Environmental Politics: Analyses and Alternatives (Capital & Class No.72, Special Issue, Autumn 2000). Paperback, 244pp, £7.00.
Reviewed by Nick Davies
LAST YEAR’S fuel crisis gave a new expression to a long-standing debate: what should be the relationship between socialism and environmentalism? That this is as much a debate within the left as between socialists and environmentalists was shown by the widely differing responses to the crisis.
Was this an uprising of working people against a regressive tax advocated by a middle class, anti-socialist green movement, or was it an attack by the self-interested petit-bourgeoisie on a Labour government’s attempts to comply with the Kyoto accords? Numerous other variations on these two standpoints saw New Labour’s environmentalism as a sham, which sat ill with three years of capitulation to the roads lobby.
These differences stem from widely divergent views on the left on how we should relate to environmental politics, but they have some basis in reality: there’s a huge differences between on the one hand green activists who see themselves as socialists, and on the other deep green ecologists such as Earth First! or figures such as Jonathan Porritt.
Looked at from the other direction, the opinion some environmentalists have of socialism as a technocentric twin of capitalism could also have some basis in reality when viewed against the catastrophic acts of environmental destruction carried out by the governments of the USSR and China. Some of these misconceptions about Marxism and nature held by greens are taken at face value and adopted by Marxists or socialists themselves. In this way they share, or at the very least are unable to combat, tendencies in capitalism towards "cornucopism" (an over-optimistic view of the availability of future resources for human consumption, as held by the scientists in the pay of the auto industry who advise George W. Bush) and "prometheanism" (the position of the bio-tech companies and their political supporters who pursue the active transformation of nature as the key to progress [sic]).
If the red-green alliance, a consummation devoutly to be wished by many socialists and greens, is to become a reality, there needs to be a struggle among reds and greens. The struggle among reds will not be won by socialists ceasing to be socialists and simply tailending the greens, or adopting a few green demands as a bolt-on accessory to their programme, but by a development both of Marxist theory, and, in the light of that development, in our perception of the socialist project.
This special issue of Capital & Class, published by the Conference of Socialist Economists, is a valuable contribution to that process, although the editorial strikes a self-critical note, admitting that this collection "extends Marxist or socialist debates into ecological matters, rather than exemplifying the more even-handed dialogue between red and green which is ultimately most fruitful".
The social-theorist André Gorz casts a long shadow over this volume. Many of the contributors and their subjects acknowledge his influence, even if they disagree with him. Perhaps the most interesting contribution is Noel Castree’s look at the "eco-Marxists": "Marxism and the Production of Nature". Castree starts by arguing for the existence of a nature-society dualism which he says has pervaded Western thought, including Marxism, since the Enlightenment, and in which both technocentrists and ecocentrists (sic) share "an ontological, theoretical and normative separation of the social and natural realms". Castree judges the eco-Marxists by the extent to which they transcend this dualism. Prominent in his survey is the Gorz-influenced James O’Connor, who argues for the existence of a second contradiction of capitalism by which there occur progressive environmental crises resulting from capitalism’s treatment of nature as if it were a free good.
Like O’Connor, Elmar Altvater regards capitalism as inherently unecological. Given capitalism’s liability to destroy the environment on which social wealth is based, Altvater argues that we should "build into the functioning of the economic system a series of imperatives which prevent ecological damage". Reiner Grundmann, on the other hand, argues that the real issue is not the abuse of an external nature, but a rational and conscious control over nature according to human needs and values: "anthropocentrism and mastery over nature, far from causing ecological problems, are the starting points from which to address them."
Castree praises Ted Benton’s attempts to overcome the nature-society dualism, with his metaphor of "articulation" between the natural and the social. From the same perspective, he looks sympathetically at the work by Neil Smith on the production of nature. According to Smith, under the competitive, growth oriented and labour-value oriented conditions specific to capitalism, nature becomes internal to the economic system. This internalisation can take the form of intentional production, such as with GMOs (commodifying the food chain), or production such as the new ecologies created by artificial environments in or pollution of the land, water and air.
Elsewhere, Gerard Strange and Martin Spence cast a critical eye over O’Connor’s theory, mentioned above, of a second contradiction of capitalism, and also over his thesis that "new social movements" which engage in environmental struggles can be an agency of social change, as a form of resistance to capitalism’s imposition of the commodity form on the environment, which is in turn a counterpart to its reassertion of control in the workplace.
