This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch


Disaster in Los Angeles: A Secret Political History

Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear, Picador, 1999. Hardback, 484pp, £18.99.

Reviewed by Woody Haut

EVER SINCE his 1990 City Of Quartz, which single-handedly redefined Los Angeles, Mike Davis has been exploring the dark side of a city on edge and at odds with itself. In Ecology of Fear Davis, investigating "the power that bad dreams now wield over the public landscape", takes his hardboiled leftist critique a step further. Still portraying LA as a city corrupted by profiteers, Davis turns his attention to that point at which social injustice and ecological distress intersect; specifically, how LA’s environment continues to be manipulated at the expense of the many for the profit of the few.

According to Davis, the environment may be exacting revenge for what has been done to it in the course of creating a Los Angeles as fascinating as it is repellent. Digging beneath the surface of a city built on dangerous ground, both geologically and politically, Davis investigates the politics of riot, fire, flood and earthquake – subjects often regarded as value-free and subject solely to the vagaries of fate.

At times humorous, at other times mind-boggling and frightening (see the section on the plague in LA), Ecology of Fear is even more wide ranging and user-friendly than City of Quartz. While the latter epitomised the Reagan-Bush era, Ecology of Fear plumbs the attitudes and crimes that have become part and parcel of the Clinton epoch. A period in which LA has been hit by a series of disasters: the 1992 riots, the 1993 Halloween fires that charred the 22 miles long Malibu coastline and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. This was an era in which federal relief money following the Northridge quake became as much a means of buying votes in the 1996 Presidential election as alleviating the suffering in a city ravaged by the most expensive – $95 billion in damage – civil disaster in US history. And an unchecked police force is pretty much the only social programme for which Angelinos are willing to contribute their tax dollars. No wonder that LA, with its 500 gated subdivisions, 2,000 street gangs, 4,000 mini malls, 20,000 sweatshops and 100,000 homeless, has become, for Davis, an "apocalypse theme park".

With its mock-sensationalism and debunking of various historical and climatological myths, Ecology of Fear was able to quickly find a place on the US best-seller list. Not surprisingly, it was soon the subject of a series of vicious attacks orchestrated by a range of periodicals and a handful of self-serving pundits. Having written three unashamedly left-wing studies of US culture, as well as netting a lucrative MacArthur grant and Getty fellowship, Davis has become a prime target for those who would perpetuate the city’s tarnishing image as politically clean, publicly safe, perpetually sunny and universally profitable. Politically motivated free-marketeers out to protect their own agenda, Davis’s most vehement critics don’t take kindly to an unreconstructed socialist declaring that the pursuit of profit will eventually result in an environmental disaster "as unavoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the street".

The controversy between Davis and his attackers highlights the battle currently raging over how to define LA and who is allowed to make such definitions. Countering the dominant view of LA, disseminated by the likes of state librarian and upbeat chronicler Kevin Starr, as a beatific land filled with a cast of interesting characters and unlimited investment opportunities, Davis points towards some 4 million Latinos, few of whom came for the sun, much less for a part in the next Spielberg production. Or that California now spends $5 billion a year on prisons, making the penal system one of the state’s primary growth industries (California has the third largest prison population in the world, after China and the US as a whole) and Southern California a "constitutional no man’s land". Or that there are now, in LA county, some 725,000 people on welfare who, having been written off, are an impediment to the promotion of LA boosterist ideology.

The initiator of the anti-Davis attacks is Brady Westwater, a self-styled critic who claims to have found hundreds of mistakes in Ecology of Fear. So obsessed is Westwater that he maintains that Davis is pulling a fast one by claiming he’s from Los Angeles when, in fact, he’s from Fontana, which is, god help us, a mere suburb of LA. Westwater’s real name is Ross Ernest Shockley, a Malibu real estate agent and sometime scriptwriter, whose article on Davis appeared in the Coalgula Art Journal and was later picked up by the LA Times and Britain’s Economist.

No less obsessed is the internet publication Salon, which published a series of articles criticising Davis for, amongst other things, claiming there are 2,000 gangs in LA when there are actually only 1,850. Ironically, most of Davis’s book – 484 pages with 831 footnotes – appeared originally in the LA Weekly where, according to the editor there, it was scrupulously fact-checked. Still, as in any work of non-fiction, errors are inevitable. (To put this in perspective, the LA Times in 1998 ran 2,130 corrections, an average of six per day!) At worst, Davis’s errors can be attributed to narrative exaggeration, unwise only because it left him open to subsequent attacks.

