Issue 273 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

Striking back against empire

Anti-Imperialism
Ed: Farah Reza
Bookmarks £10


Tariq Ali introduces 'Anti-Imperialism'
Tariq Ali introduces Anti-Imperialism

'I used not to use the word imperialism. I thought young people wouldn't even know what it meant... Suddenly I find that everyone is using the words imperialism and anti-imperialism.' George Galloway is spot on. The war in Iraq has meant that millions of people are asking questions about imperialism, questions that this excellent and timely handbook goes a long way to answering.

Military aggression by the US is not new. Since the Second World War, the US has invaded or bombed Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Grenada, Haiti, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Nowhere has such US intervention brought a whiff of relief, let alone liberation, from poverty or repression. Conversely, the US has enjoyed rewards. It secured its long-sought control of a country crucial for the exploitation of the vast and largely untapped oil of Central Asia. It established military bases in Pakistan and every Central Asian state except Turkmenistan. And it used impoverished Afghanistan to show the world that it can 'regime change' whenever it wants.

Many questions are addressed in this book, such as the split between France and Britain. After the Suez fiasco in 1956, the British state resolved never again to get out of step with the US, whereas France was determined to build Europe as a counterbalance to US power. Differing economic interests also explain other splits in the UN. Before the so called 'Iraq crisis', contracts to develop nearly half the proven oil reserves in Iraq had been parcelled out to mostly non-US foreign companies. In 2002 some 3,000 Russian companies were doing business with Iraq and reportedly had acquired the rights to sell roughly 40 percent of Iraq's oil on world markets.

Many other articles provide invaluable arguments--George Galloway shows that the Middle East 'peace plans' are simply attempts to 'throw sand in the eyes of Arab public opinion'; Hassan Mahamdallie explains how imperialist states use racism to demonise and dehumanise the 'enemy'; Chris Harman discusses national liberation and reminds us of Marx's adage that 'a nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free'.

The book also has wonderful illustrations and 'fact files' that on their own or in combination speak volumes. For example, the US has 15,000 nuclear warheads; its military budget is $379bn and its international aid budget is $25bn. The annual cost of providing healthcare and nutrition for the world's population is $15bn; the US has almost 45 percent of the trade in major conventional weapons, and owns five of the top six arms defence companies.

However this guide is far from gloomy. Several contributors point to the mismatch between the US's military might and its economic muscle, which means the empire is beginning to crumble from within. As its relative economic strength in the world continues to decline, it becomes increasingly prone to crisis.

But the main reason for cheer is the emergence of a mass and diverse worldwide anti-capitalist and anti-war movement, which, as Jeremy Corbyn says, has 'changed the politics of this country'.

Anyone with any doubts about the virtues of US imperialism should read Dragan Plavsic's piece on the Serbian Revolution that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. 'Where the west brought colonial rule to Bosnia and Kosovo, the uprising brought democracy to Serbia. Where the west sanctioned ethnic cleansing, the uprising ethnically cleansed no one. Where the west failed to secure Milosevic's overthrow with 78 days of bombing, the uprising felled him in days. Where the west brought death to hundreds of civilians, the uprising cost three lives.'

A Belgrade University student summed it up well in an interview with the BBC: 'We did it on our own. Please do not help us again with your bombs.'
Clare Fermont


CONSPIRACY TO KILL

An Act of State
William F Pepper
Verso £17


An Act of State

Martin Luther King is often viewed as being at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Malcolm X. The latter is seen as the uncompromising radical of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, while King is portrayed as a reformer who could not keep pace with the growing militancy of the times. The truth is not so black and white. King was increasingly shifting to the left, coming out against the Vietnam War and organising on class lines through the Poor People's Campaign and supporting strike action. The US was in flames, with 131 riots in the first six months of 1968. The government was panicking and so, like Malcolm X, King was murdered.

The official line has been that King's death on 4 April 1968 was the act of a lone racist gunman, James Earl Ray. This was confirmed by a House Select Committee on Assassinations report in 1979 and recently by a US Department of Justice investigation. William Pepper, a colleague of King's, puts forward an alternative to this in his book An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King. Pepper, who has been working on the case for 25 years, meticulously disassembles the official theory.