Without necessarily agreeing with O’Connor’s thesis exactly as he expresses it, it is possible to see a convergence between these two strands in the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle and Prague, and in the wider opposition to the WTO. A convergence can also be seen in this way: the employers’ offensive in the workplace and the long-hours culture has seen a massive rise in the "leisure industry" and the elevation of the weekend into a cult (just listen to Radio 1 on a Friday afternoon!) in terms of marketing and advertising, yet at the same time there has been assault on "free" and long-enjoyed areas of natural beauty by intensive farming, housing, retail and the leisure industry (golf courses and water sports being among the worst offenders), which is commodifying nature by turning it into theme parks and the like, from which more profit can be made.
Laurence Wilde reclaims the Marx, which he argues should never have been lost, the Marx who advocated respect for the rights of animals. Evidently, the Moore-Aveling translation of a passage from Volume 1 of Capital has resulted in an unwarranted "speciesist" connotation in Marx’s comparison of purposeful human activity with that of animals. Neil Maycroft looks at the limitations of currently fashionable "green" consumerism within an economic system based on the production and exchange of commodities, and there are contributions on theories of consumption, on environmental taxation and on various small-scale experiments such as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Schemes).
Unfortunately, intended contributions on trade unions and the car culture "fell by the wayside". In particular, something on trade unions would have strengthened this collection. On car culture, more work needs doing, from a Marxist perspective, on the economic, political and philosophical relationship between capitalism and the "right" to cause pollution, gridlock and general mayhem. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating, diverse and generally readable collection.
One problem, and this is recognised by at least one of the contributors, is that some of the discussion is carried out at a high level of abstraction. While this theoretical work is undoubtedly valuable, there’s rather a yawning gap between it and, for instance, a grassroots campaign against an incinerator or an opencast mine. This development of socialist theory (and this is not meant to sound like an anti-intellectual put-down) needs to continue by coming out of the university departments, into the environmental campaigns and the labour movement.
Yousuf S. Rassool, District Six: Lest We Forget, University of the Western Cape, 2000. Paperback, 198pp, £7.00 (inc. p&p, available from the author, 4a Melrose Avenue, Earley, Reading RG6 7BN).
Reviewed by Norman Traub
YOUSUF RASSOOL was born in Cape Town in 1928 and grew up in District Six. This book deals with his childhood and young adult life up to 1956. Through his eyes we see what life was like for a Black, both before and after the Whites handed political power to their fascist wing, the Nationalist Party. He also traces his own involvement in the political struggle of the Blacks against racist oppression.
The District Six, where Rassool grew up, housed a vibrant, ethnically mixed community, not far from the centre of Cape Town. He draws a vivid picture of what life was like in this community. He takes us on a tour of the streets and the buildings which the architects of apartheid bulldozed to the ground over a ten year period from 1966 without a thought for the lives of the inhabitants and the havoc they were wreaking on the community. However, he does not sentimentalise the lives of the predominantly Black inhabitants of District Six, which was an urban slum.
Rassool’s family moved to District Six just before the outbreak of World War Two. His high school years were spent at the famous Trafalgar High School, which at that time was only the second high school for non-Whites in the entire country! There was no practical teaching in his biology class, but the teacher introduced the pupils to the theory of evolution and so convinced him of its soundness that he declared himself an atheist.
During World War Two, the United Party government led by Smuts introduced a Coloured Affairs Council for dealing with the Coloureds. This was successfully boycotted by the Coloured community, which created an organisation, the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department (Anti-CAD) for the boycott campaign. Rassool was a high school student at the time and he records that at his school the pupils and all the Black teachers supported this campaign. Following the campaign, in 1943 the Anti-CAD together with the All African Convention (AAC) spearheaded the formation of a federal political organisation to unite all sections of the Blacks – African, Coloured and Indian. The organisation, the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), renamed the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA), adopted a principled programme – the Ten Point Programme – demanding full democratic rights for all in South Africa and a policy of non-collaboration with the oppressor. This was long before the ANC and the Congress Alliance adopted the Freedom Charter. The formation of UMSA propelled the building of unity between all the ethnic groups among the Blacks, between worker and peasant, and between teacher, parent and pupil.
When the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, it intensified and extended segregation to every walk of life, including public transport and services, business and residential areas and public entertainment. The policy came to be known as apartheid. Rassool joined the New Era Fellowship (NEF), a political cultural organisation affiliated to the UMSA. He later trained to be a teacher.
He joined the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), which had broken with its previous stance of professionalism and affiliated to the UMSA, acknowledging that the struggle for an equal education was bound up with the fight for a democratic society. The authorities helped set up a rival, quisling teachers’ association and withdrew recognition from the TLSA. This had a dramatic effect on the membership of the organisation, as those teachers who were interested in pursuing their own careers deserted and joined the quisling association. Rassool was elected chairman of one of the branches of the TLSA and had his work cut out to keep the branch alive.
