Issue 278 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
|The UN had no interest in preventing the Rwandan genocide|
Everyone has seen on television a packed football ground with 50,000 spectators crammed together. Imagine 16 such crowds, but with every spectator a corpse, a person hacked, bludgeoned or shot to death. That was Rwanda in 1984, when 800,000 were murdered.
Anyone who decides to write a novel about a subject so barbaric has taken on a special responsibility. A book that tries to explain why and how 800,000 Rwandans were butchered has shouldered a far more ambitious task than, say, a book about the marital infidelities of the Islington upper middle class.
Gil Courtemanche has tried to use a novel--and a love story--to help us understand the carnage and pitiless cruelty of those 100 days of horror.
He tells the story of Bernard Valcourt, a French-Canadian journalist working in Rwanda. Valcourt falls in love with Gentille, a member of the Hutu group who looks like a member of the Tutsi group. Her great-grandfather has reacted to a society where Tutsis are deemed superior by trying, through a series of arranged marriages, to make his children seem less and less like Hutus. The tragedy is that the 'success' of the project seals Gentille's fate as Tutsis become the scapegoats in a society which is falling apart.
Unlike very many accounts of the horror in Rwanda, Courtemanche does not just focus on the undoubted crimes of the leaders of the Rwandan regime. He also probes to find who assisted the regime to power, who armed it, who encouraged it to commit mass murder. Valcourt says he is 'trying to say what's hidden behind the bogeymen, the monsters, the caricatures, the symbols, the flags, the uniforms, the grand declarations that lull us to sleep with their good intentions. Trying to put names to the real killers sitting in offices at the presidential palace and the French embassy. They're the ones who draw up lists and give orders, and the ones who finance the operations and distribute the weapons.'
The book also shows the way that the policies of the World Bank and its supporters rip up people's lives and produce the conditions where the unthinkable becomes almost normal.
After the killing, after the murderous regime has been destroyed, Victor returns to Rwanda. He gets his friends who have survived together. 'They had all been saved by Hutus who had not hesitated to run the direct risks to hide them.' So it was not simply a matter of one group against another.
Valcourt finds individual revenge will solve nothing. True revenge involves getting even with history, 'with Belgian priests who sowed the seeds of a kind of tropical Nazism here, with France, with Canada, with the United Nations who stood by and let negroes kill other negroes. They're the real murderers, but they're out of my reach.'
There are also moving passages in the book that bring home the personal suffering behind the statistics of AIDS deaths. Such powerful and compassionate writing means that Courtemanche has nearly written a truly great novel.
It is marred by the appalling way that every woman in the book is described by the shape of her breasts and by her perceived sexual attractiveness. There are also moments when Courtemanche appears to think that the reader's interest can be maintained only by throwing in a bit of titillation, some sex episode which adds nothing and serves only to plunge the story backwards towards a far more ordinary and puerile way of writing. One low point is where a woman who is subjected to repeated rape muses upon the sexual technique of her assailant.
This is such a good book, about such a huge subject, that you yearn for it to be even better.
Weapons of Mass Deception
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
The Iraq War Reader
Micah L Sifry and Christopher Cerf
Dilip Hiro Granta £12.99
You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want!
Micah Ian Wright
Seven Stories Press £10.99
Few of us will forget the scenes of George Bush piloting a plane onto the flightdeck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, California, in May. Against a banner proclaiming 'Mission accomplished', he declared the Iraq war over: 'We have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.' A dramatic moment and a great image for the president, who faces re-election next year. But it was one of the most expensive photo opportunities in history: an estimated $1 million. The ship made 'lazy circles' and took 20 hours to cover a distance which would normally have taken an hour.
Right from 11 September 2001, the US government and its friends in the media have gone out of their way to project a view of the war that suits their purposes. That's nothing new--atrocity stories abounded about Germans bayoneting babies during the First World War and during the first Gulf War Iraqi soldiers were accused of snatching babies from incubators in hospitals in Kuwait and leaving them to die. Both were false. A 15 year old girl, supposedly a volunteer at a Kuwaiti hospital, propagated the Kuwaiti story. Her story was used repeatedly in the run-up to war. Eventually it was revealed to be false and the girl to be a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, daughter of the ambassador to Washington.
