Issue 276 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Vive la Revolution
Simon and Schuster £10.99
If you're a stand-up comic you have to be constantly aware of your audience, ensuring that they are amused. That means that every assertion you make needs to have appended to it a joke or amusing ditty. If you don't feed them in this way or your jokes or ditties are not up to scratch, you lose your audience. If you succeed you can get over serious ideas while they think they're simply having fun. Mark Steel is a stand-up comic, and this book's title says it is a stand-up history of the French Revolution. It could indeed easily be transferred lock, stock and barrel to the stage, and the audience would enjoy themselves hugely, and get a good, thorough history of this great revolution to boot--from the sans-culottes' (or rank and filers') point of view.
Mark Steel uses his huge fund of jokes and amusing stories combined with every historical fact to try and give the reader the feel of what making history--whether you knew you were making it or not--was like. And because the reader will feel and understand through his or her current circumstances, most of the references are contemporary. As an example, after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 the revolutionaries demanded that the king, Louis XVI, returned to Paris from Versailles to face the music. A contingent of women raided the town hall for weapons, and by the time they set off from Paris on the 15-mile walk to Versailles they had become a crowd of around 10,000. 'The king [was] forced to march back to the capital surrounded by the poorest women of Paris, but he was made to carry out the whole journey wearing a fresh cap of liberty [replacing the one he had the previous night trampled underfoot]. Which must have been like making Peter Mandelson walk from Hartlepool to London selling copies of Socialist Worker.'
The use of contemporary illustrations turned into jokes fulfils another function which is of cardinal importance for the history. The references are not only contemporary, but are taken from Mark Steel's own point of view, as an ordinary rank and file human being--a hater of privilege and a socialist. The result is that the episodes of the revolution are seen through the eyes of ordinary people, in particular the sans-culottes--the poorest and, for the five revolutionary years the most radical and active of the revolutionaries. An example: in 1792, suffering a food shortage , 'residents of Saint Marceau forced open a warehouse, and the sugar hoarded there was sold at 21 sous per livre. All those who took it paid for it faithfully. That must have been the politest looting in the world. Maybe they even introduced a special offer--pay for two bags, steal one free.'
The way he describes, in his typically comic style, the awakening of the people out of their feudal narrow-mindedness, the rise of their consciousness--both political and cultural--and their consequent steadfast, uncompromising struggle for the ideas they developed, is beautiful.
The history of the revolution, told in this manner, is different from the usual story told. The time distance ceases to be an alienating factor, and the revolution can be understood by ordinary people in a manner that can inform and inspire to action today, but it is unique in its style and in the down to earth, rank and file viewpoint from which it looks at the period. And Mark Steel's combative and irreverent hilarity makes absorbing its serious subject matter a pleasure.
The book is, in fact, an exhaustive, detailed history of the revolution.
The Age of Consent
George Monbiot's new book is an interesting development from his bestselling Captive State, which attacked the 'corporate takeover' of Britain--the branding of every area of life by corporations and their infiltration of government. Now Monbiot, responding to debates within the movement, has put forward his own programme for political change. It is quite similar to Waldon Bello's ideas in that it advocates radical Keynesian measures to alter the distribution of world power.
Change, he now insists, must be at the global level and, in a really refreshing part of the book, he admits that he has changed his mind about many of the 'go local' solutions he once advocated. He rejects proposals for simple protectionist measures to reduce imports and argues that trade has redistributive potential. He also rejects arguments for establishing 'consumer democracy' by way of boycotts and 'mindful consumption' which he argues are 'a weak and diffuse means of changing the world' which 'looks more like the monastery than the barricade'.
As part of this rethinking Monbiot addresses what he considers to be the two main ideological alternatives within the global justice movement--Marxism and anarchism. Both are pretty summarily dismissed in a handful of pages. His treatment of Marxism is disgraceful, exhibiting little understanding, and he makes the scurrilous charge that Marxists are hostile to indigenous peoples because they are the modern day lumpenproletariat. Anarchism, which he says is the philosophy he has been most attracted to, fares little better--a world without states is a non-starter, he argues. So instead Monbiot seeks a global democratic revolution as 'the only realistic option we have' and most of the book elaborates four measures to bring about a new world order.
