Issue 279 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
All the Shah's Men
John Wiley & Sons £17.50
|Iranian students demanding change under the Shah|
In Washington and London, the warmongers are turning their attention to Iran for 'regime change'. And it seems they have already found an applicant for the Iranian version of Chalabi or Karzai. The son of the Shah who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution now regularly appears on BBC, CNN and the Voice of America to show his credentials to his masters. He hopes they will put him back on the Peacock Throne, like they did his father 50 years ago.
All the Shah's Men is the story of that regime change, in which the US and Britain were once again partners in crime. Stephen Kinzer has given a highly readable and well informed account of how the CIA, MI6 and the Shah overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq in August 1953. 'My only crime', Mossadeq explained at the military court, 'is that I nationalised the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth.'
In 1946 a strike at the refinery in Abadan signalled a wave of protests demanding the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Mossadeq led this movement, was elected to parliament and became prime minister in 1951. The unequal terms on which the AIOC exploited Iranian oil while treating the workers like slaves had caused deep grievances. The Iranian share in the profits was just 17 percent--the Iranian government demanded 50 percent. Despite Kinzer's sympathy for Mossadeq he suggests he was incapable of compromise because he was a 'visionary, a utopian and millenarian'. But the British government had already decided the real issue was control over the oil resources, and on this there would be no compromise. Knowing that Mossadeq was serious about nationalisation, they decided to get rid of him. First they tried to do this by political intrigues, but this was met by huge pro-Mossadeq demonstrations. Then they turned to the US government for a coup. When the US administration passed on from Truman to Eisenhower, the operation got rolling.
Kinzer has very carefully reconstructed the entire operation, called Ajax. Thousands of dollars were channelled to journalists, politicians, army officers, mullahs and street gangs to topple Mossadeq. He was sentenced to house arrest and many of his followers were executed and imprisoned. With American help the Shah established an oppressive regime. The Americans used the lessons of their 'success' as a handbook for future coups, like the one in Guatemala.
Reading All the Shah's Men one can understand the deep-rooted hatred US and British foreign policy has created in the Middle East. But we also need an understanding of the motives behind the policy, the failure of Iranian nationalism and the role of the left. On these issues Kinzer has less to offer because he places the coup in the Cold War context: Mossadeq was not sensitive to US fears of Communism. The real context was the conflict of interests between imperialism and nationalism that was sweeping the Middle East. Such an interpretation might have led to a closer look at the role of oil as a vital commodity and to the politics of the nationalist movement in Iran. While courageously throwing out the British 'network of colonialism', Mossadeq let imperialism crawl in through the back door by relying on US power. The Communist Tudeh Party tailed Mossadeq instead of organising the power of the working class.
Dedicated to 'the people of Iran', Kinzer's account of the coup is a timely warning to the same imperialist powers who dream of another regime change. The last time the people of Iran suffered too much to forget who blocked their road to democracy.
Harper Collins £20
Sukhdev Sandhu's journey through 300 years of black and Asian writers and commentators on Britain's capital city is very much worth reading. In London Calling we encounter a gallery of people--from Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, a former slave whose ghostwritten memoirs were published in 1772, right through to 'Yardie' novelist Victor Headley.
Sandhu is rightly at pains to emphasise is that there is not one voice but many. It is therefore fascinating to read about people such as Ignatius Sancho (1729-80), a freed slave and man of letters who mixed with the London aristocracy and literati. Sancho is a man of his chosen class. His language reflects this. Having fallen on hard times he moans in a letter to a friend, 'Figure to yourself, my dear sir, a man of convexity of belly exceeding Falstaff--and a black face into the bargain--waddling in the van of poor thieves and penniless prostitutes--with all the supercilious mock dignity of little office--what a banquet for wicked jest and wanton wit.' Sancho reflected the ruling class fear of the (black and white) London 'mob', condemning those taking part in the 1780 Gordon Riots as 'the maddest people'.
Sandhu also quotes wealthy Indian visitor Rev TB Pandian falling in love with London. For Pandian the capital of the empire is a 'Mecca for the traveller in search of truth, a Medina of rest for the persecuted or the perplexed of spirit... Damp, dirty, noisy London, thou art verily a Jerusalem for the weary soldier of faith.'
So there is something revealing in the writings of all Sandhu's subjects. Yet this book has an annoying flaw. In his effort to debunk the view of black and Asian writing as merely 'emergency literature' Sandhu constantly argues that so-called 'political correctness'--and by implication the left tradition--stereotypes blacks and Asians as victims. He asserts, 'Reading histories of immigrants in London one is often left with the impression that if they weren't being bruised and harried by hostile whites, they spent their spare time agitating and organising.'
