
Reinhart unpicks the Camp David negotiations which have been consistently held up by the Israeli government and the 'international community' as the prime example of the Palestinians refusing to compromise. But the playing field has never been level. Not only did Barak offer Arafat a set of plans he could never agree to, he also disappointed a lot of his supporters who had believed his dovish approach might end the long and bloody occupation.
Barak was presented as the compromiser at Camp David and Arafat the rejectionist. But accepting the idea of two states was an enormous concession by the Palestinians. The media has continually propagated the notion that Israel giving up even an inch of the Occupied Territories is a huge compromise. In doing this, so the argument goes, the Israeli state not only risked agitating its right wing, it was also giving up the historical and biblical ties to the Promised Land. However what has gained less attention has been the Palestinians' much more immediate, indeed current, association with this land. Until 1948 the Palestinians lived on the entire area of Palestine. Nevertheless, in 1988 they had agreed to give up 78 percent of that land in dividing the country along the pre-1967 borders. This was reconfirmed during Oslo. For seven years they waited for Israel to return 22 percent of their land.
Barak's offer at Camp David was not a 'generous' one. It completely ignored the right of return of the Palestinians and manipulated the question of East Jerusalem. Many were led to believe that Israel was agreeing to divide Jerusalem, implying that East Jerusalem would become the Palestinian capital. Reinhart explores this verbal trickery and Arafat's complicity in this.
There was no acknowledgement that the Zionist state was responsible for creating the massive Palestinians refugee problem. Barak demanded to keep the right of return issue at the 'sole discretion' of Israel, and the largest figure quoted of those allowed to return was to be only 10,000. The Palestinians would be given three options: to remain in the camps, settle in an overcrowded Palestinian state, or rely on the 'international community' to allow immigration. Hence in the summer of 2000 Barak had deceived the Israeli people and the world that he was willing to create some kind of equitable peace, but this was never the case.
This book, endorsed by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, adds to the increasing body of work by Israeli writers and activists who dare to question the dominant discourse in Israeli society about the conflict in general as well as the Oslo negotiations, and the Palestinians' resistance.
The Little Friend
From the gripping opening page of Donna Tartt's new novel, you know you are on unfamiliar ground. The book is set in the American Deep South--home to poisonous snakes and redneck preachers, a place of sweltering heat and exotic plants.
The book begins with the shocking murder of a much loved nine year old boy, Robin. The story then jumps forwards a few years and describes the impact of the murder on Robin's relatives--his eccentric aunts, his devastated mum Charlotte and his sisters Harriet and Allison.
Harriet becomes the centre of the novel. She is a brilliant character, feisty, brave and determined--particularly determined to find her brother's killer. Harriet enlists the help of her friend Hely and their search for the murderer leads them to confront a dark adult world and face up to real dangers. Her suspicions centre on the Ratliffe family.
The Ratliffes are real rednecks. They live in filthy trailers. They make their own speed. They have all been in and out of prison more times than they can remember. And their favourite pastimes include domestic violence and taking pot shots at black people. In contrast Harriet's family represents the fading genteel elegance of the old South. Harriet's aunts remember living in a mansion straight out of Gone with the Wind, with two staircases and chandeliers. It was called Tribulation. The family was brought low by madness and deceit. But they all still have black servants to whom they are casually, almost unthinkingly, racist.
We see how horrible the prejudice and bigotry look through the eyes of a child with an acute sense of justice. This aspect of the book has been compared to To Kill A Mockingbird in which children also see through the racist prejudices of the adult world. The book is marked by abrupt changes of pace. It meanders along in a leisurely way, loaded with lyrical descriptions of flowers, plants, dreams and observations on life. Sometimes it feels as if is has been written in real time, as moments tick by. Then it suddenly sweeps forward into moments of real suspense and tension.
Some reviewers found the novel's style too long-winded. I thought it was like a grand 19th century novel that you get inside. You have time to get under the characters' skins and to move around in the world they live in. They are brilliantly drawn and utterly believable. The tensions of race, class, and age are powerful and at times shocking.