Another anti-Davis critic is David Friedman, whose articles on Davis have appeared in the Los Angeles Downtown News. The former president of Catellus Resources Group, part of Catellus Development Corporation, a billion dollar real estate company that operates or leases 20.9 million square feet of income-producing property mostly in California, Friedman writes for the LA Times Opinion section and Inc. Magazine. Meanwhile, he still works as a paid consultant for Catellus.

Free-market libertarian Joel Kotkin is yet another vigilant Davis-watcher. Describing himself as an urban policy expert, he is currently a research fellow at the right-wing Reason Foundation. Claiming to have been "trained" as a Marxist, Kotkin believes Davis has "bastardise[d] Marxist thought". In an article he penned for American Enterprise Kotkin, who has also contributed to the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post and the LA Times, maintains that a left-wing AFL-CIO is bringing class warfare to Los Angeles, and that Davis is one of its ringleaders. Likewise, the LA Times, a newspaper for which Davis has often written, has printed articles on Davis, ranging from derogatory to fair-minded. Their review of Ecology of Fear concludes that Davis – who sketched out the history of the newspaper and its owners, the Chandler family, in City of Quartz – is "too gloomy to be the preeminent analyst of Los Angeles’ soul", and objects to his description of LA as a place "where the future has turned rancid".

These critics would ignore the fact that, as Davis maintains, our previous notions of climatic and seismic activity in the region have been too sanguine, based on extrapolations from a recent history which has been anything but average (LA is a climate of extremes, making any fluctuations from the average appear wildly abnormal). Or that the damage caused by such disasters is what occurs not only when profit becomes the driving force, but when population density approaches critical mass, building regulations are flouted, and city leaders push development schemes and zoning strategies that make increases in the frequency and severity of natural disasters inevitable.

This is particularly clear in the section devoted to the politics of home fires, in which Davis notes that when the rich are burned out of their homes – which, because their houses are often built in firebelt regions, frequently occurs – they receive massive federal subsidies that allow the build-and-burn cycle to continue. However, the money is taken from programmes for the poor who, in turn, are regularly burned out of their tenements because state and local government declines to enforce even the pitiably weak fire-safety regulations for fear of cutting into the profits accrued by landlords. Hardly news that LA boosters want the world to hear. Likewise, the likes of Westwater and Friedman do not take kindly to Davis’s argument, based on scientific opinion, that the Malibu fire, which threatened the homes of the rich and famous, should have been left, on ecological grounds, to simply burn itself out.

It’s only when it comes to the herculean task of examining the entire history of Los Angeles apocalyptic literature that this book falls slightly short of the mark. While his conclusion – that most Americans view the destruction, whether metaphorical or real, of Los Angeles as a necessary step in the process of saving civilisation – is most likely true, the subject remains too large for even Davis to handle in so short a space, and rests uneasily with the pugnacious investigatory style that dominates the rest of the book. But this hardly detracts from the originality, scope and, yes, the quality of the research involved in writing Ecology of Fear. Even if Davis exaggerates a point or two, he remains, whatever his adversaries might say, a veritable trickster of the open stacks, whose assertion that we live in a "neo-catastrophic universe", where things are changed less by human will than by natural circumstances, is given substance in a series of bizarre Charles Fort-like narratives regarding man-eating mountain lions, bloodsucking chupacabras (goat-sucking vampires), surfing snakes off Malibu and a downpour of poultry from a Lawndale waterspout.

In politicising the time-honoured apocalyptic vision of LA – which stretches from before Nathaniel West to the sci-fi novels of Octavia Butler – Davis reminds the reader that if we don’t address our environmental problems, extinction is inevitable. And if we fail to repair civil society, extinction might be a blessing. Ecology of Fear not only represents a much needed dialogue between social justice advocates and environmentalists, the radical nature of which cannot be overestimated, but it gives a sense of history that can be measured not in decades or centuries but in thousands of years. LA boosters might not want to hear that their city is experiencing a relatively quiet period of earthquake activity and a relatively wet one in terms of rainfall. Or that the long-term pattern suggests more frequent and larger quakes and more devastating periods of drought. But, according to Davis, a responsible society would take such warnings seriously. By ignoring them, politicians, historians and developers have created the circumstances in which immense harm could come to millions of ordinary people. As proven by Davis’s critics, this book has become not only a best-seller but also that rare commodity, a political weapon that has succeeded in wounding some very powerful people.