The first two are weak: the democratisation of the United Nations and the establishment of a global parliament. Even George Monbiot freely admits this parliament would only monitor the actions of the rich nation states and corporations. It would have no power to stop them, just the moral authority to condemn them.
The second two proposals address the question of world trade and this is where Monbiot introduces some force to his argument. He argues that the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO must be scrapped and replaced by an International Clearing Union and a new International Trade Organisation. The idea of a clearing union is a revised version of the scheme advocated by John Maynard Keynes at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 but which was blocked by the US which wanted the establishment of the IMF and the World Bank. Keynes's proposal went like this:
(1) Establish a global bank (or international clearing union) that has its own currency.
(2) Give every country an overdraft and a credit facility--the size in proportion to the value of its trade.
(3) Pressure poor countries that use up their overdraft (by charging interest, making them reduce the value of their currency and thus preventing the export of capital).
(4) Also pressure rich countries that build up credit (by charging them interest too, making them increase the value of their currency and forcing capital export).
In this way the exports of rich countries become less attractive, and capital cannot flee from deficit nations to credit nations because movement in that direction is blocked. Differences between economic and political power would no longer be continually reinforced.
This solution reflects two key ideas--firstly that the most important division of the world is that between the North and the South, and secondly that trade is the key relationship between these two units of the globe. Production and investment are not located as the source of the problem, when it is precisely capitalism's 'accumulation for accumulation's sake' that creates massive concentrations of investment (and the systematic tendency to crisis), and which is further reinforced by imperialism both past and present. Trade is a symptom of this problem, not its source.
This view of the world impacts on ideas about who will win change. George Monbiot argues that revolt in the South (encouraged by movement activists in the North) can force Southern governments to withdraw from and therefore destroy the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. But existing governments in the South are the very people implementing IMF and World Bank measures and turning their guns on those protesting against them. To act as agents of the kind of change Monbiot wants would mean these governments being transformed.
I agree with Monbiot on the necessity to act to build the movement, and The Age of Consent is a welcome contribution to an ongoing debate. But if we succeed in building a global movement so strong it can sweep aside the existing governments of the South and smash the postwar settlement to pieces, surely it is powerful enough to achieve more than the Keynesian reregulation of trade?
Six Easy Pieces
Serpant's Tail £12
It is 1964, and Easy Rawlins is working as a janitor at Sojourner Truth school in Los Angeles. When someone sets fire to his school, Mosley's enduring character begins to move back into the semi-criminal circles of his youth to find the culprit.
In these six separate but linked stories, Easy is living with his two adopted children and a woman whose love he is unsure of. He is tortured by guilt for his part in the death of his friend Mouse. It is this emotional turmoil which sends him away from his new life to help various friends out of sticky situations.
In these stories, Mosley presents us with an array of fascinating characters including a white southerner who has made money in California, a veteran of the First World War, a German cobbler, and many hard working women who fiercely protect husbands, lovers and children. Easy questions a cross-section of working class and wealthy LA trying to help friends avoid trouble.
Mosley is acutely perceptive about working class and poor lives, white and black, in the period when the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War are looming. He describes the small acts of everyday oppression faced by black workers in LA while reminding us of the stillborn lives they have escaped in the south.
Easy's anger at a thousand petty acts of racism is palpable--he is disgusted at himself for saying 'yes, sir' to a foreman, and his reaction provides a foretaste of political events yet to come. Equally he rails against the limitations that being working class or poor impose on talented young men and women of whatever colour. He sees the pain of hard work and debt in the hands of a poor white woman from the south, and hears a petrol station attendant complain about a wealthy family buying up local land and changing the street names.
All Mosley's people are briefly but memorably drawn. His is a sympathetic and non-judgemental picture of a hidden United States in which people are struggling to live well, north and south. Six Easy Pieces is less overtly political than Easy's last outing, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, but is quietly political nonetheless. Easy finds friendship without prejudice enormously valuable: 'My weakness had always been the offer of equality.' He questions his ability to make his lover happy when he is just a janitor trying to live a good life, not a leader of struggle. He torments himself over his lost friend, tantalised by the possibility that Mouse may still be alive, and driven to find him.
Easy's moral compass guides him to help the poor and oppressed--often against others just as poor and oppressed, often against the state or powerful white interests. He questions his choices and makes mistakes, and is beautifully believable.