Weapons of Mass Deception tells these and many other stories. It catalogues the efforts put into selling the US government's case and the lies and distortions which accompanied it. Charlotte Beers, who made her name as an advertising executive selling Uncle Ben's Rice and Head and Shoulders shampoo, was appointed to improve the US brand image in the Islamic world. The strategy was an abject failure. Despite spending millions of dollars, a Pew Research poll in December last year showed steep declines in the US image throughout the Muslim world. Beers resigned citing health reasons just before the war started. It seemed that real events, rather than TV adverts about shared values or posters of 'mosques of America' were what influenced most Muslims.
The book will repeatedly make you laugh at the lunacy, insensitivity and sheer arrogance of Bush and his team. But its real purpose is to demonstrate that our rulers are prepared to use the most sophisticated marketing techniques to sell war--spending our money to do so. They are also prepared to use people's emotions in the most despicable way. The massacre at Halabja in 1988 was barely mentioned during and in the run-up to the first Gulf War. Rampton and Stauber claim that this is because the event was too recent and the US too heavily implicated in supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons. It was mentioned in news stories in the US only 39 times between the invasion of Kuwait and the end of Operation Desert Storm. During the following decade it averaged only 16 mentions a year. Yet in February 2003 alone it was mentioned 57 times, rising to 145 times in March.
That millions of people did not believe the lies they were told about the war was at least in part due to the many writers, journalists and documentary makers who tried to put a different point of view. One of those is Dilip Hiro, whose recent book explains the modern history of Iraq, especially the period of the two Gulf Wars, and shows how the US was heavily implicated.
Hiro shows how Saddam was encouraged and armed by the US in his war with Iran, and how the US intervened directly towards the end of that war to ensure an Iraqi victory. During 1988, for example, while Iraq launched an offensive against Iran in the Fao Peninsula (involving use of chemical weapons), US warships blew up two Iranian oil rigs, destroyed an Iranian frigate and sank a missile boat. In July a US cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing nearly 300 people and forcing Iran to sue for peace. No wonder Saddam Hussein felt confident to invade Kuwait only two years later. The policy of the west towards Iraq in the 1990s is especially well analysed with repeated evidence of how sanctions, weapons inspections, the no-fly zones and repeated bombing have been used not to help the Iraqis but to further US aims. The UN has had a sorry role in all this: its weapons inspectors were involved with US and Israeli intelligence, and its sanctions worsened the living standards of millions of Iraqis.
Journalism, official documents and speeches by Washington hawks are all in The Iraq War Reader. It includes the infamous letter written to Bill Clinton from the newly formed Project for the New American Century in 1998, calling for him to 'Remove Saddam from Power', the transcript of April Glaspie's (US ambassador to Iraq) discussion with Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Kuwait, and Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council in February. A great reference book, but scary--not only for the right wing fanaticism which pervades so much of the writing, but also for the response of US liberals and some of the left to the 'war on terror'.
Despite the propaganda and repression in the US, however, the anti-war movement has flourished. It has also created its own alternatives to government and media lies. You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want! is a great example of this. Old war posters are subverted with slogans such as 'What the fuck am I doing here? I only joined up for the college money', 'Be a good American, don't try to think' and 'Daddy, why don't you or any of your friends from Enron have to go to war?' Veteran leftist Howard Zinn writes in his introduction, 'If these reworked posters were exaggerating what is going on today, that would be reasonable, given the historic role of art to extend our imaginations...but they strike me as not far removed from the daily headlines that tell us of more and more attacks on the Bill of Rights, a growing atmosphere of intimidation, threatening the historic role of dissent in a democracy.'
Zed Books £13.95
With barely a pause for breath after Saddam Hussein was toppled, officials in Washington began hinting that Syria would be the next US military target. We were told that Syria too was a 'rogue' state that was developing weapons of mass destruction and was also backing Palestinian 'terrorism'.
This was not the official view in 1991, when Syria was bribed and bullied into the US-led 'coalition' in the war to remove Iraq from Kuwait. Nor was it the picture presented in 2000 when Bashar al-Asad seamlessly inherited power in Syria. He was seen as the great hope--a moderniser and reformer entirely different from his dictator father Hafiz al-Asad.
So what kind of state is Syria?