Race and Class in the 1960s

Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song, Verso, 1999. Hardback, 160pp, £17.00

Reviewed by Mike Phipps

THIS CONTRIBUTION to the current explosion of literature about Muhammad Ali is not a book primarily about boxing or even one boxer, but about an entire era: the 1960s, when struggles over racial equality raised issues of class, personal liberty and integrity, and highlighted the absurdity of social conventions and the hypocrisy of once-liberal policymakers. The reason why this era should be studied and this book should be read is that the social iniquities of that time that were the focus of so much political resistance have not been resolved and may have worsened.

This is also a book about Black celebrity. An earlier generation of African Americans who spoke out against racism in the US were persecuted into old age – Paul Robeson witch-hunted and isolated; W.E.B. Dubois banned from travel abroad at age 82; even Louis Armstrong temporarily boycotted. Muhammad Ali’s significance lay in the fact that he successfully took action on principles that these earlier figures had been silenced for merely voicing.

The role of sporting celebrity is central to this. Sport really means nothing, argues Marqusee – so it can mean everything. The emergence of the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, and his victory over a white challenger in 1910 sparked off America’s worst racial violence of the decade. Although by the 1960s all the big heavyweight fights were between blacks, the contests were still symbolic and racially charged – "valorised by the perceived relation of each fighter to white power". Hence Ali’s taunts of "Come on white America!" as he battered Floyd Patterson into defeat in 1965, in his second successful defence of his world title.

The book traces the development of Ali from his early ideas – "I’m a good boy. I don’t join any integration marches. I don’t carry signs" – to America’s most famous draft resister, the sign-carrier for a whole generation of Black – and not just Black – youth: "I am not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slavemasters of the darker people the world over." To understand this evolution, this book, in contrast to simple biographies, provides a mass of material about the social, political and cultural contest: the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, attitudes to the Kennedy assassination, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, Black Power and its importance to other liberation politics.

Muhammad Ali himself remains an enigma. He was the first Black celebrity to take on the American establishment and win. But the huge symbolic victory for so many must have tasted less sweet for Ali, whose great comeback meant belated respectability, a punishing schedule and physical decline in swift succession. Mike Marqusee’s achievement lies in helping us to appreciate these poignant contradictions.

Public Enemy – Still Number One?

Public Enemy, There’s a Poison Goin’ On, Pias Recordings, 1999.

Reviewed by Mike Cowley

I SAW Public Enemy at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1991. It felt like an event. Other Young Socialist comrades were there, leafleting around the latest Youth Rights Campaign. I went with friends who, following the gig, and though remaining hip hop sceptical, could not but pay respect to the visceral intensity of PE at the height of their powers.

Back then, the band were that rare thing, a commercially proven global outfit who were also up front political. Ten years on, how are the Panthers of Rap faring in the new world order of Will Smith and Britney Spears?

There’s A Poison Goin’ On is released on Public Enemy’s own Pias Recordings, and was accessible pre-release over the net. Lead rapper Chuck D has spoken of a "socialistic" element in his label’s operations, of the democratising potential of the web, and of the contradictions – and limitations – of working within an economic framework not exactly geared to forgo the profit motive. It is a pointer to the leftward trajectory of PE, and Chuck D in particular. But it is the first three albums – Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet – when PE were an explosion of scattershot rage, that remain by far the peak of their achievements.

The impasse is not reversed with There’s A Poison .... There are brief, frustrating signs of the stentorian funk of their pomp ("World Tour Sessions"), but there are too few ideas here spread over too long an album. Of course, there are still flashes of brilliance in PE’s sometimes turgid metallic firmament. The PE star burns too furiously for Chuck D to watch his band go lazy. Unerring militancy is their one constant. They even have political infighting! It defines them publicly as well: Professor Griff, thrown out of the group after this borderline anti-Semitism spilled quotably into the music press; his black-khaki shadows and PE’s military wing, the Security of the First World soldiers; Terminator X, the mixed race DJ; and Flavor Flav, the lumpen element, a hip hop Keith Moon in life-guzzling meltdown. And presiding over them all, the Hard Rhymer, Chuck D, the voice of the cold choice.

It is a heady brew, and one which is seductive to the left. PE are the classic last gang in town, a hip hop Clash with the entirety of African American music history in their arsenal. Luckily, they do not court fools. Anyone stupid enough to fall into a dubious fetishisation of young black males decked out in M-16s and black berets will find little comfort in PE’s relentless mockery of American liberalism. They know they look the part. Though they flirt with the rhetoric of colonial revolution and Black Panther Party Stalinism, PE are too much of an independent unit to ever consummate. They defy sentimental appraisal, are a vanguard unto themselves.