Mosley has created a character who is maturing and developing as the racial and class polarisation in the US grows and social crisis beckons. It is impossible to ignore the contemporary resonance of the chasm between rich and poor, the systematic racism and oppression of women, and the growing rage at a brutal, exploitative and dangerous system.
The mosaic of lives and experiences represented in Six Easy Pieces tells us much about the early 1960s, and not a little about 2003.
Memoirs from the left
John Saville will be familiar to many readers of Socialist Review as one of the post-1945 generation who put British Marxist history on the map. His memoirs deal with this aspect of his life but it also shows him to be a lifelong political activist, first from his time at the LSE in the 1930s with the Communist Party and then, after 1956, as founding figure, along with EP Thompson, of the New Left. As an afterword to the book makes clear, Saville, now in his late eighties, remains politically active today.
The book itself is a joy to read because Saville brings the perspective of the historian to it. It is genuinely a memoir, and where Saville cannot remember something he clearly says so. Elsewhere he makes plain what the precise source for various memories are--letters for example--or suggests a corrective to his views of long ago provided by fresh historical research.
The first chapter of the book deals with his student years at the LSE. The second is a fascinating account of his life in the army, where, refusing an officer's commission, he rose to sergeant major as a gunnery instructor. His scathing comments on the stupidity and idleness of the upper ranks of the British army and his account of how Communists worked within the army will be fascinating reading to those who opposed the war in Iraq.
After the war Saville took up an academic position at Hull University where he was to remain for the rest of his working life, eventually becoming a professor. He reveals how Harry Newton, later exposed as an MI5 spy, passed himself off as a family friend for a period and writes interestingly about his professional relations with the university librarian, the poet Philip Larkin.
But MI5 were not interested in Saville because of his efforts to improve the academic life of Hull University, or even his later and important work to defend and extend academic freedom. It was his political activism that was clearly their focus. Saville had become a dedicated anti-imperialist as a result of his Second World War experiences in India. Yet by the early 1950s he was having increasing doubts about Stalinism. In 1956 Saville, along with EP Thompson, led the opposition in the British Communist Party, demanding that after Khrushchev's secret speech an open recognition of what had taken place in Russia should be made. In effect Saville was forced out of the Communist Party, resigning his membership to continue publication with Thompson and others of a new journal, the Reasoner.
Its successor New Reasoner became part of the New Left Review in 1960. Saville disliked the narrowing of the project that took place when Perry Anderson took the editorial chair in 1962, and left. He then went on to found and co-edit, with Ralph Miliband, another journal of the New Left, the Socialist Register.
While he believed in party organisation Saville had no time for the lack of open political discussion that characterised the Communist Party, or, as an anti-imperialist, for Labour Party politics. Indeed, he was one of those who helped the independent socialist campaign of the miners' activist Lawrence Daly in Fife in 1959.
By the 1960s Saville became strongly identified with labour history, having been a member of the Communist Party Historians Group before 1956, and a founder of the Society for the Study of Labour History. He was, for ten volumes over a 40 year period, the co-editor with Joyce Bellamy of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. This impressive work of reference, whose publication is still in progress, Saville worked on mostly in the evenings.
Following his retirement from academic life in 1982 Saville remained politically active, while continuing to publish a number of important books and essays. Readers of Socialist Review may have some arguments with his political positions and assessments. But, although comparisons may be unfair, by contrast with Eric Hobsbawm's recently published memoirs, Saville's account shows someone who has not only remained on and contributed to the left, but has done so actively. He concludes the book by noting his opposition to war with Iraq and to US and British imperialism in general. It will repay reading by historians and activists alike.
Southend Press £8
Over the last few years there have been a disturbing number of right wing Tory politicians who have felt the urge to write novels, such as Jeffrey Archer, Ann Widdecombe and Edwina Currie. Thankfully, Arundhati Roy is a novelist who has jumped headlong into the political arena. She writes beautifully, is a campaigner in the anti-globalisation movement and is really, really angry.
War Talk is a collection of six short essays written by Roy between May 2002 and January 2003. Roy is based in Delhi and, while she writes against the background of threatened nuclear war with Pakistan and the rise of the fascism in India, the spectre looming large in the foreground is that of Bush, the imminent war with Iraq and the never-ending 'war on terror'.