It is when Rassool deals with the split in the UMSA in the 1950s that I take issue with him. An organisation for politicising the youth, the Society of Young Africa (SOYA), affiliated to the UMSA, was formed in the early 1950s. There was a clique in the leadership of the Anti-CAD and the NEF, led by Ben Kies and Hosea Jaffe, who claimed that SOYA was formed without consultation and that its establishment was racialistic. Rassool supported this clique.
Its claims flew in the face of reality. Firstly, I.B. Tabata (a leading figure in UMSA) publicly raised the necessity for the formation of SOYA and it was on the agenda at the 1951 AAC conference. Secondly, how could the establishment of an organisation of youth with membership open to all – African, Coloured, Indian and those Whites who accepted full equality in accordance with the programme and policy of UMSA – be regarded as racialistic?
At an NEF meeting held in early 1952, which covered the reports of the December 1951 AAC conference and of the inaugural SOYA conference held in Johannesburg soon afterwards, serious political differences in the UMSA surfaced publicly for the first time. It was not only SOYA to which the Kies-Jaffe clique of the Anti-CAD objected. There was a students’ organisation in the Western Cape to which Rassool briefly refers, the Cape Peninsula Students Union, which the clique dubbed "middle class, elitist and nationalistic". Despite the fact that this union had progressive policies and was playing an important role in educating and organising the students, the clique saw its development as a threat politically and opposed it as it did in the case of SOYA. The split that occurred in the UMSA is discussed briefly by Rassool and then only up to 1956. It would therefore be necessary for the reader to consult other writings in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the split and the issues involved.
In the introduction to the book, when the author discusses the importance of UMSA’s contribution to the struggle of the Blacks for full democratic rights, he says: "One must accept that, just as there is an idea ‘whose time has come’ so there is also an idea ‘whose time has passed’." This remark betrays the fact that he is out of touch with the ongoing political struggle in South Africa. However, as an account of growing up in racist South Africa and of the author’s involvement in the political struggles of the 1940s and ’50s, this book is recommended.
The Hidden Pearl of the Caribbean: Trotskyism in Cuba (Revolutionary History, Vol.7, No.3), Porcupine Press/Socialist Platform, 2000. Paperback, 364pp, £9.95.
Reviewed by Martin Sullivan
UNDERSTANDING THE Cuban revolution has posed major problems for those Marxists who derive their analytical framework from the Trotskyist tradition. According to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, in colonial and semi-colonial countries the national bourgeoisie could not solve the democratic tasks of the revolution – essentially, national independence and agrarian reform – while the petty bourgeoisie, comprising as it did intermediate strata between the two main classes, was incapable of playing an independent political role. Only a Bolshevik-Leninist party based on the working class, in an alliance with the peasantry, could lead the struggle for power. And, having come to power, this revolutionary workers’ party would proceed to expropriate the bourgeoisie.
In Cuba, however, contrary to orthodox Trotskyist doctrine, the petty bourgeoisie self-evidently did play an independent revolutionary role. The 26 July Movement led by Fidel Castro was a radical nationalist organisation based on the middle class (even if some of its leaders, such as Che Guevara and Fidel’s brother Raúl, regarded themselves as Marxists), and its chosen method of struggle was not urban insurrection but rural guerilla warfare. After Castro’s forces succeeded in overthrowing the Batista dictatorship in 1959, the government established by these petty bourgeois revolutionaries not only implemented a radical agrarian programme but went on to carry out the expropriation of the capitalists, domestic and foreign. It is hardly surprising that Trotsky’s followers were politically disoriented by these developments.
A study of the Trotskyist movement in Cuba itself is therefore of considerable interest, not least because at the time of their break from the Communist Party in 1932 the Cuban oppositionists represented a significant political force, with perhaps as many as 1000 members and substantial roots in the trade union and student movements.
Hitherto, we were dependent for our knowledge of the Cuban opposition on a single chapter in Robert Alexander’s Trotskyism in Latin America. This reviewer therefore turned eagerly to The Hidden Pearl of the Caribbean. It consists mainly of articles by Gary Tennant, drawn from his doctoral thesis "Dissident Cuban Communism", and it is clear that the author has carried out a massive amount of research into the subject. Unfortunately, he approaches the material from the standpoint of the sort of sterile orthodoxy which characterises propagandist sects like the Workers Power group. The view that only the urban proletariat organised in a Leninist party can lead the revolution is recited like a mantra throughout Tennant’s account.