Most of the country's 17 million people (half of whom are aged under 19) are poor and becoming poorer. Unemployment stands between 25 and 30 percent. The accumulated losses of Syria's state-owned industries reached $1.6 billion in 2001. Real GDP is falling and the oil is running out. The vast bureaucracy and military and security machine that has kept the ruling Ba'ath ('Renaissance') Party in power can no longer be sustained.
Bashar al-Asad recognised that reforms were needed. But the moment he began to lift the lid after decades of repression, the pent-up popular fury exploded into what became known as the 'Damascus spring'.
The 'Damascus spring' of 2000 was a national civil rights movement mainly involving intellectuals demanding modest democratic reforms. Petitioning and debates, organised in thousands of 'forums' around the country, flourished briefly. Then the son reverted to his father's repressive methods and the movement was suppressed.
Alan George's book describes both the movement and what it was struggling against--the omnipresent Ba'ath Party, the rubber-stamp parliament, the corrupt legal system and media, and the ailing universities--and how nothing much has changed.
The Ba'ath Party took power in a coup in 1963, a month after the Ba'athist takeover in neighbouring Iraq. There were constant battles between the more radical civilian wing of the party and its military wing. After Syria's humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967, the friction intensified, culminating in another coup staged by the defence minister Hafiz al-Asad in 1970.
The Ba'ath regime is based on the minority (12 percent) Alawi community--a group fostered by the country's French colonisers in a classic divide and rule policy. Alawis took over the key positions in the state and consolidated Asad's power through brute force. Power was further consolidated through the Ba'ath Party structures. Party membership gave access to jobs, power and petty privileges. Membership grew from a mere 400 in 1963 at the time of the coup, to 374,000 in 1981, to 1.8 million in 2001. Branches were set up in every village and urban neighbourhood, making the party machine ubiquitous. All trade unions were affiliated to a Ba'ath-controlled federation, and strikes remained outlawed. At the same time the state bureaucracy and military and intelligence services exploded, bringing a vast number of families into the orbit of the Ba'ath-controlled state.
Despite the relentless repression, the Ba'athists have faced open opposition. The main challenge began in the late 1970s, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, climaxing in a three-week uprising in the city of Hama in 1982 which was widely supported. The military responded by flattening much of the city and killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
So the Syrian state is not pretty. Would bombing the country help its long-suffering people? Today's Iraq answers that. Does it have WMD? Even the CIA says it doesn't. Does it support Palestinian 'terrorism'? The grim truth is that the Ba'athists' main aim has been to control the Palestinian movement so that it doesn't infect the struggle within Syria. A year after the civil war in Lebanon began in 1975, Hafiz al-Asad sent troops into Lebanon to reverse the Muslim/leftist/Palestinian gains. They have remained there ever since.
A measure of the opposition to the war on Iraq was the speed with which the talk of war against Syria was dropped. That may change. If it does, this book, despite a weak political analysis, will be extremely useful.
Cold War, Crisis and Conflict
Lawrence and Wishart £14.99
Cold War, Crisis and Conflict covers the era of the long economic boom, the struggles for colonial freedom, Suez, and the Hungarian Revolution, all viewed through the eyes of the British Communist Party (CP). The party opened this era with a new manifesto, The British Road to Socialism (1951). This explicitly abandoned the party's claim to be a revolutionary organisation.
At the time, the party had over 30,000 members, many of whom were industrial militants in engineering, the pits and transport. In conditions of full employment and frequent government attempts at wage restraint, a rank and file militancy developed over pay that the Communists encouraged. The party was able to secure official, even leading, positions in a number of unions. But for all its industrial implantation, and despite the respect that workmates had for Communist Party shop stewards, a generation gap emerged where the party was unable to recruit young workers.
This book helps to explain this failure. Partly this was because of the CP's isolation during the Cold War, but John Callaghan believes the inconsistencies in the party's politics were crucial. During the 'golden age' of capitalist growth, the party predicted capitalism's imminent demise and the Soviet Union surging ahead. The CP also denied the crimes of Stalin and the dictatorships of Eastern Europe. As a result its policies were riddled with contradictions that frustrated much of the hard work of its members. It campaigned for peace as Russia armed itself with the H-Bomb; it worked against racism but ignored anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union; it opposed US and British imperialism in Korea, Greece, Malaya, Egypt and Vietnam but supported Soviet tanks crushing a popular uprising in Budapest.