Reading these essays is like being blasted by a hot wind of anger. Roy begins one of the essays by saying, 'For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.' Roy rages against this broken world, against the poverty and war, against the horrific attacks on Muslims in India and the machinations of the multinational corporations. She is eloquently scathing about the Indian government, and Bush and Blair, but also confronts questions of nationalism, empire, and how we fight for real democracy. In the best essay in the collection, 'Come September', Roy takes the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 as her starting point but then moves on to talk about Chile, Palestine and sanctions on Iraq, and finally gives a no-holds-barred commentary on the way that the free market and its institutions undermine democracy itself.
Along with the anger in War Talk, there is also tremendous optimism. Roy is well known for her active support of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a huge movement against the building of a series of dams in the Narmada Valley that will threaten the homes and livelihoods of millions of people. Roy has been arrested for her activities with the NBA and, after winning the Booker Prize, donated her prize money to the campaign. In such grassroots campaigns, along with the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements, Roy sees the possibility of building another world free of war, poverty and oppression. In reporting on the rise of fascism in India, she foresees the world of barbarism that will result if we fail to fight for our new world.
War Talk is a passionate indictment of globalisation, imperialism and war, but even in the depths of despair Roy never loses her hope in the struggle. This is a well researched, informative and extremely readable book that will make you rage against the system and want to get active. As Roy says, 'Another world is not only possible, she's on her way.'
Go out and buy this book now.
New York Review of Books £16.99
On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, his brother Robert, the US attorney general, asked the director of the CIA, John McCone, if the agency was responsible. His brother's death had obviously affected Robert Kennedy's judgement because he apparently believed that McCone would tell him the truth. But while the question of who was responsible for Kennedy's assassination remains open, what is interesting about this incident is that it shows that the US attorney general had absolutely no illusions about what sort of organisation the CIA was or what it was capable of. Indeed, Robert Kennedy himself had been the driving force behind CIA efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
The CIA was and is a terrorist organisation, the most dangerous of modern times. It has overthrown governments, carried out assassinations, used torture and summary execution, practised bribery and corruption on a global scale and waged bloody covert wars. According to Thomas Powers, in his new collection of review articles, it is the US's unconscious. What light does his book throw on its activities?
Most of his focus is on the intelligence war between the US and the Soviet Union, on the attempts of the two rival empires to spy on each other. He is often critical of the CIA's performance, but generally this is friendly criticism. Of more interest to socialists are the agency's activities in the Third World. Powers discusses its role in the overthrow of Mossadeh in Iran in 1953, a coup that provided a model for covert regime change ever since. He looks at the covert war waged against Nicaragua and notes an agency guerrilla war manual produced for the Contras that recommended the public execution of 'carefully selected' government officials. As he remarks, one's confidence in the care with which potential victims were selected was undermined by the 'etcetera' that came at the end of the proposed list. And he is quite explicit about CIA involvement in the attempt to assassinate the Lebanese Shia leader Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, by car bomb, in 1985. The attempt failed but killed some 80 innocent bystanders. This was a terrorist outrage of some moment, but it never entered into political consciousness in either Britain or the US.
Most disappointing in Powers' book is the weak discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA's part in helping the Ba'ath Party seize power in Iraq is not mentioned. As for Afghanistan, it cannot be said often enough that Osama Bin Laden is the world's most famous former CIA agent. His activities were encouraged, sponsored and, at least partly, financed by the CIA when they were directed against the Russians--indeed his organisation actually had offices in New York. All of this was to change, of course, with the attacks of 11 September constituting the most dramatic incident of 'blowback' to have resulted from the United States' own terrorist activities. Indeed, one of the most convincing explanations for the US's failure to prevent 11 September is that they did not interfere with the attack's organiser, Mohammad Atta, because they thought he was still working for them!
However grim, bloodly, dishonest and corrupt the CIA's activities before 11 September were, one thing that is certain is that we are in for more of the same and worse. This makes it all the more appalling that the CIA establishment in Britain has burgeoned under New Labour without so much as a murmur from the cloned ranks of New Labour MPs.