Ironically, one of the reasons for the formation of the Cuban opposition was its resistance to the Third Period sectarianism of the Cuban CP, which in the early ’30s insisted on the narrowly proletarian character of the revolution and dismissed all bourgeois or petty bourgeois democratic movements as reactionary. Indeed, at its foundation in 1933 the Partido Bolchevique Leninista (PBL) was, despite its name, a heterogeneous mixture of anti-imperialists, trade unionists and student activists, with a minority of convinced Bolshevik-Leninists – a bit like the early Lanka Sama Samaja Party minus the Stalinists. From the beginning there were tensions between those who upheld the Trotskyist position that the revolution could be successful only under the leadership of a vanguard party based on the working class, and those who argued both for a looser form of organisation and for active involvement in petty bourgeois democratic-nationalist formations.
Given the actual course of the Cuban revolution, you might think that the views of the latter heterodox tendency in the PBL had much to recommend them. Needless to say, this is not a possibility that comrade Tennant is prepared to consider.
By 1936, as a result of defections by supporters of its right wing, combined with demoralisation following the defeat of the 1935 general strike, the PBL had been reduced to little more than a propaganda group. But the author evidently regards this as a small price to pay for doctrinal purity. He sees the PBL’s evolution as essentially positive and applauds the leadership’s adoption of a Trotskyist programme based uncompromisingly on the theory of permanent revolution.
Alas, even after the disintegration of its "opportunist" wing, the PBL does not entirely measure up to the author’s rigorous standards of orthodoxy, and finds itself condemned for falling prey to "an increasingly overt tendency to make common cause with petit-bourgeois nationalism, and to emphasise the slogans and struggle for national liberation". This contrasts with the opinion of a US Trotskyist who in 1938 sharply criticised the Cuban comrades for adopting an "extremely mechanical approach to the permanent revolution" and for failing to take the democratic tasks of the revolution seriously (Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement (1934-40), p.782). As you might expect, this point is not deemed worthy of investigation by our author.
His tendency to see only rightist deviations also skews his treatment of the Cuban Trotskyists in the period after 1959. Inevitably, they too are convicted of failure to build the revolutionary party based on the working class. In fact, a more appropriate criticism of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskista) – POR(T) – is that this is precisely what they did try to do, when a more productive course of action would have been to work inside the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations, the ruling party created in 1961 through a fusion of the Castroites and the Communists. This was by no means a monolithic party, and underwent numerous internal conflicts into which a genuine Marxist tendency could have made an effective intervention.
Nor was the POR(T)’s sectarianism restricted to the organisational plane. Its politics were based on the eccentric positions of Juan Posadas, who was the head of the Fourth International’s Latin American Bureau until he split in 1962 to form his own "International". Tennant absolves the POR(T) of the often-repeated charge that they tried to organise a march on the US naval base at Guantánamo. But as was pointed out many years ago in Intercontinental Press (11 May 1981), rather than supporting the revolutionary government’s campaign for a US withdrawal from Guantánamo, the Latin American Bureau did consistently call for their expulsion. If the Castro government had indeed attempted the forcible removal of the Guantánamo base this would of course have provided the US bourgeoisie with a welcome pretext to launch an attack on Cuba.
The readiness of the Posadists to provoke a military assault by US imperialism was perhaps not unconnected with their bizarre view that nuclear war was not only unavoidable but would also be an objectively progressive development. In a discussion with a representative of the Paris-based International Secretariat of the Fourth International, whose report is included in this volume, the Cuban Trotskyists argued in all seriousness that "Atomic war is inevitable .... It will probably mean the end or annihilation of one-half of the world’s population but it will also mean the rout of imperialism and the victory of the workers’ states"!
This is a very frustrating study to read. As I’ve said, it is the product of diligent research, but having painstakingly accumulated his empirical evidence the author insists on forcing it into the framework of wooden Trotskyist orthodoxy. Consequently, he provides no real insights into the dynamics of the Cuban revolution or into the failure of the Trotskyists, after the mid-’30s, to have any more than a marginal impact on political developments.
Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, Imagine: A Socialist Vision for the 21st Century, Rebel Inc, 2000. Paperback, 252pp, £7.99.
Reviewed by Bob Pitt
LAST YEAR I watched the television showing of a documentary film about the recording of John Lennon’s Imagine album. It had its moments (the expression on Phil Spector’s face as Yoko Ono gave him her advice on how to arrange one of the songs was particularly memorable), but the main impression was of the prevailing self-indulgence and woolly thinking of the period. The film’s best known scene is the one in which Lennon performs the album’s title track while seated at a white grand piano in one of the vast rooms of his mansion set in 70 acres of woodland near Ascot. "Imagine no possessions", he croons. Well, yes John, you think to yourself, that would require a considerable feat of imagination on your part, wouldn’t it?