Asking PE to lighten up would be like advising Howard Marks not to inhale. Neither suggestion would compute. PE’s longevity is traceable to this missionary zeal, both creatively and politically. It has also limited their appeal in Middle America, where young white males represent rap’s largest single audience. What Ice T calls the Home Invasion has found PE trailing rap’s more lumpen exponents. Unleavened by humour, their music has become a shrill, densely scored polemic.

Sod’s Law has ruled that the more politically assured Public Enemy continue to release records unworthy of them. Buy There’s A Poison Goin’ On by all means. It is not a terrible album. Just get a hold of those first three releases before you do. Workers’ bombs all, their quality and commitment continue to set the standard for hip hop today.

Neo-Liberalism the Giddens Way

Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Polity Press, 1998. Paperback, 155pp, £6.95.

Reviewed by Jonathan Joseph

ANTHONY GIDDENS has emerged as Tony Blair’s favourite guru and with books like this it is easy to see why. In fact, since the Labour leader has proved palpably incapable of producing anything substantive himself, it would seem that Giddens is prepared to do Blair’s job for him. It is as if Giddens wanted to become a Blairite, but on finding that Blairism had no substance realised he had to sit down and invent it himself!

The meaning of the term "third way" is still not entirely clear. It would make sense to see it as offering an alternative to old-style social democracy and Thatcherite neo-liberalism, except that the term is also used to refer to Clinton’s politics which clearly do not arise out of debates in social democracy. Nevertheless, Giddens does set up the third way in contrast to these two approaches. He begins by characterising old-style social democracy as involving: pervasive state involvement in social and economic life; state domination of civil society; Keynesian demand management plus corporatism; the advocacy of a mixed or social economy with a confined role for markets; the pursuit of full employment; a commitment to strong egalitarianism; support for a comprehensive welfare state; a linear approach to modernisation; a low ecological consciousness; support for internationalism and a mentality belonging to a bi-polar world (p.7). Later on, social democracy is said to be based on a homogenous labour force, the dominance of mass production, an elitist state and a national economy contained within a sovereign body (p.16).

These ideas and approaches were ruthlessly exposed by Thatcherite neo-liberalism which in turn implies such things as: minimal government; an autonomous civil society; market fundamentalism; moral authoritarianism and strong economic individualism; the idea that the labour market clears like any other; the acceptance of inequality; the idea of the welfare state only as a safety net and – along with social democracy – the linear view of modernisation, the low ecological consciousness and the belonging to a bi-polar world (p.8).

It is clear that Giddens sees this approach as at least attempting to come to terms with real changes. He therefore addresses the problems of neo-liberalism in terms of the contradictory relationship between neo-liberal economics and conservative politics. The conservatives have traditionally held a cautious and pragmatic approach to social and economic change while the liberation of market forces undermines the traditional structures of authority on which conservatism depends (p.15). The answer to this conundrum might be a new third way that does not share conservatism’s inhibitions in the face of neo-liberal capitalism. But, of course, Giddens would strongly deny that his project is about former social democrats replacing the conservatives as the best supporters of the free market.

In fact, Giddens tries to claim that the third way deals with new issues that are beyond the old left-right schema. His politics, therefore, are neither left nor right – although it is clear that his dialogue is with the "left" – but are instead an attempt to think through new issues. The conditions for old-style social democratic dialogue no longer exist. In particular, Giddens emphasises the dissolution of the welfare consensus that dominated the industrial countries up to the late ’70s, the discrediting of Marxism following the collapse of Stalinism and the profound social, economic and technological changes that he calls "globalisation".

The third way is based on three perceived changes in social life – globalisation, personalisation and the environmental crisis: "The overall aim of third way politics should be to help citizens plot their way through the major revolutions of our time: globalisation, transformations in personal life and our relationship to nature" (p.64).

Globalisation poses the questions, how should we live after the decline of tradition and custom, how do we recreate social solidarity and how should we react to ecological problems? The globalisation of the world economy creates new pressures and the need for the increased flexibility of the state, civil society and personal life. Although it would seem that globalisation is about larger markets and political arenas, it also creates a strong impetus and logic towards the downward devolution of power.

This makes a community focus both necessary and possible. In a more flexible environment, localities must respond to the particular demands of the world market. Politics must develop the practical means of refurbishing neighbourhoods, towns and larger local areas (p.95). There is an expanded role for the public sphere with new demands for individual autonomy and reflexive citizenry. This should be developed through constitutional reform directed towards greater transparency and openness of government. We now live in the "single information environment" (having the same access to information) where existing ways of doing things come under increased scrutiny. Giddens argues that globalisation leads to more direct contact with citizens allowing governments to experiment with more direct forms of democracy (p.75).