Tony Benn's latest book is a collection of essays from 2001-02 written for the Morning Star. There are several excellent pieces on Palestine, US foreign policy and privatisation which make this a worthwhile read. However, there is also the central conundrum with much of Benn's political trajectory--'spending more time with my politics' since he left the House of Commons--that are difficult for revolutionary socialists, namely his insistence that the task of the left is to reclaim the Labour Party. After all, he states, 'I didn't join "New" Labour. I was born into and will die in the Labour Party.' And time after time this is his conclusion, notwithstanding his withering criticisms of New Labour.
Tony Benn provides the reader with an exhaustive series of New Labour betrayals, focusing particularly on how undemocratic Blair's party actually is. He blames Blair's betrayals for the massive decline in membership--from 400,000 in 1997 to 185,000 today. Benn suggests that socialists have been driven out as a consequence of business-friendly Blairite policies, leaving behind the New Labour acolytes of the 'dear leader', so there seems little or no chance for Benn and his supporters to 'reclaim their party'.
There are good points in this book. Benn is very supportive of the anti-capitalist movement. He salutes the demonstrators at Seattle and Genoa in particular, where he rightly condemns Berlusconi's carabineri for their murderous assaults on the protests. He is also hugely optimistic about the Stop the War Coalition. His description of the struggle for a united Ireland is also worth reading, quoting Bobby Sands--'Our revenge will be the laughter of our children'.
Benn provides the reader with several very useful checklists of essential demands for socialists. These include Afghanistan, the Middle East, Ireland and the US. He also describes how he was lied to when energy minister about the value of nuclear power. He is particularly good at describing Blair's fixation on Britain joining the euro, and how the Frankfurt bankers are increasingly taking power away from our democratically elected political representatives, be they MPs, local government councillors or trade unionists. His accounts of the NUM and Arthur Scargill's struggles against Margaret Thatcher's determination to smash the miners are also very moving.
Benn sets out over and over again the problems of New Labour regarding democracy, the royal prerogative, government secrecy, its obsession with big business, etc. His conclusions, however, remain in reclaiming the Labour Party through the trade unions and the annual conference. Blair has made sure neither will happen while he is the 'dear' leader.
Web of Deceit
Three years after the end of the Second World War, Britain declared an 'emergency' in its colony of Malaya and began a 12-year war to defeat mainly marginalised Chinese insurgents. Declassified files have revealed that Britain resorted to very brutal measures in the war, including widespread aerial bombing, which later became commonplace during the Vietnam War. Britain also set up a 'resettlement' programme, using draconian police measures to move hundreds of thousands of people. Those who refused to cooperate were shown the true face of British imperialism--at Batang Kali in December 1948, for example, the British army slaughtered 24 Chinese peasants, before burning the village. The reasoning behind the war? 'In defence of [the] rubber industry' and to protect the 'greatest material prize in South East Asia'. Britain achieved its main aims in Malaya--the insurgents were defeated, and with Malayan independence in 1957, British business interests were preserved.
Mark Curtis's brilliant and yet disturbing book Web of Deceit is an in-depth analysis of Britain's historical and contemporary role as a 'rogue state'--a violator of international law, a condoner of human rights abuses, and a key ally of many repressive regimes. At a time when many people see through the Bush gang's excuses for an unprovoked war on Iraq, Curtis's book comes as a stark reminder of the ever widening gulf between New Labour's professed commitment to upholding moral values and the reality of current policies.
Like Curtis's previous works, The Ambiguities of Power and The Great Deception, his latest offering is an assembly of uncovered truths, told largely from official records. He illuminates the fact that, far from changing course post 11 September, British policies are partly responsible for the continuation and deepening of global poverty and inequality, while its arms exports and nuclear policies are making the world a more dangerous place. In his long list of 'unpeople'--the victims of this global order, Curtis places the million or so Indonesians who were slaughtered during General Suharto's bloody seizure of power in 1965. Declassified documents show British complicity in the killings--the then Labour government supplied Suharto with warships, logistics and intelligence, as well as secret messages of support.
No less distressing is the 'removal' of 1,500 Illois from their homeland in the Chagos island group in the Indian Ocean in 1966. 'The subject of systematic lying by seven British governments over nearly four decades,' this ruthless dispossession was executed so that the largest Island, Diego Garcia, could be handed over to the US military.