This is the old right wing ruse of putting up a false argument only to knock it down. The truth is of course the opposite--that the left has always been at pains to argue that those at the receiving end of racism are not merely bound by their circumstances, but full of human potential.
It was not the right wing who decided to bring to light historical figures such as Ignatius Sancho. After all, the project of the right is to deny blacks and Asians any voice at all--historical or present-day. And it was not Sandhu who first trawled obscure archives to prove that blacks and Asians were neither stupid nor passive. Indeed Sandhu acknowledges that it was left wing writers and historians such as Peter Fryer and Rozina Visram in their seminal studies Staying Power and Ayahs, Lascars and Princes who unearthed a wealth of black and Asian experience going back centuries.
Sandhu is also eager to portray London as a dynamic capitalist city full of possibilities for all--so much so that those writers who buck against this partial vision get short shrift. He attacks Caryl Phillips' penetrating novels about Caribbean immigrant life in the 1950s and 1960s: 'Is it the case that dire social circumstances need always to be written up gloomily? And can it possibly be true that life for black Londoners in the past, even in the 1950s and 1960s, was so unremittingly bad?' Well, yes, for the majority of early post Second World War black immigrants, it was pretty bad.
The obvious truth is that black and Asian people's view of London depends upon the nature of their arrival and their class position. It makes a difference whether they came here in bondage, as 19th century upper class Indian tourists or as economic migrants of the Windrush era. These circumstances shape the way they see London, what they write about and the language and imagery they use.
It is noticeable that all the writers Sandhu examines are forced in some way to reflect the divisions in the society in which they move. Despite their efforts they find their lives circumscribed by race. Sancho is painfully aware of the social implications of his colour; the superior-minded Indian nabobs who visit London are offended by the stereotyped racist view of their home country they come across; Hanif Kureishi's novels and films examine the cultural contradictions that the rising generation of British-born urban Asians grapple with.
London Calling is a useful book. It would have been even better if Sandhu had told the story straight.
A Century of State Murder?
Michael Haynes and Rumy Husan
'A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.' Or so said Stalin to Churchill, apparently. The hypocrisy of the Hutton inquiry this summer is yet more evidence he may have been right. It doesn't make up for show-trials, gulags and 'socialism in one country', mind you.
But with Russia being the nexus of global politics in the 20th century such a broad scope is available to the political historian, so why focus on demography? The introduction answers this well: 'A group of historians got together to produce what they called The Black Book of Communism...an attempt...to discredit the idea of a socialist alternative. It did this by lumping together the experience of Russia between 1917 and 1991 as if it were all of one piece.' A Century of State Murder? is not an answer to that book. But it is an attempt to set the tragedy of Russia in a clearer context.
The exact nature of the Russian Revolution and life under the resulting 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' are still factors shaping anti-capitalist politics. If we are to 'overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer' then we surely have to understand the most concerted attempt to do so in history.
Nineteenth century Russia was drawn into the global capitalist system slowly. Russia's development was hampered by Tsarism. By 1913 Russia had the second lowest per capita income in Europe. Sanitation and diet were poor, housing cramped and disease rife.
After the 1905 revolution little of substance changed for the workers and peasants of Russia. Their immiseration during the First World War, 'the first of four great mortality crises' in 20th century Russia, meant the Bolshevik slogan 'Bread, land and peace' chimed with ordinary people. The demand for 'All power to the soviets' (workers' councils) had a firm basis within Russian society.
The authors point out that the civil war was 'four-sided', with the Red and White forces, the 'Green' peasant guerrillas and the Polish army. Most catastrophic was the effect of the allied blockade of Soviet Russia. With little food, fuel or medicine approximately 9 million people died from starvation and disease during the civil war. The working class in Russia shrank to just over 1 million, atomised, demoralised, declassed. Although the structure remained the basis of the revolution was destroyed.
Through the state bureaucracy, six times more numerous and many times more powerful than the working class, Stalin strangled democracy, using the workers' state to extract surplus wealth from the workers to industrialise and build a great army. It was state capitalism, effectively turning Russia into a giant factory.
After Stalin's death and with the instigation of the arms economy successive regimes loosened the vice, if only a little. For example, in 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a mass murderer while crushing the Hungarian Revolution with the utmost brutality.