This ties in with Giddens’ argument that we are now facing new problems which do not fit into the left-right schema. These include "life politics" – the politics of choice, identity and mutuality, and ecological concerns. Giddens’ argument for "ecological modernisation" certainly does go beyond left arguments, calling (p.57) for a partnership between government, business, moderate environmentalists and scientists! However, his argument that scientific and environmental issues are now, more than ever, in the public sphere and overlap with questions of democracy is surely correct as recent scandals over BSE and genetically modified food indicate.

Giddens’ argument is that although globalisation leaves us vulnerable to powerful new forces, it also provides new opportunities. In particular, it requires a new, more responsive form of state, a more proactive civil society and a more reflexive citizen. This leads to a renewal of civil society, while his arguments for partnership reflect a need for new responsibilities. The third way sees the government and civil society operating in partnership. This book outlines a programme for community renewal based on the harnessing of local initiative, the involvement of the voluntary sector, the protection of the local public sphere, community-based crime prevention, and a new democratic family based on emotional and sexual equality and mutual rights and responsibilities.

The globalisation of economic and political life at the macro level requires adjustment at the micro level. "Freedom to social democrats should mean autonomy of action, which in turn demands the involvement of the wider social community. Having abandoned collectivism, third way politics looks for a new relationship between the individual and the community, a redefinition of rights and obligations" (p.65). The motto, not surprisingly, is "no rights without responsibilities". Old-style social democracy treated rights as unconditional claims. With expanding individualism should come an extension of individual obligations. Giddens chips in with the familiar line that the current welfare system discourages the active search for work.

More interesting than this regurgitated Blairism are Giddens’ arguments about risk. Old-style social democracy has long been concerned with security whereas it also needs to embrace the notion of risk. The idea of a "risk society" is taken from the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and describes how a new "late-modern" society includes increasing dangers but also increasing opportunities that can be grasped through initiative and innovation. It is based on increasing individual autonomy and it negotiates between these risk-taking individuals and the wider society. In particular, Giddens links the risk society to the opportunities opened up by sweeping changes in science and technology. He calls for a new society of "responsible risk takers" in government, business enterprise and labour markets. This is a feature of a new world, a world of states without enemies, where new questions like risk management, democratic devolution, and the renewal of the public sphere become increasingly important. With increased transparency, administrative efficiency and mechanisms of direct democracy, the government plays the role of a risk manager in relation to lots of innovative individuals.

Giddens lists third way values as including equality, the protection of the vulnerable, freedom as autonomy, no rights without responsibilities, no authority without democracy, cosmopolitan pluralism and philosophic conservatism (p.66). The third way programme is based on the radical centre, a new democratic state, an active civil society, the democratic family, a new mixed economy, equality as inclusion, positive welfare, the social investment state, the cosmopolitan nation and cosmopolitan democracy (p.70). He argues for a notion of equality as inclusion, embracing a limited meritocracy, a renewal of public space (civil liberalism), positive welfare, and a social investment state (p.105). Welfare should not be distributed wholly by the state but should be done in conjunction with other agencies including business (p.128).

Finally, Giddens returns to the question of the globalising economy to resituate his project. Globalisation, he argues, is not about the diminishing role of the state, but rather it affirms its continued importance as a necessary stabilising force. Nevertheless, globalisation is not the same as internationalisation; he is talking not just of closer ties between nations but the emergence of truly transnational social, political and economic features. The globalising process has indeed transferred powers away from nations into a global space. However, it also offers the possibility to create a new, international civil society that is still responsive to local concerns. The current stage of global laissez-faire is a moment in the history of an emerging world economy, not its end-point. It is now necessary to end market fundamentalism, through a new civil order. This includes increasing international co-operation between nations and the regulation of financial markets, for example through a "Tobin tax" on financial transactions (p.151).

These, then, are the arguments; what, briefly, of the reality? First, it is necessary to argue that the case for globalisation is overstated. Yes, the world economy is increasingly global, but this is due, in large part, to the decision by states to deregulate following the crisis of the post-war period. Such decisions increase the vulnerability of the world economy to economic convulsions and such crises – as witnessed recently – reopen the debate around regulation strategies. In particular, it seems that the world economy is becoming sectoralised rather than globalised. Instead of the power of states diminishing, it is the case that new, transnational states are emerging – bodies like the EU, which have an even greater regulatory potential. In this context, the politics of dynamic civil society seem a long way off. Flexible for business, certainly, but not flexible for democracy.