These inconsistencies came to the fore in 1956, a year of crisis for the party. A year when, with Stalin dead some three years previously, Khrushchev admitted Stalin's crimes at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As the secret speech leaked out it caused shock waves among the Communist parties across the world. That year also witnessed a workers' revolution in Hungary that was brutally suppressed by Soviet invasion (even the Daily Worker's correspondent in Budapest recognised as much).
The party lost a third of its members with some high-profile resignations, including trade union leaders and intellectuals, notably talented members of the Historians Group. John Callaghan thankfully avoids the current vogue for rehabilitating the 'totalitarian' explanation of Stalinism used by the right during the Cold War to justify nearly anything in the name of anti-Communism. He also steers away from a romantic view of the CP. There are passages of real insights into the internal struggle and doubts of members, into reactions inside the party to 1956, and into the Cold War climate of anti-Communism. His discussion of the witch-hunt of Communists in the Sheffield engineering industry and ballot-rigging in the electricians' union are particularly engaging.
But the book is marred by two problems. First, its casual and dismissive attitude to the left alternative to the CP. This was given tremendous impetus by the events of 1956 and 1968 and the CP remained a serious obstacle to its growth. Second, he sloppily blurs Lenin and Stalin on questions such as democracy, party organisation, and imperialism where they stood poles apart. That said, if your appetite was whetted by Cambridge Spies and you want to read about the Communist Party during this period this is a good place to start.
Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat
Genetically modified (GM) crops are once again in the headlines. The government is due to announce whether commercial growth of GM crops will be permitted. Given Blair's current unpopularity, the report is likely to be a fudge, neither allowing unlimited planting, nor closing the door forever. The outcome was foreshadowed by the publication of the 'independent' GM science review in July. A group of hand-picked, tame scientists published an account which claimed that while GM is unlikely to damage our health, it may, perhaps, damage the environment.
Anyone taking an interest in food safety in this country will have a strange sense of déjà vu. Once again official scientists are reassuring us: 'Don't worry, it's safe to eat'. In his excellent new book, Andrew Rowell tells the story of Tory and Labour governments' mishandling of agriculture over the last 15 years. He draws disturbing parallels between the cases of BSE ('mad cow disease'), foot and mouth, and GM crops.
Government ministers and official scientists repeatedly told us that beef was safe to eat, despite the epidemic of BSE. We were told that there was no possibility of transmission to humans. Within a few short years the truth was out. So far over 100 people have died from the human disease linked to BSE. Scientists who dared to question the official government line on BSE were branded as cranks or mavericks. They were driven from their jobs or refused funding for their work.
The same sad story was played out again when it came to GM crops. Scientists who questioned the establishment line on GM have faced vilification. Rowell describes how one Mexican scientist who exposed GM contamination of native corn varieties in Mexico was hauled across town to an abandoned office block and harangued by a government official. In what could be a scene from a gangster film, the official first tried to bribe him by offering him a lucrative position on a secret scientific panel to promote GM. When this was refused the official told him how easy it would be to 'gain access' to his family.
Proponents of GM like to portray their opponents as anti-science Luddites standing in the way of technology that could feed the world. But, as Rowell demonstrates, the problem is that there hasn't been enough science. In the US GM food was declared 'substantially equivalent' to its normal counterpart, allowing the biotech companies to market their product with little or no testing. Millions of Americans are eating the modified foods, but no substantial research is being carried out into the potential health hazards. The fact that GM food has been on sale in the US is now used as evidence that legislation should be loosened in Europe.
Rowell has put together a clear and coherent story, showing why the experience of the last 15 years has destroyed any public confidence in the pronouncements of government and official scientists on food safety. He has interviewed the major players, particularly the scientists and others who have questioned the consensus.
In telling this story Rowell also demonstrates the process by which science has become increasingly dominated by commercial concerns. He shows how the upper echelons of the science establishment are intertwined both with big business and with government. Again and again supposedly independent scientific committees are set up by governments--packed with scientists wholly or partly funded by the food or biotech industries.
Rowell finishes his book by proposing a number of reforms--to limit the power of supermarkets, to put tariffs on imports and to democratise science, among others. I don't agree with the specifics of all of his proposals, but in writing this book Rowell has done an excellent service for those of us who want an end to a system which puts our lives at risk, and which values profit over people and the environment.