The chapters on post-Stalinist Russia are truly spectacular. Under 'shock therapy' class differentials widened. The mortality rate leapt. Reasons for this are outlined clearly in sections such as 'Decline in health care expenditure', 'The key role of alcoholism' and 'Suicide and murder'. While torture and execution are illegal in 171 states, including Ukraine, they remain commonplace in Russia. With hypocrisy worthy of Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin pontificated on the gravity of the presidential pardon while condemning more prisoners to death as a vote-grabbing exercise.
The last word justifiably goes to the war in Chechnya, by 2002 estimated to have cost the lives of 20-25,000 civilians and 8,000 Chechen fighters. Remember that Chechnya has a population of around 1 million, and you have some sense of the tragedy and horror.
The Myth of 1648
This book sets out to attack the conventional view in the academic discipline of International Relations which sees there being an unchanging form of interaction between states from 1648 to the present day. Teschke quite rightly insists the whole approach is untenable, since the relations between states change with changes in the social relations of production within each, and he provides useful accounts of the relations during the medieval period, the period of absolutism and that of modern capitalism.
However, two things stymie his argument.
First, he succumbs to the arcane language of the discipline he is criticising, making many passages nearly impenetrable to those of us who have not studied it. At points I could not help feeling that rather than Marxism infiltrating the academy, the academy was infiltrating and subverting Marxism.
Second, he bases himself on the self baptised 'political Marxism' propounded by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. This stresses the centrality of class struggle in bringing about a change from one mode of production to another--and in particular from feudalism to capitalism--and so takes issue with those like Gunder Frank and Wallerstein who only point to systems of trade and markets. But it ignores something absolutely central to Marx's own account--the development of the ways of making a livelihood ('the forces of production').
There is nothing intrinsically bad about disagreeing with Marx. But he pinpointed the role of the forces of production for a very important and inescapable reason. There is a tension between the tendency of humans to improve their capacity to make a livelihood and the fixity of existing social relations between them, and this tension creates the pressure for societies to change. Shifts in the forces of production are the material underpinning of the ups and downs of class struggles. They extend the range of possibilities open for human existence and, in doing so, enable people belonging to different classes to envisage new ways of living.
Once you take your eyes off such changes in production, then shifts from one mode of production to another appear almost accidental, a product of this or that great leader, or of the accidental balance of social forces at some point in history.
So it is that Teschke, following Brenner, sees a transition from feudalism towards capitalism taking place in Britain because peasants only half-won the battles they fought with the lords in the revolts of the late 14th century. In France, he sees no transition as possible because, he claims, the peasants won completely.
In a somewhat similar way, what is sometimes called the 'feudal revolution' or the 'revolution of the year 1000'--the final consolidation of serf-based exploitation right across Europe--is merely a result of the interplay of rivalry between various feudal lords.
What is missing in both cases is recognition of cumulative changes in production right through the medieval and early modern period. Teschke (again following Brenner and Meiksins Wood) dismisses these as insignificant, even writing of 'non-developing' societies. In fact, as the French historian Duby has stressed, there were massive increases in agricultural productivity (more than doubling the output per unit of land) from the 9th to the 14th centuries, associated with the adoption of new techniques, while Lynn White and Jean Gimpel have shown how the production, processing and movement of goods were transformed by the spread of innovations like water and wind mills, the compound crank, the spinning wheel, improved looms, the compass, cast iron, and finally the printing press.
These changes increased the weight within feudal society of elements which were at odds with the existing social structure. They led to the growth of trade and of towns, which were able, to varying degrees, to break from the control of feudal lords. With this went further growth of the market, increasing the pressure for personal relations between people engaged in production to be replaced by cash relations. As this happened, it was possible for kings to manoeuvre with the urban classes to lift themselves above the rest of the feudal lords, so creating a state, 'absolutism', that looked both back to feudalism and forward to capitalism.
Because he does not see this, Teschke does not see absolutism as a stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but as a social formation standing apart from either. His is the completely undialectical approach of saying something must be either completely capitalist or completely non-capitalist. Nowhere is there any sense of a connection between economic transformation in the town and countryside with the cultural/ideological battles of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and of both the economic and ideological with the political battles in Holland, England, France and finally right across Europe.
These absurdities follow from a method which cuts history into self contained slices and then finds only accidental connections linking each to the slice that preceded it. The connection can only lie in the slow advance of the forces of production--which created the conditions in which the first embryos of capitalism could arise, not just in Europe but in parts of Asia and Africa as well (an issue which Teschke simply dismisses out of hand). The new embryos could only develop further when the social forces associated with them were capable of struggling against the resistance encountered from the old society. That is where class struggle came in--but it had to be thoroughgoing class struggle over political power, directed towards the centres of political power in the towns, not simply over economic issues restricted to the countryside. Force, as Marx put it, is the midwife of the new society. But it cannot be effective without a prior process of conception in which changes in production play a role.
