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Book Reviews

The Ruling Asses. By Stephen Robins. Prion Books.ISBN 1-85375-572-9. £6.99.

The Ruling Assess will certainly make you laugh but, on the other hand, the thoughtful reader might be disturbed by the identity of the people who have provided the utterly absurd quotations that make up the book’s 216 pages.

The clue is in the sub-title: “A little book of political stupidity” and the people who have unconsciously provided the stupidities are prominent politicians; the very ‘they’ in that ubiquitous opinion that ‘they will [have to] do something about it.’

Beneath the amusing picture on the front page is a quote from the redoubtable Mr John Prescott, The Minister for Transport and current Labour Deputy Prime Minister. ‘I want to wrong that right’, says Mr Prescott. The book’s editor, Stephen Robins, in giving Prescott pride of place, so to speak, sees the obvious humour in this particular piece of asininity but, on the other hand it could be a serious comment on the vicious authoritarianism of the present Labour government.

There can be no doubt about the mental state of the man whose absolute pearls of frightening ignorance wins him top spot in this collection: George W Bush, the President of the most powerful nation on Earth and the man with control of the nuclear button. George’s father, we learn from his generous representation in this collection of absurdities, was the equal of his son in the mouthing of verbal inanities. This reduces the present great man to a sort of second generation idiot and perhaps poses the question as to why the American establishment, which boasts a ‘smart’ bomb, should afflict itself with such stupid presidents.

The collection is well indexed and the fact that the index contains 8 pages of names at 2 columns to the page means that your favourite politician is likely to be included – though, in fairness to the unique stupidities of the Bushes, father and son, it should be pointed out that they share some 124 listings in a work where, for example, the home-based political nutter, Ian Paisley, can only achieve 7.

This is a very funny book and an easy read but it frighteningly exposes the cash nexus in what passes for democracy in capitalist society where the means of winning elections is a commodity.

Helen Macfarlane. A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist, and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. By David Black, Lexington Books, 2004. £15.

Helen Macfarlane was radicalised in Austria by the revolutions of 1848 which swept through Europe. On her return to Britain she took up revolutionary journalism under the pseudonym Howard Morton for the Chartist George Julian Harney. It was in Harney's weekly newspaper Red Republican in 1850 that Macfarlane produced the first English translation of what became known as the Communist Manifesto. In the German original it was called Manifesto of the Communist Party but in the Red Republican its title was German Communism: Manifesto of the German Communist Party. Black is critical of this name change because the insertion of the word "German" into the title twice over "de-emphasises its internationalist thrust." But this misses the point of the change, a reason the Red Republican seems to have understood but which is now widely misunderstood. That is, while the theoretical parts of the Manifesto have universal application the practical proposals (particularly at the end of Section 2) were put forward with Germany in mind at that time. That is why Marx and Engels later said that some parts of the Manifesto, particularly in Section 2, were obsolete (see the Preface to the German edition of 1872).

In the Red Republican version of the Manifesto, some parts are missing and others changed mainly to suit its English readership. In the 1888 English translation, supervised by Engels, the famous opening line begins: "A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of Communism." But in Macfarlane's translation this becomes: "A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost. The ghost of Communism." Black states that her use of "hobgoblin" rather than "spectre" is unfortunate, but it is possible that her English readers at that time more readily understood the hobgoblin metaphor.

Marx called Macfarlane "a rare bird" – "the only collaborator on his [Harney's] spouting rag who had original ideas." She was the first person to translate and explain in English the work of the German philosopher Hegel. She wrote a few other articles for the Red Republican in the 1850s but almost nothing is known of her in the years before or after. What seems certain however is that Macfarlane could be described as the first British Marxist, a generation before that term came into use.

Marx And Other Four-Letter Words. Edited by Georgina Blakeley and Valerie Bryson, Pluto Press, 2005.

Being a collection of essays by academics for their students, this volume examines Marx’s key concepts: capitalism, class, the state, oppression, revolution, equality and democracy, and more. There are numerous books of this type and and most of the chapters do a reasonable job of reconstructing Marx’s thought. However, Paul Blackledge’s chapter on Revolution treats Marx and Lenin as though they were complementary. This is the standard Leninist line put forward by Blackledge:

“While Marx and Engels laid down some general guidelines for building a workers’ party, they did not develop these into a fully worked out theory: this task was taken up by later Marxists, notably Lenin ...”

Paraphrasing Lenin himself, the author claims that Lenin’s State and Revolution (published in 1917) “returned to the works of Marx and Engels” and explained their ideas on revolution. But this untrue. Marx and Engels’ insistence on working class self-emancipation specifically rules out what would become later known as Leninism, the idea that the working class were incapable of self-emancipation and must be freed by a Leninist vanguard party. This is in fact the exact opposite of Marx and Engels’ position.

As the chapter on Working-Class Internationalism quotes Marx: “numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge.” And the chapter on Democracy, quoting another commentator on Marx in the twentieth century, declares: “the terrible fate which befell Marx was that he was Leninised.”