The People as Enemy
Black Rose Books £17.99
More than 50 million soldiers and civilians perished in the Second World War. Bombs were directed by Allies and Axis alike to create massive firestorms to slaughter as many civilians as possible. Entire cities were strategically razed. Yet this war is uniquely regarded as the 'people's war' on the grounds that the aim of the Allied leaders was to save the world from unimaginable tyranny.
John Spritzler's The People As Enemy challenges the basic assumptions of this view, proposing a radically different understanding of this chapter of history. He argues that the origins of the war were the same in each country: the elite's desperate fear of their own revolutionary working class.
Spritzler conducts a detailed study of class conflict throughout the 1930s in Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and the US. The research is impressive. In particular, he reveals how Hitler was forced into the blitzkrieg (lightning war) strategy by a combination of economic weakness and political unrest among a German working class who never transferred their support to him. Spritzler also demonstrates how Roosevelt attempted to provoke Japanese aggression that would allow the US elite to enter the war.
Elsewhere, Spritzler draws heavily on historian Gabriel Kolko's work to present an account of how the Allies attacked the anti-fascist resistance from Italy to the Philippines, in many cases cooperating with fascist collaborators to prevent the working class seizing power.
While providing useful insights into the level of collaboration between ruling elites in the warring nations and their common desire to crush workers' power, The People as Enemy fails to provide a comprehensive analysis of the war. Spritzler concludes that the desire of elites to suppress the working class was the only motivating force behind the war. While he has no doubt that Stalin wanted an 'enlarged Russian empire' and wanted to divide the world up between the Allies, this was merely in order 'to help prevent...revolutions from succeeding anywhere'.
The tension at the heart of Spritzler's analysis frequently surfaces. When discussing the divide in Allied ruling class opinion over whether to side with Hitler or Stalin he argues that Henry Ford 'admired Hitler and did not believe he posed a threat to US power'. He states that in 1933 Roosevelt 'demonstrated his desire to get the US into a war in the Far East', but is unable to explain why within the framework of his argument.
What is lacking, in short, is an account of imperialism.
The economic backdrop to the war was the 1929-32 crisis, the gravest yet to have rocked capitalism. All the warring states leapt in the same direction: protectionism and state intervention in the economy.
By 1939 this strategy had lead to such competition between rival imperialisms that the only way out of capitalism's malaise was a wholesale redivision of the world. Spritzler fails to tackle this question, and the book is weaker for it.
Nevertheless, The People as Enemy is an important addition to the weight of argument against the 'people's war' view. The level of working class rebellion he uncovers and recounts is amazing and often inspiring. He succeeds in demonstrating the weaknesses underpinning the elite's position and their dread of the working class and their revolutionary aspirations.
Significant too is the fact that in important respects the ideas employed by Allied leaders are being used again today. The notion of a supremely evil, though strictly foreign, threat against whom we must unite with our leaders in a spirit of patriotism and self sacrifice is the ideological stick behind the 'war on terrorism'. This may have so far borne fruit for the US elite--both in terms of restricting civil liberties at home and expanding empire abroad.
Fortunately, however, far fewer people are succumbing to this idea now than then.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar
New Press £14.95
Little Brown £20
What is history and who gets to write it? Why is it written and for whom? Henry Kissinger said 'history is the memory of states'. In ancient history, scarcity of sources has been used as justification for only telling the stories of those who left written records and stone buildings. For Benedetto Croce history could be the 'story of liberty' written from the bottom up. These are two ends of a spectrum between the organised (and armed) interests of the ruling class, and the mass of people whose lives have tended to be voiceless and unrecorded. The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Rubicon are exponents of either end of this history-writing spectrum.
Holland's is a history of the Roman Republic established in 590 BC ending with the death of Augustus, Julius Caesar's nephew, in AD 14. With one word--Rubicon--Holland crystallises a long accepted view that the republic was ancient Rome's triumph and Julius Caesar was its tragedy and downfall. So crossing the Rubicon stream with his legions, in defiance of the Senate's orders, made his murder a public service by those determined to save the republic from a tyrant.