What passes for 'political Marxism' ends up ignoring both the productive base out of which classes grow and the heights of the ideological and political superstructure where they wage their world-historical struggles. As a result Teschke's book makes often perceptive observations, but fails to bring them together into a viable historical account.
Chimes of Freedom
The New Press £14.95
You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you've discussed
Lepers and crooks
You've been through all
F Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read it's well known...
Thus ran a verse from a Bob Dylan song, 'Ballad of a Thin Man'. I don't suppose it occurred to him when he wrote it that in the following decades volume upon volume would be written about himself, his life, his influence and his lyrics, but the fact is that you would have to be very well read to have ploughed through them all. Thus Mike Marqusee has set himself quite a task to stand out from the crowd with this book, and by and large he succeeds.
The book concentrates on the first decade of Dylan's career. That is the period from the early 1960s to the early 1970s in which, as Dylan later reflected in song, 'There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.'
Marqusee not only tells Dylan's story, but the story of the times: Dylan awakes with much of America's youth from the stifling conformity of the 1950s, a decade marked by McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts, Cold War fever and deeply conservative values. Dylan's break with all this coincides with blacks in the Southern states breaking with the notion that they should accept second class citizenship and the 'back of the bus'.
The young Dylan changed his name, reinvented his past and arrived in New York's Greenwich Village as a folk singer. Quickly he became more than a singer of old songs, and began writing his own. More and more those songs made statements about the world in which he lived. In this he was not unique--most of the folk singers in the Village began to write and sing protest songs.
He was, though, by far the most talented. Not looking for the obvious, he frequently sought a more subtle or sophisticated route to protest. His songs towered over those of his contemporaries.
It has since become fashionable to dismiss this period as simplistic both musically and lyrically. Marqusee provides a marvellous service in rescuing the significance and brilliance of Dylan's early work.
But the weight of expectation and the ambitious desire to become 'a star' led Dylan away from protest. Those who want to dismiss the protest period have been assisted by Dylan's desire to burn all bridges with his past, even cynically suggesting that he only wrote protest songs because that's what his audience wanted. Marqusee rejects this, and goes on to examine the next great period of Dylan's work, when he horrified his followers by dropping protest, and (even worse for some) picked up the electric guitar.
Despite the fact that Dylan was now writing songs that on the face of them frequently made little sense and appeared to be what he himself referred to as 'skipping reels of rhyme', if anything he became even more the voice of protest, and that protest was now looking more towards revolutionary change than negotiated reform.
How could this be? I remember at the age of 16 or 17 finding songs like 'Desolation Row' and 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' unfathomable, and yet paradoxically they seemed to say everything I felt about the world. Here Marqusee does the best job yet at trying to explain this conundrum. He shows that Dylan--whatever his rejection of those trying to change the world--snarled all the more at those who conformed to this alienated nightmare.
For instance, although Dylan kept quiet about the Vietnam War his song 'All Along the Watchtower', sung by Jimi Hendrix, became a GI anthem with its haunting first line, 'There has to be some kind of way out of here.' Marqusee gives many more examples of this, how Dylan inspired the Black Panthers and all sorts of exotic revolutionary groups.
This period was Dylan's finest musically, and Marqusee catches this wonderfully. Despite occasionally falling into the academic 'cultural studies' milieu that I suspect Marqusee is trying to avoid, all in all, it is an excellent work.
The Fountain at the Centre of the World
This is an ambitious novel that weaves the struggle against globalisation into the story of Chano Salgado. On the way we visit the blowing up of a pipeline in Mexico, a detention centre for asylum seekers in England and the Battle for Seattle at the end of November 1999.
Everyone is involved in politics. Chano and his comrades debate direct action as against demonstrations, and discuss how to counter Ethylclad--a corporation that is destroying the local environment. Chano's teenage son Daniel, sent to Costa Rica while still a baby after his father was presumed killed, returns to search for Chano and gets caught up in the anti-Ethylclad movement. Even the regional chief of police is a New Labour style figure. In between yoga sessions and firing on demonstrators he ponders modernising the cops to provide a secure climate for foreign investment.
Chano's brother Evan was adopted at birth and taken to England. He has ended up on the other side of the global power divide, advising governments and companies on how to profit from globalisation. But he has a deadly disease and goes in search of his brother hoping for a cure.