Other chapters expose British immorality in Afghanistan, Kosovo, British Guiana; effective support for repressive state policies in Israel, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states; and acquiescence in the Rwandan genocide and the poverty-increasing policies of the World Trade Organisation. The examples contained within this book simply do not fit the glorious image of benign states wielding power in defence of 'all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom' (Bush), or in order to uphold 'values of justice, tolerance and respect for all regardless of race, religion or creed' (Blair).
And running throughout these chapters is an illumination of 'the mass production of ignorance' through the mass media, a censorship by omission that 'promotes one key concept...the idea of Britain's basic benevolence'. And yet where other writers may have succumbed to a bout of depression, Curtis has hope for the future. 'A popular people's movement', he writes, 'has arisen in recent years...[and is] united first in opposing the control of the planet by big business and second in seeking a world where justice and rights are respected for all.'
Curtis's book reveals a picture of Britain's real role in the world, a picture long obscured by a web of deceit. In Mark Curtis, we have a precious voice of dissent, and in his book, we have the fruits of that dissent.
Brick Lane delves into one of London's most neglected and abandoned communities: the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community. In the current climate of anti-Muslim sentiment and the supposed civilisational superiority of western 'liberal' countries, Monica Ali gives a compassionate and sympathetic rendering of the life of this Muslim community through the principal character of Nazneen. I know it intimately as a world with a volatile balance between utter despair and great hope. I read the book with great anticipation.
Nazneen arrives from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets in the mid-1980s because of her arranged marriage to Chanu, an 'educated' Bangladeshi. Her story unfolds over a 17 year period taking us up to 2002. Hasina, Nazneen's sister, who runs away for a 'love' marriage in Bangladesh, adds a parallel dimension, and introduces a powerful contrast to Nazneen's life in London. Nazneen's story unfolds among and through diverse characters in the Bangladeshi community: Mrs Islam the moneylender, Karim the Muslim radical, Razia the modern Bangladeshi young woman and her junkie son. And Nazneen's rebellious teenage anglicised daughters.
Initially, Nazneen is disorientated as she adapts to her new life as a housewife. Chanu, who treats her with consideration, becomes increasingly disappointed with his life in Britain. His aspirations and incessant plans for a better life for his family are blocked at every turn. He blames this on racism. Nazneen develops from being a meek housewife to a more independent and autonomous individual as the years pass. Important to this transformation is the affair with Karim, a Muslim radical. The contrast between Chanu, who eventually gives up trying to 'integrate', and Nazneen, who continues her quest for more freedom, is the crux of the story.
Hasina, meanwhile, describes the misfortune of her life back in Bangladesh as a worker in the factories of Dhaka, then as a prostitute and finally as a maid. This is done very well in the context of the political situation of Bangladesh. The deterioration in the condition of the country and its impact on women is powerful. Her determination keeps her alive.
The rise of Islamic radicalism among Bangladeshi youth is an important feature in the story. It situates it as a reaction to the election of a BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets in 1993, Russia's brutal war on Chechnya and the US's decimation of Afghanistan.
Brick Lane has all the ingredients for a great book. But the book's greatest weakness is that Nazneen's struggle for more freedom, which is primarily interior, is contrasted with the aspirations of the other characters, which are ultimately futile. Karim's Islamic radicalism and politics is thus portrayed: 'She had looked at him and seen only his possibilities. Now she looked again and saw the disappointments of his life, which would shape him, had yet to happen.' Chanu also is greatly disappointed and gives up. Do not poverty, racism and sexism still weigh down on Nazneen as she becomes more autonomous? Why does she persist and not the others?
Monica Ali only touches the surface of the community, its pain, suffering and anger, and its attempt at combat. The racism and poverty in reality were far worse. The reaction to despair in the Bangladeshi community was the hope born out of individual and collective struggle. It is important to read this book if only to enter this neglected world.
Soldiers of Salamis
In January 1939, just before the end of the Spanish Civil War, 50 top-level prisoners, among them priests, fifth columnists and Falangists, are marched in the rain to a clearing in the forest near the French border and machine-gunned. In the chaos one of them escapes. He crouches shivering in the bushes. Suddenly, he hears a branch crack. A young Republican soldier is pointing a rifle at him. Another Republican shouts, 'Found anyone?' The soldier stares at the fugitive, then calls back, 'No one here.'