Parenti's much shorter book focuses on the possible interpretations of the career and death of Julius Caesar but asks much larger questions than Holland about why 'gentlemen historians' have chosen to accept particular sources, notably Cicero, as objective fact to be taken at face value.
He begins with an overview of prominent historians of ancient Rome, their class bias and 'male supremacist ideas' and concludes that because they tend to be solidly establishment, status quo supporting individuals, they feel free to talk knowledgeably about the ancient ruling class while presenting cardboard cutout versions of the plebeians and slaves. He highlights how anti-communist prejudice has lent weight to a sympathetic view of the propertied classes particularly over the treatment of slaves. From such historians, he mocks, 'the impression one gets is that Roman slavery was a kind of affirmative action programme'.
He argues that Caesar was murdered by his peers because he carried out limited reforms that appalled the super-rich of Rome, who dressed up this act as a desperate measure to restore the republic rather than for their own interests.
The class bias of such historians allows them not to look too carefully at the motives of their sources, most notably Cicero, the darling of classicists down the ages and supposedly the 'most civilised man in history'--a slum landlord who declared any reforms to be mere demagoguery. A typical abuse of power concerned the ager publicus, publicly owned fertile farmland that had been cultivated by tenant farmers who paid a small rent to the city. There had been legal limits as to how much could be farmed by one family, but over the years great landowners had by fraud or violence expropriated it. Caesar incurred great hatred by intending to take some of it back.
Both authors want us to get a sense of Rome as a stinking haphazard mess, encircled by fine villas with its centre full of jerry-built slums, but it's Parenti's sense of social injustice that breathes life into his portrait of squalid tenement blocks with exorbitant rents and whole families crammed into each room. These firetraps periodically collapsed, to the chagrin of their owners. We get a memorable picture of Cicero complaining that two of his shops have collapsed and another shows cracks. It's so bad that the mice have moved on, 'to say nothing of the tenants'. We don't need a written record to imagine how his tenants felt about this.
Holland has much of the same detail, but the lives of the poor plebeians and slaves are lost beneath the welter of Great Men and their Great Actions. Holland, like Cicero, understands Caesar's reforms as his attempts to please 'the mob'.
Holland's view of the mob creates a problem for the reader. Here Rome swarms with mindless hooligans itching to riot and be pawns in the politicking of unscrupulous thugs like Julius Caesar. At the same time he tells us that all Roman free men, plebeian and aristocratic, are united in pride at their citizenship and love of their city with its glorious traditions of liberty. But we know that Holland knows about the rents, the desperate poverty, the unemployment, the theft of public land by the rich, etc--and yet we are to believe that these people identify with the tiny class of the super-rich as common inhabitants of Rome.
Holland is a classical scholar who wants to make ancient Rome accessible and his readers will come away with strong impressions of the turbulence and violence of Roman high society. Parenti pointedly remarked at Marxism 2003 that he is not a historian but he has produced a history that is ultimately more demanding, as he gives us a method for evaluating all kinds of history.
The New Press £16.95
We are all aware that civil liberties in the US have been under attack since 9/11. The central argument of David Cole (a US constitutional and immigration lawyer) is that the principal victims of the crackdown on fundamental freedoms are 'aliens'--non-citizens of the US and Arab and Muslim citizens. Cole argues that this has been happening throughout American history.
When the US has been 'at war', or felt threatened, the government has responded by attacking the civil liberties of aliens or a minority group of citizens. He believes that there has been little outcry from US citizens because they don't think that it will affect them. He persuasively writes that US citizens ignore such attacks at their peril, as history has shown that once non-citizens have been successfully targeted, it is a slippery slope towards restricting everyone's civil liberties.
The level of detail in the book about how civil liberties have been attacked is impressive, as Cole describes the mass detentions of Arab and Muslim citizens and aliens, the passing of the Patriot and DSE (Domestic Security Enhancement) Acts (which allow for secret searches, arrests and stripping citizenship of anyone who supports even the lawful activities of an organisation deemed to be terrorist), along with many other ways in which civil liberties have been weakened and ignored. It uses case studies to illustrate how these attacks on civil liberties have affected ordinary people. They will leave you feeling shocked and angry at the blatant racism of the US authorities.