How Not to Do It

Jeffrey Sachs: The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime. Penguin £7.99.

There are various things wrong with this book, the first being the title. Sachs (described on the back cover as ‘probably the most important economist in the world’) is not concerned with doing away with sink estates where children do not get one square meal a day, let alone three, or the culture of pawn shops and loan sharks (which would be classified as relative poverty). Instead he is writing about eliminating absolute or extreme poverty, where households cannot meet basic needs: people are chronically hungry, have no access to health care or safe water, and may lack rudimentary shelter. In 2001, around 1.1 billion of the earth’s population were in extreme poverty. Sachs neatly places things in perspective:

“Almost three thousand people died needlessly and tragically at the World Trade Center on September 11; ten thousand Africans die needlessly and tragically every single day – and have died every single day since September 11 – of AIDS, TB, and malaria.”

But even if his proposals were implemented and proved successful, there would still be plenty of poverty in the world.

Ending extreme poverty would of course be very worthwhile, but can capitalism achieve this? Sachs claims that the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.5 billion since 1981 (largely due to developments in China). Surely, however, we are entitled to be a little sceptical about such claims: they are based on World Bank estimates, and ignore the extent of poverty still found in China, especially in the countryside. He acknowledges, though, that the extreme poor in Africa have more than doubled in the twenty years to 2001, now being over 300 million, which is a rise even in percentage terms. Yet, he argues, extreme poverty can be got rid of by 2025: the key is ‘to enable the poorest of the poor to get their foot on the ladder of development.’ The way to kick-start things is by comparatively modest amounts of overseas aid, which will mean that households can save more and so increase the amount of seeds and agricultural equipment they have access to and will also allow governments to build roads, sanitation systems and so on; this will snowball and lead on to further development. The first few chapters of the book imply that Sachs has some kind of economic magic wand that he can wave over countries from Bolivia to India, delivering prosperity.

However, his proposals for ‘ending poverty’ are effectively put forward in a vacuum, unencumbered by the existence of a world dominated by one super-powerful nation, a small number of super-powerful companies, and a tiny minority of super-rich capitalists. Sachs accepts that exploitation of poor countries by the rich has happened in the past, but believes that it no longer applies. He also accepts, though without making it explicit of course, a division of the world into owners of the means of production and non-owners. Doing away with this would mean an immediate end to all kinds of poverty – extreme, moderate and relative – without having to wait another twenty years and rely on yet more empty promises.

Noreena Hertz: I.O.U.: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It. Harper Perennial £7.99.

Hertz is fairly well-known as a commentator on and critic of globalisation. But unlike some, she does not even make the pretence of being anti-capitalist. In her previous book The Silent Takeover, she made it clear that she was advocating another form of capitalism in contrast to a laissez-faire version that sidelined justice and democracy.

The book under review focusses on developing-country debt and its consequences, not just for the Third World but for ‘advanced’ capitalist countries too. For debt and possible defaults can lead to desperation and terrorism, environmental damage and general economic recession. During the ‘Cold War’, loans were often made for strategic reasons, to keep countries friendly, whether US loans to Latin America or Russian and Chinese lending to Africa. The collapse of Eastern European state capitalism brought a sudden end to this, with loans being called in and new lending being on much less favourable terms. Hertz gives a good account of many of the mechanisms by which lending occurs, such as the roles of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Many Western countries have export credit agencies that underwrite sales by domestic companies and step in to pay them if anything goes wrong (so much for the risks of entrepreneurship). There are even traders who buy and sell developing-country debt as if it were pork or oil, usually making vast profits in the process.

In 2004, the world’s poorest countries owed $458 billion. The consequences of this seem pretty devastating:

“Millions of children continue to die every single year because money that could be spent on preserving their health is still being spent on debt service. Millions of children are prevented from attending school because money that could be spent on their education is still being spent on repaying debt.”

Hence the demand to ‘Drop the Debt!’, and Hertz’s proposals for deciding when debt  is illegitimate and should be cancelled, plus her suggestions of ‘new principles for borrowers and lenders’.

The problem is that all such proposals effectively accept the status quo, i.e. global capitalism. They do not even begin to address the question of why people are poor in the first place. The passage quoted above assumes that money spent on repaying debts would otherwise be used for health care and education, but there is no guarantee of this at all: governments in developing countries, like all governments, run affairs in the interests of the ruling class. In a world rooted in ownership of resources by a tiny minority of the population, poverty, famine, and lack of access to decent health care and education are inevitable. Cancelling debt (which is anyway less costly to the lenders than might at first appear) relates to just one aspect of the way in which the basic inequality of capitalism reveals itself. It does not affect underlying causes — which is why, whatever the sincerity of those who support it, it will make no contribution to ending poverty.

Fascism in Britain

Martin Pugh: Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the
Wars. Jonathan Cape.£20.00.