Second, Giddens seems to be moving towards a post-modern theory of society based on the idea that the old foundations of social life no longer exist. This is used to dismiss not only old-style social democratic politics, but class politics in general. He replaces this with a new personalised politics. In his discussion it is hard not to see the influence that Thatcherite libertarianism has had on Giddens’ arguments. Of course the book does not make the argument that we live in John Major’s "classless society", but it is very much a product of two decades of attacks on the working class. Given the situation in Britain, it is little wonder that ideas like the third way are taken seriously. But, Schröder apart, how many other European social democrats have embraced third way politics? In France, for example, where the working class has not suffered the same level of defeats, Jospin could not get away with third way rhetoric (however bad we may happen to think he is).

Third, what of the reality in Britain? The idea of a reflexive citizenry appears a bit of a joke in light of minuscule electoral turnouts and widespread political apathy and confusion. Giddens’ talk of moves towards the greater transparency and openness of politics clearly conflicts with Blair’s totalitarian approach to democracy. The reality of Blair’s experiment with more direct forms of democracy is to turn each election into a populist plebiscite. The election farces in Wales and London indicate the hollowness of Giddens’ claims. Meanwhile, the "life politics" of choice, identity and mutuality, and ecological concern have been destroyed by the policies of successive governments and by Blair’s new mates in big business.

The Third Way ends by stressing that Blairism is not all media hype and that a substantive agenda is emerging from social democratic debates (p.155). That Giddens feels he has to say this indicates a lot. Only now that Giddens is on board and writing articles can Blair start to say what he stands for. His previous flirtation with US-style communitarianism proved to be a flop. In fact Blair is a politician of realpolitik who needs an ideological cover.

The arguments about the third way have a different starting point – they are an idealist abstraction. They do not start from the reality of the capitalist economy, nor even from current political practice, but from ideal notions of citizenship and civil society. Yet it is clear that they are a far cry from the reality in Britain today. There is no doubt that Anthony Giddens sees himself as part of a new social democratic left. His concerns with citizenship rights, welfare provision and civil regeneration are no doubt genuine. But these are the concerns of a sociological theorist. And as long as Blair stays in power the theory and the reality will grow further and further apart.

Marxism and the Left – A Travesty

David J. Thompson, Marx and the British Left, 1999. Paperback, 93pp, £3.99

Reviewed by Jim Dye

THIS IS the worst book I’ve read in a long time. It is reminiscent of a (bad) undergraduate attempt at essay writing, but the most objectionable thing is that the title is so misleading. What could have been a valuable attempt to look at the relationship between Marx and the British labour movement, or an examination of the continued relevance and influence of Marxist thought in the British left, is actually neither. Instead we are subjected to one of the most superficial treatments of Marx and his ideas that I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across.

Marx is portrayed in the manner of a cardboard cutout, without interaction with the wider movement. The huge influence of Chartism, and the important role of the first Marxist-influenced workers’ leaders such as Ernest Jones and George Harney, are not even mentioned. The first mention of the British left comes in the form of H.M. Hyndman of the sectarian Social Democratic Federation, but even here the analysis is threadbare. Instead we are presented with a view of history made up of good people, which includes Marx of course, along with any number of left Labour MPs, Old Labour leaders like Callaghan ("a paternalistic, genuine non-radical socialist") and personal heroes such as Derek Hatton ("he was a family man, drove a nice car and was mad about football"). The bad people are the Tories, Kinnock and Blair. I could go on, but by now attentive readers will have got the point!

The level of knowledge is only what the writer has impressionistically picked up from a limited number of books and what appears to be a superficial connection with the labour movement that revolved around student debates at university. Hence the author seems to believe that the original CPGB still exists, although he "rarely sees its banners or supporters"! Of the rest of the "ultra-left" he describes, Militant are seen favourably because of their reformist activities on Liverpool City Council, but then we are told that Ted Grant now publishes "Socialist Action Magazine" (sic). The SWP are to be admired because of the Anti-Nazi League, but when it comes to the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party Thompson writes that in "attempting to find out whether these tiny factions exist or not in 1999, I have reached a brick wall ... perhaps if somebody knows anything about these groups they could contact me"! Such crass ignorance of the British left could be excused if it were not for the slight complication that this is what the book purports to be about.

Just what the author wanted to achieve by producing this nonsense is hard to say, but the end section gives a clue. Thompson outlines his own manifesto of left reformism that he would like to see the Labour Party adopt. So what we are left with is not a booklet about Marxism, but an eclectic mess of ideas that revolve around the fate of the Labour Party and confused attempts to come to terms with it. Such a narrowness of vision, and poverty of knowledge, is best ignored.