Nevertheless, "Imagine" has always been a hugely popular song. Though it only became a No.1 hit in the immediate aftermath of Lennon’s murder in 1980 (if you’re a pop star, dying is always a good career move), it regularly tops polls for the best single of all time. So I suppose you shouldn’t knock it. After all, the lyrics do contain some sort of basic socialist message, even if it is expressed in the form of sentimental doggerel.
In the introduction to the book reviewed here, co-authored by two leading members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Tommy Sheridan reveals that he proposed the title Imagine on the grounds that "the ideals that inspired Lennon to write his celebrated song seem to me to have even greater resonance today then ever before". Even the book’s individual sections – Give Me Some Truth, Watching the Wheels Go Round, Power to the People – take their headings from various of the ex-Beatle’s compositions. You begin to wonder whether the authors are intent on developing an entirely new political ideology – Marxism-Lennonism.
There is nothing wrong with drawing on progressive aspects of mass culture in order to make socialist ideas comprehensible to a wider audience. But the problem with the book is that it reproduces, albeit in a more sophisticated fashion, the woolly thinking of Lennon’s song. Rather than presenting a Marxist analysis of the socialist project in an accessible form, it junks scientific socialism in favour of a sort of populist utopianism. Indeed, the authors quote favourably Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about it being a worthless map that doesn’t have the island of Utopia on it.
It’s not that Imagine doesn’t have its positive features. It is informative and well written – largely by Alan McCombes, I think it’s reasonable to assume – and provides a convincing exposé of the capitalist system along with a rather less detailed picture of an imagined socialist society.
The authors’ relative vagueness on the latter point – which George Galloway, in a review published in the SSP’s paper Scottish Socialist Voice, saw as a weakness – is in fact entirely compatible with the outlook of Marx himself, who famously repudiated any notion of "writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future". However, Marx didn’t reject utopian socialism solely because he objected to idealist exercises in drawing up detailed blueprints for the post-capitalist millennium. Rather, he opposed the entire method of presenting a moral critique of the iniquities of capitalism and then counterposing to this a vision of a superior, socialist society.
Marx’s own method was to make an objective analysis of existing society, to identify tendencies within it which had progressive possibilities, and to integrate himself into these actual movements in order to assist them in realising their potential. Summarising the essence of scientific socialism "in opposition to utopian socialism", in his "Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy" of 1874, Marx explained that it consisted in "limiting its science to the knowledge of the social movement made by the people itself". Marx had a very broad idea of a future post-capitalist society as "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all", and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme and elsewhere he outlined some of its general features, but he concentrated on the practical question of how working people, who are the subject of the socialist project, could move forward in the existing situation.
Central to Marx’s conception of socialism, therefore, was the collective organisation of the working class. As early as 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, his polemic against Proudhon, Marx argued that the real basis for socialism lay in the way in which workers combined in opposition to their employers – first of all on a temporary basis in sporadic industrial struggles and then in permanent trade unions, at which point the question of unified political action by the working class arose.
As Marx summed up his position: "Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have pointed out only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle."
Of course, this is not an automatic development. There is no inexorable progress of working class organisation, but rather an uneven process in which periods of advance are frequently followed by retreats and long years of stagnation. At the time that Marx was polemicising against Proudhon, he was able to point to the achievements of the British working class in organising both industrially, in its trade unions, and politically, in the Chartist movement. But with the defeat and eventual collapse of Chartism, working class political combination in its mass form was set back for decades in Britain, while industrial combination was largely restricted to the narrowly based craft unions.
From the late 1880s, though, the rise of the New Unionism brought industrial organisation to unskilled workers, while the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893 initiated a move towards a new working class political party. In the course of these developments the distinctive character of the 20th century British labour movement was established, with its mass-based trade unions and Labour Party. It is hardly necessary to point out that today, under the impact of defeats and de-industrialisation, this labour movement has been severely weakened.
The Militant Tendency, in which comrades Sheridan and McCombes received their political training, always claimed to follow the Marxist method, but distorted it into a mechanical schema according to which, under the impact of economic crisis, the masses would automatically flood into the traditional organisations of the class. The role of the "Marxists" was to be in there waiting for them when they arrived. This produced a rather passive, propagandist form of politics, but at least it led Militant to patient and systematic (if rather sectarian and elitist) work in the labour movement, and particularly within the Labour Party.
For a period, indeed, history seemed to vindicate their perspective. While most of the self-styled Marxist groups had abandoned the Labour Party in the 1960s, Militant remained ensconced there, so when a radicalisation took place in the party during the late ’70s as the rank and file revolted against the policies of the then Labour government, and the Bennite movement emerged as a pole of attraction within the Labour Party for those who wanted to see radical change in society, the Tendency cleaned up. By the early ’80s it was claiming as many as 8,000 members.