For me, one of the most impressive things about the book was that Cole puts this latest attack on civil liberties by the US government in the context of a long line of such offensives. He devotes chapters to some of the most shameful events in US domestic history bar slavery, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese citizens and aliens during the Second World War, the repression of Communists, left wing radicals and trade unionists and the targeting of Arabs and Muslims. Again, Cole manages to blend the overall historical picture, dates and facts with individual stories, making the book very readable.
The main weakness of Enemy Aliens lies in Cole's solutions to such state repression, which may stem from a flawed analysis of why such repression occurs in the first place. The latter half of the book discusses these solutions, some of which focus too much on the fear of another terrorist attack, as he advocates increased border control and registration of all aliens entering the US--suggestions which seems at odds with his central argument.
To his credit, Cole does attempt to address why terrorism occurs in the first place as he writes about US global economic and foreign policy sowing the seeds of hatred. However, his conclusion--that the way to break the cycle of attacking civil liberties is for the US to recognise that aliens, as well as citizens, have the protection of the constitution--is not convincing. It leaves no room for mass action on the part of US citizens to fight against what is going on now. But for those interested in current and historical detail of US repression this is a very good read.
Aurum Press £20
Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the outstanding women activists in British history. She was the most courageous of the Suffragettes, who fought for votes for women. But she was also a socialist who devoted her huge energies to improving life for working class women and men. Throughout her life Sylvia remained passionately committed to challenging racism. She employed the first black journalist in Britain, Claude McKay, on her socialist paper, The Workers' Dreadnought.
Sylvia's family was absorbed in left wing politics. Her father and mother, Richard and Emmeline, and all her brothers and sisters, were active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The story of her early life, told in rich detail in this biography, is also the story of how working class politics in Britain struggled to be free of the Liberal Party.
The Pankhurst family relationships were complex. Christabel, Sylvia's older sister, was selfish and domineering and closest to Emmeline. On 10 October 1903, the Pankhursts and a few friends established the Women's Social and Political Union. The motto of the WSPU was 'deeds not words' and their daring tactics have all but eclipsed the other suffragist campaigns.
In 1904 Sylvia went to study art in London and Emmeline and Christabel soon followed. The transformation of the WSPU was not just geographical. It became a professional organisation, and one that sought the support of influential middle class women. Sylvia was heartbroken when the Suffragettes broke from the ILP. She stayed loyal to the WSPU, even when its tactics alienated many in the working class movement. They chained themselves to railings, 'rushed' parliament, broke windows, vandalised paintings and set off bombs. They were often beaten up, abused and imprisoned. In 1909 the first Suffragette in prison went on hunger strike. Sylvia went on more prison hunger strikes than any other Suffragette. Christabel chose to direct operations from the safety and comfort of France.
Sylvia was not at home in the drawing rooms of Belgravia. At the heart of her political life was the plight of working class women in London's desperately poor East End. In 1914 she wrote, 'I am a socialist and want to see the conditions under which our people live entirely revolutionised, but because I believe nothing will be achieved without the help of women I feel my first work must be to do what I can to secure for them entrance into the political scheme.' She wanted to create a mass movement, selling her paper and even organising a citizens' army that marched down Roman Road. The story of how Sylvia fought to build that organisation is fascinatingly told here.
Her socialism set her on a collision course with her family. Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU in 1913 for speaking at a meeting for workers from Dublin locked out by their employers. When the First World War broke out, Emmeline and Christabel became recruiting sergeants for the British Army. Sylvia saw this as a great betrayal of everything she, and her father, had stood for.
This account of the agitation in the East End during the war is inspiring--it uncovers a hidden tradition of resistance that Sylvia was central to. It shows how Sylvia welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917, changing her organisation from the East London Federation of Suffragettes to the Workers' Socialist Federation. Sylvia became a revolutionary and went to Russia to meet Lenin. On trial for sedition in 1920, Sylvia declared from the dock, 'Capitalism is the wrong system of society and it has to be smashed--I would give my life to smash it.'
At this point the book goes rapidly downhill. The author does not understand the complex debates in the socialist movement and gives more weight to Sylvia's love affair with an Italian anarchist than her becoming a revolutionary. And Sylvia's life also went downhill in her later years.
This is a great account of the big struggles of pre-war Britain and the life of a talented socialist who had the courage to defy all morals and prejudices of her society. But stop reading around the chapter called 'Silvio and Sylvia'.