The Trotskyist Movement in Ceylon

Y. Ranjith Amarasinghe, Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo, 1998. Paperback, 337pp.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

GIVEN THAT Ceylon (Sri Lanka since 1972) is one of the few countries in the world where the Trotskyist movement ever won genuine mass support, it is a shame that so few in-depth studies of it have been produced. The book under review here is the first full-length study to be published since 1968, when George Lerski’s The Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon appeared. We have even had to wait a quarter-century for Y.R. Amarasinghe’s work to be made available in its entirety (although parts of it have appeared in Modern Ceylon Studies and in the Revolutionary History volume Blows Against the Empire), for it was originally written as a doctoral thesis completed back in 1974.

The book divides into two sections. The first four chapters comprise a narrative history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from its foundation in 1935 up to 1964, when the party joined a coalition government with the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The second section, in chapters 5-7, consists of an analysis of the LSSP’s structure, ideology and political support.

The narrative section is the more impressive, based as it is on some very thorough research, ranging from the Trotskyists’ own publications through to the Colonial Office records on the LSSP (which have since been published in Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe’s collection Britain, World War 2 and the Sama Samajists).

In chapter 1 Dr Amarasinghe details the formation of the LSSP as a very broad-based socialist party and the Trotskyists’ expulsion of the Stalinist minority in 1940, which led to the party becoming the Ceylon section of the Fourth International (FI). In the second chapter the escape of the jailed LSSP leaders in 1942 and their participation in the formation of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India is recounted, along with the subsequent split in the Samasamajist movement.

Chapter 3 covers the 1950s, a period which began with the unification of the two Samasamajist parties (minus Philip Gunawardena, the LSSP’s founding father, who left to form his own party), and was followed by the Great Hartal of 1953. The coverage of the latter event is particularly revealing, showing not just that the LSSP failed to anticipate the semi-insurrectionary form which the action took but, in the case of its leading figure, N.M. Perera, even extended the support of the Samasamajists to the United National Party (UNP) government in its efforts to restore order (pp.102, 129).

These crucial years in the development of the LSSP also saw the emergence of the SLFP as a "left" rival to the main Ceylonese bourgeois party, the UNP, and an upsurge of Sinhalese racism towards the Tamil minority, centring on the demand that Sinhala should be the sole official language in Ceylon – both of which posed major political challenges for the Samasamajists. While the LSSP retained a formal commitment to revolutionary Marxism, the period was marked by a growing concentration on electoral politics and the implicit acceptance of a parliamentary road to socialism.

Chapter 5 (which was published in Blows Against the Empire) begins with the LSSP’s decision in principle to participate in a coalition with the SLFP (nullified only by the SLFP’s success in gaining an absolute parliamentary majority in the second of the 1960 elections, which obviated the need to bring the Samasamajists into the government). This chapter covers the formation in 1963 of the United Left Front, involving the LSSP, the Communist Party and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (the latter two parties being led respectively by S.A. Wickremasinghe and Philip Gunawardena, both ex-Samasamajists). The narrative concludes with break-up of the ULF and the formation an SLFP/LSSP coalition government in June 1964 – an event which led to the LSSP’s expulsion from the Fourth International (FI), bringing to an end their 22-year membership of the world Trotskyist movement.

In the second, interpretative section of the book the author is able to draw on his own experiences as a candidate member of the LSSP in the early 1960s, which gives him an insight into the party’s politics lacking in a writer like Lerski who had no background in the Trotskyist movement. The author provides some telling criticisms of the leadership’s political methods, which paved the way for the capitulation to Mrs Bandaranaike in 1964. He emphasises the lack of Marxist education among the ranks, particularly in the Youth Leagues, which formed the organisational mass base of the LSSP but were largely reduced to serving as foot-soldiers for the party’s electoral campaigns.

There is also a balanced analysis of the LSSP’s relations with the FI. Contrary to anti-"Pabloite" mythology, it is clear that the Paris-based International Secretariat (and, from 1963, United Secretariat) of the Fourth International did its best to divert the Ceylonese section from the political course that led it into Mrs Bandaranaike’s government, initially through pressure within the FI and later by means of public criticism.

However, these chapters are perhaps less useful than the basic narrative section. The problem lies mainly in the fact that the manuscript was completed so many years ago, but also partly in the author’s lack of wider reading in the history of the Trotskyist movement outside Ceylon. It is stated in the preface that the published version contains "corrections related to interpretations", but there should perhaps have been rather more of them.