This noble gesture is complicated by the fact that the fugitive is Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a notorious fascist. Disciple of Mussolini and co-founder of the Spanish Falange, Sánchez Mazas had spent the previous decade writing bloodthirsty articles to foment murder and military uprising.
Javier Cercas portrays extremely well the aspirations of the rich art-loving intellectuals who formed the Falange around José Antonio, their handsome leader. They might have persuaded themselves they were leading a national-socialist revolution that would revive an impoverished country. In fact they were defending the old Spain of privilege and poverty, threatened by the masses entering politics after the 1931 expulsion of the monarchy.
Cercas's novel is devoted to an investigation into the sparing of Sánchez Mazas's life--an enquiry into heroism and cowardice, the importance and frailty of memory, and the nature of the civil war. The book is divided into three parts. The first details Sánchez Mazas's wanderings in the forest and how he is helped by local Republicans, some of them deserters from a disintegrating army. The second explains his career--how he later became a minister of Franco, a well known writer and a millionaire sceptic who never abandoned his fascist beliefs.
The third part veers into the narrator's meeting with the Spanish exile Miralles in an old people's home in France. Miralles had fought through the civil war and the Second World War--nine years of war against fascism--and was possibly the soldier who spared Sánchez Mazas in the forest. In this third section, the book rises above the ordinary to heights of beauty and intensity. Through Miralles, Cercas pays tribute to the thousands of forgotten fighters against fascism.
Without self pity, Miralles names all his long-dead young comrades: 'No one remembers them. No one. No one remembers even why they died, why they had no women or children, no sunlit rooms... I remember them every day.' The novel's narrator is forced by Miralles to look away from Sánchez Mazas, and to see the young peasants and workers who took up arms to make a better world.
This narrator is a struggling young writer in prosperous contemporary Girona. His working class girlfriend poses awkward questions--why write about fascist scum and not about someone noble like Lorca? Cercas's device of not writing a straightforward historical account, but also describing the narrator's own investigation into the story, succeeds in linking today's world with the past.
A huge bestseller in Spain, the novel has been criticised by some on the left for serving up a light version of the civil war. It is true Cercas explains little about mass struggle or revolution, but the criticism is off-centre. Cercas forces the reader to follow the narrator in focusing on the struggle of history's footsoldiers, represented in Miralles, who towers above everyone else in the novel in his dignity and moral stature.
In the last two years Soldiers of Salamis has helped break through the curtain of fear inhibiting discussion of the civil war. A well known radio journalist appealed for stories from people who suffered during the civil war. His programme was overwhelmed by elderly people phoning in. A book of their testimonies was then published, challenging implicitly the official view that the civil war was a terrible thing with atrocities on both sides which should be buried and forgotten. Women in their eighties stepped forward with a dignity equal to that of the fictional Miralles to indicate where their parents, kin or husbands had been buried by their fascist executioners in unmarked mass graves. The women had not been able to speak out before because the same people who ruled these women's villages before Franco's death continued to rule after it.
The success of Cercas's excellent novel is part of this movement to lift fear and talk more freely in Spain, and should be welcomed. It is also a moving book that leaves no doubt who the real heroes of the civil war were. As Miralles says, 'If anyone deserved to die it was Sánchez Mazas, wasn't it?'
Anne Kerr and Tom Shakespeare
New Clarion Press £12.95
Eugenics is the idea that it is possible, as well as desirable, to 'improve' the genetic make-up of the human race. Eugenics could mean encouraging people with 'good' genes to reproduce, or preventing those with 'undesirable' characteristics from doing so. Not that long ago it seemed such ideas had been discredited once and for all by the experience of Nazi Germany. But according to this stimulating and thought-provoking book, eugenics is being given a new lease of life by new scientific developments. This is far from being the first book about the politics of genetics, but I found it particularly interesting because of the way it approaches the subject from the perspective of those who have been most affected by eugenics--people with disabilities.