Evan gives us a view of Seattle from above while Chano and Daniel are on the streets. The protesters are teargassed by police and the talks collapse inside the conference centre while Evan watches.
We also get some fascinating insights into the world of globalisation's boosters. Evan's company advises some of its clients not to bother with trying to actually convince public opinion. Much better and more realistic just to instil the idea that an issue is complicated and there is no right and wrong.
They also help companies create fake grassroots movements--'astroturf'--to put their case to a sceptical public.
Newman's dialogue mostly feels real. When, for example, Chano and his corporate brother argue over globalisation, the good guy doesn't get all the best lines. Other characters give us discussions on whether protest is futile, on violence and on the trade unions. The language is arresting and the descriptions are bold and vivid.
There are moments when the writing does not flow so easily. Newman inverts an opaque phrase of Gramsci's to tell us that Chano 'had optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will'. I've always struggled to work out what this phrase means. But these flaws are few.
It is rare to find such a politically engaged novel. There has been plenty of fiction that has had a political edge or implications, but this book is much more than that. It is openly partisan. I suspect it would make uncomfortable reading for advocates of the current global set-up.
You can learn something about what it is like to be in a detention centre for refugees from a novel, just as from a pamphlet. You can learn about the impact of the North American Free Trade Area on Mexico's economy and people. About what it felt like to have been on the Seattle demonstration. And I learnt about all these things and more from reading The Fountain at the Centre of the World.
But although the book is partisan, it is not 'worthy' in the pejorative sense. It works as a novel, and not just as a political novel. I kept reading, fascinated by the story and characters.
The First Darwinian Left
New Clarion Press £12.95
Darwinism and socialism were two of the most important ideas of the 19th century. In this well written and sophisticated book David Stack argues that the importance of Darwinism to socialist thought has been underestimated. He demonstrates that after the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, evolution became integral to socialist theory.
Stack makes his argument through a series of case studies of some of the most significant left wing thinkers in Europe, including Karl Kautsky, Peter Kropotkin, and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. However, perhaps the most interesting and important parts of the book concern his consideration of Alfred Wallace, Eduard Bernstein and Ramsay MacDonald.
Wallace was, along with Darwin, the co-founder of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Many have taken Wallace and Darwin's theory as proving that there is a hierarchy of ethnic groups. Some saw natural selection as justifying social and gender inequalities, while others saw it as validating eugenics programmes. Wallace, however, argued that natural selection did nothing of the sort. He contended that natural selection in fact refuted the claim that there was a hierarchy of races.
Wallace also held what must have been a highly controversial view at the time, that the morality of so called 'primitive' people contrasted rather well with the 'social barbarism' of Victorian England. Further, Stack shows that it was Wallace's, admittedly increasingly unconventional, version of natural selection that led him to be a socialist and to the belief that society would evolve towards socialism.
It is well known that MacDonald broke with the Labour Party in 1931 to form a National Government with the Liberals and the Tories. What is perhaps less well known is the influence Darwinism had upon his thought. His writings were laced with analogies and metaphors drawn from biology and he declared that 'Socialism is naught but Darwinism'. However, his was a very peculiar form of Darwinism which saw progress as being inevitable. And, given the inevitability of socialism he argued that while one could study the forces of social change, one could rarely act upon them.
Eduard Bernstein was a leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the end of the 19th century. He argued, contrary to Marxist theory, that capitalism was gradually overcoming its contradictions and that therefore the SPD should no longer be a party fighting for revolutionary change. Stack argues that Bernstein's rejection of the need for revolution is, in part, due to his conviction that society should be viewed as an organism. Viewed in such a way class antagonisms were no longer central to understanding society.
This was because different classes within the same organism could not have fundamentally different interests. Bernstein's position was also due to his mistaken belief that biology only ever exhibited slow and incremental change, that is, evolutionary change and not revolutionary change.
Stack is not arguing that Darwinism and socialism are incompatible. On the contrary his consideration of Marx, and especially Engels, shows that they can be complementary accounts of change in biology and society. Stack is trying to argue that if Darwinism is the starting point for your consideration of the social world it is likely--although as Wallace shows not inevitable--that you will draw the wrong conclusions.
Despite the book's overall strength, Stack may have overstated the influence of Darwinism on the development of the ideas of some socialist thinkers. This is because while for some of the period under consideration Darwinism was the dominant biological idea, at others it clearly was not. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century it had been displaced by Mendelian genetics as the most important field of biological research. Nonetheless, this is a book to be read with profit.