According to Pepper, King's assassination was ordered by the US government and carried out by its various agents. Ray was their patsy, framed by the Memphis police. The only eyewitness claiming Ray was the killer was drunk at the time. The rifle with his prints on did not match with ballistic tests. Military units surrounded the motel where King was staying, serving as a back-up in case the sharpshooter failed. All black state officials were taken off duty on that day in case they reported on the real events that took place. Added to this are numerous witness testimonies that others were responsible for the murder. The decision to kill King had been taken months, if not years, before.

This sounds unbelievable and Pepper has been attacked by the establishment and the media for his 'sensational' conspiracy theories. But the evidence Pepper details in his book, which is corroborated by a number of sources, cannot be easily dismissed. It was this very evidence which was used in a civil action in 1999 against one of the main conspirators. A large number of witnesses testified to the extensive range of activities which led to King's death and the attempts to cover up the truth. Incredibly, the chronicle of events include murder, solicitation of murder, intimidation of witnesses, attempted bribery, suppression of evidence and alteration of the crime scene. Pepper led the prosecution team and after four weeks the jury found the defendant guilty. Most importantly it concluded that government agencies were involved in the conspiracy to kill King. The ruling was barely reported on, with only small articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Pick up most history books or browse the web and virtually everything will back the official government line that Ray was the killer. This is even more surprising when you realise that Pepper's case was backed by King's family, including his widow and son.

The credibility of Pepper's detractors diminishes as you realise that virtually all of their evidence is based on police, military, FBI and state records. If all of these agencies were involved in the conspiracy to murder King, then they are hardly going to suddenly come clean. Pepper successfully shows their various attempts to suppress and censor evidence that challenges the official line.

The book chronologically examines how Pepper pieced together various fragments over the years and his attempts to prove Ray's innocence. He goes through all of the evidence and highlights leads that the state did not follow up or deliberately ignored. At times, especially early on in the book, it can seem confusing. Various names, dates and events are provided at once and it can be hard keeping track of who is who. There is also a tendency to repeat some of the facts and events but this is understandable. Pepper wants to avoid any of his facts being questioned and if that means repetition, then so be it. Despite these minor gripes the book and Pepper's commitment to investigating King's murder are a remarkable achievement. It shows the corrupt nature of the US government and its ability to intimidate, harm, torture and even kill those who challenge it.
Mubin Haq


THE GOSPEL TRUTH

Apocalypse
Neil Faulkner
Tempus £25


Apocalypse

Resistance to imperial expansion is not a phenomenon confined to modern times, as Neil Faulkner demonstrates in this richly detailed survey of the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire in Palestine in the middle of the 1st century AD.

The Roman Empire was showing signs of disintegration. The Germans successfully revolted against the Romans in 9AD, destroying three legions. Just over 50 years later Boudicca nearly saw them driven from Britain and by the end of the decade Rome was embroiled in civil war. The resistance of the Jews and the immense power ranged against them demonstrates the potential threat the empire faced.

Clearly warfare conducted through massive land armies, battering rams, javelins and slingshots has little technically in common with warfare today. However the detail that is used to illustrate every step made by both sides in certain key moments provides us with a wealth of information. This account unfolds with astounding realism given that Faulkner is describing events that took place nearly 2,000 years ago.

Fortunately, any historian attempting to uncover the dynamics and realities of this revolt has a comparative wealth of sources. The biblical narratives of the Old Testament together with other texts that never made it into the canon provide useful background. In the 1st century AD the Bible as we know it today had not yet crystallised into a static form. It was still a living tradition of 'origin myths, tribal laws, popular fables, wisdom literature, prayers and psalms, royal chronicles and sages, stories and sayings of the prophets'. Clearly this does not give an accurate historical account but it can provide us with helpful insights.

There were many other texts of the same time that never made it into later Bibles, some of which were uncovered in the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. These came from a sect known as the Essenes who believed an apocalyptic 'End of Days' was just around the corner. The differences between the scrolls and the Old Testament as we know it highlight that Judaism was far from a monolithic faith at the time. There were many divisions between rich and poor, between collaboration and resistance to the Romans, and continual disagreements over the nature and detail of religious practice. Jewish society was racked by a crisis of extreme social conflict and political instability. To derive a clear picture we need to appreciate the religious framework that surrounded the period, just as analysis of the English Civil War requires an understanding of the connections between religious ideologies and society.