The reversals suffered by the left from the middle of that decade, however, threw Militant into theoretical disarray. Ten years ago, during the split between the supporters of Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe, the Taaffite majority (of which Sheridan and McCombes were part) argued that the Poll Tax rebellion was the harbinger of an upsurge of mass militancy, involving workers and youth who would not necessarily have any background in, or be attracted to, the traditional labour movement. Hence, they argued, the need to break from the Labour Party and establish an independent political organisation.
This perspective was largely demolished by the actual course of political developments in Britain. The mass movements predicted by Taaffe failed to materialise, while industrial conflict slumped to its lowest level for a century. But there is no sign of any re-evaluation on the part of Imagine’s authors. On the contrary, from a reading of this book you might think that Taaffe’s prognoses had been brilliantly confirmed, and that the 1990s were a period of intense class struggle.
We are told that the Anti Poll Tax campaign was followed by "the defeat of the Tory plans to privatise Scottish water. There have also been countless, more localised, workplace, community, and environmental struggles against exploitation and injustice.... these have included occupations of closure-threatened schools and community centres in Glasgow; occupations of factories such as Caterpillar in Lanarkshire and Glacier Metal in Glasgow; illegal defiance demos in Glasgow and Edinburgh against the Tory Criminal Justice Act; and environmental battles against motorway construction projects, genetically-modified crops, toxic-waste dumps, nuclear weapons, nuclear dumping, and opencast mines.... all of them, individually and combined, had a profound impact on those who participated in them and upon society as a whole".
Even allowing that there has been a higher level of militancy in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain, you have to ask – does this really represent a sober, objective assessment of the level of political struggle and consciousness among working people over the past decade? Perhaps, instead of seeking inspiration in the songs of John Lennon, the authors should have taken the title of their book from Monty Python: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Sheridan and McCombes, to be fair, are prepared to recognise the limitations of single issue campaigns: "When resistance to capitalism is divided into different fragments labelled ‘animal-rights protest’, ‘trade-union protest’, ‘anti-road protest’, ‘anti-nuclear protest’, each can be picked off and defeated, just as the individual strands of a rope can easily be snapped. But when the protests are woven together, like the strands of a rope, they become stronger and less easily broken."
Fortuitously, such a solution is to hand in the growth of anti-capitalist demonstrations along the lines of that in Seattle: "This was no single-issue movement, focusing on a specific injustice; this was a protest directed at the entire global capitalist system. Since then, other similar actions have been organised in cities across the world. Protests, not just against poverty, not just against the destruction of the environment, not just against unemployment; but protests against all of these things, and against capitalism itself. This is of immense significance."
Heady stuff. But this stirring description overlooks the point that participants in demonstrations against the actions of international financial institutions and multinational corporations are not necessarily committed to the abolition of capitalism as such, while those that are seem to be mainly influenced by a particularly mindless variety of anarchism. There is the further and more fundamental problem that the "anti-capitalism" of these protests, even on its broadest definition, actually represents the level of political consciousness of no more than a small minority of society. This is surely underlined by the low vote received by US presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who fought his campaign as an electoral expression of the spirit of Seattle. Is the situation that much more advanced in Scotland? I suspect not.
In addition to demonstrating against capitalism, Imagine encourages working people to support the Scottish Socialist Party in its struggle for reforms through the Scottish parliament. However, while the SSP is certainly a more substantial political force than the various Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, the reality is that the party barely has a presence outside of Scotland’s central belt, and even in its stronghold of Glasgow it is scarcely a viable electoral alternative to Labour. At present the SSP’s elected representatives number exactly one: Tommy Sheridan.
The political strategy put forward in the book thus boils down to radical protest movements plus the Scottish Socialist Party. This strikes me as a pretty flimsy basis for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. If Marx taught us anything, it is that we can’t get very far without the basic organisations of the working class. But this is something the authors of Imagine seem to have lost sight of.
The trade unions, for example, so far as they rate a mention in the book, are reduced to just another vehicle for "protest" – and one which evidently takes second place to animal rights campaigns. As part of the optimistic scenario they present, Sheridan and McCombes stress the undoubted fact that workers form the large majority of society. They correctly point out that "the working class is not just made up of shipyard workers, coal miners, mill workers, car assembly workers, bricklayers and such-like.... It includes more or less everyone who works for an employer". But the rather less happy fact that the decline of trade unionism has left most of these workers effectively atomised, lacking basic organisation and representation in the workplace, isn’t dealt with at all. In the circumstances, you might think that socialists’ energies would be better directed towards rebuilding the strength and influence of the trade union movement rather than joining in street protests with people who believe that the best way to fight the bourgeoisie is by smashing the windows of McDonald’s.