For example in chapter 5, "The basic ideology of the LSSP", we are given a thought-provoking analysis of the early LSSP’s relationship to Trotskyism, which rightly criticises Lerski for reading Trotskyist politics into the LSSP’s public declarations far earlier than is justifiable. Amarasinghe also draws attention to some thoroughly un-Trotskyist statements by the leaders of the T Group, as the secret faction of Trotsky’s supporters in the LSSP was known – for example, Philip Gunawardena’s endorsement of the Stalinist-inspired Popular Front during a 1936 speech to the State Council, when he called on "all democratic elements to form a united front as has been done so successfully in other countries such as France and Spain" (p.220). This certainly raises the question of whether at that point the Ceylonese Left Oppositionists, lacking as they did close contacts with the international movement, had fully understood the Trotskyist programme. Even allowing for the fact that the T Group were operating in a broad party that included supporters of the Stalinised Comintern as well as petty bourgeois anti-colonialists, and were therefore unable to promote their political views openly when speaking officially as representatives of the LSSP, that does not explain a public declaration of support for a counter-revolutionary Stalinist policy.

But this interesting discussion is marred by the author’s lack of awareness of the background to the future LSSP leaders’ original contact with the International Left Opposition (ILO). We are told that: "There is evidence pointing to various nationalist and orthodox communist influences on the young students who later became the founders of the LSSP, yet not to any Trotskyist influences as such. Moreover, the 'British Trotskyist movement' was not to develop to any significant proportion until the late 1930s" (p.241). However, Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s Against the Stream: The Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-38, published in 1986, shows how in the early 1930s Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva and other Ceylonese students were brought into contact with the Marxian League (the first group in Britain to declare in favour of the ILO) via one of its leaders, Aggarwallah, who was secretary of the London branch of the Indian National Congress. This might, incidentally, provide the key to the T Group’s apparently limited grasp of Trotskyism, as the Marxist League was an ultra-left sectarian tendency from which the ILO soon dissociated itself.

A similar lack of recognition of more recent work is shown in connection with the Trotskyist movement in Asia in the 1930s. The author mentions "claims" that there were Trotskyist groups in China, Indonesia and Indochina, but states that "in none of these countries did a noteworthy Trotskyist movement exist" (p.240). Yet the development of an important Fourth International section in Vietnam is well known, and numerous studies of it have been published. Some of this literature was available even at the time Dr Amarasinghe was writing his thesis, notably Richard Stephenson’s article in the 1972 pamphlet Vietnam: Stalinism v. Revolutionary Socialism (reprinted in this issue of What Next?), while Ngo Van’s book Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: the Fight for the Fourth International in Indochina 1930-1945, published in 1995, provides a more recent and fuller account. There are interesting comparisons to be made here with the LSSP, for not only did the Vietnamese Trotskyists succeed in winning mass support but the current around Ta Thu Thau coexisted in a single organisation with the Stalinists for several years, just as their counterparts did in Ceylon.

The age of Dr Amarasinghe’s thesis is also reflected in the relative lack of prominence given to Tamil-Sinhalese relations and the LSSP’s response to this question – which has since emerged as the dominant issue in Sri Lankan politics. The LSSP is rightly given full credit for its principled resistance (at least, in the 1950s) to Sinhalese chauvinism, but the possible flaws in its attitude to Tamil self-determination are not examined. Amarasinghe notes that from the beginning the LSSP "supported the creation of a 'Ceylonese nation' rather than one that was communally oriented" (p.5), a position summarised in Colvin R. de Silva’s famous statement against Sinhala Only and in support of parity of status for the Tamil language – "two languages one nation, one language two nations". But it could be argued that this overlooked the fact that in reality there were two nations in Ceylon – which was why there were two languages in the first place. It is at least worth considering whether the LSSP should have proposed a federal solution to the national question from the beginning.

To have full taken account of the political issues and historical research that have emerged since 1974 would have required a complete rewrite of the original manuscript, and Dr Amarasinghe cannot be criticised for failing to take on such a daunting task. All the same, it would not be too much to have expected some amendments to the text, along the lines promised in his preface, together with footnote references to more recent publications.

Nevertheless, the Social Scientists’ Association is to be congratulated on publishing this important study. Perhaps a left-wing publisher in Britain might follow their example and make some other academic theses by Trotskyists available to a wider readership. (Michael Woodhouse’s 1969 Oxford M.Phil thesis, "Rank and File Movements Among the Miners of South Wales" would be a good place to start.) Meanwhile, somebody should arrange to import some copies of Dr Amarasinghe’s book, which ought to find a ready market on the British left.

From What Next? No.15 1999