The other key source of the time comes from the historian Josephus, 'a fairly typical member of the Jewish aristocracy'. Again great care is needed in using his descriptions of events. Josephus led a failed military mission in Galilee against the Romans, but after tricking his comrades into taking part in a joint suicide pact he turned traitor and surrendered to the Romans, becoming a leading propagandist for the emperor Flavius. Josephus was a dunatos, 'one of the powerful men' who owed their position in society to their collaboration with Roman imperialism. Their role was one of mediation but in times of crisis this wasn't the easiest path to take. The dunatoi's main political opponents were the stasiastai--those aiming at revolution, for if the Romans were kicked out they would no longer hold their positions in society.

Some tenets of Judaism at the time came into massive conflict with the Roman occupiers. Jewish law dictated that every seventh year all debts should be cancelled and all slaves freed. As Roman society was dependent on slavery this was clearly going to cause some problems.

This revolution, like any other, was not a sudden overnight affair, but a culmination of processes. There was massive upheaval as the exploited refused to be trodden down both by a Roman occupying force in crisis and the elite in Jewish society, and were increasingly squeezed between the two. As Chris Harman notes in A People's History of the World, 'In all these clashes, class hatred of the Jewish upper classes merged with hatred of the Roman forces of occupation.'

Although the revolution was eventually defeated it certainly changed history. This is a fascinating insight that breaks through the mythology that surrounds the birth of Christianity. Faulkner provides invaluable lessons in the practice of revolution, through the eyes of the militants who rose up against the most powerful empire of the day.
Beccy Reese


A MATTER OF STATE

Class Theory and History
Stephen A Resnick and Richard D Wolff
Routledge £16.99


Class Theory and History

Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, two American sociologists, set out to explain in this book the nature of Soviet society. Their argument is that the USSR was 'state capitalist', by which they mean that the economic rules of that society were no different from those of the established class societies of America and the west. Such an argument is timely and important, but not entirely new.

Fifty years ago in Britain, Tony Cliff advanced much the same theory in a series of books and articles, the most important of which is available today as State Capitalism in Russia. Cliff rejected the orthodoxies of his time. For capitalism, people were then told, was the best possible society. Its only serious rival--Russia--was a police state with no respect for human liberty, a brutal society in which the workers suffered at least as much as they did in the west. Cliff broke through this dreary consensus, showing that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with socialism, and indeed that socialists should fight for a different, democratic society, a socialism based on 'Neither Washington nor Moscow'.

Resnick and Wolff are not only concerned with promoting the ideas of socialism--but above all with winning a position for their argument within the university world. Such an approach gives their book a few strengths and also certain weaknesses.

First, the strengths. Resnick and Wolff are well read, and offer at times useful summaries of a rich literature. They know that they are not the first in the field, and they try to push the existing argument forward. Their summary of Marx's use of class draws our attention to the question of surplus. In any class society, goods are produced, but different people enjoy different relationships to the processes of production. Some people produce, others gain directly from production, a third group may gain indirectly. Resnick and Wolff argue convincingly that these are the relationships out of which different classes are formed. In a true classless society, 'socialism' or 'communism', class divisions would cease to exist. This basic truth explains why people want to live in a different, socialist society! This part of their book takes a common Marxist argument, expresses it and develops it well.

Later sections continue this process of 'innovation'. But unfortunately, the theoretical breakthroughs for which the authors search cannot be achieved to any publisher's order. In one part of their book, the authors seem to argue that from the start of the Russian Revolution in October 1917 to the demise of the USSR in 1989-91, the system was always the same. It was 'state capitalist', that's all we need to know. Forty pages later, Resnick and Wolff undermine their own previous assertion. They begin then to make the sort of historical distinctions that might interest activists of the left, between the open, mixed economy of 1917-18, the Stalinist military machine of the 1930s and 1940s, and the stagnant bureaucracy of the postwar period.