Donna Tartt became a literary sensation with her first novel A Secret History, which was about students, murder, classical literature, drugs and sex. It is a brilliant, intelligent and thrilling novel which is now on sale again everywhere. The Little Friend took ten years to write and it shows. It reads as if every word has been carefully chosen, every image weighed up and every twist of the plot placed with great precision. It's a challenging, fascinating novel that deserves to be read.
The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920
James Eaden and David Renton
Why should we be interested in the history of a party which dissolved itself 11 years ago, shrouded among accusations of reformism, spying for the USSR and trousering the infamous 'Moscow Gold'? The most obvious reason is that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) certainly 'punched far above its weight'. Never a mass party, unlike its European comrades, the CPGB in 1920-21 welded together a disparate collection of organisations that were either pessimistically sectarian or triumphalistically over-optimistic, to forge a party that was to be predominant on the left beyond the Labour Party for nearly 70 years.
James Eaden and David Renton present a thorough historical narrative of the evolution of the CPGB from its origins in 1920 through to the dissolution in 1991. Theirs is a fastidiously researched volume of accessible history that is a splendid example of succinct research and engaging analysis. Their footnotes are particularly enjoyable--I did not know, for example, that while Khrushchev was delivering the 'secret' speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin and the 'cult of the individual', the CPGB delegation were visiting a condom factory! Their textual references are also excellent. Here for example is Jimmy Reid of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and a Clydebank CPGB councillor:
'We are issuing this call today that in no circumstances will we implement this Tory Rent Act, whatever the consequences... We are answerable to no courts--only the courts of the working class on Clydebank. I would rather sup on porridge with my principles than dine on smoked salmon and caviar without them.'
Great stuff, Jimmy, only as Eaden and Renton note, 'The following month the three Communist Clydebank councillors voted with the Labour majority to implement the rent increases.'
For a reader new to the zigzags of socialist politics this volume is illuminating. That it is both short (200 pages) and well informed with first person anecdotes plus the party's archive makes it a very enjoyable introduction to the subject. Most of all it provides us with a first class analysis of how the CPGB operated as the force on the revolutionary left, while crucially examining the failures and lost opportunities of that hegemony.
The CPGB was until the late 1970s among the poorest of the European CPs in terms of membership and finance, yet it was still loyal to the USSR and the Stalinist legacy. Its influence in parliamentary terms was always negligible, yet its trade union influence was considerable. In unions such as the NUM, the old ETU, the AEUW, the FBU and in the London docks and on London buses, the CPGB attracted significant support. Likewise in campaigning organisations such as CND and the Anti-Apartheid Movement the party was prominent. How could such a party exercise such an influence? The main reason given by Eaden and Renton is its capacity to accommodate to 'mainstream reformism' while telling its members it was still a Marxist party. The final 20 years exemplify this dual ideology--moving to the right of the Labour Party (and heralding 'New' Labour) in its Eurocommunist identity, while posing as the socialist conscience of CND and AAM.
The CPGB vacillated between united and popular frontism, seeking to 'march together whilst striking separately' around unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s, and 'uniting the bishops and brickies' around the Second World War, anti-racism and peace. Popular frontism took over its approach in the 1980s in the struggles against unemployment and Thatcherism. 'People's Marches' once again united bishops and brickies--however there was a sectarian intolerance to united front work if that involved marching with the 'ultra-left'.
The continuing interest in the CP lies in political theory, strategy and tactics. From its inception in 1921 through to the mid-1980s, the CPGB was beholden to the USSR with all the schisms and line changes that involved. Furthermore, from Hungary in 1956, European CPs were exposed as willing agents of Soviet policy, and from the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as simply out of date cheerleaders for a discredited state and ideology. From 1968 the 'far left' which had advocated the genuine ideal of 'socialism from below' was able to begin the process of challenging and eclipsing the CPs, so that by 1978 the CPGB was forced to admit that its popular frontism against the threat of the National Front was a disastrous failure. In 1991 Nina Temple, the CPGB's last general secretary admitted, 'the Trots [SWP] were right on the question of Russia.'
Do we need another history of a dead party? The answer is a resounding 'yes' if it is as good as this one. In government we have the most right wing Labour Party since Ramsay MacDonald. The space once occupied by the CPGB can in future be occupied by socialists with a wholly different tradition.