Nigel Copsey and David Renton, eds: British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. Palgrave Macmillan. £50.00.

These two books are not recommended for the various views expressed by the authors and contributors, but for the wealth of information, much of it new, on British Fascism.

The first fascisti, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, was founded in Italy in 1914; Britain’s first Fascist organisation emerged in May, 1925, six months after Mussolini’s coup. It, too called itself Fascisti, but the following year changed its name to the British Fascists. Most of its leaders were aristocrats or men from military or naval backgrounds. They were militantly anti-Jewish and, through endorsement by such newspapers as the Times, Morning Post and the Daily Mail, believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy as portrayed by the infamous forgery, The Proctocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The British fascists soon, however, split into even more extreme sects such as the National Fascisti and Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League.

Martin Pugh demonstrates in considerable detail the close connections between the Fascist groups and parties and rightwing, and even “mainstream”, conservative politicians. The Fascists were often looked upon as more decisive Tories who. wanted a more powerful, corporate state which would, hopefully, keep the “lower orders” in control and stop “alien” immigration. Many members of the Conservative Party would also be members of one of the fascist groups at the same time. Both could be depended upon to defend the Nation and the Empire. Indeed, between the two world wars, not a few members of the Royal family, including the then Prince of Wales, were sympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascism  and later Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill expressed admiration for Mussolini, and the Prince of Wales had Nazi friends.

Of course the Fascists opposed the General Strike of 1926. In fact, as Pugh notes, they were particularly enthusiastic anti-strike volunteers, enrolling in the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, and as Special Constables. Chief constables welcomed the Fascists, but only as individuals and not as uniformed members of Fascist parties as these had hoped.

In 1920, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Oswald Mosley, crossed the floor to sit as an independent; in 1924, he joined the Labour Party. His views were already interventionist, corporatist, almost Fascist, but he was enthusiastically welcomed into the Labour Party. By 1929, Mosley was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but he soon resigned, and in February 1931 he launched his New Party.Then in 1932, after visiting Rome, he founded the British Union of Fascists. The BUF adopted the Corporate State, with the abolition of political parties, as its official policy. At this stage, Mosley and the BUF looked to Italy for their model, and it was not until 1936 that the BUF became pro-Nazi. Pugh notes that Mosley regularly visited Italy, and was rewarded with funding by Mussolini for several years. Mosley did not meet Hitler until 1935. During this period, the British Union of Fascists, which added the phrase “and National Socialists” to its title, became increasingly anti-Jewish. The BUF was organised militarily, complete with uniforms until these were banned in 1936. For a number of years, the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Northcliffe, supported the BUF and promoted Fascism.

Besides the BUF, there were still a number of small Fascist parties, as well as various “front” groups such as the January Club and Anglo-German Fellowship and, later, the Link. As in the 1920s, such groups had many Tories, rightwing and mainstream, as members. Indeed, most Conservatives, in Parliament and the country at large, were either pro-Fascist Italy, pro-Nazi Germany or, like Neville Chamberlain, appeasers, as Martin Pugh demonstrates in some detail. Many of them continued to hold similar ideas even after Britain had declared war on Germany, on 3 September, 1939. In 1940, Oswald Mosley, as well as about 800 Fascists and others considered to be pro-German, were arrested and imprisoned. But by 1942, most had been released. Mosley was conditionally released from prison in 1944. The BUF had been banned in June, 1940.

British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State is a collection of fairly short and diverse essays by various authors. Richard Maguire discusses the use of Fascists by the Conservative Government in defence of what Stanley Baldwin called the “community” in defeating the miners, and during the General Strike of 1926. And, as noted in Pugh’s book, the authorities were more than prepared to use Fascists as strike-breakers, their views being that the Fascists could be depended upon as Special Constables and the like.

Richard Thurlow outlines the formation of the Security Service (MI5), and its collaboration with Special Branch in surveillance of the Communist Party, and Comintern agents in Britain, particularly during the 1920s and  1930s. After about 1933, MI5 and Special Branch began to interest themselves in the British Union of Fascists, which hitherto they had not done. Interestingly, Thurlow points out that Maxwell Knight of MI5 had himself been the British Fascists’ Director of Intelligence in 1927. Graham Macklin discusses the attitude of the police and magistrates towards the Fascists in their confrontations with the Communists, and shows that in general they were more sympathetic towards the Fascists than the Communists. Not surprisingly, Oswald Mosley was particularly effusive in his support for the police, many of whom were anti-Jewish. Philip Coupland outlines what he calls “left-wing fascism”, in which the BUF use leftwing terminology to attract workers and disillusioned Labourites and Communists. In parts of the country this was quite successful.

David Renton discusses the so-called anti-Fascism, during the 1974-79 period, by such organisations as the Anti-Nazi League, the Trade Unions and the SWP, all of which from a socialist viewpoint achieved nothing in defeating fascist ideas and activities. Indeed, a party like the BNP today probably has as much support as did the BUF in 1935. Possibly more.