So while Resnick and Wolff deserve praise for defending a socialism untarnished by Stalinist deceit, theirs is not the last word on the subject. Authors should always be judged for the book they did write, not for the one that the reviewer might have preferred to read. Yet I can't help but think that Cliff's lively, historical approach is more useful to activists, more revealing, as well as being more true to life, than the sociological theory to be found here.
Dave Renton


MIGRATING ACROSS THE WAVES

Welcome to Paradise
Mahi Binebine
Granta £12.99

The Broken Cedar
Martin Malone
Scribner £12.99


Welcome to Paradise

Both these new novels are about faraway people. Welcome to Paradise is about North African would-be emigrants waiting through the night on a Moroccan beach for the moment their trafficker decides it is safe to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. The Broken Cedar is about the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on everyday Lebanese life in 1994, before the Israelis leave Lebanon, and an act of horrifying violence this gives rise to in the past of Khalil, who is an electrical shopkeeper catering to the needs of United Nations troops on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

In Welcome to Paradise, Mahi Binebine, a Moroccan writer, deals very compassionately with each one of the disparate group of emigrants, covering their life stories in their different North African countries and the reasons they seek to emigrate, and describing the dreams of each as they wait to cross the fifteen kilometres of water separating them from paradise.

A lingering worry for them is the presence among them of a young mother with her newborn babe who might betray their presence by crying. The efforts to circumvent this brings out the protective urge in one of the emigrants, and a gentle and moving love story is woven out of this. The sympathetic way each person's desperation and dreams are handled and the final and unexpected denouement make this a beautiful book to read and enjoy in order to gain a deeper understanding of the urge to migrate.

The Broken Cedar is also an absorbing work. The crisis of conscience suffered by the dying Khalil evolves slowly out of the relations Khalil has with his multinational United Nations customers. He was a participant in the drama that the story is about, but hid the strange truth for 15 years, and is now faced with having to divulge it. The build-up of the drama occurring hand in hand with Khalil's developing illness, and his complicated psychological attitude towards all the personal and circumstantial influences affecting him, is masterful. It is difficult to put the book down as the climax is reached right at the very end of the story.

Both these books are well worth reading.
Chanie Rosenberg


OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH

Born under Punches
Martyn Waites
Simon & Schuster £10.99


Picketing during the miners strike 1984-85
Picketing during the miners strike 1984-85

1984: Coldwell, a fictional north east mining town, is under siege by the police. Stephen Larkin, a passionate young journalist, wants to expose the truth about the miners' strike--what's at stake for Coldwell and the country, and what Thatcher and the police are prepared to do to win.

2001: Coldwell is a bleak landscape of unemployment, despair and addiction. Tony Woodhouse, a former professional footballer, runs a drug counselling centre. 'Slapping a band-aid on and sending them out again,' as he puts it. Louise, his ex-partner, is in a loveless marriage, her daughter falling in with a nihilistic dealer. Ex-miner Mick is trying to overcome alcoholism and a dysfunctional family. Mary Poppins this isn't.

This is Our Friends in the North territory (and not just geographically). Although its scope is more limited--switching between 1984 and 2001 rather than charting entire lifetimes--it weaves its tapestry of characters impressively through each other's lives. By contextualising them within the defeat of the Great Miners' Strike, it brings home the devastation Thatcher's victory wreaked on working class communities, and is a better explanation of crime and delinquency than Downing Street will ever manage.

There are weaknesses. Waites's habitual references to contemporaneous songs quickly wear thin, bringing to mind the recent glut of glib nostalgia television shows. He also seems to be using sex as a metaphor for drug addiction--sex as consolation and escapism, as well as a microcosm of society as a whole--sex as an expression of power, control and exploitation. Although these are all legitimate and interesting themes, at times their exploration feels gratuitous.

The novel really comes alive, aptly enough, under the punches of the police. The depiction of the violence meted out to pickets, and their frustration at the media's collusion in demonising them as 'the enemy within', has an emotional power that transcends the raw polemics of the youthful journalist who witnesses it. This exercise of state power in the cause of neoliberalism--breaking working class organisation to enable deregulation--is a warning to those who, even in the face of rampant imperialism, would see the state as antagonistic to capital.

This novel has much in common with the political tradition of this magazine. The acknowledged influence of Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons' book on the miners' strike is one indicator of this. The inclusion of the Redskins' music is perhaps a greater giveaway. But the plot is never subordinated to rhetorical analysis, and rightly so--art needn't be agitprop to enrich our understanding of the world and its injustices.
Andrew Stone


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