If the authors’ coverage of the trade unions is negligible, their analysis of the Labour Party is utterly hopeless. Chapter 11, "From Red Flag to White Rag", begins with a satirical piece in which the Tory Party announces that capitalism is "irrelevant and out of date" and gets elected on a programme of nationalisation, heavy taxes on big business, close links with the trade unions etc, while those of its members who protest against this new line and call for a return to traditional Tory values are branded as traitors and expelled. An analogous process, we are invited to believe, has taken place in the Labour Party, which has abandoned its socialist ideology, severed its roots in the working class and become purely a party of capital. Even as a joke, this doesn’t stand up.
To make some elementary points, both Labour and the Tories are bourgeois parties, in the fundamental sense that they have pro-capitalist programmes. But in terms of membership and electoral support each has its base in different sections of society – Labour in the advanced sections of the working class (in particular the trade unions) and progressive sections of the middle class, the Tories among the reactionary middle class and backward workers. This creates different tensions within the two parties. For the Tory leadership, catering to the prejudices of their members and voters sometimes combines uneasily with their defence of bourgeois interests – as is the case at the moment over Europe. As far as Labour is concerned, the contradiction between working class aspirations and the bourgeois politics of the party leadership produces even more frequent and usually much sharper conflicts.
At the present time, due to the low level of class struggle and the general decline of political consciousness among working people (in other words, the erosion of the working class as a "class for itself"), opposition to the Labour leadership’s bourgeois politics has been enfeebled, allowing Blair and his clique to drive the party’s programme violently to the right. Ideally, they would like to take this process much further and destroy Labour as any kind of workers’ party, which would involve a rupture of the institutional link with the unions, together with a fusion with the Liberal Democrats and possibly pro-European Tories. If the Blairites were to achieve that objective, the prospects for any kind of socialist development in Britain would be set back even further. As yet, however, the Blairite "project" has by no means been accomplished (indeed, it seems to have been at least temporarily derailed), while the extreme rightward shift in programme has created a new range of tensions within the Labour Party.
The SSP’s response to this situation is a classic example of infantile leftism. Interviewed in the magazine Red Shift recently, SSP member Frances Curran insisted that "there is no prospect of mounting any alternative through Blair’s [sic] Labour Party", and that far from encouraging oppositionists within the party the SSP has "appealed to the handful of individuals who are still in the Labour Party and who consider themselves socialists to join us". Instead of demanding that the trade unions use their still considerable weight within the Labour Party to fight for working class policies, the SSP advocates that the unions should break from Labour – which would of course do the Blairites’ job for them. You can only suggest that the comrades take time out to consult Trotsky’s writings and study the advice he gave to the ILP after its split from the Labour Party in the 1930s.
The current situation, it should be obvious, is by no means one in which the overthrow of capitalism is directly on the agenda. With regard to the establishment of a socialist society, Marxists will have some sympathy with the country yokel who, asked by a passing motorist for directions to a distant town that could only be reached by a complicated route, replied, "Well, if I wanted to go there, I don’t think I’d start from here". (This isn’t intended as a slur on the agricultural proletariat – I envisage the yokel as a member of the rural petty bourgeoisie.) However, what is clear is that, rather than concentrating on propaganda against capitalism and in favour of socialism, as the authors of Imagine do, the main task of Marxists in the current adverse situation is to wage a practical struggle to defend the movement that has been built by past generations.
In the Labour Party the way forward, as was cogently argued by Matthew Willgress in the last issue of What Next?, is by forming tactical alliances with those who may not agree with us over the need to destroy capitalism, but are opposed to at least some aspects of the Blairites’ ultra-right-wing programme and certainly do not share their aim of breaking up the labour movement. This involves campaigning around basic democratic issues and limited demands that enjoy majority support within the existing movement. Pursuing such a strategy may often be a wearying experience (believe me, I know), requiring what the American socialist Irving Howe, writing in the 1950s during another difficult period for socialists, described as "the heroism of tiredness". However, unless the basic collective organisations of working people can be preserved and strengthened, the socialist transformation of society is indeed nothing but a utopia.
In conclusion, despite the critical character of this review, it must be said that Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes have written a readable book which will be welcomed by many of those who are already persuaded of its basic thesis (Tony Benn, for example, is quoted on the cover as commending Imagine as "one of the very best books I have ever read on the subject of socialism"). It may even convince some of those who have not yet been convinced that capitalism is a bad thing and socialism would be much better. But the authors’ apparent belief that a road to the socialist future can be found outside of the mass organisations of the working class is a self-consoling fantasy which has nothing in common with Marxism.
The Beatles, 1, Apple/EMI CD, £13.99.