The Nazis killed 6 million Jews. But it was disabled people who were the first victims of Hitler's extermination policies. Prejudice and propaganda was soon followed by sterilisation. The 'law for the prevention of genetically impaired progeny' was implemented on 14 July 1933. The Nazi regime eventually sterilised a shocking 5 percent of the German population. But it didn't stop there. In what became known as the T-4 programme, the Nazis murdered disabled people. The programme was personally ordered by Hitler, who proposed that 'those suffering from illnesses deemed to be incurable may be granted a mercy death'.
Patients were selected because of conditions as varied as schizophrenia, depression, mental retardation, dwarfism, paralysis, epilepsy, sometimes even delinquency, perversion, alcoholism, and 'anti-social behaviour'. Ominous grey buses took patients to killing centres. The most disturbing part of this book is its description of how the Nazis murdered disabled children. A decree of 18 August 1939 instructed all newborns and children under the age of 3 with disabilities to be reported. Babies and toddlers were killed by lethal injection or just excessive doses of ordinary medication.
So who carried out the killing? A chilling fact is the central involvement of scientists and doctors. The T-4 programme was sponsored by the leading medical professors and psychiatrists of Germany--people of international reputation. It was doctors, not SS men, who killed in the euthanasia centres or children's wards. After the war, the German medical profession closed ranks and refused to acknowledge what had happened, or the culpability of many of its members. Most of those involved escaped justice.
What about the reaction outside of Germany? Obviously the full horror of what had been going on did not emerge until after the war, but it is somewhat shocking to hear that the American Journal of Psychiatry was expressing enthusiasm for Hitler's sterilisation act as late as July 1942. Shocking, but not perhaps surprising, when one learns that the US and some Scandinavian countries were carrying out their own forced sterilisation programmes in the 1930s. These continued in Scandinavia until the 1970s.
The second and most contentious part of this book looks at whether eugenics is making a comeback on the back of scientific developments such as the Human Genome Project. It points out that many of the flawed assumptions of eugenics are still present in claims being made about the extent to which human society and behaviour is determined by our genes. The authors also raise some important and difficult questions for socialists. For instance, does screening for inherited conditions like Down's Syndrome and dwarfism represent an attack on disabled people's rights, as some disability rights activists have argued?
I think there is a real danger in equating abortion of a foetus with the Nazis' murder of children and adults. Such a view can end up blurring the sheer horror of what the Nazis did to thinking, feeling human beings. It also runs the risks ending up as an attack on women's right to choose. I do not think the authors fall into this trap. But I do disagree with their view that screening and termination of foetuses with heritable conditions necessarily leads to discrimination against those with disabilities.
This book makes some excellent and sophisticated contributions to what is likely to be one of the major debates of the 21st century. It should be recommended reading for anyone concerned about the misuse of scientific knowledge and those looking for ammunition in the fight against prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities.
The London Hanged
As governments step up internal repression under the guise of the 'war on terror', it is appropriate that Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged has been reprinted. Hanging in 18th century London, like lethal injection in 21st century Texas, was never only punishment. State terror was and is an active part of a dynamic system of antagonistic social relations.
Linebaugh's book 'explores the relationship between the organised death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)'. The other side of 18th century London's enormous wealth was its labouring population earning below subsistence levels.
London's criminalised population was no separate underclass; criminalisation was a sign of the expropriation and exploitation of the majority. This majority was diverse--Linebaugh compares it to 'a popular drink of the time, called "All Nations": the dregs of all the different spirits sold in a dram shop were put together in a single vessel'. Some workers were former slaves; some had fought British imperialism in Ireland. All had traditions of common ownership and alternative moral economies with which to oppose the intensification of capitalist social relations. With capital and other punishments, workers were forcibly reminded of the prerogatives of property. But property itself was constantly changing, shifting from customary payments to a predominantly waged economy.
Hangings at Tyburn for taking silk, sugar, rum, etc. told the labourers such perquisites were no longer theirs. Some of the London Hanged may have repented under Wesleyan pressure; many others died drunk, disorderly, angry, eloquent or trying to escape. Some were freed by the mob. Foucault's age of 'the great confinement' was also an age of escape, and plebeian heroes like thief and serial escapist Jack Sheppard figured in popular plays and ballads. The wealthy lived in fear of the lawless commons outside London, where highwaymen waited for them. Although factory discipline was eventually imposed on London's rebellious population, it was a long and a bloody fight.