Reviewed by Ian Richardson
THE BEATLES phenomenon lives on: 1, consisting entirely of songs that reached number one on either side of the Atlantic, has been at No.1 in the album charts throughout the world. In Britain it spent more weeks at the top of the charts than any Beatles album since 1969.
The fact that this compilation could be put together is in itself remarkable. Very few bands have had enough No.1 singles to produce such an album – certainly not one with so many tracks, let alone of such high quality. In a sense the release of this album is the ultimate Beatles’ tribute – its broad musical appeal has enabled it to outsell the current albums from the latest "boyband" fad (Westlife), the best-selling pop act of the ’90s (Spice Girls), and the biggest British guitar band (Oasis).
Nonetheless, it is still relevant to ask whether the album has musical validity. As with all Beatles compilations this is a difficult question to answer. The tracks on the Beatles’ original albums from 1963-70 link together remarkably well – even on those such as Let It Be which weren’t necessarily originally conceived in the form in which they were eventually issued. Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road in particular stand out as classic albums, with many of the songs working better as part of a broader collection than on their own.
When songs are separated from these albums (examples included here, and on the 1970s "Red album" compilation, are "Yellow Submarine" and "Eleanor Rigby" from Revolver) they are less effective. Nonetheless, restricting the compilation to those songs that reached No.1 means there are no bad tracks and the album at least partially reflects the different stages of the Beatles’ career and as such can cut across musical tastes.
One positive feature of 1 is that, because it is a collection of No.1s, it includes a large number of tracks that were issued only as singles (at least in Britain) and aren’t on the major albums. This can however also be perceived as a disadvantage – as, for example, it means there are no tracks from Sgt Pepper. Also, the fact that the singles must have reached No.1 to qualify for inclusion means that due to the bizarre prejudices of the record buying public there is sadly no "Strawberry Fields". ("Penny Lane", though, does find a place here as it reached the top spot in the US chart.)
It is less clear how this compilation is – as some have argued – a rewriting of the Beatles’ history by Paul McCartney. It is hardly his fault that US punters bought more copies of "Penny Lane" (which he wrote) as an A-side than of "Strawberry Fields" (composed by Lennon). Indeed, however one tries to put together a Beatles compilation there are always going to be some track selections that people object to – Lennon himself was angry with the softer ("ice cream") version of "Revolution" chosen by producer George Martin for the "Blue album". Therefore I don’t agree with the argument, put forward by Alan McArthur in Action for Solidarity, that this album is detrimental to the contribution of John Lennon.
There have been various attempts since Lennon’s death to portray him as the main creative influence behind the Beatles throughout their existence. Without doubt Lennon was a great, not to say unique songwriter, and he may well have been the driving force of the Beatles in their early pre-EMI days. It is also true that later, after the Beatles had split up, it was Lennon who produced the most worthwhile solo material of the four – most notably the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums.
However, at other times, the contribution of Lennon and McCartney to the Beatles was perhaps even – indeed, the fact that the Beatles operated as a collective, rather than as four individuals, was why they worked so well as a band. And, during the latter part of their career, McCartney (who is perhaps always going to have a tough time with an Action for Solidarity reviewer, having written a song called "Give Ireland Back to the Irish"!) was the prime creative force.
This is shown especially in some of the later Beatles projects. It was McCartney who dreamed up the concept for Sgt Pepper. He also saved a number of short tracks (including some written by Lennon) by putting them together in the medley at the end of Abbey Road. Although Lennon wrote some excellent songs for these albums, such as "Come Together" on Abbey Road (included on 1 as it reached the top spot in America), McCartney’s contribution ensured classic albums were created. And whilst the final original Beatles album issued (Let It Be, mainly recorded pre-Abbey Road under the original title of Get Back) may not fall into this category, one could hardly argue that Lennon’s contributions to the sessions ("Dig A Pony", or "Dig It", for example) were up to the standard of McCartney’s.
It was the latter who wrote the three singles that were taken off the album, including the original and final title tracks amongst other decent songs. Indeed, it was John Lennon who pushed for the recordings to be handed over to Phil Spector, who may have issued and improved a Lennon work from two years earlier ("Across the Universe") but also wildly over-produced "The Long and Winding Road", and was held responsible by many associated with the Beatles for losing much of the essence of the project.
To conclude, 1 is a good introduction to the Beatles as the most successful pop group of all time, and contains a number of classics. The album is impressive for its musical variety – from "She Loves You" through to "Eleanor Rigby" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko" – and, despite the widely differing musical styles, the songs run quite well together. However, as with most compilations, it is unable to give a full taste of the Beatles’ many musical achievements. For this the listener will have to turn to the original albums.